Morality’s independence from religion

Via the Labour Humanists comes a great piece by Sam Harris on the question of morality outside of religion. I don’t hear that so much in the UK, but in the US there seem to be large numbers of people who think that orders from ghosts are all that stand between any individual and complete moral bankruptcy. Sam shows why this is crap in many ways; here’s one:

It is important to point out that we decide what is good in the Good Book. We read the Golden Rule and judge it to be a brilliant distillation of many of our ethical impulses; we read that a woman found not to be a virgin on her wedding night should be stoned to death, and we (if we are civilized) decide that this is the most vile lunacy imaginable. Our own ethical intuitions are, therefore, primary. So the choice before us is simple: we can either have a twenty-first-century conversation about ethics—availing ourselves of all the arguments and scientific insights that have accumulated in the last two thousand years of human discourse—or we can confine ourselves to a first-century conversation as it is preserved in the Bible.

I’d add that blind adherence to doctrine is actually a far less desirable form of morality than something you’ve thought through yourself. That’s not to say that many, if not most, religious people don’t analyse the morality of scripture – it’s only really the complete nuts who are happy to turn their brains off – but when you start from the basis of ‘god exists and says this’ you have to ignore or rationalise away large amounts of barbarism, because who wants to think their deity is any less than perfect? When your premise is invalid, chaos follows. A perfectly acceptable morality can be achieved through reason and compassion, and it doesn’t require jumping through mental hoops to avoid the clearly repulsive.