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
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
(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
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
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.