Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The evolution of Christian morality?

I just listened to a debate on the Unbelievable podcast between Peter Hitchens (Christian brother of the late Christopher) and Alex Gabriel (former president of Oxford Atheists). The debate was nominally addressing the question "Will Britain be better off once it stops being a Christian country?"

The main points raised by the Christian representative were along the lines of: moral standards are in decline, broadly in parallel with diminishing Christian belief; Russia abandoned Christian belief ages ago and now morality there is worse than it is here, and so on.

The main points raised by the Atheist representative were mostly pointing out the apparent immoral actions of God as presented in the bible. And he had quite a few obnoxious and unnecessary ad hominem attacks on Hitchens himself, which didn't do his case any favours.

What struck me during Hitchens's statements was that his whole argument was based on the unstated and unquestioned assumption that good old fashioned British values were a product of Christianity. He never attempted to prove that this was the case, he never attempted to show any cause and effect relationship between the two. To him it was utterly self-evident and quite possibly axiomatic. Then again, his opponent never questioned this assumption either.

Listening to the debate made me wonder - are the traditional 'Christian' values of Western society derived from Christianity, or has Christianity evolved in step with an evolving morality?

Certainly, if you go back a few centuries, Christianity was not generally against slavery. Now it is. Morality changed and Christianity changed, but it is very hard to show that one was the cause and the other the effect, they both changed in parallel with each other. Of course, many apologists will argue that it was Christians who drove the process on, but actually it wasn't - a great many non-Christians were also instrumental in bringing about the official end of slavery in the West, and a great many Christian slave owners opposed it!

I wonder if we will see the same shift with sexual morality - in the past few decades society's sexual morals have shifted considerably, I suspect (but can't yet demonstrate) that the same shifts will happen within Christianity. What I could demonstrate (although I don't have the statistics to hand, but I have heard them recently) is that the proportion of student 'Christian Union' members in the UK who are sexually active is considerably higher than it was when I was an undergraduate 20 years ago. I believe the numbers were something like less than 10% back then and the numbers are closer to 30% nowadays. Like it or not, these people are the future leadership of the Church, it is only a matter of time before the Church as a whole (certainly in the UK) shifts its stance(s) on sexual morality.

Christian morality is shifting, in this case lagging behind the zeitgeist, but still following it nevertheless.

I wonder if we can also see evidence of a shifting morality in the God concepts revealed in the Bible itself. In the Old Testament God is frequently portrayed as being angry, vindictive, xenophobic, and so on, which more or less mirrored the morality of the time - people protected their own tribes, but didn't seem to think twice about slaughtering members of other tribes, including children and infants. The God concept very much mirrored the contemporary morality. But then the morality shifted, God became much more of a God of love than one of wrath - the God concept shifted along with the morals, it is very hard to see a cause and effect relationship. By the time of the New Testament things had shifted so much that the Father God of Jesus and Paul seems almost nothing like the warrior God of the OT. Indeed, one of the more popular 'heresies' in the 2nd century was Marcionism - which claimed that these were actually two different gods. OK, so this 'heresy' got stamped out by 'orthodoxy' but it is possible to argue that the majority of contemporary Christians are functional Marcionites, in that they effectively distance themselves from the warrior God of the OT and only hold to the Loving Father concept of God.

So to address the question of the debate, would Britain be a better place if Christianity were removed? I'm not sure. I'm getting less and less convinced that our values and morals are derived from the Bible or originate from the character of Yahweh, but I do think that a general belief in a higher power and a higher moral standard is a good thing, even if the higher power does not exist. Such a belief does keep some people in line with the conventions and morals of society and without that belief I do think that some elements in society would decline. But that doesn't mean I think this is evidence for the existence of the higher power. If God belief were to be removed from society I think there would be an unpleasant and anarchic time before order could be restored. But I do believe that order and morals could be restored in the end.

But given that belief isn't going anywhere for now (yes, its declining, no, its not vanishing), I guess this is a mostly hypothetical question anyway.


Mark Erickson said...

Very good post. I congratulate you on taking on your doubts head first.

FYI, a link to this was put on The Bible Geek's Facebook page (an open group). The geek is Robert M. Price and you might be interested to listen to his podcasts. I think, but google should find it. Cheers!

Ricky Carvel said...


Yes, I am more than familiar with the Geek and his Facebook Listeners Page. Dr Bob has regularly read out my (pseudonymous) questions on his show, generally in an outrageous Scottish accent...