The idea that one can have a purely secular morality disconnected from religious beliefs is nonsense." So writes syndicated columnist Charley Reese in a recent article. He’s wrong, of course, but it’s worth following his train of thought to see why he’s wrong.
Unlike many who preach this concept, it is refreshing that Mr. Reese is not grinding an exclusively Judeo-Christian axe: "All morality has its origins in religion of some kind…Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and other religions condemn [stealing and killing], and religions preceded the modern state." And while these comments are essentially true, they are also irrelevant to his argument.
These basic moral values stem from our need, as social beings, to reach an accord on acceptable behavior. Such morality may originally have been attributed to some imagined deity, but was nonetheless conceived in the mind and (to the extent it exists) the conscience of Man. (Or, to quote poet Wallace Stevens: "It is the belief and not the god that counts.")
Reese’s personal philosophy is one of stark extremes: "If indeed there is no God, then human life is just an accidental phenomenon and no more valuable than that of a mosquito." If we accept this contention, does that mean God’s existence is without meaning unless He also answers to a higher power - a "super god," so to speak? (Continuing, greater god after greater god, unto infinity?)
If, as is likely, human life is just an accidental phenomenon, does that make it necessarily meaningless? Don’t we - individually, and collectively - have the freedom to determine our own value system? Random existence may not be as emotionally satisfying as a Divine Plan, but it certainly doesn’t invalidate our lives or our actions. (Indeed, in a universe comprised mostly of empty space, perhaps Mr. Reese should rethink the insignificance of the mosquito.)
Reese would have us believe that dire consequences are the inevitable result of a non-religious social philosophy: "Millions of people were murdered under [Nazism and communism]…because without religion, one can make a perfectly logical and reasoned argument for murder." To ratchet up the rhetoric, he further insists that "societies without God create rivers of blood."
Again, his premise is undeniably true; again, it is undeniably irrelevant. The flip-side of his argument: People have consistently used religion to make a perfectly illogical and emotional argument for mass killings; and, clearly, societies with God have also created rivers of blood. Consider, for instance, that the United States - which Mr. Reese claims was "built on the foundation of Christianity" - has engaged in legalized slavery; has committed genocide against its native population; has been the only nation to use atomic bombs as weapons of war.
Let’s not forget the words of President Harry Truman, announcing our nuclear attack on Japan: "It is an awful responsibility which has come to us. We thank God that it has come to us, instead of to our enemies. And we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways, and for His purposes."
Seeking divine guidance in the deployment of nuclear weapons - not exactly an inspiring moment for God-based morality.
In his attempt to be persuasive, Mr. Reese relies extensively on the logical fallacy known as "false dichotomy." This is the classic "either/or" argument, ignoring the possibility of any number of sound alternatives.
For instance: "Remember, it’s always a choice between the God in heaven or the God who commands the army and the police." He ignores the fact that people have the capacity - however neglected - to engage in democratically-elected representation; that rational thought and humane attitudes can, and do, co-exist.
Mr. Reese continues his fallacious imperative: If you "cut people loose from the moral moorings of religion…the state will have no choice but to step in and control them." And: "Politics devoid of God will doom us." Through such statements, one can conclude that Mr. Reese believes that people are intrinsically evil; that, without the fear imposed by a supernatural overseer, mankind will descend into an even bloodier state than the one we now inhabit.
But Mr. Reese, as a religious man, conveniently misses the point: With or without deities, human beings are prone to violence. The common element running throughout the bloodshed - under Nazism, communism, American democracy, any governmental system - has not been gods, but men.
Mr. Reese seems to understand this, even if he will not admit the failure of religion to stop people from slaughtering one another. His conclusion: "It is always a fatal error to put one’s trust in man instead of God." His belief system is less an affirmation of the beneficence of some unverified deity and more an acknowledgement of humanity’s failures - and, it would seem, of humanity’s limitations.