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Does Secularism Provide A Practical Foundation For A Decent Ethical System?

G. J. Holyoake was the person is first used the term “Secularism” (George Jacob Holyoake – National Secular Society (secularism.org.uk)).

Secularism is that which seeks the development of the physical, moral, and intellectual nature of man to the highest possible point, as the immediate duty of life — which inculcates the practical sufficiency of natural morality apart from Atheism, Theism or the Bible — which selects as its methods of procedure the promotion of human improvement by material means, and proposes these positive agreements as the common bond of union, to all who would regulate life by reason and ennoble it by service” (Principles of Secularism, 17). And again, “Secularism is a code of duty pertaining to this life founded on considerations purely human, and intended mainly for those who find theology indefinite or inadequate, unreliable or unbelievable. Its essential principles are three:

1. The improvement of this life by material means.

2. That science is the available Providence of man.

3. That it is good to do good. “Whether there be other good or not, the good of the present life is good, and it is good to seek that good” (English Secularism, 35).

CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Secularism (newadvent.org)

Without God, is there a logical basis for an ethical system? How do we define what is good and right versus what is evil and wrong? That is, what criteria can a Secularist use to define the difference between good and evil?

Is this question a fair question? Does an ethical system require a logical foundation? Consider this definition.

Secular ethics is a branch of moral philosophy in which ethics is based solely on human faculties such as logic, empathy, reason or moral intuition, and not derived from supernatural revelation or guidance—the source of ethics in many religions. Secular ethics refers to any ethical system that does not draw on the supernatural, and includes humanism, secularism and freethinking. A classical example of literature on secular ethics is the Kural text, authored by the ancient Tamil Indian philosopher Valluvar who lived during the 1st century BCE.

Secular Ethics (slife.org)

What is the problem with this definition? It doesn’t provide any basis for defining the difference between good and evil. The Spiritual Life – We are here to help (slife.org) seems to be a good place for mushy and feelgood thinking. It is nice to talk about doing good, but without some kind of basis, how do we know what is good and what is evil? Well, supposedly morality can be objectively determined.

Every living animal with a nervous system can and does experience harm (it may be that every living thing experiences harm, but that is an issue for another time). Harm is marked by pain, fear, hunger, thirst, sadness, frustration, … any negative emotion or feeling. We live in a universe that randomly dishes out harm—consider the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs, as just one example. But we humans can check both human-initiated intentional harm, which is under our control, and other types of unintentional harm, e.g., environment damage caused by human industrial development.

The question now is “Why ought we to check (or mitigate) such harm.” The answer is because it is harm! Harm is bad by definition. Morality requires us to avoid doing bad things, again, by definition. Hence we all have a moral duty not to harm other living things. This moral duty exists objectively because harm exists objectively. Just as 1 + 1 = 2 is objectively true, so “we should not harm other living things” is objectively true. This truth is based simply on the fact that harming exists and should be checked.

Morality Is Objective | Psychology Today

Bad by definition? We determine what is evil using the definition of a word? Well, not exactly. Humanism | Definition of Humanism at Dictionary.com does provide some criteria. How does that work. Here is what one Atheist suggests.

Humanism is unsure about whether there is any cosmic meaning, and instead focuses on all of the valuable meanings we can pursue here and now. Humanism is unsure how to persuade someone to be moral in the first place, leaving that to parents raising children and to professional mental health experts if things go badly later in life. Humanism deals with morality’s usefulness in this world, and tackles tough ethical questions about making moral rules (and legal laws) work better for everyone. Humanism is positive and progressive, and requires our best efforts.

Secularism and Humanist Morality | Center for Inquiry

Essentially, we can pragmatically reduce ethics to a matter of utility. In fact, there is an ethical philosophy that goes by that name.

utilitarianism [ yoo-til-i-tair-ee-uh-niz-uhm ]noun

the ethical doctrine that virtue is based on utility, and that conduct should be directed toward promoting the greatest happiness of the greatest number of persons.

Utilitarianism | Definition of Utilitarianism at Dictionary.com

When morality is defined this way, what is the practical consequence? If the greatest number of persons has to be pleased, then we have agreed that the majority should define the difference between good and evil. As a practical matter, does that not put government in charge of determining what is ethical? Why government? What other institution can both determine and enforce the will of the majority?

Now consider this question: is our society currently progressing towards a completely secularized culture that is in a accord with this sort of utilitarianism? Is a completely secularized culture desirable? Why or why not?

In the next part, Part 3 we will consider the foundations of Christian ethics.

Additional References

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