What About Morality?

In the recent national discussion over "values", there are a few important considerations for secularists and/or non-theists who come up against the "morality" question.

Definitions and Origins
The dictionary gives the definition of moral as "conforming to a standard of right behavior".

According to cultural anthropology morality is the functional model for human social interaction that is fundamentally calibrated to the requirements of a society's local economic mode. Morality's function as a force for group survival is to reinforce the status quo of self and social system in support of the prevailing economy - proscribing the roles, rights and responsibilities among members of the group. This is usually accomplished by ingraining intolerance, xenophobia and repression of individual freedom and expression in the group. Deviations (i.e., deviants) are meted out harsh consequences. A singular axiom of morality is to treat one's own group with loving care, and exploit the bloody hell out of others.

Morality is the Wrong Frame for the Argument
The discussion about a basis for rules of human behavior has, so far, been framed so thoroughly by social conservatives in terms of morality that even those whose objectives it undermines feel compelled to show that they, too, are in fundamental agreement with the terms of it.

It is true that morality evolved as an essential mechanism for in-group survival. But in the sociopolitical arena, the argument is immediately lost, when a non-theist tries to compete with a religious person as a moralist of any stripe. Every religious person intuitively understands that morality is an inseparable component of an all-encompassing mythology, and, moreover, is as meaningless without the validating religion as a buggy wheel is without a buggy. Secularists can't be drawn into arguing whether or not their system has a wheel, too, and that it fits a buggy of some sort - because it doesn't. There is no secular religion. Moreover, one is asking the religious person to first stand back from the buggy and agree that the real issues are fundamentally about optimal transportation. Well, if one could get them to do that then why bother to fight the battle of morality, at all, if the war of religious relativity has already been won?

By analogy with the way liberals are framed by "taxes", a liberal is not going to get anywhere claiming they are for more taxes. And if she says she is for fewer taxes? Either way, wouldn't conservatives be delighted? However, if the liberal says she is for more services... ah, now you've got a contest. Taxes are a bogeyman when disconnected from their purpose to fund services.

The "morality" frame is used to trap secularists in much the same way. When asked are you religious? Are you moral? If the secularist answers both of these questions, be it "yes" or "no", she loses. Like taxes, morality as a frame is an abstraction disconnected from its purpose, to promote group welfare. Morality isn't our issue; it is theirs. The relevant issue for secularists is maintaining a social system blind enough to belief that there is no reason for it to come up when discussing matters of public policy.

Science and Constitutional Liberalism - not Morality
Secularists must refuse to be framed by the question of morality. Instead, the discussion needs to be reframed as a matter of contributing factors and outcomes: the real-world facts of the matter and in the terms of of social justice and law specific to the immediate issue. When questioned if a non-theist can be moral, the response must be along the lines of, "It is not a matter of morality... it is a matter of the facts, of civil liberties, of social justice, of economic sensibility, of the common welfare, of long-term scientific outcomes..." So on and so forth.

In modern liberal societies, the moral system has been replaced by the Constitutional Republic which implements a legal system of guaranteed rights - in its millions of subparagraphs, deliberations and compromises. Rather than ensuring the continuity of a monolithic societal model, the modern republic represents and negotiates the roles, rights and responsibilities among a diversity of groups. In fundamental contradistinction to systems of morality, a modern republican system expands rather than circumscribes individual freedoms.

Here's a scenario:

Q: "I think kids should abstain until marriage. Where do you stand on chastity?"

A: "It's not a matter of chastity. The importance of chastity, and even marriage for that matter, developed during the Herding and Agriculture Age, because only at that time did it become important to insure legitimacy of heirs in order to work the land and formalize inheritance. There used to be laws to persecute the unchaste, and there still are in societies that are primarily pastoral. In America, too, as recently as 1920, more than 30 percent of Illinois' population lived on farms. By 1990, that percentage shrank to 1.6 percent. As America has further industrialized, chastity and chastity laws have become obsolete because the original reason for it no longer exists. We didn't have birth control back then, either, so even the Industrial Age risk to our children of being born to a single mother under economically unstable conditions is much less an issue.

Women no longer need to begin reproduction at the age of 14 in order to ensure the survival of 3 or 4 children. The better educated the woman and the better her ability to contribute economically to the family, the better the odds are for the children she has later in life. Surely, we want the best for our daughters. So, it's not a matter of chastity, it's a matter of how best to be happy and successful in life and family.

What we modern humans have found is that we can transcend the necessarily narrow and destructive imperatives of local moral systems by replacing them with laws and governments built on rational principles for human interaction.

The modern system of social justice in law has developed, not as a matter of instinct, but through a process of progressive introduction of civil liberties, critical thinking, systems analysis and bringing everything to bear that we know about the world and ourselves - even to the extent that one of the highest social values is that we need to learn more and need to continue to refine the system as things change.

Roots of Religious Reactionism
Well, you might ask, if rational systems are so great, then why the backlash from religion?

Tracking the rise of fundamentalism over this same period is telling.

Generic fundamentalism refers to a global religious impulse, particularly evident in the twentieth century, that seeks to recover and publicly institutionalize aspects of the past that modern life has obscured. It typically sees the secular state as the primary enemy, for the latter is more interested in education, democratic reforms, and economic progress than in preserving the spiritual dimension of life. It sees time-honored social distinctions and cultural patterns as rooted in the very nature of things, in the order of creation itself. That means clear-cut and stratified roles [morals] for men and women, parents and children, clergy and laity.

Historic Fundamentalism [adds] concerns which stemmed from broad changes in the culture such as growing awareness of world religions, the teaching of human evolution and, above all, the rise of biblical higher criticism. The last proved particularly troubling because it implied the absence of the supernatural and the purely human authorship of scripture."
(Source: http://www.nhc.rtp.nc.us/tserve/twenty/tkeyinfo/fundam.htm)

In other words, existing morals are made obsolete when the conditions that originally warranted them change. Secularists must be sympathetic with the serious cognitive dissonance recent rapid changes have caused people: human beings who are primed by nature to acquire clearly identified social roles in childhood. What all this means is that secularists continue to find themselves up against a pack of moral rules that regress back to America's not too distant agricultural past - the time of America's religious blossoming.

Solution #1: More Education
Secularists, rather than shrinking from historical and modern advances, which undermine the viability of religious morality, must continually expose fundamentalism to its incongruities with the real world. Broad and deep education in schools for children and every kind of media for everyone. No agenda, but presenting the facts - although it would help to expose the conscious ideological deceptions in popular history. (This is made somewhat more complicated due to the current retreat of fundamentalists into home-schooling enclaves.)

In the political arena there should be a focused, consistent reframing of issues stressed by theists in areas traditionally addressed by agricultural-age morality. Dialectically, it should not be difficult to prevail when drawing out the underlying rules of past agricultural society while reframing moral issues. Because no one is really going to insist that they desire to return to a life of farming. Over time, this may effectively put the cognitive dissonance of the displaced to rest.

In our own homes, we can emphasize to our children the processes of social justice, historically, in response to change rather than its rules. However, it important to note in this regard that it is just as instinctive and developmentally necessary for children to develop a hard set of social rules as it is for them to learn language (though both are comprised of equally arbitrary rules for interaction). However, as the child develops, these clear lines become progressively less important to draw out and should be gradually replaced with a firm foundation in critical thinking.

There is somewhat of a fine line here, because if too much contextual relativity is introduced too early on, emotional development will be stunted. On the other hand, if only the easy path of simply adopting the parents' mythological system - complete with representative characters and compelling stories - is offered then the child has got religion. This is true even if the system is of one's own concoction. Just interject irrational elements, magical thinking, utopianism, wish fulfillment and privileged treatment. Eliminate all gray areas, allocate an absolute enemy, motivate with fear of death – in other words strip the code for behavior of relativity, scientific process, empathy, long term effects and change and you can have yourself a nice little Jesus or UFO cult... even a private psychopathology. Unfortunately, the approach of black and white indoctrination is the instinctive one, and as such is the path of least resistance for parents and the child and must be vigilantly guarded against.

A corollary of this developmental view is that people who rely on morality to function as adults suffer from a socio-cognitive infantilism: essentially underexposed to other cultures, uninformed about history, absent critical thinking skills, lacking empathy, removed from process. They are particularly not creative. Functional only by rote.

Politics of Morality.
In the Marxist view, morality is simply serf control: a unilateral social pact. As such morality is extolled to the common person by those in power for the purposes of maintaining their power. The aristocracy has never been bound by the morality it dishes out, a morality served with large helpings of exploiting the superstitious impulse of the uncritical. Even in today's politics, "morality" makes a perfect red herring for the progressive political opposition to get tangled up in - while the givers of morality are off violating every precept.

In stark contradistinction to moral values which are imposed and handed down by a ruling elite in order to control human behavior, liberal values are enacted to extend civil liberties, freeing human behavior. In the last analysis, there is nothing "moral" about morality, it only exists in the modern world as reactionism to change... and to progressive change, in particular. Ironically, progress in individual liberty is labeled "moral" only after the fact as the power-elite attempt to co-opt it. When first introduced, milestones of social progress have only ever been considered heresy. All historical liberties have been won against injustice and inequity only when a civil liberty has replaced a religious moral.

For example, proponents of recent laws allowing gay marriage did not succeed by trying to claim. "Everyone's moral standards should now include being gay", or that, "natural morality includes being gay." Rather it was simply a matter of proponents (activists / advocates / friends and family members / similar groups striving in solidarity / legislators / judges) promoting existing liberties to ever more members of our communities: large demographics who had formerly been denied purely on moral grounds! There are dozens of similar examples that secularists should be emulating in the effort to promote the rights of the non-theistic minority in America. Secularists must not be tempted to entertain that a non-theistic definition of morality will be ever be adopted by people to whom the word "moral" has meaning at all only when defined, traditionally, in religious terms.

Again, it has been shown that the most productive response is to ignore morality for the anachronistic irrelevancy it has become and get back on point by forming strategies for reframing these discussions both at the personal and national levels. Secularists don't have to engineer these strategies, themselves, either. There is a long track record in the modern world of groups winning acceptance by sidelining morality as irrelevant to the discussion.

Are We Better Off Without Religious Morality?
In the modern age of scientific study and observation, there is no need to make this a contest of numbers or philosophies. Nor do we have to experiment on ourselves to find out if we are better off without religious morality than we were with it. There is already plenty of accumulated evidence.

When we look at modern secular nations where religion has faded (Scandinavian countries, Japan), what we find is that they exceed religious societies on every concrete measure of a healthy society. According to published research, it turns out that religious belief contributes towards high murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide. Ironically, religion seem to exacerbate every measure its own morality proposes to deter.

Journal of Religion and Society: Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies

Excerpt: “The data examined in this study demonstrates that only the more secular, pro-evolution democracies have, for the first time in history, come closest to achieving practical “cultures of life” that feature low rates of lethal crime, juvenile-adult mortality, sex related dysfunction, and even abortion. The least theistic secular developing democracies such as Japan, France, and Scandinavia have been most successful in these regards. The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator.”

“The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted.”

According to the study, belief in and worship of God are not only unnecessary for a healthy society but may actually contribute to social problems.


Secularists stand at a very special juncture in history, where humans have cultivated the ability to consciously manipulate our own cultural evolution. Please, let's not start out by apologizing for it. In this position, secular rationalists own the evolved approach to maintaining the survival of our species: that is, to put all notions of religion and morality behind us (as the problem) and to advise on the means and take part in the actions to advance civil liberties, health and economic opportunities and for all. There is nothing moral (divisive, inconsequential, and relative to vested interests) about it. It is pure self-interest. There need not be conformity to "standards" of behavior. To the contrary, modern secular society nurtures diverse groups and individuals in living as eccentrically as they so desire, just as long as none encroaches upon the freedom of another to do likewise.

Thus reframed, the resistance met in the morality argument will not be that one's ideas are to be discounted out-of-hand - for lack of authority in the supernatural realm - only that compromise is a bitch. This is exactly the place we want to move the national conversation to because difficult adjustments in the face of change is the modern rational and political process.