Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Winter 1999-2000

Godless Morality, by Richard Holloway

reviewed by Daniel O’Hara

November 1999

Dear Bishop Holloway,

I greatly enjoyed your latest book, which is the most powerful argument for humanism I have ever read from a churchman.

“Do we have to be religious to be moral? Do we have to believe in God to be good?”, you ask at the outset; and your answer is an emphatic “No!”. More than that, you show very nicely how religious belief actually corrupts morality.

Your determination to keep God out of morality is an ethical position shared by the Epicureans, David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and modern humanists. No doubt your experience as a member of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has helped shape your liberal and humane approach to IVF, surrogacy, abortion and euthanasia; and your championing of the human rights of gays and lesbians would surely qualify you for a vice-presidency of GALHA, were it not for that clerical collar!

There is, however, a nagging doubt about the basis and content of your own religious beliefs, if any. Your paradoxical conjecture that a morality without God may yet prove to be God’s greatest triumph, and that our attempt to live without God may be the greatest test of faith, seems like an echo of the imprisoned Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s determination to live etsi Deus non daretur (as though God were not). But perhaps it is rather more whimsical than that – can you give us some further clarification?

For all our relativising of St. Paul’s authority over modern Christians, you persist in describing his Epistle to the Romans as “magnificent”. Magnificent! All that appalling emphasis on Faith and Justification? All that sado-masochistic wallowing in sin and Christ’s death as a penal, substitutionary sacrifice, necessary to satisfy God’s monstrous amour-propre before he could forgive an errant humanity? All that pernicious nonsense in Chapter 9 justifying the capricious, arbitrary despotism of the ‘Almighty’! Historically, Paul’s Epistle to the Romans has probably done more damage than Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Surely the Epistle of James, of which you apparently think so little, is closer to a humane perspective with its relatively straightforward emphasis on practical charity? No wonder that appalling anti-Semite Martin Luther exalted Paul and rubbished James! But you should know better!

In any event, we agree that straight thinking about morality is helped rather than hindered by leaving ‘God’ completely out of the equation. Perhaps your next book should be called Faithless Charity. I look forward to reading it.

Yours sincerely,

Dan O’Hara

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