Christianity and Secular Values

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

At least in the western world, secularism is in the ascendancy. The proportion of people with no religious affiliation has been increasing for several decades and religious views are often considered to be less and less relevant when it comes to decisions about society, law, politics and even morality. This is not to say that religion is ignored altogether. Freedom of religion is a human right, for example, but while religion is acknowledged publically, it is generally treated as a private matter and so should not play a significant role in public debate.

This attitude towards religion in Britain was highlighted recently by Baroness Warsi, the former minister for faith. She described the hostility to religion in ‘ever secular’ Whitehall circles and said that people referred to her as the ‘minister for fairies, goblins and imaginary friends’. Whatever you make of the role of a minister for faith, it’s worrying to think that the attitude to religion in Whitehall is essentially the ridiculing, sneering attitude of the new atheists.

Where does such a secular society get its morality from? Isn’t there a danger that in rejecting Christianity, we will lose our moral foundations? Popular atheism has a simple narrative to offer in response. Christianity, and religion in general, is a stumbling block to morality. God isn’t needed as a foundation for morality and it is secular, Enlightenment values, not religious ones, that shape our modern world.

That was the sort of view the historian Tom Holland was attracted to, but as he studied the relevant history further he realised he was mistaken, as he relates in a recent article in the New Statesman. As he puts it, he was ready to accept the view of writers of the Enlightenment that ‘the triumph of Christianity had ushered in an “age of superstition and credulity”, and that modernity was founded on the dusting down of long-forgotten classical values.’ However, as he looked into those classical values more he discovered that:

          It was not just the extremes of callousness that I came to find shocking, but the lack of a sense that the poor or the weak might have any intrinsic value. As such, the founding conviction of the Enlightenment – that it owed nothing to the faith into which most of its greatest figures had been born – increasingly came to seem to me unsustainable.’

He argues that even in their defiance of God, Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire ‘drew on motivations that were, in part at least, recognisably Christian’ and, turning to the modern context, he writes that

Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-  old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value.”

 As argued in a previous article, it is very difficult to account for this equality of human life in secular terms. Like Holland, the philosopher Roger Trigg points out in his book Religion in Public Life: Must Faith Be Privatized (Oxford University Press, 2007) that from ‘a historical point of view, ideas of equality certainly grew on Christian soil’ (p. 82). In a secular society the assumption is that such equality can still be justified even when the theological foundation has been removed, but Trigg thinks this is very doubtful. Referring to Nietzsche, who ‘was an implacable opponent of Christianity and its morality, thinking it was a device by the weak to hold back the strong,’ he points out that Nietzsche believed that ‘once Christian metaphysics was removed from the scene, equality could no longer be taken for granted’ (p. 81).

One of the criticisms of the new atheists is, ironically enough, that they do not take their atheism sufficiently seriously. In his book God and the New Atheism (Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), the theologian John Haught argues that they basically want to get rid of God, but otherwise for life to go on pretty much as normal. He argues that more consistent atheists such as Nietzsche would not have been impressed because they ‘understood that if we are truly sincere in our atheism the whole web of meanings and values that had clustered around the idea of God in Western culture has to go down the drain along with its organizing center’ (p. 22).

There is no suggestion here that you need to believe in God in order to be moral; clearly, many atheists are very moral people. The issue rather concerns both the historical roots and rational foundation for our moral values. If Holland and Trigg are right, then many of the moral values of modern Western society find their roots in Christianity. If Trigg, Haught and Nietzsche are right, those same moral values may no longer be rationally sustainable once the Christian foundation has been removed.

This entry was posted in Quick Thoughts. Bookmark the permalink.