JR'S Free Thought Pages
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                                                                    The Poverty of Religious Based Ethics (Divine Command)

“A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.” – Albert Einstein

“I do not believe in the immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern without any superhuman authority behind it.” – Albert Einstein

Over the Christmas holiday season when we hear empty platitudes such as “peace on earth and good will towards men” one thinks of the prospect of a better world where people and their respective political leaders  will finally start behaving morally. But then we turn on the television news or read the newspapers and listen and read about assassinations (Bhutto in Pakistan was the latest), persecutions, and religious conflict over trivial issues of dogma in addition to unmitigated government corruption and corporate gluttony - and our hopes are quickly dashed. Even what used to be the commonly accepted social graces and most basic rules of civility and human decency are quickly disappearing (need I mention the cell phone menace?) It seems we need a re-evaluation of the foundations of ethics and what constitutes basic human decency and moral behavior. Two thousand years of morality based on religious superstition and taboo has been an unmitigated disaster.

There are two essays by contemporary moral philosophers I have recently posted on my web site that I believe are the best of the literally hundreds I have read over the years that argue for the necessity of a secular humanist ethics. The arguments can be traced all the way back to a dilemma acknowledged by Plato in the Euthyphro who invoked the words of Socrates.

Socrates asks:

“Are morally good acts willed by God because they are morally good, or are they morally good because they are willed by God?”

Notwithstanding their inconsistencies, contradictions and absurdities, I have never considered any of the so-called sacred texts, including the Bible (ironically referred to by the devout as the “good book”), to be anything remotely resembling a reliable guide to moral behavior from either the perspective of its moral imperatives or vague underlying philosophical foundations.  In fact it can be quite easily revealed from a cursory reading of the Bible that divine command ethics is purely a matter of prudence based on a system of reward, punishment and fear of an egotistical vindictive celestial dictator. In fact it is quite effortless to criticize the morality one finds in the Bible since most of it is simply repellent, odious and incompatible with an enlightened civil society.

Anyone who thinks the Bible or the Koran is sound as a moral guide ought to read them a little more judiciously. Even the Ten Commandments that evangelicals in the United States insist on being posted in every public venue have precious little to do with ethics. In my view only two of them really fall within the purview of the ethical realm. In spite of all this the illusion lives on – and politicians, the corporate media and other influential members of our culture continually appeal to the Pope and other religious leaders for moral guidance.

According to the United Nations’ Human Development Report in 2005, the most atheistic societies -countries like Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, the Netherlands and Denmark and Finland- are actually the healthiest, as indicated by measures of life expectancy, adult literacy, per-capita income, educational attainment, gender equality, homicide rate, and infant mortality. Conversely, the fifty nations now ranked lowest by the UN in terms of human development are unwaveringly religious.

The two papers on this issue I have linked below and in my view are the most cogent arguments I have read in years.

Paper by University of Michigan philosopher Elizabeth Anderson: 


Paper by University of California at San Diego philosopher David Brink:


JR  (December 30, 2007)



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