Richard Holloway and Godless Morality

While we’re on the subject of morality, I will touch on a related artifact from a slightly earlier time.  It is a book entitled “Godless Morality” by Richard Holloway, who was formally Bishop of Edinburgh for the Scottish Episcopal Church, and now describes himself as an “after-religionist.”  Holloway was still formally a Christian in 1999, when the book was first published, but had already wandered far from the straight and narrow path.  His book notes that divinely mandated moral systems “bear a striking resemblance to, and offer confirmation of, the social systems in which they emerged.”  Morality was not something mandated by the Bible.  Rather, according to Holloway, “the creation of morality is our business, it is something we have to do for our own sake if we are to live sanely and with care for one another and the good of society.”  Christianity “has allowed itself to be imprisoned by its own lack of historical imagination and versatility in interpreting ancient texts,” and “There really is no single, discernable point of view to be found (in the Bible), and what we do discover is often impossible to interpret, because we are so far from its original context.”  In a word, when Holloway wrote the book, he was palpably no longer a Christian.  Apparently, he hadn’t quite realized it yet himself, but, to his credit, he did eventually have the intellectual honesty to put two and two together.  He now appears to be a more or less garden variety progressive leftist.  Reading his rather rambling book is like listening to NPR for a couple of hours, complete with the chapter on gay and lesbian issues. 

The theme of the book is that we must all get together and cobble forth a new morality, suitable to the cultural context of our time.  Good luck with that.  Its interest as far as this post is concerned is in what distinguishes it from the books on the subject that have begun to appear in the last few years.  As a mentioned above, it was published ten years ago, and it shows.  Holloway is vaguely aware of a connection between morality and our evolutionary past, but the related discussion is remarkably naive compared to what one finds in more recent works.  For some reason, he seems allergic to Darwin, perhaps because he was aware at some level of the left’s aversion, still very pronounced at the time, to any genetic interpretation of human behavior.  Instead, he drags in such worthies as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. 

According to Holloway, “(Schopenhauer) tells us that the species wages war with individuals and their moralities.  It knows no morality except its own will-to-live, so that it has no scruple about over-riding our happiness and well-being, because the species has a closer and prior right to us than the individual has.”  This, we are to understand, “fits well with Nietzsche’s understanding of the human predicament as a consequence of humanity’s sundering from its animal past… And this is the origin of morality, this need to find some kind of balance between instinctive and intentional life, between the drive of the species and the consciousness of the individual.”  Of course, Darwin would have blushed to hear such stuff, not to mention his followers, who had already articulated sophisticated hypotheses concerning morality more than 150 years ago.  The point is that, as recently as ten years ago, one could simply ignore them and hold forth with quaint phrases from such poetic philosophers as Nietzsche on the origins of morality and still maintain at least some semblance of credibility.  That is no longer possible today.  We have been making progress.

It is interesting that, like a number of explicitly atheist writers,  Holloway is aware of the subjective nature of morality.  For example, he says, “I have claimed that morality is a human construct; it is something that we ourselves have created.”  However, he is as incapable as them of transcending his own nature and  following this claim to its logical consequences.  For example, he is clearly capable of unabashed virtuous indignation directed at the rich exploiters of the poor, or those who would discriminate against gays and lesbians.  I daresay he would be incapable of imagining a time or a cultural context in which slavery, predatory exploitation of the poor, and the treatment of homosexuals as pariahs would necessarily be “good,” although, if morality is really a human construct, cultures and contexts that would allow such revisions of morality should be at least hypothetically possible.  In other words, he still experiences morality as an object, as a “thing-in-itself,” all his protestations to the contrary.  We all do.  That’s the way we’re wired.  That’s the way I’m wired. 

None of us can live as other than moral beings.  However, I differ with Mr. Holloway, not to mention some of the more illustrious of my fellow atheists, in my assessment of the role morality should play in our lives.  Morality is a tool crafted in the course of our evolution because it has promoted our survival.  It has no “higher purpose” beyond that, and, to the extent that it doesn’t promote our genetic survival, it is utterly meaningless.  To the extent that one can posit a “good-in-itself” at all, it is survival.  There is and can be no “higher good” than that, from the point of view of our essential selves, our genes.  Morality evolved at a time and in circumstances vastly different from those we live in today.  It is, unfortunately, not infinitely malleable to suit the times, as the Communists recently demonstrated in a rather large-scale experiment that cost 100 million human lives.  It is not in our nature to be amoral.  Let us, then, live our lives according to simple moral rules that promote our survival and, if possible, our happiness.  However, at the same time let us realize that behavioral traits that evolved when we lived as small groups of hunter-gatherers armed with spears may no longer be appropriate now that we live in nation-states armed with nuclear weapons.  We can’t adjust our behavior at will to create perfect denizens of the kinder, gentler, more just world Mr. Holloway appears to favor.  Our morality has its dark sides, such as the Amity/Enmity Complex I’ve often discussed on this blog.  This aspect of our nature made it “morally good” for the Nazis to murder the Jews, for the Communists to slaughter the “bourgeoisie,” and for the zealots of assorted religions the world over to liquidate infidels.   That, too, was “moral” behavior, as far as the killers were concerned.  That aspect of human morality will not change merely because the Holloways of the world wish it so.  Inevitably, situations will arise that do not neatly lend themselves to resolution in the context of moral rules.  To survive, it may be necessary to act rationally rather than morally.

Leave a Reply