Many theists fear the moral progression of Western cultures. One Muslim apologist said in a debate that a few hundred years from now the West might allow men to have sexual relationships with 3 year old boys, citing NAMBLA as pushing for this recognition. I disagree. If anything, secular morality has lifted the age in which a person can consent to sexual relations, unlike Islam which must forever allow 50 year old men to marry 6 year old girls. The accusation here, is that secular morality is not static, it is not absolute, it changes with every generation like the way fashion does, and therefore there is no anchor holding it down to any particular set of values. This accusation has become very common when debating morality with theists.
I have written numerous times on morality but I would like to address for a moment the perceived issue of moral progression for the theist and tie that in with concepts of moral absolutism. Whenever I talk about morality with anyone, I always ask whether they believe in moral absolutes. I often get different answers. Theists like to assert their moral superiority over the atheist by asserting their moral absolute standards. But when you press a theist on these moral absolutes, it becomes evident that it is easier said than done in practice.
Recently when I was debating a Christian theist on morality, the theist claimed to have moral absolutes that I cannot have as an atheist. However, during our dialogue he said Old Testament morality was relative to those people, places and circumstances, and is not necessarily relevant to us today. So after admitting that his "absolute" Christian morality is relevant to time, place, people, and circumstance, I asked "How much more relative can you get?" He responded that his absolutes are founded in the written word of the Bible. "What version?" I ask, "King James? ASV? Thomas Jefferson Bible?" He didn't respond.
The problem he knows is that there are many versions of the Bible, with different translations, and some include whole books that others do not. Also, the process by which the Bible was put together was rather political in its motivations by the Roman emperor Constantine. To ground your moral absolutes in a heavily translated and highly versioned book is a fatuous attempt to find a solid grounding of your values. Besides this, the Bible doesn't give us all the moral answers that we need and since god isn't going to reveal himself when we are faced with moral dilemmas, we are always forced to calculate and decide for ourselves what is right and wrong.
Now since the atheist rejects the validity of the written word of any supposed holy book, so what then do we make of moral progression? Are morals merely decided upon by each generation? In order to have the best moral code to live by, we would need to have all the scientific information regarding the laws of physics, the universe, human nature and biology. On top of that we'd have to know the outcome of every possible future event to know what action made today will produce the best possible results. So in the absence of the totality of empirical knowledge that exists, we must make moral judgments based on moral values that are made with limited knowledge. Therefore, any moral values system devised will always be to some degree, imperfect. And so as we gain new knowledge about ourselves and our world through the beautiful endeavor of scientific inquiry, we can better revise our moral system. This means that it would be as ignorant to solidify moral values as it would be to solidify medical or scientific knowledge because new information means they can always be improved upon.
How does this relate to a perceived lack of moral absolutes?
If our moral values can be subject to revision, what grounds them? Think of our attempts to make sense of time. We used to think it was absolute, but then Einstein came along and showed us it is actually relative. The truth was out there all along, we just had incorrect assumptions about it due to our limited knowledge. I see morality in much the same way. There are moral values out there that would best suit humanity regarding our treatment of ourselves and nature, we just don't know them yet because of our limited knowledge. Every attempt to morally progress and to revise our moral values, is an attempt to get one step closer to this moral truth. Religious morality was some of our earliest attempts to understand this moral truth, and that is why they fail so miserably in many areas at assessing human conduct.
How can we recognize this moral truth, and what impact does culture have on it?
The theist will point to cultural differences on what is moral and claim that the ultimate moral truth will differ from place to place. I disagree. Any culture that adopts critical thinking, reason, freedoms of speech, and the pursuit of knowledge through science, will inevitably come to the same basic moral conclusions as the secular progressives in the West has, as long as they do not have cultural and religious obstacles in their way. Moral truth exist naturally irrespective of cultural or personal bias in much the same way that the laws of physics are not relative to cultural belief about the nature of reality. Fairness, love and compassion are naturally good because of their universal benefits, they are simply not a matter of opinion.
As time goes on and we progress morally, some theists cringe because they see moral values step further and further away from what their religions codify. But I must ask you, if you are hesitant to adopt a progressive attitude towards morality, to seriously consider the alternative. How many of you would seriously be willing to literally pick up a stone to throw it at your neighbor's head with the intention of killing him or her, because they were found to be working on the Sabbath? How many of you would be willing to do the same to the accused adulterer, homosexual, or a witch, today in the 21st century? How many of you would be willing to allow slavery and to allow 6 year old girls to be forced into arranged marriages with 50 year old men? Think about this. If the idea of actually doing this makes you cringe and repulsed, you're a moral progressive, because these are all the absolute and unchangeable morals of various religions.