(Essay 3 in the Evolution and Morality Series)

Religious morality is by no means the only source of moral reasoning available to us. There is in fact a long history of secular philosophy dating all the way back to the 5
th century BC.  And not just the materialist philosophers of ancient Greece, mind you. The non-theistic religions of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism all date back to around the same time period in history.

In a sense, it probably isn’t strictly accurate to call these philosophies secular. Unlike the later philosophers of the modern era, these ancient philosophers did not actively attempt to disavow the authority of the Gods of the time. What they did was far more subtle. They slyly moved the emphasis of moral reasoning towards a new tradition of logical reasoning and away from faith. For the first time in human history, it was possible to justify a moral dictate without once having to invoke a single deity. 

Unfortunately, this golden age of non-theism did not beget a long thriving tradition of secular reasoning. The history of secular reasoning is choppy and discontinuous. Here and there an intrepid individual would covertly push the envelope ever so slightly. It is not until the 18th and 19th centuries that we see a real renaissance of secular moral reasoning. This time it is far more robust, and this time it has God squarely it its cross-hairs. This secular tradition has fared better and continues to thrive. Today it serves as the only viable alternative for anyone who disavows religious moral reasoning.

There is much to value in this tradition. Most of all it is a celebration of the human capacity for reason and imagination. But this tradition also has its own limitations. These become all too apparent when philosophers disagree with each other. Typically, groups of disagreeing philosophers will splinter off into rival camps. Each of these camps will survive as long as the ideas continue to have followers. What we get as a result is a long chain of incessantly splintering schools of thought.

All of this is eerily similar to what happens within religious groups. Consider how Christians have split into Catholics and Protestants. Then there are the innumerable fragments under the protestant umbrella.

This tells us something important about the relationship we as society have with our philosophers.

We let them stay cloistered in their darkened rooms, contemplating the nature of reality. And then, when they emerge with their insights, we as a society implicitly accept what they say on their authority. If you think about it, it is not all that different from our relationship with the prophets either. The prophet trots off into the desert or the cave, as the case may be and returns with a sacred decree. In this case we accept their commandments on the authority of an unseen God.

There is, as you can see, in both cases a certain ambivalence of authority. When it comes to philosophers and prophets, we are on the outside looking in. In neither case do we have a clear mechanism of accountability or transparency. Therefore, as society, we have no authority to adjudicate a philosophical or theological conflict. In both religion and philosophy we lack a formalized process to resolve who is right. The tragedy is, without such a process, we can have no real hope of ever agreeing on a universal common set of human moral values.

Read the earlier posts:

Essay 1 Birth of a Movement

Essay 2
Gods Unvanquished