Book Review: Godless Morality by Richard Holloway

It created a stir when first published. Of course, most rational people know that it is entirely possible to lead a good moral life without having to believe in religion, any deity or defined set of dogmas or superstitions brought from on high by people who wear funny clothes and consider themselves beyond criticism, but when the idea is being expounded by a former Anglican Bishop, it was bound to ruffle a few feathers. Richard Holloway was the Bishop of Edinburgh until his retirement and today makes a career as a political and social writer. It is also suspected, yet he has never stated such, that part of his reason for retiring was because he had abandoned his faith altogether.

But I’m not here to debate the man or what he might now think of the core concepts of Christian belief but whether the book achieves what it sets out to do, and that is to demonstrate that it is perfectly possible to reject religious dogmas on morality and lead a good life. It also attempts to demonstrate in no uncertain terms that many of our religious traditions on sex and relationships, drugs, alcohol, cloning, stem cell research and even abortion are rarely as clear cut as they would like to portray. Most interesting for me is how he attempts to distinguish the difference between a moral sin (one that causes harm to others) and ritual sin (one that is a breaking of a covenant with God). He explains how the two concepts have been distinctly blurred in Christianity. For example, homosexuality ought to be considered a sin only to one who takes a Christian oath because of the scriptural sanctions against it; yet it should not be considered sinful for those who are not Christian. He hints at a degree of conceitedness in the way that Christianity blurs this line and that it is not something that Jews and Muslims are generally guilty of, that true morals ought to be about observable consequences, not the quoting of superstitions.

If he is not an atheist, then he is perhaps the only Christian who truly understands the atheist position and why we consider many of their arguments to be empty rhetoric, near valueless and absurd at best and downright dangerous ideology desperately clinging to a bygone age of pre-Enlightenment totalitarianism and willing to bribe, threaten and kill to maintain that at worst. He also discusses the modern knee-jerk reactionary attitudes of morality from churches who are becoming more and more entrenched against the ‘democratisation’ of morality, the idea that things become unethical through consent and that despite claims from certain churches that they have driven liberation and social reform, the opposite is often usually true as church institutions sometimes find they have no choice but to change their attitude in line with the public outcry.

Holloway raises many interesting points on a wide variety of subjects but I loathe to go into any specifics of the book because I really want to cover the subject on my other blog at a later date as part of a wider discussion on religious morals and non-religious ethics. But does it set out to do what it professes? In my mind most certainly, it is a very powerful piece of writing that will make you look at social issues in a different light, whether that be sex and relationships, drugs or cloning there is bound to be something to challenge even the most liberal of us.

My only criticisms are to do with flow. Holloway seemingly hops around from time to time and I wish it had been more structured and given a thorough going over by an experienced editor. But this is a minor criticism and the content doesn’t suffer for it.

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