The moral questions of our time are as pressing as any other.
Unfortunately shrill voices drown out sensible debate, encouraged by the media’s willingness to whip up anxieties to increase sales.
These voices hawk often back to a mythical past that we are supposedly descending from. Usually a generation or two ago . They create the conditions in which a single shocking event causes public panic. A sense that certainties are lost and that a moral abyss is opening.
Of course all this is false. Progress is real, although not inevitable. Victorian London was a far more violent place than it is now. Child prostitution, drunkenness and beggary filled its streets. Regardless of the various endeavors to return us to so called ‘Victorian values.’
Pick a marker, any marker, and you’ll see social progress in the last two hundred years. Whether it is the enfranchisement of women in the early half of the twentieth century and the later gains in women’s rights, or the emancipation of homosexuals in the late twentieth and early twenty first century.
To be sure, progress is slow and unevenly distributed. No one said it was easy. But to deny that it has happened, and is happening, is to deny the hard won reality of these gains.
In the rush to condemn humanity it is overlooked that we are a moral species.
We are a moral animal and have a need to see the world in moral terms. Having reverence for that we perceive as good. And outrage at what we perceive as unjust. These needs are grounded in reason.
They are not based in religion, or any form of divine command. They may be furthered by religion, or emotion, but that is not what keeps them alive.
Far more significant than your faith that God exists, or that He doesn’t, is what you think your belief requires.
Does it guide your conduct by rule and commandments that are set out before you, or does it oblige you to think them through yourself?
Does it necessitate you to understand the world, or does it give up on understanding itself?
Are there reasons for everything that happens and those reasons are up to us to find?
Or should we ask no questions and just accept the world as it is?
The difference between these two moral stances is important. More important than whether you call yourself religious or secular.
This gives lie to the claim that religion obviates the need for thinking, a claim often held by fundamentalist and atheist alike.
For the believer this means however close you may be to the Lord’s word, you are responsible for thinking it through on your own.
For their opponents, the lesson is just as important. Religion does not necessarily insist on moral immaturity. Nor is secularism grown-up in a way religion can never be.
In fact, real ethics and real religion demand moral maturity. This is true because religion is an expression of morality – not, as so often is assumed, the other way around.
Any ethics that depends on religious commandments is bad ethics; any religion that claims we can’t behave without it is bad religion.
Neither genuine religious nor genuine moral impulses are ever expressed in standpoints that tie the two together.
Those who view religion as necessary for morality reduce us to the moral level of three-year-olds.
If you obey these commandments you’ll go to heaven, and if you do not you will burn in hell is just a dramatic rendering of the carrots and stick with which we rear our children.
If you tidy up your bedroom you’ll get the sweets, and if you don’t you’ll stay inside.
Those of us, who have raised them, however, know that the moral behaviour we seek to instill requires us to get beyond bribes and threats.
We want to prepare our kids to be responsible and generous and straightforward. Even when when such behaviors are not rewarded, as they are often not in parts of the world we don’t control.
The religious feeling serious believers cherish is not about being bribed.
I’ll do whatever you say if only you’ll save me.
They hold this attitude to be no better than that of a pagan who thinks the gods will protect him if only he does their bidding. True faith, they think is not a matter of bargaining, but of gratitude – for creation, and possibly salvation as well.