Likely speaking for many atheists, the pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty once complained of his resentment at the assumption that religion is a prerequisite for morality. Given the way that morality is sometimes constructed within the Abrahamic religions, this is not an entirely surprising assumption on the part of the religious. One apparent strength of moralities formulated within the monotheistic religions is how readily they provide objective foundations for ethical claims – a revelation that communicates supernatural moral guidance, or the construction of ethical rules as the decrees of an omniscient and omnibenevolent deity. These transcendent grounds satisfy the desire to see moral obligations as something more than the contrivances of mere mortals, shoring up a more certain and compelling foundation for morality.
By contrast, I would like to argue in favour of an atheistic approach to ethics. Precisely because it denies the transcendent, atheism is well-equipped to avoid a common pitfall of theistic morality. This gestures toward an important insight concerning the kinds of ethical systems we should prefer.
As the examples above indicate, the unstated assumption of many religious moralities is that some transcendent source or point of reference is necessary to ground ethical claims. Otherwise, “morality” consists of little more than human beings making up the rules as we go along. Ethical principles derived strictly from human deliberations do not seem to provide the kind of certainty or persuasive force that many want for morality, whereas religions proffer the promise that we need not rely on human reason – flawed as it inevitably is – in making moral determinations. Instead, they offer the possibility of a source of moral knowledge that is taken to be far superior in terms of authority and certitude.
Ironically, though, the instinct for transcendent moral foundations can ultimately produce systems of value that diminish the moral worth of human beings. A transcendent moral foundation seems desirable because it represents an ultimate source of value that lends weight to moral principles derived from it. But that logic necessarily posits something whose value supersedes that of the persons whose well-being it is supposed to ensure. This line of reasoning implicitly relativises the importance of everything else in relation to the posited transcendent source of moral value, including human persons. Such a system implies that the transcendentally-derived moral tenets and the earthly realm they are supposed to govern are less important than the transcendent itself. When religious moralities adopt this logic, disturbing potentialities can arise.
Consider Søren Kierkegaard’s meditations on the Akedah, that troublesome scene in the Old Testament (Gen. 22:1-14) where Abraham nearly slaughters his son. Having been commanded by God, Abraham willingly prepares to kill Isaac. It is only when he has the sacrificial blade poised above his son’s chest that an angel intervenes, announcing God’s satisfaction with Abraham and supplying a ram to be killed in Isaac’s place.
Kierkegaard wrote an entire book, Fear and Trembling, in attempting to come to grips with this scene. Ultimately, Kierkegaard does not seek to justify Abraham’s actions through the excuse that he was simply obeying God’s will. Instead, he contends that Abraham’s actions must be understood as the “teleological suspension of the ethical”. It is not that God’s command to Abraham to kill his son renders Abraham’s willingness to do so ethical. Rather, Kierkegaard argues that the profound horror of intending to kill one’s own child is not negated, but is retained and then transcended, overcome by the higher order value of obeying God’s will.
Kierkegaard recoils from this realisation. He does so not because it is intolerable, but because Abraham is a “knight of faith”, demonstrating such profound religiosity that Kierkegaard doubts he could ever live up to. Kierkegaard wants us to see Abraham’s willingness to slaughter Isaac as something to be fearfully admired, not condemned.
This exemplifies the sort of quandary that can result once ethics are rooted in transcendence. What the Akedah demonstrates is that God and allegiance to him supersede even the most basic moral obligations that we have to each other. Strength of faith is demonstrated through a willingness to transgress what are otherwise obvious and absolute moral constraints. Our ethical responsibilities to each other might flow from God, but they pale in comparison to our duties to him. This is only logical, given that such a system sees moral worth in the human realm as derivative from the divine. The Book of Mark may exhort Christians to “love your neighbour as yourself”, but that commandment is explicitly subordinated to the primary responsibility to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul”.
These concerns are not merely hypothetical. Despite the fact that some African nations continue to suffer high rates of HIV infection, the Catholic Church continues to condemn the use of condoms. Jehovah’s Witnesses typically refuse blood transfusions because accepting them would contravene their understanding of Biblical injunctions against consuming blood, in some cases risking the lives of sick infants.
Interestingly, the Quran includes its own version of the Akedah (37:100-107). There, however – although he is not named – the boy to be sacrificed has traditionally been interpreted by Islamic thinkers as Ishmael, Abraham’s son by his maidservant Hagar. Ishmael is regarded as a prophet in Islam and an ancestor of Muhammad. So there is a kind of interpretive custody battle, wherein Christianity, Judaism, and Islam each lays claim to the narrative of a father nearly murdering his child. Each religion seeks to own the story whose moral is that our most fundamental ethical commitments are provisional in the face of our responsibilities to the divine.
Certainly, religions can and typically do urge their practitioners to consider the welfare of others. The social gospel movement was fundamentally concerned with the least fortunate members of society, and social justice is a priority of Islamic thought. Religious moralities are not predestined to privileging allegiance to the divine over our moral obligations to each other. It also must be acknowledged that religion is not unique in relativising our moral obligations. Nationalism and political ideology have both been invoked to justify the teleological suspension of the ethical. Although religion might be an especially obvious site for positing transcendences that relativise our other moral responsibilities, it is not alone in doing so, nor is it doomed to do so necessarily.
However, in denying the supernatural, secular moralities are better positioned to focus ethical concern on human beings and our interactions with other living things in this world. By eliminating the most iconic form of the transcendent, a secular approach to morality removes one common temptation that has served to diminish our moral commitments to each other. Of course, secular moral philosophies are far from perfect. But what had been thought to be their fundamental weakness – their denial of a transcendent source for moral value – may in fact be an asset. Although less metaphysically ambitious, secular morality improves our ability to make the suffering and happiness of humans and other earthly animals the centres of our moral concern. Eschewing a transcendent source in which to root ethical value may turn out to be secular morality’s greatest ethical insight.