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Is morality inevitably twinned with religion? Emily Menkes considers secular humanism.
Last month, I attended the Rise of Atheism - Global Atheist Convention 2010 in Melbourne.
What struck me the most was how interesting, pleasant, and thoughtful the attendees were. They displayed none of the immorality often attributed to atheists by the God-fearing.
The convention included the obvious presence of organizations such as A+, a non-religious charity, as well as campaigns regarding climate change, poverty, and animal rights.
Atheists promote these causes because of their internal morality, and ethical conviction, without any sort of religious input. They are secular humanists.
Secular humanism is a philosophy that promotes reason, ethics and justice and specifically rejects supernatural and religious dogma as the basis of morality. Like other types of humanism, secular humanism focuses on the way human beings can lead good, happy and functional lives.
A key attribute of secular humanism is that it promotes logic, reason and evidence as the moral basis for how we treat each other.
Others insist that we need religious dogma to distinguish right from wrong. According to this view, it is pointless to promote morality without the promise of reward or the threat of punishment.
A religious person asked me once: "Without God in your life, where is the incentive to be good?"
Given the right circumstances, people behave ethically because doing so is "right", improves self-esteem and expresses one's natural feelings of compassion and empathy. Such behaviour invites co-operation and reciprocity according to the Golden Rule of treating others as you would be treated.
The disconnect between religion and morality can be illustrated by national statistics. Western European countries are generally much less religious than the US, and yet have lower rates of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
But, of course, this doesn't convince everyone.
History also teaches that morality and religion scarcely go hand-in-hand. Adolf Hitler, responsible for the systematic murder of millions, was never excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Other dictators and mass murderers, such as Franco and Mussolini, were also religious, and made various allowances and agreements for the Catholic Church, including the Lateran Pacts.
Mass murder is not, however, unique to the religious - Pol Pot and Stalin were atheists.
Much as Christian teachings have often been anti-Semitic, this practice is now abundantly evident in parts of the Muslim world. Also common in these societies are misogynistic practices, including honour rapes and killing of women, ostensibly in accord with Islam. Some "disgraced" women become suicide bombers to restore honour to their family. How can this ever be considered moral?
Consider also the religious basis of ethnic conflict and huge numbers of killings, for example in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Rwanda and many other countries. Now mullahs in Teheran are blaming immodestly dressed women for recent earthquakes!
There are many examples of religion used to justify persecution and even murder of non-believers. What is it about religious teachings that allow them to be abused in this way?
Secular humanism explicitly promotes moral behaviour, personal meaning and happiness. I experienced this at the convention, where several speakers conveyed the same emotional connection and sense of community fostered by religious services.
One of the most outstanding speakers was Taslima Nasrin, an ex-Muslim physician and women's rights activist.
Another speaker at the convention, Peter Singer, highlighted how religion fails to effectively promote moral behaviour.
Jesus's exhortation to "turn the other cheek" at face value seems like good policy, promoting pacifism instead of "an eye for an eye". This practice does nothing to stop bullying and abuse, as people who do it believe they are more likely to get away with it and more likely to do it again.
There is no doubt religion plays a fundamental part in many peoples' lives, giving them structure and hope, but depending on it as a source of morality is misleading, ineffective and sometimes perverse.
Religion cannot be relied on to safeguard or promote morality - it's as simple as that.
- Emily Menkes is a student at the University of Otago