Secular Fantasies

The Golden Rule Is Powerless Without Judeo-Christian Presuppositions

Ever since the Enlightenment, men have imagined a secular society liberated from the spell of religion and founded upon certain knowledge; that is, upon facts gleaned from the sensible world through science and human reason. Yet, despite the urge to be unbound to transcendence, every noble foundation of the secular state is parasitic, feeding off the intellectual and moral capital of Christianity.

In a New York Times op-ed, philosopher Stanley Fish makes this point, if unwittingly, when he notes that, to the secularist, "the prohibition against stealing in the Ten Commandments is all right because there is a secular version of the prohibition rooted in the law of property rights rather than in a biblical command."1

But where did the presumption of private property and rightful ownership originate, except in the eighth and tenth commandments of the Decalogue? Indeed, the moral bedrock of our nation, as James Madison explained, is built "upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God."

Golden Rule Ethics

Many secularists will yawp, claiming that such sectarian codes are merely offshoots of the Golden Rule, the primal, self-evident standard of all moral conduct. Indeed, treating our neighbor as we would want to be treated has been recognized as a universal good in nearly every civilization since the beginning of recorded history. However, the Golden Rule has a problem: the concept of one's "neighbor."

Are my neighbors those in my family, ethnic group, community, church, country, or the entire global village? Do they include the disabled, the unborn, the feeble-minded, and the dying? The rule is mute. While the principle of fairness and reciprocity in the Golden Rule is universally agreed upon, the concept of "neighbor" is not—it varies from including only the members of one's household to encompassing all of humankind. Consequently, despite being held in general esteem, the rule has done little to keep individuals and civilizations from devouring each other.

Indeed, divergent beliefs about who does and who does not deserve neighborly consideration have been behind every conflict from Cain and Abel to modern-day Jihadists. Without universally accepted descriptions, definitions, and doctrines, the Golden Rule is powerless to produce a just society.

Science-Based Morality

Other secularists, like Sam Harris, believe that morality can be established empirically. Harris is a trenchant atheist who is confident that the shared moral values of society can, and should, be grounded in science.

His argument goes something like this: The natural world operates according to material laws discoverable through science; morality is a part of the natural world; therefore, morality follows material laws discoverable through science.

The problem with Harris's argument is that everything in the natural world does not behave in a law-like, cause and effect, manner—especially things pertaining to human behavior, such as moral conduct. True, morality has the features of law, in that it predicts certain outcomes from certain actions (for example, people who are sexually promiscuous will have higher incidences of pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease).

But unlike the law of gravity, which tells us what two heavenly bodies do when one body enters the other's orbit, morality does not tell us what two people do when one comes into the personal space of the other; rather, it tells us what they ought to do. As such, morality is not discernable, scientifically or otherwise, from what humans actually do. If it were, we would shudder, for it would suggest that we are little more than automata slavishly following the program of some "moral gene."

Harris would be quick to say that morality specifies actions that enhance human flourishing, and we know, scientifically, what many of those are: proper medical care, education, sanitation, and so on.

Unarguably, applied science is credited with doubling human life expectancy over the last 150 years, and for our planet's having cleaner air and water than at any time since the Industrial Revolution. Yet, tragically, the 20th century also featured programs of eugenics, forced sterilization, and selective breeding that were morally justified on scientific grounds, as are today's arguments for human cloning and embryo-destructive research.

So it does not appear that we can reason our way to morality from our study of human behavior.

From Whence "Oughts"

Well, then, how about deriving morality from the study of nature?

Okay, let's see if nature studies lead us to the liberal ideals of freedom and equality.

Using only nature as his guide, Charles Darwin, a sainted hero of secularism, became convinced that natural selection was as fundamental as the laws of thermodynamics. His theories inspired a generation of social architects who imagined that they could manipulate the selection process and direct it toward their utopian ends. What nature taught Darwin and his disciples was that some people are taller, bigger, stronger, smarter, healthier, and more fit than others; what it didn't teach them was that people were in any way "equal."

"Oughts" do not issue from the cosmos and then sit around waiting to be discovered by researchers in the same way that, say, light spectra from supernovae are discovered. "Oughts" come from presuppositions about man's nature and dignity. As to the ideals of freedom and equality, they derive from Judeo-Christian presuppositions.

Belief in the intrinsic dignity of man was the inspiration behind the famous words of Thomas Jefferson (a co-opted saint of secularism): "that all men are created equal: that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" (emphasis added).

In his Notes on the State of Virginia Jefferson rhetorically asked, "Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift of God?"

Our Founding Fathers realized that rights and freedoms depend on citizens whose darker angels are restrained by a received moral code. John Adams put it this way: "We have no government armed with the power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion."

For the founders, moral truth was not a matter of empirical observation, personal opinion, or popular consensus; rather, it was the product of an external source of knowledge: the divine mind of God. Without a transcendent origin, moral codes become matters of power and politics. Rights and freedoms—and who has claim to them—are then neither inalienable nor durable, but subject to the caprice of the tyrant or the tyranny of the crowd.

The atrocities committed during the last century by the regimes of Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Mussolini are sufficient to disabuse all but the most glassy-eyed dreamers of the futility of producing a moral society from a purely secular state.

Effect of Modernity

An unquestioned maxim among secularists is that modernization leads to secularism. The more technologically advanced a society becomes, so the claim goes, the less religious and the more secular it becomes. Problem is, the facts do not support that claim.

The last century saw unprecedented exponential growth in technology. From 1900 to the present, technological wizardry took us from gaslights to lasers, telegraphs to Twitter, ground travel to space travel, and horsepower to nuclear power. According to the secularist creed, religious adherence should have plummeted in a commensurate fashion.

Instead, as reported by the Economist, "The proportion of people attached to the world's four biggest religions—Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism—rose from 67% in 1900 to 73% in 2005."2 In the U.S., the most modernized nation in the world, over 80 percent of the population still claims some religious affiliation, the vast majority Christian.3 What's more, despite technology growth projections, the folks at the Economist predict that worldwide religious attachment "may reach 80% by 2050."

If book sales are any indication, that prediction could be on the low side. Consider that The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren has sold over 30 million copies worldwide, while The God Delusion—the book that author and atheist provocateur Richard Dawkins had hoped would turn religious believers into atheists—has sold a relatively meager 2 million copies.


But secularism has a more fundamental problem: its commitment to materialistic science as the fount of all knowledge. That devotion is nothing less than an act of faith—faith that nature is a mechanism that can be explained by physical laws; faith that those laws are universal and unchanging; faith that our senses reliably perceive the world as it really is; faith that our minds accurately interpret those perceptions; and faith that the origin, diversity, and complexity of nature is the unguided product of chance and necessity. From the outset, the secular project of establishing society on certain knowledge is defeated.

And that's not all. Although science can help us collect, organize, and analyze data, it can't tell us how that data should be used for the flourishing of humankind. As Stanley Fish writes, "going from observation to evaluation and judgment, proves difficult, indeed impossible" because—and here he quotes law professor Steven Smith—the "discursive resources available . . . are insufficient to yield any definite answer to a difficult issue—abortion, say, or same sex marriage, or the permissibility of torture."4

Fish's remarks are not to be taken as support for transcendence. Fish himself is a secularist, just of a different stripe than those he criticizes. He is what is known as an "anti-foundationalist," a person who believes that metaphysical reality—that is, what is really real—is ultimately unknowable, making all judgments situational and provisional. Anti-foundationalists swim in the same philosophical waters as postmodernists, relativists, pragmatists, and deconstructionists.

For Fish, the dogmatism of secularists is as wrong-headed as that of religious believers. (Fish is an equal-opportunity agitator and proud of it.) Because knowledge is uncertain, the guiding principles of society must remain elastic, ready to conform to the changing contours of culture. Of that, Fish and his fellow anti-foundationalists are quite certain.

Whether founded upon scientific materialism or anti-foundationalism, secularism self-destructs. Scientists cannot establish science as the wellspring of knowledge without exempting it from the criteria that they apply to the things they study. Neither can anti-foundationalists know that knowledge is uncertain without claiming to know (with certainty) something about knowledge. Either way, secularism collapses.

The Best Explanation

While secularists fancy that their worldview is objective and free of ideological biases, it is anything but. Fish candidly remarks that there "are no neutral principles," including, I might add, those he favors.

Every ethical principle, every moral standard, and every ideal of truth, beauty, and goodness depends on a particular worldview; that is, upon a set of preconceived notions about how the world works. Although worldviews are neither neutral nor provable in an absolute sense, there is one that best explains the world as it really is.

The fact that, time and again, people irrepressibly smuggle Christianity into their ideological systems under the moral labels of "liberty," "freedom," "equality," "humanism," "tolerance," "social justice," "global brotherhood," and the like, is evidence of its singular explanatory power. •

1. "Are There Secular Reasons?", Feb. 22, 2010,
2. "In God's Name," Nov. 1, 2007,
3. Pew Forum report, June 23, 2008,
4. "Are There Secular Reasons?", op. cit.

From Salvo 18 (Autumn 2011)
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Regis Nicoll  is a retired nuclear engineer and physicist, a Colson Center fellow, and a Christian commentator on faith and culture. He is the author of Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters, available at Amazon.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #18, Fall 2011 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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