Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Ethics Without Religion Is Possible- Malaysiakini



Once a while I come across an interesting article that appears to be academic but actually has many serious implications. A recent Malaysiakini article written by Sim Kwang Yang suggests that it is futile to ask whether ethics without religion is possible because believers and atheists will not come to any agreement or common ground. I think otherwise.

In the present state of polarised ideologies throughout the world, the question of whether ethics is possible without religion needs to be asked in a different and more subtle way. The right question to ask is whether it is possible to act ethically without belief in God. And my answer is definitely yes.
An ethical act is a humane act of kindness, of giving up your own interest in favour of the interest of others. And this understanding that human beings have a common need for goodness, however ambiguously defined it may be, is actually the foundation of most civilised societies in both the West and the East.

Even many people who do not believe in God are prepared to sacrifice their energy and time for an ethical principle such as working against injustice towards the poor, the persecuted or the oppressed. So does that mean that such free-thinkers/atheists have no ethical values just because they do not believe in God?

I myself am a Christian and I can see the dangers Malaysian society is presently facing with regards to religious freedom as enshrined by the constitution on the one hand and religious extremism as espoused by people who wish to integrate civil laws with religious laws on the other hand.

When religious extremists perceive that secular laws are laws that are meant to govern the ungodly, then they will deduce that it is justifiable to supplant secular laws with their religious laws. Whether or not their religion encourages them to impose religious laws on everyone is besides the point. One of the reasons why the Taliban became powerful in Afghanistan was because they saw the degraded and meaningless aspects of Western society and equated that with the failure of secular society.

As Mr Sim rightly points out, the mark of Christian faith is that it is subject to our free will as God does not impose Himself on us just like a parent who does not demand the love of his children. Love is a gift and should never be legislated. Let us live in a secular society with secular laws that protects the rights of all citizens and yet at the same time, respect the rights of every citizen to pursue their own faiths.

7 comments:

Chicken Feet aka KaKiaYam said...

Didn't have malaysiakini account. Thought that was a good article to read. But I was surprised (at the writer) when you noted that Mr. Sim thinks believers and atheists (what about agnostics?) will never come into any agreement or common ground in this topic. They may not agree in whole but surely there are bound to be some common ground that is agreeable by both?

KaKiaYam

Jeremiah said...

I agree with you. On second reading, Mr Sim's article raises more questions than answers. He does include agnostics with the atheists on the other side of the debate. Here are excerpts:

"To the rejoinder by the religious faithful that at least they have their holy books as the words of God, the atheist or the agnostic would say books give you imprecise words and quotations accompanied by their contexts. You have the space between the sky and the earth for interpretation of those words and their contexts. Can the fluctuating slippery language of human beings really reveal the eternal universal and holy truths about God?

And then, the opponent of religious ethics will simply say that since the only thing to compel anybody to follow the ethical system of any organised faith is precisely faith, and since the God of monotheism has decided to give human beings their free will, then the free thinker is merely exercising that right not to believe, and therefore morality is possible without religion.

This is the sort of endless argument engaged by undergraduate students in western universities for hours on end; it is a welcome distraction from the boredom of studying books for too long. But at the end of the day, nobody would be swayed by the argument on either side. Either you believe in a personalised monotheistic god, or you do not."

Zizik said...

Malaysia is an Islamic country

Here we are again talking about the same story again and again, let me give my point of view.

Malaysians have the right to practice any religion and freedom to build and attend all religion temples and classes, now people want to question the ethics of people? Mr. Jeremiah, I believe you are Christian in faith! FAITH…how can you build and ethics without Faith? It’s better to respect each other faith and I don’t know why religion became an issue?? There is no religion problem in Malaysia! There might be racial! But not religious! So don’t try to solve a problem by committing into bigger problem!

Anonymous said...

I am afraid many people are misguided. Without the existence of a Holy God ,it is not possible for the existence of an objective moral value. Our value of good and bad then, is a matter of personal taste that has come to its existence today through thousands of years of evolution and the process of refining and defining. Our laws are then the laws that had developed over the years and accepted by the majority
of mankind.
Take for example, revenge. By our human standard, we would probably reason that killing someone out of revenge is acceptable. Of course there will also be those who think oterwise. What if the majority believe that it is alright to kill for revenge and set our law to that effect?
What if the majority of people think that raping is acceptable?
Won't our women be in trouble today?
If we take ourselves too seriously, and claim that without God, it is possible to set
an objective and absolute moral standard,and in the process develop our ethics based on our man made laws, we have ignorantly proclaim ourselves as God.
But according to the Bible, we are all sinners and fall short of God's glory. Our human hearts are full of deceits and evils,such that Jeremiah the prophet said:' From the least to the greatest all are greedy for gains."
So our acts of good can be covered and hidden by the deep evil scheme in our hearts.
Because God is holy , only His law is absolute and by His standard that we should lay the foundation of our moral ethics.

Tanpa Kepala said...

Ethics without religion is not possible. I know.

Jeremiah said...

To Zizik and Anonymous,

Thank you for your wise comments.

I know that as fellow believers in a monotheistic God, it seems quite difficult for us to accept a world where ethics can be practised without faith in God. It is like building a castle on sand.

When I said that humans have a common need for goodness, I am referring to the unspoken moral law of right and wrong which is common to most, if not all, civilisations. If you take the trouble to compare the moral teachings of ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, you will find they share more common values than any major differences. For example, men from different cultures (not religions) may differ as to whether you can have one wife or more but they have always agreed that you must not have any women you like.

So this hidden code of right and wrong is already wired into our systems and I don't believe it is a matter of taste or fashion.

The great challenge of all religions is this: We are faced with these two conflicting facts that (1) mankind have a tendency to be selfish and to commit all kinds of sins; (2) he very well knows the civil law as well as the unspoken law of right and wrong.

To me as a Christian, the only way a person can be genuinely reformed to be good (not merely obedient to an external law) is to believe in God and live out a righteous life. But I know this transformation is a spiritual and personal matter which can not be enforced/coerced by external laws.

This is why I fully support a system of civil laws that promotes the ethics of the common good of mankind. Although there will be people who always break the law and commit murder or steal, this is not sufficient justification to impose our spiritual beliefs on them.

In other words, it is unethical to impose our ethics on those who do not agree with us. What we should fight and die for is for the freedom of man to speak, express, and right to freedom of thought as long as he does not break the civil laws.

(My apologies if I have offended any Muslims. I fully support the right of moderate Muslims to live out their conscience before their Allah without some different sect imposing srtrict guidelines on their behaviour.

Whatever name we call this country, it is best defined by the Constitution and the Rukun Negara).

Zizik said...

now thats a better explanation jeremiah!

good on you bro!

Do You Want To Know God?

Do You Want To Know God?
Say this: Heavenly Father, I have sinned against You. Forgive all my sins. I believe Jesus died on the cross for my sins and rose again. I give you my life to do as You wish. I want Jesus to come into my life & heart. In Jesus's name. Amen