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Where each era finds its values

06 July 2011

Religion has stored up moral capital on which others now draw, says Paul Vallely

I went to see Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead last week. I hadn’t seen it for 40 years. In some ways, it stands up well to the passage of time — thanks, of course, to the fact that its plot is amply buttressed at key points by the genius of Shakespeare. Stoppard’s protagonists are bit-part players from Hamlet. The action takes place in the wings of the older play, where the two courtiers are constantly in the dark about what is happening on the Hamlet stage.

It’s still a very funny play, if a tad too long. But the existential angst of Stoppard’s clever-clever characters feels very dated, which is instructive, for that philosophy was a badge of such high-chic sophistication in the heyday of the Theatre of the Absurd. It seemed unarguable at the time. Today, it feels threadbare and trivial.

But it made me think about where each epoch gets its values, and how we transmit them. The following evening, I went to a dinner to mark the launch of Freedom and Order (Hodder & Stoughton), a new book about history, politics, and the English Bible by Nick Spencer, research director at the think tank Theos. Around the table were a collection of Christians and atheists of Muslim, Hindu, and Anglican antecedents.

Interestingly, there was no dispute about the fact that most of our society’s first-order values on freedom, tolerance, equality, and human rights have clear roots in both Christianity and Judaism. Equally, there was agreement that it is perfectly possible to act morally in our society without drawing on overtly religious values. But are those who do so relying on a second-hand religious inheritance? Are they drawing on the well of capital that religion has stored up?

Akhandadhi Das had, the day before, offered a Hindu perspective on Thought for the Day, talking about freedom. It was a deep-rooted human urge, which appeared to be more than a cultural construct, and for which no Darwinian evolution­ary model seemed able to account by suggesting that it was an altruistic mechanism that helped the survival of the group.

Spencer’s book quotes an investigation by the Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff about whether a secular grounding of human rights is possible. (His answer is no.) The idea of inalien­able and equitable rights cannot be arrived at simply within the moral framework of the ancient world — which presumably any woman, foreigner, or slave in ancient Athens could have told us.

Humanists generally declare Kant to be the answer. But the Kantian approach, grounded in our rational capacities, is fatally flawed when it comes to account for the rights of those who are not rational or even conscious — babies, some mentally impaired people, patients in a coma, people with dementia. The insight that Christian­ity added to the Graeco-Roman inheritance, says Spencer, is that God lives among the broken and lost of an occupied and humiliated people. Chris­tianity’s invitation to see life from underneath is metaphysical, not moral. It is what saves us from the eugenics of euthanasia, or the sterilisation of the feeble-minded.

There was more consensus round the table than the New Atheism debate suggests — and less cer­tainty, too. One man spoke of how he had rejected his Anglican upbringing, but now, as the father of a six- and an eight-year-old, he wonders whether not knowing the Parables is depriving his children of part of their moral formation. On one thing Stoppard was right. We give shape and meaning to our lives by what we believe and how we act.

Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.

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