Religion, Morality, & Atheism

Sarah Bowman
Sarah Bowman, Secular Humanist: studied theology, social work, some philosophy, anthropology

Before we go anywhere with these questions we need to define some words: religion, morality, secular.

Religion

In my opinion, religion is life lived with belief in some kind of supernatural entity or reality, be it deities or reincarnations or Karma or Higher Powers, etc. Important life decisions and values of right and wrong centre on how they impact—or are impacted by—this supernatural reality the believer holds to.

A word on “Higher Power,” since it is effectively used in Twelve Step Programs. If a person simply draws on a Higher Power for strength to resist something detrimental to self or others, such as the abuse of drugs or alcohol, I think it’s secular. However, if the person thinks the Higher Power will leave or get angry, or in some way be impacted when he/she fails to “obey,” then it becomes religion. The reason: At that point it becomes the centre of life decisions and values re right and wrong. Substance abuse is wrong for its own sake, not because some Higher Power will punish you.

NOTE: I am not saying that religion is bad; if it helps a person be a better person then it is good. I am simply clarifying my position for those who want to know.

Morality

In my opinion, morality is doing that which will improve this world and the life of its inhabitants. I think the following two slogans neatly sum it up:

  • My rights end where yours begin.
  • You can do whatever you like so long as you don’t hurt self or others.

Just to clarify, every day in every jurisdiction in the world, lengthy courts are held to untangle exactly what is meant by “hurt” and “rights.” I won’t mess with that. Churches, temples, mosques, and other places of worship are also places of discussion or preaching regarding the definition of these two words. Obviously, there are major differences of opinion around the globe.

Secular

To those who have read all of the above, it should be fairly clear what I mean by secular. I mean a primary focus on this material life on this planet before death. Most thinking people, I believe, have some kind of life philosophy regarding their understanding of the nature of reality beyond what can be seen and experienced immediately with the senses. Here’s a very rudimentary example of something about which most of us hold a “life philosophy”; that is we have beliefs but cannot experience it immediately with the senses:

What happens to the sun after sunset?

For eons of human history people couldn’t answer that question. Some of them worshipped the sun. Living in such a way that the sun would not be offended and fail to reappear in the morning was a central value and platform for life decisions. Though sun worship may have been out of fashion for many centuries, I remember in my childhood hearing exaggerated exclamations from the adults with regards to something despicable, “The sun would be ashamed to shine on that!”

I doubt they believed the sun would die or fail to rise in the morning, but that statement smacks of sun worship or religion. Superstition is the more common term. However, I agree with the person who said “One person’s religion is another’s superstition.” In reality, on a secular level, we know that the earth is a sphere that revolves around the sun in such a way that the spot on which we currently are (if we are not moving on a jet) will be away from the light for a predictable period of time.

That period of time has been measured in every way possible for all parts of the planet and times of the year. That is secular. Believing that the sun might “hide its face” because of someone’s behaviour is what I in this post call religious.

Having established the difference between religious and secular, let’s look at the questions.

Is it religion that determines the morality of a nation?

As shown above, morality regards:

  • personal rights
  • what hurts a person

Religion is concerned with the supernatural and its impact on human life now and after death. Each religion has its own view on how humans and the supernatural interact and impact each other. In those nations where religion is allowed to rule, obviously the religion of that nation will determine the morality of that nation.

If I correctly understand it, this is where ethical differs from moral. To be ethical means not to violate another’s rights or hurt them on the physical, emotional, intellectual, and material levels. In other words, ethics and ethical are used in a secular way, while morals and morality is used any old way by anyone.

How does it affect the lives of secular individuals of such nation?

As you can see, if you read everything so far, “secular” do not equal non-religious or atheist. If secular ethics form the basis for your values and important life decisions, I think you can be considered a secular person while believing in and performing religious duties and rituals. Religion probably does not seriously affect such a person.

I suspect you meant “atheist” when you said “secular individual.” Atheists who speak about their life philosophies routinely find themselves tortured and killed in some countries, and railroaded in job interviews in others. If they already have jobs, they get fired on some pretext. Families shun them, businesses turn them out, society ridicules them and refuses them public office. There are very few countries in the world in which atheists have complete immunity to live as full freely-speaking human beings the way Christians take for granted throughout much of the world. Canada is not one of them, the USA even less.

We can save ourselves the persecution by choosing to lie. But that means living with lack of inner peace and personal integrity.

Now you know how religion impacts atheists and why some atheists say religion is immoral. Religion hurts people who hurt no one and it violates the rights of people who violate no one else’s rights.

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