Sunday, January 13, 2008

Morality and Religion

Well, since we are talking about morality, science and faith today, I thought I would also post on what Richard Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford wrote in response to Richard Dawkins had to say about the ability of human beings to be moral in the absence of faith.

Like me, he agrees that an atheist can be an upstanding, altrustic moral person without a faith in God. Heck, I know legions of atheists that fit this description. Harries, however, while agreeing with this point argues that the connection between morality and religion are more complex than Dawkins seems to understand:

Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov said: 'If God did not exist, everything would be permitted.' Sartre agreed. Dawkins disagrees. Morality belongs to us as human beings. I agree too. I do not believe that a society without a religious basis for its morality will always collapse. But I do think that the relationship between morality and religion is more complex than either Dawkins or religious believers usually allow. Take an analogy: someone hears a great piece of music and responds to it in itself. But someone else knows that the piece is part of a symphony and can be even more appreciated when heard as part of the whole in which it has a crucial place. As human beings we can recognise and respond to particular moral insights. But a religious believer claims to understand these as part of a much larger whole in which they have a vital place: in particular, there is a fount and origin of all our moral insights which is good, perfect good, all good, our true and everlasting good. For a Christian, this is above all shown in the willingness of God to enter the flux of history, to redeem it from within.

. . .

Commenting on the view that a society without religion will collapse, Dawkins writes: 'Perhaps naively, I have inclined towards a less cynical view of human nature than Ivan Karamazov. Do we really need policing - whether by God or each other - in order to stop us from behaving in a selfish and criminal manner? I dearly want to believe that I do not need such surveillance - and nor, dear reader, do you.'

But this overlooks a number of points. First, many people who have strong moral commitments without any religious foundation were shaped by parents or grandparents for whom morality and religion were fundamentally bound up. Moreover, many of those in the forefront of progressive political change, who have abandoned religion, have been driven by a humanism that has been essentially built up by our Christian heritage as Charles Taylor has recently brought out in his magisterial study, A Secular Age. How far are we living on moral capital?

Then, although I believe there is a shard of goodness in every human person, there is a dark side to our nature that it is sentimental to ignore, one which is still wreaking such terrible havoc. As WH Auden put it: 'We have to love our crooked neighbour with our crooked heart.' This points to the need for both self-knowledge and grace. At the beginning of this new year, with the world so stricken with growing inequality, corruption, decadence and conflict, each of us, believer and unbeliever alike, need all the help we can get.



Read it all here.

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