Secular Morality and the Examined Life

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It seems to me that if you consider yourself an atheist or humanist, it is doubly important that you are thoughtful and aware of what you consider right and wrong, and more importantly why. If you are declaring yourself independent of religious dogma, then all right and wrong must be up for grabs - you can not just say "that's wrong" without knowing why, because you are open to the question "who says so?"

Of course, there are plenty of religious people who examine and test their morality. What is interesting is that so many people who consider themselves atheists/humanists go through life accepting what they are told and taught about right and wrong, without every questioning it. They accept "it's just wrong" as though it actually was some kind of unbreakable religious law.

A couple of years back, I had a discussion with a very intelligent self-declared atheist friend about this very issue, but when the discussion got onto public nudity (don't ask), her response was "Oh, that's just wrong. We just know it is, it's natural". She accepted this definition of right and wrong she had been taught as a child, and never thought to question it.

So how free are we if we are still living by definitions of right and wrong inherited from previous generations, and often derived from religious dogma?

I believe that if we fail to live the examined life, holding up our beliefs and assumptions to question as often as we can (busy and complicated modern lives permitting), we are no more free than the dogmatic believers from whom we chose to separate ourselves.

About Mark: Mark Hewitt is a former IT technician, security guard, cleaner, railway ticket inspector, graduate in Psychology and Art History, and a geek, foodie, philosopher, web designer and writer. He writes about technology, food, travel, philosophy and spirituality. You can find more of his work at

Tip of the day: Afterthought for the day is a delightful commentary on the BBC's Thought for the Day written in Richard Crowther's own flowing and natural style.

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