The Disturbing Contradiction at the Heart of Secular Morality

By: Akos Balogh

There’s a contradiction built into the heart of the secular view of morality.

It’s a contradiction that lies beneath the surface of our moral conversations. It’s never talked about or discussed (at least not in public). And yet, this contradiction is corrosive: it upends the view of universal morality and human rights that nearly every secular person takes for granted.

Here’s what I mean:

1) On the one hand, our secular world is full of moral outrage (e.g. Israel and Gaza).

Moral outrage is everywhere in our media-saturated age.

There has been moral outrage over Hamas’ brutal murder and kidnapping of innocent Israeli civilians, including children and babies. And there has been outrage over the Israeli Defence Force’s operation in Gaza, leaving thousands of Palestinians dead (including children).[1]

It’s almost impossible to be untouched by feelings of moral outrage, as we watch the disturbing news from the Middle East.

And yet. There’s a pre-condition for this moral outrage:

2) Moral outrage assumes there are universal moral standards that others must live up to, but don’t.

Western secular people assume that universal moral standards exist and apply to everyone – whether people believe in them or not. Both Hamas and Israel have been charged with violating these moral standards.

And so, Hamas might boast over their murder and kidnapping of Israeli civilians, declaring that what they did was righteous and noble, and stream their actions over social media. But in the Western secular view of morality, Hamas is guilty of doing moral wrong, even though Hamas has a different moral framework.

But there’s a problem with the secular Western view of morality:

3) Our secular culture also assumes that we live in a random, meaningless, amoral universe governed by nothing more than laws of science.

While holding strongly to the notion that universal human rights exist, which terrorists like Hamas or nations like Israel must adhere to, the secular mind also believes that we live in a random, accidental, meaningless universe, that just popped into existence billions of years ago without cause.

As Oxford Biologist and Atheist Richard Dawkins put it so eloquently:

‘In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference…DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is.’ [2]

There’s no ‘justice’. No ‘evil’. No ‘good’.

Because DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is.

So, in such a universe what are we to make of this idea of universal human rights, that groups like Hamas and the IDF must hold to?

The Great Contradiction

How can you have universal, all-applying human rights in a random, meaningless universe?

Atheist and author Yuval Noah Harari explains what living in an Atheistic universe means for universal human rights:

Today in the world, many, maybe most legal systems are based on this idea, this belief, in human rights. But human rights are just like [the fictional ideas of] Heaven and like God. It’s just a fictional story that we’ve invented and spread around…It is not a biological reality. Just as jellyfish, and woodpeckers, and ostriches have no rights, Home Sapiens have no rights also.

Thus, in the Atheistic universe assumed by our secular culture, human rights can be nothing more than fictional stories that we invented (like religion, in this view). Just as animals have no rights, human beings do not have any rights either.

DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is.

That’s a disturbing thought.

And so, this means there is no rational reason for moral outrage at the actions of Hamas: quite frankly, they’re acting like animals because they are animals. And since animals have no rights (since when were you last upset when a lion devoured an antelope?), so human beings have real no rights either.

Of course, a common secular response is to say ‘reason alone can teach us that killing others is wrong. Morality is just obvious to any rational thinking person!.’  But the problem with using reason alone to decide morality is that at times it can look very reasonable to do immoral things (e.g. steal from others when your kids are hungry or lie in an interview to get that lucrative job during an economic downturn). And it can be very unreasonable to do moral things (e.g. to put yourself and your family at great risk hiding Jewish people in the Holocaust).

Furthermore, the secular view of ‘reason alone can tell us morality’ sidesteps Yuval Harari’s observation that there are no physically, scientifically (or rationally) discernible universal moral values. In an Atheistic universe, we are left with contradictory moral opinions, with no grounding in reality. In this view, we might believe Jewish women should not be raped. But Hamas believe otherwise. And so, where is the universal, inviolable moral standard that shows us our view is ‘right’ and Hamas’ view is ‘wrong’?

DNA neither knows nor cares: DNA just is.

Thus, if you are upset at the IDF bombing Gaza, well, you’re imposing your Western secular fictional story onto reality: a story that you believe in, yes, but at the end of the day, it’s just a story. And no more real than religious stories like Thor, Odin, Zeus, or Apollo.

And therein lies the contradiction at the heart of secular morality: secular moral beliefs are undercut by the secular view of reality.

Now that’s disturbing.

Article supplied with thanks to Akos Balogh.

About the Author: Akos is the Executive Director of the Gospel Coalition Australia. He has a Masters in Theology and is a trained Combat and Aerospace Engineer.

Feature image: Canva Pro