HAI Summer School 2014 Speaker Resume: Roy Brown

Religion, Humanism and Morality — Roy Brown

Roy W Brown is the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s Representative to the UN at Geneva, and Director of New College of the Humanities, as well as being a frequent visitor to the Summer School.

For religious groups morality is primarily focused on sexual activity, and the taboos they wish to impose. This is especially true for the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). Of particular relevance recently is the imposition of Sharia law by the Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. Sharia does not distinguish the ideas of morality and law. For Sharia what is moral is legal and what is immoral is illegal; there is no concept of the separation of church and state. Sharia is considered to be unchangeable and is uninformed by modern ideas from science or human rights; it does not distinguish between ancient tribal customs and morality. Not all Muslim-majority states follow Sharia, but a growing number do. Christian or Jewish extremist religions are similar and find support for beating or even killing a badly behaved child in Leviticus 20:9. However in general they have become more humane, slowly.

Criticisms of Religious Sexual Morality. Homosexuality is considered to be a choice in spite of scientific evidence to the contrary. In Islam women are considered weak and in need of protection from outside and even from themselves. It would appear that the logical understanding of religious morality is that religion has been created by men who were afraid that some other man had fathered their children. (For a consideration of discrimination against women see Diana Brown’s talk.)

A particular problem with Christianity is the elevation of celibacy as an ideal state. St Paul said that celibacy was a gift but within a couple of hundred years it was obligatory for professional religious people. This had more to do with holding on to church property than asceticism. It may be the case that denying priests a legal outlet for their sexual desires has led to untold misery throughout the ages — and not just for the priests. Finally, in all religions there is the threat of eternal punishment as the motivation for following the rules. It is very difficult for children indoctrinated in this way of thinking to escape. [The participants at the Summer School were mostly ex-Christians; very few had non-religious parents.]

A Basis for Humanist Sexual Ethics. Gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos have feelings considerably similar to ours. They have a sense of right and wrong and practise reciprocal altruism. Bearing grudges and seeking revenge are also common in the animal kingdom. Our human ancestors supported family, group and tribe; displayed fear and suspicion of the stranger, and made the assumption that our side is always right.

Perhaps the oldest human ethical ideal is the Golden Rule, ‘Treat others as you wish to be treated.’ Philosophers have suggested that others might not want to be treated the same way as we do and so the Inverse Golden Rule, ‘Do not do unto others what you would not want done to you’, may be an improvement. This does not actually involve asking the ‘other’ what they actually want, but it is a good start. Another principle for a Humanist morality is to judge actions by their consequences and if, as is usually the case, the consequences cannot be reliably known in advance, the Precautionary Principle, ‘try to minimize any negative consequences of our actions by moving cautiously until knowledge improves’, is a starting point too. The Precautionary Principle would be useful for governments. The Nazi Holocaust taught us that we need something above national laws to protect the individual and led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which are legally binding but unenforceable).

The current turmoil in the Middle East is largely the outcome of the huge mistake by US, UK and their allies to invade Iraq. The present barbarity in the Middle East shows that (1) Sharia law uninformed by reason or science has persisted for hundreds of years, (2) the perceived needs of a society can outweigh the needs of the individual and (3) that failure to observe the Precautionary Principle can lead to catastrophe. Human rights are not popular with those in power who value national security over truth and decency. We need to work out what responsibilities and rights we each have.
The International Humanist and Ethical Union review of the Amsterdam Declaration suggests ideas for a humanist sexual morality. Firstly, let us examine what separates humanist and religious sexual ethics, particularly for the Abrahamic religions:
Religious ideas of morality have mainly to do with sexual ethics, rather than decent behaviour.
Religious morality is based on a primitive understanding of human nature uninformed by science.
Religious sexual morality only permits sex in marriage and is focused on procreation not pleasure. (Islam is slightly different, it permits sex for men’s pleasure.)
Religious morality generally is focused on what we do with regard to other people and on religious duties, with little regard for the non-human world.
Humanism on the other hand has no dogma and we have to work out for ourselves what to do. However, we have guidance:
1. The Inverse Golden Rule
2. Actions should be judged by their consequences.
3. The Precautionary Principle: go gently into uncharted territory.
Regarding sexuality, most of us would probably agree with the following:
Sex is one of nature’s greatest gifts and it should be fun.
Sex should be consensual; the vulnerable need to be protected, so there should be an age of consent.
Marriage should be consensual and should be available to all same-sex and heterosexual couples.
Children should receive timely and accurate sex education including information about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases.
We need to reduce the value traditionally accorded to virginity.
Contraception should be easily and cheaply available including the morning-after pill.
Early abortion should be available but not regarded as a form of contraception; abortion should be safe, legal and rare.
Those unwilling or unable to look after children should be encouraged to avoid pregnancy. All parents should be strongly encouraged to stay together until each child reaches maturity, otherwise they should co-operate to support the child.
Everyone should be morally obliged to avoid passing on any infectious STDs; carriers should be treated non-judgmentally.