On October 20th, 2009, Stephen Heap led a session on the theme ‘Where have all the morals gone? Trying to decide what is good in Britain today’
The idea for the session came from the 2009 Reith Lectures, given by Professor Michael Sandel, a professor and political philosopher at Harvard University.
In those lectures, Professor Sandel affirmed the need for moral debate in the public sphere and said religion and spirituality should have a place in that.
On the evening, Stephen began with an exercise aimed at helping those present discern what resources they use in making moral decisions. He then looked at the role religion has traditionally played in making such decisions, arguing that across much of the western world, spreading out from Rome in the fourth century when the Edict of Milan was pronounced, until the mid twentieth century, Christianity was publicly acknowledged as a major authority in determining right and wrong. That is not to say everyone was a Christian during that period, or that Christianity was always followed as it should be. Nor is it to deny there were other forces at work, such as nationalism and selfishness, which distorted the Christian message and even used Christianity to try to give respectability to less worthy aims. It is to say that for a long, long, time, including in the world in which most present at the meeting were brought up,
Christianity was one of the sources of authority, even THE source of authority, people turned to, certainly in Britain, when trying to decide what is good.
Over a period of time, Britain has changed from a situation where one world-view (Christianity) was dominant, to one where there are lots of world views. In this new, pluralistic, situation:
• some people still turn to Christianity in making moral decisions,
• some follow different faiths,
• some turn to reason rather than religion,
• some say religion is dangerous,
• some say religion is a private matter and should not be part of public discourse, including about right and wrong.
Michael Sandel argues that religion has got squeezed out of decision-making in the public sphere. He says that, in the absence of other shared frameworks for making moral decisions, there is a tendency to let the market decide. Stephen questioned whether Sandel was right to say that, but did agree with Sandel that, if this is the case, it is a wrong use of the market. Sandel illustrates the inadequacy of the market at this point with reference to the question of which refugees should be allowed to enter a country and which not. He cites the suggestion of a Nobel-prize winning free market economist, Gary Becher, that those who can pay can come in. That is to let the market decide. The problem is that the poor fleeing persecution and suffering may well not be able to pay and they are the ones who should be being helped.
Sandel’s argument is that ‘moral and religious argument should play (a role) in political discourse and in justifying laws’ (Reith Lecture 2, p.4). He says that what is needed is a ‘more robust public discourse – one that engages directly with moral and even spiritual questions’ (Reith Lecture 1, p.4).
What role should religion, spirituality and faith play in making moral decisions in the public sphere?
Stephen argued there is a need to bring such forces into play in making moral decisions in Britain today for the following reasons:
• For millions of people, faith matters. Those people will be marginalised if their faith is not taken into account.?
• Because of the good religion, and people of faith, have done and still do. Whilst it is important to recognise that religion is not always a force for good and, indeed, can cause or exacerbate suffering, it is equally important to recognise that religion does not have a monopoly on the latter (witness the horrors of the atheistic regimes of the twentieth century) and that it is also a force for good. The numbers of universities, hospitals, hospices, schools and charities in Britain which are Christian foundations are testimony to that. Christianity does not have a monopoly on that; other faiths have a similar tradition of providing for the well-being of others.
?• Religions and faiths may contain truths, given through revelation.?
• Because values without a basis in a world-view, religious or otherwise, are slippery.?
• An ethic such as the love command embodied in Jesus is important, perhaps even necessary, for civilised living.?
• As we engage in ‘spiritual activities’ such as contemplating the wonder of being alive, the beauty of nature, the wonder of human love etc, it may be human beings see what really matters in a way we sometimes do not.
Stephen concluded with arguing for a much richer public realm in which there is a place for a variety of viewpoints, religious and non-religious, and real debate between them. He did so with reference to the Christian tradition, specifically to the Baptist part of that, and the work of Thomas Helwys and John Leland. The former argued in the seventeenth century in Britain for a faith-rich public space in which people of all faiths were free to practice and voice their faith. The latter had some responsibility for the first amendment to the constitution of the United States of America, ensuring separation of church and state. It is part of the teaching of this tradition that people should be free to practice their faith and that government should create space for that, facilitating a public discourse between the different groups, in which discourse it will be decided what is to be regarded as right and what as wrong. The work of Archbishop Rowan Williams on ‘Interactice Pluralism’ draws on different strands of Christian tradition but offers a similar ‘faith-rich’ perspective.
There are moral issues which need to be faced. There are many and various ways of approaching such issues. Leaving it to the market will not do. Religion, spirituality and faith are part of life for millions. That cannot be ignored, nor can the resource religion has been and continues to be for shaping and contributing to public life, including the public facing of moral issues.