What About Morality?
Definitions and Origins
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
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
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.
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
Tracking the rise of fundamentalism over this same period is telling.
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
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 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?
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.
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.