Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Entering the Moral Maze – A discussion on religion and ethics with Richard Holloway

Joan Bakewell wrote of Richard Holloway, the former Anglican Archbishop of Edinburgh, in the New Statesman, that “[he] has always been a radical living in the real world, ready to come to terms with its hectic demands and constraints”. The Anglican Archbishop of South East Asia, Moses Tay, described his 1999 book Godless Morality as “horrendous and heretical”, an opinion that, no doubt, had a certain amount of support from fellow prelates shocked by Holloway’s advocation of gay rights and drug liberalisation, amongst other things.

“It would be difficult to exagerate the moral confusions of our day and the urgency and importance of finding an agreed basis for our conduct towards one another as sharers of life on this planet”, Holloway wrote in the epilogue to Godless Morality, inspiring Three Monkeys Online to enter the moral maze. Via an email interview, Dr. Holloway was kind enough to be our guide.

A common refrain from conservatives and religious leaders is that the permissive society of the ’60s and ’70s has led to an erosion in ‘moral values’, and thus to a more violent and less cohesive society. Do you think we have a less moral society at the start of the 21st century?

In some ways yes, in some ways no. Human development – and I don't mean 'progress' – zig zags morally, with losses as well as gains. There have been losses in fidelity and discipline, but there have been gains in kindness and care for others, including the other animals with whom we share the planets. We may be more sexually promiscuous, or just more honest about it, nowadays, but we no longer send kids down coal mines or up chimneys; we no longer send men to prison for loving other men; we no longer burn witches; we no longer torture people – except, of course, in the US torture gulag. I could go on and on. It depends what you mean by morality, anyway. I am less concerned with what people do sexually – as long as they do not harm or damage others – than what they do politically, the cruelty they show to others. And a final point: the most revolutionary movement in recent history has been the global market economy, beloved of certain kinds of conservative Christians. It has had a profound effect on culture and society everywhere. It's the only game on the globe, but, whatever you think about it, it is based on love of wealth – something Jesus wasn't too keen on.

Ethics and legislation. How can we define the relationship between these terms? Should every law be moral? Should every moral value be legislated for? In short, what is the relationship between our moral and legal framework?

No. You have to make a distinction between a sin and a crime. Sin is a religious concept, but if you don't share the religion why should you have to share the penalty. This is the distinction that lies at the base of the evolution in attitudes to homosexuality. It may be a sin, an immoral act, for religious groups, but why should religious groups force their mores – such as dietary or purity laws – on people who don't share their faith? That is why governments moved away from treating homosexuality as a crime. Obviously, some 'sins' are also crimes, such as rape, murder, etc etc. The best test is obvious harm to others, and most people can agree on the big harms.

The new Pope, Benedict XVI is, perhaps, best known so far for his attack on relativism, declaring: “We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism, which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires”. In Godless Morality you wrote about an “ethical jazz”, where the moral life could be likened to an improvisation. You pointed to the importance of finding balance between diversity in ethical approaches and also refusing to accept the claim that no system is better than any other.

The question though is how do we value different ethical systems? To take an often-debated example, how do we value the system that calls for women to wear the hijab or burqa? There are arguments advanced that suggest on the one hand it empowers women, and on the other that it enforces misogyny. How do we decide, and equally importantly who decides?

This is the toughest question facing plural multicultural societies that don't want to dictate to religious groups whose standards – such as their attitudes towards women – may be at variance with the moral code of their host culture. There are two meanings to relativism. The one the Pope is getting at is actually held by few people, if any, which is the view that all values are relative and none can be claimed to be higher or better than others. This is just plain contrary to common sense. No sane person would support a system that allowed people who felt like it to torture or rape or murder others. No society could operate on that basis. But it is also true that how we view morality relates to where we are placed in the human context. It accounts for the colossal range of differences in the areas of diet and sexuality that characterize the human community world-wide. One of the strong characteristics of traditional religious systems is their disvaluing of women, hence the various clothing codes. I honestly don't know the best way to deal with this in complex, modern, mixed societies where freedom of religious expression is a genuine human value. My own hunch is that we should be tender towards these traditions, in the expectation that they will probably change organically from within, as Christianity did, without too much in the way of external pressure.

What do you think of efforts to introduce legislation creating an incitement to religious hatred offence? In Italy religious libel laws, that previously protected only the Catholic Church, have been extended to other recognised religions, leading to the prosecution of polemicist Oriana Fallaci by an Italian Muslim. Should faith systems be protected from insult?

This makes me anxious. Defining hatred in such a context can't be easy. I would rather err on the side of robust debate about religion, especially on the intellectual level, than cave in to its sensitivities. The problem in Britain is that Muslims have to get used to living in a secular culture that prides itself on joking about and criticizing everything. Christianity has got used to this over the centuries, but it is still relatively novel for Muslims, because it has not, as far as I can see, been part of their social culture. But I would be wary of protecting their sensitivity. I would rather they toughened up and took it like the rest of us.

In a liberal society most moral questions can be resolved by the question of whether a certain action will harm other human beings. If my actions harm no-one, then there’s a good argument for allowing it. As a result, perhaps the most difficult moral question is that of abortion. Depending on how you view the fetus, abortion becomes murder or an acceptable medical choice. It is, in a sense, a black and varying shades of grey situation, which allows for no compromise position on the part of those who believe it to be murder. How can a modern society like Italy, Ireland, or indeed the US, all bitterly divided on the issue, create a moral consensus?

A tough one. It is possible, however, to occupy a mediating position that disapproves of abortion, but also feels that outlawing it only creates a different kind of evil, such as back-street abortionists, despairing women, death and misery. I don't know anyone who thinks abortion is morally unproblematic, but many think banning it is even more problematic. On the other hand, suggesting that the embryo is a full human, with all the rights and moral status of a human being, is something I am unpersuaded by. But there is clearly a moral continuum here, so early abortions are easier to justify. It may be that medical technology will remove much of this moral dilemma, with, for example, morning-after pills, though some moral traditions even disapprove of these [such as the Catholic Church].

Do we need to widen the scope of our moral lives, in a globalised world? Where hitherto we were concerned about our sexual and social behavior, and our actions on those in our immediate vicinity, now advances in news gathering and information technology show us clearly that our attitudes and actions have effects on those we may never meet. In this context, for example, how moral is it to buy a gas-guzzling SUV? The majority of houses in Western Europe and America are energy inefficient, carelessly wasting electricity and heat – can we define that as immoral?

I absolutely agree. And it is also an example of how our moral attitudes do change. I am increasingly concerned by human cruelty towards the animal kingdom and our contempt for the delicate balances of the planet.

If we take it that Europe is largely secular (which could be debated in itself), we face the dilemma of regulating positions of power in our parliaments and legislatures. For example, what did you make of the boycotting of Rocco Buttiglione's nomination as European Commissioner for Justice due to his firm and traditional views on homosexuality, and abortion?

I think it was the right thing to do, but I do not think he should have allowed himself to be nominated in the first place. There is a valid secular ethic that operates in Europe with respect to sexual and racial minorities, so any public official whose private religious convictions are opposed to these values should refrain from serving in the public realm.

In your review of Jonthan Sacks' book The Dignity of Difference, you made the intriguing comment that “it is the morally adventurous who preserve institutions by inoculating them with the future. We need conservatives, just as we need brakes on a car; but we are made to motor, not sit in a lay-by”. Do you think that religious institutions like the Anglican or Roman Catholic Churches are open to this inoculation? What about religious traditions such as Islam, where there are no institutional heads?

I was echoing Nietzsche when I said that. As a matter of fact, moral change always comes from those who are out ahead of the institution, never from those who are in charge of it. This has been true in the emancipation of women. Change never comes from the top, though the top may respond to pressure from below and make adjustments. I think Anglicanism is more open than Rome to this kind of inoculation because it is a more open polity, but Rome is good at making changes fast when they want to. I think the evidence is that Islam changes too, organically, when the conditions are right. Balkan Islam was much more open than, say, that in Saudi Arabia.

The cultural clash between science and religion is as strong now as it has ever been. One argument proposed by many believers is that the scientific viewpoint is merely the flipside of the religious, and has no intrinsic claim to superiority. In the debate over intelligent design and evolution, George W. Bush tells us that both 'schools of thought' merit equal classroom time. While reviewing Richard Dawkins' book A Devil's Chaplain you referred to Dawkins as a “moral crusader”, but you seemed to suggest that science does have an inherent superiority to religion. Should we be looking to science for our moral values in the 21st century?

I don't think our moral values come from science, but science can support moral change. The strength of science is its ability to change its mind. The weakness of religion is its inability to change its mind. My own view is that there need be no conflict between religion and science if you recognise that religion is not a quasi-science, but is closer to art and poetry.

Richard Holloway is the former Anglican Archbishop of Edinburgh, and remains Gresham Professor of Divinity in the City of London and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He is the author of a large number of books (23 and counting) on religion and spirituality including Godless Morality, Looking into the Distance, and Doubts and Loves. What is left of Christianity?

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