David Swain, New South Wales Regional Meeting.

A few weeks back, as I left our local meeting I heard someone ask : “If you don’t believe in God, how can you have any moral compass to your life?” A good question!

My top-of-the head reply was: “Well, I think that humans probably made up their moral codes to fit the social, political, economic and ecological conditions of the time, and attached this to something – someone – they called God.” But I felt the question deserved further thought.

I remembered reading some years back a review of Godless Morality – Keeping Religion out of Ethics by Richard Holloway[i]. That seemed to be a good place to start.

A note about the author: Richard Holloway was born in Scotland in 1933, and at the age of fourteen entered Kelham Theological College run by the Anglican Society of the Sacred Mission. Deciding his calling was as a pastor rather than a monk, he served in parishes in England, Scotland and the United States; in 1986 he became Bishop of Edinburgh, and in 1992 Primus of the Scottish Episcopalian Church. In 2000 he resigned from his church positions, largely because of his opposition to the Anglican Church’s position on women and on homosexuals.

He has been active in campaigning for gay and lesbian rights, and was Professor of Divinity at Gresham College, a member of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, Chair of the British Medical Association Group on Ethics and Genetics, and a member of the Broadcasting Standards Commission.

He has written over 20 books and many press articles, and has regularly appeared on the BBC[ii]. The tabloid press in Britain has dubbed him “the barmy bishop”, and Godless Morality was denounced by the Archbishop of Canterbury – both probably good reasons for reading the book.

In his book, Holloway points out that in the not-too-distant past we were used to having our moral decisions passed down passed down from above, from community or religious leaders. That time has passed; now we want to work out our own morality. The answer “God says so” is no longer enough. As a result we live in a society with many different moral codes, some derived from various religious backgrounds, but some developed, or at least highly modified, in the secular world.

Even if we have a traditional belief, if we are told that God forbids some practice, we will judge this ethical limitation according to our experience of life. We will, in fact, place our rational judgement above the purported commandments of God.

But, Holloway points out, many of our ethical dilemmas cannot be resolved by a “thou shalt” or “though shalt not”. The choice is often not simply between “good” and “evil”, but between a “competition of goods”, a choice between two or more mutually exclusive desirable ends. He refers to the approach needed as “ethical jazz”, where we need to be able to improvise our responses rather than just play off a set score.

Richard Holloway discusses the problems inherent in the major ethical debates of today. In sexual morality, now that the connection between sex and reproduction is largely broken, can any sexual activity, hetero- or homo-sexual, between consenting adults, be considered immoral? Perhaps only where romantic love has led a couple to promise fidelity to each other, but even then the immoral act is the breaking of the promise rather than the sex act itself.

On the dilemma of abortion, Holloway argues that the only consistent moral positions lie at the extremes. At one extreme, a new individual life begins at conception, and abortion is not ethical under any condition, even to save the life of the mother as it is not ethical to sacrifice one person’s life to save another’s. At the other extreme, a new individual life does not begin until the individual is not only conscious but self-conscious, thus abortion is not problematic, and “This is why some of us feel acutely uncomfortable in positioning ourselves at either end of the continuum and prefer, however agonisingly, to pick our way with considerable care through the middle of the battlefield.” Between the extremes, where most of our opinions would lie, decisions must depend on compromise – a “competition of goods” or choosing the lesser of evils.

Similarly, in the debate over euthanasia there are extreme opinions at each end, and a need to choose cautiously in the middle ground. The complex details of each individual case make framing legislation difficult, and conscientious doctors can be caught in the legal minefield.

As reproductive technology progresses, from artificial insemination to “designer babies”, the moral debate intensifies. It is perhaps in this field that some traditional religious rules at times produce irrational obstructions. The theological complexities arising from “God’s” commands are no better illustrated than with the “canonical condom”. The Roman Catholic Church has no objection to in vitro fertilisation, but does not allow masturbation which is usually necessary to collect sperm. This problem is got around by the husband having intercourse with his wife while wearing a non-spermicidal, pre-perforated condom, which is then immediately sent to the IVF centre.

But Holloway provides few answers to the questions he raises. In keeping with his thesis, we are left to work these out for ourselves. He writes: “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.”

Or, as George Fox might say: “What canst thou say?”


[i] Holloway, Richard 1999. Godless Morality – Keeping Religion out of Ethics. Cannongate Books, Edinburgh.

[ii] You can watch a wonderful talk given by Richard Holloway at the Sydney Opera House at http://play.sydneyoperahouse.com/index.php/media/1640-Richard-Holloway-Faith-Doubt.html

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