Taking on the moral high ground

09 April 2008

Freedom of conscience inan ethical debate is vital,says Elaine Storkey

THE CONCESSION made by Gordon Brown to give MPs a free vote on the coming Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill has triggered the latest round of secularist rage against religion. Polly Toynbee asks why we should concede the moral high ground to the consciences of cardinals and clerics on “weirdly random issues”, when serious ethical questions underlie almost all political decisions — most of them utterly ignored by prelates.

Her view — that religion distorts proper ethical debate — is not unique. Richard Dawkins has talked of religion as a nasty virus to be eliminated. The acerbic atheist Christopher Hitchens, author of God is not Great: The case against religion (Atlantic Books, 2007), insists that religion is not only “creepy”, deferential, and unenlightened, but also immoral. In fact, for most militant secularists, religion represents intellectual repression. It holds back the development of a mature society, using a veneer of respectability to cover dubious attitudes and practices.

Many believers have conceded long ago that they have a point. They acknowledge that some of the worst bigotry and abuse of power in every generation, including our own, has been propagated by religious groups and openly justified in the name of God. Religious extremism often sees itself as above the law, separate from the moral obligations of unbelievers, and subject only to its own precepts. It is not difficult for any religious organisation to get things wrong.

In fact, the secularists do not know the half of it. Some of us in the Christian Church could tell them stories that would make their hair stand on end. No, we are only too aware why opponents of religious belief think they occupy the moral high ground.

But, as believers, we have access to a deeper level of awareness that discloses why much of the distortion occurs. Christian revelation itself opens our eyes to the reality of our human condition, and directly addresses the core problem. It is not possible to read the Bible without being constantly reminded of the human tendency to create God in our own image, shaped by our own biases, limits, and self-protecting mechanisms. So we end up preaching a God who, like us, is unfair, legalistic, arbitrary, vengeful, self-righteous, jealous, and unforgiving; a God who defends our actions and protects our causes. What we are justifying, however, is not God, but ourselves; it is hardly surprising, then, that we will not gain fair-minded converts.


Yet if there are fatal flaws in religious extremism, there are also terminal weaknesses in militant secularism. It is uncannily similar, in that it is also absolutist and exclusive, and trapped by its own assertions of self-righteousness.

Secularists are just as prone to the tendency to form God in their own image, bowing down before human autonomy and concepts of progress. And, just as a mature society cannot be dominated by religious bullying, neither can it serve the interests of the anti-religious and their denial of the rights of conscience before God. Militant atheism has shown itself to be no more a protector of human freedom than religious extremism.

A mature society is one that creates proper room for people who disagree. Those who deny God, and those who live for Christ alone, must share the same legal and civic space. People deeply concerned on both sides of the human embryology debate and similar controversies must have the freedom of conscience to express that concern. God’s very self gives us this choice, inviting each of us to decide whom we shall serve. It is central to human life; and neither religious extremism nor militant atheism may take it away.

Dr Elaine Storkey is President of Tearfund.

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