After David Cameron’s whole God thing last week, there was a discussion on the radio this morning about whether religion is necessary for morality. Clearly there’s nothing to stop atheists being as moral as religious people, and as atheism grows in more advanced, literate countries, almost by definition the least corrupt and venal societies also have the lowest levels of religious belief. But, as it is generally accepted that human beings are susceptible to the messages they are given, either explicitly or subconsciously, the underlying principles of Christianity – forgiveness and compassion – must certainly influence behaviour; likewise if people are told that they can only be happy if they make lots of money and consume more, as they generally are, then they will take that on. It won’t change human nature, but it will influence behaviour.
And if Christianity continues its decline there is no reason why the morals we currently share won’t change drastically. In this week’s magazine, Douglas Murray is asking, in light of the scandal involving the incineration of foetuses, whether the idea of the ‘sanctity of life’ can survive Christianity:
‘As Jonathan Sacks wrote in this magazine last year, atheists tend to imply that there isn’t much work to do after discarding God. On the contrary, after discarding God, all the work of establishing morals is still before you — just as after demonstrating mankind’s need for ethics, the work of proving a particular religion is true remains before you.
But this greatest challenge in the -atheist argument remains the one we hear least about. As Sacks pointed out, it is increasingly clear that, contra most atheists, -ethics are self-evidently not self-evident. They vary wildly from era to era, and many Judeo-Christian ethics may well, as T.S. Eliot put it, ‘hardly survive the Faith to which they owe their significance’.