Can Secular Morality Tame Religious Violence?

Can Secular Morality Tame Religious Violence?

According to University of Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting, the answer is a qualified ‘yes.’ Gutting has an interesting piece on religion and violence in the New York Times philosophy blog, The Stone, in which he uses the recent murder of a French priest by Islamic militants as the starting point for comparing Christianity and Islam with respect to religiously motivated violence. Gutting notes that there have been periods and places in history where Islam has been more tolerant of religious dissent than Christianity, and vice versa. However, citing 2013 Pew Centre global research on Muslim attitudes toward religions, politics, and society, Gutting claims that Christianity has been ‘tamed’ more than Islam when it comes to tolerating dissent. The reason? According to Gutting, it’s because Christianity has capitulated to secular morality in ways that have improved its moral stance and practice by making it more tolerant of dissent—tolerant in the broadest possible sense of generally not sanctioning killing those who disagree. This is thought provoking on a number of levels. In what follows, I’ll give a brief overview of Gutting’s piece, followed by a few reflections for further thought.

A central theme in Gutting’s analysis is the status of both Christianity and Islam as revealed religions. Believing that God is the supreme authority behind one’s sacred texts, says Gutting, can authorize all sorts of behavior that defy ‘conventional morality’ and cause one to do things that in other contexts would surely be viewed as immoral. Both Christianity and Islam have at different points been intolerant of disagreement, even to the point of violence. Gutting says this, while not inevitable, is not accidental, because the stakes get ratcheted up very quickly when divine truth is at stake. Allegedly revealed truths are taken to be the most important sorts of truths there are, and the presence of unbelievers has dire consequences both for unbelievers (their eternal soul is at stake) and believers (whose faith could be undermined by the presence and doubts of unbelievers).

Gutting then juxtaposes secular moral codes with the perceived moral standards and requirements of revealed religion:

Here we reach a crux for those who adhere to a revealed religion. They can either accept ordinary human standards of morality as a limit on how they interpret divine teachings, or they can insist on total fidelity to what they see as God’s revelation, even when it contradicts ordinary human standards. Those who follow the second view insist that divine truth utterly exceeds human understanding, which is in no position to judge it. God reveals things to us precisely because they are truths we would never arrive at by our natural lights. When the omniscient God has spoken, we can only obey.

“Christians,” says Gutting, “eventually embraced tolerance through a long and complex historical process,” which included the sustained and thoughtful criticisms of religious belief offered during the Enlightenment. Add certain socioeconomic factors and the rise of democratic institutions, and the result, says Gutting, is:

a widespread attitude of religious toleration in Europe and the United States. This attitude represented ethical progress, but it implied that religious truth was not so important that its denial was intolerable. Religious beliefs and practices came to be regarded as only expressions of personal convictions, not to be endorsed or enforced by state authority. This in effect subordinated the value of religious faith to the value of peace in a secular society. Today, almost all Christians are reconciled to this revision, and many would even claim that it better reflects the true meaning of their religion.

According to Gutting, the same is not true of Islam which hasn’t capitulated to secularity in the same way that Christianity has. Islam is not evil, says Gutting. Rather, as a whole “it has not yet tamed, to the extent that Christianity has, the danger implicit in any religion that claims to be God’s own truth. To put it bluntly, Islam as a whole has not made the concessions to secular values that Christianity has.”

Gutting makes a number of provocative claims and raises at least three issues important for any who care about religion’s place in society, religiously motivated violence, and the interplay of secular and religious values. First, a prominent theme for Gutting is that it’s possible for secular morality to be morally superior to religious morality. For Gutting, a key component of religious morality is the concept that moral norms are revealed and authorized by God. The implication is that thinking some action has divine sanction provides more motivation to perform that action, even when the act seems to violate common sense moral intuitions. Secular morality, on the other hand, reflects a more common sense approach to moral norms and is geared toward creating a stable and generally peaceful society.

Here’s one way to understand Gutting’s point. Suppose that there are objective facts about the moral landscape and human flourishing in the same way that there are objective facts about physics, chemistry, and biology. That would mean that in the same way we don’t get to ‘make it up as we go,’ in physics, chemistry or biology, neither do we get to ‘make it up as we go,’ in the moral domain. The question then becomes, how do we accurately map the moral landscape? How do we arrive at moral truths? Understood this way, Gutting’s point is that sometimes people who believe that God is the source and revealer of moral truth get the moral facts wrong, whereas sometimes people who don’t believe there is a God or who don’t think that God is the source and revealer of moral truth can actually get the moral facts right. This is why, for Gutting, a religion’s moral lens can sometimes be improved by becoming more secular.

A second theme in Gutting’s essay is the notion that religious moral positions evolve over time. As Gutting tells the tale, Christianity evolved sufficiently to remove violence against dissenters as a viable Christian option. At one level, the claim that religious attitudes evolve is obviously true. Actions and attitudes once deemed to be ‘Christian’ or biblical at a particular time and place are rejected at other times and places. If there’s an epistemic lesson here, it is that authorizing a particular moral stance because it reflects true religion isn’t a perfectly reliable, infallible guide to moral decision making.

A third implication of Gutting’s essay is that religion can motivate extraordinary, counter-intuitive morality; the case Gutting explores is violence against those who reject one’s faith. This type of violence, says Gutting, is counter to a common sense reflective morality that seeks to uphold the common good. This is the danger of claiming supernatural authority for one’s moral vision: thinking that God wants you to do X can make it easier for you to do X, even when X is a morally questionable act. Think of parents who, contrary to their ‘natural’ moral sense will excessively beat their children, or banish an LGBT child, because they feel such extreme behavior is what God wants.

One of the most infamous experiments in psychology, the Milgram experiment, would seem to bear this out.[1] Conducted in the 1960’s, Yale psychology professor Stanley Milgram had participants apply what they believed were increasing levels of electric shock to another participant (an actor) when the actor gave incorrect answers to questions. Milgram’s study seemed to clearly show that people will cause significant harm to others when they are doing so in obedience to authority figures. This is consistent with Gutting’s thesis that sometimes believing one is acting in obedience to God can cause people to violate their own moral sense.

However, it’s worth noting that the traffic here goes the other way as well. Gutting doesn’t address this, but there is research suggesting that believing God is watching, or even being subconsciously ‘primed’ with God-concepts, can cause morally positive, pro-social behavior.[2] Gutting doesn’t explicitly say so but one could infer from his essay that secular morality always trumps religiously motivated morality. But while believing that God tells you to X may provide extra motivation to do X, that’s going to apply in contexts where X is good as well as when X is evil.

I don’t know whether Gutting’s empirical claims are true: namely, that Christianity has been tamed with respect to violence against dissenters, and that the reason for its being so tamed is the influence of secular morality. But for people of any religious faith, it’s interesting to consider the possible moral benefits of engaging, and in some cases, appropriating, diverse moral perspectives.


[1] Here’s a popular level description and assessment of the Milgram experiment:

[2] Here’s a link Azim Shariff and Ara Norenzayan’s “God is Watching You,” published in Psychological Science, (2007).




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