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The moral culture of modern Western society is liberal humanism – we need to celebrate its achievements

For a country to be stable its citizens have to accept the rule of law and, for laws to be seen as just, they must be underpinned by a common morality. For most of human history this common morality has been determined by priests. Old men consulted sacred texts and divined what they perceived to be God’s will. Religions determined acceptable behaviour: the role of women, crimes and punishments and many other mores of daily life. This moral control even extended to economic crimes such as usuary and to scientific argument on the functioning of the natural world.

After the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the church started to lose its monopoly on determining moral issues. There began in the West a long process of establishing a new moral code based on natural principles. As Barack Obama said in later times:

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or (invoke) God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is relevant to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

This new ‘universal‘ morality became based on  the liberal ideas of freedom and equality that emerged in Britain and the USA in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, alongside natural humanistic ideals of behaviour. It has no recognised name, for want of a better phrase I call it secular liberal humanism. It has transformed our lives.

The natural world is no longer seen as controlled by Gods, demons and spirits. Scientific explanations of natural phenomena, including evolution and the creation of the world, are accepted as truths. The old fatalism of religions is no longer present. During the Covid crisis, no one said that this was a punishment from God- medical solutions were sought and found.

Slavery as an institution no longer exists. Its abolition was inspired by Christians in Britain and America, imbued with liberal ideas. As the poet William Cowper wrote in 1785:

We have no slaves at home – Then why abroad? Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs receive our air, that moment they are free, they touch our country, and their shackles fall.

This change from a rigid religiously inspired morality has accelerated since the Second World War. Women have gained a more important role in society and we have become less judgemental of minorities. No longer are divorcees, unmarried mothers, bastards and homosexuals stigmatised. We have set laws for discrimination on the grounds of gender, disability, race or religion. It is far from perfect but there appears to be a genuine desire to create a kinder, more caring world based on humanistic principles.

At every stage many religious leaders have resisted change, but most of their congregations have embraced the new morality. I have attended several inter-faith groups and It has become apparent to me that many, perhaps most, religious people in the West also de facto support secular liberal humanist ideals.  The same sex marriage vote and abortion vote in Ireland in 2015 and 2018 are the latest example of congregations embracing the new morality against the advice of their priests.

The principles of liberal humanism now determine the morality of all Western countries. Its natural authority allows both religious and non-religious to live together in harmony, sharing the same moral code.  It is certain that it has transformed our lives for the better. However, it is not celebrated as the revolutionary force it is. It has evolved naturally – it doesn’t even have a recognised name. No one prophet has espoused its ideals. No group specifically rallies round its principles. Except humanists, but we are a very small proportion of the population.

Since globalisation and the advent of social media the world has become increasingly fractious. If we are to continue to reap the benefits of  liberal humanism in the West, we need to positively embrace it as our common morality, uniting us across religious and national boundaries.  We need to name it, understand its force, celebrate its success and unite behind its principles. If we do so, we will be stronger together and better able to co-operate to confront the global challenges ahead.