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The Ethics of Secularism

One of the principles of secularism is doing good for goodness’ sake: “Whether there be other good or not, the good of the present life is good, and it is good to seek that good.” The English secularist George Jacob Holyoake, who coined the word “secularism” in the mid-19th century, asserted, “Individual good attained by methods conducive to the good of others, is the highest aim of man, whether regard be had to human welfare in this life or personal fitness for another. Precedence is therefore given to the duties of this life.

Since this utilitarian ethical principle is not grounded on the moral dictates of a transcendent being, i.e., God, it is not surprising that theists are quick to criticize it as lacking an ontological foundation, meaning there is no basis for conceptualizing such moral system in the first place. They then proceed to cite David Hume’s is-ought problem and G.E. Moore’s naturalistic fallacy, insisting that it is impossible to derive an “ought” from an “is” or to infer moral obligations from mere observations of nature, and that what is naturally pleasant or desired is not necessarily “good”.

While Hume wrote in A Treatise of Human Nature that it surprised him to find an ought instead of an is, there seems to be nothing in the book expressing the impossibility of bridging the is-ought gap. Hume only said that “’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

Moreover, the rules apply to both theists and nontheists, and if the requirements for bridging the gap are set to go beyond common sense and into ontological obsession, I doubt that even Divine Command Theory can bridge it. Someone claiming that God exists and has laid down certain rules (an is statement) is also expected to explain why we ought to act accordingly, and after all the rationalizations have been exposed and eliminated, it all boils down to one thing: we ought to obey and please God for the welfare of our souls.

While the secularist does not necessarily rule out the possibility of a life after death since it’s unprovable either way, he gives priority to his welfare in this life: “For a future state Secularism proposes the wise use of this, as he who fails in this “duty nearest hand” has no moral fitness for any other.” And since claims of divine revelation are all hearsay and our common sense dictates that the Bible is a dangerous guide to morality, secularism “offers the guidance of observation, investigation, and experience. Instead of taking authority for truth, it takes truth for authority.

The word ought was originally used to express duty or obligation (and this is probably how Hume intended to use it), but modern usage has expanded its meaning to also indicate advisability or desirability. Since the secularist believes in the improvement of this life by material means and that science is the available Providence of man, if he wants to be happy then he knows what he ought –  what he is well advised – to do, and that is to seek happiness in ways that are conducive to the happiness of others so as to encourage mutual effort in perpetuating everybody’s happiness.

As for the naturalistic fallacy, while it is true that “pleasant” is not necessarily tantamount to “good,” it seems that all of mankind’s conscious acts are ultimately motivated by pleasure. The blogger Philosophy Bro put it succinctly:

“People want to be happy; that seems pretty clear. What makes people happy? Why, pleasure makes people happy…Pleasure is the only thing people want for its own sake, as an end; everything else people do is to attain some final pleasure…For some reason dudes keep insisting that there’s more to life than pleasure. And to them I say, “Really? Like what?” When they start listing shit like literature and the arts and human excellence, I know they’re not paying attention because all of those things are pleasurable.”

As for the theists who define “good” as something that God commands or desires, the is-ought problem is thrown back at them: why do we ought to do good and obey God? And if they are honest enough they will admit that it’s because they want to have a pleasant eternal life in Heaven and avoid perpetual torment in Hell.

And so it seems that for the theist and nontheist alike, morality, or at least the standard by which a person judges actions with either approval or disapproval, is ultimately rooted in the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. In Of Vice and Virtue, Hume wrote, “For granting that morality had no foundation in nature, it must still be allowed, that vice and virtue, either from self-interest or the prejudices of education, produce in us a real pain and pleasure.” An article in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy paraphrases Hume: “[I]t is because we are the kinds of creatures we are, with the dispositions we have for pain and pleasure, the kinds of familial and friendly interdependence that make up our life together, and our approvals and disapprovals of these, that we are bound by moral requirements at all.”

And while the secularist does not concern himself with ultimate or eternal scenarios of pleasure and pain as much as the immediate and foreseeable consequences of his actions, it does not mean that his morality is inferior. In The Science of Good and Evil, Michael Shermer explained that “like everyone else, I face judges that are in their own ways transcendent and powerful: family and friends, colleagues and peers, mentors and teachers, and society at large. My judges may be lowercased and occasionally deceivable, but they are transcendent of me as an individual, even if they are not transcendent of nature…real people whose lives are directly affected by my actions, and whose actions directly affect my life.”

The secularist’s judges may not be as fearsome as a deity capable of sentencing people to eternal torture, but he nevertheless respects them deeply and holds himself accountable to them. That’s because in this life, which is the only life we really know exists, these human judges influence our welfare and happiness in ways that we can clearly see and foresee. As such, we are accountable to them because we are ultimately accountable to ourselves.

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Secularism and the Filipino Freethinkers

We often hear the term secularism nowadays, but it’s possible that many people take its meaning for granted and fail to appreciated the profundity of the word. The social theorist Harriet Martineau wrote, “The adoption of the term Secularism is justified by its including a large number of persons who are not Atheists, and uniting them for action which has Secularism for its object, and not Atheism. On this ground, and because, by the adoption of a new term, a vast amount of impediment from prejudice is got rid of, the use of the name Secularism is found advantageous.”

An online dictionary has the following definitions of secularism:

1. a view that religion and religious considerations should be ignored or excluded from social and political matters.

2. an ethical system asserting that moral judgments should be made without reference to religious doctrine, as reward or punishment in an afterlife.

The first definition maintains the separation of religion from State and society; the second asserts the separation of religion from morality. But as secularism aims to remove religion from our interactions with fellow human beings, it also proposes to replace it with reason and the test of human experience. The English secularist George Jacob Holyoake defined secularism as “a form of opinion which concerns itself only with questions the issues of which can be tested by the experience of this life.

On issues involving sex and relationships like the RH Bill, divorce, and same-sex marriage, secularism examines the discussions and points out that religious arguments, particularly those that are based on supposed divine revelation, are not accepted in public discourse. Secularism does not tell religion to shut up; it merely asks religion, when speaking outside the four walls of the church, to speak in a language everyone in a pluralistic society can understand. Dogmas are applicable only to the members of a particular sect since no single church holds a doctrine uncontested by other faiths. Thus, secularism asks religion to defend its moral and truth claims in public with rational explanations and testable evidence.

Secularism does not intend to wipe out religion; it merely asserts that “religion ought never to be anything but a private affair” and not to influence public policy. Secularism envisions a society where toleration exists, meaning there is “conditional acceptance of or non-interference with beliefs, actions or practices that one considers to be wrong but still “tolerable” such that they should not be prohibited or constrained.” By toleration, secularism does not expect religion to abandon its sacred beliefs or embrace the diverging philosophies of other schools of thought; rather, it simply asks religion to acknowledge the diversity of beliefs and not necessarily to agree with the opposing beliefs themselves.

In the general concept of toleration,

it is essential…that the tolerated beliefs or practices are considered to be objectionable and in an important sense wrong or bad. If this objection component is missing, we do not speak of “toleration” but of “indifference” or “affirmation.”

This objection component is clearly manifested in a 1990 statement of the CBCP on the matter of family planning:

“The Church reiterates its objections to contraception and sterilization and expresses its reservations about the moral acceptability of certain aspects of the Program.  But in a pluralistic society and recognizing the freedom of those who disagree with Church principles, the Church respects the government’s toleration of other means that the conscience of others may not object to and that the law on abortion does not forbid.  Nonetheless, the Church seeks a greater emphasis on natural family planning as consistent with moral teachings and religious beliefs.”

While it is commendable that “the Church respects the government’s toleration,” technically the government is not being tolerant because in the first place it does not share the Church’s objection component, which is religious in nature, towards contraception. As such, what is expected of the government is not toleration but affirmation of modern family planning methods that are effective, safe, and legal. Moreover, secularism calls on the government to be indifferent towards the doctrines of religions especially since they are in conflict with one another. For example, in the following chart which lists the religious acceptability of certain acts ranging from 1 (condemned) to 5 (totally acceptable), only Roman Catholicism condemns birth control (7th line) while other religions accept it.












1 = “condemned” 2 = “morally unacceptable in most cases” 3 = “neutral” or “no clear position” 4 = “morally acceptable in most cases” 5 = “blessed” or “totally acceptable” [source]

With such conflicting religious teachings, it is just appropriate that the government is mandated by no less than the Constitution to give no reverence to any single religion. And while secularism rejects religious claims of divine revelation, it “offers the guidance of observation, investigation, and experience. Instead of taking authority for truth, it takes truth for authority.

At this point it is necessary to reiterate that secularism is not the same as atheism. While atheism rejects the idea of God and denies his existence, secularism merely points out that “no sacred scripture or ancient church can be made a basis of belief, for the obvious reason that their claims always need to be proved, and cannot without absurdity be assumed.” Moreover, Secularism goes beyond the rejection of unproven religious claims. In English Secularism, Holyoake wrote,

The Secularist, is without presumption of an infallible creed, is without the timorous indefiniteness of a creedless believer… The Secularist has a creed as definite as science, and as flexible as progress, increasing as the horizon of truth is enlarged… All believe that God, if he exists, is the God of the honest, and that he respects conscience more than creeds, for all free thinkers have died in this faith.

We at Filipino Freethinkers aim to promote secularism as a means of improving every Filipino’s quality of life, wishing for everyone to live lives free of ignorance and oppression – in a society where they are able to act and think for themselves, and in a country where religion and governance are clearly and permanently separated. And as we are composed of nonbelievers and progressive believers, we have no consensus on the question of the existence of God. What we do agree about, however, is that all religious authority is self-appointed because God, if he exists, never personally endorsed any religion. Thus, being freethinkers – and secularists – we rely on reason and science to chart morality and uplift humanity.

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