7 December 2010

The nature and origin of morality - Part 2: Can christians claim a monopoly on morality?

In amongst frequent 'discussions' between christians and atheists are two claims. From the christians, there is the claim that morality can only be derived from God. From the atheists there is the ruling out of God as a possible reason. The latter of these two will be the subject of part 3, so in this part we will look solely at the first claim.

It isn't hard to see how a claim of exclusive ownership could be seen to be antagonistic or arrogant, particularly when morality is widely seen to be such a desirable virtue. By implication, those who are not christians lack morality. Moreover, I have heard accusations made by christians that any morality shown by non-christians is fake. In my view, such accusations are foundless, ungracious and unhelpful.

Let us assume for a while that the proposition is true and see where that would lead. If christianity does have a monopoly on morality, where does that leave everyone else? Are they incapable of moral behaviour? Well, a quick look around at society suggest not. In fact, with a proposition of this nature, it can be disproved by a simple counter-example.

Here, I am personally presented with a problem as it would require me to have an intimate knowledge of an individual and perfect judgement on my part, neither of which I posses. So in the absence of evidence, we must instead resort to reason; being careful to discern between that which is reasonable and that which is truth, since not everything that is reasonable is necessarily true. So for my counter-example, I shall take the idea of financial giving to charity. While people may have a variety of reasons for giving to charity, I find it hard to think of a set of circumstances whereby every individual giving is entirely non-moral. Even if it is done for some selfish reason, for example, gaining a tax break, then there are other ways of obtaining an equivalent tax break without benefiting others (e.g. paying into a personal pension). So is this sufficient? It's by no means a water-tight argument, but I don't think it would take too much work by a better person than I to tidy it up a bit.

But we can't leave it there. What we need to do for a more complete view is see why this view was adopted in the first place. What are its origins and what does that mean for the remainder of moral theology?

The first thing to say about this is that moral behaviour is not really at the heart of the gospel. If it were, then for a person to live morally would be all that is required. Anyone who preaches this is has got the wrong end of the stick. One of the main reasons people choose to reject christianity (and they get very tetchy when you point this out to them) is that it has some very uncomfortable home truths to acknowledge, which people don't want to believe because if they did, it would require action on their part to change some aspects of their worldview. If christians preach a gospel purely of a loving God, then it is incomplete. If we preach condemnation, then it is incomplete. If we preach a gospel of unfettered blessing, then it is incomplete.

You can scan the scripture as much as you like, but you will struggle to find much that defines moral behaviour in a positive way. Usually, it is defined by what it is not. In that respect, the Bible says far more about what is immoral rather than what is moral. I think there is good reason for that. Moral behaviour is the human norm. It is something which is inbuilt in us, and which we are designed to do. Think of it a little like civil law. Civil law does not tell people how to live; it tells us what the exceptions are which are not acceptable in society. I will expand on this in a later part, but for now what I want to say is this: that which is immoral is a tiny part of human behaviour. We are free to live how we want, but we cannot absolute freedom for that would allow us to infringe on the freedom of others. So morality is best defined by negation, while all else is moral.

You may think I have just contradicted myself. In an earlier part, I stated that it is human nature to sin while above I have said that moral behaviour is the norm. I don't consider these to be contradictory, and I will now state why. By stating that it is human nature to sin does not mean that we are compelled to sin all the time. Depending on our own personal foibles and weaknesses, we will each have a tendency to fall into one sin or another from time to time or, more probably, on a regular basis. But that doesn't mean that we aren't moral most of the time. The best analogy I can think of is the colouration of a cheetah. It is mostly a sort of yellow-ish colour, yet it has spots. To have one without the other would make it appear very unusual and you would be right to question whether it was really a cheetah at all. So it is with the background of human morality blemished by our nature to sin.

If you consider morality as 'doing the best for other people' then you are essentially a humanist. Now I am quite reluctant to describe myself as a humanist because it has atheist overtones. In other words, if you look at the British Humanist Association (BHA), you will find a lot of speakers and writers there speaking and writing not about humanism, but on atheism, or at least anti-theism. The core of humanism is about valuing the human and ensuring that ensuring that no one is unfairly prejudiced against. In this respect, the heart of humanism can be summed up like this:

“Love your neighbour as yourself.”

However, I doubt if the BHA will ever publish that as their raison d'etre, without including some note of irony or sarcasm.

So what is the conclusion? I believe that moral behaviour is the human norm. As such, christians cannot claim any sort of special status in moral discussions, and certainly any claims to hold the moral high ground is an arrogant stance which will more than likely be the precursor of a terrible pratfall. Of course, I acknowledge that is merely my own view which may well be wrong, and would welcome alternative views or suggested further reading.

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