Select Page

Morals Without Religion

January 5, 1955 — First of two radio broadcasts, BBC Home Service, London, UK


These talks are addressed to the ordinary man and woman, whose attitude towards religion is that they do not quite know what they believe. They were married in church; they have had the children baptised; and they still on rare occasions go to church, though mainly for social reasons; but they do not pretend to believe the creeds they repeat there. Their general feeling is that it does not much matter what views a man holds on the higher management of the universe, so long as he has the right views on how to behave to his neighbour. And they are not at all troubled about religion, except for one thing: what shall they teach the children?

For where intellectual doubts are concerned, this ordinary parent’s feeling is: “Who am I to judge? I find these doctrines hard to believe, but many very able men believe them — men who have studied the subject much more fully than I have.” Furthermore, parents are repeatedly told that Christianity is the only alternative to communism, and that there can be no sound character-training that is not based on religion. When juvenile delinquency increased after the war, they heard on all sides that this was the inevitable result of the decay of religious belief and the lack of sound religious training in the home; and in 1944 a new Education Act was passed, by which daily prayers and religious instruction were made compulsory in the state schools. So, on the whole, our ordinary parent thinks it is best to take no risks. When the children are older they can decide for themselves; meanwhile, better bring them up in the orthodox way-talk to them about God; teach them to say their prayers; take them to church occasionally; and try to stave off awkward questions.

I want here to make three suggestions: first, that the doubts the ordinary man feels about religion are justified, and need not be stifled or concealed; second, that there is no ground for the view that Christianity is the only alternative to communism, or that there can be no sound character-training that is not based on religion; and, third, I want to make some practical suggestions to the parents who are not believers, on what they should tell the children about God, and what sort of moral training they should give them.

The first thing I want to do is to define “religion”, for it is a term that is used in a great many senses. Sometimes when people say they ‘believe in religion’ they turn out to mean little more than that they believe in a moral standard, or that they believe there are more important things in life than money and worldly success. I need scarcely say that I have no quarrel with religion in either of these senses. But this is not really a correct use of the term. The Oxford Dictionary defines “religion” as “Recognition on the part of man of some higher unseen power as having control of this destiny and as being entitled to obedience, reverence and worship”. That is the sense in which I shall use the term religion in these talks; and by ‘Christianity’ I mean over and above that, the beliefs essential to the Christian religion — that is, at least, that this ‘unseen power’ is omnipotent, and wholly good; that Christ was divine; that he rose from the dead; and that human beings survive bodily death. That is a bare minimum of Christian belief: there is far more than that in the official creeds of the Churches.

I am not out to destroy the Christian convictions of people in whom they are deeply implanted and to whom they mean a great deal. And I am sure that nothing I say here will have the slightest effect on believers of this type. But what I do want to argue is that, in a climate of thought that is increasingly unfavourable to these beliefs, it is a mistake to try to impose them on children, and to make them the basis of moral training. The moral education of children is much too important a matter to be built on such foundations.

In any religious argument, one is sooner or later reminded that ‘science isn’t everything’ and that “logic isn’t everything”. That is perfectly true; there are many human activities — art, music, poetry, for example — to which science and logic are more less irrelevant. But religion is not in this category, for religion, unlike art and music and poetry is a system of belief. And a system of belief that is to be acceptable must satisfy the ordinary criteria of reason: the beliefs must be consistent with each other and not obviously in conflict with fact. Orthodox Christian beliefs, I suggest, do not satisfy these criteria.

I will just take one point which I think is crucial. Orthodox Christian theology is completely inconsistent with the facts of evil. This was not so obvious in the old days then people believed in the Devil. To regard the universe as a battle field between God and the Devil, with the odds on God, so to speak, at least did not do violence to the facts. But now most Christians have ceased to believe in the Devil; and the orthodox view is (as indeed it always was, but the Devil got slipped in somehow) that the universe is controlled by a single, all-powerful and wholly benevolent Power, and that everything that happens, happens by this will. And that raises insuperable intellectual difficulties. For why should this all-powerful and wholly benevolent Being have created so much evil? It is no answer to say that evil is just a means to a good. In the first place, there is no reason to believe this is always true; and in the second place, even if it were true it would not be an answer; for a Being who was really all-powerful would not need to use evil means to attain his ends. It is no answer to say that God is not responsible for the evil — that evil is due to man, who has misused his freewill and defied God’s edicts. Because it is not true that all the evil in the universe is due to man. Man is not responsible for leprosy and gangrene and cancer, to take a few obvious examples.

Some Christians, when they are faced with these facts, try hard to convince themselves that illness and pain and misery are not really evils; they are desirable states, blessings in disguise, if we could only see it. But, if that is really so, why do we try to cure illness, and think it wrong to inflict pain? Why did Christ heal the sick? But in any case we can leave human suffering out of the argument, because animal suffering sets a still greater problem. Why should an omnipotent and benevolent Power have made animals prey on one another for food? Why implant in the cat the instinct, not merely to kill mice, but to torture them before it kills them? There is no possible answer to the dilemma that so troubled St Augustine: Either God cannot prevent evil, or he will not. If he cannot, he is not all-powerful; if he will not, he is not all good.

This difficulty arises for all religions which hold that there is an omnipotent and benevolent power in control of the universe. The specifically Christian doctrines raise still further difficulties, on which I need not enlarge. I do not suggest that these doctrines have been disproved – most of them are not susceptible of disproof. But it is undeniable that in the present scientific climate of thought, belief in these doctrines is becoming more and more difficult to maintain. Just as, to take what I should regard as a parallel case, it is now almost impossible for anyone to believe in witches, though I do not imagine any scientist has ever disproved their existence.

Actually, there is not much attempt today to defend Christian dogma by reasoning. The fashionable attitude among orthodox believers is a defiant anti-intellectualism. The popular Christian apologists are men like Kierkegaard — who made the famous pronouncement “Christianity demands the crucifixion of the intellect”, as though this were a great point in Christianity’s favour. It is surely pessimistic to suggest that doctrines which even their own adherents describe in such terms provide the natural basis for morals and the only alternative to communism? The position is more hopeful than that.

However, as regards the moral training of children, I realise that a case can be made, and is sometimes made, even by unbelievers. So let me try to state this case, as it has sometimes been put to me. People say: ‘Of course I realise that these beliefs are not literally true. But then children are not literal-minded, they think naturally in terms of symbol and legend. So why not make use of this tendency in character-training? It is no use giving the child cold-blooded lessons in ethics – moral teaching has got to have colour and warmth and interest. So why not give them that by the means that lie ready to hand — the myths of religion, and the moving and beautiful ceremonies of the Church?   The child will cease to believe in the myths as he grows older, but that won’t matter — they will have served their purpose.’

I agree that moral training cannot be coldly rational. There must be colour and warmth and interest. One of the best ways to give that is to give the child plenty of models that he can admire and imitate. Tell him plenty of stirring stories about courageous, heroic, disinterested actions-stories that will move and excite him, and make him think that that is the sort of person he would like to be. This may be far more effective, even at the time, than tying up the idea of goodness with the Church, and religion: and there is not the same risk that, later on, if the child leaves the Church and casts off religion, he may cast off the morals as well.

But let us consider the young child first. If he is brought up in the orthodox way, he will accept what he is told happily enough to begin with. But if he is normally intelligent, he is almost bound to get the impression that there is something odd about religious statements. If he is taken to church, for example, he hears that death is the gateway to eternal life and should be welcomed rather than shunned; yet outside he sees death regarded as the greatest of all evils and everything possible done to postpone it. In church he hears precepts like “Resist not evil”, and “Take no thought for the morrow”; but he soon realises that these are not really meant to be practised outside. If he asks questions, he gets embarrassed, evasive answers: ‘Well dear, you’re not quite old enough to understand yet, but some of these things are true in a deeper sense’; and so on. The child soon gets the idea that there are two kinds of truth — the ordinary kind, and another, rather confusing and slightly embarrassing kind, into which it is best not to inquire too closely.

All this is bad intellectual training. It tends to produce a certain intellectual timidity — a distrust of reason — a feeling that it is perhaps rather bad taste to pursue an argument to its logical conclusion, or to refuse to accept a belief on inadequate evidence. And that is not a desirable attitude in the citizens of a free democracy. However, it is the moral rather than the intellectual dangers that I am concerned with here; and they arise when the trustful child becomes a critical adolescent. He may then cast off all his religious beliefs; and, if his moral training has been closely tied up with religion, it is more than possible that the moral beliefs will go too. He may well decide that it was all just old wives’ tales; and now he does not know where he is. At this stage he could be most vulnerable to communist propaganda, if a communist were to get hold of him and say: “Well, you’ve finished with fairy-tales-now you’re ready to listen to some grown-up talk.” Far from being a protection against communism, tying up morals with religion could help to drive people into its arms.

On the subject of communism, it is a mistake, I suggest to think of Christianity and communism as the two great rival forces in the world today. The fundamental opposition is between dogma and the scientific outlook. On the one side, Christianity and communism, the two great rival dogmatic systems; on the other, Scientific Humanism, which is opposed to both. To try to combat communism by reviving Christianity is a hopeless task. It is like — what shall I say? — like trying to combat the belief in witches riding on broomsticks. I do not want to press that analogy too closely — but what I mean is, it is trying to drive out a new myth by reviving an old one, instead of going forward to something sounder than myth. Scientific Humanism — that is the constructive answer. By calling it scientific I do not mean that it is crudely materialist, or that it thinks nothing is important but what happens in laboratories: far from it. But scientific in that is does not regard it as a virtue to believe without evidence; scientific in that it deals with hypotheses, not dogmas — hypotheses that are constantly tested and revised in the light of new facts, rather than with alleged immutable truths that it is heresy to question. And humanist because it is concerned with human beings and with this life, rather than with supernatural beings and another world; because it believes that the primary good lies in human happiness and development — men and women realising to the full their capacities for affection, for happiness, and for intellectual and aesthetic experience — and regards these things as more important than any ideology or abstraction, whether it is the Church, or the state, or the five-year plan, or the life hereafter.

In this first talk I have inevitably been rather negative. But next week I hope to be more constructive; to present Scientific Humanism in its positive aspect, and to return to the question I raised at the beginning of this talk, namely, how should the humanist parent set about the morals education of his children?



Source: Morals Without Religion and Other Essays, by Margaret K. Knight, ed. Dennis Dobson (University of California) 1955.


Published with the permission of the BBC, 2021.