Escape From Ignorance: The Virtue of Secular Morality

Greetings out there in the wide world! I am the Irreverend Walker, your friendly neighborhood Secular Preacher, here to extol the virtues of logic, reason, science, and civil discourse. I call myself a Secular Preacher because I believe secular values are best expressed in moral terms. To be secular is to desire an objective understanding of the world free from deception and delusion. I believe most people would agree that is a noble goal, even if they don’t think of themselves as secular.

More Alike Than Not

To be secular is to recognize that any human being on earth has the same set of tools through with which they experience life: sight, sound, scent, taste, touch, thought, and emotion. Literally everything about your existence is an amalgamation of those seven things. Your subjective experience in this life is utterly unique, yet fundamentally equal to any other subjective experience. Your daily life experiences are most likely about the pursuit of satisfaction (be it physical, spiritual, profession, etc.) and the avoidance of suffering. You have way more in common with each of your fellow humans than you have actual differences. Most of the perceived differences that drive all the discourse and conflict in the world are manufactured out of cultural clashes but are not actually real.

Morality is said to be the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. Philosophy, religion, mysticism, and politics have all been claiming moral authority for thousands of years. Secularism is often associated with the rejection of those institutions, and therefore is wrongly accused of rejecting morality along with them. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Moral Rule

A secular morality is based on the avoidance of needless human suffering and the advancement of human prosperity. It is a judgement made about human actions based on how those actions affect the suffering or prosperity of other people. By necessity, this moral standard must be applied relative to the specific actions, circumstances, and people involved. Human actions cannot be moral or immoral unto themselves. There are no absolutely right or absolutely wrong actions, because the moral rightness or wrongness of any action is entirely dependent on context. What was the person’s intent behind the action, and what was the actual outcome? Was suffering intended? Did suffering result? Was prosperity enhanced or hindered? What was within human control and what were external factors? The answers to these questions will be unique to every situation and could be highly subjective. Only when these questions can be answered in a meaningful way can an honest moral judgement be rendered.

Within this broad, humane, and compassionate framework, social labels become irrelevant to morality. All that matters are the measurable effects our actions have on the suffering or prosperity of ourselves and other people.

It is my assertion that an objective attempt to compare this moral framework with those offered by more traditional sources such as religion, mysticism, or political ideology will reveal that secular morality is vastly superior. All other moral frameworks lead themselves into hopeless logical contradictions that cause otherwise good people to behave in appalling ways. They all lead to more suffering, because they all eventually hinge on some arbitrary absolute that cannot possibly apply to the full variety of circumstances encountered in life. Only secularism offers a proven, tested method of taking life as it is and making the wisest possible decisions with the information you have.

Widespread Ignorance

There is no greater driver of suffering in our world today than simple, widespread ignorance about how the universe works. In the past few hundred years, modern science has allowed us to learn a truly astonishing amount about this place we call reality. Many of the so-called great mysteries of life have, in fact, been solved. The problem is that most people are so out of touch with current scientific knowledge (often through no fault of their own) that they don’t realize just how much we actually know. The other problem is that most people would be unhappy with the answers since they destroy a lot of ancient superstitions that many people still hold sacred.

Yet the vast majority of the populace would agree with the basic premise that we should strive to reduce suffering and promote prosperity. This means most people endorse the logic behind secular morality, but are not able to recognize that their own religious, cultural, or political beliefs often violate that logic…sometimes in aggressively destructive ways.

The only way to separate mistaken beliefs from objective truth is through rigorous application of the scientific method…yet most people don’t even know what the scientific method is or why it is more trustworthy than their own instincts and intuitions.

Reason Is Not Enough

Since the secular movement is so firmly grounded in science, reason, and logic… it often mistakenly assumes that these are self-evident virtues.  This grave error often leads much secular advocacy to be ineffective. Humans are not born with an innate sense of logic or objectivity. Critical thinking does not develop on its own. People do not automatically realize how fallible and limited their subjective perception is. Important principles that govern how nature works…such as probability, evolution, relativity, and quantum mechanics…feel flatly wrong to our instinctual sense of the world.

These factors added together mean that logical, evidence-based arguments are not effective on anyone who was not taught how logic helps to establish what is possible versus what is just fantasy. Our schools and social institutions do not teach critical thinking skills in any significant way. Science classes in early education are almost exclusively about regurgitating facts, which are meaningless without a healthy grasp of the method used to attain them.

The Seeds of Escape

Understanding how science knows things is infinitely more important than memorizing what science knows. The method is how you sift good data from bad data. The method is how you correct for human fallibility. The method is how you eliminate bias and corruption. The method is how you expose mendacity and uncover frauds.  The method is how you know what is real and what is bullshit. The method is how we measure prosperity and suffering. If the method was commonly practiced by every school child, the sinister influences of the world would have to work a lot harder to find corruptible minds.

We in the secular movement must dedicate ourselves to improving public understanding of the scientific method and to extolling the virtues of critical thinking before we can hope for a broader embrace of secular morality. If we cannot do that, then there can be no escape from ignorance.


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