Atheism, the good life and the source of values

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Back in 2008, I had an on-line debate with Greg Clarke who was the then-director of the Centre for Public Christianity. The subject was just how much influence the teachings of Jesus have on moral ideas generally, at least in our Western tradition. I've reproduced it here. I've not included comments from others which also appeared on the original blog, given that this is a copy of the original material, which I don't think appears elsewhere on the web. Anyway, here's the original exchange ...

Does atheist morality derive from Christianity?

Hello John

Thanks for being willing to take part in the first ever CPX blog! I'm looking forward to our discussion on atheism and the Good Life. For those who are reading and commenting, the plan is to chat back and forth in short paragraphs or two for a couple of weeks and see where things lead. My conversation starter is this: are the virtues heralded by many atheists--for example, freedom of conscience--in fact derived from a Christian understanding of humanity? It seems to me that Jesus provided many of the moral teachings that Westerners hold dear, and yet atheists want to disconnect these from the Christian faith. Is that a valid thing to do, or should we give credit where credit is due?

Greg Clarke
Director, Centre for Public Christianity
Thursday, April 24, 2008

Historical origins of ethical thought

We've several points here - one is whether values are philosophically independent of any system of belief - and another historical one, of where the beliefs first started. But let's look at the historical issue for starters.

Many other religions which preceded Christianity captured and articulated positive values - Buddhism and Zoroastrianism for example, but I can list others if need be.  In the Greco -Roman  tradition, Plato and Aristotle spoke about the worth of Human beings, and Cicero, writing about a hundred years before Christ, first developed the ideas of humanitarianism.

Jesus may well have made a worthwhile synthesis of ideas which were in circulation at the time - but in no sense was it a novel framework. The ideas had been around beforehand.

Christianity in its history suppressed knowledge about the world (for example the Copernican heresy) and was the source of much violence - for example the inquisition and crusades.

But, also to be fair, the Civil Liberties movement of equality for blacks in the US was informed by Christianity - as compared to the religious right these days. Also, non conformists in the UK pushed for the availability of the bible and improved literacy, with people thinking about the bible for themselves, outside of a hierachical structure. This was certainly positive, much as I do not credit the bible as a factual record.

And I could go onto why Ethics is philosophically quite separable from all religions, not to mention Christianity - but for the moment, I think this does for challenging any historical claim of Christianity being the source of positive values.

John August
Monday, April 28, 2008

How did we get human equality

You are of course right that there was plenty of ethical thinking before Christ, and in cultures with no Jewish-Christian influence. My point is a little different -- it is that some of the values that we Westerners hold most dear are explicitly derived from the teachings of Jesus in a way that is often not acknowledged. One example is human equality. Often considered an achievement of the Enlightenment, I believe it is more properly drawn from the Bible's teaching about all human beings being created in God's image, all equal in the eyes of God. In fact, it is hard to make sense of John Locke's teaching on human equality without reference to these biblical teachings (so argues Prof Jeremy Waldron).

To put it more baldly, without the biblical teaching, we can't presume that we would have got the notion of equality that we now treasure.

A side point: would you consider ANY of the Bible to be historical material? What about the Book of Acts, recording what Jesus' followers did after him? My understanding is that most historians think it is pretty sound as a source.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Origins of Equality

Your claim that equality comes from the teachings of Jesus is not one I have sympathy for.  Equality was first developed by the Stoics, predating Christ, and other Greek philosophers, notably Aristotle wrote on the subject.  Yes, Christians also articulated those ideas, but I can't see that it was in any sense a dramatic leap forward beyond previous writings.

Christianity's history of equality is not good.  Peter Possi tells me that the early religions of Isis, Tammuz and Dionysus were much more tolerant than Christianity, which itself wiped them out.  Earlier christianity was tolerant of slavery, and more recent christianity has been sexist and homophobic. Some Christian denominations at the margins have recently decided to treat women and gays equally to everyone else.  While a positive development, it's the influence secular human thought rather than any "rediscovery" of the original teachings of Christ.  Much of the Christian Church remains a bastion of sexism and homophobia.  Indeed, recent improvements in the equality of women and gays in mainstream society derives from secular thought, not Christianity.

Equality did not begin with the enlightenment.  Those times were certainly sexist, homophobic and racist.  There was some improvement in the rights of the common people, but its hardly the change you make it out to be.

You suggest that some modern views of equality may have drawn on either the teachings of Christ or the Christian tradition, and note that Jeremy Waldron talks about Locke.  Locke does talk about a secular view of ethics.  He may well have drawn from the Christian tradition.  However, that does not make all of modern ethical thought reliant on Christianity.  We could equally argue for the influence of writers in the Greco-Roman tradition prior to Christ.  There would of course be some influence from Christian thought, but I don't feel that the contribution was larger than any other influence, or in some sense vital in the way you claim.

Equality in the Christian tradition has mostly been a case of "do as I say, not as I do.".  You might claim the teachings of Christ can be separated from the actions of humans in institutions which share its name, something I wouldn't agree to - it's strange people put so much credence in such a mixed history.  You could claim that all that was good was inspired by Jesus, and all that was corrupt was due to the misinterpretation of Jesus by human beings.  However, that's a very lazy distinction - you're assuming exactly what you're trying to prove.

And, in answer to your question - yes, some elements of the bible do have historical validity.  I did not qualify my earlier statement sufficiently well. However, to the extent that people are trying to draw inspiration from the bible, they're drawing from a much larger set of writings. If you wished, you could remove most of the bible and leave just what the general consensus of historians (including atheists) believed in.  But you'd have a very different religion.

John August
Monday, May 12, 2008

Aristotle and equality

I'll take you up on Aristotle. Didn't he argue in the Politics that some people are by nature slaves and others by nature masters? Only men (not women, children, foreigners nor slaves) could be free citizens. I gather Aristotle knew there needed to be equality of persons for social success, but couldn't establish what would be the basis of it.

This is the kind of thing I have in mind when I say that Christianity brought a radical new ethic into existence -- everyone is a slave to sin, but everyone is also a child of God and can be rescued from that slavery by the love of God shown through Jesus. Both our 'God-givenness' and our shared failure to thrive as good humans (that's my novel definition of sin here!) make us equals. Paul writes this in his letter to the Galatian church where he says that in the Christian faith there is "neither Jew nor Greek, salve nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians chapter 3, verse 28). This is radical politics for the time, I understand.

I admit that there have been and probably always will be plenty of Christians who, erroneously in my view, argue that slavery or subjugation is a biblical idea. I want to distance myself from that kind of Christian practice. The apostle Paul saw that spiritual freedom (i.e. knowing your value in the eyes of God) was the best kind of freedom, but seeking your political freedom if possible was also good. Jesus and Paul both suggest that slave and master are equal in the eyes of God -- no spiritual distinction between them.

By the way, James Charlesworth's recent book on the history of Jesus contains a list of things scholars agree upon about him, regardless of their own faith commitments.

Warm regards
Monday, May 19, 2008

Aristotle, Jesus, Slavery and Inequality

Yes, Aristotle did argue about the nature of some people making them fit to be slaves.  However, this comment reminds me of the Christian maxim about the speck in another's eye. Peter in his comment points to the Old Testament endorsement of slavery. Further, consider the verses Luke 12:47-48. In the New International translation, available at, we see :

47 That servant who knows his master's will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows.  48 But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows.  From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.

Strange, to speak of treating a "servant" in this way, without criticising the fact that you feel inclined to beat the "servant" in the first place. Some feel that many references to "servant" in the bible should in fact be replaced with "slave".  In fact, the Darby Translation has :

47 But that bondman who knew his own lord's will, and had not prepared [himself] nor done his will, shall be beaten with many [stripes]; 48 but he who knew [it] not, and did things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few.  And to every one to whom much has been given, much shall be required from him; and to whom [men] have committed much, they will ask from him the more.

And "bondman" does effectively mean "slave".  Tell me if I'm wrong, but as I understand it, nowhere does Jesus rail against slavery as an institution in this world.  He takes slavery for granted, using it as the basis for another point he is making.

Now, yes along with some very intolerant statements (I can cite others), the Bible also contains positive messages.  I acknowledge that.  It is possible to draw a worthwhile personal moral synthesis from the Bible, but such a result is more  through the efforts of the person doing the synthesis than the Bible itself.  Just noting there are few positive passages in the Bible does not make it a positive document which is a valid moral foundation of itself.

So, if you are to say Aristotle had his blind spot, so did Jesus.  Jesus was a gifted individual who could see into the world around him and use metaphors which captured his audiences.  His character does come through in the Bible. He said some useful things.  But, like Aristotle, he was flawed and got some things wrong.

With regard to your comment about Paul and his letter to the Galatian Church, I note that this is Paul - not Jesus - writing, and that this could be motivated by a desire to broaden the base for conversion by the Church rather than a radical statement about the equality of people, with many other actions by the Church showing intolerance.  It seems strange that the claimed first appearance of such a sentiment, surrounded by such intolerant comment (including the endorsement of slavery) and behaviour would be held as significant.

In any case, I only need find one other prior example of an equality that goes beyond religion or nationality in the Greco - Roman tradition.  I anticipate Buddhism would yield this point readily, but the Greco-Roman tradition is what's under debate here.  I'll see what research I can do and what my networks can come up with.


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The slave question

Apologies for the slow response again! Thanks for your post--the slave question is a hot one. The quote from Luke is Jesus simply using slavery as an example of the point he is making about people only being assessed by 'the master' according to what they know, not what they don't know. It's a compassionate point and, yes, is not critiquing slavery as an institution.

It is hard for us today to endorse, or even to tolerate, any slavery. Of course, there are different kinds of slavery, some more oppressive than others. But overall, the notion of being a slave is incredibly unappealing! I'm with you there.

But what I think is most interesting is that in the Bible (Old Testament and New), slaves are considered equals to their masters. It is this equality that I think is the unique Judaeo-Christian contribution. There are some amazing teachings in Exodus 21, where the slave gets to choose whether or not to stay with the master! The teachings still sound weird to us, but if you stick with it they are usually very compassionate in nature. Of course, the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt and they knew how bad it could be.

In Ephesians 6:5, the apostle Paul reminds masters that they have the same God as the slaves--they are spiritual equals. It's true that Jesus wasn't a social reformer on the slave issue (although the Christian church was in the centuries to follow), but I think it is fair to say that he challenged people to think of slaves as equals in a way that Aristotle did not!

Rodney Stark (not a Christian, as far as I know) has a chapter on this in 'The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism and Western Success' (Random House, 2005), pp.26-32.

I've really enjoyed this stop-start discussion, but maybe you should have the last say in the next post and then the blog can move to a new topic. Look forward to further chat down the line.

Cheers, Greg

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Epicurus - equality before Jesus

I don't believe a few references to slaves being equal in the Bible really challenges the institution of slavery. Again, Jesus did not rail against the institution of slavery. And as for Paul's writings on slavery and egalitarianism, I'll get to that.

I could find plenty of references to equality outside the Greco-Roman tradition - for example Buddhism, and there are many others. And prior to Christ, Cicero spoke of making personal sacrifice for others. We can identify numerous positive values identified by Greco-Roman writers prior to Christ.

But - of equality. Ansgar tells me of Epicurus. Epicurus was definitely egalitarian. He pioneered it by admitting women and slaves to his school, and he was the first Greek to base ethics on the Golden Rule. Epicurus was a lot more materialist than Paul was, but his was also an innovator in equality. There's an argument that Paul's writings on equality drew a lot from Epicurus - the intellectual thread in fact led back to Epicurus, not Jesus.

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia notes that Paul used "Epicurean language" : (eg, see in Google Books) That's a mainstream text from what I understand. A more strident position, that Epicurus was *the* real source of Paul's writings on ethics and egalitarianism, is contained in :

I rest my case. The best we could say is that where Jesus and Paul spoke about egalitarianism, they were popularisers and communicators of ideas originally developed by Epicurus. That's certainly positive. We might even debate the positive effect the communication of these ideas throughout the world by them would have had. But, ultimately, they relied on Epicurus' inspiration. Any additions they would have made would have been minor and incremental, not grand new strides in the way you present it.

Thanks for the discussion. I in fact was not aware of the Epicurean connection. While I did know a little about him, I'm indebted to Ansgar for pointing these things out to me - it's an intriguing intellectual trail.

I look forward to the next discussion.


Sunday, June 22, 2008