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The Contender
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Secular morality is superior to religious morality

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 4/26/2014 Category: Religion
Updated: 7 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 3,917 times Debate No: 53407
Debate Rounds (3)
Comments (11)
Votes (1)




I could mention many of the atrocities committed in the name of religion historically, but I find this to be an argument that doesn't work very well. If you look at the last century or so, the biggest component of global violence is state violence, and its motives are largely political. Trying to lay this violence at the feet of religion (or secularism for that matter) is a contrived exercise in guilt by association.

So I'd like to approach this subject in a different way: by trying to determine how a religious moral system works and how a secular moral system works.

How do moral precepts come about in a religious moral system?

1) Some people -- the literalists -- believe that an ancient text (e.g. The Bible) is all you need to determine what absolute morality is. The problems with this seem obvious: The Bible is simply wrong on morality on various counts (e.g. slavery). It is an Iron Age text written by people who couldn't have known better. Additionally, it can't possibly tell us about every type of situation where moral judgement is necessary.

2) Others pick and choose between different passages of The Bible, based on their personal preferences and perhaps social pressure. It's unlikely these choices are based on rational assessment of arguments or evidence.

3) Yet others believe that they have some internal God-given means to "know" if something is right or wrong. Some might even believe God talks to them and so forth.

How do moral precepts come about in a secular moral system?

Briefly, in a secular moral system you start out with some basic premises that practically everyone would agree with (e.g. well-being of the population is desirable, life is better than death, health is good, etc.) The rest comes about through rational evaluation of the evidence, debates, and so forth. All of this is done with the benefit of historical knowledge and precedent.

It's not a perfect system, and disagreements are likely unavoidable in any gray area. But it is a much better system than the religious one. Blindly following an ancient text or believing that God talks to you is not just irrational, it's dangerous.



I appreciate the opportunity to debate this topic and I would like to thank jhs20381 for bringing it to the fore. In this debate, I will defend two propositions, any of which, if true or probably true, is independently sufficient to negate the resolution.

These propositions are as follows:
1. The assumptions inherent within the resolution as stated are self-refuting.
2. Judgment regarding the qualitative state of superiority with respect to two disparate moral frameworks is either inscrutable or firmly in the favor of a religious framework.

The assumptions inherent within the resolution as stated are self-refuting.

What do I mean when I say that the assumptions within the resolution are self-refuting? One of the operating assumptions in my opponent’s employ is: “the Bible is simply wrong on morality on various counts.” This is what philosophers call a hysteron proteron, insofar as the fallacy of begging the question has been committed in a single step. This fallacy may be clearer if we were to summarize my opponent’s point thusly: The Bible is not a moral authority because it is not a moral authority. It wouldn’t be so painful if this were not such an accurate rewording of my opponent’s statement. For indeed, the only way to know that the Bible is wrong is to assume some other, unstated moral authority that is seemingly both objective and obligatory.

Perhaps since my opponent is arguing for the superiority of a secular moral framework, he has appealed to its arbitration on this matter. But then we are given another one of his operating assumptions: "[secular morality is] not a perfect system.” But this is very strange. If a religious framework is wrong because it’s wrong and a secular moral system is not perfect either, then what IS morality exactly? Indeed, what moral system does my opponent appeal to in order to make a qualitative distinction between two disparate frameworks? He is appealing to some apparently objective and transcendent moral framework whereby we may judge all other systems. Pray hope he shares this system with the world.
The reality is that if my opponent’s assumptions are correct then both systems are equally bad for the reason of them both being equally untrue. The law of identity states that any entity x is exactly equal to itself. So a = b if and only if b = a in all circumstances. If there are any instances where b does not = a then we know, by parity of our more cherished law of thought, that b is definitely NOT identical to a. Since, according to my opponent’s assumptions, both a religious morality and secular morality occasionally fail to produce principles congenial with what is ACTUALLY moral, then we can safely say that neither system is identical with actual morality and thus both are equally wrong. It would be like arguing between the superiority of 3 or 5 as answers to the equation 2+2.

These operating assumptions, therefore, prevent the resolution from even beginning.

Judgment regarding the qualitative state of superiority with respect to two disparate moral frameworks is either inscrutable or firmly in the favor of a religious framework.

Since both moralities in question are ostensibly not identical with actual morality, the only way to discern which is superior is by finding out what the true morality is so that we can contrast them against it. Absent this true morality to which my opponent tacitly refers (but does not share), we cannot make a qualitative statement with respect to either moral system. In which case, unless my opponent can furnish this alternative moral metric that is objective, transcendent, and binding, we must admit that the conclusion regarding superiority remains inscrutable.

We can avoid this by throwing out my opponent’s assumptions. In which case, the question would be: which moral system best accounts for the existence of moral actions and duties? There are two facets of morality worth looking at: its epistemology and its ontology. Religious morality can account for the epistemological aspects of morality and its ontological aspects. Secular morality can account for epistemological aspects but not ontological ones. By this I mean to say that secular morality cannot explain why moral virtues and duties actually exist and why humankind ought to bend their wills to it. Therefore, without assuming the falsity of the systems from the onset, we are able to ask a better question, namely what system accounts for morality more sufficiently, and arrive at the conclusion that a religious framework has a better claim to the existence of moral values and duties then any secular framework.


My opponent will want to provide us with the moral metric that he is using in order to make qualitative assessments of two disparate moral systems. If he fails to produce this system then we have no epistemological access to the information necessary to make qualitative assessments, largely because we have no idea what is actually morally right and wrong. Furthermore, my opponent will want to explain how two wrong moralities are to be weighed on a scale of superiority. Good luck.
Debate Round No. 1


I will use an analogy to illustrate the flaws in my opponent's argument. Let's say there's a debate titled "Evidence-based medicine is superior to anecdote-based medicine." We would hear that since neither can be shown to be a perfect system, then it's equally valid to favor either one. A similar situation arises when people argue that since no one can be absolutely certain of either evolution or creationism, then both worldviews are equally valid, or "equally wrong." That's certainly not the case.

Regarding my assertion that The Bible is wrong about slavery, my opponent posits that I would have to start with a presuposition about the validity of secular morality in order to make the assertion in the first place. Perhaps that's true, and I think it's illustrative to consider why my assertion would appear correct nonetheless to most rational observers. I'll get into that shortly, but let's also consider an equivalent assertion in the context of my proposed analogy. Suppose I said "homeopathy is wrong about its cancer treatment methods." The way to demonstrate this would be to test the efficacy of the methods, and how do you do that? With the methods of evidence-based medicine.

A system of secular morality is the de facto system we live by, even if that's unacknowledged. The reason we believe slavery is wrong is because we've applied reason and debated the issue, with the benefit of substantial historical knowledge of what slavery is. No religious book has told us that slavery is wrong, nor did we need to be told. We are, in fact, capable of arriving at such moral understandings on our own. Even religious people apply and make use of secular morality to one degree or another. Religious precepts do nothing more than add a measure of confusion that is not based on reason or evidence.

Religious morality does not have a solid foundation

I do not accept that there's necessarily an transcendent absolute morality, which my opponent calls "actual morality", or a third system by which we can judge religious vs. secular morality. There's no evidence of this absolute/divine morality, so we can ignore it until such time there is any evidence of it. Morality is something we need to define in a way that is beneficial, much like we define "health." Who cares if there's an absolute/divine conception of "health"?

Even if we were to accept that there is an absolute morality, we would still be left with the question of how we would find out what the precepts of this absolute morality are. There are various ancient texts that claim to make pronouncements about absolute morality, but there's no evidence that these books come from an absolute moral law giver.

In other words, you end up with becase-The-Bible-said-so type claims. These claims are obviously not the end of the argument, because you can still ask for evidence that The Bible or The Koran are the word of God, and so on. In a secular moral system, you end up with much simpler premises that are more evident and easier to agree on.

Epistemology and ontology

My opponent's strategy is to argue that you can't judge which system is better, except by looking at what each system explains. A secular system does not make presupositions about the existence of a trascedental morality or a person who dictates said morality. A religious system does, and this supposedly makes religious morality a better explanatory model of reality, as it tells us where morality allegedly comes from. In other words, we're expected to accept that God-dit-it is an adequate way to resolve issues we're not certain about.

Proposing the existence of entities we don't know exist actually makes an explanation less likely than one that doesn't require such entities.



The assumptions inherent within the resolution as stated are self-refuting.

So how did my opponent respond to this? First he blithely ignored my own analogy in favor of his own. His analogy being a comparison between evidence-based medicine and anecdotal-based medicine. He argues that, although both are imperfect systems, one of them makes materially better predictions with respect to medicine proper. You’ll remember that my analogy was that the resolution is tantamount to asking whether 3 or 5 was a superior answer to the equation 2+2. Indeed, these analogies are categorically different. So we are then tasked to discern which category morality falls under: A material system that can be tested via the scientific method of observation and replication? Or a system that is axiomatic in nature and deals solely with the abstract?

It clearly falls in the latter, inasmuch as a moral system intends to tell us what is “right” and what is “wrong.” That is to say, it is seeking to affirm the actual existence of abstract conceptual rules that are obligatory and binding. Indeed, my opponent knows that morality is axiomatic in nature because he suspects that we must first assume the objectivity of some metric (hopefully uncontroversial) like “well-being” before we can even begin to make moral discernments. If we challenged that assumption and asked for evidence as to why “well-being” matters or why I should care about “human flourishing” or any of the other assumptions that are likely to follow, we cannot begin making moral discernments.

Furthermore, if both these systems of morality are wrong or imperfect, we MUST be able to demonstrate why and how they are wrong. The only way to prove that they are wrong is to assume the existence of some other moral metric that arbitrates between these abstract conceptual rules. These are not things we can view under a telescope or replicate in a lab. These are abstract rules that intend to say something about what people ought and oughtn’t do. If my opponent cannot furnish this alternative moral metric that he is using to discern the value of the moral systems in question, then he has failed to even begin to make a case and the resolution remains meaningless or inscrutable.

Additionally my opponent makes the wildly obscure argument that we know slavery is wrong because we have somehow happened upon it through civilized, rational discourse. This is historically myopic. In fact, more slavery exists today than there ever did before the 19th century. No, instead my opponent is clinging to some privileged groupthink, where now since a significant amount of people in the developed world believe it, it just so mustest be the case. If slavery is wrong, WHY is it wrong? That is what matters. Ironically, my opponent defies his own hallow dictum “Proposing the existence of entities we don't know exist actually makes an explanation less likely than one that doesn't require such entities.” Believe it or not, saying slavery is “wrong” is asserting the existence of an abstract conceptual entity that purports to say something authoritative about what others ought to do. But how do we KNOW this to exist? Has it been measured in the lab? What is its approximate weight? Does it exist independent of human minds? Why should we care?

So far as I can see, my opponent has not even yet sufficiently established a basis whereby he can even begin to make assessments regarding the superiority of these two disparate systems.

Morality is, in a nutshell, what defines right and wrong behavior.

Judgment regarding the qualitative state of superiority with respect to two disparate moral frameworks is either inscrutable or firmly in the favor of a religious framework.

So what did my opponent do with this? Here he attempted to define morality to favor his presupposition. I reject that. Morality is not health, well-being, pleasure, suffering, waffle or eggs. My opponent has already admitted that morality is not any of these things because he has already stated that there are no perfect systems. In which case, it fails the law of identity. Morality /= to any of the aforesaid premises.

My opponent has stated that we must choose some neutral ground to start on because there really is no such thing as absolute morality (or any evidence for it). But if morality is not absolute then it is not real. Morality would not exist outside of human apprehension and thus would be no more meaningful than a person’s favorite color. If my opponent believes there is no such thing as “actual” morality, then asserting the superiority of one system over another is even more inscrutable then it was before, because we would be tasked with trying to discern the superiority between two systems that don’t actually exist in any meaningful way. Fortunately for him, there is no evidence for math or even the o-so-cherished science. You cannot prove math, science or even physical reality without first assuming both their existence and their reliability at producing true or verisimilitudinous results. This is because these are axiomatic. Morality is axiomatic and thus asserts its reality upon us without deference to evidence.

My opponent then grossly misstates the value of making a distinction between moral epistemology and moral ontology. Moral epistemology is how we come to know of the existence of moral values and duties. Moral ontology says something about how it is possible for moral values and duties to actually exist. For instance, religious and secular morality alike may arrive at the conclusion that raping kids is wrong. How they came to know this truth may differ among those systems. Secular morality has no ability to say why this is ACTUALLY wrong. It can say it causes undue suffering. But it cannot justify the assumption that suffering is wrong. Suffering is a material fact, “wrongness” is an abstract qualitative description that has no ontological evidence within a secular framework. This is a problem, especially for my opponent who is so fond at disregarding that without evidence.


My opponent has failed to produce the moral system that allows him to make qualitative distinctions regarding the superiority of these two disparate systems. He has (1) admitted that he does not believe an absolute moral system exists and yet (2) appealed to some ostensibly more superior morality when discerning the moral quality of religious and secular morality alike. My opponent cannot avail himself with demonstrably false analogies, as it is very clear that we are not dealing with a scientific hypothesis that can be dissected, observed and replicated. Instead, we are dealing with two disparate moral axioms that attempt to explain the seemingly objective nature of our moral experiences. To this point, my opponent has only risen high enough to admit his own fallacious petitio principii, and assert that secular morality is better because religious morality is wrong. We have not seen any evidence for this nor have we yet seen any sound philosophical arguments in its favor. This strikes me as exceptionally weak and I think our readers can see that. Furnish the framework that allows you to make qualitative moral assessments of two disparate moral axioms or admit that you have no grounds on which to purchase the claim you sought at first to prove.
Debate Round No. 2


Summary thus far.

There's no evidence that a transcendental absolute morality exists. The default position is to disbelieve its existence. My opponent argues that without such an "actual morality", there's no way to evaluate human-constructed systems of morality. I disagree, of course. As with "health", a human construct, it's possible to evaluate different systems in regards to how they promote "health".

Secular morality can't say why something is actually wrong.

According to my opponent, secular morality can't say why child rape is ACTUALLY wrong. This is what presumably makes it inferior to religious morality. If my opponent believes that religious morality can explain what makes child rape ACTUALLY wrong, he should try to tell us how he determines that. It's not hard to imagine what the result of this exercise would be, and why it would be nowhere near convincing.

Morality as a social construct.

In the absence of a trascendental absolute morality, we can only conclude that morality is a social construct. This is not to say that it's useless. On the contrary; if we find that it's a good idea for people to have conceptions of what's right and wrong, it's a useful construct and it should be kept. There are many things in our reality that are social constructs, and we often don't realize it. Government, for example, is a social construct. Does it not make sense to evaluate different systems of government? Is the power of government diminished by the realization that it's nothing but a social construct?

Tangential point about slavery.

It's technically correct that there are probably more slaves today than at any time in human history, but not relative to the size of the population. What's key is that slavery is illegal everywhere, which is a significant advancement compared to a couple centuries ago. This is an achievement of rationality and secular humanism, not religion.

Final remarks.

Let me unpack the argument. It might be the case that secular morality can't tell us that something is right or wrong for sure, but neither can religious morality. Maybe there really is a transcendental absolute morality, but we have no way to convincingly determine this. As things stand, morality appears to be nothing more that a social construct. As such, we should try to make it the best social construct it can be. Do we achieve this with reason and evidence, or with gut feelings, visions and ancient texts written in the Iron Age? The reader can decide.

I thank my opponent for his well reasoned responses.



Evaluation of the debate

Throughout this debate, my opponent has consistently avoided the pressing issue via the use of false analogies. Health systems can be evaluated with respect to how they promote health, government can be evaluated with respect to how they promote freedom, peace and prosperity. This much is true. The problem is that these are not analogous to the present situation. These analogies do not represent how we approach axiomatic subjects. Morality can be judged based upon whether or not it accurately represents right and wrong values and duties. Any thinking observer can see that this is actually circular reasoning inasmuch as the only way to know right and wrong values and duties is to already be operating under the assumption of some moral system. Health systems look at health. Morality looks at morality. How does my opponent know when these moral systems get it wrong if not for some other moral metric?

In this debate I have pointed out that my opponent has tacitly assumed some third system precisely because he has somehow been able to recognize when purported systems of morality have got it wrong–both secular and religious alike. This is a significant problem because my opponent subsequently did not inform us about the moral system upon which he was making these judgments. Was it pure subjective thinking?

He did rise to the level of saying that we should assume a secular morality because there is evidence for it. This is false, of course. There is only evidence that secular institutions make moral claims. There is absolutely no evidence that these moral claims are true. The irony of course is that my opponent has claimed that both religious and secular morality are imperfect systems, because, presumably, they get morality wrong sometimes. But if they get it wrong, what does that mean? We can’t be basing their wrongness on some other secular or religious framework, or we would be discussing those. No, instead, my opponent appeals to some other metric by which to judge, presumably something not in the realm of secularism or religion proper. (But of course, it’s not transcendent either.)

In my opponent’s closing round he just decides to say that morality must be a social construct because there is no evidence for it. This is false, again. First, our experience of morality as an objective construct is evidence for it being so. We only know of several universally accepted axioms based on experience alone. But this doesn't matter at this point. What matters is that my opponent has presupposed his point in order to make it. A religious framework would be superior if it were true. A secular morality would be superior if it were true. My opponent has not in any way shown the truth of the latter and thus has not even begun to make a case. He has (1) said that secular morality is an imperfect system based upon some unknown moral metric and (2) said that secular morality is a superior system. The conjunction of (1) and (2) create an exceptionally weak case for the superiority of secular morality because it assumes itself wrong from the onset.

I hope the readers will be able to see that my opponent fell a mighty distance short of proving his burden in this debate.
Debate Round No. 3
11 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 10 records.
Posted by jhs20381 7 years ago
In a logical argument, you always end up with what are called un-inferred premises. There's really no solution to this problem, except to start out with axiomatic or generally acceptable premises.

Religious morality also has un-inferred premises, but they look like this: "God says so, and you should take my word for it."
Posted by Amoranemix 7 years ago
Something can have value for basically two reasons :
1) it facilitates a goal, i.e. something else that has value (the reason).
2) Someone is of the opinion it has / perceives it as having value.

(1) just moves the question to why that goal has value. Eventually you'll have to end with something that has value because of (2) or you're running in circles. Well-being is the concept that has value without there being a reason for it having value. People perceive well-being as having value, if not that of others, at least their own.

Postulates are not proven. That can be ground for criticism, but if you are not presenting an alternative, my postulate should be accepted because of TINA (there is no alternative). Constructing a morality without relying on an additional postulate could work as well, e.g. by proving God exists, but that seems to be outside the scope of this debate.

Despite the problems with secular morality, without a god theist morality is probably worse.
Posted by InquireTruth 7 years ago
How does it have intrinsic value? Can you prove this?
Posted by Amoranemix 7 years ago
For secular morality, I would start with the postulate :
[i]There is a quantity called well-being that has intrinsic value.[/i]

It seems better than the postulate the theists rely on :
[i]God exists.[/i]

The secular postulate is simpler and less controversial.
Posted by PeacefulChaos 7 years ago
It won't necessarily go to infinity (when concerning empirical methods, that is).

You state that, "At some point you have to pick premises that everyone should agree with, generally statements that are self-evident, such as "life is preferable to death.""

This is what philocristos was originally proposing. We should have some kind third "premise" (i.e. moral system) to base the other two off of; otherwise, nothing can be deemed good or bad. Things just are.

For example, when justifying why slavery is wrong, you assume that it is bad to not promote the well-being of others or yourself. Without either a third moral system to base this off of or an objective morality, then this is entirely subjective. A masochist or a sadist would enjoy not promoting the well-being of others or themselves, for example.
Posted by jhs20381 7 years ago
@PeacefulChaos: All logical arguments have that problem. You can't back up every premise with other premises, ad infinitum. At some point you have to pick premises that everyone should agree with, generally statements that are self-evident, such as "life is preferable to death."

Why is slavery wrong? Here the analysis would center on whether human beings owning other human beings as property is wrong. It clearly doesn't promote the well-being of the people being enslaved. Further, various evidence would show that it doesn't promote the well-being of the slavers or society as a whole. You could derive a general principle that makes it wrong: oppression of minorities by the ruling majority is wrong.
Posted by PeacefulChaos 7 years ago
@jhs20381 -

Okay, I see what you mean; however, I'd like to address something you said.

"That's like saying that you can't judge if different ways of knowing are better than one another. In practical terms, you can."

The difference between judging the advantages of certain empirical methods versus moral systems is that one is objective while the other is subjective. For example, you stated that slavery is "wrong," but if there is no objective truth, then that is entirely subjective. (Of course, I agree that slavery is wrong.)
Posted by jhs20381 7 years ago
@Philochristos: I disagree. That's like saying that you can't judge if different ways of knowing are better than one another. In practical terms, you can.
Posted by philochristos 7 years ago
If you're going to just the superiority of two different system of morality, don't you need a third system of morality to judge them by? After all, if you're judging religious morality by secular morality or vice versa, then you're just question begging.
Posted by jhs20381 7 years ago
@PeacefulChaos: No, not the way I define secular morality. I have an specific system in mind, as I explain in my opening statement, but generally, a secular moral system would be one that is not based on assumptions about supernatural beings handing down moral precepts that must be accepted at face value.
1 votes has been placed for this debate.
Vote Placed by 1Percenter 7 years ago
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Total points awarded:03 
Reasons for voting decision: Arguments easily go to Con because he revealed all of the flaws and fallacies Pro's reasoning. Without an objective scale to judge the superiority of different moralities, the resolution is defeated from the start. No sources needed, equal spelling and both had good conduct.

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