Monday, April 21, 2014

Christian Morality

We hear from time to time about Christian morality, its uniqueness and its superiority over other moralities.

The area is an interesting one, and for several reasons. Let’s first look at the uniqueness of Christian morality. We can broadly identify three areas of morality and it is revealing to look at them separately.

First are areas of morality that pretty much everyone will agree on – such as the principle that we should not lie or steal. The golden rule (“do unto others …”) is familiar in many cultures and predates Jesus by centuries. By definition these moral principles are not specifically Christian, and need not detain us.

Second are areas where Christian morality has changed. There are two striking things about these. The first is that there are so many of them. The other is that the change has always been away from biblical religious morality towards secular humanist morality. A few of hundreds of examples where Churches were once in favour and are now against are: slavery, the inferiority of women, capital offences for biblical crimes, child labour, child marriage, and genocide. Examples where Churches were once against and are now in favour include scientific medical treatment, democracy, labour laws, and penal reform. In many cases the traditional Christian position was, by widely accepted modern secular standards wrong, and often diametrically wrong. In a few cases the position was not so much wrong as arbitrary. Examples here might be drinking alcohol (non-conformists), shopping on a Sunday, or reading the bible.

Third are areas where there is a genuine moral question. For example the question of whether cannibalism is ever justified, and what should one do when faced by “Sophie’s Choice” (the case where you face a dilemma such as the choice of saving one or another of your two children. If you refuse to make a choice then both will die). Another real example is a dilemma faced by Winston Churchill during the Second World War: you know that the enemy will attack a particular city tonight and kill thousands of innocent citizens. If you warn them the enemy will know that you have broken their secret code, in which case they will change the code and cut off a critical source of information. What do you do?

The fascinating thing about these moral dilemmas is that specifically Christian morality is of no practical use at all. Most people would take a practical utilitarian approach of the “lesser of two evils”. Christian moralists have always disagreed with each other, and the best the Catholic Church has managed is to dress up the “lesser of two evils” idea in Christian garb. In its Catholic dress it is known as “the principle of double effect” – the idea was set out by Thomas Aquinas, but in such a way that Catholic theologians have been arguing about it ever since. (A few years ago the principle of double effect could not be applied to aborting ectopic pregnancies, but now it can be, and is, even in Catholic hospitals).

Fourth there a single moral principle that is distinctively Christian. According to the Bible it was taught by Jesus himself. The principle is “Resist not evil”. Shelley, an atheist as well as a poet, was scathing about this distinctive Christian teaching, and with reason. By all modern (ie secular) standards it is a thoroughly immoral doctrine. It is a license for Churches to stand by and watch innocent people suffer in pogroms, massacres, wars and genocide.

With this single exception, Christian morality falls into three distinct categories. In the first the moral idea is so obvious that everyone, including non-Christians, accepts it; alternatively it is so wrong or arbitrary that it has had to change completely, or thirdly it is no practical help at all. In other words by modern standards traditional Christian morality was either not distinctively Christian, or where it was distinctively Christian it was wrong.

In recent times, secular philosophers and psychologists have unwittingly undermined the idea of a distinctive Christian morality. They have devised a series of thought experiments, based on a moral problem called “The trolley problem”. These problems are carefully designed to establish exactly what factors people take into account in making moral decisions.

In the basic problem, there is a runaway trolley barrelling down a railway track. Ahead of it on the track, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them and will kill them. You are standing some distance away, next to a points lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different track. There is one person on this side track. You have two options:  if you do nothing, the trolley will kill the five people on the main track. If you pull the lever diverting the trolley onto the side track, it will kill one person. Do you pull the lever or not?

The most interesting thing about this experiment and various variations of it is that people tend to give very similar answers to the problems irrespective of their religion. Christians give much the same responses as atheists, pagans and people who know nothing about Christianity. The inescapable conclusion is that far from providing a superior moral system, the Christian Churches do not even provide a distinctive moral system.

Other researchers have made other interesting discoveries. Morality is a difficult thing to measure, but we can use proxies. For example in every Christian country where statistics are available the proportion of Christians in the prison population is significantly higher than the percentage of Christians in the overall population. Are Christians more criminal than non-Christians? Another study has found that Christians are more likely than non-Christians to tell lies.

In another study a few years ago psychologists devised an experiment where subjects encountered a slumped groaning figure in front of them on a path. The experimenters were interested in who would stop to offer help. Seminarians on their way to give a talk on the topic of the Good Samaritan were no more likely than others to stop and help.

In short, there is no real evidence that Christian morality is superior to any other in either theory or practice, and some evidence that it is inferior. The fact that the God of the Old Testament is now recognized as a moral monster, even by many Christians, speaks volumes about Christian morality. Whatever the source of our morality, it cannot be a book or a god that we regard as immoral. We must be using some other standard.

More information, with references


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