Saturday, 8 August 2009

Godless Morality by Richard Holloway (book review)

This book was released about ten years ago and this book review is perhaps a little late. Indeed there has been a great deal of development in the life of the former Bishop of Edinburgh. He is now an agnostic. This is probably not a great surprise to you, for the book, as one can probably tell from the title, is not the normal thing you would expect from a Christian, even less so from a bishop. It reads very much like anything written on social matters by contemporary atheists like AC Grayling. Holloway presents a standard, familiar, manifesto for liberalism; in the same vein as JS Mill and his harm principle. The great liberal checklist of support for: homosexuality, legalisation of drugs, abortion and euthanasia is duly checked off.

In fact, such is the familiarity of this point of view, I found the book at times dull. The "if it harms nobody else" tract, which is brought out when defending homosexuality, drugs and euthanasia is used so often that there is little more that can be said about it. I bought Godless Morality (at a book stall at a church no less) in the hope that it would provide rigorous philosophic defence of ethics without religion. Instead I found the pages that set out why we needed no God in morality irritatingly short. Perhaps this is because the reasons are so obvious. Holloway draws attention to the fact that if something like "murder is wrong" is true it has to be because murder is actually wrong; not because God says so. This seems quite clear to most people (atheists and Christians alike), but to a great many of the Church that Holloway left, it is not clear and it would need a greater and longer attempt to make this a stronger argument than it is.

Richard Holloway wrote this book after the every ten year Lambeth Conference of 1998. He was so outraged with the approach to gay marriage by bishops at the conference that he wanted to write a book detailing why they were wrong. This same conference seems to have been a very important point in his life as it seems to have eventually led him to agnosticsm and leaving the Anglican Church. Thus I was hoping for a more philosophically rigorous outline of why there doesnt need to be a God for there to be morality. Some really powerful arguments against the bishops who outraged him. He does touch on some thought provoking and excellent points such as that St Paul may have said that women cannot have positions of authority in the church but it is clear that in the real world women can hold positions of authority, and hold them very well. Thus we must accept that St Paul was a product of his time and not a representative of the eternal, undying word of God in this regard. This is clear to most of us but not clear to that great stopper of progress: the Anglican conservative bishop. So, he has touched on the point but not to a sufficient degree. In the same way that Dawkin's God Delusion makes atheists laugh and smile but converts few, Godless Morality will make liberal Christians and atheists pleased but not change many minds.

The book does have its saving graces. Mary Warnock described it as "manifestly compassionate" and this is undoubtedly true. His warm embrace of homosexuals and his delicate discussion of abortion displays real support (not usually seen from a C of E bishop) for the former and a kindness towards those on both sides of the latter debate. This is where the book really struck me. He makes the point that those who support abortion and those who oppose it are not evil; they are not monstrous life-killers or cruel women-tormentors. They are human beings who have thought long and hard about the difficult and complex issue and come to different points of views. This is not said enough and it is heartening to hear it said by Holloway.

So overall I would say that this book has its interesting and touching moments but that a lack of philosophic argument means that it is not as good as it can be. For a Bishop to write a book called 'Godless Morality' you do expect a bit more.