Reasons for and against the view that morality is independent of religion
Cupitt’s starting point for ethics today begins with what he considers to be the cultural condition of our time and that is the rejection of the old ‘realist’ notion of God. With the advent of non-realism notions of absolute truths have been rejected to be replaced by a solely human understanding of the world and God. In terms of ethics this means there is no longer any God giving us a moral code and as such no moral absolutes independent of human experience. Morality is now decided by humans with the context of different human communities.
Cupitt argues that the traditional Christian view of God is repressive. Such a God has set out ‘in the heavens’ what is considered to be right and wrong behaviour in the world. For Cupitt, an objective God implies submission (or lack of freedom). Cupitt believes society has now embraced non-realism as such he believes it is no longer bound to follow realist forms of religious belief and ethics. In light of this Cupitt argues that: Morality must be creative (ex nihilo) orality must inject value into life Morality must be prophetic not passive
Although Cupitt is clearly a revisionist when it comes to religious belief and language he still believes it is vital to retain religious symbolism when it comes to ethics as this has been ‘tested ground’ upon which many moral lives have been built and because secular humanism has not got the necessary symbols of value in it. Realist ethics is about pursuing the Ideal and was largely built on contemplation and avoidance behaviour. As a result of this the body was also held in suspicion as that which could be easily swayed by sin.
A world built non-realist ethics will include the following: Life is an endless striving of activity or endeavour. We are not expected to become something but simply to live our life. There is no ‘final success’ or Ideal. No-one can claim perfection. This means we will also remove notions of ‘sin’ and guilt’. We are to be artists. Our life is to be one of moral creativity and imagination. Socrates asked. “Do gods love holiness and morality because they are holy, or is morality holy because the gods love it? ”
Put simply: if an existing god says something is good because he sees that something objectively is good, then the goodness of that thing is intrinsic in that thing; the good is independent of the god. In other words, if the god recognises that murder is wrong, then the wrongful act of killing is wrong even if the god doesn’t see that. Morality or immorality in any action is not dependent on the god; god’s will is determined by what he sees, not the other way round. God no more invented morality than Newton invented gravity. Imagine you’re God. Make a world where circles have corners and two and two make five.
If there are laws of physics that put finite conditions on God, then maybe there are moral restraints and restrictions on his alleged omnipotence and supposedly infinite power. Christian moralists can’t accept this. It says that there are things that God simply cannot do. If however, actions undertaken with the desired consequence of improving life are right only because God says so, then what is right is what God says, ‘cos he’s bigger than us, right’? We often use such a reply to avoid answering a child – “ask your mum; because I said so. ” It’s a cop-out. Think of a professional football referee.
He’s impartial; he’s trained to follow certain football league regulations; he knows what offside is; offside is independent of the referee; he doesn’t blow his whistle on a whim or award goals when a goalie makes a save, even when he does need his eyes testing. The Christian notion is that God can act on a whim. What’s right isn’t what is objectively right, but what a subjective god says. The Bible says Do not kill, but if God wants, he could say Do kill, and we’d be obliged to, because if right is just what God says, then we really are at that kind of random mercy.
Morality exists independent and irrespective of God. But we must be careful. Right must never be just what we desire, any more than it should be what some airy-fairy god wants. Moral rules, like football rules, grow from social interaction. People meet and compromise their freedoms to get a mutually acceptable situation going. Philosophers call this natural process the “Social Contract”. Selfish immorality is taking without giving back to the contract. Morality in society depends on equality in the contract – democratic public access.
This can be achieved only through human rights education and legal procedural reform. We mustn’t judge human action from pulpits or confessionals but through the courtroom, public votes and a non-secret media society. The best moralists are human rights activists. Many people do not yet get involved in social interaction and having a very poor part of the social contract. Many are blinkered by religions into thinking that their misery is a punishment from a god who will give everyone his final judgement after the last trump.
Such believers forget to judge for themselves; they have no sense of government by the people for the people; they are governed by blind dogma. Their sense of morality is what someone else tells them to do. But morality isn’t not killing, it’s knowing why you shouldn’t kill, and that requires real personal wisdom. Top of the school education syllabus agenda shouldn’t be RE but social interaction skills. Morality can survive: for that to happen, we as humanists and humanitarians need to relearn how to negotiate the social contract.