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Micheal De Dora raises an interesting question in  Belief in God hinders even basic moral discourse over at Rationally Speaking.

What are the correct tactics for atheists when advocating secular moral values?

  • Should atheists critique theistic moral values and their justification that appeals to a divine being? Should they challenge god beliefs head on?
  • Or should atheists concentrate on pointing out that one can lead a happy, fulfilled and moral life without belief in a god? Rather than challenging god-beliefs should atheist restrict their advocacy to challenging the myth that life without a god “means a joyless, meaningless, selfish, self-centred life.” A myth promoted by many religious apologists.

It’s a question which often divides atheists. Some argue against “in-your-face” campaigns challenging god beliefs because they can “offend” and alienate people. However, theists will often respond to the less challenging approach by arguing that, yes – the non-religious can be moral but their values still come from a god whether one believes it or not. So, many atheist conclude that challenging god beliefs is an essential part of the debate. We can’t avoid it.Michael de Dora concludes that “There is simply no getting around the fact that belief in God makes for an enormous stumbling block in discourse about morality.” It the same time she does not deny the importance of promoting secular values. In a previous article he said: ” The critic of religious faith and dogma is on the same side as the promoter of secular values.” Internal squabbles about tactics loses sight of the main problem – overcoming “the staggering amount of uncritical thinking that is putting society to ruin.”

All right as far as it goes and in the real world different people naturally gravitate to different tactics. But I think there is a third avenue which she doesn’t mention. It’s an important one, it requires more effort but is already underway.

A third way

That is arguing for the scientific understanding and explanation of the nature and origins of human morality.

Consider the conflict over the nature of the solar system in Galileo’s day. On the one hand the Church advocated a geocentric universe. Putting aside the degree to which the Ptolemaic geocentric model could “describe” movement of the planets the Church had good theological and philosophical grounds for advocating geocentrism. The unique role of man, and hence the earth, in their god’s plan. The purity of the heavens compared with the profanity of the earth. And so on.

The fact that the Copernican heliocentric model could also “describe” movement of the planets was immaterial. The Church and philosophers remained with their own explanation based on their own theological and  philosophical principles.

Humanity’s change in understanding of the universe did not arise simply by advocating a heliocentric model to account for the movements of the planets. This would have been equivalent to advocacy for secular moral values without understanding the source of these values. Believers will resort to their theological and philosophical understandings as ultimate explanations of the universe or morality. These aren’t challenged.

And challenging these theological and philosophical beliefs was a long-term project. It wouldn’t, by itself, lead to adoption of a heliocentric model. Similarly with morality today, challenging god beliefs is still a long-term project. Far too long-term to see it as a way of justifying secular values.

It was the science which changed out thinking about the universe. Galileo’s astronomic observations provided empirical evidence supporting a heliocentric model. Sure, the Church treated him badly for this, but in the end empirical evidence and testing against reality defeated the theological and philosophical support for the geocentric universe.

(Of course things are never simple. Galileo’s scientific arguments actually included philosophical ideas. The science was also challenging the orthodox philosophy.)

An empirical basis for human morality

I believe that this third strategy is to offer an empirical basis for human morality. To explain its evolutionary origin and to offer an objective basis for the secular morality we advocate today. This is becoming increasingly possible because of progress in anthropology and social psychology. And also the progress in our understanding of human nature, human instincts and human intuitions. Our modern understanding of the brain, mind, consciousness and self-awareness is also relevant.

Yes, I know many people, including atheists, argue that morality is not an area of scientific study – rather it belongs to the realm of philosophy. After all academically that is where we place the study of ethics.

But isn’t this a bit like leaving the study of the universe to the theologians and philosophers in Galileo’s day? Personally I find philosophical considerations in areas like morality and free will rather sterile. When such philosophical discussions ignore our modern knowledge about the brain and human nature their considerations are rather artificial, even irrelevant.

I hasten to add that this is not the case for all philosophers. Some do make a point  of keeping up with the relevant areas of science and incorporating findings into their considerations.

Third approach already underway

There has been intense debate around the role of science in the area of morality of late. Much of it stimulated by publication of Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values“. Another stimulus has been discussion of recent findings by psychologists and philosophers working in the areas of human intuition and morality. See the links below for details.

So far this discussion has been largely restricted to scientific fora or debates among atheists. Personally I think these findings need to become part of the ongoing debate between the religious and non-religious about morality. This will mean that explanations for morality can be considered properly. By testing both the religious and scientific ideas against reality.

Such a fact-based testing of explanations is more likely to win religious people to acceptance of secular morality. Sure, this won’t work with all theists, and it may take time with many. But consideration of heliocentricims based on scientific evidence eventually won religious believers over, without them having to ditch their god beliefs. Similarly many Christians accept evolutionary science without sacrificing their god beliefs.

I see a time when most Christians will also accept secular morality, and understand the objective reasons for human morality. They will give up the arrogant claim that our values come from their god even when we don’t believe in it.

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See also:
Deriving ’ought from is’ scientifically?
Telling right from wrong
Science and morality — a panel discussion
A physicist comments on science and morality
A philosopher comments on science and morality
Telling right from wrong — unreligiously
Secularism is important
Telling right from wrong?
Can science shape human values?
Waking up to morality
Sam Harris on The Daily Show
A scientific consensus on human morality
Evolution of gods, morals and violence
Is and ought
The new science of morality
Can science answer moral questions?
No gods required
Morality — from the heavens or nature?