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Two Competing Moralities:
The Principles of Fairness 
contra ‘Gott Mit Uns!’


by Paul Kurtz

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 24, Number 4.

The cultural divide in America today cuts deep, separating two contending conceptions of morality. Those who believe that there is a need for a moral reformation based on the principles of fairness confront “evangelical foot soldiers” convinced that God is on their side (“Gott mit uns!”) in an all-out battle between good and evil.

The first form of morality is humanistic and secular. Its chief aim is to realize human happiness in “the city of humankind.” It wishes to rely on reflective intelligence in resolving moral dilemmas. It emphasizes tolerance and the negotiation of differences. It holds that men and women are responsible for their own destinies and that they can, with some measure of goodwill, achieve meaningful and enriched lives for themselves and their communities. It advocates the civic virtues of democracy and the extension of universal human rights to all persons on the planet.

The second form of morality is traditional religious morality, which has taken on an extremist evangelical and fundamentalist twist in recent years. It is focused on the “City of God” and the coming, apocalyptic end of civilization as we know it. Rooted in religious faith, allegedly revealed to our forebears who lived in a nomadic and agricultural culture of the past, it declares that humans are “sinful” and that their ultimate duty is to obey the moral Commandments, divinely delivered. Since we are dependent upon God for salvation, human beings in themselves are incapable of achieving moral virtue. There are absolute commandments that a person must believe in and follow. Evangelical doomsday prophets today declare that the end times are approaching. They view the wars in the Middle East as signs of divine deliverance. Those who believe in Jesus as their savior will be saved by the divine Rapture, those who do not will be, as in Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’s best-selling novels, “Left Behind” to suffer terrible punishment.

Secular humanists are skeptical of this apocalyptic interpretation of human history and cosmic destiny. It would be difficult to take this dramatic tale seriously, if not for the fact that it is taken so seriously by tens of millions of well-meaning Americans who hold considerable political and economic power. Secular humanists turn instead to modern science for their interpretation of the cosmos and the place of the human species within it. Science explains the emergence of the human species as a product of evolution; it seeks to explain the universe in natural, causal terms. Secular humanists’ moral outlook is not weighed down by anthropocentric concepts of sin, guilt, redemption, and salvation. It is optimistic about the potentialities for improving the human condition.

Fortunately, many liberal religionists are equally disturbed by fundamentalist doomsday prophecies, and they are sympathetic to the principles and values of humanist morality. Although they are surely influenced by the Old and New Testaments, they tend to interpret Scripture in nonliteral terms. They realize the complexities of decision making and are less doctrinaire in their approach to the moral life. Humanists hold that there are widely shared moral virtues (the common moral decencies and also basic values (the ethical excellences) that both religious and nonreligious people respect. Humanists and liberal believers share a commitment to tolerance and the civic virtues of democracy. They agree that there are universal human rights, though these are not to be found in the Bible. And they are dubious of intransigent religious absolutes. They agree that religious piety by itself is no substitute for using human intelligence, fallible as it may be, to solve moral problems. Both humanists and liberal believers wish to apply modern science for the betterment of the human condition. Unfortunately, their views are often drowned out by loud evangelical-fundamentalist voices.

The dispute between extremist religious moralists (orthodox and fundamentalist) on the one side and secular humanists and liberal religionists on the other takes many forms today. Extremist religious moralists consider America to be “one nation under God” (they equate patriotism with religious faith). Both secular and religious liberals fear theocracies; they cherish the First Amendment and the separation of church and state.

Extremist religious moralists oppose abortion, euthanasia, contraception, and women’s rights. They consider homosexuality sinful. They are all too often xenophobic about the rest of the world. They object to any questioning of their absolute certainties, whether from science, reason, humanism, democracy, the United Nations, or the World Court. Secular humanists believe in individual freedom, the right of privacy, and the building of a world community—convictions that, fortunately, most religious liberals share.

Homogamy, Anyone?

One issue caught in today’s cultural divide is same-sex marriage. Some conservative religious moralists seek to enact a constitutional amendment that would prohibit it. They insist that marriage must be between one man and one woman, as is divinely sanctified by the Bible; further, they believe that heterosexual marriage is threatened by gay marriage.

This dispute over marriage is rather puzzling, since religious denominations often disagree vehemently about the institution. Conservative Roman Catholics oppose divorce under any circumstances (although not annulments), and they defend the unnatural state of celibacy; liberal Protestants, Jews, and religious humanists will allow divorce under certain conditions and are more receptive to sexual expression generally. Muslims also approve of divorce; in addition, they have sanctioned polygamy. Women are considered inferior to men and devoid of basic human rights in most parts of the Islamic world. Judaic-Christian religions have defended monogamy and are opposed to polygamy or bigamy. Yet the Old Testament condones patriarchy, concubinage, and polygamy: Abraham had many concubines and wives. Rachel bore Jacob no children, so she gave him her slave-girl Bilhah, who bore him sons. Jesus apparently never married and bade his disciples to leave their wives. Paul admonished wives to obey their husbands. So much for traditional biblical morality and its anti-family and anti-woman attitudes!

Secular humanists today would recognize marriages between two individuals, no matter what their gender. Mature adults should be permitted to work out their own living arrangements, and if they choose to join together should enjoy the same rights—economic, political, and social—as persons in religiously sanctified marriages. Liberal Episcopalians, Methodists, Jews, and Catholics empathize with this viewpoint. There is considerable evidence that homosexuality is genetic (for example, homosexual behavior is found in other species). Given this, civil society ought not to discriminate against same-sex preferences. The right of privacy between consenting adults is at stake. Nor should society fear the creation of new or extended marital forms. The reality of modern society is already that the nuclear family represents only a minority of households, and de facto there is pluralistic diversity in relationships. Romantic affairs and a high divorce rate are omnipresent among heterosexuals. Partly in response to the AIDS epidemic, large numbers of gays have abandoned promiscuity and have sought stable relationships—in defense of marital bonds, as it were.

Incidentally, I prefer the term civil union rather than marriage (though I would accept either), for what is at issue is equal protection under the laws for all adult couples: equal rights in property, taxation, inheritance, insurance, retirement, health care, visitation rights, etc. Homogamy (same-sex unions) seems to me to best describe the relationship of two individuals of the same sex, similar to heterogamy for heterosexuals. I think that a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage or civil unions would be an unfair violation of human rights.

Present state laws specifying who may marry are grossly unfair to the nonreligious: secular humanists, atheists, and agnostics. States issue marriage licenses. However, the only officiants allowed to conduct a marriage ceremony are those authorized by religious institutions or governmental officials (a justice of the peace, judge, mayor, etc.). Regulations differ state by state, but in the United States, approximately forty-five states of the union offer no provision for couples to have a binding public marriage ceremony officiated by a private secular organization of their choice, such as a university, fraternal organization, or humanist organization. I have conducted humanist wedding ceremonies for many couples, but these are not legally recognized in New York State. To solemnize their vows in the eyes of the law, the couple must have another wedding with a priest, minister, rabbi, or public official in attendance. This constitutes egregious discrimination. European countries recognize civil ceremonies; why not the United States? Public ceremonies performed by the Council for Secular Humanism (which is an educational organization) are not recognized in most states. The Church of Scientology, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Hindus, and Muslims are recognized, but not secular institutions. Talk about unfairness!

Religious Censorship of Science

A second area of contention today is the dispute regarding biogenetic research. Traditional religious moralists once opposed artificial insemination; yet millions of happy children and parents have benefited from these procedures. Today, they seek to ban cloning research of any kind, therapeutic or reproductive.  This is not only short-sighted, but hypocritical. The same conservatives who oppose governmental regulation in the economy now clamor for it in science.

Leon Kass, chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics and a professed devotee of the Old Testament, vigorously opposes embryonic stem-cell  research. That there should even be a presidential council in the first place is highly questionable, especially since this body, which is biased, has become the chief exponent of censorship. (Indeed, a dissident liberal member of this body was recently fired.) In an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal (“Reproduction and Responsibility,” April 2004), Kass called for a series of “legislative moratoria” to prohibit various “new reproductive techniques.”  In particular, Kass wishes to ban any research on embryos older than ten to fourteen days. Presumably, he is reflecting the Roman Catholic doctrine of “ensoulment” that has recently been adopted by fundamentalist Protestants. If and when this legislation is brought to the Congress, it would exacerbate the cultural war; for traditional religious moralists believe this research on embryos is sinful; whereas secular humanists and their liberal religious allies wish to use science to improve the human condition. Such repressive policies could block efforts by biogenetic scientists to eliminate disease, reduce suffering, and extend life. Shades of the censorship of Galileo and Darwin! (The potentialities for transhuman improvement of the species are debated further on in this issue of Free Inquiry.)

Traditional religious moralists have often sought to block scientific progress on the basis of little more than fear of the unknown. In my view, any limits placed on research should come from within the scientific community, not from the protests of extreme religious moralists who are willing to use governmental power to bludgeon scientific inquiry.

The Principles of Fairness

The double standard of traditional religious morality is apparent. I need hardly point out that the Vatican, which opposes same-sex marriage and cloning research as immoral, at the same time confronts  a celibate priesthood, a significant minority of whose members have practiced pedophilia.

There are numerous actions and policies condoned by extreme religious moralists that secular humanists find abhorrent, especially those that violate the principles of fairness. I will mention some of them:

1.The demands for censorship of sexual displays are today prominent. Traditional religious moralists rail against Janet Jackson for having bared her breast during the Super Bowl, and they object to the use of vulgar expletives by Howard Stern, but where are their criticisms of the excessive violence in television, radio, movies, and throughout the mass media?

2.Nor do traditional religious moralists criticize the resort to violence by state or federal governments. Capital punishment is opposed by many liberal humanists and religionists on moral grounds. Traditional religious moralists attempt to justify the death penalty by appeals to the Old Testament’s principle of retribution. Susan Jacoby, in her new book, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004), cites Antonin Scalia in a 2002 speech: “Death is no big deal,” he said, and then advocated the death penalty on constitutional and divine grounds. Virtually all of the European democracies have prohibited the death penalty. The World Court recently criticized the United States for sentencing fifty-one Mexican citizens to death without allowing them to consult their own embassy; capital punishment is illegal in Mexico.

3.Many religious traditionalists have defended preemptive wars, a policy deplored by many of America’s friends and allies. Extremist religious moralists are all too eager to express self-righteous patriotic, nationalistic, and chauvinistic slogans in support of the use of military force.

4.Traditional religionists who loathe sexual transgressions have largely ignored greed and avarice. All too often, wealth is considered assynonymous with virtue (consider just two examples, Pat Robertson and John Templeton). Traditionalists carefully ignore the saying attributed to Jesus that it is rare for a rich man to enter into heaven. This corruption has spilled over into the political system, where campaign contributors and lobbyists influence the legislative process, undermining environmental protection and other regulations essential for the common good.

5.Another point of contention—on moral grounds—is traditionalists’ failure to show concern for the welfare of the disadvantaged, the poor, or even the middle class at the same time that the elephantine compensation of corporate executives is extolled. A basic principle of fairness in our democracy is at stake. The CEO’s of the two hundred largest companies earned on average $9.2 million in salaries, bonuses, and stock options in 2003. (Of course, some received far more.) Although stock options granted were down from the previous year, cash payments to CEOs increased 14.4 percent, whereas the increase in the average worker’s pay was only 2 percent. Moreover, in 2003 there was an increase in unemployment.1 In addition, the amount of taxes paid by corporations has steadily declined. From 1996 to 2000, 63 percent of U.S. corporations paid no corporate income tax at all, while 94 percent paid taxes equal to less than 5 percent of their net income. Traditionalists accept sharp disparities in income and wealth in America today, are willing to provide lower tax rates for capital gains and dividends as distinct from money earned from labor or work, and refuse to enact an increased minimum wage. All this is typical of their uncaring attitude. All of it fulfills, as I’ve argued before, the sacred principles of “evangelical capitalism.” This is further illustrated by the continued decline of progressive income tax rates, the determined effort to repeal the estate tax entirely, and the amassing of large speculative fortunes in the stock market and real estate. In his disturbing book, Wealth and Democracy (New York: Broadway, 2002),2 Kevin Phillips points out that the United States is well on its way to becoming an entrenched plutocracy.

Get-rich schemes are in abundance. State-sponsored lotteries, I Want to Be a Millionaire game shows, and the building of gambling casinos illustrate the skewing of values. Gambling casinos are going up almost everywhere in the United States, no doubt in the hope that they will improve the local economies. Yet they often appear in depressed communities and attract the poorest sectors of society. The social and psychological costs of gambling, such as dependency, debt, domestic violence, family breakdowns, bankruptcy, and suicide and other deaths, is overlooked in the effort to advertise and promote casinos. I, of course, believe in a free market; however, I also believe that consumers should be warned about the pitfalls of slot machines—it is rare that anyone can make a fast buck, unless he or she stops after a big win.

I am surely not defending any form of Puritan repression but merely pointing out the distorted priorities of the traditional religious moralists. Bill Bennett was the czar of conservative morality in America, attempting to defend the old time religious morality, yet he lost a fortune in gambling and smoked like a fiend. What is the point? That one person’s virtue becomes another’s vice.

In defending the principles of fairness or social justice, I am not defending socialism, as one critic has characterized my criticism of evangelical capitalism. The term socialism referred to the nationalization of the means of production and/or the domination of the entire economy by the government. I believe in the vitality of the free-market capitalist system. What I am talking about is the application of simple moral principles of equity and fairness.

The two moralities that I’ve outlined above may be contrasted in the light of Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral growth and development.2 Traditional religious moralists are apt to be authoritarian; they set great store in the traditional sacred cows, condone injustice, extol the wielders of power, and applaud the defenders of wealth and the status quo. In contrast, secular humanists have an altruistic concern for the happiness of all human beings within the planetary community. Liberal religious allies have common cause with secular humanists in the criticism of xenophobic, authoritarian nationalists.

Last but not least, America’s growing legions of evangelical foot soldiers are now awaiting the Second Coming of Jesus and the Rapture, or so we are told by the best-selling authors of the Left Behind novels. They are convinced that God will save only their brand of evangelical Protestants (and perhaps those conservative Roman Catholics to the right of Attila the Hun). They will “leave behind” all others who do not accept their form of creedal fascism. Like the earlier defenders of the Aryan race, they insist that God agrees with them, and that all other Christian denominations, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, secular humanists, atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers—the bulk of humankind—will be condemned to hell. Unless you are prepared to believe in our way, say these true believers in our midst, you deserve to go to hell! This means that of the six billion people on the planet, only a relatively small number will enter the kingdom of heaven.

This attitude is similar to that of Islamic terrorists who insist that only those who accept the Qur’an as revealed by Muhammad will go to heaven—true believers who are prepared to detonate themselves and kill as many people as they can in the name of Allah. A new form of moral intolerance has descended on the world. Gott mit uns was a frightening paean to patriotism, intolerance, violence, and hatred sung by fascist storm troopers of another era as they marched off to “redeem” the world.

What will happen to love, compassion, and caring grace, extended to all humans in the community of humankind, no matter what their religious beliefs; what will happen to the common moral decencies and the principles of fairness and equity—if they get their way?


1. “Executive Pay: A Special Report,” New York Times, April 4, 2004.

2. Lawrence Kohlberg, The Psychology of Moral Development (New York: Harper & Rowe, 1983).

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