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The progress from sacred to secular

06 March 2015

It's time to celebrate the divorce of ethics from religion, says Harriet Baber

GOOGLE "religion without ethics" and all the entries that come up are variations on "ethics without religion". Google lists innumerable essays promoting secular ethics and "morality without gods", but neither the search engine nor the humans whose ruminations it catalogues have apparently even considered the possibility of religion without ethics. It is a possibility we should take seriously.

Until recently, the Church had a monopoly in a variety of projects. Its holy book, the Bible, de-scribed the genesis of the material world, explained the origin of species, and was the go-to source for Middle Eastern history. The Church provided education and social services.

Nowadays, the Church has much less to do: its secular businesses have been hived off to secular experts and institutions. The State, with the help of secular organisations, voluntary and commercial, runs schools, and takes care of people's material needs. Secular experts deal with cosmology, evolutionary biology, and Middle Eastern history. Like cosmology, evolutionary biology, and Middle Eastern history, ethics is a secular academic discipline. There is no more reason to imagine that the Church has anything to contribute to the critical discussion of ethical issues than there is to assume that it should have a part to play in the study of physics, biology, or history.

Arguably, it's time for the Church to get out of the ethics business.

But this raises three separate questions: (1) Should the Church be recognised as an authoritative source of moral doctrine? (2) Does Christianity oblige adherents to behave ethically? (3) Should the institutional Church be engaged in doing good, through social-service projects, political activism, and by providing material support for people who are badly off?

The answers are no, yes, and maybe.

(1) No. Ethics, like history and the sciences, is a secular discipline.

(2) Yes, of course: to be a Christian is to be committed to feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting prisoners and captives, and working for a fairer society in which people will not be hungry, naked, or unjustly imprisoned.

(3) Should the Church as an institution operate charities, or work politically to achieve a more just society? Maybe. It depends on whether churches can achieve the desired outcomes effectively.

Currently, Christians who aim to promote human well-being can achieve this more effectively by supporting secular organisations that work for social justice, and by acting politically to maintain a strong welfare state.

There is still plenty for the Church to do: preaching the Word and administering the sacraments; maintaining church buildings as sacred spaces; providing spiritual counsel; conducting religious services; teaching the faith; evangelising the world; and opening the Kingdom of heaven to all believers.

If we baulk at this proposal, it is perhaps because we have absorbed the secularist assumption that religion is worthless unless it serves secular purposes: articulating ethical principles and promoting good behaviour, helping the needy, and promoting social justice.

If that is true, then the Church should close up shop. But it is not true, and, as Christians, we should rejoice that secular institutions have taken over those secular jobs, so that the Church can focus on religion.

Dr Harriet Baber is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego.

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