The Two Paths
When people try to think of a religious theory of morality, they often come up with a moral code (set of rules) consisting of the Ten Commandments. (Some people think that morality just is the Ten Commandments.) This view assumes that the 10 rules set down in the Old Testament can constitute a complete theory of morality. This theory — what we will call the Ten Commandments theory of morality (TCT) — says that right actions are those that conform to the 10 Old Testament rules. The rules are absolute, allowing no exceptions, no “wiggle room” for transgressors, and the consequences of your actions are irrelevant.
Now, if people want to cite a secular theory of morality, there’s a good chance they’ll think of act-utilitarianism, the view that right actions are those that maximize happiness, everyone considered. That is, an action is right if it results in more happiness than any other action, taking everyone into account. In act-utilitarianism, being moral is a matter of making sure that your actions maximize happiness. Absolutist rules don’t matter; the consequences of your actions are everything.
The differences between these two systems are clear enough. But they also share some common ground. Both theories assume that moral knowledge is possible; that moral principles can be applied universally; and that there are important reasons for acting morally. Both theories also assume that moral knowledge (such as whether an action is right, or whether a person is good) is objective — that it does not depend on any one person’s state of mind. The TCT is thought to make objective moral judgments possible, and utilitarianism is an objective theory because determining the consequences of actions is a matter of objective observation. These common elements run through many other theories of morality, both religious and secular.
All of the preceding points may have tipped you off to a key fact that will become even clearer as we proceed: Generalizations about the worth of all religious theories compared to that of all secular ones are likely to be very iffy. There are faulty secular theories and faulty religious theories. This means that every moral theory must stand on its own merits, and every moral theory must be judged on its own merits. Simply lumping a theory into the secular or sacred category won’t help much.
Some theists (people who believe in God) dismiss secular theories of morality because they are “godless.” In other words, the problem with secular theories is that they are secular. Likewise, nontheists may dismiss religious moral systems because the theories assume the existence of God. That is, the problem with religious theories is that they are religious. Such criticisms do have their place. It is certainly legitimate to criticize a theory by pointing out that some of its underlying assumptions are false. But in many cases, moral theories are vulnerable to several compelling criticisms in addition to whatever arguments there are about the existence or nonexistence of God.