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Secular Morality and Secular Rights
Can you be good without god?
Most religious people will agree that a secular or atheist person is capable of doing moral things. However, this is not because of atheism or secularism, it is because "we are all made in God's image." Therefore we all have a basically moral tendency. (How they square this idea with humans' supposedly sinful nature I am not sure.)
The more controversial question is if a secular system of objective morality is possible. The reality is that secular reason is not just capable of giving objective moral rules, it naturally leads to them.
Secular reason is a tool for uncovering the truth based on objective evidence, rational skepticism and testability. It assumes nothing exists outside of this world, because nothing outside of this world can be proven to exist.
This approach has led to countless insights and advances in knowledge. Secular reason and the scientific method have enabled us to discover the origins and nature of disease, to achieve ever-higher levels of technological progress, to determine the origins of human life and the origins of the earth, and to generally answer a multitude of questions that escaped human understanding for thousands of years.
Why should moral questions be immune to this process? Indeed, if anything, we would expect secular reason to deliver effective moral answers. Based only on experience, we would expect this. So that is the inductive argument.
But there is also a deductive argument. That is, an argument based on the nature of secular reason versus the nature of religion. Since moral questions are questions about this world, it makes sense that an explanatory system that deals with worldly questions generally would be able to answer moral questions, too.
Since secular reason concerns itself with objective facts and truths, by its nature it leads to an objective morality. Religion is ultimately incapable of delivering moral absolutes because it lacks an absolute standard of knowledge (a topic I will explore in another hub). But secular reason has such a standard: evidence. Whether that evidence is tangible or intangible, all moral claims can be tested against it.
The problem with Godly morality
The religious person will argue that without god, there is no underlying basis for morality. Anything necessarily goes. However, this idea is faulty for a simple reason: the is-ought problem, as elucidated by philosopher David Hume.
The is-ought problem says simply that you cannot derive an "ought" from an "is." Based on observation alone, it is not logically possible to come to the conclusion that someone should or should not do something. Even grammatically, we see that in a string of "is, is, is" at no point can the word "should" arise, on a purely deductive basis.
So although the religious couch much of their rhetoric in terms of a "higher power" or a "divine plan" it will never follow logically that anyone should follow that plan. Just because God exists, does not mean that we should follow him. Just because there are eternal consequences for not following him, still does not mean that we should. It may be highly advisable, but it will never follow from that on a purely logical or deductive basis.
The basis for morality in a secular world
So we see the religious really do not have the logical advantage that they think. Although there is no true logical basis for morality in a secular world, neither is there such a basis in a religious world.
An effective secular morality is based on humanity and what is good for human beings. So we can just assume as a matter of faith that we should do good things for human benefit. And then we can use secular reason to figure out what exactly is good or bad within that framework.
On the level of the is-ought problem, a god-based morality and a human-based morality are equal. Neither one is more logical. However, in other areas the human-based morality has a few crucial advantages.
Firstly, we know for a fact that human beings exist. We do not know if God exists. By deriving values from something known to exist, a human-based morality enjoys grounding in something that is unequivocally real, measurable and totally understandable. By contrast, God may or may not be real, is "measurable" only by some supposed holy texts and testimony (which is obviously extremely dubious) and inherently not understandable (how can a finite creature understand an infinite one?)
Secondly, we are humans. A human-based morality has its basis in the very being that is making the moral commands. While a god-based morality is grounded in the pleasure and benefit of something external to us, a human-based morality is grounded in us. There is a fundamental disconnect in any god-based moral system between the source of morality and the object of morality. There is no such disconnect in a human-based system--we have cut out the moral middleman.
This helps to explain why, in spite of all instincts to the contrary, a perfectly rational and sane person who subscribes to a god-based morality will be willing to kill a baby if that's what god wants. He is not working for the benefit of humanity, he is working for the benefit of his god.
Not only is a secular morality possible, but it is more dependable and stronger than any religious morality can ever be.
Whether there is or is not a god, god is not necessary for an objective morality. Nor is god necessary as a source for human rights.
But if there is no god, then where do our rights come from? This is a common refrain among religiously-motivated people in the context of democracy. Without god, the story goes, there is only the will to power and nobody has any inherent rights.
Based on the secular human-based morality described above, the basis for rights becomes clear: human beings themselves. Just as the religious person can assume on faith that "the creator gives us inalienable rights," the practitioner of secular morality can assume on faith that humans have inherent value.
In fact, that assumption does not need to be based on faith; there are many logical arguments supporting the proposition that humans have inherent value (that we are highly intelligent creatures, that we are the pinnacle of evolution, etc). But even without those arguments, still we can simply take it on faith as a first principle, and we are no less valuable than in a god-based world. We have just improved, enhanced and streamlined our moral thinking and therefore achieved a superior moral system.