Among liberals and certainly in the wider culture, one of the greatest misconceptions I encounter regarding morality is that morals can only be dictated by a divine entity. Liberals tend to use the term “ethics”, which are subjective and based on the liberal’s own likes and dislikes, to distinguish their morals from those of abrahamic religions, which their adherents consider to be objective, and which are ultimately (if I understand correctly) grounded in the likes and dislikes of a god. I want to discuss a third category of morals, which are objective but do not depend on a specific individual’s likes and dislikes, and attempt to peer into the rich but subtle differences between them and religious morals.
My concern, as always, is that secular individuals are given no means to affirm and apply their morality in the modern Western world. We may hold faith in justice, honour, truth and devotion, but in attempts to discuss this faith, we may be met with liberals who, hating our morals for the lack of their own, will be quick to suggest that morals are simply a mental fabrication and chastise us for adhering to them. We may find evil individuals who commit various forms of injustice, deception and betrayal in their day-to-day lives, and they will cheerfully repeat the liberals’ message for their own benefit. We may also find cowards who do not wish to face their own level of immorality, and would rather change the subject to something nicer when we begin to discuss moral values. Such people do not want morality to be codified because its lack of immutable evidence benefits them; it is far easier to discourage a moral individual who has nothing but his own accosted words than one who may always gain respite in the shadow of a sacred tablet. By contrast, religious people, having access to communities that bear the stated (if not in all cases practiced) purpose of cultivating morality means they can much more easily avoid discomfort if and when they deal with the above people. The temples of secular morality are very much vine-strewn stone circles in the jungle at present, bereft of trails to guide the devout through the myriad threats of the wild, and if one encounters predators in one’s pursuit of understanding, one finds one’s self fighting them alone, stranded in an unwelcoming wilderness.
Because most people classify morality as either liberal or religious, with all the associated connotations, liberals will tend to see us as religious, whereas the religious will tend to see us as misguided liberals seeking conversion, and so many moral secularists will walk past their fledging temples seeing only vine-covered boulders, failing to consider that these temples might themselves be furnished into mighty edifices, in whose safety and serenity all pilgrims from afar might revel. It takes an identity for that purpose, and such an identity can only be formed by wedging non-religious morality apart from both liberalism and religion, distinguishing the features that denote the fundamental, necessary architecture of such temples.
One of the crucial differences between religious and non-religious morality is that of the nature of faith. To a religious individual, faith deals heavily with the concrete world. One has faith in the existence of a god or gods, in the supernatural actions that such gods have enabled, and in the overall character of such gods. Lacking direct evidence of these gods’ very existence, one must further have faith in people: in those who wrote the religion’s holy books or first started its oral tradition, in those who bore witness to any miracles (perhaps millenia ago) and in those who are said to have had a direct connection to god or the gods. Some religious individuals may also hold faith in aspects of the abstract world, such as the concepts of justice and truth. I say “some” because there are those who, on believing that a powerful and highly knowledgeable supernatural entity exists, will supplicate to that entity out of a primal fear that stifles reasoning and thus adopt whatever concepts of justice and truth the entity’s priests are supposedly imparting on its behalf. To a non-religious individual who strives for morality, however, faith, as concerns morality, is purely about abstract concepts. One has faith in justice, and so one pursues it in one’s every action. One has faith in the truth, and so one pursues it in one’s every thought. To have faith in these things is, ultimately, not merely to believe in their existence, but also to value them, to devote one’s self to them and wonder at their manifestations.
Religious faith contains some pitfalls that do not show up in its counterpart. Notably, it encourages intellectual submission to potential con artists (narcissistic cult leaders being an example that most religious people would accept) and it depends on certain cosmological details – which may or may not be validated by future investigation – to be true, whereas morality can be largely independent of cosmology. I further wish to describe how one can have faith, and develop a profound sense of morality, without taking on any particular religious worldview, and suggest that religious morality, which one ascribes to supernatural beings, is ultimately based on a universal morality that does not require such beings to exist; a morality that, like mathematics, is always valid simply because its conclusions follow from its axioms. Finally, I want to argue that any plausible benevolent gods must behave according to such a morality, and that they themselves cannot dictate the nature of morality – at best, they can select the properties of a world they create or operate within in such a way that only certain aspects of morality are applicable in that world.
My intention is not to discredit or insult religious people. I should mention that I am not an atheist according to the modern meaning of the term, i.e. a militant atheist opposed to all religion, and I would not even consider myself one in the etymological sense, i.e. someone who holds no faith. I am certainly opposed to organized religion because it inevitably fosters corruption and abuse, and see this as one of the fundamental problems with religious morality. The Catholic Church is a prominent example. The current pope is known for his support and cover-up in favour of child-molesting priests, as well as for having had Vatican guards arrest his butler after the latter was found with incriminating evidence against the Vatican in his apartment. Several former popes became notorious for their crimes and immoral behaviour, most notably Pope Alexander VI, who gave out fiefs to his family, had several married mistresses, poisoned his political enemies and supported slavery in the newly discovered West Indies. Other popes were known to perform child sexual abuse, kill off their pawns in political intrigues and accept bribes in exchange for spiritual forgiveness in order to fund their lives of carefree luxury; one was even said to toast to the devil.
Indeed, it is the evil pervading the Catholic Church that triggered the reformation, and this only after centuries of the wholesale perversion of the teachings of Christ, who had himself been persecuted for these teachings by the Jewish religious establishment in his own time. Throughout the history of religion, similar schisms have arisen on smaller scales for similar reasons. Soto Zen, for instance, arose after its founder, Dogen, grew dissatisfied with the internal politics at the Zen temple where he initially trained.
Corruption tends to appear in any community whose prosperity hinges on its reputation, for when it becomes more profitable to produce this reputation out of cheap and easy falsehoods, rumours and the silencing of critics, malicious leaders will do so without a shred of conscience to daunt them. In modern times, such communities include ideological establishments like academia and political groups (both left-wing and right-wing). The seeds of corruption may blossom in any institution, sown by malevolent hands that have eluded the scrutiny of the good, and to place blind faith in a (potentially corrupted) institution, rather than subject it to relentless moral scrutiny of your own, is to cement its degradation.
If one attempts to pursue one’s religious faith without the benefit of an organization, one can either do so either with the aid of a mentor (as happens in all new religious movements), with holy texts, or on one’s own, heeding the murmurs of one’s conscience. Throughout all of this, one may either believe or disbelieve that what one witnesses is genuinely divine. And in this process, one’s own reasoning intercedes.
If one’s mentor descends from a series of scholars, and is not in direct contact with divinity, then one must question whether his knowledge may be merely a bastardized form of the original teachings, or whether the source of his lineage had indeed been in contact with divinity, and as such, whether its information can be trusted. This is not a matter to gloss over; Wikipedia lists a number of people who have, throughout the centuries, claimed or were claimed to be messiahs of some sort, and provides predictably larger listings for individuals claiming to be incarnations of god, the Son of God or the Islamic Mahdi, often concurrently. Certainly, most (and arguably, on closer inspection, all) of them had to be false. One can assume there were many who claimed to be the Messiah in ancient Israel, and indeed, several are listed on the relevant Wikipedia page; there is little to distinguish Jesus from them apart from the extraordinary tale of his resurrection. Likewise for every other religious leader who claimed any sort of divine heritage. Whether the faithful treats someone as a messiah, a person whose contemporaries mistook him/her for one or a downright charlatan ideally depends on the faithful’s own sense of judgement.
Furthermore, even if one has no teachers whose connection to divinity can be examined critically, one is faced with the possibility to learn of divinity from holy texts. Inevitably, unless one believes these texts were materialized by a divine entity, they have been written by people, and the actions of these people must themselves be judged as the actions of people, with the application of critical thinking.
Lastly, there are those who, going without books and teachers, strive to come to an understanding of supernatural divinity on their own. Such people must ultimately interpret what is divine and what is not, always bearing the risk of interpreting things falsely.
In all these cases, people must apply their own judgement of truth and falsehood in order to ascertain whether the teachings they’re receiving are indeed divine. Yet in addition, they must apply their judgement of right and wrong. It is indeed the case that, once someone has adopted a religion, one might contend to follow it uncritically; but before choosing that religion, or indeed before adopting novel aspects of that religion, one judges them, and does so with one’s own sense of morality.
Consider a religion that unquestionably “upheld” moral “values” such as deception, betrayal, greed, ridicule, worldly pride, cruelty and, to make the case even more compelling, incest. Unless you have grown desensitized to these attitudes in some way, you would immediately recognize their iniquity and reject the religion, and you would be acting out of your own interpretation of morality in doing so, irrespective of the fact that morality itself is objective. Therefore, religious faith inevitably passes through the filter of one’s moral reasoning.
I want to argue that the same moral reasoning can lead to faith in the absence of the supernatural. In part 2, I will be describing this seemingly uncharted form of faith, which is particularly suited to moral agnostics / atheists and which forms the fabric of my own spiritual life.