The necessity of secular morality – even for religious people

There is a contradiction at the heart of some escatological religions – or, at least, their interpretations – that I think can only be solved by recognising that it is necessary to have a secular ethical system. The contradiction is this: an escatological religion is one that has in it the claim that judgement and justice will be meted out at death, and yet some of them also call for a punitive justice system to be installed on Earth. Let’s call it the ‘Double Jeopardy Contradiction’. My argument is that only by separating religious and worldly conception of justice can this contradiction be resolved.

It is worth pointing out the limitations of this post: it isn’t an argument against God, and it isn’t even an argument that you shouldn’t believe a person will receive damnation for their behaviour in this world. What it is is the argument that it’s none of your business. It is a separation of ethical claims that have a primarily religious core and ones that can be secularly defended, and that responses to the former are unjust.

It is worth creating some examples, to demonstrate this Double Jeopardy Contradiction. The simplest examples are to point out the times that there are solely religious commands, and a worldly punishment prescribed. Exodus 31:15 says that someone working on the Sabbath should be put to death; Leviticus 21:13 says that the act of homosexuality should also be punished by death; Leviticus 24:16 punishes blasphemy with stoning to death; Heresy, in Deuteronomy 17:7 follows much the same path.

Contra-examples are also worth pointing out, for clarity. Although I would point out there is much wrong with God’s command to the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites (Deut 20:17) – not all people were guilty, the babies and children were not guilty, the cattle were not guilty – it is arguable that is falls into a category of a secular moral concern albeit with an horrific and unjust overreaction. I based this solely on the act of child sacrifice. If that is the case, then it is not a case of a worldly punishment for a religious wrong, but for a worldly wrong. (Again, a disproportionate, unjust and cruel punishment, where many words have been written to try to make these passages not say what they obviously say [1] because what they obviously say is horrific.)

I will point out that, if God really wanted to, God could have just had those people all die on the spot painlessly, and not die in fear and in battle. The Israelites didn’t need blood on their hands. There’s a broader discussion to be had about how this looks like a Divine Right of Conquest and not a primitive attempt at justice. It’s also worth noting that much of the emphasis on the child sacrifice seems more concerned with the fact that the sacrifice is to the wrong God than it is with sacrifice directly. In which case, the issue is heresy and idolatry, and we’re back in the realm of a religious wrong.

Admittedly, the bright line that might divide a religious wrong from a secular wrong is blurred by the complexity of moral philosophy. But hopefully enough has been done to give a flavour of the two sides of this distinction.

The Double Jeopardy Contradiction alludes to two ideas not yet established: that a guilty person is being punished twice, and that this is a contradiction at some point in the theology. The Double Jeopardy element, I think, is simple to establish; escatological religions have the just punishment (or reward) for your actions saved up for the afterlife. Whatever you do will be justly met after death. That’s the entirety of your just punishment. Another parenthetical point I just want to sign post, but not get into, is the idea of the infinite punishment somehow being just; short of a tyrannical dictate of ‘because I say so’, it’s difficult to see how you could even imagine defending an infinite response to a worldly transgression. But, on top of this damnation, the transgressor also gets the biggest punishment humanity can mete out: stoning to death.

Once this Double Jeopardy is laid out – that the transgressor received the worst punishment that can be given in human form, a slow and painful death; and then given a further fully just punishment in spiritual form in the afterlife – the contradiction starts to lay itself out: if the spiritual punishment is full and just, then the commanded bodily punishment must push the total punishment received over the just level. And so God’s commands and acts, taken together, exceed that of a just response. Which is to say that it’s unjust to have both punishments.

A secular moral system evades this contradiction by recognising that certain ‘transgressions’ cannot be borne from secular moral concerns, so we cannot be sure they really are transgressions, and so we leave it to God to balance out in the afterlife. For example, one’s religious beliefs cannot be shown, in moral secular thinking, to be of any concern. And so a transgression such as ‘apostasy’ simply doesn’t exist and attracts no response. And because apostasy cannot be confirmed by secular morality to actually be a transgression, secular moral society maintains agnostic over such a claim and trusts that, if the religious claim is true, God will deal with it later.

The pillars of a secular moral system are required, here, just to make sure that a person’s personal religious faith is actually outside the secular system’s remit. Those pillars, then, are about being able to live without fear of violation (e.g. violence, killing, theft – in ways that are intentional, unintentional or the product of negligence), a sense that people are contributing fairly to societal progress (e.g. paying taxes, being honest), and that individuals will have meaningful autonomy (e.g. honesty, liberty). It is violations of these principles that amount to a transgression of secular morality. (I’m up for having these expanded on, criticised, discussed etc. The point of this post isn’t to establish a secular morality, but to highlight the necessity of having one regardless of religious affiliation.)

There is a question about what we make of a religious transgression being something that is actively supported by a secular moral system. For example, the value of ‘meaningful autonomy’ actively supports all sexualities and religious beliefs. And so, the secular morality doesn’t just fail to confirm that homosexuality is a transgression, but actively rejects the idea. What this system proposes is that we don’t see that as a contradiction. Instead, we don’t know at all what the content of religious morality is. But, secular societies also don’t concern themselves with religious morality. It is for an individual to decide whether to be bound by both moral systems, gambling that there is an escatological system to reward them for their religious morality, or to not.

But the moral secular society will hold people to the secular morality. Because morality is about the broad principles on which society should be built. But, for that reason, the secular moral system should not create a singular ‘The Way’ to be good. Instead, it should create a system whereby people can concern themselves with their own business and with progress, without having to worry about others being unduly concerned with their business.

(This is not libertarianism. This includes taxes, the recognition and payment for externalities, limiting and banning pollution, a prohibition of genuinely harassing and threatening communications. It includes much more than a libertarian would reject – including a liveable Universal Basic Income. But, how we get there is much too much for this post.)

In conclusion, the Double Jeopardy Contradiction in escatological religions is that a perfectly divine and just punishment is given in addition to a worldly punishment, leading to excessive punishment that in totality is unjust. We can get around this by separating religious and secular moral systems and claims, and not at all concerning ourselves with religious morality – trusting that if religious moral claims are valid, they will be wholly dealt with by a God in the afterlife. Society’s task is not to adhere to religious morality, but create and protect a secular moral system.

1. Why Did God Command the Invasion of Canaan in the Book of Joshua? In: BibleProject [Internet]. [cited 10 Mar 2022]. Available: https://bibleproject.com/blog/why-did-god-command-the-invasion-of-canaan-in-the-book-of-joshua/

9 thoughts on “The necessity of secular morality – even for religious people”

  1. All atheist arguments are based on logical fallacies or “facts” that are not true. The errors are usually in the first paragraph. For example, from this post:

    “There is a contradiction at the heart of some escatological religions – or, at least, their interpretations – that I think can only be solved by recognising that it is necessary to have a secular ethical system. “

    “Escatological religions” is a direct reference to Christianity. Christian moral ethics have nothing to do with eschatology. Thus the reference to “escatological religions” is a non sequitur.

    A rational argument cannot be based on a non sequitur.

      1. Thank you, Allallt. Back at you. I was off studying biotechnology and philosophy. My biotechnology team discovered a novel gene in the Centella asiatica (aka, Gota Kola) plant. Our work is published at the NCBI (National Center for Biological Information). But enough of me.

        Apparently, you have not lost your gift for originality and taking deep dives into ideas that few have dreamed or conceived of.

      2. That sounds exciting! It also sounds like PhD level stuff. Is that right? What’s a novel gene?
        And thank you for your review.

      3. Biotechnology has advanced to the point where college sophomores are directed to search for novel (undiscovered) genes in plants and animals as a matter of routine course work. The lab work is grueling and few research teams are successful. It is the intention of the biotech community to map the genomes of as many living creatures as possible.

  2. Brilliant and well argued and supported by Jesus! Did he not say “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”

    1. Thank you.

      I do like that little quote. I used to bring it up a lot as a way of telling religious homophobes they should be minding their own damned business.

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