Is Morality really a Private Thing?

When I read an online news article I often do a foolish thing – read the comments below. Especially when the news article is in some way related to God, Christianity or sexual morality. I have to admit I get terribly frustrated by the ignorance I typically read and sad that any comment I might add to the melee is lost in the morass of anger and anti-Christian sentiment. One sentiment I have been thinking about for some time is the idea that many express – “Don’t give me morality!”- This usually leads to the perennial chestnut – Can morality actually be legislated?

 Can Morality be Legislated?

Morality clearly can be legislated. In fact all legislation is morality legislated, the question is not whether it can be legislated, but rather what the morality is that is actually being legislated. When someone expresses they do not want morality, what they are typically expressing (at least in the US) is that they do not want to hear and abide by Christian/Biblical morality. They in fact do abide by a ‘type’ of morality, but they have rejected the absolute claims of a biblical authority.

I wanted to explore a little of how we got in this situation and what our answer as Christians should be. Some people may take an entirely spiritual view of this situation and they would be correct to take such a view, however I want to explore a little of how the unseen realm has effected the visible realm of human history.

 The Political Co-option of the Reformation

I begin my exploration 500 years ago. The Roman Catholic Church was perhaps at her lowest ebb. It is said that Renaissance Pope Alexander VI committed all capital sins apart from gluttony due to the fact of a weak stomach. The penitential system, combined with extreme human corruption led to an extreme reaction – the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation was a good thing, however it was co-opted by many of the secular rulers of Europe to extricate themselves from the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. Political co-option of religion was not a new thing however this led to perhaps the worst bloodshed that Europe had seen as war after war culminated in the 30 Year War between Protestant and Catholic forces which eventually ended with the 1648 Peace of Westphalia.

 After such intense dogmatic disagreements, for such a long time, Europe did not have the stomach for more disagreement and bloodshed over religious morality and we observe the rise of rationalism and reason in the late 17th and early 18th century. This philosophical climate converged with the growth of scientific discovery, which was largely a fruit of the Renaissance learning of the 16th Century. Just prior to the scientific revolution and geniuses such as Isaac Newton (1642-1727) who discovered so many “Laws of Nature”. We discover French Philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650), dubbed by many the “Father of Modern Philosophy”. With Descartes we recognize what I have termed the “Enlightenment Divide” and that is the separation in the way that we pursue different types of knowledge. Theology, which had been the source of such bloodshed was separated from other pursuits such as science and mathematics.


Rene Descartes - I think therefore I am

 For academic pursuits such as science and mathematics everything was to be doubted, but through observation, observable “facts” could be determined. Science would determine the cause and effect, but would not venture into the realm of purpose (think of the present day search for the Higgs-Boson “God” Particle which is entirely concerned with cause and effect rather than purpose, which should be part of the discussion). Descartes is known for his famous saying Cogito Ergo Sum – “I think therefore I am;” the only thing that he did not doubt was that he was a thinking being. This is a crucial seed in understanding our predicament today. The center of Descartes’ universe was himself. Meanwhile the role of religion was relegated. While science was sure and based on “facts”, religion and morality were henceforward not to be trusted in the same manner due to the fact they were based on revelation and faith. Science had facts and religion had beliefs. While facts are indisputable, beliefs are subjective. Subjectivity was also a result of this “Enlightened Divide”, for while the facts of science were objectively true, religious beliefs were simply subjectively true. Finally this divide meant that while the objective facts of science were acceptable in the public marketplace, the subjectivity of religious beliefs should be a private affair.

 The Hypocrisy of this “Enlightened” Divide

The effect of this Cartesian divide was not to do away with revelation or faith per se, it was simply that God and religious Morality were removed from the public square and told they should not be a part. The reason I say revelation and faith were not removed was because it is perfectly easy to see the hypocrisy of the claims of the rationalists. Every single pursuit of knowledge begins with faith. In all types of education one begins his or her pursuit with faith that the answers that their teacher is giving are indeed correct. In the case of the scientist, he or she has such “faith” in a rational universe with the commensurate laws of nature that when he or she observes an abnormality which doesn’t fit in with the rational universe that they observe they need a “revelation” to come up with a hypothesis that they can eventually test and prove that the abnormality really does indeed make sense within the framework of the said rational universe.

 It is important that we recognize this divide, because it is apparent that the western church operates within the boundaries that this Cartesian divide has provided. Is there really such a great difference between facts and beliefs? If you use the word belief then you are immediately introducing the implication that it is a private thing, if you use the word fact then there is an implication all people must accept it as true. The bottom line is that both fact and belief are  “truth claims” and we must approach truth claims the same way. It is also important that we do not accept the objective/subjective divide. This is a made up division in order to exclude God from the public square. The reality is that all truth concerns an object that is believed by a subject. Instead of the subjective/objective divide it might be more appropriate to say that all knowledge is personal knowledge. It is easy to dismiss subjective opinions, usually the person who rejects subjective truth claims is rejecting the truth claims of that particular individual

During the Scientific Revolution it was not safe (or reasonable) to assert complete unbelief in God and therefore we see the emergence and growth of Deism, a framework of believe which still claimed the existence of a “Clockmaker God” who had created the universe according to the laws of nature, but deists denied the realm of miraculous and supernatural. Such a Deist view of God massively supported the Cartesian divide and even added a veil of religious acceptability to such beliefs.

 More fuel was added to the fire by a number of other critiques of organized religion in the ensuing two hundred years. The nineteenth Century saw some of the most hard hitting critiques of religion that were true for a good part.  Like all good lies they included a good deal of truth.


Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the famed Austrian neurologist who founded the discipline of psychoanalysis claimed that all religious truth claims were simply inventions of man to placate misplaced guilt. People simply invented “God” as a way to pay for their so called their “moral” failings. He observed that people really don’t want to change they simply want to justify their lives. This explained the popularity of indulgences and the penitential system of the Roman Catholic Church and indeed any religious activity which acted as a form of self-atonement. He claimed people invented a “mean, punishing” God and said religion and religious duty is simply Psychological Self Justification which leads to smugness, self righteousness as well as guilt anxiety and a fear of being found out.


Karl Marx

Karl Marx (1818-1883) the author of the Communist Manifesto (and the architect behind the biggest Godless system of government to inflict the earth in the twentieth century) offered another powerful critique of religion, claiming that religion was simply used by the upper classes as a means of Sociological Justification. He famous saying that “Religion is the opium of the masses” stated religion was being used (by the upper classes) to mask the symptoms of pain and suffering of the masses. People will survive if you tell them they cannot expect to have a good life in the here and now, but will receive eternal reward in the by and by. Religion and God is therefore a man-made imperialism, a way of trampling other people, a way of asserting the rights of the upper classes a way to sociologically exclude other races and classes.



Finally Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) a German Philosopher, who is seen as the father of Post-Modernism and known for abandonment of absolute truth, morality based on religious truth and assertion of the death of God offered one of the most damaging critiques of religion . He would look at anyone who made a truth claim and question the person’s motivation – known as “The Hermeneutic of Suspicion.” He rejected all morality based on religious conviction thinking that God was a man made invention to accrue power and control others. All religious or truth claims by anyone concerning anything are power trips to control someone else and the result is abuse. Although Nietzche’s philosophy became closely associated with Nazism, but his critique is still widely used by modern day atheism. The biggest objection to Nietzsche’s claim that there is no such thing as a truth claim is that this claim itself is in itself a truth claim and therefore self defeating.

 The truth in these critiques is that this is indeed how people use religion. It is indeed how the church has acted throughout history. It is also this type of religious behaviour  that Jesus critiqued so savagely.

 This little survey of 250 years of Enlightenment History has shown the reason why absolute truth claims are so distrusted (even though arguments against truth claims are self defeating) and the reason why the truth claims that people dislike the most (and for good historical reason) are truth claims made by the church.

 So what should we do?

 But where does this leave us? Well as believers living in the midst of an immoral world I believe our first port of call when it comes to living according to scripture is the church itself. The hard truth is that much of the church lives with the same morality as the world. This has to change and as brothers and sisters in Christ we have a responsibility to say things like “all sexual union outside the marriage covenant between a man and a woman is sinful – so stop having sex with your boyfriend/girlfriend etc” We have a responsibility as the body of Christ to encourage one another to live holy. What about those who are not part of the church community? I think our approach should be the same as Paul who said “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” 1 Cor 5:12. In other words those who do not follow Christ can do whatever they like.

Finally the thorny question of legislation, which the New Testament does not really help us on as the church was never in a position to legislate through the Roman Senate. I believe all “Christian” legislators have a responsibility to act as righteously as they can and legislate in a manner commensurate with the morality that they hold. It will never be easy and we must make each decision as it comes. But the question is not and never has been morality or no morality. The question is who’s morality?

About Jono Hall

Disciple of Jesus, Husband and Father, Intercessory Missionary, Senior Leader at International House of Prayer and Teacher at IHOPU
This entry was posted in Bible Stuff, Church History, In the News and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Is Morality really a Private Thing?

  1. I really liked this article. I’m intrigued about how we should legislate. You wrote in the previous post on Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill: “It is very difficult to impose morality, seeking behavioral change through legislation and I would suggest unwise in many cases; while I believe that legislation to protect the vulnerable should be in place and enforced.” Would you agree with Christians (in positions of government) legislating the death penalty for any reason at all?

    • jonoandshari says:

      Capital punishment is another emotive issue. My position is it may be a tad confusing. I am philosophically in favor of capital punishment for the taking of life (murder). However pragmatically I am not in favor of it due to the strong possibility for miscarriages of justice.

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