In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis attempted to strip Christianity of all it’s superfluous elements to identify the “mere” minimum that can be shared by all Christians. In like respect, Dan Barker, a former evangelical Christian preacher turned atheist, has attempted to do the same with morality, in his latest book titled Mere Morality.
In doing so, Barker has demonstrated that not only does religion have nothing to do with morality, but that all of the “good” parts of religion are in essence humanist principles. To see how, we should first consider the definition of morality.
When discussing philosophical matters, it’s easy to get lost in definitions. So before we can properly assess religion’s role in morality, we need to figure out an adequate definition. After reflecting on the issue, I agree with the author that a fair definition of a moral act is as follows:
An act can be considered moral if the intention of the act is to minimize overall actual harm.
Unpacking the definition, we can note a couple of points:
- Morality is about actions, behavior, and consequences; if I simply think about something without acting on it, and no one is harmed, it makes very little sense to call this immoral.
- Intention matters; if I make the attempt to help someone out in an emergency, with good intentions, but accidently make matters worse, it would make little sense to call the act immoral, if reasonable care was taken to either prevent harm or provide a benefit.
- Some harm may be necessary in a moral act; for example, it’s worth a brief moment of pain to inject an infant with a needle to provide inoculation against debilitating disease.
This is not to say that every moral decision or ethical dilemma is easy; some situations require very difficult trade-offs, as any version of the trolley problem will demonstrate. But in every case, difficult trade-offs or not, the best way to think about the scenario is in terms of avoidable harm.
As Dan Barker explains:
“Since harm is natural, not supernatural, its avoidance is a material exercise. Harm is a threat to survival. It is disease, predators, parasites, toxins, invasions, war, rape, violence, theft, parental neglect, pollution of the environment…you can add to this list, but whatever you add will be natural. If your intention is to end up with less harm—real natural harm, not imaginary “sin,” which is supposedly offending the so-called holiness of a fictional father figure—then you are acting morally”
A useful way to think about this is as follows: the next time you are considering a moral issue concerning several stakeholders, ask yourself, “can they/it suffer?” In answering that question, you should keep in mind that groups can’t suffer, nor can nations or corporations or imaginary entities. Only individual people can suffer, and that simple recognition alone provides the foundation for moral consideration.
The primacy of reason
With our definition of a moral act as the minimization of overall or unnecessary harm, we can address how we should go about making moral decisions. It seems that we have three main options on offer: 1) follow our instincts, 2) follow law or scripture, or 3) apply reason.
Following our instinct is, in fact, sometimes useful; humans did evolve as a cooperative, social species, and most of us experience a positive emotional response after helping others. As Barker wrote:
“We now know that acts of charity and compassion actually boost pleasure chemicals in the brain, similar to how we feel when eating chocolate, listening to music, making love, or laughing.”
Altruism is not exclusive to humans, either, as chimps have been shown to engage in selfless behavior like lagging behind a group to help a wounded companion. Feelings of solidarity are built into the genes of any social animal, and we should keep in mind that humans would not have survived the African savannah had it not been for cooperative, prosocial behavior.
When people are in pain, it bothers us, unless we convince ourselves they are less than human or else we are psychopathic. We don’t have to be taught to feel sympathy for others and to feel vicarious emotions.
On the other hand, it’s true that we do also have darker impulses, for example our well-known tendencies for out-group hostility, aggression, jealousy, violence, and the rest, and our instincts can lead us down immoral paths.
The question becomes, then, how can we decide when we should follow our instincts or not?
Deciding whether or not to follow our instincts implies a choice, and choice implies the freedom to choose. If we truly have freedom of conscience, like the religious claim, then that freedom can only be guided by reason, or else we are not entirely free. As Barker wrote, “In fact, you must use reason, otherwise you are not a fully aware moral agent.”
Remember that reason is not a thing, it’s a function of the brain. So when the religious claim that “you can’t ground morality in reason,” they have no clue what they’re talking about, because free choice requires the use of reason, which is simply the ability of the mind to make decisions from among several alternatives.
When you are instructed to surrender to faith, you are literally being advised to surrender your ability to make free choices based on your own conscience. If moral decisions must be made in reference to actual harm, and the avoidance thereof, then reason must be allowed to operate at full capacity to analyze the complexities of the situation and the involvement of all interested parties.
I can already hear the religious saying, “but what’s stopping people from using reason to inflict harm?” The answer is nothing, but inflicting harm is how you define an immoral act. If you simply define morality as doing only that which benefits yourself, then you are using the term in a disingenuous way that is not consistent with its standard usage. And again, we simply did not evolve as purely selfish individuals, so it is most certainly not in your best interest—psychologically or socially—to manipulate and take advantage of everyone you meet.
The irrelevance of scripture
We’ve defined moral acts as those which seek to minimize overall actual harm, and we’ve demonstrated how, as free moral agents, we must use reason to engage in the assessment and minimization of harm. So, where does scripture fit into this picture?
The answer, I’m sure you’ve guessed, is nowhere, and in fact itself relies on reason. First, as Barker shows, most of the uses of “evil” and “wicked” in the Bible refer to idolatry and the worshiping of other gods, and do not relate to human concerns at all. (We’re of course talking about Judaism and Christianity, but the same reasoning applies to Islam and other religions that rely on sacred scripture.)
Second, most people, even if they claim to be Christian, do not follow every commandment in the Bible. For example, take Leviticus 20:13, which states: “If a man practices homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman, both men have committed a detestable act. They must both be put to death, for they are guilty of a capital offense.”
If you disagree with this injunction, which I hope you do, where is the source of your disagreement coming from? It’s not coming from within the Bible, obviously, or from faith. It’s coming from your rational recognition that the murder of two men for a mutual act that doesn’t harm anyone else is a violation of the harm principle.
The other parts of the Bible that you probably do like—such as the command to love your neighbor and help the poor—abide by the harm principle which demands that unnecessary suffering be reduced and human well-being prioritized.
If you are selecting which Bible verses are immoral and which are moral, then morality cannot possibly come from the Bible. As Sam Harris said, “The doors leading out of the prison of scriptural literalism simply do not open from the inside.” It comes from the outside in the form of our more cooperative and altruistic instincts, our rational understanding of the harm principle, and the codification of democratic laws that consider the common good.
This of course does not mean that religion should be or will be eradicated. Personal religious beliefs, belief in God, or belief in the afterlife is up to the individual conscience of every individual. But we should stop pretending that religious belief is the source of morality, just because we might wish it to be, or that it represents the type of common-humanity politics that everyone can get behind and that makes a democracy function properly.
When you strip down morality, you are “merely” left with the burden of your own freedom to choose, the instincts that helped our ancestors survive cooperatively for hundreds of thousands of years, the harm principle, and your most valuable asset of all, the one thing that makes you most human—reason. I’ll give Barker the final word:
“A healthy functioning society, where citizens enjoy the right to the “pursuit of happiness,” is one that bases its laws on principles, not authority. It is a society whose motto should be “In Reason We Trust.””
Further Reading in Secular Humanism
The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism by A.C. Grayling
Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe by Greg Epstein