Godless Morality: Keeping Religion Out of Ethics

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Godless Morality: Keeping Religion Out of Ethics

  1. Review

    The title and subtitle of this book is startling in itself but even more so if you know the identity of the author. Richard Holloway recently retired as the bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Anglican Church of Scotland. He served as Professor of Divinity in the City of London and is the author of twenty-three books. This book originated from his concern about the moral confusion of our day and "the urgency and importance of finding a basis for our conduct towards one another as sharers of life on this planet." It is his conviction and the thesis of his book, that in order to find a basis of conduct in our secular and religiously pluralistic society; "we must disconnect religion and God from the common struggle to recover some elements of a common ethic." It his hope that in so doing it will be possible "to unite those who believe with those who do not in the discovery of a workable ethic for our time."

    Holloway lays the foundation of his position by making some arguable distinctions between religious and ethical attitudes to human behavior. He posits a distinction between sin and immorality. He understands sin as basically a religious concept. The will of God, in the major religious traditions, is revealed in commandments and laws of divine authority. People who obey them are considered righteous and in God’s favor and those who disobey them are sinful and in God’s disfavor. He understands morality to be an ethical concept, which is not based upon the will of God but on "observed consequences." An act is moral if it contributes to the well being of people and immoral if "harms others, or their interests, or violates their rights or causes injustice." He acknowledges that "the principle of harm is a very broad one, and it calls for subtle elucidation in particular situations, but it is a useful guide in steering our way through the currents of debate about what is and is not allowable or moral behaviour." Morality, understood, in these terms, operates on the basis of the consent of our reason and emotion.

    He believes that is particularly important to recognize this distinction in our world of religious pluralism. The major religious traditions differ on the essence of the commandments and laws, which express the will of God. And these traditions are historically conditioned and therefore reflect the social systems out of which they emerged. Moreover, within each tradition there has been some evolution of understanding the will of God. These realities lead Holloway to write, "We can debate with one another as to whether this or that alleged claim genuinely emanated from God, but who can honestly adjudicate in such an Olympian dispute? That is why it is better to leave God out of the moral debate and find good human reasons for supporting the system or approach we advocate, without having recourse to divinely clinching arguments." Today we need to move from a morality of rules to a morality of values, from a "morality of command" to a morality that will have "the authority of reason and the discipline of our consent."

    He uses the analogy of jazz to point to dimensions of moral life that are relevant today. He writes, "We can opt for a series of fixed texts that wear out and have to be constantly changed, or we can choose the metaphor of the jazz session that constantly makes new music by listening to what’s happening around it and apply the best of the tradition to the current context." The metaphor of "ethical jazz" informs the chapters of his book, which include essays on heterosexuality, gay, and lesbian sexuality, drugs, abortion, and issues raised by new reproductive and genetic technologies. Each chapter offers a thorough exploration of the moral issues involved and a careful analysis of alternative choices that can be made. Holloway understands and is appreciative of choices others are led to make but always makes clear why he reaches a different conclusion. He writes, "One of the most important balances to achieve in the new morality of consent would be between celebrating an allowable diversity in ethical approaches and refusing to accept the claim that no system is better than any other."

    This challenging and compassionate book is a wise contribution to finding a basis of morality relevant to our time.

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