I shouldn’t have been surprised by this reaction. But I always am. We were 12 weeks into a class that discussed a great variety of recent moral theories, none of which made the slightest reference to any sort of divine power or authority, but this made no difference. After 20 years of living in the US (I was born in Canada), I still tend to forget how many people here assume, simply as a matter of common sense, that the very idea of ‘secular ethics’ is an abomination, a contradiction, or both.

I don’t want to suggest that this attitude is influential only in the US. It is simply more prominent here. In polls and studies, a majority of Americans don’t trust atheists and say they would not vote for a presidential candidate who did not believe in God. ‘Religion’ and ‘theology’ are still frequently cited in the American media as if they were the sole aspects of human existence responsible for matters of value. ‘We need science to tell us the way things are; we need religion to tell us the way things ought to be,’ as people around here like to say. I have spent my career studying the way things ‘ought to be’, outside of the scaffolding of any faith or religious tradition. No wonder I find such sentiments rather frustrating.

More than that, I find them perplexing. Perhaps it seems natural for a person who was brought up in a religious tradition to place their personal moral views in a framework of faith. But I’m skeptical whether religion can provide genuine knowledge of any sort — and I can’t help noticing the level of disagreement and difference that still exists, sometimes violently, between believers of different faiths. Given this, I find it dubious that we can, let alone must, go to religion if we want knowledge about how to live. The fact that ethical commitments, in some people’s lives, find a natural place in the context of religion does not imply that such commitments can only be grounded and motivated in religion, nor that a universe can only contain morality if it also contains God.

Moreover, when actual arguments (not just good plain ‘common sense’) are offered against the possibility of secular morality, they tend to be deeply unconvincing. One common argument is that if there is no God, moral views are merely subjective opinions and nothing more: God is said to be required to make morality objective. A second argument is that divine authority is necessary to give morality its motivational force: without the threat of reward or punishment hanging over them, people will supposedly murder, rape, rob, and in every other way give in to their inherently sinful natures.