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Morals without God - A Secular System of Ethics. Ian Bryce Secular Party Ethics teacher A Secular System of Ethics. Can we have morals without a god?

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Morals without god a secular system of ethics l.jpg

Morals without God - A Secular System of Ethics

Ian Bryce

Secular Party

Ethics teacher

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A Secular System of Ethics

Can we have morals

without a god?

We will try to construct a system of ethics based instead on scientific principles and reason.

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Golden Rule - do unto others…

Allow rape of daughters

Slay heretics

Love and respect all beings

Torture the innocent in order to forgive the guilty

Help others in your family

Be nice to others in your pack

Attack anyone outside your tribe

What to practice? Examples of ethics

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Because the Chief said

Because God said

Because its written in our Holy book

Because the priest said

Its good to be good (Kant)

Duty for Duty’s sake

For my own benefit (reciprocity)

For reward in the Afterlife

Survival value

The Altruistic gene

Family benefit

To make society function

To avoid jail

It feels good

Why practice it? Examples of reasons given

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Dark Ages 300 AD-1500 AD

The Church was in charge.





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The Enlightenment

  • The Age of Enlightenment (or simply the Enlightenment or Age of Reason) was an elite cultural movement of intellectuals in 18th century Europe that sought to mobilize the power of reason in order to reform society and advance knowledge. It promoted intellectual interchange and opposed intolerance and abuses in Church and state.

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Galileo - described planetary orbits -1610 (earth no longer at the center)

Newton - gravity, laws of motion - 1687

Lavoisier - chemistry - 1877

Ampere - electric current - 1820

Darwin - 1858 - attributed species to nature not a deity


The advance of Reason in human affairs 1600-1800

Spinoza - 1660 - criticized the Bible, the mind is the body

John Locke - 1680 - consciousness, monetarism, knowledge is gained through perception

Didero - 1750



Benjamin Franklin

Thomas Jefferson


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Classical philosophers contributing to secular ethics

  • David Hume 1743

  • Immanual Kant 1785

  • John Stuart Mill1861

  • Friedrich Nietzsche 1887

  • George Holyoake1896

  • Bertrand Russell1927

  • Ludwig Wittgenstein ?

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Classical contributors to secular ethics

  • David Hume

    1743 “A Treatise on Human Nature”

  • Ethical questions are subjective, unlike matters of fact

  • Hence, Reward & punishment - only to change future behavior

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Classical contributors to secular ethics

John Stuart Mill

(and his father James Mill,

and Jeremy Bentham)

1861 “Utilitarianism”

  • Use experience not intuition

  • Greatest happiness principle:

  • Actions are “right” of they promote happiness

  • “Wrong” of they promote pain

  • Happiness of everyone, not just the doer - “nobleness”

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Classical contributors to secular ethics

Friedrich Nietzsche

1887 On the Genealogy of Morality

  • Rejected Christianity - “God is dead”

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Classical contributors to secular ethics

George Holyoake

1896 “English Secularism”

  • Work for this life (not an afterlife)

  • Uses material means and science

  • It is good to do good

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Classical contributors to secular ethics

Bertrand Russell

1927 “Why I am not a Christian”

•Religion …is the enemy of moral progress in the world

•Promoted science and reason

•A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage

•Political activist - Anti-war stance

•Sexual freedoms

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Modern secular ethicists(or contributors)

  • Peter Singer1977

  • Richard Dawkins

  • Michael Shermer1991

  • Christopher Hitchens2007

  • Michel Onfray 2007

  • Tenzin Gyatso~2000

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Modern secular ethicists

Peter Singer

1977 Animal Liberation

  • The Expanding Circle


    Ethical reasoning since primitive times

  • Large perspective: equal concern for all human beings

  • We should bear a small pain to relieve another’s large pain

  • Thus, are Americans immoral?

  • Greater happiness through sharing

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Modern secular ethicists

Christopher Hitchens

2007 “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything”

  • Religion misrepresents the origins of humankind and the cosmos

  • Religion demands unreasonable suppression of human nature

  • Religion inclines people to violence and blind submission to authority

  • Religion expresses hostility to free inquiry

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Modern secular ethicists

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

2007 “Infidel: my life”

  • Recounts her story as a Moslem woman

  • Has suffered all the indignities including genital mutilation and forced marriage.

  • She blames Moslems who refer to the marriage of the prophet Mohammad to a girl of nine to justify these things (even in Melbourne).

  • And the West has failed to speak out.

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Modern secular ethicists

Tenzin Gyatso

~2000 many speeches

  • If science proves religion to be wrong, then religion must change.

  • Progress in research, especially in the life sciences, needs to be directed by 'secular ethics': ethical principals that transcend religious barriers and are common to everyone.


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Modern secular ethicists

Tenzin Gyatso

~2000 many speeches

  • “If science proves Buddhism to be wrong, then religion must change.”

  • “Progress in research, especially in the life sciences, needs to be directed by 'secular ethics': ethical principals that transcend religious barriers and are common to everyone.”

14th Dalai Lama

Leader of Tibetan Buddhism

Popular leader of Tibet

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Facts - Religion

  • See Table - broad

  • Highlighted comparisons:

  • Sacred texts

  • Prophet-founder

  • Gods

  • Beliefs

  • Chosen race

  • Thus, a comparative analysis establishes, on many different bases, and beyond any doubt, that of any 100 religions or sects, no two can be true. 99 of them are wrong or 100 are wrong.

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More Facts - Religion

  • Scientific evidence discounts intervention by any supernatural being

  • All thorough tests of prayer show zero effect

  • The biblical miracles are impossible, according to the laws of physics, which have held since the Big Bang

  • Most religions have a known (and very human) origin. The holy books, prophets and miracles are clearly designed to give power to a particular sect.

  • This does nothing to trouble the believers.

  • Christianity - basis: Ancient Sin - Adam, Eve, nakedness, hence the crucifixion.

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Morality of the religions

  • Much of human folklore and legends convey moral principles and altruism

  • Many have been incorporated into religion, such as the Parables of the Old and New Testaments

  • Good and bad instructions have become mixed

  • Eg Thou shalt not steal, but you should slaughter any nonbelievers.

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Morality of the religions

  • The teachings of churches vary through history, according to the whims of the person in power, eg Henry 8th.

  • The instructions for extreme cruelty have been used to justify most wars, genocide, inquisitions etc in history.

  • Religious leaders hold up their sacred texts as their moral authority - yet they are full of immoral instructions

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Morality of the religions

  • Religious leaders themselves have a long history of using prostitutes, child sex, abusing boys etc

  • Those instructions and actions of the churches which are sound, clearly do not come from their holy books

  • Hence are available to secular thinkers too

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Morality of the religions

  • Religious leaders of most creeds have a consistent history of oppressing minorities, eg the unmarried, the unhappily married, the pregnant, gays, and particularly women

  • It is virtually impossible to improve this - can’t argue with their authority

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Morality of the religions

How can belief systems which are both false and harmful be propagated for thousands of years?

  • Passed down by fathers and clerics

  • To those most vulnerable - to children, who are programmed to accept all they are taught.

  • By the time they reach outside the family, it is too late - others seem like aliens

  • Need to break the cycle - stop lying to the children

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Disagreements and science

  • Unlike religions, science offers a path to resolving disagreements.

  • Both parties are asked to present their evidence or analysis (for example the experiments they are relying on).

  • These tests can then be examined and repeated by others.

  • The methods and results are visible to all parties, so eventually a consensus will be achieved.

  • When these principles are applied to a conflict, there is a path towards resolution.

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Enlightenment through science

  • Cosmology has revealed the origins of the universe

  • The first generation of stars - making heavy elements (of which we are now made)

  • The gas clouds condensing into new stars and planets

  • The solar system clearing of dust, the earth accumulating water and gases

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Enlightenment through science

  • Physics has shown we live in a material world

  • No evidence of a supernatural or spiritual realm, hence no theoretical basis for religions

  • There is apparently no way a supernatural being could influence the universe - the four known forces account for all phenomena, no “gaps” for spooks

  • At least in our domain - might be different at extreme energies and gravity in black holes etc

  • Hence physics strongly rules out the gods claimed by religions

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Enlightenment through science

  • Biology has shown us how life works, and reproduced using DNA

  • Evolution shows we are descended from common ancestors with other primates

  • Our sharing DNA with all life on earth, and the relatively insignificant differences between races and minority groups, is a powerful source of respect and harmony.

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Origin of morals

  • The Evolution cycle: Heredity, Random variation, Survival value

  • Genes (packages of DNA)

  • & memes (ideas)

  • Reciprocity - altruistic gene

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Origin of morals - How to enforce?

  • Chief of tribe

  • Rules, laws

  • Stab in back? Need a higher authority

  • Powerful, invisible friend

  • Prophet, holy book - religion

  • Kings, rules, laws

  • Favor those who agree, convert or murder those who don’t

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  • So ethics, morals, religions etc are inventions of man

  • We are free to invent our own!

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Enlightenment through science

  • Neuroscience has shown us that the mind is what the brain does. Thinking is patterns of electro-chemical activity.

  • The human mind has no extension in space outside the brain - astral travel is out.

  • The human mind has no extension in time outside the brain - no previous lives or afterlife.

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Our Core paradigm for ethics: The welfare of sentient beings

  • Our basis for ethics is: Respect for sentient beings.

  • Because they are aware, or conscious, and capable of experiencing pleasure and pain

  • Their welfare is important to us.

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  • How to maximize the welfare of sentient beings?

  • We know (because we experience it) that we humans (and animals) are self aware and conscious

  • And thus capable of feeling pain, sorrow, joy, love, appreciation of nature etc.

  • Our lives also rely on many social structures, such as:

  • learning from the responses of others to our actions,

  • establishing friendships where helpful actions are likely to be repaid,

  • making plans for the future,

  • enjoying success,

  • and regretting failure.

  • These capabilities add to our pleasure and pain, and hence to the value we place on life.

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Application to specific issues




Law and courts


Population growth



Religious education

Enlightened education

Contraception and abortion

Right to die


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Application to specific issues

  • Animals

  • More primitive creatures with simpler brains probably experience such consciousness and social structures also – to a lesser degree.

  • Thus, their feelings also deserve respect – but to a lesser degree than humans.

  • A dog is worth less consideration than a human,

  • a mouse less again, a worm less still, and so on.

  • Thus, animals are deserve our respect, to varying degrees.

  • But to a lesser degree than humans.

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Application to specific issues

  • Aliens #1

  • If we meet (or talk to) aliens?

  • What would the churches do? Scan the sacred texts, conclude that they were heretics, infidels, atheists etc, and try to convert or exterminate them.

  • What would we do? Observe that they are sentient, so we would respect them (treat them well).

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Application to specific issues

  • Aliens #2

  • BUT the aliens will have vastly superior technology…

  • If THEY are religious…scan their sacred text, do humans believe in the Flying Dog Poo God? NO? Convert or exterminate!

  • Let us hope the aliens practise secular ethics!

  • Life on Mars…

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Application to specific issues

  • Religious Education

  • Religion and hatred propagated by indoctrinating children

  • When most vulnerable.

    Clear chain of events to:

  • False beliefs about origins

  • Supernatural beings

  • Hatred of other races

  • Them indoctrinating next generation.

    We believe children have the right not to be lied to, in matters of origins and deities

    Many forms of child abuse are outlawed already

    This would impact parental behavior and “faith schools”.

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Application to specific issues

  • Religious Education

    Telling parents what they can tell their children would be very difficult.

    Even ABC’s Rachael Kohn says parents should have the right to “bring up their children in their faith”.

    Does that include “inculcating hatred in other creeds”?

  • Meanwhile, a less ambitious plan:

    Enlightened education

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Application to specific issues

  • Enlightened Education

  • Step 1: Teach “Comparative religion” in all schools

  • Step 2: Teach “Origins” in schools

  • Step 3: Teach “Universal Ethics” in schools

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Application to specific issues

  • Enlightened Education

    Step 1: teach “Comparative religion” in all schools

  • Teaches all the variety of sacred texts, prophets, gods and beliefs around the world (see the big Table)

  • Will dilute the dogma from home, church and ethnic enclaves in Australia.

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Application to specific issues

  • Enlightened Education

    Step 2: Teach “Origins” in schools

  • The basic tool in an enlightened education is to teach children the real origins of the world, of life, and of humans.

  • They will gain a wonder at the natural environment, and a desire to preserve the ecosystems.

  • They will also gain appreciation and acceptance of the variety of peoples surrounding them.

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Application to specific issues

  • Enlightened Education

    Step 3: Teach “Universal Ethics” in schools

    Secular ethics, as suggested by this material should be taught in schools –

    universal human values -

    based on respect for all sentient beings (humans and animals).

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Application to specific issues

Contraception and Abortion

A woman should be in charge of her own body

She can choose whether or not to reproduce.

The mother’s rights come first.

A foetus also has some rights, which slowly increase as it develops. Thus both mother and baby have rights, which need to be considered.

Most assuredly, no religious figure has the right to dictate what she does.

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Sentience Chart

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Application to specific issues

  • Right to Die

  • Any person has the right to choose whether to live or to die.

  • We would support the right of people of sound mind to plan for their future, anticipating that they might for example become senile (known as a living will).

  • The stigma on suicide imposed by the Catholic Church, which causes much pointless distress, must be overcome.

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Application to specific issues


If a person has no quality of life, and no prospect of improvement, then termination should be allowed.

As long as it is in accordance with their wishes, and those of relatives, friends and doctors.

Note: The actual policies may vary depending on inputs and analysis. What we are specifying is the methodology.

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Application to specific issues

  • Family

  • Society and government should support all kinds of family arrangements,

  • including:

  • traditional families,

  • individuals,

  • couples,

  • sole parents,

  • and any relationship involving mutual support.

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Application to specific issues


Gays – Our freedoms should not be limited by choice of sexuality. There should be no stigma or laws restricting gays.

Discrimination – no discrimination on the basis of race, creed, sexuality, religion etc.

The marginalized - We should not judge unfairly those who have become marginalised in society - drug users, criminals, mentally ill. We should assist and rehabilitate them.

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Application to specific issues

The origins of Behaviour

The physical influences on our behavior can broadly be split into nature and nurture, and include:

• Our parents’ two genetic codes

• Random selection from our parents’ codes

• Randomness in the laying down of the growing brain

• Nourishment from the mother

• The environment while in the womb

• Any diseases in the womb or in life

• All environmental influences during child and adult life

• All behavioural influences during child and adult life (i.e. the behaviour of others).

Thus, we need to respect al of these factors.

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Application to specific issues

The Law and Courts

We identify specific objectives of the legal system:

1)To physically prevent the offender causing further harm (jail etc)

2)To improve the behavior of that person (eg rehabilitation, jail, fines, corporal punishment)

3)To act as a visible deterrent to others (length of jail term, death penalty).

The current legal system in most democracies effectively addresses these objectives in most cases.


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Application to specific issues

The Law and Courts

However, these principles will allow a systematic approach, and remove some inequities:

•In terms of the Utilitarian principle, identify the affected parties.

•Describe the harm to each (a bystander being offended by seeing and act would rank lower than the welfare of the participants.)

•This will provide guidance on the relative seriousness of the matter.

•List the range of available options for the penalty.

•How do they rank, in terms of the three objectives?

•How do they rank, in terms of the cost to society?

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Application to specific issues


We recognize that humans are one of many species with a right to exist on earth.

Further, the fate of humans depends critically on a healthy environment, including supplies of fresh air, water and soil.

This is a challenge to the views of Bjorn Lomborg, who in his book “The Skeptical Environmentalist” looked only at the wellbeing of one species.

His economic rather than scientific credentials led him to conclude that by his measures, humans are better off then ever, and the planet is in fine condition.

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Application to specific issues

  • Environment

  • Our scientific approach tells a different story:

  • The earth is rapidly warming, as a result of human activity.

  • If we do nothing, catastrophe will engulf the ecosystems and the human race in around 50-100 years.

  • Even if we sharply kerb greenhouse emissions, the consequences will be severe.

  • Third world countries expect, and are moving towards, the Western living standard.

  • Thus if we maintain our extravagant lifestyles, emissions will blow out.

  • Australia needs to cut down, even if we are a small player on the global scale.

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Application to specific issues

  • Environment

  • John Howard’s glacial pace of action on climate avoids timely action.

  • Will lead to disaster.

  • His (and others’) lack of action has already condemned our main Reef and River.

  • He is the disease, pretending to be the doctor.

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Application to specific issues


To achieve reductions, we need to urgently adopt all possible measures, which probably include:

•Reduce per capita energy usage

•Limit the population

•Expand research into renewables

•Improve the efficiency of coal and oil usage

•Increasing renewable methanol into petrol

•Introduce/expand nuclear energy

•Place a real tax on all carbon (not just derivatives trading)

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Application to specific issues

Population Growth

The greatest threat to the planet is very clear - population growth.

All measures to improve efficiency can only delay the inevitable - if we allow continued exponential growth.

For example - 60% reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2050 if we are to limit the CO2 to 0.5% (and severe climate changes).

If we retain constant population - that’s a 60% cut per person - very difficult.

If we continue to grow at the present rate, our population will double by then, so we need an 80% cut per person! Impossible.

And 30 years later, double again. Need a 90% cut!

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Application to specific issues


Thus we have seen how secular principles can be applied to specific areas of social welfare and custodianship of the planet.

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To read more about secular ethics:


  • Link to Opinions

  • To comment:

  • Email me [email protected]

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