‘Doing the right thing’ is hard to understand for non-religious people

To the Editor:

Steven Starr (“Religion has role for good of modern masses,” 1/22) may well have overstated his case in claiming that those with religious beliefs were more likely to “do the right thing,” but Jennifer Paton (“Moral behavior is not necessarily the result of religious beliefs,” 1/26) doesn’t quite go far enough. The point is not whether the “religious” do behave better (they clearly don’t), but whether they ought. For a secular humanist or atheist, the arbiter of “right” and “wrong” must be the individual or the collective, which means that my beliefs (whatever they are) have as much ethical validity as anybody else’s, or that ethics become coterminous with law as theoretically defined by the majority.

From a historical perspective, this kicks the very concept of “inalienable rights” into touch. Even Paton’s “conception of common human decency” is based on an abstract and unprovable theory (as indeed is the American Constitution). As a direct result, the concept of “moral obligation” is subjective. Paton believes in “the right thing” but if I believe that the “right thing” involves curtailing her freedom of speech (for example), who is going to judge between us?

Religious and nonreligious ethical systems are not competing on the same level like two brands of cereal. Both, whether they like it or not, are making truth claims; even “all ethical systems are equally valid” is in itself a value judgement (as has been noted, anyone who says that there is no such thing as objective truth is effectively asking you to disbelieve him). Religion claims God; secularism claims lack of God. Religion claims “I have”; secularism claims not “I have something else” but “I do not have.” This is not in itself an argument for God’s existence, but it does leave humanism rooted in the transient and the finite. Religious people “ought” to do the right thing because they believe that their thoughts and actions are in some way connected with the eternal; nonreligious people, for whom we shall all be dead before too long, need not. It is — I believe — a good thing that they do, but I have honestly never been able to understand why they should.



Nick Baldock GRD ’09

January 26, 2004

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