Religions can be improved by humanism
By Goldwin Emerson,
The London Free Press, December 8, 2018
Morality is a system of conduct and beliefs designed to guide people in the customs, taboos, and mores of society. While the moral codes of one society may differ from those of another, there is considerable overlap in the moral ideals of most societies. For example, compassion, caring, trustworthiness, and honesty are common moral values, while murder, deceit, greediness, and violence are moral taboos in most societies.
Many philosophers and moral thinkers use the terms morality and ethics almost interchangeably. For those who use the terms differently, moral principles arise from the everyday working out of situations which result in harmony within a society. For example, honesty is good because it works out best in most situations. In that sense, honesty is practical and socially useful.
On the other hand, ethics takes a slightly more cerebral approach in determining which principles are the best ones to follow. Ethics attempts to seek out broad principles such as truth, justice, equity, and fairness, while morals are more concerned with codes and rules that result in an harmonious society. Thus the ethical principles of Aristotle and Plato differ in their emphasis from the moral imperatives of Immanuel Kant. However, in the end, these differences may be more matters of approach than of substance.
Kant’s moral system emphasizes duty, responsibility, and obligation, a view that ties in well with the moral codes of traditional religions, which also emphasize duties, guilt, sanctions, and rewards. Religious believers, rather than concentrating on a strictly cerebral quest for higher ethical principles, are often encouraged to look to God through scriptures or prayers to guide them in finding good morals.
On the other hand, Kant’s secular “categorical imperative” directed people to act in such a manner that their actions could become universal moral principles. For example, when considering whether or not an action is morally good, one should also consider whether it would work out successfully if other people were to act in the same way. That is, could the action being considered become a widely held universal type of action? Should I cheat on my income tax? Not if such an action would not work well in a broader universal sense.
Kant’s philosophy, though secular, resembles the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — which can be found within many of the world’s major religions.
A secular view of morals can be found in philosophies such as Utilitarianism, Pragmatism, and Humanism. The goal of these three philosophies is to bring about the greatest harmony, the greatest happiness or the greatest good for society. The emphasis here is to arrive at good morals by observing and practising those actions that will result in a benefit to society.
Humanists believe that, while sacred scriptures can guide people in moral principles, these scriptures can also sometimes be divisive and destructive, such as justifying holy wars, rejection of blood transfusions in saving lives, or the belief that God favours one religious or ethnic group over another.
So while sacred scriptures are a guide to moral behaviour, we need also to be aware that too literal or too narrow an interpretation of scriptures can sometimes result in immoral behaviour. A more nuanced view of scriptures may help to set us on a better moral path.
One of the great gifts we have as human beings is our ability to reflect upon our human condition and use our freedom to make choices about our actions. The wise use of freedom also carries responsibilities, which we share with others. Humanists take this moral responsibility conscientiously. We have an obligation to consider how our actions and choices affect the planet and humankind.
Such problems as global warming, pollution, poverty, starvation, homelessness, and the spread of HIV are moral problems that can be understood and addressed through scientific knowledge and a caring attitude toward people of all races and religions. A good start in following moral principles is the recognition that the problems others have are also our problems.
Religions, whether Christianity, Islam, Judaism or others, can be improved by including rather than excluding humanist thoughts. We are all in this search for moral and ethical principles together.
Ethical qualities adaptable to any era
Goldwin Emerson, email@example.com
The London Free Press, November 17, 2018
Today we live in times of social change. While we may cherish long‐held ethical values, nonetheless the societies we live in today are different from those in which our parents were raised.
The old values of hard work, honesty, dependability, respect for others, kindness, generosity and courtesy are still good values. What have changed are the societies we live in and the customs and expectations of the people with whom we interact. In my youth, it was a treat to get a carefully hand written letter sent through the mail, delivered within a week.
But today, if I get an email from a friend sent to me a few seconds ago along with perhaps up to 20 or more recipients, most of whom I do not know, I can at least be grateful I am one among my friend’s many acquaintances. If I receive a text message from a youthful friend I realize the old rules of punctuation and sentence structure and upper and lower case letters have disappeared. As a former teacher, this gives me a moment of pause to consider where the rules of good grammar have gone. Nonetheless, I am happy to learn from my young friend what he is eating for his lunch and how he is spending his time during a spare period in his Grade 10 class.
Being a senior citizen is not all that bad. Sometimes courteous bus drivers reach out to take my hand as I board the bus. They will often assure me the bus I am on is the correct bus to get to my destination. They may even tell me in advance that the next stop is the one where I should exit. When I am entering a store younger people, and most people are younger than I, often hold the door open for me. I have noticed, too, that women will hold the door open as well as men do and this helpful trend makes me happy.
There are still some nasty people around who are not very honest. About once a year, I get a phone call from someone who claims to work for Canada Revenue Agency. I am told I owe more tax money and I have only a few hours to return the phone call and get this matter straightened out to their satisfaction or risk being taken into custody by local police.
A few years ago I was phoned by a fake police officer who stated that my son was involved in a car accident. Later, the same caller pretended to be an attorney who claimed he could get my son’s charges dropped for using his cellphone while driving. Still later, I found this was a scam to get me to send him money for his dishonest “help.”
My son had not been in a car accident at all. It was a totally despicable, dishonest, unethical scam. Honesty is still a valued ethic in modern societies just as it has been in our past.
With patience and effort we can learn to apply long standing ethics to changing times. Here is a list of qualities I still regard as valuable human ethical behaviour:
Kindness, caring, empathy, generosity and helping others are on my list. Honesty, truthfulness and dependability are included. Respect for others even when they are different from me in their religious or secular views or their racial origins or their personal sexual orientations, these qualities are still included in my ethical list. We are all part of the human family.
As societies change and new knowledge emerges, we will have to be open‐minded about how we can apply our ethical values when looking at new medical knowledge or considering climate change or environmental protection and preservation. We need also to consider how to find new sources of energy and how to use available energy safely, responsibly and ethically.
We need not throw out our old ethical value systems, but we do need to be thoughtful about how to apply our old ethics to changing times and modern societies.
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