Rise of Atheism Brings Different, Rational Morality
By EDMUND BROWN
Our generation, Generation Y, has been called the Facebook Generation, the Go-Nowhere Generation and Generation Why Care? But while the older generations slander ours, a small but significant statistic stands out: 25 percent of Generation Y does not affiliate with any religion, more than double the percentage of any previous generation. Though traditionalists argue a move away from religion is a move away from morality, the growing secular community disagrees. In fact, they argue the reverse.
Since Sept. 11, a tragedy enabled by religious values, non-religious authors such as neuroscientist Sam Harris, biologist Richard Dawkins and the late journalist Christopher Hitchens have written best sellers describing both the long history of religious atrocities and the growing potential for science and reason to provide moral guidance. In a climate of endless global conflict and inequality, the time for adopting more humane values has come, and reason, not religion, should be their source.
Science has long been portrayed as unable to answer questions of morality, but, as Harris argues in “The Moral Landscape,” it becomes humanity’s most precise tool for evaluating moral issues when coupled with reason. The only necessary assumption to accept this revised moral view is that the suffering of conscious creatures is negative and the well-being of conscious creatures is positive. From there, Harris explains, it follows that more suffering is worse and the more well being, the better. There is not a single, objective method of achieving maximum well-being, but rather a continuum that understands well-being can be achieved in diverse ways through various cultures and lifestyles.
But this is not moral relativism. Practices like forced sexual repression, mandatory veiling and clitorectomies cannot hide behind religious dogma as an excuse for causing suffering. In this system, the well-being of conscious creatures is called for no matter the circumstance or culture.
Compared to the values offered by religion, reason-based values are flexible and clear. They use all the available scientific knowledge and encourage inquiry. Religion, however, discourages inquiry, banning books with ‘dangerous’ ideas and at the most extreme burning heretics on a large scale. Religion carried out the censoring of world-shaping men like Galileo or Baruch Spinoza, whose scientific observations or personal beliefs contradicted church teachings. As a result of this closed-mindedness, religion stopped evolving. Science has corroded religion’s ability to speak about the world, explaining with observable fact what once required supernatural explanation. But even modern morality, a debate religion weighs heavily into, is escaping religion’s reach. The morality of abortion and other vital modern debates exist nowhere in major religious texts because the technology or concept did not exist when the texts were authored. However, instead of admitting religion’s silence on these issues, religious leaders have ubiquitously employed human interpretation to create an answer. And when the power to decree morality for millions lies firmly in the hands of a miniscule elite, the lowliest of human impulses can become dogma.
Our Generation’s most explosive struggles lie at the heart of this question of values. Issues like racism, abortion, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender rights, women’s rights and birth control could be decided by consulting religious teachings or they could be decided by engaging in an ongoing discussion using all modern scientific evidence and searching for the least possible suffering of conscious creatures. Generation Y should demand rational discourse, condemning homophobic violence, abortion clinic bombings or condom misinformation. We should ask why the ‘Golden Rule’ is applied to denounce abortion but doesn’t apply towards the LGBT community. We should ask for evidence to support claims. We should admit what we don’t know.
A change of values favoring evidence and reason certainly allows room for religion, but it does not allow room for religion nor any institution to interfere with the well-being of conscious creatures. Instead it challenges religion to update itself or lose all authority on moral issues. And even if you disagree with the secular movement and updated values, surely the competition can only challenge all religions to enter into a rational discussion about which values are most moral in a modern world. Surely asking questions and applying reason will not destroy the values we truly hold dear, religious or secular. It may even earn our Generation a new nickname.