Canada's Premier Hub For Faith In Common Life
The Clash of Moral SystemsThe Clash of Moral Systems

The Clash of Moral Systems

secularists who oppose conscience rights and religious freedoms also seek to impose a moralism that denies faith and defies reason, argues Convivium's Richard Bastien

5 minute read
The Clash of Moral Systems August 1, 2015  |  By Richard Bastien
Like Convivium? , our free weekly email newsletter.

There is growing opposition to claims of freedom of conscience and religion made by medical practitioners, by university students who commit to reserve sexual expressions of intimacy for marriage, and by service providers solicited for samesex wedding ceremonies.

The basic reason invoked for opposing such claims is that they allegedly result in some form of unwarranted social discrimination and thus violate the principle of equality for all citizens. Whether it's a same-sex couple seeking a photographer for a wedding, a woman wanting an abortion or a patient wanting to end his life, the argument is invariably the same: the request for service should not be denied on the basis of moral or religious beliefs held by the service provider because such a denial results in the latter imposing his or her personal beliefs on the party seeking the service.

This is nothing less than a clash of two moral systems, with one claiming to be superior to the other. Secularists arguing that freedom of conscience or religion is a source of unwarranted social discrimination are, in effect, making a bold but unacknowledged assumption: that the right of same-sex couples or pregnant women to be served trumps the right of the service provider to refuse such services on the grounds of conscience or religion.

Thus, the fundamental question becomes: What makes one right superior to the other?

The answer given by secularists is that denying requests for service harms those who make the request. This harm may take various forms, including personal humiliation, privation of something deemed essential, etc. However, there is never any mention of the harm that would be suffered by the service provider if he were to act against his conscience or religion.

In other words, the hidden assumption of those opposing the right of service providers to invoke freedom of conscience or religion is that the latter would suffer no real harm in providing service in situations they consider conscientiously objectionable. Conscience or religion is seen as nothing more than a whim or a fad not to be taken seriously when weighed against requests for same-sex marriage or abortion.

But there is more to it than that. Appeals to conscience or religion are sometimes portrayed as a violation of professional ethics. For example, in an article titled "Dishonourable disobedience — Why refusal to treat in reproductive healthcare is not conscientious objection," published last December in Woman — Psychosomatic Gynaecology and Obstetrics, Christian Fiala and Joyce H. Arthur argue that conscientious objection "is a shield to protect employees from liability for their own negligence, while placing unfair burdens on colleagues and employers." The authors further argue the following:

"The principle of public accommodation requires the discounting of individual conscience within a profession. Everyone's conscience is different and cannot be coerced, which is why a free democratic society places a high value on tolerance and equal respect for all citizens. However, if individuals are permitted to exercise their conscience when serving the public, it gives social sanction to the practice of intolerance. [Conscientious objection] invites discrimination against people needing the services being refused, and infringes their freedom of conscience."

The most telling point in this statement is that "everyone's conscience is different." In other words, there is no such thing as an objective moral law. Morality is a purely subjective matter and no one should feel bound by any particular set of rules. This is what is called moral relativism. But if that is so, why then should those who believe in an objective moral law be prevented from abiding by that law when serving the public? In other words, why should they be forced to live by the rules of moral relativism if that violates their own conscience and causes them a moral harm? Nowhere is there any mention of the psychological and other effects that those serving the public might suffer as a result of having acted against their conscience.

It is also worth noting that the argument that denial of service on grounds of conscience "invites discrimination against people needing the service" is patently untrue, since it is always possible for those in need of a given service to call on another service provider, one who would be happy to oblige.

Never do secularists acknowledge that freedom of conscience and freedom of religion are the most basic of all freedoms. Without them, all other freedoms are of little or no value. There can be only one reason for such an attitude on the part of secularists and it is that they understand religion and conscience as nothing more than modern remnants of antiquated mythologies or superstitions that have been superseded by science and reason.

What secularists fail to realize is that their dismal view of conscience and religion is rooted in a broader materialistic philosophy of man and the universe that has little to do with science or reason, and that they are in effect seeking to impose that philosophy on people who view life differently. They are thus doing exactly what they accuse conscientious objectors of doing. They feel authorized to do so because they view themselves as holding some kind of monopoly over reason, not realizing that their philosophy is subject to intellectual challenge.

More specifically, secularists generally assume that religious believers cannot guarantee the consistency of their religious beliefs with reason, nor acknowledge the veto power of reason over faith claimed by "freethinkers."

They are wrong on both counts. Catholic theologians and philosophers, both medieval and contemporary, hold that reason has a veto power over faith if what one means by that is simply that no honest person can believe what reason has refuted. They argue that if Christianity is true, there can never be any contradiction between any doctrine of the Christian faith and any scientific, historical or common-sense statement shown to be true on the basis of reason alone, for the simple reason that truth cannot contradict truth.

And that's not all. Whenever there is some rational argument against a Christian teaching, that argument can be refuted in a purely logical way, without any appeal to a religious doctrine or belief. It can be refuted by showing that it contains either a logical fallacy or a false premise or an ambiguous term. An argument devoid of any of those three defects is an argument that, by definition, is true. And an anti-Christian argument has yet to be found that does not include at least one of those three faults.

Of course, this position is not shared by all Christians. Mainline Protestants find it difficult to acknowledge the perfect compatibility of faith with reason. However, Catholics and some Evangelical Protestants believe that an intelligent man cannot do without a synthesis of faith and reason. As John Paul II said in his famous encyclical, Fides et Ratio, "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth." And as Pope Benedict XVI said in his Regensburg Lecture, "not to act 'with logos' [reason] is contrary to God's nature."

Faith without reason is not faith. It's fideism. And fi deism is an insult to human intelligence.

Secularists are generally atheists or agnostics. The former deny the existence of God; the latter, the relevance of his existence to the way life should be lived. Most of them, however, have no way of accounting for their theoretical or practical disbelief by reason alone. While they view religious faith as completely estranged from reason, they fail to realize that their own position is more akin to fideism (faith alone) than to rationalism (reason alone). The atheism of the secularists is not an act of the intellect but of pure will.

Moreover, if, as atheists tell us, there is no God, then man has no particular nature, which means he can pursue the wildest goals in life. As French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, "There is no human nature because there is no God to design it." Freedom is therefore unconstrained by human nature, and there is no reason why might should not be right. This is the view of human nature that underlies the opposition to freedom of conscience and religion. It is open to all kinds of aberrations.


Convivium means living together. Unlike many digital magazines, we haven’t put up a digital paywall. We want to keep the conversation regarding faith in our common and public life as open as possible.

Like Convivium?

, our free weekly email newsletter.