God, Goodness and Morality

An opening address delivered by Leo Igwe at the 2nd Annual conference of the Free Society Institute of South Africa, co-hosted  by the International Humanist and Ethical Union.

Date: September 11 2010 Venue Cape Milner Hotel, Cape Town South Africa

Once again the FSI has demonstrated its commitment to the mission of promoting free thought and free speech in South Africa. Last year we all met in this hall for the first conference of this Institute co-hosted by the International Humanist and Ethical Union. And I must say that last year’s event remains one of the best humanist programs I have attended in Africa. I was deeply impressed by the quality of the presentations, debates, and discussions. I was inspired by the curiosity for ideas, search for truth, hunger for knowledge, the spirit of inquiry, critical thinking and openmindedness expressed by the participants. I left South Africa deeply convinced that this nation has got in the FSI a befitting humanist group. So I urge you not to relent in your efforts, commitment and support for the FSI and its mission of promoting free thought and free speech in South Africa. I hope that very soon your organisation will be reckoned one of the most active and vibrant humanist groups on this continent and in the world.

The emergence of humanist groups in Africa opens a new, exciting and promising chapter in the history of African emancipation and enlightenment. The struggle to promote humanism marks another phase in the struggle by Africans for independence and liberation. It opens another chapter in the quest by Africans for emancipation from mental slavery and other forms of slavery. It marks another defining moment in the struggle by African people for intellectual liberation and mental freedom, for true renaissance and enlightenment.

There are few countries on this continent where active humanist groups like this exist. There are few places in Africa where humanists and free thinkers can meet openly to discuss, interact and express themselves without fear. Even in my own country, Nigeria, there are states(in Northern Nigeria) where events like this will be met with death and destruction. Millions of Africans still live in societies or under conditions where they fear to speak their minds or to express their thoughts freely. That tells us how important this meeting is and why we should take this message of hope and renewal beyond Cape Town, to all states in South Africa. That tells you how significant  the work you are doing at the FSI is and the potentials in terms of change, transformation and civilization. I hope the FSI will continue to lead the way in terms of promoting free thought and free speech in South Africa and in Africa as a whole. I hope this Institute will continue to champion the cause of realizing a free society in this country. It is only when a society is free that it can fully realize its potential.

This conference is taking place on a crucial day and date in the history of the world – September 11. Nine years ago some terrorists hijacked planes and caused the death of at least 3000 people in the US. Similar attacks have been planned and executed in other parts of the world.

We are meeting here at a time when the forces of religious fanaticism are ravaging the globe, causing suicide bombing, death and destruction, conflicts and instability in many countries. We are gathered here at a time when millions of people around the world are living in fear for their lives, safety and security – in the air, on the land and on the seas – due to threats posed by religious fanatics. We are meeting here at a time when a new dark age looms around the globe; at a time theocratic governments have taken their jihads and crusades to the United Nations. This conference is taking place at a time people in most countries are confused – or are being confused – as to what constitutes the best moral guide.  

The issue of what should be the best  guide to moral clarity for humanity stares the world in the face. And we need an atmosphere of free thought and free speech to consider, tackle and resolve it. We need an atmosphere that is free from threats from fanatics, terrorists, suicide bombers, jihadists, religious mercenaries and other armies of God to chart out a moral path and discuss, debate, and decide what is best for ourselves.

To the question that brought us here today – is a secular viewpoint our best guide to moral clarity? – my answer is yes. The secular, not religious, outlook provides us a reliable framework for the expression and realization of moral excellence. The secular viewpoint is based on evidence, reason, science, common sense and human beneficence. The secular outlook is open to revision and improvement. Secular morality is a morality for this world and of this world, not for the next; it is a morality for our happiness and well being in the here and now, not in the hereafter. It is a morality for this temporary life not for an eternal afterlife in an imaginary paradise. Secular morality is a morality by us, from us and for us, not a moral decree of God from God and for us ‘wretched’ humans. Secular morality is informed by the quest to be good and to do good for goodness’ sake, not the quest to be good and to do good for God’s sake or for heaven’s sake or to avoid going to Hell.

Simply put, secular morality is a common sense morality. The secular viewpoint puts human moral destiny in human hands, not in the hands of god or clerics. But we must note that both secular and religious outlooks are human creations. They are human viewpoints with human limitations, but advocates of religious outlooks continue to cause confusion by denying this fact.They have done humanity a great disservice by refusing to tell the world the truth and by claiming that the religious moral norms are decrees and commandments handed down as an eternal and unchangeable guide for humanity ages ago. And it is this dogmatic lie and others told in the name of God or Allah by the self-proclaimed prophets and messengers of the ‘most high’ that are responsible for the lack of moral clarity in the religious viewpoint. It is these sacred myths, falsehoods and misconceptions  peddled by the supernatural faiths that morally disqualify religions as the best guide for humanity.

A brief analysis of the September 11 attack – what could have motivated the Islamist attackers – may help us shed some light on the confusion and contradictions embedded in the religious moral outlook – the dangers that religion’s lack of moral clarity poses to the future and survival of humanity, and the risks we human beings run by allowing moral norms guided by supernaturalism, blind faith, primitive superstitions and dogmas to guide society.

No doubt those who planned and carried out the September 11 attacks must have judged their mission to be morally right – yes morally upright by their own standards and by the standards of religious morality.

I dont think the terrorists were really anomic individuals, unaware of the pain, agony, death and destruction their actions could cause. The September 11 attackers were not really bereft of conscience, compassion and fellow feeling. Instead I think the terrorists considered doing such grevious harm to their fellow human beings as consistent with their sacred sense of what is good or right; what ought to be done. The religous outlook actually thrives on sacrificing the natural or the human on the altar of the supernatural and the superhuman. Remember the story of the Biblical Abraham whose horrifying attempt to sacrifice the son was reckoned as a demonstration of faith. So we must understand this warped sense of morality  or sanctity if we are to tackle and eradicate religion and faith-based terrorism in the world. We must strive to rid our minds of these blood-sucking gods that undermine the moral health of our society.

The terrorists believed that their actions were pleasing to Allah who would reward them abundantly for their deeds in the hereafter. Take note of that, reward in the hereafter – whatever that is – 72 virgins and a palatial home in paradise is the driving force of religious morality.

For the Septmber 11 attackers and those who uphold a religous moral viewpoint, what is deemed morally good is what is pleasing to Allah or better what is judged or considered (by whom?) to be pleasing to Allah; what ought to be done is what Allah says, directs and commands – sometimes through the prophets, priests and sheikhs. These commandments and norms are codified in the sacred texts – Torah, Bible, Quran – and traditions, which everyone is expected to read, believe and follow without question as regards the author, source or authenticity. Thus, on hearing that hackneyed expression, ‘In Jesus name’ ‘Thus says the Lord or Allah’, Or ‘In the name of Allah, the most gracious and most merciful’, one should be ready to swing into action without minding the consequences to oneself or to others. The religious moral viewpoint is insensitive to our feelings, to human feelings. Because the ‘words’ (or rather, supposed words) of God or Allah are ‘yes’ and ‘amen’ and should be obeyed without question, hesitation or examination.

Because Allah – an entity from nowhere, somebody that is nobody – is taken to be the best moral guide for everyone including those who do not believe in him or her. So whatever s/he says or is believed to have said – no matter how stupid it is – holds or must hold everywhere and for everybody in secula seculorum (forever and ever). It is believed that Allah had charted the moral path, even when there is no consensus among the religious as to what this moral path is. Our duty as human beings is to follow, obey and abide by this recieved moral code. That reminds me of a hymn that is sung in many christian churches. It goes this way:

Trust and obey. For there’s no other way.

To be happy in Jesus. But to trust and obey….

And the question is this – Trust and obey whom? An imaginary entity?

Why should I trust and obey him or her or it? Trust and obey what? Texts from questionable sources written centuries ago by ignorant people? Should I trust and obey somebody who should not be trusted? Should I just obey orders that are stupid and harmful?

As I noted above, the religious moral viewpoint is mired in vagueness and lack of moral clarity. It has caused many people to abandon doing good, and trying to be good. Instead most people spend (I actually mean waste) much of this short life obeying God or trying to please God. Human beings will continue to wallow in moral confusion and darkness until the advocates of religious viewpoints stop peddling those ‘revealed lies and falsehoods’.

In conclusion, human beings can be good without believing in God. We can be moral without the pretensions of primitive religions. There is no doubt about it. In fact the whole idea of god came about in the attempt by primitive humans to promote and enforce what they concieved to be good -good life and good behaviour. So the religious moral outlook is largely outdated. God is actually a corruption of the good, not the author and dictator of what is good. God has no moral capacity. It does not have the capacity to judge, reward or recognize what is good or evil. Those who think otherwise are greatly mistaken. And it is this mistake that is at the root of religions’ lack of moral clarity. Human beings created God and invested it with all the human and moral attributes in their quest for some order, stability and ‘sanity’ in primitive times. And religions have blindly adopted this primitive idea of organizing and understanding the world and society. Unfortunately many people across the world want these outdated myths and misconceptions to be the basis of our laws, policies, educational and justice systems in this 21st century. They want the world to continue to wallow in moral vagueness, obscurity and darkness. Humanity needs the best moral guide to make the best of this one life we have. And I hope that with programs like this we can initiate the much needed process of enlightening and morally reawakening people around the globe to realize that the secular viewpoint presents us with the best guide to moral clarity.

I wish you all very fruitful deliberations.

About the Author

Leo Igwe is the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s representative for West Africa and Executive Director of the Nigerian Humanist Movement.

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