religion-free ethics?

A quick reflection and question as I dig into my Master’s mini-thesis which will use sociological methodology to discover how non-religious people think about ‘wrongdoing’ or ‘sin’, both in terms of what they believe about wrongdoing, and what they ‘hear’ when Christians talk about it.

At any rate, one secular book I’m flipping through is Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion by Phil Zuckerman.  He repeats the familiar line about non-religious people being as-good-as (or better than! p. 122) religious people.  This is supported (over and against the detached-from-reality musings of C.S. Lewis “between his sips of tea”) by the empirical testimony of a series of post-religious-now-secular people.

All talk of “how unhelpful the word ‘religion’ is in conversations like this” aside, I want to reflect on the socially-constructed aspects to ethics.  Yes I just said that.  Whatever anyone thinks, positively or negatively about God’s ability to break into the human discourse and direct, dictate, shepherd, shove, manipulate, move, coax or command it this way or that way, we all acknowledge that ethics is at least a human conversation.  There is a moral Zeitgeist.

In light of this obvious reality, it would seem methodologically problematic to be comparing the ethics of a) Christians, who are deeply immersed in the moral Zeitgeist of western – or in this case American – culture, with b) post-Christians, who remain influenced by the previous immersion in the ‘religious’ moral conversation which, at least in principle, has Christ and Scripture as it’s locus and telos.  In short, because (in this case) American Christians are more influenced by American culture than many realise, and American post-Christians are more influenced by Christian teaching (of a very particular kind of authoritarian, moralistic flavour, I suspect) than some may realise, the comparison seems problematic.

To really prove the thesis that non-religion maketh man more moral than religion (granting this problematic usage of the term ‘religion’), wouldn’t you have to find a specimen that was living in a religion-free context, so that the specimen was fully free of religious motivations, assumptions,  habits and practices and that the pure, untainted non-religious ethic could shine in all it’s unadulterated glory?  Rather than compare Christian to post-Christian, I think the thesis would find better data if it compared Christian to pre-Christian.

Thus concludes my rambling on this thought.  Back to reading!

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4 Responses to religion-free ethics?

  1. Bit worried about your approach here, Dale. You seem to be starting with a model that non-religious morality (at least in the west) is really (at least strongly influenced by) christian morality. Also, you seem to have a desire to move the goal posts from “non-religious people being as-good-as religious people” to “the thesis that non-religion maketh man more moral than religion.”.

    Such underlying agendas will effect yoru research.

    Also, related to research emthodology you say:

    “To really prove the thesis that non-religion maketh man more moral than religion (granting this problematic usage of the term ‘religion’), wouldn’t you have to find a specimen that was living in a religion-free context, so that the specimen was fully free of religious motivations, assumptions, habits and practices and that the pure, untainted non-religious ethic could shine in all it’s unadulterated glory? Rather than compare Christian to post-Christian, I think the thesis would find better data if it compared Christian to pre-Christian.”.

    Haven’t you just reversed your problem – one can then argue that Chrsitian morality is very much influenced, or based on, pre-Chrsitian morality.

    I suspect that later claim is closer to the truth.

    However, in such studies one starts with reality, not a utopian starting point. It’s no good telling a tourist who stops you in Queen Street asking for directions to Manakau Mall thhat they shoudlnt start from there.

    Surely sociology has the techniques, common to many science, of analysing data to pull out relevant influences.

    Mind you, as a “soft science” soiologists have real problems getting away from their own agendas and biases.

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  2. boom Ken. Boom.

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  3. As a ‘post-Christian’, I am capable of using my new outlook on ethics to sift through the Bible and many other ancient attempts at morality for that matter, to separate what I deem to be helpful from what I deem to be hurtful.

    It’s really not that complicated. It’s not like “oohhhhh but Ryan still thinks murder is wrong because of his good Christian upbringing!”

    Like Ken said: Murder was considered wrong by humanity long before your holy bible was published.

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  4. My claim has some relevance to that made by Austin Dacey (atheist?) in his book The Secular Conscience. He BOTH acknowledges that secular ethics is historically ‘parasitic’ on religion AND claims that religious people in every age/place have always used ‘secular reason’ (he cites as an example Kierkegaard’s explanation of the Abraham and Isaac story). I would want to acknowledge that we are using the same human capacities when we reason about this stuff. Obviously we see it as – like everything else – only possible because of a Creator.

    At any rate, comparing pre-Christian and Christian cultures would seem to be often quite a different thing to comparing Christian cultures and post-Christian (‘secularised’) cultures.

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