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Faith, Atheism & Morality

Alex Irving and I have been extremely firm friends since meeting at UEA - though where I would be delighted to see an end to religious faith - in the public sphere, at least - Alex, as a student of theology in London, holds rather an oppositional point of view. This is the first of two exchanges of open letters debating the merits of theism and atheism.

Ryan Watts

When religious people solemnly state their belief that without the intervention of their deity they would be entirely unable to discern the moral from the immoral, I decline to believe them, and for two reasons. We are asked to infer from this proposition - are we not? - that morality derives from, and is therefore only as old as, the religious texts which lay claim to it. This is a demonstrable untruth (ask the lawmakers of Babylon). We are also asked to infer - are we not? - that morality derives from the ‘absolute’ goodness of the deity concerned. On what basis is this claimed? On what basis are deities relieved of responsibility for, say, tsunamis or cancers, those horrific aspects of the world with which they are credited?

My further question to anybody who believes that their deity is ‘absolutely’ ‘good’ or ‘great’ is this: have you a thorough understanding of the effects of absolutism and totalitarianism, the two concepts upon which monotheisms are based? This is not such an absurd question. What could define absolutism more supremely than claiming authority from divinity? What could define totalitarianism more supremely than divine supervision of the acts and cogitations of all human beings? Indeed, Martin Amis in his essay ‘Terror and Boredom: The Dependent Mind’ points out areas of similarity between contemporary Islamism and the totalitarianisms of Hitler and Stalin:
“Anti-Semitic, anti-liberal, anti-individualist, anti-democratic, and, most crucially, anti-rational, they were cults of death, death-driven and death-fuelled.”
Where is the morality in behaving well because one is being observed from on high, or because the ultimate aspiration is the self-interested aim of a place in the kingdom of god? Does it not negate morality to understand that moral behaviour has such self-interest explicitly at its heart?

The belief that human beings could not discern the moral from the immoral without divine intervention is rooted in abjection. Abjection can be readily observed in religious practise everywhere from the praying positions of different faiths to the hymn Abide With Me (“help of the helpless”, a telling lyric), and to the collective noun for Christianity’s believers, the “flock”. Allied to this sense of feebleness and negated self-worth is the redemption of deities. Some redemption it is, too, that causes the conviction that the rewarded faith is worthy of impressing upon others who choose not to believe. This is exhibited, for instance, in the United Kingdom’s representation in the House of Lords by twenty-four bishops for whom the overwhelming majority of its population did not ask, and was also exhibited when children’s author James Janeway wrote - in a book aimed at five-year-olds - that “[Children] are not too little to die, not too little to go to Hell.” (No other writer has ever infuriated me in quite the same way.) There are other examples. In the 1990s, Mother Teresa supported the continuation of Ireland’s ban on divorce, a law applicable not just to Catholics but to everyone. Islamism, as we shall see, calls for the conversion or else the death of non-Muslims. Is this morality?

It appears that the more profound the sense of abjection in the individual believer, the more profound the sensation of deistic redemption, and the more profound the adherence to the outdated principles held in religious texts. Is this dependence upon one ‘holy’ text a healthy mode of thought? Many of the edicts of religious texts are compulsions towards the denial of our natural impulses, denials which, in themselves, are explicit causes of horrendous behaviour. Victims of celibacy abound across the globe – I speak, of course, of raped children. Is this morality? The rapists, moreover, continue to be routinely protected - in some cases, by the Vatican itself - from the laws of various countries, and condemned not to justice but to lives of prayer. Is this morality?

It has been noted that Sayyid Qutb, inspiration to so many suicidal and murderous jihadis - including al-Qaeda - following his martyrdom in 1966, developed his opposition to Western values of liberty during a visit to America. He visited a church dance in Colorado in 1949, and later wrote the following about his experience:
“The dance hall becomes a whirl of heels and thighs, arms enfold hips, lips and breasts meet, and the air is full of lust…
“A girl looks at you, appearing as if she were an enchanting nymph or an escaped mermaid, but as she approaches, you sense only the screaming instinct inside her, and you can smell her burning body, not the scent of perfume but flesh, only flesh.”
Does this sound like a church dance to you? Martin Amis has written brilliantly on the subject of this man’s prominence. His summary of Qutb’s writing here is convincingly incisive:
“Seduction did not come his way, but it was coming the way of others, and a part of him wanted it too. That desire made him very afraid, and also shamed him and dishonoured him, and turned his thoughts to murder.”
Those thoughts turned to murder all right: Qutb called for absolutism in the spread of Islam – either through the conversion or the slaughter of non-Muslims:
“The surah [the sayings of the Prophet] tells the Muslims that, in the fight to uphold God’s universal Truth, lives will have to be sacrificed. Those who risk their lives and go out to fight, and who are prepared to lay down their lives for the cause of God, are honourable people, pure of heart and blessed of soul.”

We see that the root cause of Islamism’s terrible murderousness appears to be a dismal concoction of abjection and the resultant excess of devotion to deities. We should remember, as Amis points out, that this behaviour cannot be termed ‘nihilistic’. He cites Sam Harris’ argument:
“There is a difference between nihilism and a desire for supernatural reward. Islamists could smash the world to atoms and still not be guilty of nihilism, because everything in their world has been transfigured by the light of paradise.”
It needn’t be asked whether this constitutes morality. To ask a Christian to respond to the mentality behind the events of September 11, however, is not as incongruous as it might appear at first glance. It is extremist factions of Islam that convert aircraft into missiles, and human beings into bombs, but its root cause - masochistic self-denial, for the glorification of the assumed and the unproven – seems central to all faiths. All must answer for the attitude that continues to cause a great deal of anguish, misery and stupidity worldwide: the transferring of one’s own beliefs from the private to the public sphere, from vengeful, misogynistic sharia law to faith schools which routinely tell lies to children, from opposition to contraception and divorce to hate crimes committed against gay communities. Each faith calls for ‘respect’ across all belief systems, apparently declining to condemn their various barbarities. I will consider faiths more worthy of my respect on the very day that they cease attempting to influence the public sphere. Religious morality is as flawed as secular morality. It is high time that we began to grow out of the search for absolutist answers that can never solve any issues on the only plane of existence ever shown to exist: this earth.

Alex Irving

The heart of Ryan’s post seems to me to be that ‘religious morality is as flawed as secular morality’. He has challenged any idea that morality is monopolized by the ‘religious’ by offering various examples of faith communities acting immorally. He has also made the comment that religious morality is compromised for two reasons: first, it necessitates a negative stance towards humanity; second, the religious self-interest of one’s status in the hereafter as an unworthy motive.

In response to Ryan’s post, I will endeavour to represent the Christian view of morality and whether a person can indeed be good without God. This is to try to bring some specificity to what is meant by ‘religious morality’ from a Christian perspective. I will then try to outline what we can learn from history on this subject: I will refer to the Pelagian controversy of the late 4th century. I will then address some of the specific examples Ryan has made and (from the basis established from what scripture actually says and what history actually suggests) seek to demonstrate that Ryan has not interpreted the data from his experience correctly.

I am not going to enter into conjecture about Islam and morality, as I do not know enough about this subject to offer anything of any interest.

First, does Christianity teach that any human can be good without God? Does the Bible teach that Christians have a monopoly on morality? Like in many areas, scripture is remarkably nuanced and finely balanced on this issue. This being the case, it is best to approach this issue doctrinally, outlining what scripture teaches on specific issues. Therefore, what is offered here is a reformed understanding of the whole biblical witness on human nature, sin and grace. It is my hope that in discerning scriptural teaching on these matters we will begin to approach this issue on an informed basis.

Scripture is unequivocal on the high value of humanity (male and female). Humanity stands at the apex of creation with a duty of caring dominion over the rest of creation (Genesis 1.26). Humans are unique in that they are created in the image of God (Genesis 1.27). The overwhelming consensus from the history of Christian interpretation is that this means humans are conferred with a dignity and a responsibility far in advance of the rest of creation. This provides us with an orientation for Christian salvation and allows us to begin identifying what it means to be ‘saved’. Note that humans are responsible moral agents in the eyes of God. That is foundational.

Equally foundational to the issue Ryan has raised is the biblical teaching on sin. We have a tendency today to speak of sin as a misdemeanour (usually sexual) that operates as a negative mark to our account. This is not the scriptural view of sin. Sin is something far more pervasive than this. Scripture presents sin as a corruption at the heart of humanity, which has left all with an inherent bias to wrongdoing. Augustine, who we will return to momentarily, presents this in the terms of a suspending of human free will: humanity are not able not to sin. The term ‘original sin’ is remarkably unhelpful – it is best to think in terms of an inherited corruption that has rendered mankind fruitful for wrongdoing. In this condition humanity are left totally dependent on God and in a state of abjection and in need of salvation. This is where grace comes in.

The grace of God is God’s unmerited kindness by which the healing and restoration of humanity is effected. This grace has been enacted on the world in the person and work of Jesus Christ who in his vicarious death and resurrection has provided forgiveness of sin and the mechanism by which believing humanity will be lifted to a new mode of moral freedom. An early Christian writer named Irenaeus spoke of this in terms of a ‘recapitulation’ of humanity: by the grace of God, humans are being returned to what we are made to be. The New Testament writer Paul offers a consistent scriptural basis for this. He conceives of all humanity as under the powerful dominion of sin from which they are delivered by the death and resurrection of Jesus so to begin to be able to live in a good way (Romans 6.1-11). He teaches that those who have put their faith in Christ are ‘new creations in Christ’ (2 Corinthians 5.17) who are in the process of being returned to the telos: the image of God (Ephesians 4.24).

The biblical witness on this topic can therefore be presented in this way. Humanity is made with dignity and responsibility. Sin has acted as a corrupting influence, rendering all humanity under the power of sin and with an inherent bias to wrongdoing. The grace of God in Jesus Christ is the means by which we can be forgiven our sinfulness and delivered from sin’s dominion to a new level of moral freedom. It is from this basis that the question must be addressed.

A case study may help put some flesh on the bones. The Pelagian controversy - to which I referred earlier - centred on the fourth century figure of Pelagius who advocated a very similar position to Ryan: humanity does not need the aid of the divine to aspire to moral behaviour. As with Ryan, Pelagius felt a dependence on the divine for moral behaviour undermined human responsibility and human dignity. He felt that if a human was sufficiently determined there was no reason why he may not live a life of purity before God and kindness towards others.

However, this is not consistent with biblical witness: humanity has one hope and it is the grace of God that enables us to will and to work good things (Philippians 2.13). It was in this controversy that Augustine developed his theology of sin and grace that stands today at the heart of Christian anthropology. For a synopsis of this theology, please see above.

It would appear then that Christian belief consistently testifies to the inability of moral behaviour outside of the regenerative work of Christ. This conclusion has been reached by referring to scripture, the employment of reason and an appeal to history, but the final piece of the jigsaw is experience. It is at this point that I will begin to critique Ryan’s post more forcefully. Ryan has bypassed scripture and history for a primary focus on human experience. That is no bad thing, but without the context of history and a thorough understanding of the primary text on which his comments were based (the Bible), he has made some errors.

So, what does experience tell us about all this? Ryan has pointed us to some very pertinent examples of the fact that if one is a Christian (or ‘religious’) it does not necessarily follow that one is moral. I will deal with these examples from the firm foundation of scripture.

First, Ryan suggests that the Christian motivation to moral behaviour is self-aspiration with an implication that this is an unworthy motive. This is a misrepresentation of scripture. The primary motive for an ethical existence is rather more profound than that. Above all else, a Christian is one who has accepted the gracious provision of a loving God in the person and work of Jesus Christ; the primary motive then is that Christians are the objects of grace who are motivated love and gratitude and the indwelling ministry of God the Spirit causing a change of heart to will the good. To say any less than this is to do violence to the scriptures that we are speaking from. True, reward is consistently mentioned throughout scripture as a blessing for the people of God, but it is here that we must be rather more nuanced and distinguish between a Christian’s motivation and their encouragement. These rewards - of which there are many and all of them wonderful - are not a basis for moral behaviour, but they are to function as an extra encouragement and incentive for the believer. I see no reason to be bashful or apologetic about this stance.

Second, Ryan posits a link between divine commands and negative behaviour, drawing an interesting causal link between Catholic celibacy and paedophilia. Ryan’s argument here falls at the first hurdle, for celibacy is not a scriptural imperative. Sex between an adult male and an adult female is the pattern from scripture and is celebrated in scripture with – according to John Milton – some of the most beautiful poetry ever written (the Song of Solomon). What is prohibited in scripture is acting on the natural impulses, which (if left unchecked) would be destructive to society: adultery, physical violence, exploitation of the poor etc. I assume that in the name of morality, the ‘non-religious’ can stomach these restrictions on civil liberty.

Third, Ryan speaks of a ‘masochistic self-denial’ for the sake of one’s God, which is then enforced onto society at large with undesirable consequences. This is a strong observation of religious behaviour. I will not be drawn into dialogue about Islam, but I will pass comment from a biblical perspective on Ryan’s point. A significant aspect of scripture is wisdom literature. From a Judeo-Christian perspective, the question is this: considering God has made the world in a certain way, how can I live in harmony with God’s ordering of creation to my own, and society’s benefit? The laws of God suddenly become not harsh orders from a killjoy in the sky, but the maker’s guidance on how to live abundantly in his creation. An example: western society’s wealth (from which we derive our comfortable lives) was built on the Christian ethics of ‘hard work means success’, which Christianity inherited from Jewish wisdom literature. This transfer of one’s Christian belief to the public sphere is for the good of one’s country: whether it be the championing of the family structure; the value of hard work; the loving opposition to homo-sexuality; help for the helpless or the establishment of strong, fair government.

I would put a question back to Ryan – one that I have put to him many times in the pub – if there is no absolute, where does your ethical orientation come from? With no fixed absolute, morality can become whatever one society decides it to be and truth, goodness, right or wrong become little more than ‘an army of marching metaphors’. This is not an environment where humanity can exist with any dignity. It is simply not a coherent stance. Whenever we are deciding what to believe and how to live, we cannot be speculative and imprecise. We must ask questions about whether what we are choosing to believe functions on earth. We must ask whether or not humans can inhabit certain presuppositions. We must consider whether it makes any sense. I invite Ryan – and anyone who is reading this comment on his post – to consider the following: is your understanding of the world coherent and consistent? Does it make sense? And above all, does it work in real life?

About Ryan Watts

Artistic photographer, writer, board member of Norwich Co-Operative Arts and all-round fey twankhole.
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