Writing for Huffpost Religion, Rabbi Alana Suskin has argued that with all its history of human rights abuses, religion is still a better basis for human rights than secularism. I disagree.
To begin with, she addresses the claim that “religious people are a sort of automation for God’s whim:”
While I can’t speak for all faiths, the answer is clearly, “No.” Within Jewish tradition there are clear precedents of arguing with God… In the Jewish tradition, starting in the Torah, there is a strong current of approbation for the faithful Jew who challenges God.
Ignoring the slightly pompous insinuation that Jewish tradition is better than those other more dogmatic religions, we need to recognize that this “answer” doesn’t address the accusation. We atheists do not argue that religious people become unthinking executors of God’s will. So… even if the Rabbi is correct, it’s not really pertinent.
The argument against religious moral foundations is that the lack of an empirical “reality check” allows believers to alter their ethics towards whatever evil they desire. Because the appeal to revelation defies and even contradicts empiricism, there is no way to effectively argue against a religious person who is convinced that evil is actually good. It’s not that believers are unthinking. It’s that when they do think, their ultimate loyalty is to a “higher authority,” not empirical reality.
Suskin next moves to a criticism of secular moral philosophy:
Secular morality hasn’t any more to do with reason — and perhaps less — than those of the religious person. Each and every one of us lives in a society that determines our feelings of what is “natural,” “right” and “rational.” These cultural biases are difficult to examine because they are like water to a fish — so ubiquitous and so pervasive, we simply do not notice them. Are the norms of one’s society,which are so deeply embedded within us that they feel “natural,” a compass toward what is right and good?
Her first statement is objectively false. In highlighting the logistical problems of secular moral theorists’ attempts to describe an “ultimate” morality, she has ignored the elephant in the room. Science has given us a clear understanding of morality. And what it has told us is this: Morality is not an “ultimate” prescription of what to do or not to do. It is an evolutionary patchwork of prosocial and antisocial tendencies which work relatively well on a macro level, but cannot prescribe the perfect action in every individual situation.
The Rabbi is correct. Secularism cannot prescribe one cultural norm which will work for all people. But in being correct, she has missed the boat. The presumption that there is one “ultimate” cultural norm is a religious one, not a scientific one. She is presuming that we ought to be able to prescribe one morality that will work for everybody. In effect, she’s assumed religion’s moral model and then awarded it the prize for not being scientific.