Believers Think We Need Religion to Behave Like Good, Moral People -- Here's Why They're Wrong
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And the same is true of morality. The only real, practical reason for believing in it and adopting it is because it works -- because it makes the world more free, more fair, more peaceful, and makes it possible for more people to lead happy and fulfilling lives. In this respect, morality could even be seen as another field of science, like a subdomain of anthropology or sociology: the study of how best to promote human flourishing.
With these basic ingredients, we can build a moral system that's completely secular and religion-neutral, one that's in no way dependent on following the decrees of a holy book or a religious authority. By always seeking to bring about the greatest happiness, we have a guide for what we should do in any situation, one that's rooted in human nature and based on something real and measurable.
That said, I want to emphasize that I don't claim to possess the definitive answer to every ethical problem. The theory of morality I've sketched here is more like the scientific method: not a list of claims to be taken as dogma, but a way of thinking about certain kinds of problems. It still requires people to evaluate evidence, offer reasoned arguments and use their own judgment, and I consider this a point in its favor.
But even in its broadest strokes, a world where everyone agreed on the goal of advancing human happiness would be dramatically different from the world we live in now. In this society, other, more selfish goals -- increasing the wealth of the wealthy and the power of the powerful, maintaining the privilege of the few at the expense of the many -- often interfere and cause suffering and inequality to persist. But a world where happiness was the primary goal, and where every human being's happiness was judged to be of equal value, would necessarily entail some major changes.
It would be a world of democracy, where all people have a say in how their society is governed, and where human rights are fixed and inviolable. It would be a world of free enterprise, where people succeed on the basis of effort and merit; but it would also be a progressive world with a strong safety net and a more equal distribution of wealth and resources, rather than the law-of-the-jungle capitalism championed by libertarians or the Dickensian dystopia sought by Tea Party conservatives. It would be a world that valued sustainability and environmental conservation for the sake of future generations that have yet to come into existence, but whose happiness matters no less than our own despite that.
It would be a world in which all people have access to education and the other public goods needed to develop their talents to their fullest extent; since, after all, a society where everyone is educated, productive and prosperous offers far more potential for happiness than a world with a vast gap between rich and poor, where people succeed or fail based on accidents of birth. For the same reason, it would be a world of free choice, where no woman would ever become pregnant against her will, where population is sustainable and every child is wanted and cared for.
And, most of all, this would be a secular world. Whether religion still existed or not, it would be a private and individual matter, not the loud, overbearing presence in public affairs that it currently has, and moral rules based purely on religious belief would fade away. As I said earlier, most religious moralities are also based on happiness; but their error is that they arrive at moral decisions through unverifiable private faith, rather than facts and evidence that can be demonstrated to anyone's satisfaction. The fact that the world's longest-running, most destructive and most intractable conflicts all stem from religion only highlights this problem... and in a world built on secular reason and compassion rather than faith, it's entirely possible that these would finally cease.