Morality and Secular Society

A dialogue with humanism

Morality in a secular society is no different to morality in a ‘religious’ society, people decide that certain things are immoral based on their beliefs and feelings. Key issues are what it means to be human, an individual, what it means to be in society, how we should treat others and be treated ourselves. These provide a framework for identifying and asserting what is good, bad or even ‘evil’. All of these are both religious and human questions, different ways of looking at the same thing. However, the things that people decide are moral or immoral may differ between secular or humanist people and religious people and they are probably held to with lesser or greater energy or vehemence. One crucial distinction is that the criterion for what is moral is not scripture, although it is not scripture alone which drives morality for religious people.

Modern morality is often about different issues to those highlighted by religion, e.g. spoiling the environment may be seen as a modern sin and ‘thou shalt be green’ as the 11th commandment. Whereas it was Protestant Christianity which provided a theological underpinning for exploitation of the natural world and many born again Christians are not interested in saving the earth because the ‘Rapture’ means they don’t have to worry about it (as good an argument against it as any) . Or maybe there is ‘witch-hunting’ or victimisation of ‘evil’ people or industries through violent and abusive campaigns against vivisectionists, biotechnologists and others. And sometimes the actions of those waging their moral ‘crusades’ are very immoral. But we cannot get to grips with any of this by talking about a secular society with which religious people have a problem, or vice versa.

Can we be moral without having a faith?

The short answer is yes! If we cannot have non-religious morality then it is a sad day for religion, because it is an admission that religion has nothing to do with humanity it is just a rule book from outer space. However, an alternative, more flippant, answer is no — because everyone has some kind of system of belief, worldview, value system or hypothesis. Without one of these you can’t do much of anything, let alone say anything about morality.

The question about faith and morality is quite a common one as religious people have either proclaimed, or have been perceived to proclaim, that they own morality and that they are the only ones that know anything about it, which is nonsense — the Jewish, Christian and Muslim prophetic traditions all depend on what they were saying making a great deal of sense to the immoral (insert quotes if you like), the problem was down to listening, and we still have a problem with listening to each other today. We are now in the interesting position where there are secular, humanist and non-religious moral voices — but in our ‘modern’ society we have still not grasped what is moral and we need equalities legislation to drive the point home, to both the religious and non-religious. Unfortunately this, and other areas, can be a dispute between the religious and the secular. For instance where employment legislation is not implemented by religious groups because their clerics are, apparently, employed by God and they cannot benefit from the secular regime which is more merciful and more caring than the religious environment. So is it the religious or the secular which is inspired by God?!

Or take the status of women — eighty years after universal suffrage and thirty years after Equal Pay, the experience of women is still not equal and we need more, higher-powered equalities legislation. In the UK religion has a lot to do with this situation, but our scriptures — the book of Genesis, St Paul’s letters and the Qur’an all talk about the equality of women and men — and this vision — expounded by St Peter at the birth of the Church — is delivered by secular means 2000 years later. But I am not praising the secular society or anything like that, as religious people we look for what is in tune with the best for humanity, which, in our case, we have learnt from our religion, its scriptures and traditions. Excess, materialism, greed and debt are great issues, modern ‘secular’ sins, though religion probably cannot escape any blame.

What is the role of religion/faith in a secular society?

For most people asking this kind of question the actual question is what kind of role does and should religion play in a largely non-religious society? With some widely heard voices saying that there is too much religion. But this is not a question about religion itself, no one is saying in our secular society — we are constantly being bombarded with the Gospel and being asked to repent (thank God!). They seem to be saying — we don’t want to hear the voices of religious leaders in public, what right do they have to speak? Yet in many, though perhaps not all, cases religious voices are pleading for the human and are asking people to reflect on how human ‘secularism’ is — speaking on behalf of the poor, disadvantaged and the unborn, just as humanists do. Though the track record may have its low points as well. Many of the issues around this are to do with: choice, conviction, space, power, inclusion, ‘respect’, principle — not religious but ‘secular’ words.

So I have to turn the question back — how does secular society allow religion to play an appropriate role in secular society and is it prepared to dialogue? Encouragingly secular organisations are engaged in dialogue with religious groups through membership of governmental consultative bodies and I heard recently from a friend of another faith that the dialogue is going well. As for trying to answer this question properly, we, religious people, need to ask ourselves what we think of secular society — possibly how we respond to Jesus Christ’s famous words ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s’ or ponder on whether we undermine respect for religion by not giving respect, or not enough respect, to the non-religious — a modern take on the Qur’anic injunction (to respect other worldviews).

What does the future hold for people of faith and can the followers of different faiths work together with people of no faith for the betterment of society as a whole?

As believers we would say the future is in God’s hands, but our religions also emphasise the importance of ‘Now!’ We need to shape the future now by living up to the best, the most inclusive and most engaged aspects of our tradition, following the examples of Jesus and Muhammad (p.b.u.t), who were not troubled by whether they were dealing with people of other religions or none. We cannot see ourselves as in opposition to another group, and we need to be wary of the little voice that says, ‘Except them’. It is our responsibility to allay secular and humanist fears. For myself it is impossible to think that we must be at odds with each other, Christianity is a humanist religion. The Hebrew Scriptures tell us that human beings were created in the image of God and the Christian belief is that God intervened in history as a human being, Jesus Christ. So just as God spoke in human language we need to speak in a language that the secular and the non-religious can understand and we all need to listen to each other. We can’t blame secular people if they don’t know what religion is about or why religion has a positive contribution to make to society. That is why, for the group of Muslims and Christians who made up the Christian Muslim Forum (I was the first CEO) their vision was summed up in: creating safe spaces, living creatively with differences and healing, creating and celebrating relationships. Although we are religious people the relationship with the secular is key for us. To answer the question finally — do we know we don’t actually want the same thing?

Originally published on Facebook in January 2011.

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