Another Cliché: “I can be moral without being Christian”

I can’t stop thinking about clichés!


Here is another one. Philip Adams uses it a lot, but he is not the only one. This cliché is ‘It is possible to live a moral life, or to have a good ‘morality’ without being religious at all.


This repost is in response mostly to Christians who say “Look. What is ‘moral’ derives from some kind of code outside of humanity. Without something ‘other’ (like God) then kit is not possible to have a really moral life. Christians say “Well if you claim to be ‘moral’ where does ‘morality’ come from?


Well, one place morality comes from is ‘our group.’ This means that what is ‘right and wrong’ depends upon the collective, but unconsciously held, sense of what is good and what is bad. This works ok, so long as ‘our group’ does not mix much with ‘their group’ that will have another sense of right and wrong.


In a globalised world, this is getting harder and harder.


Just yesterday, we saw the case of a former Imam who presided over the marriage of a 14 yr. old girl to a 35 yr. old man. For ‘our group’ this is immoral, and illegal, so he was convicted. But for their group, it was ok, presumably. The problem comes when we ask the question ‘well whose group is gong to win in the competition for what ids right and wrong?”


Most of he time we never get there. In the small family groups in which we live, maybe of about 50 people, morality is imposed by the group on is members, without much questioning about where it comes from, or why it is that way. Mostly ewe get along fine, living this unconscious morality.

This is even so for Christians.


One can step back from he idea of ‘our group’ and ‘their group’ and say ‘But there are universal human values that everyone should adhere to. After all, we have the ‘universal declaration of human rights.’ Even this will not work, because there is no ‘universal agreement’ or at least world wide agreement about what these human rights ought to be.


In one case it comes down to ‘might is right’ and that ‘history is written by the winners’. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, and until the outcome of the conflict is known, who will be declared ‘immoral’ is up for grabs.


The other way of approaching morality is to ask the question ‘Well, what does it mean to be a human being?’ Often this question is also not within the realms of becoming conscious, so we are back with ‘might makes right’. The person who has the power to force another person to behave in a certain way, imposes their morality on those who don’t.


This applies to the morality of how we treat refugees, of whom we let out on bail, and whom we lock up and for how long.


The best thing I heard about ‘non religious’ morality came from an atheist, Douglas Murray, who was speaking on the ‘Late Night live’ programme, with Philip Adams, and was I think a challenge to him. Douglas Murray said something like “Our values do not just hang in the air. They have a history. And in Europe, our values have been shaped by Christianity. I accept them, but I don’t accept the God who is supposed to be behind them.”So Douglas Murray is acknowledging the historicity of his value system. He has a sense of where they came from.


Which gets me to the idea of a process whereby we might proceed with one another.


For my money, the morality of a thing depends upon the story that one tells ones self about that thing. Morality is based in narrative.


Christians cannot prove the existence of God, but we do have a group of stories (including the story of our God) that tell us what things mean. As we seek to work out what is right and wrong, we can refer to our stories, and ask ‘Well how is this story important to us now, and what can we do about it so that our lives are found within the world described by that story?’


Then we can ask the same of other people “Can you tell us the story of how it came to be that you are as you are? This at least, though not the end of the matter, at least gives us a way into the meaning of life for those who do not share our story.


About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
This entry was posted in Religion and Society, Uncategorized, Weekly Reflections From Coller Crt. and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Another Cliché: “I can be moral without being Christian”

  1. As a Humanist, I paraphrase Matthew 22:35-40 this way: “Love Good, and love good for others as you do for yourself. All other rules derive from these two.”

    We call something “good” if it meets a real need we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species. To the degree that our “real needs” can be objectively determined, our moral judgment can also be objective. This is easy at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, where our physical needs of survival like air, water, food, shelter, and so forth are pretty clear. But it gets fuzzier as we move up the hierarchy to things like “self-actualization”. And to the degree that our real needs become subjective desires and personal opinions, our moral judgment becomes subjective.

    But there’s general agreement as to the physical requirements of life, such that we can say that it is “objectively good” to give a glass of water to someone dying of thirst in the desert, and “objectively bad” to give that same glass of water to someone drowning in the swimming pool.

    Morality seeks the best good and least harm for everyone. And this is the ultimate basis for all our moral judgments.

    As Matthew 22:40 suggests, all of our other rules serve our moral intent to achieve the best good and least harm for everyone. Rule systems include the customs, mores, ethics, and laws that we live by personally and in our societies.

    Moral judgment may be expressed as a comparative examination of the benefits and harms of two competing rules. For example, should there be rules supporting the slave-owner’s property rights or should there instead be a rule making slavery itself illegal. Which of these two rules produces the best good and least harm for everyone? It is obvious to us today.

    But in the past it may have been a choice between killing every man, woman, and child of a defeated enemy, to prevent retribution, or allowing survivors to live as slaves. At some point in the past slavery may have been the better of two rules.

    So, rules tend to evolve as social circumstances evolve. But the moral objective, to achieve the best good and least harm for everyone, remains constant. Just like Matthew 22:35-40 suggests.

    • frpaulsblog says:

      Thanks Marvin for taking so much time to write. I’ll look at this more closely later.

      • If I might add a note as to the role of Religion in morality, I believe it plays an important role in providing spiritual support for morality. In a world where we evil often prospers at other’s expense, it is sometimes difficult to choose to do the right thing, rather than going along with the crowd. A Church provides moral support to a people seeking to be good and to do good. I’ve never regretted my Christian upbringing.

      • That should be “the evil” rather than “we evil”.

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