Secular Ethics? Think Again.

It often happens that my casual reading and my preaching schedule curiously overlap. Recently, an overlap happened between George Carlin’s irreverent, absurdist, and at times shockingly foul 2004 book, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? and the sermon series in which I’ve been describing the characteristics of our secular age. Without further ado, here’s the relevant snippet from Carlin’s book: 

I’m in the Moral Minority

“I don’t think there’s really such a thing as morality. I think it’s a human construct designed to facilitate the control of people. Values, ethics, legal standards—all of these things are human-generated, and they’re lumped under some vague idea called morality. But suppose humans got it wrong? Suppose there’s no actual, objective morality? Suppose there’s just a natural, worldly, secular, common-sense standard of behavior whose purpose is what’s best for getting along and what’s best for survival? That would be a good system. Why should a system like that be overlaid with a sense of spooky, mystical, judgmental oversight?” (Carlin, George, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?, 282) 

Carlin, George, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? p282

One has to be very careful in responding to anything that Carlin writes. A kind of modern, secularist Kierkegaard, he inhabits a series of characters in his prose that may or may not voice what he thinks. One of his characters voices the darkest kind of thoughts he can imagine. Another character spews out the foulest things he can think up. A third character even combines the two in an exposé of absurdism. Sometimes it’s merely shocking, at other times it’s quite funny. On rare occasions, it can be shockingly funny. 

But there is also a baseline voice—what I think comes closest to Carlin’s true voice—and this is when he angrily addresses what he perceives to be absurdity—in this particular book, the absurdities of language and religion. (Note: anger is the common thread through all of Carlin’s comedy.) In this respect, Carlin is never more contemptuous, dismissive, and derisive than when he speaks about religion, and about Christianity in particular. Given this disposition, it is reasonable to assume that the above quote comes about as close as we get to Carlin’s actual thoughts on something. 

Carlin claims that a secular morality is superior to a religious one, and I don’t think he’s alone in claiming this. So, how do we respond to his claim? Well, in one respect, Carlin is merely voicing a quite common attack on Christianity, namely, that the atheist does not need religion to be good. Carlin isn’t wrong, but what he (and many others) may not understand is that Christianity has long held that goodness is not the property of the redeemed alone. There are morally good atheists, and morally good Buddhists, and morally good Muslims. So far so good, but I should note that there is also a more cutting version of the above claim. Not infrequently, I encounter the atheist claim that they “don’t need a sky-daddy to be good.” The suggestion here is that Christian morality is based on fear of punishment, rather than any objective criteria of goodness. The secularist, then, in contrast to the Christian, styles himself or herself as good because he or she is good by intrinsic motivation, rather than any extrinsic factor. “I’m good because goodness is good; not because I’m afraid.” 

These are catchy and appealing claims, and they have rhetorical power inasmuch as they make oneself look good at the humorous expense of another. But the truth of the matter is that Christians have never believed that Christianity’s primary purpose was to make us good. Rather, Christianity saves us from sin and death. We do, however, believe that a consequence of that salvation ought to be moral and spiritual transformation. Where Christianity has been reduced to a project of behavioural modification, it has always done harm. 

But we can dig still deeper into Carlin’s claim that a secular morality would be superior. In this, it is important to recognize that his argument has traction precisely because it fits so nicely within the modern, secularist mindset. This is where my casual reading overlapped with my preaching, because one of the hallmarks of secularism is its conviction that the material world is all there is. Put in other terms, there is no supernatural reality sitting alongside or above our universe. Carl Sagan, in the opening to his science show Cosmos, states it elegantly: “The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.” In this respect, secularism carries with it an attitude not merely of myopic focus on the material, it also espouses an ethic of anti-transcendence. The idea that anything would be above or beyond the material is not only un-testable, it is abhorrent, and the idea that such a transcendent overlay ought to have formative impact on policies and decisions in the present world is laughable, if not evil. Modern secularism is thus an affirmation of the primacy of the material world, combined with a rejection of any authoritative transcendence. 

In light of this secularist mindset, there are two ways I want to query Carlin’s “Moral Minority” quip. The first is to ask where he gets his idea of the good, and the second is to investigate his suggestion of a secular morality—what would it look like? 

First, then, where does he get his idea of good? In the subtext of Carlin’s claim is an idea that there is, indeed, goodness: that some people are good and some are not, and that, furthermore, a purely secular goodness is just as adequate as a ‘subjective’ moral goodness. But what makes one person good and another person not-good? By what standard is one person to be measured against another? 

In any judgment of value—this is the question of good, better, and best—the measurement of one person requires a standard against which to measure that person. Now, it may be easy to identify the good in distinction with, say, radical evil. Most of us would consider ourselves better than Jeffrey Dahmer precisely because we have not murdered, dismembered, and eaten other people. But I’m afraid it’s not so simple, because we need to ask why. Why am I better than Dahmer? Is it because eating people is wrong? Why? What, in the purely secular landscape, actually determines that murder and cannibalism are wrong? I think that the committed secularist will likely appeal to three things: survivability, sociality, and common sense. Cannibalism is wrong because it does not contribute to survivability, is anti-social, and goes against common sense. But a closer examination reveals, unfortunately, that all three considered on the purely secular model, are absurd. 

Survivability is absurd because the universe is winding down to a state of entropic chaos. The endgame of the universe is universal death, and since there is no transcendent (i.e., nothing above or beyond the universe), it follows that there is nothing to escape into in even the wildest dreams of science fiction. If the material universe communicates anything to us about life, it is that it is inexorably planning to wipe it out completely and viciously. If the secularist wants to elevate survival as a motivating factor for practical ethics, we must always ask, “Why?” We’re all going to die, anyway, and everything is ultimately meaningless. 

Sociality is similarly absurd because for as long as humans have existed we have killed one another. If human nature is on the same level of evidence as any other material for scientific study—i.e., as a data set to which we are prohibited from ascribing value—then we have no recourse to good/better/best in describing humanity’s violent tendencies. The best we can say is that sometimes society serves as a temporary holdout to our inner violence. However, on the historic, evidential scale, this holdout is not infrequently mobilized to guide an entire society to attempt the murder and eradication of another. In other words, one common characteristic of human societies is that while they don’t murder within the society, they are happy to murder those outside the society. Often in the name of ‘survivability.’ 

Lastly, common sense is absurd because, on the purely secular model, our thoughts themselves are a rather inconvenient accident of human existence. The universe existed for nearly 13 billion years without our thoughts to influence it, and our thinking is one of the most momentary, startling, and irrelevant features of that timeline. What has common sense, the thinking of minute and ephemeral beings planted on a tiny, obscure, and insignificant wing of the Milky Way, to do with anything? 

Image from the James Webb telescope, each point of light an entire Galaxy. In the words of Douglas Adams, “Space is Big. Really Big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

All this to say, the secular landscape is a landscape that is fundamentally without value—it cannot, by definition, communicate the values of what is right and what is wrong. This is, in fact, the most serious problem with any concept of “secular” goodness, because the concept of good/better/best is itself a fundamentally transcendent idea. To ascribe value to life, or people within life, requires a standard from above them, outside of them. Therefore, to determine whether or not a man or woman is good, simple comparison on the human timeline will always be inadequate—the driving question will be “Good with reference to what? Bad with reference to what?” Survivability, sociality, and common-sense cannot provide such a standard. The only hope for a moral standard that can be applied to all people and all times is an appeal to a transcendent moral standard.  

As I said, there are two lines of inquiry into Carlin’s claim about a secular ethic, and the second is to ask, “What does a purely secular moral ethic look like?” Carlin suggests in his writing that such an ethic would favour ‘survivability.’ I’ve just spent some time, of course, describing how this is an absurdity—the kind of claim the secularist cannot logically make—but for the sake of argument let’s give this one as a freebie. Let’s agree for the moment that surviving is a good, and work out the ethics that follow as a consequence. What happens? 


An ethic of survivability would need to make decisions about human conduct from the perspective of what maximizes human survivability—not individual human survivability, but the survivability of the race. This distinction is important, because we will be forced to make some very hard decisions that impact individuals, Knowing, however, that they will be done for the race as a whole will allay any outmoded moral hesitations about these decisions. One area where we will have to make these kinds of decisions will be regarding overpopulation. The ultimate survivability of the human race will require regulation of the birth rate. Since humans are terrible at self-regulation, the state will be required to enforce strict policies of birth control. For example, policies that limit how many children a family can have, and then commensurate policies that terminate all pregnancies that fall outside of those limits. 

Survivability will also require a reassessment of resource allocation. Humans that have a higher chance of facilitating the survival of our species ought to be given preferential treatment—they should perhaps be allowed to have more than the standard allotment of children. It follows almost naturally that any sub-optimal human (of below average intelligence, for example) ought to be prohibited from bearing children at all. From this, it follows almost naturally again that any crippled, handicapped, or mentally unstable humans ought to be terminated—ideally before, but occasionally and of necessity after, birth. Lastly, those people who do not contribute to the advancement (and survivability) of the human species will need to be, at minimum, ostracised, and in more serious cases, terminated. This of course includes the elderly, who occasion and outsized drain on resources that can better serve the strong, and also extends to the sexually deviant, those whose orientations by definition do not contribute to survivability. 

The point is this: a commitment to a purely secular ethics that focuses on survivability inevitably descends into eugenics, where a self-selected and self-perpetuating group of human ‘elites’ craft and enforce policies that favour their preservation at the inevitable expense of the rest of the human race. If this sounds suspiciously like Nazism, you’re right to think so. Malcolm Muggeridge, in his essay “The Humane Holocaust,” traces the beginnings of Nazi extermination programmes to the ready experimentation with policies of survivability and eugenics. He writes that “the origins of the holocaust lay, not in Nazi terrorism and anti-semitism, but in pre-Nazi Weimar Germany’s acceptance of euthanasia and mercy-killing as humane and estimable.” What a relief that no such similar policies exist in modern countries today (!). 

Carlin’s thinking, motivated as it is in kneejerk criticism of Christianity, nevertheless voices something many people feel today—that Christian morality is passé, outmoded, and even an active hindrance to the progress of society. The formulation can even take on quite an alarming cast: “The Christian ideas are going to prevent our survival as a species!” But, as I hope is relatively clear from the above, people can only say this if they haven’t thought through the facts. What is more, secular ethics can give no value to human life; it can only be used by certain people to attempt the preservation and prolongation of their own lives—often at the expense of everyone else. 

7 comments on “Secular Ethics? Think Again.

  1. gabriel says:

    Secular Ethics = contradictio in terminis

  2. Janice Sigston says:

    Socrates reportedly said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’. In today’s world survivalists don’t examine or probe thought, they consume. How do we get people thinking, questioning the false assumptions they live with?

    • jmichaelrios says:

      We’ve got to begin by being careful thinkers ourselves! And then, we’ve got to make strategic choices about how to invite other people to think through the consequences of their beliefs and positions. I also like something Flannery O’Connor once wrote: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

  3. Adam Scott says:

    Maybe fascism (as defined by what prior fascists have done) is the natural result from a morality without a transcendent authority. Also, if we had a morality founded on the survivability of humans as a whole, it would be in flux, fraught with opinions and studies that are subject to reversal of claims.

    • jmichaelrios says:

      I think you’re on point. Without some external standard, how are we to determine which opinion is best? We think we’ve got things pretty well figured out, as far as science goes, but I like to remind people that it was less than 100 years ago that we thought earthquakes were caused by volcanoes. In other words, we’re not as smart as we like to think we are.

      And as to the inevitability of fascist decline, Karl Popper writes that “the attempt to make heaven on earth invariably produces hell.” I think he’s right!

  4. The trouble with Christian arguments that rely on rational discourse is that they… the arguments… are usually based on a flawed understanding of the case. If you believe in god just go ahead and believe in him, but don’t try to use rationality. It will bite you in the arse. I could go through and respond to the flaws in your argument one by one but it would take ages. You are just demonstrating that you don’t really grasp the concepts under discussion, unfortunately. Stick to faith, it’s easier

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Hi there – I’ve spent some time thinking about your comment, and I’ve puzzled over how to respond. In the first place, I’ve had to read it several times over to attempt to discern what it is you’re trying to say. But I think I can venture a few brief responses.

      1. I think you are operating under a false, or at least distorted, definition of both ‘faith’ and ‘rationality.’ Faith is not ‘blind belief despite facts,’ but maintenance of belief in known facts despite changing circumstances. Faith and reason operate together in tandem, as I’m sure you know personally whenever you continue to believe things you have reasoned (like, for example, your belief that “faith is easier.”)

      2. You say, “I could go through and respond to the flaws in your argument one by one but it would take ages. You are just demonstrating that you don’t really grasp the concepts under discussion, unfortunately.” This isn’t an argument–it’s an accusation, or, at worst, a strawman. So, I challenge you to pick one argument you don’t like from my piece, and we can discuss that meaningfully if you like.

      3. The premise of your comment seems to be that “Christian arguments relying on rational discourse are irrational.” But I think this premise is itself irrational. The rationality or irrationality of an argument is based on the merits of the arguments themselves. To dismiss them outright because they come from a perspective that may be different from yours is like me saying, “You only say that because you’re a woman, and the arguments of women are irrational.” I would like to think that we can both agree to the irrationality of such a stance.


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