Category Archives: The Nature and Origin of Morality

The nature and origin of morality – Part 3: Can we rule God out?

Now that we have established that christians do not have a monopoly on morality, can we rule God out of morality? In other words, are all appeals to God as the source of morality necessarily invalid? If the answer to that is yes, then there has to be an alternative source for morality, and I will aim to have a brief look at some of the alternative models proposed.

One of the answers that very quickly gets banded about is evolution. The premise goes something like this: patterns of behaviour, which we now interpret as being moral, developed in early society and helped the group to survive. In evolutionary terms, survival is everything. This pattern of behaviour is thus reinforced and an air of virtue surrounds this behaviour.

This is very well reasoned, and may indeed be the methodology by how morality developed. However, it is not without flaws. The first one is that there is no evidence for it. As pointed out in the introduction, the field of evolutionary psychology is based on supposition and peripheral experimentation. We have no way of determining the psychological make-up of our ancestors as it doesn’t leave any physical trace for us to examine. All we have to go on are ourselves and ancient writings, where thoughts are recorded. But for anything before the rise of language, we are at impasse where the only honest response can be to say “we don’t know,” no matter how uncomfortable that may be.

One point that I have often heard from atheists is that morality pre-dates religion. Now I have already expressed my dissatisfaction with the term religion on part 1 of this series. I don’t actually disagree with the point. What I disagree with is the logical fallacy that this is any way invalidates religion, in particular christianity. I have frequently read that christianity was ‘invented’ around 2,000 years ago and clearly the earth and human civilisation is an awful lot older than that. But this premise completely misses out what christianity is: fulfilled Judaism. The core of the Old Testament is forward-looking, telling of the nature of humanity and the need for salvation, with a host of characters full of just about every combination of vice and virtue you could think of. In Jesus, we have the focal point unto which the entire Old Testament looked, and to whom we now look back upon from a New Testament perspective. So, to simplify the situation somewhat, christianity spotted the Messiah when he came, whereas modern Jews are still waiting. I know that’s a very rough view, and I hope you haven’t been offended by it. To do the subject full justice would require the writing of several books, which I don’t have the time for here. So to say that morality pre-dates christianity (as the latter stands in its current form) is a bit of a tautology; it tells us nothing more interesting than saying my father is older than I am.

So the question really moves to whether morality pre-dates Judaism. Now I will be looking at some aspects of this in more detail in part 4, so I apologise in advance if you are reading this and feel there are some gaping holes; I hope to fill them in later. The best contemporary history we have available to us at present would point to Abraham being the father of Judaism and christianity (as well as Islam, though I haven’t time here to explain why I believe Islam to be skewing of truth rather than a continuation of it). So did Abraham invent Judaism? There is no indication that he invented anything. He was chosen by God to have a relationship with God.

Here, we come to the crux of reductionism. By its very nature, it denies existence in the Platonic sense. So the fact that mankind may have developed morals and come, via a process of trial and error, to a relatively common consensus on what is or is not moral, has nothing to say on whether there is such a thing as an objective morality. Here, if not already, I betray myself as not being particularly relativist. I will come back to this point in the next part.

So my point is this: the fact that morality predates religion does not invalidate religion. People were using the laws of physics long before anyone wrote down their equations. If morality were the endpoint of religion, and here I have in mind christianity in particular, then it would be redundant. However, since the heart of the gospel lies some way off to the left, then a morality is a background against which the christian story of human history is played out.

So this shows why one of the reasons given for ‘ruling God out’ is not, in my opinion, logically sound. But I don’t want to leave it there, simply as negating a negative point. I would like to try and be a little more positive in my assertions.

Now here I am a little short of resources as I had hoped to include some quotations from two very good apologists on this subject: C.S. Lewis and Francis Collins, from their respective books, Mere Christianity and The Language of God. Unfortunately, I’ve lent these both out and so don’t have them to hand to flick through. If I remember correctly (and I am aware my memory may fail me slightly) one of the key points that Francis Collins uses, which he borrowed from Lewis, is the Moral Law is evidence for the existence of God. Evidence it may be, but it certainly isn’t proof (for a longer discussion on my views on the difference between evidence and proof, please see this). The argument is a sort of moral teleology. I would highly recommend you read these two books (both of which are quite short) to understand it better than I can summarise in a short space here.

But since the Moral Law as an arrow pointing towards God is not clear-cut proof, the question in the title still remains unanswered. To my mind, the matter comes down to one of consistency. I.e. can a comprehensive system of morals be formed without reference to God? In the previous part of this series, I discussed the possibility of an individual being moral without recourse to God. However, this is quite a different question to that of a common morality upon which all can agree. I’d like to draw an analogy, which will lead onto the next part. It is that of a national constitution. Now here in Britain, the constitution is unwritten; it is a matter more of collective understanding and a knowledge of history and tradition. In the US, it was codified. Now in Britain, if a political development is unconstitutional then it can be seen to be so simply through common sense. But in the US, the written nature has caused no ends of trouble, to the extent that people (who are appointed by the president) have the job of interpreting the written constitution. This has shown that when you have something codified, that it is open to misinterpretation and wilful misunderstanding to suit a political motivation.

Why I introduce this is to point out the dangers of a written law. When you take something that is fundamentally ethereal and reliant on common sense, it is a mistake to try and pin it down. In order for something to be well understood, it need not be well-defined. I know some people won’t agree with me there, but is a truth I have discovered from experience of trying to define various things and getting caught up in all sorts of logical knots, when a better way of thinking about things is to ‘get the gist.’ Of course, this doesn’t work for everything and is certainly not an approach I would advocate for anything falling within the scope of naturalism. But we can see it in tax law, where you get loopholes open to tax avoidance, in the controversy over interpretations of the offside rule in football.

So we can now finally tackle the second main objection to having a morality derived from God. That is, that a christian understanding of morality only comes about from an unthinking, cycloptic interpretation of the Bible. Now I could spend a very long time picking apart various straw men that I have heard over the years about how christianity suppresses the individual, or discourages independent thinking, though that’s a separate piece in and of itself. For now, it is not unreasonable to dismiss this view as ill-informed and uninformative.

There is good reason for the books of the Bible being written in the various styles as they are. There is a long history of hermeneutics within christianity, far longer than ideas of biblical literalism. There is great mixture of history, apologetics, wisdom, poetry, prophecy, etc. One thing it is not, is a step by step guide of systematic theology. If christianity were a set of moral rules and prohibitions to be obeyed, then a systematic theology may have been the best way forward.

So what is my conclusion? I think it is perfectly possible to develop a consistent morality yourself, without reference to God. However, morality with reference to God is also consistent. So to rule that morality is necessarily atheistic is premature. The pitfalls come when you try and codify morality. The Bible is a great guide to morality, though admittedly mainly through negation. For a christian, to live a moral life is not the end goal. The end goal is to enter a restored relationship with God. It is then from this restored relationship that a love-filled and love-fuelled life follow, and the desire to please God leads to the living of a moral life. Now my atheist friends probably won’t agree with me on that, but so be it.

We cannot accurately trace at what stage in human evolution the notion of morality first cropped up, we can only look at the way we are now. The argument that morality starts with God, as something inbuilt into humanity, certainly helps our understanding of why so many aspects of morality would appear to be common throughout humanity. The case is not watertight, but as yet I have not seen either evidence or a line of reasoning that necessitates the ruling God out of discussions on morality. At best, there can be doubts cast on this, for the usual reason of the never-answered (at least satisfactorily and conclusively) question of the existence of God. Though as I have said before, as foundational as this question is, it’s not a helpful starting point; no more than trying to deflect any attempts at mathematics before you have adequately defined what a number is.

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.

The nature and origin of morality – Part 1: Christians, hypocrisy and human nature.

As discussed in the introduction to this mini series, this part is a bit of a ground-clearing exercise to help overcome some objections that we may otherwise struggle with later on. So my intention is to state the cases here and thereafter refer back to them, thus speeding along later progress at the expense of a little turgidity now. As always, these are only my own views and I acknowledge that I may be mistaken in some aspects of my writing, and I welcome debate on any points I raise or points which any reader may think I have unreasonably omitted.

May I also add as aside that where I have linked to various other websites, this is only to give you a door to investigate some other matters. Some of them contain views that I disagree with, so please do not infer that by linking to them is in any way to associate my opinions with those contained in these websites.

What right have I, as a christian, to speak of morality? Do I speak for God? Most certainly not; I can speak for no other than myself. Do I speak for all christians? No; that is too broad a body of people and views for any one person to speak on their behalf. I speak only for myself, but cannot ignore the weight on my shoulders from these other two and how my relation to them may be viewed by an outside observer.

It would not be denied by any knowledgeable and honest person that there have been some terrible atrocities committed in the name of christianity. The ones that quickly jump to mind are the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the sectarian violence in Northern Island. There is a second category of dreadfulness whereby immense hypocrisy in moral matters has been shown by those who have claimed to be christians. Here, we think of the corruption of the Borgias during the late 15th and early 16th centuries and of the sexual abuse of children by catholic priests. So how are these acts to be reconciled with the notion of christian love for God and for other people?

After the start of writing of this piece, there was an interesting debate published in the online edition of the Observer, which is well-worth reading. The question posed is whether or not religion is a force for good in the world. It has five participants in it, though I could only claim to have heard of two of them (the Labour MP, Jon Cruddas and the philosopher, AC Grayling). The standfirst of the article states that is in response to a challenge that Christopher Hitchens made to Tony Blair to enter into a debate. I have not yet read this challenge, but am familiar with some of the views of Hitchens, having read  God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. However, it is not Hitchens’ views I want to concentrate on here; it is those of AC Grayling. Now Grayling is a far more measured and reasonable debater than Hitchens; Grayling’s use of rhetoric is far more limited, though their views are broadly similar.

The idea that religion is fundamentally bad is not without basis, it’s just that I believe that basis is in error. Given the specific examples I gave above, it would be easy to think religion is a force for evil in the world, but that view is somewhat simplistic. I will now expand on that. In much of what I have read in christian/atheist debates (though not all) there a few apparent fundamental flaws in the understanding of the critics of religion. Firstly, there is the idea that religion can be discussed as though it were one thing. The wide varieties of religious beliefs, cultures and practices throughout history show such diversity that to discuss ‘religion’ as a single thing is overly simplistic and begins on completely the wrong foot. No meaningful conclusions can be met as these discussions are based on a fallacy. It is a little like trying to come to firm conclusions on ‘sport’ when there are so many different sports, and the number of aspects shared by all are so few and tenuous that there is very little substance to work with. So when ‘sport’ is discussed, those speaking and listening may have a few fixed examples in mind (e.g. Football, cricket and rugby). And the same happens with discussions on ‘religion’ where those discussing the matters will often have three Abrahaimic faiths in mind. Any more focussing tends to be split between critics of Islam and critics of Christianity; in this respect Judaism seems to be spared. Sometimes aspects one or all three of these are taken as indicative of being true of ‘religion’ as a whole, which given what we have said above results in a lot of straw man arguments. Another of the large errors in discussions of these matters is the failure to distinguish between the institutional churches and the nature of the particular faith being discussed. To give an example, I often read articles where the author has conflated catholicism and/or anglicanism with christianity, when in fact it is far better to consider the faith as separate from the institution which advocates it.

In the examples stated near the start of this piece, most of the atrocities that have occurred have been undertaken as corporate action of the institutional churches. Of course, the discrete detail has been committed by individuals, but usually at the behest of a larger, man-made organisation. Here, we have our key point: the institutional churches are man-made constructs, not God-made. Now the catholic church has often focussed on one verse as the justification for its existence, namely when Jesus stated to Peter:

“You are Peter [which means Rock], and on this rock I will build my church.”

Now Peter was certainly one of the major figures in the early church, however the dogma of apostolic succession is not biblically-based and was a political invention which has become far more of a hinderence than a help to progressive thought. I could give many other examples of false teaching on the part of the catholic church, but I do not have the time for this and will detract from the main point which is this: the catholic church is not a mouthpiece for christianity; it is a misdirected anachronism that is a theological equivalent of a vampire, undead and preying on the vulnerability of others, failing to recognise the importance of the Reformation which was the death knell of catholicism as a part of the christian communion.

With that said, what did we get as a replacement? Another institutional church: the anglican church. The example of anglican church lends weight to the idea that history repeats itself. The catholic church had become intent on power, control and political influence. These are not the hallmarks of the vision that was laid out by Jesus and expanded upon by Peter and Paul in the first century A.D. Yet these are also the hallmarks that anglicanism has grown into over the years. We only need to look at the last few weeks’ press to see what the public face of the anglican church is. One thing it certainly is not, is as a proclaimer of the gospel of redemption through the resurrection.

When I refer to the ‘church’ in general without adding any adjective before it, my meaning is this: the collection of all of those who believe that Jesus died and was resurrected as a substitute for us in order to mend the separation between mankind and God, and who aim to live according to the two great commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul & strength” and “Love your neighbour as yourself.” That does not mean that a local church should be without structure. Indeed, quite a lot of attention is paid by Paul in his letters on how the local churches should conduct themselves along with guidelines on how to operate, which were mostly common-sense.

A church is a collection of believers, complete with all their flaws and foibles. Having such a rag-tag bunch of diverse people pulled together in a common cause requires a level of organisation. One of the main reasons for this, and something Paul writes quite a lot about, is the risk of false teaching. If the church were a total free for all, then anything could be taught regardless of its truth. Instead, we should be lovers of truth (Greek: alethiophiles!) and that requires some guidelines.

So then, what we come down to is this question: What is a christian? To me, a christian is a work in progress. Nobody is perfect and we are all on a learning curve, working our way towards an understanding of God.

The question of hypocrisy arises when there is a perception of the christian as the person who thinks they hold the moral high ground, or who claims to have a firm grasp on the highest truth or to understand the mind of God perfectly. I have met very few christians who genuinely believe that this is something they have attained, but I have met many more who can give that impression by the things they say in public, while keeping their humility private.

I hope that in whatever I write, I am clear in stating that I do not claim to have all the answers and that it is my belief that anyone who claims to do so is badly mistaken and heading down the wrong path.

An old acquaintance at university (I shan’t say ‘friend,’ we couldn’t stand each other!) had a keyring which said “Christians aren’t perfect. They just you to be.” While he, an atheist, kept this keyring as a statement of irony, pointing out the hypocrisy of many christians and institutional churches, I think it’s not too far off the mark.

Once we recognise that christians aren’t perfect and are in fact a long way from it, it becomes easier to understand why it is that christians can do terrible things to fellow human beings. It is our human nature playing itself out. But we cannot ignore the fact that corporate injustices are fundamentally different from individual hypocrisy. The latter is more than the sum of its parts. So why is this? To be honest, I don’t know and cannot say for certain; but it seems to me to lie in the idea of “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I cannot find anywhere in the New Testament advocacy for the church to be a political organisation. So as soon as political power is given to an institutional church, it is a seed of corruption. Those fallible individuals who given power are then not often subject to enough scrutiny, as they would be under a democracy. As has been seen in some churches in history, the idea of infallibility merely causes trouble. It is essentially a matter of corporate pride, where people convince themselves that what they are doing is right and are beyond question. But as we know, “pride comes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

In short, it is a problem of sin. Now there can be misunderstandings around the word ‘sin’ or ‘sinner’ which are often used by christians and are badly communicated to non-christians which leads to these misunderstandings, particularly in relation to causality. What comes first is the term ‘sinner’ meaning someone who is in a state separation from God. Here, I find Rob Bell’s way of phrasing things quite helpful. When confronted with those who think that the early chapters of Genesis are accurate historical accounts, with all the terribly unhelpful connotations, divisions and disagreements that that causes, it is better to understand the Fall, not necessarily as something that happened, but rather something that happens. This is summarised by Paul when he says in Romans

“for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

So we born as ‘sinners’ and as a consequence of what we are, we fulfil that nature by doing acts (‘sins’) which reflect our nature. So when christians refer to people as ‘sinners’ it is actually an axiomatic definition, albeit etic, rather than a judgement on the person’s character, and no offence is meant, nor should any be inferred from it.

It is not a case that we are born pure and by wrongful acts we are made into sinners. We are born as sinners and our actions reflect our true nature. But the sinful nature and the nature of God are diametrically opposed. Now there is much written about what happens to a person when they exercise their free will and decide to become a christian, which I don’t have time to cover here. The most concise summary of it comes from Romans 12, when Paul says we are

“transformed by the renewal of your minds.”

Being concise, it is open to misinterpretation, and this doesn’t mean christians are brainwashed or have their personalities erased. Rather, it is renovation work on our very nature. This is where a better communicator than I is needed, for it requires a little talk on spiritual matters, which is certainly something that is non-intuitive. These two natures are in competition with one another, and because a christian is not the finished article, nomatter what level of maturity they have, their remains something of the sinful nature within them, which exhibits itself from time to time. This is when we see christians sin and fall down. Because of the nature of this battle which is going on unseen, when the sinful does break through, it can be like a volcano which has been plugged for some time, resulting in far more wanton destruction than we see in non-christians who trickle, to stretch the analogy a little.

What can we say in conclusion of this part then? It is indeed true that christians have, do and will continue to commit acts which are classed by a broad school of thought as immoral. The institutional churches are not a good reflection of the true vision of the church; they are corrupt entities, where the sinful nature of mankind has been allowed to take over, despite the veneer of christianity.

So then, is there such a thing as a ‘true christianity’ or are we at risk of the ‘No true Scotsman‘ fallacy? Well, given my (probably inadequate) definition above, I think there is. But it isn’t helpful to think of a christian as a person who lives by a fixed set of rules. Anyone who thinks of christianity as merely a list of ‘dos’ don’ts’ has got the wrong end of the stick. There is a core truth, but christianity is about freedom and relationship. So in my view, there is such a thing as ‘true christianity’, but our understanding of it is incomplete, and some aspects can be more easily understood by their negation than by positive definition. Where humans err, the examples of these violations of morality is highly noticeable. Since we are in pursuit of righteousness, but recognising that we are a long way short of it, it is possible to have a look at the nature and origins of morality with a clear conscience. Acts of hypocrisy are where we have strayed off the path and are not the rule we live by. Only if christianity were inherently immoral would it render our task impossible, but the evidence which suggests this is not conclusive and when understood in its proper context, merely points to the fallibility of human nature.

The nature and origin of morality – Part 0: Introductory comments

I have to start this with a warning: this is merely an exploration of my incomplete thinking, not a thoroughly researched exegesis. So I will ask now that if you are reading this and can suggest further reading that I might undertake, please suggest them in the comments, and I shall add it to my reading list. That said, my reading list is very very long at the moment and I may not get a chance to read them very soon. In relation to Part 5, I have already got my sights set on Talking to the Enemy.

Morality is a subject on which I often interject with a few thoughts during a conversation or argument. One of the places these arguments frequently take place is my old haunt of Cif Belief between christians and atheists. It is worth noting that the number of atheists on this discussion forum far outweigh the number of christians. That said, the number of reasonable participants who want to take part in a constructive and thoughtful way are about equal on both sides. There is also our resident Buddhist, who is very well educated and acts as a good voice of reason in the face of some very vitriolic trolling. It is because of my disillusionment in people’s ability to listen that I have tended to post on this site less than I used to.

The particular impetus for this train of thought, however came from a different thread on Cif. A philosophy student (who has most probably done research on the matter than I) made a comment that morality developed as an evolutionary mechanism to ensure the survival of the species.

Below is a copy of the typed conversation. Any annotations I have made will be in square brackets [ ].

Interesting debate actually.

“The evolution of moral behaviour distinguishes humanity from the animal kingdom (though I agree, it’s not the only distinction).” [this quote was from another user, called Peter, who is referred to later]

This is very unlikely to be true. As discussed the other day, much of “moral” behaviour itself probably has evolutionary causes stemming from biological harm, like incest. The example you give is a good one, the “filthiness” of pigs. I wonder if this “morality” itself doesnt stem from biology, namely that eating raw pork does you harm whereas raw beef doesnt. I wouldn’t be in the least surprised if this is where the disdain for pigs originally came from.

Is it not a truism that “morality” will face largely the same evolutionary pressures as biology? A morality which encouraged constant internal group fighting, murder, incest and rape would be at a major disadvantage to those groups whose morality encouraged harmonious living.

Talk of morality separated from biology and evolution strikes me as a typically absurd consequence of the Cartesian mindset. [This last sentence is the bit I disagreed with and prompted me to post the following reply.]

I have to disagree with you here, Jay. Using the same logic, it would be like saying you can’t talk about what’s on television without talking about electromagnetism.

Though you could not be watching tv without someone having built a tv with a good knowledge of the models we use to understand electromagnetism, you can nonetheless discuss Question Time, Newsnight, X Factor or Eastenders.

Evolutionary theory is a fantastic way in which we understand biology, but it stretches the credulity of the sciences when you start to apply those principles to areas beyond which the evidence points, in this case morality.

Not really, no. Peter [the same Peter as above] has claimed a dividing line between animals and humans based on our morality. Thats what i disagreed with. Firstly, we are animals. Secondly, we face evolutionary processes just as animals do. Thirdly, much of our morality is a direct consequence of evolution and biology.

The analogy falls down because electromagnetism, the medium, has no effect or link to the content whatsoever. This isnt true of morality with regard to evolution; these are strongly interlinked, there’s a causal relationship here.

I understand your point (I think), JayReilly. My disagreement is on this statement:

“Thirdly, much of our morality is a direct consequence of evolutiion and biology.”

Where is the evidence to support this idea?

Morality is not something tangible. You can’t pick it up and count it, there is no empirical method of measurement, it doesn’t fossilise and it leaves no physical trace of itself. Consequently, it falls outside of the scope of the natural sciences. So your statement:

“This isnt true of morality with regard to evolution; these are strongly interlinked, there’s a causal relationship here.”

is unevidenced speculation.

As I was typing quite fast, I didn’t have time to lay down all my thoughts on the matter, so this little series is an attempt at doing that. When I began to write it, I thought of going straight for the heart of the matter, but kept coming across some stumbling blocks where I felt I needed to clarify things, and where I also wanted to explore one particular issue that I have often struggled with, and after a recent conversation at a church housegroup, reminded me of the issue. So the plan (at the moment) is to proceed as follows:

Part 1: Christians, hypocrisy and human nature.
– I felt this needed to be added at the start as a discussion to clear away a few common objections that would otherwise hinder any progress.

Part 2: Can christians claim a monopoly on morality?
– One argument I often hear from christians is that morality can only derived from God, thus implicitly stating that christians have a monopoly on morality. Here we discuss that proposition.

Part 3: Can we rule God out?
– A common counter-argument to that used in part 2 is that appealing to God is an invalid argument that cannot be used and that alternative means have to be used. So this part will discuss whether or not that dismissal is premature.

Part 4: Moral law preceding statutory law.
– This will attempt to look at the links between moral law and the development of statutory laws, and how the former precedes the latter.

Part 5: The christian difference.
– Here we’ll look at some thorny issues where christians tend to differ from the rest of society, and I hope to examine the more fundamental reasons for these differences, including a discussion on moral relativism.

Part 6: Genesis 22 and the problem of Abraham.
– If murder is immoral, then why was Abraham willing to kill his own son? What ramifications does it have for how we understand religiously motivated fundamentalists and their link to acts of terrorism.

It seems unwise of me to begin by trying to define morality. Though it is a concept which is easily understood, trying to pin it down in a few words is distinctly difficult task and one which would most likely come back and bite me later on. To coin a phrase, it is like trying nail jelly to a wall. It is elusive but nonetheless real.

Due to my own limited knowledge of attitudes to morality outside of proponents of the abrahaimic faiths and of atheism, I shall not be undertaking an holistic viewpoint and admit mea culpa from the outset on my own ignorance.

It is probably worth stating at this point that I do not consider morality and ethics to be the same thing, or even siblings. My own view is that morality is the teacher of ethics. That is, ethics is the practice and real world ‘living out’ of the values that are derived from the more fundamental subject of morality. I know this is a view that is accepted by all, but as with anything I write, you are welcome to disagree and to point me towards an alternative view.

If you’ve been bothered to read this far, I hope you find this enjoyable and thought-provoking. I would like to add ‘informative’ to that list, though that is probably a little too optimistic to be reasonably hoped for.