I enjoy but am also deeply frustrated by the position I occupy between the religious and secular worlds. Being able to put on both religious and skeptical glasses to look at different situations allows me to see what those entrenched in one or the other mindsets usually cannot see without compromising their identity forming commitment to God or reason. My own church leaders have expressed concern over the rising influence of secular entities (universities for example) claiming that without God providing divine commands we would be like secular humanists, who according to Oaks largely ascribe to the philosophy of moral relativism (wherein the is no absolute moral correct thought or action but we are all to decide what is right on our own) [1]. In contrast, Phil Zuckerman, author of Living the Secular Life, describes conservative religious people as blind followers of sacred text or prophetic utterance, which Zuckerman views as amoral rather than moral, presumably because the morality of the action depends on the action itself not from whence the idea originated [2]. Both of these sentiments have a sliver of truth to them, in that secular people do not have a well defined moral code and conservative religious people do preach obedience, but neither comes close to fully grasping the reality of the situation.  In this essay I plan to fill in the gaps between the moral judgement of the two opposed schools of thought.

The Ring of Gyges

In Plato’s Republic Plato’s brother Glaucon recounts the tale of the ring of Gyges, in which the wearer of the ring becomes invisible. Once the wearer becomes aware of his new invisibility he realizes that he can steal food, sleep with whom he desired, kill whom he wanted, and release from prison whomever his passions cared most to release. Glaucon claims that if two men, one just and one unjust, were to wear the ring and be able to act without their neighbors eye watching their every move the actions of the just would be the same as the unjust. This hypothetical situation assumes that humans are base by nature and virtuous due to social pressures to be so. I think this is not completely but largely true. We care very much what others think of us and in fact our publicly perceived good nature often brings us a strong network of trust that enables our own safety, success and mental well being.

I bring up the ring of Gyges because I think it is mostly a myth that people do what is right just because it is the right thing to do. We are inculcated with the values of the society and we learn what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. When someone believes in God they resist killing or raping people and robbing banks not solely because  God told them so but because they know there will be severe negative social repercussions. Similarly when someone who no longer or never believed in God resists the same anti-social behavior they are able to resist not solely from knowing that that such behavior violates ethical theories like utilitarianism, deontology, or virtue ethics but simply because it is anti-social.

Deeper than Socialization

There is another aspect of morality that has little to do with social stigma, divine command, or moral philosophy; empathy. Deeply embedded in our mammalian DNA is the biological wiring that helps us to be aware of and feel concern for others. Empathy allows us to feel experiences that are not our own. Hearing detailed horror stories about Holocaust victims, life as early american slaves, rape survivors, or simply descriptions of clinical depression cause a feeling of care to well up inside us. This feeling can cause us to do many things. One might be compelled to join a cause to eradicate starvation, bigotry, sex slavery, mental health ignorance and misinformation. The actions one takes as a result of empathy will vary from person to person and from situation to situation but what I think it does universally is to make a person think twice before committing and act of violence, hate or simply indifference. Empathy forces us to care for others and behave in a kind way. It is a powerful moral force that is independent of religious belief or fluency in logical reasoning.

Empathy and subconscious socialized morals feed our intuition. When we come to a moral question most often we know what we think is the right or wrong action already. This is because our moral intuition is fast and usually is connected to our emotions. We don’t have to think about what is right we feel it. We might later justify our action through a passage of scripture or through the words of some long dead moral philosopher but we made our choice through our intuitions long before our reasons for them crossed our mind.

We are all Different

While we have common mechanisms for morality we each have unique specific reactions to each situation, which is why there is diversity in moral thought. Our genetics and early childhood experiences combine to give us a pretty solid moral footing. From there our education, exposure to cultures, and personal experiences with those who think differently than we do will shape our morality. Even within each camp (believers and non-believers) there is a difference in sacred texts or reason are interpreted. There are liberal Christians, fundamentalist Christians and everything in between and they espouse a broad sweeping range of moral stances that have been formally arrived at by being and filtered through holy scriptures (the Bible being common among all forms of Christianity) as well as spiritual leadership or each group. Unitarians and the United Church of Christ support marriage equality and have done so for some time now while the Westboro Baptist Church delivers hate speech at funerals of LGBT people. All of these versions of Christianity declare their position as correct and bolster such claims by citing passages from the bible. Similarly differences among secular or non-religious people come to different conclusions on moral choices through similar schools of thought (science and reason).


We most likely make our moral choices from the same sources: empathy, and concern for our reputation/social status. We all have gut reactions. Sometimes we defend those gut reactions through scripture/reason and sometimes we refine those reactions through the same. But it is our moral intuitions that largely inform our moral choices. Religious people do not simply follow ancient scripture blindly and non-religious people do not simply give in to every hedonistic impulse they feel. We are all much more human than that.

[1] Oaks, D. H., Stand as Witnesses to God, Ensign, March 2013

[2] Zuckerman, P., Living the Secular Life, Radiowest, KUER radio interview with Doug Fabrizio, 9 July 2015


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