Saturday, 24 December 2011

A Defence of Liberal Secularism for Xmas

Ok well as promised here is my defence of liberal secularism, call it Chris's Christmas Sermon if you wish. Today is Christmas Eve, and no doubt this evening and tomorrow, there will be many churches and other religious instittuions, denouncing liberal secularism, as it has led to a decline in moral standards as exemplified by the toleration of behaviour of the rioters last Summer. The true meaning of Christmas being obscured by the rampant consumerism of the past months. Moral relativism, leading to a disrespect for authorities and tolerating any form of behaviour, even that which casues harm to other people. There will no doubt be an attack on multiculturalism and the usual guff that councils up and down the land are banning the word Christmas for fear of causing offence to other religions. Finally, the claim, that without a belief in God there can be no basis for morality. We should remember, so the argument goes,  as the Prime Minister has recently stated that the foundations for our morality lie in Christianity and we as a nation should return to it.

In what follows I want to challenge 4  basic premises that form the basis of such beliefs these are

1) A belief in God is necessary for morality.
2) The basis for western morality lies with Christianity.
3) Liberal secularism is the same as moral relativism hence liberal secularists can have no values.
4) Non believers in God must be living impoverished lives as they are 'spiritually dead'.

In doing so I will draw on an Early dialogue by Plato called the Euthyphro dialogue and Mill's Essay on Liberty.

To take the first premise, that a belief in God is necessary for morality. This was shown to be fallacious by Plato in an Early dialogue which he attributes to Socrates on his way to his trial for impeiety. He gets talking to a young man Eutyhphro (hence the name of the dialogue) who is also on his way to prosecute his father for murder. This leads to a general discussion on the nature of piety which for the Greeks was considered synomonous with morality or Ethics. Socrates poses the dillema, Is morality or ethics, good initself  or is it  only good because God (or the Gods) have ordained them. If the former, then obviously one does not need God, or a belief in God, as a  foundation for  our ethical principles. If the latter, then what guarantee do we have that the commandments of God are in fact good. To say that God, defines goodness is to beg the question, especially as in some of the texts God is seen ordering the Israelites to smite other nations, or more pertinately in todays climate, it is the duty of Islamists to wage violent Jihad on the decadent West. Given the tendency of religious institutions to want to impose a theocracy on non believers, then they must presumably think that Ethical principles are good in themselves, but then you don't need a belief in God to justify them. It is quite remarkable that a dialogue written 2,400 years ago asks such a pertinent question. There is no justification for the view that ethical or moral principles require a belief in God.

I come to the second argument that our ethical views are based in Christianity. I would argue that 400 years before Christianity, the foundations of our ethical perspective was given by the Greek philosophers especially Plato and Aristotle. The difference between the Greeks and Faith based views of ethics is that whereas for the most part faith based ethics says simply these principles were ordained by God and are enshrined in the texts. (As if one could simply write down a system of ethics, valid for eternity 2000 years ago and simply apply it to another age, without regard to context or the changes in society) Philosophers would say that you must provide a good argument for your case.  Instead of basing our ethics on religious texts I would suggest that a study of the main philosophical ethical texts is a far better way to learn ethical principles. The benefits will be  learnng how to argue for your case, rather just 'It's in the Bible, Koran or whatever religious text therefore it must be correct'. Also a certain modesty (cf Yesterdays post) and an ability to revise ones position, when confronted with something that doesn't quite fit the usual ethical percepts. To give a trivial example, whilst we can probably agree, that in general lying is a bad thing, it would be a brave man  who when asked 'Does my bum look big in this?' by his girlfriend said yes. Obviously there are more serious cases does one want to reveal where ones friends are to an enemy who wants to kill them for example.  Anyway the point is that it was the Greeks who invented philosophical ethics 400 years before Christianity was even heard of and it is those principles which forms the basis of our society not Christianity.

This brings me to my third point the claim that  liberal secularists have no values. Anyone who claims this has obviously not read Mill's essay on liberty. There Mill introduces a very simple principle namely that any lifestyle belief or cultural practice is fine provided it does not harm any other person. This is a two edged sword, on the one hand diversity in life is to be encouraged and welcomed. On the other hand if cultural practices do cause harm to other people then those practices are to be condemned. Thus for example liberal secularists who follow Mill in the harm principle would have no problem in, attacking for example genital mutilation and it is not cultural imperialism to do so.  A further pertinent point that Mill makes is that offence is no harm. Religious people who are often vociferous in banning plays which criticise religion or make fun of it often claim that they are offended by this. Well fair enough you have a right to express your view but it is not your right to close down plays by threat of violence, neither is it your right to seek to kill those who write books criticising your religion. You want to attack liberals for having no morals or values, well then learn to accept criticism yourself. 

Far from liberals having no values I would argue that liberals possess a set of core values, firstly the harm principle as enunciated above, but furthermore we believe that a diversity of lifestyles is good for society we also believe that discrimination against people on the basis of ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation is also a bad thing. If your religious institution or way of life maintains discrimination against women or gay people then it's about time you changed your position. Furthermore if you are a public servant and you discriminate against ethnic minorities, women or gay people then you deserve to lose your job. The nub of the battle between liberals and the Pope for example isn't that liberals don't have ethical values whereas instituitionalised religion does. It is that there is a real clash of values and in the case of institutions which refuse to let women or gay people rise to the top based on their merits such behaviour is essentially racist, misoygnistic and bigoted. The more you denounce certain ways of life which you don't approve of, then the more you will be justly criticised and the more you just show your institutionalised bigotry. I leave it to you to ponder, whether or not such attitudes are consistent with the teachings of a Galilean peasant, who says you should love your neighbour as yourself.  

To my final point the alleged lack of fullfilment of non religious people as they are spiritually dead. I would argue that this is clearly not the case. The secular world has much to offer in terms of fulfillment, I prefer to use the word aesthetic rather than spiritual. Here it is abundantly obvious that the Arts have much to offer here. I would say from personal experience that for exampel the symphonies of Mahler, the operas of Wagner, the novels of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and the paintings of Picasso have far more to offer than a few hymns or carols and the  continual regurgitation of the same old text week in week out. For other people it may simply be enjoying a good walk in the country or just cultivating friendships and family. Also one must not forget the joy that the study of the sciences and mathematics can give.

So, I long for the day when this world tolerates other lifestyles, when people can rise to the peak of their abilities, without being discriminated against, because of their gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. I long for the day when people don't harm anyone else. I also long for the day when religious institutions live up to their founders principles instead of indulging in institutional bigotry as most of them seem to, 

Have a good Christmas Winter Solstice, excuse to get drunk whatever way you want to call it

Best wishes Chris 


  1. Merry Xmas Chris,

    An interesting analysis of religion. I am a Buddhist and have deeply held beliefs and values that are both spiritual, and of good value to me and society. I.e. non-materialistic, non-dualistic, non-judgemental and peaceful; yet, my religion doesn't rely on a god or a church, to deliver these things. It is about a way of life and a way of living, that breaks free of personal suffering or causing suffering to others, by mindfulness, meditation and applying a moral code. Through meditation, I find that I can appreciate the world around me for all its amazing aesthetic beauty, without judging what I see. Not dissimilar to what you describe about appreciating art and music, for example. So I fully agree with your critical evaluation above, and would say that spiritualism can be both profound and deeply experienced via secular or non 'god-head' means!

    Good post


  2. Merry Xmas to you mate. I wasn't attacking peoples individual beliefs just the current weak arguments that seem prevalent in the institutionalised church and their unjust dismissal of religious secularism. I will post something about maths soon on this site. Hopefully next week when I've cracked the General relativity

    Best wishes Chris

  3. Help I meant liberal secularism not religious secularism an oxymoron if ever there was one.

  4. '. We should remember, so the argument goes, as the Prime Minister has recently stated that the foundations for our morality lie in Christianity and we as a nation should return to it.'

    Should we all start putting oil on our head when we fast?

    Could we have a list of problems that advice from Jesus will solve?

    Has David Cameron read the Sermon on the Mount?

    'But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.'

    Why all these public prayers? Don't these people listen to the words of their Saviour?

  5. Quite give me a quiet quakerism or silent meditation rather than the public display of reliogisity which the church seems prone to.

    Remember I'm not endorsing what the prime minister recently said just using it as a typical example of the way in which it is used as a peg to attack liberal secularism.