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The Church, education, and “Christian values”; another bad reason for denying democracy

Reminder: there is still time to show support for our petition to abolish Church appointees on Local Authority Education Committees; just click here and fill in your details

Summary: Religious values, unless they are also shared human values, will be important to those who want to follow that particular religion, but have no special significance for the rest of us.

The Churches refer to “Christian values”, in order to justify their uninvited presence on Council Education Committees. Like other reasons offered (see earlier post), this one repays closer examination.

The Church of Scotland enjoins its appointees to assert their presence  “by exercising your statutory right and endeavouring to influence council education policies in areas of interest to the national church, including the development of the curriculum, Christian values, religious and moral education and religious observance in schools”. I have already discussed the implications for the curriculum and for religious and moral education and religious observance. Here I would like to concentrate on the concept of Christian values, and, indeed, religious values in general.


The Sacrifice of Isaac, by Caravaggio

Most believers take it for granted that the morality derived from their own religion is superior to others, and indeed a very common argument in favour of religious belief is that, without it, there is no basis for moral conduct. (Note, by the way, that this is not an argument in favour of the truth of religion, but only of its usefulness.) But can morality be derived from religion? More specifically, if, by some means, we know what God does or does not want, is that enough to tell us the difference between right and wrong?

Consider, as many people have, the story of how Abraham was willing to follow God’s command and sacrifice his son, Isaac. As a teenager, I took this story very seriously, and asked myself whether Abraham was really doing the right thing. I gradually came to realise that this is a very interesting question, however you answer it, because it shows up a fundamental problem with the idea that morality comes from God.

What I did not know was that this problem had been pointed out over 2000 years ago, by Plato’s Socrates, in what is known as Euthyphro’s Dilemma. In today’s language, are good actions good because they correspond to what God wants, or does God want them because they are good? The first alternative makes morality dependent on the whim of the Deity, which few of us will find satisfying. Some religions, after all, have believed in a God who wants human sacrifices. The second implies that goodness can be defined independent of God, in which case religion is not the ultimate basis for morality anyway.

Then there is the small problem of deciding what God actually wants. Does God want us to kill homosexuals? The authors of Leviticus certainly thought so, and Daesh ( the “Islamic State”) thinks so today. Does He want us to kill blasphemers and heretics? The legal codes of many countries say that He does, and there was a period in the sixteenth century when Catholics and Protestants agreed that this is indeed what He wants, even though they could not agree on who was, or was not, heretical.


The Ten Commandments, late 19C, stained glass in synagogue, Alsace; image by Ji-Elle via Wikimedia. In accord with Jewish tradition, this image shows “I am the LORD” as the first commandment.

Some say the Ten Commandments encapsulate what God wants. So here’s my own brief summary; full text in the Appendix to this post:

God brought you out of Egypt (only applies to Jews, and anyway completely unhistorical). Don’t make idols, take God’s name in vain, or worship other gods, because God is jealous and will be very cross and punish you for generations. Not much morality there. Honour your parents; generally a good idea, though I have seen exceptions. And take a day off each week; good advice. But the reason offered is strange; that God made heaven and earth in six days (yes, that’s what it says), and rested on the seventh (what does it mean, I wonder, for God to rest).

Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness. Very good advice, but do we need a Deity to tell us this? And, finally, it’s wrong to covet your neighbour’s slaves, but slavery itself is okay. Indeed, following on from the Ten Commandments in Exodus we have the rules about slavery. A Hebrew slave can leave if he wants after seven years, but his wife and kids have to stay behind because they are the master’s property.

At this point, some people will accuse me of poking fun at the Ten Commandments. On the contrary, I am taking them seriously, looking at what they actually say, and evaluating them as guides to action. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?

I had two reasons for analysing them in such detail here. Firstly, to challenge the claim of the great moral worthiness of these Commandments as a basis for morality. And secondly, and more importantly here, to illustrate the difference between general values and religious values.

As a matter of shared human values, I think we would all agree that murder, theft, slander, and cheating on our partners is not desirable behaviour. But I don’t notice unbelievers going around being any more homicidal, personally and sexually dishonest, or prone to malicious tale-bearing than the rest of us. Covetousness is an interesting case; at what point does the natural desire to improve one’s lot, and cut a respectable figure in society, become socially disruptive? As for this stuff about slaves, perhaps the kindest thing that we can say is that the authors of Exodus were people of their own time, and accepted (as most of us do today) their time’s view of economic necessity.

That leaves all the stuff about Egypt, graven images, and not making God jealous. I don’t think we need to pay attention to any of this if we don’t want to. Religious values, unless they are also shared human values, will be important to those who want to follow that particular religion, but have no special significance for the rest of us.

But you might say that it’s unfair to judge Christianity by quoting the Old Testament. OK, let’s fast forward a bit. I won’t linger over St Paul’s views on the duties of slaves and women, or the Albigensian Crusade, or the Spanish Inquisition (after all, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition), or the cosy relationship between at least some Churches and Hitler, Mussolini, and the bloodstained dictators of Latin America. These are more enlightened times.

Nor will I belabour the sex abuse scandals of recent years, the havoc wrought by the doctrinal absurdity of priestly celibacy, and the numerous administrative cover-ups, since not even the various Churches involved pretend to moral justification.

As for the involvement of the Catholic Church, the Church of England, and the Salvation Army in forced adoptions, they’ve apologised and won’t do it again, so let’s move on.

Consider instead an area where the moral consensus in the West has shifted dramatically within my own lifetime, and how the Churches have responded to this change. I am referring to sexual morality, and the closely related subject of the treatment of women.

Not too long ago, in Scotland, lower pay for women, and restricted employment and promotion, were regarded as part of the natural order of things. Sex between men was illegal, and, the “promotion” (i.e. discussion) of homosexuality in school health education classes specifically forbidden. Sex outside marriage was, however hypocritically, considered wrong, and the availability of contraception to young adults was restricted, for fear of condoning such activity. Abortion was illegal, unless it could be shown to endanger the mother’s health, and the barrier for this was set so high that illegal abortions were commonplace. Now, by contrast, job discrimination against women is illegal, except for certain jobs (such as the priesthood!) where gender is regarded as important to performance. We have same-sex marriage, and a highly successful grassroots campaign (TIE; Time for Inclusive Education) is leading to the incorporation of nonjudgemental discussion of homosexuality in school education programmes. Sexual morality is seen as based on human values of respect and concern, and teenage pregnancy is at an all-time low. There is still a legal requirement for doctors’ agreement to the necessity of an abortion, but it would be extraordinary for such an agreement to be withheld.

All of these changes will to most of us seem to be changes for the better. And all of them have taken place in the face of opposition, in some areas still effective and active, from the clergy. Thus in the areas of morality of the greatest concern to schoolchildren, the Churches have not been leaders, but laggards. The very last people, one might argue, to be granted a position of privilege on the committees that decide education policy.

Adapted with additional material from a post that first appeared in 3 Quarks Daily, under the title Democracy or theocracy; the bid to reform Scotland’s educational system. It also appears on the Scottish Secular Society website, at

Appendix: The Ten Commandments, KJV, Exodus 20:1-17 (there are minor differences in the version in Deuteronomy)

And God spake all these words, saying,

I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.

Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.

Thou shalt not kill [a more exact translation would be, thou shalt not murder]. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.

Transgender bathrooms, creationism, climate change denial, and the Ten Commandments

Toilet signs

Toilet signs, Ebay

Why does North Carolina want to force transgender persons to use the wrong public toilet? Why the steady stream of foredoomed bills demanding evenhanded treatment of evolution and creationism? And why endless attempts to mount official displays of the Ten Commandments, when such displays have repeatedly been ruled to breach the wall between Church and State?

Toilet etiquette is where prudery meets absurdity. Your chance of being embarrassed, let alone molested, by a transgender person in a US public toilet is probably zero, and certainly less than your chance of being shot dead at home by a toddler playing with a gun; after all, the only public display of genitalia is at the men’s urinal, and you can always use a booth if you prefer.

(It is said that an undergrad once asked Sir John Pentland Mahaffy, Provost of Trinity College Dublin, where he might find a lavatory. “At the end of the corridor,” Mahaffy grandly gestured, “you will find a door marked GENTLEMEN; but don’t let that stop you.” In the UK, of which Dublin was still part at the time, class trumps gender. Incidentally, Trinity had been admitting female undergraduates since 1903, 74 years before Harvard; I assume that sanitary arrangements were instituted to cope with this.)

It is established law in the US that the teaching of creationism serves a religious, rather than scientific or educational, purpose. It follows (Edwards v. Aguillard) that such teaching is unconstitutional in US public schools, since it violates the First Amendment separation of Church and State. There is no prospect of this ruling being overturned, unless we ever get a US Supreme Court packed by a creationist President.

It has also been repeatedly established that display of the Ten Commandments on State government property violates the US Constitution, for much the same reasons.

So why do we have States bringing in transgender bathroom laws, scientifically baseless (as discussed here by my friend Faye Flam), whose only effect would be to inconvenience and offend one particular small minority? Why did this monumental non-issue even spill over into the moronic drivelfest of the Republican Party’s nomination debate? Or attract so much attention that Pres. Obama’s statement of the obvious on the subject has been hailed as “historic”?

Why do we have a whole evolving family of “sound science teaching” bills, which would single out evolution, together with climate change, as subjects concerning which students should be taught “both sides”, or the “strengths and weaknesses” of what is in fact well established science?

And why should the current Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court keep on asserting his right to display the Ten Commandments in his courthouse? Does he really think it necessary to inform litigants that God brought them out of Egypt, wants them to be nice to their parents, and disapproves of graven images?

Stupidity? No, strategy. And a strategy that is highly evolved, if not indeed intelligently designed.

Consider how much these issues have in common. For a start, there is nostalgia for an imagined era of moral clarity and biblical belief. This feeds in to what is, I suspect, the most powerful of all political motivators, namely the sense of identity. We think as we do and vote as we do because of the kind of person we think we are, or at any rate would like to be. And these three issues translate as assertions of a very American kind of Christian identity. As a corollary, they define an enemy; the smug Liberal sneering at those who disagree with him (would that this image lacked validity). They are timeless, unlike the real issues of foreign policy and budgets; they will still be with us ten budget cycles and three foreign entanglements down the road.

And they work as attention grabbers, and as group identifiers. The major US retail chain Target thought it worthwhile to issue a statement inviting people to use the toilets fitting their self-description rather than their birth certificates; in retaliation, a group calling itself the American Family Association has launched a boycott petition that has gathered, so far, over 850,000 signatures. I do not know what evils the AFA plan to blame on Target, but they are among those who blame Darwin for Hitler, so they’ll think of something. AFA regards calls to action on climate change as impious, since the planet is in God’s hands. It also defends public display of the Ten Commandments, on the grounds that “the Ten Commandments are the basis of all of our laws.” These views form an identity cluster, and the inclusion of climate change denial is no accident.


Crabs washed up on a beach in Oregon after suffocating in low-oxygen waters. Credit: Elizabeth Gates, courtesy of PISCO, via NSF (click to magnify)

And finally, by the same token, they are perfect distractions from reality. American readers, at least, could hardly have failed to notice the transgender toilet controversy. But how many of us are even aware of evidence published earlier this month that warming is already reducing the availability of oxygen in the oceans, and that this effect will probably be widespread by the 2030s?

We could be talking about the erosion of democracy, looming water shortages in the US and Asia, the unstable world banking system, climate change, and the facts of economic inequality. Or we could be talking about who is allowed to use which bathroom. If you were a North Carolina legislator, which would you prefer?

Mahaffey anecdote from Sorenson h/t Abbas Raza. An earlier version of this piece appeared in 3 Quarks Daily.

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