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from A C Grayling (from Meditations for the Humanist- 2002)


 Christians have burnt each other, quite persuaded

 That all the Apostles would have done as they did - Lord Byron


Christianity is an oriental religion whose irruption into the classical world overwhelmed it and changed the course of its development. It is fruitless to speculate how the history of the West might have proceeded if Christianity had expired, after a short time, as merely another version of that common Middle Eastern theme - from Egyptian mythology to the Orphic rites -of the dying and reviving god. But we can make a guess, as follows.

For one thing, Plato's and Aristotle's academies in Athens would not have been suppressed in AD 529 on the grounds of their 'pagan' teachings. The delicate irony attaching to this occurrence is that their suppressor, Justinian, named the great church he built in Constantinople 'The Church of the Holy Wisdom'. For another, there would have been no Christians to put a stop to the Olympic Games in AD 393 because they disliked the athletes' nudity. Gymnos, from which our 'gymnastics' comes, means 'naked'.

Apologists might say that without the accident of Christianity's becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, we would be without the glorious Annunciations and Crucifixions of Renaissance art. But in balance with the sanguinity of Christian history - its crusades, Inquisitions, religious wars, drowned witches, oppressive morals and hostility to sex - this seems a minor loss. In place of Annunciations we would have more depictions of Apollo Pursuing Daphne, the Death of Procris, Diana Bathing, and the like. By almost any standards, apart from the macabre and gloomy ones of Puritan sensibility, an Aphrodite emerging from the Paphian foam is infinitely more life-enhancing an emblem than a gloomy Deposition from the Cross.

The religious attitude is marked by a robust refusal to take things at face value if inconvenient. Take this passage from the Book of Samuel - in its King James robes, a wonderful piece of prose - and ask how attractive it makes religion seem: 'Then said Samuel, "Bring ye hither to me Agag, King of the Ama lekites." And Agag came to him delicately. And Agag said, "Surely the bitterness of death is passed." And Samuel said, "As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women." And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.'

If the mincing of Agag wrought divine pleasure, then it is surely the Prometheus of Goethe who has the gods' measure: 'I know nothing more wretched under the sun than you, ye gods! Scantily you feed your majesty on sacrifices and the breath of prayer; and you would starve if beggars and children were not hopeful fools.'

 Leslie Stephen pointed out that while religion flourishes, ethical enquiry is restricted to casuistry, that is, the science of interpreting divine commands. The ultimate justification of these rests on a logical fallacy with a forbidding Latin name, the argumentum ad baculum, which can be explained as follows. The religious reply to the moral skepticís question, 'Why should I behave in such-and-such a way?' is simply 'Because God requires it of you.' But this is merely a polite way of saying, 'Because you'll be punished if you don't.' This is what the argumentum ad baculum comes down to: the use of a threat, literally 'an appeal to force'. But a threat is never a logical justification for acting one way rather than another. If there exists a deity with the punitive vengefulness of the Judaeo-Christian variety, then it might be prudent to obey it, and thus avoid the flames of hell; but the threat of punishment is not a principled reason for obedience.

Religious apologists claim that our motive for acting morally should not be the threat of divine vengeance, but love of God and our fellow man. But this is pious camouflage, however well meant. For in the religious view, if someone chooses not to act on the prompting of such affections, or fails to feel them at all, he is not therefore excused exile in the place of wailing and gnashing of teeth. He will suffer the fate of the fig-tree which, we are told in a pre-environmentally-sensitive biblical text, was blasted for bearing no fruit out of season.

A secular moralist would say: If love (in the sense of the Greek term agape: in Latin, caiitas, hence 'charity') is the reason for being moral, what relevance does the existence or non-existence of a deity have? Why can we not be prompted to the ethical life by our own charitable feelings? The existence of a god adds nothing to our moral situation, other than an invisible policeman who sees what we do (even in privacy and under cover of night), and a threat of post-mortem terrors if we misbehave. Such additions are hardly an enrichment of the moral life, since the underpinning they offer consists of fear and threats of punishment: which is exactly what, among other things, the moral life seeks to free us from.

This prompts the question: Why are the churches given a privileged - almost, indeed, an exclusive - position in the social debate about morality, when they are arguably the least competent organizations to have it?

If this claim seems paradoxical, it is because we have become used to giving, as if by reflex, a platform to churchmen when moral dilemmas arise. This has come about in an odd way. The churches have always been obsessed with a small range of human activities, mainly those associated with sexuality. They have always sought to channel and constrain sexual behaviour, and it is their vociferous complaining about human turpitude on this score that has somehow made them authorities on moral matters in general. But it can easily be shown that they are either largely irrelevant to genuine questions of morality, or are positively anti-moral.

In modern developed societies approval is given to such values as personal autonomy, achievement in earning a living, providing for a family, saving against a rainy day, and meriting rewards for success in one's career. Christian morality says the exact opposite. It tells people to take no thought for the morrow - 'consider the lilies of the field, which neither reap nor spin', and to give all their possessions to the poor. It warns that it is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye than for a well-off person to enter heaven. It preaches complete submission to the will of a deity, which is the opposite of personal autonomy and responsibility. Such a morality is wholly at odds with the norms and practices of contemporary society. Most people simply ignore the contradiction between such views and today's ethos, and the churches keep quiet about it. But if anyone bothered to examine what a Christian - or indeed any religious -morality demanded, he would be amazed by its diametric opposition to what is regarded as normal and desirable now, yet he would see - independently of whether it is the Christian or the contemporary morality which is 'right' - the reason why the former is irrelevant to the latter.

But religious morality is not merely irrelevant, it is anti-moral. The great moral questions of the present age are those about human rights, war, poverty, the vast disparities between rich and poor, the fact that somewhere in the third world a child dies every two and a half seconds because of starvation or remediable disease. The churches' obsessions over pre-marital sex and whether divorced couples can remarry in church appears contemptible in the light of this mountain of human suffering and need. By distracting attention from what really counts, and focusing it on the minor and anyway futile attempt to get people to conduct their personal lives only in ways the church permits, harm is done to the cause of good in the world.

But religion is not only anti-moral, it can often be immoral. Elsewhere in the world, religious fundamentalists and fanatics incarcerate women, mutilate genitals, amputate hands, murder, bomb and terrorize in the name of their faiths. It is a mistake to think that our own Western milk-and-water clerics would never conceive of doing likewise; it is not long in historical terms since Christian priests were burning people at the stake if they did not believe that wine turns to blood when a priest prays over it, and that the earth sits immovably at the universe's centre, or - more to the present point - since they were whipping people and slitting their noses and ears for having sex outside marriage, or preaching that masturbation is worse than rape because at least the latter can result in pregnancy. To this day adulterers are stoned to death in certain Muslim countries; if the priests were still on top in the once-Christian world, who can say it would be different?

Because so much religious energy is devoted to controlling sexual behaviour, either by disallowing it (or thoughts or representations of it) other than in strictly limited circumstances, or by preventing the amelioration of its consequences once it has happened, we have the spectacle of righteous people writing letters of complaint about televised nudity, while from the factory next door tons of armaments are exported to regions of the world gripped by poverty and civil war. With such examples and contrasts, religion has very little to offer moral debate.

Defenders of religion are quick to point out that church-based charities do much good at home and abroad. And so they do; their work, like that of secular aid organizations and charities, is welcome and needed. But three thoughts press. One is that secular organizations are based on humanitarian promptings, and need no appeal to beliefs about supernatural agencies to explain their source or give them their impetus. The second is that no secular organization is going to use overt or covert means to claim some of those they help for a particular world-view - Roman Catholicism or some other denomination or faith. And thirdly, the sticking-plaster of charitable concern shown by religious organizations does little to compensate for the massive quantum of suffering with which religion has burdened the world historically, and which is by far the larger part of the fruits by which we know them.

No doubt the churches are as entitled as any other interest group to have their say on matters that fall within their range of concerns; but they are an interest group nonetheless, with highly tendentious views, and big axes to grind. Asking them to take an especially authoritative line on moral matters is like asking the fox to set the rules for fox-hunting. Churchmen are people with avowedly ancient supernatural beliefs who rely on moral casuistry which is 2000 years out of date; it is extraordinary that their views should be given any precedence over those that could be drawn from the richness of thoughtful, educated, open-minded opinion otherwise available in society.

When a bishop says that the interests of morality are best served by setting aside considerations of religion and God, it is appropriate to sit up and take notice. The bishop in question is the Right Reverend Richard Holloway, Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Church of Scotland - aptly so entitled, as it happens, as a frequent cooker-up of controversy, and one who sets fire to much debate in the Anglican Communion and elsewhere for his liberal views on sex, homosexuals, drugs and abortion. These very issues form the focus of his book Godless Morality, in which he makes a plea, liberal in inspiration, for what he calls a 'morality of consent'. Despite the secular connotations of the book's title, the bishop's plea is chiefly aimed at countering moral conservatism in the Christian churches; to already convinced secular liberals his arguments have long been familiar.

The first source of dismay for any members of the Bishop's flock will be his argument that moral debate does better without God. One reason, he says, is that unbelieving but principled people are insulted by the claim that we have to be religious to be moral, and moreover the history of religion's many and scarlet crimes against humanity make that claim profoundly suspect. But his chief reason is the excellent one that an ethic should stand on its own feet, recommending itself to reason and goodwill, needing no support from divine threats of retribution to force compliance. Holloway argues that morality once took its cue from social arrangements in which authority was a matter of command from above - for example, from a king - but that times have changed: the loss of tradition and authority in society, and the passing of an unjust dispensation in which the female half of humanity was deprived of full human status, means that 'command morality' has to be replaced by 'consent morality', in which moral considerations are sensitive to the often irreconcilable pluralism of modern life, and to the demands, sexual and otherwise, of nature in our make-up.

One immediate effect of detaching morality from religion, Holloway shows, is a grateful deliverance from the concept of sin. Sin is disobedience to God; morality is about relationships, responsibility and concern. Religion deals in absolutes; but in the wide variousness of the human condition there are no absolutes, only competing goods and desires. One of Holloway's key points is that this fact makes a turn to 'consent morality' indispensable. And once we make that turn, we find a better and more humane way to think about the central foci of moral anxiety in contemporary society - chief among them sex, drugs, abortion, euthanasia, and human fertility.

In arguing for a more liberal and permissive attitude to each of these matters Holloway employs the idea of 'ethical jazz', by which he means 'playing it by ear' in dealing with individual dilemmas as they arise. He insists, absolutely rightly, that when you know the special circumstances of any given case, you are far more likely to be sympathetic than when opposing an alleged form of immorality as a type. In a nice touch he characterizes his view thus: 'let's motor; but let's keep the brakes in good working order'. This summarizes what he also calls his 'middle way': prohibition of drugs is counter-productive, but complete license would be harmful; abortion is not always murder; fertility treatment should be welcomed as helpful to those in genuine need of it.

Among the Bishop's views the most welcome is his positive attitude towards homosexuality, and the most interesting is his belief that contemporary sexual mores do not signify a deepening of immorality.

He holds the former view because he is a churchman who wishes the church to be open to all, to include rather than to alienate. In line with this view he often champions the cause of gays and lesbians in the church, and he repeats the case here.

His view about sex is more complex. He thinks that what young people call 'shagging' - viz. opportunistic, casual, recreational sex - does not interfere with the belief held by the same young people that commitment to a relationship means sexual fidelity and monogamy for the long term. And he thinks (adopting their terminology) that shagging is not outlawed by the Bible, which not only abounds in it but in forms of it (such as incest) which have completely lost the respectability they seem to have enjoyed in the days of Judah and Lot. Moreover, he blames Gnosticism for Christianity's unhealthy and deeply hostile attitude towards sex, implying that the New Testament is not much less tolerant than parts of the Old Testament in these respects.

Now, this interesting view is the precise point at which problems with the Bishop's stance arise. As mentioned, his book is really an argument with Christian conservatives; his target audience is the flock of Christians wavering between his own liberal line and the conservatives' more austere and traditional view. Truly secular liberals in moral matters would find nothing original or surprising about the Bishop's position, which they would regard as straightforward, humane common sense. By issuing a polemic against the conservatives Holloway demonstrates the continuing strength of their position. They say that the church's truths are for all time, and that when it is written 'to lie with a man as with a woman is an abomination' and 'women must cover their heads and keep silent in church ... and must obey their husbands', these injunctions are marmoreal: disobey them and  you are punished in hell. So Holloway has to say that the Bible is allegorical, was written for the social circumstances of its time, and anyway has no single, stable point of view from which a morality can be deduced. Holloway has thus to be a trimmer to adapt the church to modern times; his book is proof of the fact that religion has to be reinvented practically out of recognition if it is going to stay alive and speak to changing circumstances.

Moreover, in trying to save sex from Christianity, Holloway is not entirely ingenuous in unloading the blame on Gnosticism. St Paul, and the Church Fathers with their slavish acceptance of Platonism's depreciation of the body at the expense of the soul, has far more to do with it. Christian fear of sex and correlative hatred of women runs deep, almost as deep as the sexual impulse itself in human nature; which is why the former seems increasingly irrelevant as the latter surfaces into the fresh air of common sense and scientific understanding.

A C Grayling is a Philosophy professor at the University of London and Oxford -  and a first rate contemporary philosopher, writer and thinker. He has a personal web site at http://www.acgrayling.com)

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