By Vexen Crabtree 2014
“Human Rights have had a very powerful positive effect on the world, ratcheting humanity away from barbarism, political oppression, gender inequality and religious prejudice. Humanity has felt the need for Human Rights for a long time. The derivation of ethics from religious codes has been inadequate as either a source of governance or as a guide to personal conduct: too many old and archaic rules lead to needless segregation, sectarianism, suffering and pain, especially of minorities. Even the well-loved Golden Rule (treat others as you wish to be treated) fails as thugs indulge in their dog-eat-dog barbarism. Many have built secular (non-religious) frameworks. Immanuel Kant theorized on the categorical imperative1; but this required everyone spend an inordinate amount of time indulging in long-term strategic thinking when making any moral choices. John Stuart Mill in the 18th century constructed his under-appreciated utilitarian ethic2. But the most successful secular work in this area is by far the push for human rights.
Human rights solves some of the "deliberation overhead" issues by stipulating some things you cannot deprive people of. One of the earliest Western legal systems that declares the existence of Human rights was created by Hugo Grotius in his book Der Jure Belli ac Pacis in the 17th century CE, famous for being based on reason and humanitarianism without without any need for divinity at its source3. The wheels had been set in motion in the Enlightenment, as Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau deliberated upon secular sources of morals in France in order to prevent the Christian abuses of the Dark Ages from occurring again4 and it was this that brought HR to the fore in the West5.
It is now widely acknowledged that "the source of human rights is man's moral nature"6 and the international Vienna Declaration states that "all human rights derive from the dignity and worth inherent in the human person"7. Governments, institutions and individuals are now held to account across the world for failing to respect basic human rights.”
If the secular Human Rights approach is correct, if it engenders good morals and civility and progress, then, there should be statistical evidence which can be consulted to support or detract from it. There is, indeed, such evidence.
The Social and Moral Development Index concentrates on moral issues and human rights, violence, public health, equality, tolerance, freedom and effectiveness in climate change mitigation and environmentalism, and on some technological issues. A country scores higher for achieving well in those areas, and for sustaining that achievement in the long term. Those countries towards the top of this index can truly said to be setting good examples and leading humankind onwards into a bright, humane, and free future. See: What is the Best Country in the World? An Index of Morality, Conscience and Good Life. The graph here shows clearly that social and moral development is at its highest in countries that are the least religious. As religiosity increases, each country suffers from more and more conflicts with human rights, more problems with tolerance of minorities and religious freedom, and problems with gender equality.
The enforcement of basic human rights has been key to its success: governments, institutions, religious organisations and despots have all felt the pressure of international attention from human rights activists. Bodies such as the International Criminal Court have held the highest echelon of politician to account. The ICC runs purely and strictly on secular principles, based on human rights. In the name of fairness it bases its judgements on moral cause-and-effect rather than on any religious lore. It acts frequently against those who use religion to justify their actions.
“The ICC, which was created in 2002, is a permanent tribunal that provides individual criminal liability for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. [...] In 2011 the ICC dealt with situations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (involving four cases against five individuals), the Central African Republic (one case against one individual), Uganda (one case against four individuals), the Darfur region of Sudan (four cases against six individuals, including the sitting president of the country), Kenya (one case against three individuals), Libya (one case against two individuals), and Cote D'Ivoire (one case against the former president). This is a reasonable sampling of major cases in recent years and the fact that national leaders have been charged is of considerable significance.”
Religion does not have much impact on morality: young children the world over share very common intuitions about moral behaviour regardless of what religion they are brought up in, and in adults religion has less effect on morality than cultural, familial and local traditions.
“Affections [of charity, benevolence and humility] are certainly not mere derivatives of theism. We find them in Stoicism, in Hinduism, and in Buddhism in the highest possible degree. They harmonize with paternal theism beautifully; but they harmonize with all reflection ... of mankind.”
“We know that religious codes and exemplars cannot literally be the origin of people's moral thoughts. These thoughts are remarkably similar in people with different religious concepts or without any such concepts. [...] Finally, even religious people's thoughts about moral matters are constrained by intuitions they share with other human beings, more than official codes and models.”
“Preachers tell us that any universal moral standards can only come from one source - their particular God. Otherwise standards would be relative, depending on culture and differing across cultures and individuals. The data, however, indicate that the majority of human beings from all cultures and religions or no religion agree on a common set of moral standards. While specific differences can be found, universal norms do seem to exist. Anthropologist Solomon Asch has observed, "We do not know of societies in which bravery is despised and cowardice held up to honor, in which generosity is considered a vice and ingratitude a virtue."”
"God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist" by Prof. Victor J. Stenger (2007)13
These may be called 'universal' morals but I would not accept that term on too strict a basis as I am sure that if you look, you will find exceptions. What is the source of these near-universal moral behaviours? Evolution. If we theorize that evolution (not religion) leads to common morals, then, our theory predicts that we will find moral behaviour in many social animals and that this behaviour can be explained in terms of the propagation of genes. Well, in nature, this is exactly what we find. It seems that animal morality, including Humankind's, looks exactly as it would look if there was no set of absolute morals being imparted to individuals by God.
Despite this lack of divinely inspired morality, each religion displays a range of possible taboos and behaviour inhibitions. It is possible for an entire religion to change its outlook. Compare the morality of the Church during the dark ages to the Christianity of today: they are opposites! But both stem from the same religion, from the same religious books. These changes are not unique to each religion over time. The same diverse ethics are apparent in each religion. So, there are Jews, Christians and Muslims who are incredibly strict on dress codes and diet. But there are many who are liberal on both. All major faiths have mystical wings where introspective contemplation (and sometimes zany experiences) are held in the highest esteem. All major faiths have communities that uphold incredibly strict rules on aspects of behaviour which they call "moral" but which the rest of the world calls petty. And all have violent, aggressive and intolerable wings. It seems that no matter what type of person who are, you can join a world religion and find a part of it that already matches your ethical thinking. This destroys the argument that morality comes from religion. Culture, individual psychology and deliberation are their true sources, and, are all secular in origin.
And a closing quote from Pascal Boyer, with an adequate and appropriate biological slant, which leads us on to the next section:
“Our evolution as a species of co-operators is sufficient to explain the actual psychology of moral reasoning [...and] requires no special concept of religious agent, no special code, no models to follow [even though] you can easily insert them in moral reasoning that would be there in any case. To some extent religious concepts are parisitic upon moral intuitions.”
For more information, see some of these books:
“A considerable literature exists on the natural (biological, cultural, evolutionary) origins of morality. Darwin saw the evolutionary advantage of cooperation and altruism. Modern thinkers have elaborated on this observation, showing in details how our moral sense can have arisen naturally during the development of modern humanity.
We can even see signs of moral, or protomoral behaviour in animals. Vampire bats share food. Apes and monkeys comfort members of their group who are upset and work together to get food. Dolphins push sick members of a pod to the surface to get air. Whales will put themselves in harm's way to help a wounded member of their group. Elephants try their best to save injured members of their families.”
"God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist" by Prof. Victor J. Stenger (2007)14
The quality of animal morality seems tied in perfectly with their social evolution and it seems that humanity is not particularly unique when it comes to inherent morality.
“Six rhesus monkeys were trained to pull on a variety of chains to get food. If they pulled on one chain, they got a large amount of their favourite food. If they pulled on a different chain, they got a small amount of a less enticing food. As you can probably guess, the monkeys quickly learned to pull on the chain that gave them more of what they wanted. They maximized their reward. After a few weeks of this happy setup one of the six monkeys got hungry and decided to pull on the chain. This is when something terrible happened: a separate monkey in a different cage was shocked with a painful jolt of electricity. All six monkeys saw it happen. They heard the awful shriek. They watched the monkey grimace and cower in fear. The change in their behaviour was immediate. Four of the monkeys decided to stop pulling on the maximizing chain. They were now willing to settle for less food as long as the other monkey wasn't hurt. The fifth monkey stopped pulling on either chain for five days, and the sixth monkey stopped pulling for 12 days. They starved themselves so that a monkey they didn't know wasn't forced to suffer.”
"The Decisive Moment: How the Brain Makes Up Its Mind" by Jonah Lehrer (2009)15
Sabre toothed tigers look after wounded members of their own group. There is a species of caterpillar in which members of the group sacrifice their own lives to warn their fellows of impending danger. Chimpanzees share their food to those who beg, even though it makes them angry and irritated to do so. Monkey mothers spank their young if they bully others. Male ursine seals attack their own females if they fail to take proper care of their young. The evolutionary nature of these traits is additionally proved by the fact that they occur on a species-by-species basis, just as if we would expect if these traits are coded for genetically. Neurophysiologist Sir Charles Sherrington commented that "biology cries the individual for itself" but it is "altruism that seems as yet Nature's noblest product".16
The neurological framework that facilitates moral thought is similar across animals that are evolutionarily close, and likewise, their moral behaviour is similar. It seems that biology drives morality more than religion.
Humanism is the approach to life based on rational thinking and includes ethics based on our shared human values and on human compassion. If you live life without religion and strive to do good within society just for the sake of doing good, then, you are a natural humanist. Humanism's core belief is that everything has a natural cause rather than a supernatural cause, therefore it falls under the banner of philosophical naturalism and the vast majority of humanists are atheists although there are some agnostics too17. Science and reason continue to be major positive influences on Humanism18. Humanist activists typically battle for human rights and for secular politics. Secularism, promoted by secularists, is the belief that religion should be a private, personal, voluntary affair that does not impose upon other people. Public spaces and officialdom should therefore be religion-neutral. Secularism ensures that religions are treated fairly and that no bias exists for a particular religion, and also that non-religious folk such as Humanists are treated with equal respect. It is the only democratic way to proceed in a globalized world where populations are free to choose their own, varied, religions.”
In the depths of the cities of secular Europe, and out of the moral confines of the most commercial part of the computer industry in the USA, non-religious communal spirit is proving itself inextinguishable.
The British Crime Survey (from civilian disclosure, not police stats) has found that people's experience of crime has dropped from 15 million crimes per year in the 1990s to 10 million in the 2000s (despite a rising population). The Home Office reports that, from police statistics, crime has been falling for 10 years19. Yet 65% of the population report that they think crime is rising, according to the academic of journalism, Lewis (2009)20. Over this period, religion has continued its serious decline in the UK. See: "Mass Media: Sensationalism, Panics and Exaggeration: 1. Perception of Crime Rates in the UK and USA" by Vexen Crabtree (2016).
Over 10,000 volunteers worked hard in the rubble of 9/11 twin towers, basing themselves at nearby St Paul's Church which became a welfare HQ in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack21.
After the UK riots in 2011 Aug (centred on London) a spontaneous wave of thousands of enthusiastic volunteers was organised by ordinary people online into clearing-up parties. Symbolic gestures of communal love appeared on "love walls" featuring thousands of post-its and messages. These saw the general citizenry proclaim their positive feelings for the communities and places they lived in. No-one had to profess any particular religion, theological belief and no-one denied consumerism or materialism in order to do it. In today's secular Britain, I suspect they didn't even care what each other's beliefs were. They stood up for what they believed in, whilst not being aggressive themselves. Moral society has not died; it has merely ceased to be religious.
After the death of Princess Diana in 1997, London saw a remarkable togetherness in the mourning of a shared public symbol often in a shared, public way. Sociologists talked of a "civil religion" whereby national symbols such as Diana command a pseudo-religious respect and devotion.
A suite of organisations from national bodies such as the British Humanist Association, to international ones such as the International Humanist and Ethical Union, are continually growing, priding themselves of providing outlets for non-religious moral and ethical activism and debate, engaging constantly in human-rights battles. Their usual opponents are non-democratic hardline political regimes abroad, and, fundamentalist religious groups at home, both of which are often found actively fighting against human rights and equality. See: Humanism.
The richest man on Earth founded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and gave away more money than the combined wealth of dozens of countries. So the world's greatest philanthropist is a commercialist entrepreneur who made billions from modern technology and who is an agnostic if not an atheist, and considers religion to be a waste of time22.
You can't count or quantify these elements of communal pseudo-spirituality in the same way you can count people entering Churches, but, such things have not disappeared alongside shared Christianity in the West. The world is not simple enough to simply blame areligious materialism for social ills. Most of the world's most horrendous human-rights abusers are intensely religious countries, and, most of the world's poorest countries lack free markets. It must therefore be noted as rather odd when religious types claim to represent the moral side of mankind.
The world of religion has proven that it is not a secure source of moral development nor of social responsibility. Although many people justify their own good behaviour in terms of their beliefs it is also unfortunately true that organized religion itself is the biggest obstacle in the progress of human rights and tolerance for others. See: "Time to Move On: Religion Has Cost Too Much" by Vexen Crabtree (2010). Its menu:
Also see: "Do We Need Religion to Have Good Morals?" by Vexen Crabtree (2014). Its menu:
Current edition: 2014 Oct 04
Last Modified: 2017 Jan 02
Parent page: Religion and Morals
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The Guardian. UK newspaper. See Which are the Best and Worst Newspapers in the UK?. Respectable and generally well researched UK broadsheet newspaper..
Clarke, Peter B.. Peter B. Clarke: Professor Emeritus of the History and Sociology of Religion, King's College, University of London, and currently Professor in the Faculty of Theology, University of Oxford, UK.
(2011) The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion. Paperback book. Originally published 2009. Current version published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
(2017) "What is the Best Country in the World? An Index of Morality, Conscience and Good Life" (2017). Accessed 2017 Aug 02.
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Griffin, Donald R.
(1992) Animal Minds. Paperback book. Published by The University of Chicago Press.
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(2011) Religion and Nationalism. This essay is chapter 22 of "The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion" by Peter B. Clarke (2011) (pages 406-417).
James, William. (1842-1910)
(1902) The Varieties of Religious Experience. Paperback book. Subtitled: "A Study in Human Nature". 5th (1971 fifth edition) edition. Originally published 1960. From the Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh 1901-1902. Quotes also obtained from Amazon digital Kindle 2015 Xist Publishing edition. Book Review.
Kant, Immanuel. (1724-1804) German philosopher.
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(2009) The Decisive Moment: How the Brain Makes Up Its Mind. Hardback book. Published by Canongate Books, Edinburgh.
(2000) Sword and Scales: An Examination of the Relationship Between Law and Politics. Paperback book. Published by Hart Publishing Ltd, Oxford, UK. Prof. Loughlin is Professor of Law at the University of Manchester, UK, and Professor of Public Law-elect at the London School of Economics & Political Science, UK.
Mill, John Stuart. (1806-1873)
(1879) Utilitarianism. E-book. Amazon Kindle digital edition. Produced by Julie Barkley, Garrett Alley and the Online DistributedProofreading Team. Reprinted from 'Fraser's Magazine' 7th edition, London Longmans, Green, and Co..
Stenger, Prof. Victor J.
(2007) God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. Published by Prometheus Books, NY, USA. Stenger is a Nobel-prize winning physicist, and a skeptical philosopher whose research is strictly rational and evidence-based.
(1993) A History of Sin. Hardback book. Published by Canongate Press.