Seven huts for seven nights
I am Time

Secular or religious, ethics remain key


TUMBY BAY - Social evolution, just like biological evolution, doesn’t proceed in straight lines, there are stops and starts, divergences, reversals, regressions, regional differences and sometimes dead ends.

Just as we are not on a path of natural evolutionary improvement neither are we on a natural path of constant social improvement.

Biologically we are pretty much equal the world over but socially we are much more diverse. This diversity is sometimes referred to as ‘cultural differences’.

That said, there is still something of a symbiotic relationship between our biological state and our social condition.

A good example of this relationship is our biological ability to think and reason. Thinking and reasoning largely drives our social development.

And, of course, our ability to reason is dependent upon the information we have to hand.

In the distant past we didn’t have much accurate information to work with and our reasoning was often flawed. In those days we had to deal with a lot of unknowns, which we often interpreted inaccurately.

In the modern age we have vastly more information to work with and our ability to reason is much better.  Nowadays our interpretations are a lot more accurate.

If you look at our current state of social evolution you can see this access to information at work.

The evolution of religious belief is a good example.

When we knew little and were surrounded by many unknowns, some of which appeared threatening, we developed beliefs in the supernatural to explain them.

Without anything to otherwise reveal why something happened we explained it in terms of magic, sorcery and witchcraft.

To counter the more malignant aspects of these supernatural beliefs a system of ethics slowly began to evolve. This system of ethics, while still carrying a large parcel of supernatural belief, created many of the religions of the world, including Christianity.

In the modern world our access to information and the ability to reason better is slowly seeing these religions fall away, especially in the western world.

The supernatural aspects of religions are being dropped but many of the useful ethical beliefs are now being carried forward into an increasingly secular world.

With greater access to information, especially in the form of education, many people are abandoning their religious beliefs but still hanging on to the ethical base that originally informed them.

This form of social progress is by no means universal. There are still large blocks of old fashioned religious belief in existence.

In developing countries, for instance, where those early supernatural beliefs are still influential the ideas promulgated by religions are still attractive.

This can be seen in countries like Papua New Guinea and those in the Pacific region where supernatural beliefs are still persuasive.

As populations become better educated, no doubt these places will eventually transform into something similar to the increasingly secular west.

EthicsFor the time being, however, religion and its ethical base is a good fit and with care should do no irreversible damage.

In this sense, secularists in the west have no right to be critical of the religious third world.

What they should be doing instead is refining and developing their own ethical base.

No one can dispute that this is becoming an urgent matter.

At the peak of the Cold War the Doomsday Clock read four minutes to midnight. According to the experts it now reads two minutes to midnight. 

The ethics around climate change, for instance, are existential and will determine whether our planet survives as a habitable environment.

There are many other ethical issues that also need to be resolved. In Australia our attitude to asylum seekers needs real work and in Papua New Guinea the ethical issues around corruption need urgent attention.

In these dire times, ethics, in whatever form they are cloaked, should be a top priority everywhere.


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Arthur Williams

Peter - Historians have claimed that Athens was the City of Gods. Apparently there were very many. So to assume Hippocrates was a pagan is quite unlikely.

Of course backing spirituality both ways, as many good agnostics do, the Athenian 'thinkers' even had an idol to The Unknown God.

Peter Kranz

Thought provoking article Phil. I grew up in a strict religious background (although my parents were liberal-minded). I remember asking my Pastor once "How do you know which religion is true? How do you choose?" His only answer was "you have to accept it on faith." Which is no answer. All devoted believers have faith no matter what their religion. My faith is no less valid than Mohammed's or Vishnu's or Xenu's. When I was a student a wise old professor once said "ethics is the standard by which we can judge a religion." I still believe that our innate standards of morality come before any religious belief. After all Doctors still adhere to the Hippocratic oath "do no harm". And he was an old paganist.

David Kitchnoge

Agreed Phil. The basic sense of what is right and wrong is what makes us human and sets us apart from the rest of the inhabitants of earth which operate on instincts.

And this awareness needs not be embedded in religion. Some atheists have well developed sense of ethics than religions like Islam that inexplicably encourage violence (holy war).

I think what makes religious ethics a bit different is the very defined punitive consequence in the afterlife of not adhering to the set standards of behaviour.

Christians go to hell if you don't follow the rules. Hindus regress into a lesser being in the next life. Muslims strangely go straight to heaven if you kill other human beings in the name of Allah.

Religious ethics therefore necessarily rely on this concept of afterlife which explains why human minds must first be thoroughly cultured to believe in this basic teaching to ensure successful implementation.

My own preference would simply be to do the right thing because it's the right thing to do without fear of descending to hell or conversely without having to try too hard to ascend to heaven.

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