February 29, 2012 § 2 Comments
A few months ago I chose five books to illustrate the idea of morality without God for The Browser’s Five Books interviews. Now, Richard Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford, has picked his list of five works through which to introduce Christianity. One book is common to both lists: Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It is not surprising that both Harries and I should so treasure Dostoevsky’s last and greatest novel. There are few writers who possess the psychological power and the unnerving eye of Dostoevsky, few who can express so eloquently both the necessity of faith and its impossibility. And of all Dostoevsky’s works The Brothers Karamazov is perhaps the one that is most committed in its faith and yet also the most ambiguous about it; a novel that is, at one and the same time, a celebration of existential faith and an excoriation of the immorality of God’s creation.
February 6, 2012 § 44 Comments
Like a lion, perhaps, in a den of Daniels, I gave a talk last week on ‘Why I am an atheist’ to theology students at Bristol’s Trinity College. It was an enjoyable event, and hopefully helped me to think through and sharpen my arguments (though not, I suspect, to change anyone’s mind). Here’s the transcript.
There are three kinds of arguments that an atheist can make in defence of the insistence that no God exists. First, he or she can argue against the necessity for God. That is, an argument against the claim that God is necessary to explain both the material reality of the world and the values by which we live. Second, he or she can argue against the possibility of God, against the idea that a being such as God is either logically or materially possible. And third, an atheist can argue against the consequences of belief in God. This is the claim that religious belief has pernicious social, political or moral consequences and that the world would be better off without such belief. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 23, 2011 § 4 Comments
TWO SEVEN-YEAR-OLDS IN THE BACK OF THE CAR DEBATING GOD:
C: I don’t believe in God.
A: I do.
C: So where does he live?
A: In the sky, of course.
C: So why have astronauts never seen him?
A: They were probably too busy doing things.
C: No they weren’t. They’re always looking out of the window in a rocket.
A: How do you know?
C: I’ve seen Apollo 13. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 10, 2011 § 1 Comment
The latest strip from the irrepressible Jesus and Mo may seem like a typical dig at the inconsistencies and illogicalities of religious faith. But, in its own inimitable way, it taps into one of the most difficult theological conumdrums for believers.
A common argument in the increasingly tedious ‘God Wars’ is the claim by believers that atheists are naive about religious belief. They read holy books too literally and think of God as an old man with a white beard. But, say believers, religion has long since moved on from such unsophisticated conceptions. It is, for instance, the argument that lies at the heart of Terry Eagleton’s broadside against Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and other New Atheists. Among the latest to join this chorus of ‘We’re more sophisticated than you’ is Ross Douthat in the New York Times.
Atheists can indeed be naïve about religion and theology, and I myself have been critical of many of the arguments. But the apologists for religion are equally naïve, not to mention disingenuous, in their defence of belief. It is true that there has long been a sophisticated strain of theology that sees God not as a person but as the ‘condition of being’, the prerequisite for the existence of the universe and the functioning of life. But there has also been a constant and profound tension between this abstract, non-figurative imagining of God and the God that does all the other things that religion requires of Him: perform miracles, answer our prayers, wrestle with the devil, set down moral law, explain the finer points of sex, punish sinners. And tell us to keep off the bacon sarnies. « Read the rest of this entry »
September 23, 2011 § 3 Comments
I was asked by the The Browser, a wonderful, indispensable website that trawls the web and fishes out some of the best writing, to choose, for its ‘Five books’ section, five books (naturally) on morality without God. Here’s my somewhat eclectic list and the interview that accompanies it.
Many believers think that the only way to be truly moral is to follow a religion which teaches us morality. How would you respond?
One of the great selling points of religions – in particular the monotheistic religions – throughout their history has been their importance as a bedrock of moral values. Without religious faith, runs the argument, we cannot anchor our moral truths or truly know right from wrong. Without belief in God we will be lost in a miasma of moral nihilism. ‘To remove God’, as the theologian Alister McGrath has put it, ‘is to eliminate the final restraint on human brutality.’
Looking back on history one might question just how successful God has been as ‘the final restraint on human brutality’. What really concerns me, however, is the way that religious concepts of morality degrade what it means to be human by diminishing the importance of human agency in the creation of a moral framework. From a religious perspective, it is the weakness of human nature that ensures that God has to establish and anchor moral rules.
In truth, morality, like God, is a human creation. Even believers have to decide which of the values found in the Torah or the Bible or the Qur’an they accept and which they reject. What God provides is not the source of moral values but, if you like, the ethical concrete in which those values are set. Rooting morality in religion is a means of putting certain values or practices beyond question by insisting they are God-given. The success of religious morality derives from its ability to combine extreme flexibility – just look at the degree to which religious morals have changed over the centuries – with the insistence that certain beliefs and values and practices are sacred and absolute because they are divinely sanctioned. « Read the rest of this entry »
September 18, 2011 Comments Off
Continuing the series of extracts from the book that I am writing on the history of moral thought, I have reached Chapter 9, a chapter that explores medieval Christian thought, and in particular the work of Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest of Christian theologians. Western Christendom had recently rediscovered Aristotle, largely through translations from the Muslim world. Aquinas found in Aristotle both a reason for, and a means to, transform the traditional relationship between reason and faith in Christian theology.
For Augustine and early Christian theologians, reason had been subservient to faith. The yen for knowledge had led to Original Sin and Original Sin had corroded human intellect and will. Aquinas, echoing the arguments of the Muslim Rationalists, reversed the relationship between reason and faith. Reason was not a corrupting expression of human hubris, too great a reliance on which denied humans access to the divine, but a divine gift to enable humanity to understand God, and bring them to Him. Aquinas was, of course, a devout and obedient Christian and for all his defence of reason, divine revelation remains the foundation of his moral framework. Yet Aquinas does something novel with the Christian moral framework. He grasps the tension at the heart of Christian belief between human agency and the consequences of the Fall and, unlike Augustine, tries to rethink that tension to minimise human degradation and maximise the possibilities of reason.
This extract is from the final section of Chapter 9, which explores the importance of Dante, and in particular of The Divine Comedy, in giving poetic life to Aquinas’ moral vision and in sketching out the outlines of the moral landscape that was to come.
August 19, 2011 § 30 Comments
UPDATE: this post won the 2011 3QD Politics and Social Sciences Prize.
In the warped mind of Anders Behring Breivik, his murderous rampage in Oslo and Utoøya were the first shots in a war in defence of Christian Europe. Not a religious war but a cultural one. Breivik acknowledged that he was not religious but, he wrote in his manifesto in a section entitled ‘Distinguishing between cultural Christendom and religious Christendom’:
Myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God. We do however believe in Christianity as a cultural, social, identity and moral platform. This makes us Christian
Few but the most psychopathic have any sympathy for Breivik’s homicidal frenzy. And most Christians have rejected the Breivik’s claim to be one of them. Yet the idea that Christianity is a ‘cultural, social, identity and moral platform’ that provides the underpinnings of ‘Western civilization’ and that ‘Christian Europe’ is under threat finds a widespread hearing. From Mark Steyn to Christopher Caldwell to Melanie Phillips to Martin Amis and beyond, alarm about Muslim immigration, the rise of ‘Eurabia’ and the collapse of the Judeo-Christian tradition is rife. « Read the rest of this entry »