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The Wonder Book of Bible Stories

...and Moral Values too?

Terry Sissons responded to an earlier post of mine with the thought:

…one of the reasons I have so much trouble with children being taught the rudiments of religion by parents who are no longer believers (because, they say, they don’t know how to instill moral values in any other way) is that you are fundamentally teaching the children what you believe to be a lie. If they have rejected it, how can parents think it is good for their children?

This overlaps with the issue of whether it’s OK for atheist parents to send their children to faith schools. (See eg The meaning of life in school.)

Both seem more like finding a comfortable fence to sit on than making a leap of faith.

I’ll leave the specific issue of faith schools for another time. But as for atheist parents teaching their children religion because they don’t know another way of instilling moral values – I’m definitely with Terry on this.

Ultimately it’s probably unethical – if only because it doesn’t seem a good idea to confuse your children. But first of all it seems plain illogical. Not advisable when children are around.

If you are genuinely an atheist – or even an agnostic for that matter – then it follows that you don’t see any God as the source of moral values or imperatives. Even a mild agnostic would doubt if there is a God and therefore doubt if that God is the source of moral values. If you tell your child not to lie and the child asks ‘Why not?’ you can’t say ‘Because there might be a God and that God might have said you shouldn’t lie’.

A five-year-old would see through this ‘logic’ like a shot. This is instilling confusion, not moral values. Particularly emotional confusion.

Of course the other option is not to tell the truth: ‘Because there is a God and that God has said you shouldn’t lie’. That is teaching the lesson that morality is to do with being found out. Particularly ironic considering one of the strengths of the God mechanism is that ‘God knows when you’re doing wrong even if no one else does.’

On the plus side, at least the parents see the need to acquaint their children with moral values. Which is a step in the right direction. The astonishing thing is that the parents see no alternative to the religious approach. And what’s astonishing is not that people see there is a problem, but that they see religion as the solution.

All religion does is shift the problem a few yards. It doesn’t solve it.

Moses receiving the Ten Commandments

Moses receiving the Ten Commandments

Take first of all a genuine believer, and one who thinks that God decides (or decided) what is right or wrong – by definition. So God didn’t say killing was wrong because killing was wrong. Killing is wrong because God says killing is wrong. God’s moral judgments therefore have no true moral value, because there can be no standard or forum outside God’s judgment against which or in which the moral worth of God’s judgment can be evaluated. The only way to decide if something is right or wrong is to look it up on the list of things God has said are right or wrong. ‘Wrong’ literally means ‘forbidden by God’ and ‘right’ literally means ‘permitted by God’.

The individual’s moral choice is no longer a question of working out whether a potential action or attitude is right or wrong, but of working out whether or not it is God’s will. Assuming we have some way of knowing God’s will, we can be conflicted – eg tempted to disobey God. But we cannot be in moral turmoil as to what the right or wrong thing is. So perhaps it is not Botox in those evangelical Christian faces.

You could then say: but the individual does have a moral choice – whether to align him- or herself with God. But this is no solution. Either the imperative (‘Follow God’) is (implicitly or explicitly) one of the list of God’s imperatives (in which case obedience is not a true moral choice); or it is a true moral choice, in which case the individual is evaluating the God’s list of commandments as the right and good ones to follow – which means the individual is morally sovereign, not God.

When I talk of a ‘true moral choice’ what I’m getting at is this. To say ‘God makes the rules’ may be a consistent approach, but it locks morality into being just a question of obedience. It is a fundamentalist position. To ask whether God’s rules are themselves right or wrong is a meaningless question.

It also assumes there is one and only one true God. There can only be one lawgiver.

This fundamentalist position is presumably not open to the atheist (or even agnostic) parent – certainly not one with any self-respect. So we’re left with the alternative view, that God lays down laws, imperatives and guidelines because they are good ones. So we can say things like: the major religions all agree that killing and stealing and lying are bad, which is why they had laws and commandments against them.

But it shouldn’t take a five-year old long to realise the God part is irrelevant to the explanation:

‘Why is lying wrong?’

‘Because everyone says it’s wrong, which is why all the different religions people have have agreed that it’s wrong.’

‘But you haven’t told me why lying is wrong…’

It’s not a solution. At best it’s a smokescreen which clears in the slightest breeze. We need another approach.

© Chris Lawrence 2010.


Written by Chris Lawrence

30 August 2010 at 4:39 pm

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