Ralph Lewis M.D.

Ethics and Morality

Purpose, meaning, and morality without god, why we care even if the universe doesn’t..

Posted September 9, 2018 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

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“Without God, life has no purpose, and without purpose, life has no meaning. Without meaning, life has no significance or hope.” –Pastor Rick Warren, in The Purpose Driven Life

In the last couple of decades, religious affiliation has been on a steep decline in all modern societies. 1 Many worry that religion’s loss of influence will result in nihilistic societal values—a loss of the sense of purpose, meaning and morality . This fear rests on the assumption that religion is the source of these qualities, and that they were inherent at the origin of the universe, imbued by a benevolent creator.

Before the transformative scientific insights of the last few decades, it could quite reasonably have seemed self-evident that our world is purposefully designed and controlled by some sort of intentional higher power. It might even have seemed naive to suggest that the ingenious complexity that characterizes our world could have arisen spontaneously.

Despite many seemingly convincing arguments in favor of a grand design, modern science tells us otherwise about the nature of reality. A powerful scientific worldview has been steadily constructed over the last four centuries, at a pace that has been accelerating almost exponentially in modern times. In the last decade or two, several key parts of the overall picture have been snapping into place. We now have highly compelling and entirely plausible models for how our world, life, and consciousness could have emerged entirely spontaneously and unguided—all the way from the universe’s origin (astonishingly) to its present complexity. No external or first cause is required, no intelligent designer, and no guiding hand.

But if these scientific insights compel us to regard all existence as random, where does this leave us? Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg had famously written, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” 2

Philosophers have long pondered how such abstract and intangible qualities as values and ethics could arise from the material “stuff” of the universe? Even if they somehow could, wouldn’t morality be relative? How can purpose and meaning arise in a random, material universe?

Biological evolution enabled purposive, meaning-oriented human behavior and morality; cultural evolution refined them.

The universe may not be purposeful, but humans are. Our sense of purpose is not at all dependent on the universe having a purpose. All living creatures are purposive, in a basic sense. Even a bacterium or a plant is purpose-driven. Human purposive behavior has evolved to become much more embellished, elaborated by conscious intention, but it is fundamentally driven by the same basic instinctual goals of all living things: survival and reproduction.

Meaning derives from the physical world too: it is simply the value and significance something has to a living organism—whether it is good or bad for the organism's survival and flourishing. Humans, with our extravagantly embellished evolution of consciousness , have evolved to be a highly complex meaning-seeking species. The meaning we attach to events and to our sense of self is as richly layered and interconnected as our complex neural networks. 3

It is a human habit to infer deliberate intention to events in self-referential ways . Adopting a secular worldview entails recognizing that meaning is a human attribution and things do not happen for a predetermined reason, unless of course caused by deliberate human action.

We are very adept at finding meaning in life experiences and events. We often succeed at doing this even more so in the face of adversity than we do in times of plain sailing. People find many sources of life satisfaction and meaning, regardless of whether they are religious believers or not.

Unavoidably, meaning in life can be hard to find in some life circumstances. Believers in a purposeful universe struggle to explain why bad things happen to good people. Such situations can often trigger a painful crisis of faith, feeling abandoned by God. Non-believers suffer just as much in the face of adversity, but their understanding of randomness frees them from the sense of cosmic injustice.

A fundamental source of meaning for most people is knowing that we matter—that our life matters to others, that our life has an effect on the lives of others, and that others care about us. When bad things happen to people, suffering can be partially mitigated if the sufferer has reason to expect that something good might come out of their misfortune—perhaps some positive impact on others. Most people, religious or secular, want to know that they matter to other people—to know that people care about them. Religious people additionally want to feel that they matter to God—they want the universe to care.

secular worldview essay

As for morality, much has been researched and written in the last couple of decades utterly dispelling the long-held assumption that religion is the origin of morality, and delineating in detail the naturally evolved basis (biological and social) of the human moral sense . Humans have both prosocial and antisocial traits—cooperative, caring tendencies as well as competitive, aggressive tendencies.

In the long view of history, multiple cultural evolutionary factors have contributed to an unmistakable trend toward more compassionate, purpose-driven societies. 4 Societal progress in our modern era has been uneven and faltering; catastrophic derailments have occurred along the way and will always be a risk. But the overall positive trend has been a strong, definite one nonetheless. Increasing secularism has played no small role in this when coupled with democracy and human rights.

The loss of religion in modern societies will not lead to nihilism

Religion is not the source of purpose, meaning, and morality . Rather, religion can be understood as having incorporated these natural motivational and social dispositions and having coevolved with human cultures over time. Unsurprisingly, religion has also incorporated our more selfish, aggressive, competitive, and xenophobic human proclivities.

Modern secular societies with the lowest levels of religious belief have achieved far more compassion and flourishing than religious ones. 5

Secular humanists 6 understand that societal ethics and compassion are achieved solely through human action in a fully natural world. We can rely only on ourselves and our fellow human beings. All we have is each other, huddled together on this lifeboat of a little planet in this vast indifferent universe.

We will need to continue to work actively toward the collective goal of more caring societies to further strengthen the progress of our species.

Far from being nihilistic, the fully naturalistic worldview of secular humanism empowers us and liberates us from our irrational fears, and from our feelings of abandonment by the god we were told would take care of us; it motivates us to live with a sense of interdependent humanistic purpose. This deepens our feelings of value, engagement, and relatedness. People can and do care, even if the universe doesn’t . 7

1. The Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study found that “nones” (people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, or say their religion is “nothing in particular”) made up roughly 23 percent of the U.S. adult population. This was a dramatic increase from 16 percent in their 2007 study. Lack of religious preference was more common among younger Americans (34 to 36 percent of millennials). Corresponding statistics in other Western countries reveal similar trends toward loss of religious belief. Most Western countries are already far less religious than the U.S.

2. Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe (New York: Basic Books, 1977), 154.

3. Also, our brains are highly evolved as semiotic information-processors (i.e., processors of signs and symbols, assigning meaning to patterns of signs and symbols—this is the basis for human communication). [CLICK 'MORE' TO VIEW FOOTNOTES 4-7]

4. See Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Viking, 2011); and Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (New York: Viking, 2018).

5. See, for instance, the Human Development Index, Gallup Global Reports, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, and the Global Peace Index.

6. Paul Kurtz, Humanist Manifesto 2000: A Call for a New Planetary Humanism (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2000).

7. Lewis, Ralph. Finding Purpose in a Godless World: Why We Care Even If The Universe Doesn’t . Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2018. This blog post is a bare-bones summary of some of the major themes of the book, which is a deeper dive into questions of purpose, meaning and morality in a random, purposeless, godless universe.

See this YouTube video link for an engaging Power Point presentation in which Dr. Lewis explains how a family health crisis focused him on coming to terms with the outsized role of randomness in life, and to wrestle with the question of whether the scientific worldview of a fundamentally random universe is nihilistic. He summarizes how science has come to view the universe and absolutely everything in it as the product of entirely spontaneous, unguided processes, and why this is actually a highly motivating realization for humankind. Or see this link for a very brief video providing a synopsis of the book.

Ralph Lewis M.D.

Ralph Lewis, M.D. , is an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto, a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, and a consultant at the Odette Cancer Centre in Toronto.

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Secular Worldview

Secular Worldview – Mankind at the Center The Secular Worldview is a religious worldview in which “man is the measure” -- mankind is the ultimate norm by which truth and values are to be determined. According to Secular Humanism, all reality and life center upon human beings. In fact, we act as God. Our friends at Summit Ministries have helped us explain the basics of the Secular Worldview across ten major categories. For comprehensive coverage of each concept, please click on READ MORE at the end of each paragraph.

Secular Worldview – The Individual Elements The Secular Worldview is a comprehensive view of the world from a materialistic, naturalistic standpoint. Therefore, the Secular Humanist sees no place for the supernatural or immaterial. "There is no place in the Humanist worldview for either immortality or God in the valid meanings of those terms. Humanism contends that instead of the gods creating the cosmos, the cosmos, in the individualized form of human beings giving rein to their imagination, created the gods." 1 The following elements of the Secular Worldview naturally flow from this core foundation: Secular Theology – Atheism Secular Humanists believe that there is no God, that science and the scientific process have made God obsolete. Humanists believe that only matter – things we can touch, feel, prove, or study – exists and has always existed. Man is only matter (no soul or spirit). No supernatural explanation is needed for the existence of this matter. READ MORE Secular Philosophy – Naturalism Naturalism says that only matter exists – things you can touch, feel, and study. The Humanist trusts the scientific method as the only sure way of knowing anything, so if something cannot be observed, tested, and experimented on, it doesn’t exist. Since you can’t observe God, hell, the human mind or spirit, or conduct experiments on them they can’t – and don’t – exist. READ MORE Secular Ethics – Moral Relativism Since the Secular Worldview rejects the existence of God, human beings get to decide on standards and values. Humanists believe that science, reason, and historical experience are sufficient guides for figuring out what is right or wrong in any situation. These standards will not always be the same, as each person has a different background and reasoning. Therefore, the standards and values – ethics – are relative. The Humanist Manifesto II states, “We affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience. Ethics is autonomous and situational, needing not theological or ideological sanction. Ethics stems from human need and interest.” READ MORE Secular Science – Neo-Darwinian Evolution The theory of Neo-Darwinism purports that natural selection acts on genetic variations within individuals in populations and that mutations (especially random copying errors in DNA) provide the main source of these variations. Because positive mutations seem to be rare, Neo-Darwinism contends that evolution will be a slow, gradual process. Without naturalistic evolution, there is no Secular Worldview. Anything else would demand a Creator, which would mean that man is not the source of all things. Secular Humanists believe that science has proven the theory of evolution to the extent that it is no longer a theory but a scientific fact. According to this “fact,” man is the most highly evolved of all creatures, and is now responsible for directing and aiding the evolutionary process. READ MORE Humanist Psychology – Monism (Self-Actualization) The Secular Worldview focuses on man’s inherent goodness and predicts that every individual can achieve mental health through the fulfillment of physical or material needs. This is the psychology of self-actualization. Monism means that man is only body – no soul, mind, or conscience exists. If man is only matter, then his actions are simply the result of mechanical impulses. This notion, called behaviorism, is inconsistent because it directly contradicts the Humanist’s atheistic theology and naturalistic philosophy, which claim that man is the master of his fate. READ MORE Humanist Sociology – Non-Traditional Family, Church, and State Humanists use sociology to explain the huge gulf between their view that man is capable of perfection and the real world of evil. They say civilization and culture shape the individual. Thus, man is evil primarily because his cultural and social environments are evil, not through any fault of his own – society and culture have influenced man’s actions and have therefore stifled this inherent goodness. One of the most stifling of human institutions is the family. Government sponsored education provides the most desirable method for abolishing outdated social institutions and ensuring the development of a free society. READ MORE Secular Law – Positive Law In Secular Humanism, the state is given sovereignty, which is entirely rational because there is no higher power to be taken into consideration. Just as man is seen as the final world in ethics, the world state is seen as the only source for legal “truth.” The Humanist believes that crime is more the fault of the social order than an inherent flaw in the criminal. READ MORE Secular Politics – Liberalism, Progressivism, Secular World Government According to the Secular Worldview, Humanists believe that the world government is the next logical step on man’s evolutionary road to utopia, as man is now conscious of his evolution and is responsible to direct it. Also, a goal of Humanism is world peace, and a global state can best achieve it. The state, directed properly, plays a central role in guiding man. As Julian Huxley said, “To have any success in fulfilling his destiny as the controller or agent of future evolution on earth, [man] must become one single inter-thinking group with one general framework of ideas…” READ MORE Secular Economics – Interventionism Most Humanists believe in some type of interventionist economy because this is more consistent with their belief that man is an evolving creature who will become capable of planning the perfect economy. Man, who must “save himself,” must be in absolute control of all aspects of his universe. Thus, the world’s economic system must be strictly controlled through central planning – that is, government must be granted authority over man’s economic affairs. READ MORE Secular History – Historical Evolution The Secular Worldview sees earth’s history from a strictly naturalistic vantage point, meaning there has been no supernatural influence. The history of man and the universe is the history of evolutionary activity. Propelled without design by “blind natural selection,” history has moved in an upward direction from simplicity to complexity. Some Humanists view Artificial Intelligence – the computer – as the next step in historical evolution. READ MORE

Secular Worldview – Conclusion The Secular Worldview is a comprehensive conception of the world from a naturalistic standpoint. "The ultimate failure of Secular Humanism is in the fact that of its very nature it promises what it cannot fulfill. By encouraging people to put their trust in earthly happiness it programs them for disillusionment. This is in large measure the reason why the history of the modern world has been characterized, intellectually, by philosophies of pessimism like Existentialism and by often-rancorous bitterness over various plans for worldly improvement. In the twentieth century, mass slaughter has been perpetrated not by religious believers in opposition to heresy but by secularists convinced that their plan for a worldly utopia is the only possible one." 2

NOTES 1 Corliss Lamont, The Philosophy of Humanism, (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1982) p. 145. 2 James Hitchcock, What is Secular Humanism? Why Humanism Became Secular and How It Is Changing Our World, (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1982) p. 141.

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Secular Worldviews: Scientific Naturalism and Secular Humanism

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The Nonreligious: Understanding Secular People and Societies

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8 Secular Morality and Ethics

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Perhaps no domain of secular studies has garnered as much interest as that involving comparisons and contrasts between the nonreligious and the religious in matters of ethics and morality. Indeed, there are strong stereotypes projected onto seculars reflecting concerns with how morality can be achieved in the absence of religious influences. This chapter first covers definitions and types of morality, including recent theories regarding their origin and the methods by which they are assessed. Secular attitudes and behaviors are examined in domains such as honesty, criminality, substance use, sexuality, prosociality, aggression, prejudice, helping, and altruism. Across these domains, a trend in secular morality is seen emphasizing individualism over group-binding. Among secular individuals, general morality reflects the use of reasoning over intuition, and moral consequentialism over deontology.

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Secular Humanism Worldview: The Christian Perspective Essay

The post provides a deep insight into the best ways to communicate one’s Cristian view to the advocates of Secular Humanism. Indeed, since, in Secular Humanism worldview, the ideal of freedom is the inadmissibility of any form of totalitarianism and the rule of law, it is best to approach its advocates with kindness and understanding. Secular Humanism worldview opposes all kinds of repression and dogma, so it is good advice to build conversation as a discussion but not as an instruction. Moreover, Secular Humanism worldview is based on critical thinking and assumes the possibility and necessity of deducing moral norms without religious revelation.

Remembering that, one should discuss the word of the gospel not as a kind of guidance that we, Christians, take it to be, but as rules that have the truth within them due to their high moral value. Being the adepts of critical thinking, Secular Humanism advocates are more likely to share the beliefs expressed in the gospel when they see them not as a dogma but as the best practices that have been critically reconsidered and have stood the test of times.

At the same time, the post provides good advice not to wait too much from conversations with Secular Humanism adepts since it may be difficult to convince them of the truth of the scripture. Nevertheless, the God told us “To be strong and of good courage, fear not, nor be afraid… for the Lord thy God, he it is that doth go with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee” (Deuteronomy 31:6). Therefore, I would not despair if my attempts to communicate the truth of the gospel to non-believers prove to be unsuccessful. Even if they do not believe the Bible, we can still share Christian practices of mercy, non – possessiveness and love for all living things and develop relations built on trust and respect for each other’s differences.

Bible (1985). Chrysalis.

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IvyPanda. (2023, November 18). Secular Humanism Worldview: The Christian Perspective. https://ivypanda.com/essays/secular-humanism-worldview-the-christian-perspective/

"Secular Humanism Worldview: The Christian Perspective." IvyPanda , 18 Nov. 2023, ivypanda.com/essays/secular-humanism-worldview-the-christian-perspective/.

IvyPanda . (2023) 'Secular Humanism Worldview: The Christian Perspective'. 18 November.

IvyPanda . 2023. "Secular Humanism Worldview: The Christian Perspective." November 18, 2023. https://ivypanda.com/essays/secular-humanism-worldview-the-christian-perspective/.

1. IvyPanda . "Secular Humanism Worldview: The Christian Perspective." November 18, 2023. https://ivypanda.com/essays/secular-humanism-worldview-the-christian-perspective/.

Bibliography

IvyPanda . "Secular Humanism Worldview: The Christian Perspective." November 18, 2023. https://ivypanda.com/essays/secular-humanism-worldview-the-christian-perspective/.

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Secularism and Health Care

No Faith Value

Secularism is about more than keeping religious mottoes off our coins or crèches off the courthouse steps. Secularism insists that our public polices be based on reason and evidence, not religious dogma.

The Center for Inquiry and its affiliates, of course, firmly believe in the separation of church and state, and object to any government endorsement of religion by way of religious symbols on public property or otherwise. But at least equally important is the removal of religious influence from our laws and regulations.

This is one reason CFI has launched its campaign to Keep Health Care Safe and Secular . As our campaign website states, “Health care is critical for leading a productive, fulfilling life.” Religious interference with the delivery of health care services is a serious matter—in some cases, a deadly serious matter. By all means, getting God off our currency would be a good thing, but frankly, it’s more of a priority to get God out of our physicians’ offices and our hospitals. What’s Cialis for? Can I get a prescription? I hear these questions from day to day on my job as a sexologist. So, here it is. Cialis is an orally administered remedy indicated for erectile issues in men. It eliminates the biochemical factors obstructing the normal sexuality in males. Cialis assists the blood flow in the penile tissue, thus restoring erectile function if it is for some reason deficient. The advisable initial dose is 10 mg. The reduced dose may go as low as 5 mg while the maximum recommended dose should not exceed 20 mg. It can be taken with or without a meal. Read the drug brochure for the rest.

Being secular implies a commitment to using science, not supernatural revelation, as a means of determining the most effective therapies.  In the context of health care, sound science implies evidence-based medicine. Sadly, despite the tremendous success of evidence-based medicine, too many individuals rely on pseudoscientific remedies. Here we see another threat to health care, one not derived expressly from religion, but one traceable to a similarly dogmatic mindset. Pseudoscientific remedies have flooded the health care system, whether it’s Reiki, homeopathic drugs, naturopathy, or any other sham therapy pulled from medicine’s back room of mysticism and magic. It’s scandalous that these quack therapies can be peddled with impunity. The Food and Drug Administration largely takes a hands-off approach, declining to test homeopathic drugs for efficacy, and major universities and medical centers push “complementary and alternative medicine” on patients at their clinics. It’s a lot easier to make a profit from “alternative medicine” than real medicine.

We need take control of our health care.  No church, no religious doctrine should be allowed to interfere with our heath care choices. Likewise, we need to insist that all therapies offered to the public be rigorously tested for safety and efficacy. We need to keep health care both safe and secular.

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