Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Good without God

The Guardian offers a (fairly bland) editorial on what it will mean to be a society in which people increasingly don't believe in God.  They don't really offer an answer, content instead to raise the question: "if organised mainstream Christianity is on the way out, what will replace it?"

I want to make two observations on the editorial, and point out one major error which runs through a lot of humanist and soft-atheist argument.

The first observation is that the Guardian, and others of this ilk, are noticing something which believers have actually been well aware of for a couple of generations at least: namely, that Christian observance and belief is dropping off, in fact has dropped off a cliff.  The editorial observes that "more than half of all British people now say that they have no religion; about two-fifths are Christians of one sort or another; 9% are Muslims."  The phrase which I have italicised is frankly very generous, and can only be reached through allowing a person's religious outlook to be defined entirely by their own self-identification.  Actually, those of us who believe and practice orthodox Christianity have known for some time that the real figure is much lower.  Some have estimated more like 3%.  This may be news to the Guardian, but it has been our reality for ages.

The second observation is that 'organised mainstream Christianity' may well be dying out, if by that is meant the liberal, compromised religion of cultural Christianity and traditional observance.  Far from that being of concern to orthodox Christians, the collapse of this horrible perversion of Christ's religion is in many ways welcome.  Yes, the disappearance of basic knowledge makes mission harder work, and the loss of moral consensus and community cohesion is painful, but on the other hand, it clarifies things.  Where the gospel is still preached, according to the Scriptures, it still works to bring new life and to gather God's people in; God isn't dependent on the structures of cultural Christianity to do his work.

The massive falsehood in the editorial is tucked away in the middle.  We are told that "theology and morality are only tenuously related."  This is so because "habits of kindness, decency and tolerance come from practice rather than belief."  This is demonstrable nonsense.  It depends on the naive Enlightenment view that morality is self-evident, that people simply using their reason unaided will be able to discern in the world a 'right' way to act, and will then be able to follow it.  It assumes a universal moral code, which people can just pick up by thinking right.  The editors of the Guardian should know better; they should have read their Nietzsche more attentively.

In fact, ethical systems and beliefs are particular, not universal, and are grounded in particular beliefs about reality.  You can mask this with bland talk about kindness, decency, and tolerance; but it gets much more difficult when you get into specifics.  We are morally obliged to care particularly for the weak and the helpless.  I guess the average Guardian reader agrees.  But is this a universal moral intuition?  It is not!  It is the ethical corollary of the theological belief in the dignity and sanctity of human life, derived from its Creator.  This belief burst onto the scene historically with Christian revelation and has not been arrived at in any other way.  If it seemed to the Founding Fathers of the American republic that these truths were "self-evident", they only showed thereby that they were steeped in Christian doctrine - without even realising the extent to which their moral intuition was determined by this framework.  More honest and percipient philosophers today - such as Luc Ferry - admit that they do in fact want to continue to hold ethical positions which are specifically derived from Christian belief without the accompanying beliefs themselves, and moreover admit that this is as yet something for which they have failed to derive a convincing reason.

The flipside of this falsehood at the heart of the Guardian's editorial is the assumption that religion basically only exists to make us good.  Can we not, in fact, be good without God?  How can people not see that this question cannot be answered without resolving the question 'what does it mean to be good?'  And one cannot begin to answer this question without dealing with the question of what reality is like.  If there is no God, then it may be possible to be good without God; although I am not convinced that a sound and compelling account can be given of what 'goodness' means in that worldview.  On some versions of theism, and most versions of deism, it may also be possible to be good without God.

But if the Christian revelation is actually true - that is to say, if God the Son really walked among us, died on a Roman cross, and rose to eat breakfast with his disciples - then goodness is inherently wrapped up in relationship with God.  In that case, one cannot be good without God, because being good is not merely about ethical behaviours ("habits of kindness, decency and tolerance") but about bowing before the Creator, accepting his Lordship - and most of all accepting his grace.  Because of course the point of the Christian religion is not to provide you with an ethical system to help you to be good, but to provide you with a Saviour to bring you to God.


  1. Fiery stuff Daniel!

    1. I'm afraid that tends to be the effect the Guardian has on me!