Monday, June 30, 2008

Heaven is other people

Giles Fraser, Vicar of Putney, reassures us that he does think atheists can be moral. Phew. But:

My worry about the way many atheists describe the process of moral decision-making is that it seems to boil down to a sense of moral instinct, informed by a few formulas of general benevolence…
This seems so naïve, underestimating the extent to which human beings are able to deceive themselves into believing they are doing the right thing, when they are simply doing what they want or what makes them happy.
Christian moral decision-making begins with a strong sense that we often try to fool ourselves, and thus we need some external check. Going to church, regular prayer, reading from scripture, specific times to meet and challenge each other’s moral instincts: all these are forms of external practice which offer checks against the dominance of my own internal moral intuitions.


On the moral fallibility of the Bible and the mixed motives Christians can have in appealing to it, Alonzo Fyfe makes a good response to Fraser. As for my own two penn’orth:

Everyone, of whatever religious views, has experience of moral deliberation. Sometimes we do this with others, sometimes on our own. But even when alone, we still can and do think about the views of others and how these might inform our own thinking. And we are still informed by the moral influences in our lives, be they familial, societal, literary, theological or whatever.

Christians have access to the Bible to help them make moral decisions. But so do atheists: just as you don’t need to believe that there really was a ‘good Samaritan’ to appreciate the parable, so you don’t have to believe that Jesus was anything other than human to wonder (if he strikes you as a good moral example) ‘What would Jesus do?’ Atheists also have recourse to the opinions and examples of any number of political leaders, moral philosophers, fictional heroes and ordinary people. And so, although they downplay these in contrast to their scripture, do Christians.

We all have as many checks as we want against self-serving self-deception; and we all have to decide for ourselves how much use we want to make of those checks.

I’m regularly surprised by how flimsy are the claims of the religious to be not necessarily morally better than atheists but morally better resourced.

Fraser says:

Many of the atheists I get into discussion with seem content to perform an internal self-audit of their moral dispositions. … Perhaps that is what comes of having a moral vision shaped by little more than what one is against?

I can’t speak about his atheist acquaintances, but I can say that mine would think it bizarre to base a moral vision on disbelief in gods, ghosts, unicorns, flying spaghetti monsters and the rest. All this disbelief does is to remove one kind of distraction from your moral thinking.

The only atheists I’m aware of who treat the absence of god as suggesting the absence of all external checks are those who used to be religious but became disenchanted and lost faith – and with it, they lost much else as well. If you build your morality on a fairytale, you take the risk that it could crumble if, one day, your theism does.

Post-theistic solipsism is a terrible mistake. Humanity may be alone in the universe, but individual humans are not; we don’t need god in his heaven to guide us on right and wrong when we have so much that we can learn from each other.


Anonymous said...

The thing I find oddest about Giles Fraser's remarks is that "Christian moral decision-making begins with a strong sense that we often try to fool ourselves".

It can't BEGIN with that. Surely the idea that there is a God is prior to that? Otherwise Christians have dreamt up God in order to satisfy a basic intuition (that we often try to fool ourselves - which is a probably correct intuition that both Christians and atheists could accept whilst believing each was trying to fool themselves in the opposite direction).

If he had phrased his argument better, then it would've made more sense. The trouble is, he would've had to define his argument more narrowly then. If he accepted that his argument only worked if you already accept that God exists, and your problem is not trying to work out a synthesis of human moral intuitions or a framework in which they can reasonably co-exist but rather how to make your moral intuitions more like God's, then his argument would've had a fair point.

So I'm going to restate his argument in a more reasonable way.

"Although on an individual level atheists often make moral decisions which are better than those that Christians make, Christians have a greater capacity to grow into the moral likeness of the God I believe in, because rather than seeing Jesus as one example amongst many, we see Him as primary, and we do not only try to use Him as an example and then use our own strength to emulate Him, but we allow him to shape us through His Spirit, regular contact with other people who have His Spirit and a different kind of relationship with the Bible than atheists have. If, as I believe, all these tools are given by God to help us develop our moral intutions, those who utilise them most fully see their moral intutions grow closest to God's."

Does that seem fairer?

Tom Freeman said...

Very astute. The restated argument works much better, but of course it doesn't go to where Fraser originally wanted.