December 2000

Religion and Ethics: A Secular Response

December 2000

A couple of months ago I was asked by the organizers of a conference at UVSC to provide a secular response to the contemporary relevance of great religious teachers. The choice, that is asking me, was both curious and fitting. Curious, in that I am not a thoroughgoing secular humanist; nor has the three centuries old process of what students of religion call “secularization” been the focus of my studies, teaching, and writing. However, there was something fitting about the request due to the fact that I am currently serving as a minister at South Valley UU Society. South Valley is a religious congregation many of whose members are secular humanists. That is, though regularly attending religious services, these men and women believe that “this world,” the immediate environment available to ordinary experience and scientific investigation is all there is to reality. They either reject outright the existence of God (or an ultimate transcendent reality) or they are content to reserve judgement on the issue due to the lack of sufficiently compelling evidence. What such people are doing openly in “church” is a question worth raising and to which I shall return. In the remarks that follow, I have a number of tasks to accomplish. First, to briefly sketch out why moral codes arise within both religious and secular communities. Second, to describe the conditions that gave rise to a secularizing world-view and the essential characteristics of that outlook. And finally, to answer the question: “what’s a secular humanist doing in a church?” By looking at these topics in order, I hope that it will become clear why those in the secular or humanist camp believe that religious communities today bear an extraordinary burden when it comes to the relevance of their ethics. And finally, I also hope that I can make a case for the benefit obtained when both the religious and the secular strive to create a common ground. That is, a place to which they can bring both the experience of failure that hounds the human condition and their hopes and vision for a more just, compassionate, and equitable society.

From Whence Moral Codes?

Religious men and women express their distinctive world-views by means of sacred stories, scripture, ritual, and art. The virtuous life, or morality, has also been a central feature of religion. Indeed, wherever religion is found, in individuals and groups, one component will be moral codes. These rules provide norms for right attitudes and actions. They are principles that express what we ought to think and do in this world. To live morally is to embody these principles.

It is an interesting fact, that the presence and persistence of ought statements and moral codes show that the human family is clearly aware that there is a disconnection between how life is and how it really should be. Aren’t we all aware of failures in the human condition? When we think about it, don’t notions of sin, immorality, suffering, and evil remind us of the ways in which the human family has been all too frequently derailed from achieving the good?

Religions have functioned powerfully through most of our history to provide an explanation about the meaning or purpose of life that is articulated by reference to our place within an ultimate, transcendent or divine framework. That framework is sketched out in sacred stories, ritual, moral codes, and art. These artifacts of religion are the handiwork of spiritual teachers or prophets through whom the transcendent framework for human existence has been revealed or disclosed. Religious frameworks attempt to describe the ultimate origins, reasons and ends of nature, humanity, and cosmos. They also strive to explain the causes and remedies for that which is broken or incomplete or obstructive in the human condition. As long as these descriptions and cures are convincing, they provide a sense of cohesion within communities and confer a powerfully resonant sense of identity both on individuals and the communities in which they live. Once such frameworks have been clearly established any moral principle or rule can be assessed by terms of the contribution it makes, or fails to make towards the realization of the ends revealed through the religious framework of the community. And when those rules are accepted as divine commands what results is a system of social control which induces religiously sanctioned behavior in individuals and established a regulated pattern of social order. (Bryan Wilson)

However, you don’t have to be religious to suffer from a gnawing lack of connection between is and what ought to be. There are non-religious people who are moral, and who are examples of virtue and the good. They do not need the explanatory and exhortative systems of religion in order to feel keenly the failures in the human condition, to be aware of the reality of evil and suffering, or to be upright in their conduct. That this could be and is in fact the case leads many moral philosophers to question and reject the commonly held belief that religion is essential for morality. If both the religious and the secular feel and experience the absence and the need for the good, then this moral sensibility is an inalienable attribute of human existence. At most, religions might exemplify morality, but they cannot claim to be its exclusive source. Jesus or the Buddha may be exemplars of the moral sense, but each of us, according to the secular view, possesses a moral impulse. We can look upon these two great figures as archetypes of how we should respond to the moral law written in our hearts by virtue of our birth, but the immediate source of the suffering and obligation we feel toward humanity exists within each person apart from any religious identity.

Because 18th century moral sense philosophers like Hutcheson, Reid, Smith and Kant were Christians, they believed that the ultimate source of the moral sentiments within us were inscribed there by a benevolent Creator and that Jesus was the unique example of moral virtue. But many of their heirs rejected the premise, and focused instead on the project of making morality truly autonomous; and thus independent of something so culturally various, historically changeable, and experientially unpredictable as religious belief and custom.

Have religious moralists truly and adequately accounted for and responded to the tough, dry-eyed contentions of Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche and the philosophical heirs of British empiricism? When critics have pointed out that it is religion that interferes with the cultivation of moral values and that it diverts people’s attention to the life to come when they should be focussing on improving things in the here and now, have we really listened? I am not so sure. That is unfortunate for both religion and for humanists. The former continue to offer codes rooted in premises that humanists find implausible at best, while the latter lose hope of engaging the members of religious communities in critically self-aware dialogue.

Indeed, much of what passes for public discourse in this country today returns again and again to the proposition that morality is baseless unless it has its origin in the decrees of God’s eternal will. Could it not be the case that the opposite proposition is more true logically and more fitting to current needs in a radically multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society? Could we not say instead, that a belief in God, or in this or that religion, is not necessary to give authority to moral decrees? And that, instead, it is the nobility of our moral autonomy that gives rise to the idea of God or a transcendent reality as source of our notions of good and evil. This is the argument of the contemporary philosopher Kai Nielsen. Let me read a brief quote to illustrate this view:

Morality cannot be based in religion. If anything, the opposite is partly true, for nothing can be God unless he or it is an object worthy of worship, and it is our own moral insight that must tell us if anything at all could be worthy of worship.

A religious belief depends for its viability on our sense of good and bad–our own sense of worth–and not vice versa…. A moral understanding must be logically prior to any religious assent.

This assertion: the priority, content, and dignity of our moral intuitions and reasoning as human beings first, provides, I believe, a more certain and inclusive environment for our moral endeavors as citizens in a pluralistic nation. They are the necessary preconditions for harmony in a modern, religiously plural state. Let us agree first to assert the self-evident truths of our Declaration of Independence: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If we agree that they are self-evident, then they cannot be infringed upon or set aside by political regime or religious creed. Who among us would abrogate these universal truths, given by reason, intuition and experience for the price of a historically and culturally contingent truth, though we call them the fruits of our religions?

I want to move from what gives rise to moral codes to the issue of where this secular world-view came from and what its key characteristics look like.

Secular World-view: Conditions and Characteristics I want to briefly sketch both the conditions that gave rise to a secular world-view and its chief characteristics. The point here is to enable us to better understand what impels a secularist to respond critically to religiously based ethics and explore what conditions obtain for fruitfully bridging the divide between religious and secular views. Secularization is the word used to name the process of change by which religious beliefs, practices, and institutions have been divested of a great deal of their influence and power in both individual and social spheres. It refers loosely to a transition, that is variously observed and explained, from a religious to a less or non-religious world. The process began in the sixteenth century when church property and prestige passed from religious to secular control. And it continued apace in the last three centuries as individuals and public institutions turned less and less to religious authority and systems in order to express group identity, to maintain social order, to study and explain natural phenomenon, and to provide emotional support to afflicted members of society.

Once it was the case that religious cultures like the medieval Muslim and Christian worlds offered a complete intellectual, spiritual, and social program. They explained and justified not only the supernatural and the moral, but the nature and the purpose of the cosmos as well. Islamic and Christian doctrine and practice legitimized status quo political authority and social policy. They justified feudal wars and provided theological rationale for social inequalities of wealth, power and status. And their religious sciences mapped out the order of nature within and beyond the human person in a hierarchy of ascent, purpose, control and deference.

It is a world in which we only partially live or that has become completely strange to us. And would any of us wish avidly for its return in full? Look at the situation today. We employ the scientific method to understand the physical order of our world, where once it was an article of faith to accept an Aristotelian map of nature and cosmos. The separation of church and state has been carefully attempted in our own political constitution and civic space where once such a division of labor was unthinkable or treasonous, or both. Increasingly we turn to analysts and physical activity instead of to rabbis and priests for our therapeutic needs. To prescription drugs and surgery for remedies to our physical ailments rather than to consecrated oil or holy water or pilgrimages to venerated relics.

In these fields of human activity and more, the traditional significance of religious consciousness and institutions has diminished. And what we see as a result is leaders and members of religious communities either adapting to changing circumstances (i.e. evolution in the science curriculum in religious schools, support for church/state separation, etc.) or rejecting secularization by means of cognitive and physical separation from society into religious ghettoes.

In short, secularization is the consequence of the struggle to maximize the autonomy of individuals, professions, politics, and markets. It has had the consequence of encouraging us increasingly to employ this-worldly thought, institutions, and procedures for making sense of the world in which we live. The consequence of secularization is that religious belief and practice is an option, a matter of choice, where once it our destiny and fate.

A social scientist employs the thesis of secularization as a neutral, not a normative, term indicating a factual process of social change, a change of thinking, habit, and process centuries in the making. It does not necessarily postulate the disappearance of religion in secularizing societies. Religion, and the insights of its great teachers, manifestly persist and continue to persuade and inspire the faithful.

However, there are those within religious communities who have embraced rather than begrudged this transformation of consciousness and practice; that is, there are and have been religious leaders, thinkers, and lay men and women for whom the process of secularization is seen normatively as beneficial for a more authentic faith. Their vision includes embedding religious ethics and morality in soil more conducive to the growth and well being of human autonomy and less susceptible to the vagaries of parochial customs and practices. For these religious humanists, the value of such a move is readily apparent.

I will cite just one example. Traditional Lutheran ethics postulated a two kingdoms worldview (that is, sacred and profane) and a convention of morality that it entailed. Citing the divine authority of scripture, Luther taught as a matter of faith and doctrine that the Lord placed human rulers to preside as his vice regents over the profane kingdoms of this earth. They rule in his place; that’s what a vice regent is. All subjects within worldly domains are, therefore, obliged to obey and submit in all things to those in secular authority above them. This ethic, derived from a divine command model and formed during the waning era of European feudalism, was invoked by Luther to justify the savage repression of the peasants’ revolt within Protestant domains in the 1520s. The persistence of this two kingdoms ethic contributed much later to incapacitating the German people from being able to resist both the rise to power and the rule of a violent, neo-pagan Nazi regime. The Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed for his part in a German resistance movement against that regime, belatedly recognized the damage done by Luther’s ethics. For his part, he grew to welcome the advent of a more secular society whose morality would be grounded in the physical dignity and the moral autonomy of every person, and not on the supremacy of the sacred over the profane. For there is in reality only one world, no matter what we may believe about its source and destiny.

What’s a Humanist Doing in Church?

Human moral understanding is logically prior to religious assent to the idea of a transcendent source of the good. The historical record of religions promoting and securing our physical security and moral autonomy is dismal. Is it any wonder, then, that a more secular worldview would be critical of religiously based morality? The burden of proof resides with those who promote the contemporary relevance of the great religious thinkers to issues of morality and ethics. Have they made a sufficiently compelling case? And have they taken into account the logical and historical arguments of secular humanists? If they have not, I would suggest that they have, as we say, begged the question.

In closing, I mentioned at the beginning of these remarks that I minister to a religious congregation, many of whose members are secular humanists.

That is, people who do well enough, thank you, without a belief in god or in moral codes authoritatively grounded in scripture or prophetic warrant. What are they doing in a church on Sunday mornings? Isn’t their presence in a religious sanctuary a contradiction? An oxymoron?

Or perhaps they just haven’t been able to kick an old habit?

What I have encountered is this: the humanists I know and meet in church want to be a part of a living community and tradition with rich, complex and life enhancing beliefs. The sources of those beliefs about good and evil arise first of all from the humanist insistence upon the nonnegotiable worth and dignity of every person. No appeal to the gods, no appeal to the state, no invocation of custom and convention trumps our inherent rights of physical dignity and moral autonomy. Religious and secular humanists say “fly” from any religious tradition or community that would say otherwise.

The humanists I know and meet in church, who seek rich, complex, and life enhancing beliefs look to the guidance of reason and the results of science, especially as they warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit. But they will also turn to the wisdom of the world’s religions when they inspire us in our ethical and spiritual life. The hallmarks of such a life are justice and equity in human relations, the free and responsible search for meaning and truth, the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our communities and in the society at large, and respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part.

The humanists I know and meet in church, who seek rich, complex and life enhancing beliefs respond enthusiastically to the words and deeds of prophetic men and women when those men and women challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and transforming power of love.

The honest critique of religious claims and the resolute affirmation that humanity is the measure of things, the maker of history and moral values, are the special contributions that humanists-religious and secular- have made to western culture and to the Unitarian Universalist community to which I minister.

Humanists are needed and should be welcomed within our religious traditions. They remind us that an unexamined faith leads to credulity and tyranny. They will remind us, even if we don’t want to hear it, that historically, religious people and their institutions have been unusually susceptible to the temptations of power, wealth, and irrationalism. Humanists have a special task, or calling, toward those who say that they are religious. And that is to remind those within faith traditions that the adventure of their faith, if it is to have meaning and credibility, is contingent upon its capacity to create and secure values that dignify and enhance life here and now.

–Dr. Steven Epperson
Minister of South Valley Unitarian Universalist Society
November 9, 2000

The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power

~Book Review~

By D. Michael Quinn

Dr. Quinn’s book is a remarkable accomplishment. For a brief time, in the70’s and 80’s, the historical office of the LDS church allowed for some objective, professional examination of its records. Quinn brings us some of the fruits of that time. This is not “faith-promoting” history-Deseret Book and Bookcraft have taken care of that-but shows the Brethren in all their human glory. Some reviewers have indicated that this volume has not threatened their LDS testimonies, but only confirmed what they already knew, that church leaders are human and fallible; other reviewers may be threatened by this realization, although many past presidents have pointed it out. The marketing of the infallibility of church leaders continues, perhaps because it gives comfort to those church members who are intolerant of ambiguity, but also because toadying is often rewarded in organizations.

Extensions of Power is actually several books. It is topically arranged to consider more or less controversial aspects of the church leadership-violence, involvement in politics, etc. It also includes, as the earlier companion volume did, hundreds of pages of notes and a detailed chronology of church activities from 1848 to 1996. We are afforded a glimpse into the complex personalities, power factions, and challenges of maintaining, growing and adapting a religious movement to a constantly changing and evolving U. S. and world culture. I was by turns frustrated with church leadership and empathetic with them in their struggle to understand and accommodate ‘the world’ without losing their unique identity.

I was also able to see how present problems have their roots in the past, and the futile efforts of those leaders–such as Gordon B. Hinckley and Boyd K. Packer–who would like to bury the past. Mormonism is a religion that was established and grew during historical, literate times, and leaders and members must come to terms with the difficulties of their history. Despite Correlation committees, Strengthening the Members Committees and million dollar public relations and marketing campaigns, and particularly since the advent of the internet, historical problems will not go away. For the questioning believer or the student of religions and U. S. history, Dr. Quinn’s book is a very useful tool in understanding how the present Mormon church came to be.

–Richard Garrard

Thoughts from Eric Hoffer

Nature attains perfection, but man never does. There is a perfect ant, a perfect bee, but man is perpetually unfinished. He is both an unfinished animal and an unfinished man. It is this incurable unfinishedness which sets man apart from other living things. For, in the attempt to finish himself, man becomes a creator. Moreover, the incurable unfinishedness keeps man perpetually immature, perpetually capable of learning and growing.

There is a powerful craving in most of us to see ourselves as instruments in the hands of others and thus free ourselves from the responsibility for acts which are prompted by our own questionable inclinations and impulses. Both the strong and the weak grasp at this alibi. The latter hide their malevolence under the virtue of obedience: they acted dishonorably because they had to obey orders. The strong, too, claim absolution by proclaiming themselves the chosen instrument of a higher power–God, history, fate, nation or humanity.

Florien Wineriter Receives Utah Humanities Council Award

The Utah Humanities Council recognized our chapter president, Florien Wineriter, with a Friend of the Humanities Award at their annual Governor’s Awards ceremony, Saturday, October 14th.

In presenting the certificate for outstanding support of the humanities at the Memorial House, in Memorial Grove, the UHC Executive Director, Cynthia Buckingham, mentioned that during his years in the broadcasting industry, Flo had been the producer of “Vital Issues” at KALL, and “Public Pulse” at KSL, discussion programs that addressed important social and political issues pertaining to the humanities. He was also praised for inviting several Utah Humanities Council representatives to speak at the Humanists of Utah monthly meetings. Director Buckingham remarked that the Humanities represent the bridge of balance between religion and science

Receiving certificates of recognition along with Flo were Wally Cooper and Allen Roberts, architects, Anne and Sandy Dolowitiz, leaders of the Utah Jewish community, Michael Zimmerman, former Chief Justice of the Utah Supreme Court, and Bonnie Stephens, Director of the Utah Arts Council.

Congratulations, Flo!

Dealing With Superstition

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

Carl Sagan’s book, The Demon-Haunted World, is an outstanding work that describes practically every known form of superstitious belief in today’s world and tells us how to distinguish between authentic science on the one hand and pseudoscience and anti-science on the other. These latter have become a favorite lure used by present-day peddlers of superstition.

Sagan asks the crucial question, “If we teach only the findings and products of science–no matter how useful and even inspiring they may be–without communicating its critical method, how can the average person possibly distinguish science from pseudoscience? Both are then presented as unsupported assertion.”

He points out the importance of democracy, with its attendant freedom of expression and separation of powers, for the advancement of science. Thomas Jefferson, himself a scientist, explained, “In every government on earth is some trace of human weakness, some germ of corruption and degeneracy, which cunning will discover and wickedness insensibly open, cultivate and improve. Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved…”

Sagan says part of the duty of citizenship is not to be intimidated into conformity. He advocates that the oath of citizenship taken by recent immigrants and the pledge that students recite include something like, “I promise to question everything my leaders tell me,” and “I promise to use my critical faculties. I promise to develop my independence of thought. I promise to educate myself so I can make my own judgments.” The pledge, he says, should be directed at the Constitution and the Bill of Rights rather than to the flag and the nation.

The founders of our nation, he adds, were well-educated products of the European Enlightenment and students of history. At that time there were only 2.5 million American citizens. Today there are 100 times more. If there were 10 people of Jefferson’s caliber then, there ought to be 10 x 100 = 1,000 Tom Jeffersons today. Where are they?

Most of us are for freedom of expression when there’s a danger our own views will be suppressed. We’re not all that upset, though, when views we despise encounter a little censorship here and there. The system founded by Jefferson, Madison, and their colleagues offers means of expression to those who do not understand its origins and wish to replace it by something very different. Jefferson proffered, “If a nation expects to be both ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” He continued, “A society that will trade a little liberty for a little order will lose both and deserve neither.”

Science, or its delicate mix of openness and skepticism, and its encouragement of diversity and debate, is a prerequisite for continuing the delicate experiment of freedom in an industrial and highly technological society. The Bill of Rights de-coupled religion from the state, in part because so many religions were steeped in an absolutist frame of mind–each convinced that it alone had a monopoly on the truth and therefore eager to impose this truth on others. The Framers of the Bill of Rights had before them the example of England, where the ecclesiastical crime of heresy and the secular crime of treason had become nearly indistinguishable.

Sagan concludes, “Education on the value of free speech and the other freedoms reserved by the Bill of Rights, about what happens when you don’t have them, and about how to exercise and protect them, should be an essential prerequisite for being an American citizen–or indeed a citizen of any nation, the more so to the degree that such rights remain unprotected. If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility, and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.”

Carl Sagan died December 29, 1996. His role as a voice of reason, a researcher, a defender of the scientific method, a skeptic, a storyteller, and an inspiration is greatly missed.