My wife is reading Living the Secular Life by Phil Zuckerman. She loves it and shared this excerpt with me.
It’s awesome. Had to share it too.
Imagine that there is a room, and in the middle of the room, perched on a small table, is a beautiful, amazing, intricate piece of art. It contains all sorts of colorful levers, golden pulleys, shimmering crystals, silver balls, cute bells, spiked wheels, red spokes, brittle branches, webbed wires, all arranged in a psychedelic, fanciful way that is truly spectacular to behold. But this piece of art is extremely fragile. And it is the only one in existence. And the artist who made it is dead.
Okay, so now let’s say we take two nine-year-old kids. We say to the first kid, “Go into this room and look at this wonderful piece of art. You will have ten minutes in there, all to yourself. No one will be in the room but you. But please do not touch the piece of art. It is extremely delicate, very fragile, and it is the only one in existence. If you were to touch it, you might accidentally break, stain, or alter it, which would possibly cause irreparable damage, and the other kids won’t be able to see it as it should be seen. Now, if you do touch it, and if you do accidentally break it, we won’t punish you—but we’d be quite sad, and so we’d just really like you to not touch it.” The kid goes in, looks but doesn’t touch, and comes out. Great.
Now here comes the second kid. But we say something quite different to this kid. We say, “Go into this room and look at this wonderful piece of art. You will have ten minutes in there, all to yourself. No one will be in the room but you. And please do not touch the piece of art. It is extremely delicate, very fragile, and it is the only one in existence. Now, there will be a small hole in the ceiling, and through that hole, the principal of the school will be watching you. His eye will be on you at all times. If you touch that piece of art, he will see it, and he will be very angry, and you will be severely punished when you come out of the room. However, if you don’t touch it, he will see this as well, and he will be very pleased, and he will reward you with something wonderful when you come out.” The kid goes in, looks but doesn’t touch, and exits. Fine.
Now, for secular people[…] the first scenario represents secular morality: the kid who makes a choice not to touch the piece of art does so because she understand the risks and she understands the potential consequences, and she understands the value of what is before her. She chooses to do what is right, but not out of fear of punishment, or hope of reward, or because she is ever mindful of that eye in the ceiling watching her. The second kid represents religious morality: he makes a choice not to touch the piece of art largely because he is aware of the eye in the ceiling, and he doesn’t want to be punished, and he wants a reward at the end. That isn’t morality[…] That’s just being obedient, or merely fearful, or prudent, or greedy.
To be sure, both kids[…] did the right thing. But the underlying motivations were quite distinct. And I would agree[…] that if we as individuals, when placed in morally ambiguous or potentially precarious situations, make choices because we think the Eye of God is watching us, and we seek to avoid punishment while attaining personal rewards, we aren’t being truly moral. But if we make moral choices on our own volition, based on our understanding of what is at stake and what might be gained or lost and who might be harmed or helped, and not because we are being prudently mindful or a cosmic eye waiting to punish or reward us, well, that’s truly moral.
But there’s more. […] the child who is only acting morally because of the eye in the ceiling[…] is not relying on his own conscience. He is not depending on his own sense of morality that has been developed through making his own decisions, mistakes, and good choices. Rather, he simply adjust his behavior because of that eye. But what happens if, at some point down the line, this child begins to doubt the existence of that eye? Well, now we’re stuck with an actively immoral individual, who can’t rely on himself to do the right thing. The child raised within a secular framework does not risk such a crisis, since her morality is not predicated upon the belief in an all-watching eye to begin with.
Here’s the full reference to make it extra clear that I didn’t write this 🙂
Zuckerman, Phil. “Chapter 1: Morality.” Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions, Penguin Press, 2015, pp. 17–20.