Godless Morality

Peter Selby, bishop of Worcester, wrote this review of Richard Holloway's Godless Morality: Keeping religion out of ethics for SoF Magazine.

Richard Holloway is in no doubt, when it comes to ethical questions, that religion is a Bad Thing, and religionists who engage with ethical questions on the basis of their religion (apart from the author, that is) will be opposed to human autonomy and reason, using 'God' to 'clinch' arguments in favour of bigoted solutions that belong to a previous age. This is the central point of his argument, and it is communicated by a brilliant combination of allusion, narrative and quotation. The book is rhetoric of a very high quality.

Its passionate heart is an indignant retelling of the lives of the First World War poets, a supreme example of what we lose when lesbian and gay people are judged unworthy of our esteem because of their failure to comply with an ethic inappropriately supported by fundamentalist interpretation of scripture. Less passionate but the more forceful for the expertise Holloway acquired on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority are his reflections on fertility treatment. His views on the legalisation of drugs (at least for medical purposes, though he clearly advocates a wider decriminalisation) are persuasively advocated.

Most of what he has to say about specific ethical questions will ring bells with the liberally minded, and for the sake of a more humane society one hopes their number will grow. Yet the title of the book indicates that Holloway is too ambitious to be satisfied with the possibility of persuading his readers of the rightness of certain causes. What he wants to persuade us to adopt is an anthropocentric ethic from which religious considerations are deliberately excluded. It is enough, he tells us constantly (like most orators he repeats his central point often), that we should live our lives on the basis of causing the minimum of harm to the minimum number of people. He is not far, indeed, from asserting that this is the basis of morality which none of us can any longer avoid.

Yet the more often this modified form of the utilitarian argument appears, the more it begins to seem (at least to this reader) that what is being repeated are the well worn arguments of a secular morality, and that were they adequate we should surely all by now have come to accept them. If gaining my assent to right solutions to the issues of drugs, sexuality, abortion and so forth is too small an ambition for Richard Holloway, is it not perhaps also true that causing others as little harm as possible is too small an ambition for the human person?

More seriously, since the author is a Christian believer, is getting God out of ethics a serious possibility if the God in question is the God of Israel and the Father of Jesus Christ? Can the strenuous and costly efforts of our forebears to insist that religion without any ethical content was no religion at all be simply discounted?

It is hard to believe that Holloway really thinks that religious faith has no ethical implications, or that if such belief does not instantly provide answers to complex ethical issues there is no contribution it can make. We seem to be ending up with a faith with no room for ethics and a morality with no room for faith, and this all because religion has sometimes—perhaps all too often—approached complex ethical questions with dogmatic arrogance.

By the end I was wondering whether the concept of 'harm' was on the one hand capable of bearing all that was required of it, and on the other whether there were kinds of harm which the ancient wisdom of faith was aware of and which we ignore at our peril. It might be true that sexual freedom seems harmless to those in the youth culture who experience it, but it is not surely beyond debate that in the process something is happening to our society that makes such desirable aims as stability harder to attain.

If Richard Holloway's thesis boils down in the end to an uncritical acceptance of the individualist culture of late capitalism (and the book shows remarkably little sign of anything else) might there not be some who experience quite a lot of harm in the process, and might not the words of the prophets and the God whom they served still have something more important than 'answers' to offer?