Tag Archives: humanism

Book Review: Walking Without God by Ben Whitney

Before beginning the review proper, I need to say a few words about how I came across this small volume.

One of the blogs I occasionally peruse is that of Simon Clare (who operates on Twitter as @FaithlessEye). A little while ago, he posted a review/critique of Thomas à Kempis. I have, for some time, been of the belief that it is a good thing to engage with those with whom you are naturally inclined to disagree. So I was impressed that an atheist would be reading quite an old treatise on christian faith; one, I hasten to add, that I have not read myself. I left a comment asking if there was anything he might recommend for me so that I could do a similar exercise, only from a different angle. Walking Without God was his recommendation.

Whitney begins by giving us an introduction to himself, as a former baptist preacher who has, for some reason, given up his faith, though he doesn’t go into the details of when and why. He simply states his case as he now sees it. The bulk of the book is made of 9 short essays, where he has picked a phrase or a verse from one of the Psalms and looks at what it might mean to think about the subject matter of each quote from a perspective that wants to engage with the idea of ‘spirituality’ but from a perspective without God.

In terms of atheist writing, this is about as far removed from, say, Christopher Hitchens, as one might hope to get. Whitney is almost relentlessly positive. Though he gives some critiques of traditional religion, particularly christianity, these are quite reasonable and never descends into the ranting rhetoric that so marred God is Not Great when I read it last year. One might not expect me to agree with everything that Whitney writes but I probably agreed with more than I disagreed with. He is almost relentlessly positive and espouses a worldview that does not set itself against any other, but rather one that can stand up in its own right. I would wholeheartedly recommend this to anyone of faith or anyone of none.

Probably the aspect of the book that chimed with my own take on the Psalms is the sort of “theologically jingoistic” tone of some Psalms, where the author(s) seem to demonise their enemies. I get raised eyebrows when I mention the topic in christian circles. Rather than give a blow by account of each essay, I shall copy somewhat Whitney’s style, by picking some quotes and saying a little about them. Hopefully, this will give you a little flavour of the book, along with my own responses to a small sample of quotes. Though, whilst I acknowledge my choosing of the quotes may not seem wholly representative of Whitney’s book, I admit I cherry-picked them because I found them interesting points of engagement, I think it reflects that Whitney’s style, as he is not really attempting a full-blown study of the Psalms.

“Religion, including the Christian version of it, is about the ‘big questions’ in life; or it should be.”

I’m not wholly convinced about this. While I think christianity should ask the ‘big questions’ I am not sure that that is the point, nor should it be, of christianity. Rather, christianity is the story of the relationship between God and people. What then differentiates christianity from any other philosophy or religion is how the ‘big questions’ are then looked at in the light of this story. It’s asking the questions in particular context. Though the start of this sentence hints at a generalisation of christianity to religion (similar, in my opinion, to using potatoes to make generalised statements about food) Whitney does avoid this for most of the book, which only adds to his credibility.

“The gospel accounts were written later of course by those who now believed certain things about him so they are not to be trusted as any kind of impartial record.”

I would agree with to an extent. As I write my reviews partly as I’m reading, but partly after I finish, I must confess that this sentence is being written about 4 days after I finished the book. Already, I have moved on and am reading Marcus Borg’s book, ‘Jesus: Uncovering the life, teachings and relevance of a religious revolutionary’. He takes a very similar tack to Whitney here, but then, as a member of the Jesus Seminar, that may not come as a surprise. I will write more about this anon. But for now, I would merely say that to recognise that there is an angle does not mean that the gospels should be disregarded. Scepticism doesn’t mean throwing the historical baby out with the metaphorical bathwater. When it comes to gospel hermeneutics, I would side more with the critical realism of Tom Wright (as espoused in the first half of The New Testament and the People of God) than with Whitney, who seems to be more on the side of Bultmann’s demythologisation programme. I may be wrong about that, but it’s the impression I got.

“I suspect that Jesus has been turned into something he never intended to be and that many subsequent claims made about him are based on misunderstandings, such as taking things literally about his birth and death that were never intended to be seen in that way.”

The question of literalism is indeed a thorny one, as alluded to above. In order to any kind of sensible or coherent opinion, one must ask the question, ‘how did the particular anecdote (or pericope) arise?’ One considers the testimony of Papias of Hierapolis that Mark’s gospel was based on the eyewitness testimony of Peter, so it should not be surprising that that particular gospel omits a story of Jesus’ birth. Who then, was the source for Matthew & Luke? It seems most likely that the one person who remained with the disciples after the resurrection who was also present at Jesus’ birth was Mary. The difficulty faced then, when looking at the figure of Jesus, is trying to come up with a sensible and consistent set of criteria that would allow for the distinction between what was the written form of oral history and what were ‘editorial’ embellishments. Whitney doesn’t give any such details, so the reader is left slightly guessing at how Whitney thinks Jesus’ history has been distorted. It would also be worth exploring, in my view at least, precisely what Whitney thinks the original intention was behind the stories of Jesus’ birth and death.

“Religious faith should be a means through which we grapple with and express our deepest emotions, not, as it sometimes seems, a way of repressing them into a set of rules and regulations.”

My response to this epitomises my view of the book. There is little here which I disagree with; I think it’s a very good statement. However, when it comes to saying “faith should” it just seems to be pointing slightly in the wrong direction. Expressions of the christian faith come in many shapes, sizes and colours. I hope readers of this blog get a fair impression of where I stand; what I accept, what I reject and what I am agnostic about. Amongst those that I disagree with are those who hold to something akin to a Pelagian point of view that christianity is about rules and regulations. This may come about by trying to get everyone in society to adhere to your moralistic rules or when routine becomes a ritual which must be observed with pious regularity, usually at the disdain of non-conformists such as myself. That said, I have long been suspicious of christians whose faith is primarily, if not wholly, based on emotions. So while our feelings may inform, colour or shape our beliefs (and indeed vice, versa), neither one should dictate the  other.

“In respectable Victorian Britain city businessmen stopped off at a child prostitute on their way back to their home in the suburbs where the family both stayed together and prayed together.”

This comment towards the end of the book stands out as most unusual when one considers the whole book. It is certainly a novel statement, made seemingly as a statement of fact, though with no evidence offered in its support. I include it here as it highlights the fact that Whitney doesn’t cite any references. I’d be interested as to what support he has for it.

“…Jesus also seems to have taught that the poor and the helpless were at the centre of what he called the ‘kingdom of God’. This is when we are closest to the historical Jesus, whatever the church has done with him since… It is an interesting phrase [and]…is one of the most common phrases in the New Testament and so must be at the heart of what religion is supposed to be about… The rule of God on earth, or ‘the right way of living’ in my understanding, is what matters.”

This reflects possibly a far more insightful view of the christian message than most I have heard either from any atheists or a great many christians. It brings to mind something Tom Wright once said, that the authors of the gospels would take exception to the apostles’ creed, as it jumps from Jesus’ birth straight to his death & resurrection when the gospels actually contain quite a bit about what he said and did in between. Thought I wouldn’t equate God’s rule on earth with ‘the right way of living’ this is a far better portrayal of christianity than the straw man of ‘magical sky pixie’ or similar such terms that get banded about on tiresome internet arguments. For that, I doff my cap to Mr Whitney.

Book Review: God’s Philosophers by James Hannam

When I first saw this book (I forget where) it seemed just about as ‘up my street’ as a book could me. My main two passions are christianity and science. So books that cover the two (without being needlessly antagonistic towards each other) tend to end up on my reading list.

In his introduction Hannam sets out his aim which can be summarised as “myth-busting.” Some may regard it as revisionist, though I think that would be a little harsh. The central myth is that the latter middle ages did not contribute much to scientific thought, and that the Enlightenment emerged out of a medieval intellectual vacuum of The Dark Ages; the latter two terms Hannam regards as prejudicial and which are then subsequently rarely, if ever, used again.

Hannam also goes so far as to cite the particular examples which he considers have given rise to popular misconceptions, with John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science being probably the most famous example.

The structure of the book is one of multiple mini biographies. These are given in pretty much chronological order. The timeline covered is roughly A.D. 999, when Gerbert of Aurillac became pope, through to 1642 which saw the death of Galileo. Given this time period and the number of figures involved, it can be hard to keep track of who is who, though the appendix does contain a very helpful timeline as well as a list of characters with a 2-4 line summary of why they are important.

At the start of the book, one could be forgiven for questioning whether or not it’s a science book, as much of the discussion is theological in nature, and could be considered a summary of medieval church history, particularly given the inclusion of several popes into the discussion as well as Thomas Aquinas, famous for his Summa Theologica. But that’s kind of the point. As the book progresses, we get more and more towards what our modern 21st century sensibilities recognise as science, but it is a gradual process with no sudden great leaps.

I know from having read some other reviews of Hannam’s book that his viewpoint is not universally accepted. I myself am no expert in this period of history so cannot really comment on its validity. The strength of the book is its meticulous cross-referencing, where original sources are preferred over secondary and an extensive bibliography is also included. So any time a claim is made that may go against one’s preconceived notions, the author gives the reader all the help they need to check the relevant facts. But this is not merely a scholarly book; it’s written with evident enthusiasm for the subject being discussed, like a highly energetic tour guide taking you round an exhibit for which they have a passion. It’s this exuberance that comes off the page which makes it pleasure to read, as well being highly informative.

Secular, humanist christian

I thought it’s about high time I wrote a little about something that’s been on my mind for a few months and which ought to be said, though I’m not sure if I’m the right person to be saying it. The problem as I see it is essentially a loose understanding of precise terminology. In particular, there are 3 words that banded about (by both christians and opponents of christianity) and often intermingled, which often leads to unnecessary upset, nitpicking and a general diversion away from the key issues being discussed; something which I fear is more often less than fruitful and which leaves neither side with a high opinion of the other. So what are these 3 words? Secular, humanist and atheist.

One of the reasons why I feel personally involved in this is because, of these 3 words (when considered as adjectives), I would like to describe myself by 2 of them. However, I am hesitant to do so, for fear of being misunderstood and needlessly ostracised. I shall attempt to deal with them one by one where I shall, out of necessity and brevity, omit some discussion before going on to look at the links between them that cause so many misunderstandings and arguments. To aid the discussion, I would like to draw your attention to two additional words that I think help and which have helped me a lot since I came across them. They are emic and etic. When describing characteristics and behaviours of groups of people, emic is a self-description (i.e. a way that the given set of people tend to talk about themselves). Etic is effectively a third party description used by those who are not part of that group to describe and characterise it.

So, in alphabetical order:

1) Atheism/atheist

The most common definition I hear put forward by Christians is that atheists believe there is no God; in other words this is an etic description. However, this is a positive assertion which is not emically asserted by many atheists that I have come across. They prefer to consider themselves as a-theists; that is, via a negation of the term theist. However, I have then heard many different versions of what defines and characterises a theist. If you want a good laugh, then read through the introduction to John Blanchard’s book, Does God Believe in Atheists, in which his extremely narrow-viewed definition rules out, inter alia, Jews, Catholics and Muslims who are all classified as atheists. I wouldn’t recommend the rest of the book, as it is largely full of creationist rubbish.

So while it may all be very good and acceptable to define oneself as the negative of something, it helps if the thing you are negating is itself well defined, otherwise you’ve made no real progress at all. The way to get around this is for atheists to posit that a theist is someone who believes there is at least one God. The negation of this is then someone who does not believe that there is at least one God. As a side note, I do not agree with this definition as it seems to incorporate deists, pantheists and panentheists, which I regard as belonging to a rather different school of thought to theists. Where people get confused is by equating this definition of atheism to the first statement at the start of this section. But they are not equivalent and for the simple reason of the existence of one further group of individuals: agnostics.

Agnosticism is probably the best defined term, even if it is also the most unsatisfactory philosophical worldview. It is simply the admission that one has not made up their mind on the question of the existence of God. It is this group of people that the atheists want to bring under their ‘envelope’ by definition via negation, thus rendering agnostics a subset of atheists. Under the etic description of atheists as those who believe there is no God, agnostics and atheists are distinguished and the former can no longer be considered a subset of the latter. So it would seem most fair to me to ask this group who is being tussled over whether they prefer to be considered atheists or whether they want to inhabit a space of their own. Now I must confess that I have not had the opportunity to commission any significant research on this matter, so the only evidence I have to hand is my own personal experience and a selection of relevant writings that I have read. Yet of what I have been exposed to in this respect, there is an overwhelming agreement that agnostics do not consider themselves to be atheists and often view atheists and theists with equal contempt, being as they both make assertions which are not backed up by naturalistic evidence. So it is on this basis that, in spite of likely objection, that I believe that defining an atheist as simply someone who lacks a belief in God is not particularly helpful or suitably precise. This would incorporate not only agnostics but also a large swathe of people who just don’t care or think it about it that often.

I am often amused on some forums when I see some atheists say that they never think about the issue of God, yet when you look at their posting history, the only threads they post on are those relating to “religion” and very little else. So it seems somewhat ironic (if not a little dishonest) to pretend that matters of religion don’t matter to them if that is all they talk about. So my working definition of an atheist is someone is someone who has considered the possibility and made a firm decision that they do not believe. This then excludes the agnostics and those who don’t care enough to give it a moment’s thought. Anyway, time to move on to something a little more interesting…

2) Secular/secularist

This is an area in which I feel there is a lot of confusion, but which could be remedied in part quite simply. The first thing to recognise is that there is a broad school of secularist thought and that secularism is not best described as one absolute thing in and of itself. To that extent, you can get mild secularism, extreme secularism and a variety of ideas in between. Now of course, I don’t mind the term being used as a generality, but in some conversations, there can be cross-purposes if one person has in mind a particularly extreme form of secularism and another has in mind a milder form, yet they continue to use the same language.

So what I shall aim to do here is to lay out what I understand by secularism, what is extreme, what is mild and whereabouts I stand. For in general, I would describe myself as a secularist, however I would not consider ever joining or contributing to an organisation such as the National Secular Society (NSS) as their practical mandate seems to overstep the bounds of my own point of view. By practical mandate, what I mean is how their actions, publications and public statements reflect the collective thinking of the organisation. This is distinct from any written statement of principles, articles of incorporation or similar such foundational writings, since the day-to-day realities do not always bear these out. The difference is akin to a company whose motto may be to serve their customers, but whose practice is to extract as much profit from their customers as possible.

In fairly broad terms, I would say that “mild” secularism simply does not invoke any religious maxims in public life. In other words, it’s a case of “carry on as you were,” where no religious institutions or persons are given special prominence solely on the basis of their religious affiliation. One particular proponent of this form of secularism was the German pastor, Martin Luther. His variety was largely a reaction against the political power and deference given to the highly corrupt catholic church. Unfortunately, this particular institution seems not to have learnt any lessons from the Reformation and still today it harbours criminals in its ranks and protects them in what has become a shame that is felt by association by Christians worldwide. A more “extreme” form of secularism is that which attempts to deliberately exclude anything religious from public life, with the subtext “out of sight, out of mind.”

Probably nowhere are the problems associated with a misunderstanding of secularism more apparent than with the multiple-mindedness prevalent in American society. Leaving aside the cranks of the Tea Party and their ilk for a moment, the formalised structure of the US constitution has caused little but trouble since it was first codified. Given that it starts “We hold these truths to be self-evident” it seems ironic that the president has to formally appoint a judge whose job it is to instruct the government as to the interpretation of this document. Anyway, I could go on about how daft the constitution has become but I shall try and restrain myself. What I want to focus on is the 2nd amendment which dictates the separation of church and state. From my perspective, on the east side of the Atlantic, it appears that the Americans have lost touch with the reason this was put in place. At the time, it was state interference in the church that caused the pilgrim fathers to flee England and seek a freer place to worship. Many modern proponents of secularism seem to have forgotten this and act and speak as though it the main worry was church interference in the matters of state. Views of this kind tend to view secularism as the complete opposite of theocracy. Now, I am no advocate of theocracy, on purely practical grounds. Governments have to be administered by people, whether it is in the name of the people they govern (as in democracy) or in the name of God (as in theocracy). The trouble comes with the fact that either way, you are still relying on fallible people – and don’t let anyone you tell you that the pope’s infallible, the evidence simply disproves that!

3) Humanist/humanism

Lastly, we can come on to the term which is probably the least common in terms of modern usage, though I stand to be corrected on that; I speak only from the evidence of my own experience. Similar to the preceding section, there are a variety of different meanings that people hold when they hear the term humanism or humanist. For a brief illustration, please see this, taken from Wikipedia:

Humanism is an approach in study, philosophy, or practice that focuses on human values and concerns. The term can mean several things, for example:

1. A historical movement associated especially with the Italian Renaissance.
2. An approach to education that uses literary means or a focus on the humanities to inform students.
3. A variety of perspectives in philosophy and social science which affirm some notion of ‘human nature’ (by contrast with anti-humanism).
4. A secular ideology which espouses reason, ethics, and justice, whilst specifically rejecting supernatural and religious dogma as a basis of morality and decision-making.

When many Christians hear the term humanist, I think it is fair to say that they jump to the 4th definition. Unfortunately, this version is the most misleading. One of the clues as to why is the fact that the description of it as a “secular ideology” which, given the discussion above, makes it quite hazy and non-specific. It also smacks of not being humanism at all, but is rather more akin to a Randian Objectivism. Now definitions 1 and 2 are quite specific, but are specialised to particular fields of interest which are not the point of our current discussion. Probably the most accurate would be definition 3, although I still have issues with it. What is a far more fitting view of the heart of humanism is this:

“To recognise that humans occupy a special place within the world, and to celebrate and protect that position, valuing all humans and human life.”

So, for me, to be a humanist is to ensure that human beings are not placed second to anything else within the world. So I do not agree that we should promote animal rights over and above human rights, nor should humans be exploited for profiteering purposes. Now you might think I am being anti-environmentalist, but I am not. The environment is that in which we live, so we have a duty to look after it in order to ensure our long-term survival.

In fact, all of humanism can be summed up in two very short motifs: “Love other people just as you love yourself” and “Do to others what you would have them do to you.”

I just wonder if the British Humanist Association would be willing to recognise this or whether they would reject these two statements, given that they would probably be aware of their origin. The fact is, Christianity is a humanist religion. People are at the heart of it, whichever way you look at the matter. So when I see a definition like def 4 from Wikipedia, it is plainly obvious that this definition of humanism has been hijacked.

The changing nature of words.

In all this, I am conscious that words change their meaning over time and that some modern definitions may be quite far removed from what they originally mean. For example, one word that is not often used but which does crop up occasionally is “meek.” Today, it is often interpreted as meaning something that it rhymes with: “weak.” Whenever it is used, it is usually in conjunction with the word mild, as in “meek and mild.” To many modern listeners, this is a form of parallelism whereby two words are used to describe broadly the same thing. However, this is quite different from what the word originally meant. The early meaning of the word was as “strength, contained” or “power under control.” So to describe someone as meek was a shorthand way of saying they were very strong of character but at the same time did not lack self-control. So in this context, “meek and mild” is not a parallelism, but rather a much fuller description using two things that do not always seem to go together. The closest analogy I can think of is “sweet and sour,” although maybe my thinking that was influenced by what I had for dinner last night!

So with that said, what can we say are the “real” meanings of our words in question? I know this is semantics but I think it is important as failure to understand one another is probably the main reason for civil discourse to descend into uncivilised (and unnecessary) argument. To be honest, I don’t know how to answer that last question simply. I do like referring to original meanings, but at the same time to ignore the modern interpretations seems churlish. So when I speak or write, I shall try and define my terms as best as I can. The one caveat in that is obviously that I am not omniscient, and am therefore on a lifetime of discovery. So where I may use some terms there will be times during which I cannot grasp the full meaning of it (e.g. reality). I hope that you will forgive me for this shortcoming and that it does not impinge too much on your understanding.

The links between the three:

There is a sketch I recall from one particular episode of The Simpsons which demonstrates a particular viewpoint which may, unfortunately, not be uncommon in certain sections of American society. The Flanders’ boys are playing some sort of Bible Cluedo and state that the crime was committed “by the secular humanist in the museum with misinformation.” For secular humanist, they held up a picture of a guy with an open-necked shirt and a short, scruffy beard. Misinformation was represented by a dinosaur and the museum was just a museum front. The point was partly about creationism but what struck me was the equating of the secular humanist with an opponent of Christianity.

So where did the notion come from that secular and/or humanist imply atheism? As shown above, there is no logical reason why this should be so, given the core heart of secularism and humanism. It is perfectly possible to be a mild secularist and at the same time hold true to, say, one of the major monotheistic religions. Take the example of the nation of Turkey as an example. This is a secular state with a Islam as the national religion. It is not a theocracy, but is governed on democratic grounds, where any person of any belief may enter into the national politic. No religion is given special dispensation or is specifically discriminated against by the state.

It seems to me that the answer is that which I mentioned above at the end of the section on humanism: these terms have been hijacked by many, though not all, of our atheist friends. The common usage of the terms secular and humanist have been used in conjunction with atheistic overtones so much that an association is built up in many people’s minds so that there is a meshing of the ideas. It is a little like a rather insidious form of advertising, where a corporation wants to associate it product (in this case atheism) with something virtuous and desirable (e.g. secularism and humanism). The same is true, similarly, of the term free thinker, whose hijacking has been brutal so that it now means almost the opposite of the sum of the words that comprise it. Instead of meaning someone who’s thinking is free, it is now taken as a euphemism for an atheist, and specifically that anyone who indicates that they are in any way religious is ruled out as being a free thinker. But does this stand up scrutiny? Well, the hallmarks of those who think freely is that they are able to come up with their own conclusions. These need not necessarily be different from everyone else’s, but they do not accept on blind trust whatever they are told. (For a further discussion on how blind trust plays no part in christianity, please see my essay, Doubting Thomas And A Scientific Approach To Theology.) But the key is that you will end up with slightly different answers, nuanced by different interpretations of the facts and evidence at hand. So if christians were not free thinkers then what we would expect to see is a uniform belief across Christendom and complete agreement on all matters. Is that what we see? Of course not. A basic opening of the eyes and of looking through history will inform you that people have not always agreed and that people are free to believe and think for themselves. The only exception to this was the catholic church in the middle ages, which was not so much a church as a political body that was intent on clinging onto power in an authoritarian manner. But this was not enough to limit free thought, as the Reformation showed.

So how shall I conclude? The only way to change the usage of words is by repetition and by being as precise as possible. If anyone talks to you and throws about words such as those mentioned above, ask them what they mean by their usage, challenge them. When you use them yourself, check that your audience understand what you mean by them; don’t leave it for them to misinterpret you. So, with all that said: I think I can now safely define myself, without being grossly misunderstood, a secular, humanist christian.

Book review: Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I decided to read this as a follow-on from his excellent The Cost of Discipleship, which is in my opinion, one of the greatest works of Christian apologetics. Knowing Bonhoeffer’s biography, it is obvious that this was his last work before he was murdered, and at times the retrospective knowledge that I had whilst reading it made me cry, especially when Bonhoeffer was hoping for a release in the not-too-distant future.

That said, the start is joyfully mundane, writing to his parents, requesting various reading material, how to keep fit in a prison cell and the joys of cigarettes. He moves on to more correspondence with his niece’s husband, Eberhard Bethge, who later went on to be Bonhoeffer’s biographer. There is a lot here which conveys much more of his humanity and compassion, along with recognitions of his own failings and foibles.

Some of the letters stand out more than others, and these tend to be when Bonhoeffer is questioning the status quo of christianity. He reveals that he was, in the true definition of the terms, a secular humanist, only without the atheistic connotations that we have come to associate with the phrase in recent years. His rejection of religiosity is something that his highly welcome although the evidence of this taking hold as popular thought until much later, with the likes of Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis being the modern expansion of this school of thought.

The only criticism I would have is in the translation. Bonhoeffer was fond of using latin phrases in his writings, but the translators have only included the english translation sporadically, so I had to keep looking up a lot of them, as they were not phrases in common use.

It is an immensely thought provoking collection and I cannot think of anyone I would not recommend this book to.

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.