Secularism and Christian values

 

Sir, – Sarah Carey’s letter (September 4th) questions the piece by David McConnell (“Secularism cannot be blamed for all the ills of the world”, August 31st) on the derivation of moral values possessed by humanists.

She is convinced that morality began with Christianity 2,000 years ago and spread worldwide.

My understanding is that most of the major world religions do share an almost identical moral code. Apart from Buddhism and Confucianism, which were established approximately 500 BC, the other major faiths only appeared within the next 500 year period.

The precept which is the basis of all our morality is summed up in the phrase “Do not do to others what you would not like for yourself”. This is written in The Analects of Confucius circa 500 BC and so precedes Christianity by half a millennia.

The humanist tradition dates back to that Classical world of 500 BC. Written fragments surviving from that time show us the train of thought of contemporary philosophers who were questioning the existence of the gods for which they could find no evidence and concluding they had little relevance to the affairs of men. Protagorus (484-414 BC), considered the father of humanism, wrote, “Man is the measure of all things”, and “Of the gods I cannot say whether they exist or not.”

Democritus who died in 320BC took the study of nature as his guide rather than the prevailing supernatural beliefs and so rooted his ethics in nature.

They concluded that our morality comes from our deepest inner core and is developed through our experiences as we live our lives both as an individual and as a member of society.

If all religions were to disappear from our world tomorrow, we would still remain moral beings because our morality is the essence of our humanity. Ethics were part of us before any of the major religions existed and morality will continue with or without them. Human values with all their imperfections will continue to help us struggle along, hopefully making progress.

“Morality needs no supernatural sanction”, wrote Margaret Knight, the humanist broadcaster, in 1974. – Yours, etc,

ELLEN SIDES,

Ballsbridge,

Dublin 4.

Sir, – Sarah Carey thinks that secular values such as equality and human rights derive from Christianity. It is true that many secular ideas developed in the West during the Christian era but to say that one caused the other is to commit a common fallacy that correlation implies causation. Of course, all thinking has its origins in earlier thoughts and that is true of Christianity as much as any other belief system. The Golden Rule, for example, is found in Confucius, who lived in the East about 500 years before Jesus.

Much depends on interpretation and it could be argued that secular values actually developed in opposition to Christianity.

Paul was speaking for Christianity when he told slaves to obey their masters and said that he would not suffer a woman to teach. And Jesus told the poor to turn the other cheek and accept their state (“render unto Caesar ...”) because they would receive justice in heaven. Is this not a deeply reactionary message in opposition to any struggle for equality and human rights?

Arguably, this is exactly why Roman emperors from Constantine adopted Christianity as the official religion: it was a mechanism of power over the people. Seneca, a contemporary of Jesus, said it well: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”

There is therefore a more likely process of causation, namely that ideas such as equality and human rights challenged Christianity and contributed to its decline in western society. – Yours, etc,

BRIAN McCLINTON,

Lisburn,

Co Antrim.

Sir, – Sarah Carey tells us that our finest values and virtues spring from Christianity and not from a “moral wasteland”.

She seems not to realise that human kindness has existed alongside empathy since the first person went back to help an injured member of their clan, tens of thousands of years before anyone heard of the tribes of Israel.

It has helped to enable our survival through the most testing of times and sustained us even against the attempted imposition of Christian “morality” through Inquisition and torture. It is an innate human characteristic, weaponised by those who invented the concept of “sin”. If your version of kindness has to be enforced by threat of eternal damnation, it’s not really very virtuous at all, is it? – Yours, etc,

BERNIE LINNANE,

Dromahair,

Co Leitrim.