Wretched defeat

Godless Morality

Richard Holloway <em>Canongate Books, 162pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 0862419093

This book left me feeling confused. Confused not so much by what it said as by its having been written at all. Its contents are straightforward enough: a recitation of standard liberal arguments in defence of abortion, promiscuity, homosexuality and drugs, combined with an attack on religious authority in moral matters. The puzzle arises when one considers that its author is also the Bishop of Edinburgh. What is going on? What strange contortions - political and psychological - lie behind this peculiar document?

The main thesis is that Christianity is a religion of servile obedience, maintaining power with the threat of fire and brimstone. "The idea of sin itself was part of a mechanism of force designed to secure compliance to authority." These mechanisms have now been discredited. The only viable morality is one that can command free and rational consent. Richard Holloway's own candidate for such a morality is an indiscriminate compilation of contemporary liberal platitudes.

So the real puzzle is not that Holloway has written this book, but that, having written it, he has not resigned his office. If what he says is true, Christianity is a revolting religion with which no decent person would want to be associated. Why, then, is he Bishop of Edinburgh? By not resigning, Holloway has put himself in a contemptible position; but I suppose he is only being true to the spirit of the times - not resigning was a theme of the nineties.

The saddest thing about this book is Holloway's total ignorance of, and contempt for, the tradition he represents. The idea that sin is a mechanism "to secure compliance to authority" is a cliche of Marxist historiography. True, at certain periods the church has allowed itself to be identified with the ruling class, but for most of its history it has played the role of chief opposition to temporal power. The very idea that temporal power is subordinate to, and limited by, a power above itself - that the city of man lies under the jurisdiction of the city of God - is an achievement of Jewish and Christian thought. This is vividly symbolised in the first political act of the early Christians: their refusal to worship the Roman emperor as a god. None of this is conveyed in Holloway's apologetic recitation of "the lamentable record of religion".

The contrast that Holloway draws between a religious morality based on irrational authority and a secular morality based on rational consent is facile. All intellectual systems, religious or secular, contain a strong element of authority. Marxism famously elevates certain texts to canonical status; conflict over their interpretation is the main form taken by debate within Marxism. This is why Marxism has often been described as theology. But the same is no less true of the liberal tradition in which Holloway takes such pride. Common law jurists treat the letter of precedent with a Talmudic reverence; here again, all conflicts are conflicts of interpretation. This is not to denigrate the rationality of these systems, but to point out the obvious fact that most debate takes place within a tradition that is not itself open to debate. Theologians debating the meaning of Genesis are no different in this respect to American lawyers debating the meaning of the Constitution.

If both religious and secular moralities appeal to authority, then both also solicit our consent. Authority and consent are not opposed to one another. What reconciles them is trust - trust that the authority to which one consents is not malicious but benign. Christians believe that God is love, and that his commands are therefore not arbitrary or inscrutable but rationally intelligible. This is the meaning of Christ's words to his disciples: "Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you." This statement lies at the root of the long tradition of Christian moral philosophy, culminating in Aquinas's grand synthesis of faith and reason. Maimonides played a similar role in the Jewish tradition, Averroes in the Muslim. Holloway is simply wrong to assert that "religious moral systems operate on the basis of fear". He has identified the whole of religion with a crude and narrow biblical fundamentalism. Is it really necessary to point this out to a bishop?

Having dismissed the entire tradition of Christian ethical thought, Holloway is left with nothing distinctive or original to contribute to the moral debate. His own suggestions for a "workable ethic" amount to nothing more than a vague restatement of John Stuart Mill's principle of harm: that, roughly speaking, no act freely undertaken by rational adults is objectionable unless it causes harm to some third party.

As a political doctrine there is something to be said for Mill's principle of harm, although it needs considerable refinement. But as the basis of a personal ethic, it is woefully inadequate. The principle of harm is a principle of social morality. It is an attempt to define the boundary between the sphere of private freedom and the sphere of social responsibility. But religious morality has always been about much more than this. Its primary focus has always been not the individual's relation to society, but his relation to God. Social morality is secondary to the quest for personal sanctity. This is what distinguishes any religious morality from the utilitarianism of Mill. The latter is concerned with the social consequences of an act; the former with its effect upon the individual soul.

The contrast becomes particularly clear in the area of sexual morality. The principle of harm excludes all sexual acts, provided they are consensual and do not hurt any third party, from the sphere of ethical consideration. As Holloway says: "If we can use the idea of harm as our moral criterion, we will probably be drawn to admit that no act of consensual sex between responsible adults is immoral because of the sexual act itself, though it may be on other grounds."

This shallow attitude is incompatible with any religious understanding of sex. From the religious standpoint the moral problem lies in sex itself and not merely in the harm it may or may not cause others. The adulterer is culpable, according to the Book of Proverbs, not because he harms others, but because he "destroyeth his own soul". An act with no social consequences whatsoever, such as fantasising about rape, can still brutalise the imagination.

One of the silliest passages in Godless Morality is an attempt to describe the sexual attitudes of that abstraction beloved of middle-aged progressivists - "youth". "Youth culture is not unaware of sexual love and its implied commitments, but it has a tolerant attitude to what its calls shagging. In one significant section of youth culture, many young people shag or have sexual intercourse with each other whenever they feel like it, the way they have a cup of coffee or a hamburger." Holloway finds this (entirely fantastical) state of affairs distasteful, but has surrendered the authority with which to condemn it.

The well-intentioned confusion of Godless Morality mirrors a more general confusion in the Church of England. The apologetic tone, the obeisance towards "youth", the obsession with "relevance" - these are all symptoms of a religion that has lost belief in its own authority. All that remains for it is to curry favour with the prevailing trend. "We are more likely to win [young people's] consent to responsible conduct if we do not crank the moral claim beyond the level of arguability." But Holloway is deluded if he thinks that "youth" will repay his efforts with respect. Appeasement, as he should know, is invariably answered with contempt.

I share Holloway's distaste for fundamentalism, but I think that his book does more to discredit liberalism than to uphold it. The case for theological liberalism should be argued from inside the Christian tradition, not in contempt of it. A more substantial book might have shown how the liberal values of freedom, equality and human dignity have their origins in Christianity. A bad traditionalist, Holloway is also a bad liberal. His judgements have no weight, depth or authority; they merely echo the cliches of the age. If those cliches change, will Holloway remain constant?

Edward Skidelsky's reviews appear monthly in the "NS"