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Morals Without Religion
Part 2

January 12, 1955 — Second of two radio broadcasts, BBC Home Service, London, UK


In my last talk, I suggested that orthodox Christianity is no longer intellectually tenable, and that Scientific Humanism provides the best answer to our need for a constructive attitude to life and for a code of conduct. I want here to deal with two questions that are of considerable practical importance to humanist parents: namely, what shall they tell their children about God; and what sort of moral training shall they give them?

We must, I am sure, tell children something about God; we cannot just by-pass the problem by not mentioning it. And for young children I would suggest tentatively, something of this sort. We can tell them that everyone believed at one time, and some people believe now, that there are two great powers in the world: a good power, called God, who made the world, and who loves human beings and who wants them to love one another, and to be happy and good; and a bad power called the Devil, who is opposed to God and who wants people to be unhappy and bad. We can tell them that some people still believe this, but that most people now think there is not really a Devil-the Devil is something like the ogres and witches in the fairy-tales. And we can tell them that some people now do not think there is really a God, any more than there is really a Santa Claus — though we often talk as though there were. Then when the child asks what we believe, as he certainly will, we can say that we do not think there is really a God, but that many people think otherwise and that he can make up his own mind when his is older.

But what about Christ? May I say at once that I do not think it would be desirable — even if it were possible under the present Education Act — for children to grow up in ignorance of the New Testament. We do not want a generation who do not know what Christmas and Easter mean; who have never heard of the star of Bethlehem or the angel at the door of the tomb. These are part of the fabric of our culture; they are woven into our literature and art and architecture; the child should hear them. All I urge is that he should hear them treated frankly as legends.

May I say, in parenthesis, that it is a mistake to think that unbelievers are all insensitive Philistines with no appreciation of beauty, no respect for tradition, no capacity for wonder and reverence, who would like nothing better than to pull down the cathedral at Chartres and erect a public washhouse on the site. I do not want to pull down Chartres any more than I want to pull down the Parthenon; but I should like to see them treated rather more on one level. One can feel awe, and wonder, and reverence before the Parthenon without believing in the Greek goddess Athene to whose worship it was dedicated; and one can have similar emotions at Chartres without believing in the God of Israel.

So, I suggest, let children read and listen to New Testament stories in the same way as they read and listen to the stories of Greek mythology. And when they ask if the stories are true, they can be told that they are a mixture of fact and legend. There was a real Trojan war, and Hector and Achilles now believe that Achilles was the son of a sea-nymph, and that he was invulnerable because he had been dipped in the Styx. Similarly, there was a real Jesus Christ who preached to the Jews and was crucified; but we do not now believe that he was the son of God and of a virgin, or that he rose from the dead. Later, the child can hear more about Christ as one of the world’s great moral teachers; but that leads to my second point-the question of humanist character-training.

To begin with a little psychology: at different times, very different views have been held about the nature of man. At one extreme was the view held by the philosopher Hobbes, that man is essentially selfish. On this view, all behaviour is self-interested — if we help our neighbour, it is just because we think it may induce him to help us later on. At the other extreme is the view, of which Rousseau was the chief exponent, that man is naturally unselfish and co-operative, and that if he behaves otherwise it can only be because his natural development has been interfered with. “Man”, said Rousseau, “is naturally good. Only by institutions is he made bad.”

Neither of these extreme views is correct; the truth lies between them. To start with a good resounding platitude, human nature is very mixed. It is natural for us to be a large extent self-interested, and to be hostile and aggressive towards people who obstruct us in getting what we want; and it is also natural for us to co-operate with other people, and to feel affection and sympathy for them.   In more technical terms, we have both ego-instincts and social instincts — which may pull us in different ways. It is arguable that civilisation depends largely on widening the scope of the social impulses. Primitive man is co-operative within the family or tribe, and tends to treat everyone outside it as an enemy; the most civilised man may feel a certain sense of kinship with the whole human race. I cannot pursue this further here.

But one thing is surely clear. In community life, and especially in the sort of highly organised community life that we lead today, it is desirable that the social impulses shall be well developed and the ego-impulses kept to some extent under control. Morality — moral codes — on the humanist view can best be regarded as an organised attempt to reinforce the social impulses. There is one principle society however different they may be; on moral axiom which is accepted by everyone, from a head-hunter in Borneo to a Jesuit priest; and that is: ‘We must not be completely selfish; we must be prepared, at times and within limits, to put our own interests second to those of our family, or our friends, or of the group or community to which we belong.’

This does not mean that we must always be making sacrifices: we have a duty to ourselves as well as to others. But the essence of humanist morality is disinterestedness — not letting our own claims and interests blind us to other people’s: the ideal so nobly exemplified in the famous story Sir Philip Sidney at Zutphen; when, mortally wounded and parched with thirst, he handed the cup of water that had been brought him to a still more desperately wounded man, saying: “Friend, thy need it greater than mine”. Disinterested behaviour can spring from various motives. One man may be disinterested on principle, after a certain amount of moral struggle; another may be disinterested because he is a naturally warm-hearted and generous person, who enjoys seeing others happy. Both types are admirable, but most of us would agree that it is the second that we admire more; it is the second that we should like our children to resemble if possible. So when we come to the practical question of child upbringing, perhaps the most important question is to ask this: ‘Is it in any way possible, by our methods of upbringing, to increase the chance that the child will grow up a warm-hearted and generous person?’

That is a question which can receive a refreshingly definite answer: and the gist of the answer can be conveyed in one word-‘love’. Warm-hearted and generous natures are developed, not primarily by training and discipline, important though these are in other ways, but by love.   There is abundant evidence that if a child is brought up in a warm, happy, confident, affectionate home atmosphere, he has the best chance of developing into a well-balanced, secure, affectionate and generous-minded person. Whereas the child who has not got this background-the child who feels unloved, or who can never feel sure that he is loved-is the potential problem case. A high proportion of neurotics and delinquents are people who have been deprived of normal affection in childhood.

There was a deplorable theory current some time ago that it was not a good thing to show love for a child too openly, or to encourage the child to show it. I have seen a mother snub a child when he showed affection, and tell him not to be sentimental. That is a grave mistake. A small child can hardly have, or give, too much love. This does not mean that the parents should always be smothering him with demonstrations — although a small child’s appetite for such demonstrations can be pretty insatiable — and it does not mean that they should urge the child to be more demonstrative than comes natural to him. But it is important to provide demonstrations when the child shows he wants them; and still more important to provide a firm, secure background of affection so that is never occurs to the child to doubt that he is loved and wanted. Psychological work with children strongly suggests that so long as the parents provide this background they cannot, with a young child, go far wrong. Even though they make mistakes of judgement in other ways-and what parent does not? — these will not have any serious or lasting effect. Whereas if they do not provide this background, there is a problem chid in the making. It is as simple as that.

But providing affection will not solve all problems. The child has a powerful outfit of ego-intincts, and these are bound to show themselves often, in inconvenient and sometimes unpleasant ways. For example, take that perennial problem of a child showing jealousy and hostility towards a new baby. It is a problem that can be reduced by tactful handling, but it does often arise, sometimes to the extent that it is not safe to leave the older child alone with the baby. If this does happen, it is important that the parents should not take up a shocked or heartbroken attitude. They should not suggest to the child, either by what they say or by what they do not say, that they had expected him to love the new baby and that they feel it is rather shocking and unnatural that he does not.

This illustrates a point that is of fundamental importance in bringing up children; that is, that though the child must be helped and encouraged to control his aggressive impulses, he should not be made to feel that it is wicked and unnatural of him to have them. We all have them; they are part of our instinctive heritage; and one of the great contributions of modern psychology to human happiness has been to recognise this fact, and to make it clear that, provided we control our more primitive impulses, there is not the least need for us to feel guilty because we have them.

Another related point: it is unwise for parents to set children an impossibly high standard of un-selfishness. Sometimes parents do this, perhaps with the idea that it is best to ask for more than you expect to get, or you may not get anything. But it is a mistake. Let me give an example. That great child psychologist Susan Isaacs described somewhere how an obviously intelligent mother had put this problem to her. She had an only child, a little girl, and they lived in an isolated neighbourhood, where the only children available as playmates were rather rough and boisterous. Whenever they came to the house, some of the little girl’s toys got broken; and, not surprisingly, she was beginning to be rather unwilling that they should come. The mother asked: would it be wrong — would it be encouraging selfishness — if, when these children came, the more breakable toys were put away?

The answer was that of course it would not be wrong; it is the obvious thing to do. Why should a little girl’s sense of property not be respected as much as an adult’s? If the mother had some cherished possession — say a new fur coat-she would not lend it to someone who she knew would be likely to spoil it; she would think it unreasonable if she were asked to. Why set a much higher standard for a child?   Someone may say: “But that is different; the fur coat is valuable and the toys are not”. But the toys may be just as valuable to the child, and it is expecting too much of human nature that she should not mind seeing them smashed if it gives other children pleasure to smash them.

So far I have been suggesting that the most important task of moral education is to encourage the social impulses. But it would be unrealistic to suppose that all social behaviour is the spontaneous outflow of social impulses. A great deal of it is the result of training; the person has been taught to conform to certain codes of behaviour that make for the general interest. This training is not moral education in the strictest sense, but it is a most important part of a child’s upbringing. Early in life, he has to learn to obey various rules that make for the smooth running of the household. He has to go to bed at the right time without making a fuss; to respect other people’s property; to come to meals in time; sometimes to refrain from disturbing adults when they are busy, and so on. This is a field in which there have to be definite rules and — let us face it — definite penalties.

There is a strange idea about, that modern psychology does not believe in rules and penalties; that, as a result of the discoveries of Freud, we now know that the right way to bring up a child is to let him do exactly as he likes, that, if we ever say “don’t” to a child, or, still more, if we punish him, we risk damaging him for life. So may I say, as clearly as I can, that modern psychology says nothing of the sort? Freud said, in his Lectures in Psycho-analysis:

“The child has to learn to control its instincts. To grant it complete freedom, so that it obeys all its impulses without any restriction, is impossible. It would be a very instructive experiment for child psychologists, but it would make life impossible for the parents, and would do serious damage to the children themselves… Education has to steer its way between the Scylla of giving the instincts free play, and the Charybdis of frustrating them altogether.”

Freud had six children — he knew what he was talking about!

Reasonable discipline never did children any harm — in fact, fundamentally, they prefer it. They need a stable framework for their lives; they like to know where they are, and know what is expected of them; they do not want to have to decide everything for themselves. The discipline should not be excessive-we do not want prohibition for prohibition’s sake; and it must not be capricious-it is no use forbidding a thing one day and allowing it the next. But above all-the old point again – it must be maintained with affection. Parents should never say: “I won’t love you if you do that . . .” or: “If you do that you’re not my little boy . . .” The child should never get the impression that this parent’s love is in any way conditional. As I have said, the fact that he is loved and wanted is something that it should never occur to him to doubt.

It does far less harm to spank a child than to tell him you do not love him any more. I am not exactly advocating spanking; but I am sure that the horror some people feel at the idea of it is unrealistic. If a child is fundamentally confident that Mummy and Daddy love him, an occasional spanking will do him no harm; and as a harassed parent once said to me, it may do a world of good to the spanker! Much more real harm can be done to children by a few high-minded and over-anxious parents, who would recoil from the idea of spanking, but who sometimes inflict mental punishment that is a good deal more severe, by taking up a grieved, heart-broken attitude if the child behaves badly; by using phrases like “I’m ashamed to you”, ‘I’m disappointed in you’, and so on. These things should never be said to a child. They are not as bad as “I don’t love you”, but they have the same sort of effect-they weaken his sense of security.

That does not mean that we should never make clear to a child that we take a poor view of something he has done. But-this is the important point — condemn the act but not the child himself. If he does something naughty – say, takes all his brother’s sweets as well as his own – the line to take is: “That was a selfish thing to do — it’s not a bit like you to do that”, rather than to say: “Well, you are a selfish, greedy little boy.” It may not sound all that different, but there is a world of difference in the implications for the child.

My time it running short; and the religious listener has perhaps been getting more and more restive. “This is all very well”, he is perhaps saying, ‘but it has left out the one thing that’s fundamental. What is the ultimate sanction of this moral training? What answer could you make if the child were to ask, “Why should I consider others? Why shouldn’t I be completely selfish?” What possible answer is there, except the religious one — because it is God’s will?”

Why should I consider others? These ultimate moral questions, like all ultimate questions, can be desperately difficult to answer, as every philosophy students knows. Myself, I think the only possible answer to this question is the humanist one — because we are naturally social beings; we live in communities; and life in any community, from the family outwards, is much happier, and fuller, and richer if the members are friendly and co-operative than if they are hostile and resentful. But the religious listener may feel that this is simply evading the point. So may I say in conclusion that the answer he would propose is not really any more satisfactory? His answer to the question “Why should I consider others?” is ‘Because it is God’s will’. But the sceptic could always answer: “Why should I do God’s will? Why shouldn’t I please myself?’ — and that, surely, is just as much of a poser as: “Why should I consider others?’”

In fact, it is a good deal more of a poser, in view of some of the things that the believer must suppose God to have willed. But we need not go into all that again, for in any case this question of ultimate sanctions is largely theoretical. I have never yet met the child — and I have met very few adults — to whom it has ever occurred to raise the question: “Why should I consider others?” Most people are prepared to accept as a completely self-evident moral axiom that we must not be completely selfish, and if we base our moral training on that we shall, I suggest, be building on firm enough foundations.



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.