"A Way in the Wilderness"
I just read an article about a newly endowed Chair for the Study of Atheism, Humanism and Secular Ethics just established at the University of Miami. This new academic department wasn’t established to promote atheism but to rather to systematically study the teachings of secular philosophy and to explore human ethics without the influence of religious teachings.
While many religious people may be incensed over what just happened in Miami, as a Christian and ordained priest I am very much in favor of this new academic venture. I see it as as excellent addition to university studies, especially in an age where more and more people (especially younger folks) are turning away from affiliation with established religion.
It seems to me that people often tend to avoid talking about ethics and morality because they associate moral conversation with religious belief. “Morals” are rules handed down by religious institutions who claim that these are the laws of God. So of course, if you aren’t religious or if you are an atheist or an agnostic you probably want nothing to do with conversations about morality.
The problem is that, if no one is talking about ethics or morality, where do the bigger “meaning of life” questions get raised?
A few months back an op-ed piece in the New York Times made this point:
Because there is less moral conversation in the public square
we are less articulate about our inner life.
There are fewer and fewer places nowadays
where people are able to talk to one another about the things that matter most,
as a result, many feel lost or overwhelmed.
They feel a hunger to live meaningfully
but they don’t know the right questions to ask,
the right places to look or even if there are any ultimate answers at all.
Several years ago, in his very insightful book, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World, the Dalai Lama made a compelling argument for moving all moral conversations outside and beyond “religious institutions.” He argued that, if morality is only a subject of interest for religious people, then you may avoid considering ethical issues if you aren't religious.
The Dalai Lama also went on to suggest that we don’t need religious teachings as the only source for evaluating moral decisions and he argued that in the field of science there are some pretty clear standards of universal morality applicable to all humanity - upholding these standards has more to do with our survival as a species than with following religious dictates:
Fortunately there is now a reasonably substantial body of evidence
in evolutionary biology, neuroscience and other fields suggesting that,
even from the most rigorous scientific perspective,
unselfishness and concern for others are innate to our biological nature.
Interdependence is a key feature of human reality.
As human beings we can survive and thrive only in an environment of
concern, affection and warm-heartedness – or in a single word, compassion.
I firmly believe that we need more public “moral dialogue” in the marketplaces of our common life. As I see it, we need to find more and more ways to ask those bigger “meaning of life” questions, searching together for direction as we make our way through the wilderness of life. Together we all need to be exploring issues like gun control, immigration, sexuality, the ethics of climate change, the morality of euthanasia, the proper use of wealth, the morality of war in a nuclear age.
So I applaud what the university of Miami just did and I think that colleges and universities everywhere might do well to establish a “Department for the the study of Atheism, Humanism and Secular Ethics.” We need more and more places and opportunities where the big important questions of life can be addressed.
And when we have these important conversations I think there is a universal standard that can guide and inform our dialogue. We can evaluate the morality of our personal or corporate lives by looking through the lens of concern, affection, and warm-heartedness - in a word compassion.
Without this kind of morality we will be unable to survive as a species.