The recent beheadings and crucifixions in Syria and Iraq in the name of religion is atrocious in its own right, but raises a larger philosophical comparison between secular ethics and religion-based ethics, to the advantage of the secular. Of course, most religious people are horrified by ISIS’s actions and consider them to have no basis in religion whatsoever. I will grant the justice of that position, but it leaves open the question of whether a religion-based ethics is more risky in principle than a secular ethics.
To judge the risk requires pinpointing the essential difference between a religion-based and a secular ethics. The Christian theologian and proto-existentialist, Kierkegaard, is most helpful here. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard sees ethics as fundamentally a secular issue, a derivative of universal rational principles. Religious persons can follow those principles but that is not essentially a function of their religious nature. It simply means that they are following a set of rational principles in addition to being a religious person. The key difference is centered on Kierkegaard’s pointed question: “Can there be a teleological suspension of the ethical?” I.e., can the inscrutable commandments of God overrule “normal” ethical principles?
The paradigmatic case for Kierkegaard is when God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. “The ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he meant to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he meant to sacrifice Isaac.” So Abraham is forced to choose between the universal principles of ethics (against murdering your son) or accepting the “teleological suspension of ethics,” in which he suspends the rules of ethics to satisfy a higher end.
This to me is the fundamental difference between a secular ethics and an ethics based on religion (at least on the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). Religion allows for the possibility that we might suspend normal ethics in light of a higher commandment from an inscrutable God. Otherwise, it is no different from a secular ethics based on rational principles alone (holding God himself subordinate to the laws of ethics).
Although the acts of ISIS are condemned by people of all faiths, the dangers of a “teleological suspension of ethics” can be generalized to some extent, as a risk inherent in religion-based models. In pre-modern Europe, under the hegemonic rule of the Church, we saw the widespread development of those implements that today fill the torture museums of Europe, implements ingeniously designed to create more and more exquisite pain for the ill-fated heretic. Then we had the brutality of the Spanish Inquisition, brazenly carried on in the name of Church and the states under its authority.
With the 18th century Enlightenment, that largely changed. From the explicitly anti-Church philosophes to Kant, the hegemonic control of the Church gave way to a more humanist ethics grounded in rational principles. The ethics of Western culture today is primarily secular, a product of the Enlightenment. And although far from perfect, it has shaken off the worst abuses of the pre-Enlightenment theocratic ethic. At least now, one cannot break out the torture devices and flaunt them publicly as a general strategy of subjection. At least now, one cannot publicly suspend the normal rules of ethics because an inscrutable God has commanded it.
Now back to Kierkegaard, and to Abraham and Isaac. Although Kierkegaard is a Christian and I am unambiguous in my preference for a secular ethics, Kierkegaard may agree with me up to a point. He himself is almost Kantian in his emphasis that ethics is based on rational principles (unrelated to faith) and is therefore universal. The “ethical” and the “religious” are simply incommensurate categories for Kierkegaard. The ethical has to do with social relations and universal principles. The religious concerns only the individual in relation to the absolute. For Kierkegaard, the “religious moment” occurs when an individual, perhaps like Abraham, lives out his or her life among others, bound by the universal principles of ethics, and then one day something ruptures the plane of that living, and the individual’s identity shoots out in a perpendicular line to the absolute. His relation to the absolute (religious) and his relation to others (ethical) “cannot be mediated,” says Kierkegaard, in a jibe at Hegel and his understudies. Abraham cannot be justified on the ethical plane. He is up against an either/or crisis of the sort that most interested Kierkegaard. There is no gray area. Either you do something completely unethical in honor of God, or you reject God.
Kierkegaard may also agree with me that any social order would do best with a secular ethics based on rational principles. He certainly had no patience for state religion, and often disparaged the Christian state of Denmark and “Christendom” in general for their deployments of Christianity into the political or social arena. But he leaves room for Abraham, the “knight of faith” – not as a model of good citizenship or social order, but as a model of the individual wrenched away from his social identity by a connection to the absolute.
I finally disagree with Kierkegaard and reject the “teleological suspension of ethics” in all of its forms; however, I find Kierkegaard well worth reading and I myself have only scratched the surface of his thought. Moreover, no sound reading of Kierkegaard can ever use the “teleological suspension of ethics” to justify the behavior of ISIS or the Spanish Inquisition. In Kierkegaard, that suspension can never be applied as a public practice, but can only occur as a relation between the individual and the absolute. The problem is that so many groups at so many times and places have used a variant of the idea (God’s commandment allows me to overrule ethics) to vicious ends. In the case of the Middle East, this is further complicated by a historical trajectory quite different from Europe. Whereas the Enlightenment – the rise of secular ethics and secular democracies – in Europe can be seen as a liberation from the hegemonic oppression of the Church, in the Middle East of the past half-century, religion (in the form of a resurgent Islam) is often seen as the liberating force that can throw off the shackles of oppressive Western democracies. This inversion of the role of religion is historically explicable, but the ethical dangers are apparent when we see how easily ethical norms can be discarded when religious zeal is in full cry. Better to have a secular ethics based on rational principles. If you want to layer a religious faith on top of that ethics, fine, but don’t start believing that your faith trumps ethics or you become a danger to yourself and others.