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The theistic meaning of morality

ANGUS RITCHIE

An exciting feature of the Contending Modernities project is the way it links the academic with the deeply practical.  In east London, the project has enabled us to develop new resources for Muslim engagement in public life — something I blogged about back in August. And we are currently conducting wider research on the way faiths work together to discern and promote the common good.  It is also helping us to look at some apparently very abstract issues — including the relationship between morality and metaphysics — and show their relevance to the debates around faith in public life.

Moral realities as a window to divine reality

This month sees the launch of my new book From Morality to Metaphysics: The Theistic Implications of Our Ethical Commitments.  After outlining its argument, I want to explain its relevance to these wider debates.

The book begins with a defence of moral realism — i.e. that there is a “truth of the matter” about morality, which our individual moral convictions are trying to get right. This is a claim strongly supported by many secular philosophers, including “New Atheists” such as Sam Harris — philosophers who, by the way, are very keen to keep religion out of public life.

Secondly, it argues that secular worldviews cannot account for our capacity for moral knowledge. If humans have moral knowledge, it means we have a capacity for getting right things that are not matters of scientific experiment and reasoning alone. On a secular worldview, it is impossible to explain why humans have any capacity (however fallible) for moral knowledge.

The third claim of this book is that theism is uniquely able to explain our capacity for moral knowledge. For it is only theism that can explain why human beings are capable of (fallible) moral knowledge. Theism explains why all of us, theist and atheist alike, are capable of making moral assertions with good reason.

Religion’s crucial place in public moral debate

The Contending Modernities project has enabled me to make the connections between this apparently abstract argument and current debates about the rightful role of faith in public life.

In an extended essay for Theos, the public theology think tank, to be launched in December, I will identify three main motivations for keeping religion out of public life.  Its critics claim religion is divisive (as not everyone shares the assumptions from which religious arguments proceed), reactionary (religion is supposed to be the last repository of prejudices the wider society has left behind) and irrational (religion is said to involve a ‘leap of faith’ unjustified by reasoned argument).

Other research going on for Contending Modernities in east London suggests that, far from being divisive and reactionary, religious groups are capable of coming together to be a force for social justice.  This evidence of the practical utility of religion is necessary, but not sufficient, in making the case for its place in the public square. It is not enough to show that religious reasons are useful in inspiring social action and engagement with neighbours.

What remains at issue is why people should take them seriously as reasons as well as motivations.

That is where philosophical arguments become important. They are needed if we are move to the debate about religion and public life beyond a simple dispute about whether or not “faith” is useful social glue. My report for Theos draws on the argument presented in From Morality to Metaphysics to make the case that the truth-claims of religion — as well as its social utility — deserve more serious attention than they often receive.

Canon Dr. Angus Ritchie is the founding Director of the Contextual Theology Centre in east London and a Research Associate at the Faculty of Philosophy in Oxford University. His Theos report will be launched at a debate on December 6, 2012 at the London School of Economics with Julian Baggini (atheist writer and co-founder of The Philosophers’ Magazine) and Mark Vernon (writer and journalist).

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