Human ethics FTW II: Morals and meaning

New York Times conservative commentator David Brooks, in his Feb. 5 piece titled, “Building Better Secularists,” essentially argues that unlike religious people, who become part of a social and moral framework when they adopt the faith, atheists and agnostics, in the absence of these prepackaged elements, are forced to fashion their own set of ethics and communal activities that give meaning to their lives. An example of this would be Sunday Assembly, which apparently has become popular with some nonbelievers. For sure, when former believers lose the faith they often times also lose a whole network of friends and sometimes report missing certain parts of church, so atheist churches have popped up to fill this void. Going to a secular church seems superfluous to me, but if it helps some people, more power to them I suppose.

Brooks also says “secularists,” atheists, agnostics and the like, must create their own time for spiritual reflection and motivation for doing good, and people who are unable to do this “don’t turn bad, but they drift. They suffer from a loss of meaning and an unconscious boredom with their own lives:”

It seems to me that if secularism is going to be a positive creed, it can’t just speak to the rational aspects of our nature. Secularism has to do for nonbelievers what religion does for believers — arouse the higher emotions, exalt the passions in pursuit of moral action. Christianity doesn’t rely just on a mild feeling like empathy; it puts agape at the center of life, a fervent and selfless sacrificial love. Judaism doesn’t just value community; it values a covenantal community infused with sacred bonds and chosenness that make the heart strings vibrate. Religions don’t just ask believers to respect others; rather each soul is worthy of the highest dignity because it radiates divine light.

The only secularism that can really arouse moral motivation and impel action is an enchanted secularism, one that puts emotional relations first and autonomy second. I suspect that over the next years secularism will change its face and become hotter and more consuming, less content with mere benevolence, and more responsive to the spiritual urge in each of us, the drive for purity, self-transcendence and sanctification.

The first observation I have on this is that although some people in the “atheist community” have attempted to tie atheism to other movements like humanism, feminism and civil rights, a person’s opinion about the existence of God is and always has been divorced from moral philosophy. While the world obviously would be a better place if all believers and nonbelievers acted benevolently toward other human beings, this is not the world we inhabit. Religious people are not necessarily more moral just because they think they have God on their side, and all atheists aren’t mired in depravity and lawlessness because they lack a book that gives them a concrete moral code.

Brooks’ column also seems to conflate secularism, which is, by definition, the notion of separating the influence of religion from government or public life, and secular humanism, an ethical system by which many, but not all, atheists attempt to live. Secularism, like atheism, doesn’t include a positive or negative creed and neither does “secular morality,” which is a term Brooks references when he mentions the work of Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist at Pitzer College. According to Zuckerman, “Secular morality hinges upon little else than not harming others and helping those in need.” Brooks summarizes Zuckerman thusly:

Secular people, he argues, value autonomy over groupthink. They deepen their attachment to this world instead of focusing on a next one. They may not be articulate about why they behave as they do, he argues, but they try their best to follow the Golden Rule, to be considerate and empathetic toward others. … As he describes them, secularists seem like genial, low-key people who have discarded metaphysical prejudices and are now leading peaceful and rewarding lives.

But the idea of “secular morality” makes no more sense than talking about atheistic morality. There’s no such thing in either case. I don’t want that to be misinterpreted. Atheism is simply the disbelief in the existence of gods and includes no moral or ethical component. For that, most progressive nonbelievers turn to secular humanism.

Although the terminology seems to be misused, Brooks’ main implication is that for nonbelievers to live fulfilling lives, they will need to embrace or borrow certain elements from religion to address the “spiritual urge” he says is inherent in all of us, and apparently in this view, only religion is capable of producing transcendent moments. But he commits the same error as many believers here by assuming that just because a certain religion like Christianity or Judaism exists, that it must be a force for good; that just because a god might exist, he or she must necessarily possess a “divine light” that will be beneficial to anyone who basks in it. Just as we have plenty of examples from history that show the many evils that have been committed in the name of religion, gods that man has invented throughout history, including Yahweh, have in the various stories been, more often than not, petty, capricious, jealous and seething with insatiable anger and bloodlust. So, there’s no reason to think that either religion or divinity is a force for good simply by existing.

The beauty about human morality and finding meaning in life without religion is that people can be good to each other and seek to make the world a better place than they left it, not out of compulsion, obligation or the hope for a reward in the afterlife, but because of genuine empathy, which is not a “mild feeling,” as Brooks claims dismissively, but a vicarious sense of compassion for the welfare and well-being of other people. Not mere sympathy, but empathy for our fellow man is at least on par with the Christian notion of agape love, or brotherly love, if not a higher moral imperative.

As for the quest for fulfillment in life, enough majesty and inspiration is to be found in art, literature, music, poetry and nature to hold us all in transcendence and wonder many lifetimes over. To ignore or fail to appreciate these elements, to fail to be transfixed by the knowledge that we were in a very real sense born of the cosmos and by slow degrees crept up Dawkins’ Mount Improbable from lowly origins to the immense complexity that has now equipped us with the ability to contemplate transcendence itself, to cling to the gods and the religions of our fearful and quivering ancient ancestors, to imagine that churches have monopolized what it means to love, to care for others and effect change in the world, is to betray our own humanity.

About the Author

Jeremy Styron
Jeremy Styron
I am a newspaper editor, op-ed columnist and reporter working in the greater Knoxville area. This is a personal blog. Views expressed here are mine and mine alone.

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