A review of Godless Morality: Keeping Religion Out of Ethics by Richard Holloway (Canongate: Edinburgh 2000; 163pp) by Jed Perkins.
(Reviewed August 2001)
A doctor who had worked in a mental hospital once told of a patient who claimed that he was Jesus Christ. The doctor asked how he knew. The patient claimed that God had told him. From a patient in the next bed came the words, "I did not!".
How do we verify religious statements? One can for instance read the Jewish Torah (Pentateuch) as a divine land deed for the Jewish possession of Israel. Tradition makes the Dome of the Rock (built on the site of the ancient Jewish temple in Jerusalem) the second most holy place in Islam. Thus we witness continued bloodshed in Israel. Most atrocities are committed by people who claim the sanction of God for their action. And God always seems to be giving different messages to different people.
In Godless Morality, Richard Holloway says that we should try to keep religion out of ethics. This may seem a strange thesis for one who is the retired Primate of the Episcopal Church of Scotland. In fact the book has been condemned by the Archbishop of Canterbury, which is as good a recommendation as one might hope for.
Bishop Holloway has come to his conclusions after serving on government committees that had the task of reporting on ethical issues. Jews, Christians, agnostics, atheists, humanists and others were on these committees. Invoking the Christian God did little to advance the arrival of consensus.
It is not that Holloway rejects revealed religion as one means of moral direction:
For personal reasons, we may choose one of these absolute solutions, the way people with spare capital sometimes hand it over to investment companies to manage it for them…What we cannot do, however, is claim that this is the only way. (77)
But he does propose that we might be better to give up scripture as a means to arrive at ethical decisions:
We should not… have to torture scripture into self-contradictory positions, when it no longer conforms to our experience of truth and value. It is much more honest to abandon it, acknowledging that it witnesses to an earlier, no loner appropriate, attitude to human relationships. We have done this over its attitude to slavery; we have done it over its attitude to usury… (81)
Basically Holloway calls us to own our moral propensities and prejudices rather than to call upon Scripture, tradition or God to justify them.
He does not deny the existence of sin in the human condition:
Personal reflection and self-examination, as well as the study of human nature throught he biographies of others, shows us that we are largely…determined by forces that are beyond our control. (25)
His definition of sin, however, is not moralistic:
Human nature has a tendency to hedonistic inflation, to turn good or neutral things into bad by using them excessively. (105)
This reminds us of the need for humility in reaching our moral decisions.
It is not that Holloway doesn't believe in God. His view of God is more in tune with process theology:
If we reject the role of God as a micromanager of human morality, dictating specific systems that constantly wear out and leave us with theological problems when we want to abandon them, we shall have to develop a more dynamic understanding of God as one who accompanies creation in its evolving story like a pianist in a silent movie.. (33)
Holloway wants to live in a society where people have as much moral freedom as possible:
I'd rather be in a society that lived with the unpredictable consequences of giving people great freedom of choice than in one that told them all exactly what to do and think, especially if it is claimed that all the orders came directly from God. (125)
He asks the question, 'Do we have to be religious to be moral? Do we have to believe in God to be good?' The answer is no.
A good read.