Morality and the Churches

Written by A.C. Grayling.

Last week the Government announced that it is to add a clause to its current education bill requiring that schools should promote marriage and "other stable relationships" as ideals, and should encourage pupils to delay engaging in sex until they are older. The proposal is a sop to those, chief among them the churches, who oppose repeal of the notorious Clause 28 which forbids "promotion of homosexuality" by public bodies.

Predictably, the weekend press was scathing about the idea, making the obvious point that it is futile or worse for a government to attempt legislation on moral matters. But there was no mention of an equally important question, which is: why are the churches given a privileged – almost, indeed, an exclusive – position in the social debate about morality, when they are arguably the least competent organisations to have it?

If this claim seems paradoxical, it is because we have become used to giving, as if by reflex, a platform to churchmen when moral dilemmas arise. This has come about in an odd way. The churches have always been obsessed with a small range of human activities, mainly those associated with sexuality. They have always sought to channel and constrain sexual behaviour, and it is their vociferous complaining about human turpitude on this score that has somehow made them authorities on moral matters in general. But it can easily be shown that they are either largely irrelevant to genuine questions of morality, or are positively anti-moral.

In modern developed societies, personal autonomy, achievement in earning a living, providing for a family, saving against a rainy day, and being rewarded for success in one's career, is approved and enjoined. Christian morality says the exact opposite. It tells people to consider the lilies of the field, which neither reap nor spin, and take no thought for the morrow. It tells believers to give all their possessions to the poor, warns that it is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye than for a well-off person to enter heaven, and preaches complete obedience to a deity. Such a morality is wholly opposed to the norms and practices of contemporary society. Most people simply ignore the contrast between such views and today's ethos, and the churches keep quiet about it. But if anyone bothered to examine what a Christian – or indeed any religious – morality demanded, he would be amazed by its diametric opposition to what is regarded as normal and desirable now, and therefore by the degree of it irrelevance.

But religious morality is not merely irrelevant, it is anti-moral. The great moral questions of the present age are those about human rights, war, poverty, the vast disparities between rich and poor, the fact that somewhere in the third world a child dies every two and a half seconds because of starvation or remediable disease. The churches' obsessions over pre-marital sex and whether divorced couples can remarry in church appears contemptible in the light of this mountain of human suffering and need. By distracting attention from what really counts, and focusing it on the minor and anyway futile attempt to get people to have sex only when the church permits, harm is done to the cause of good in the world.

But religion is not only anti-moral, it can often be immoral. Elsewhere in the world, religious fundamentalists and fanatics incarcerate women, mutilate genitals, amputate hands, murder, bomb and terrorise in the name of their faith. It is a mistake to think that our own milk-and-water clerics would never conceive of doing likewise; it is not long in historical terms since Christian priests were burning people at the stake if they did not believe that wine turns to blood when a priest prays over it, and that the earth sits immovably at the universe's centre, or – more to the present point – since they were whipping people and slitting their noses and ears for having sex outside marriage, or preaching that masturbation is worse than rape because at least the latter can result in pregnancy. To this day adulterers are stoned to death in certain Muslim countries; if the priests were still on top in the once-Christian world, who can say it would be different?

Because so much religious energy is devoted to controlling sexual behaviour, either by disallowing it (or thoughts or representations of it) other than in strictly limited circumstances, or by preventing the amelioration of its consequences once it has happened, we have the spectacle of the righteous writing letters of complaint about televised nudity, while from the factory next door tons of armaments are exported to regions of the world gripped by poverty and civil war. With such examples and contrasts, religion has very little to offer moral debate.

No doubt the churches are as entitled as any other interest group to have their say on matters that fall within their range of concerns; but they are an interest group nonetheless, with highly tendentious views, and big axes to grind. Asking them to take an especially authoritative line on moral matters is like asking the fox to set the rules for fox-hunting. Churchmen are people with avowedly ancient supernatural beliefs who rely on moral casuistry which is two thousand years out of date; it is extraordinary that their views should be given any precedence over those that could be drawn from the richness of thoughtful, educated, open-minded opinion otherwise available in society.