Values are not exclusively Christian.

The article linked to below attacks the idea of teaching ethics in NSW Public Schools “at the expense of scripture”. As a parent who is also an atheist, I quite like the idea of ethics classes that have nothing to do with religion. This is one thing that really burns me about some Christians. The huge assumption that values are an exclusively Christian thing that can’t be separated from Christianity. I’m sorry buddy, but I’m not buying that. I have been told before, by a well meaning person not meaning to cause offence, that they just assumed I was Christian because I seemed like a nice, moral person. Yeah, thanks for that. Just because I’m Godless doesn’t mean I’m valueless – in both senses of the word.

Empathy, an understanding of social mores, and many other values that some Christians like to claim as their sole property aren’t even exclusively human characteristics. Witness elephants mourning the death of a family member, young lion cubs learning their place in the hierarchy and who eats first. Young children learn quickly from each other that doing unto others will result very quickly in them doing unto you. Values were something that were hammered out when we were still primates, long before our ancestors became what we now recognise as early humans. It was a survival tactic and vital to social cohesiveness. Just because one religion out of many put it into words that allegedly came from their Sky Fairy deity of choice doesn’t make it their sole intellectual property.

So ethics classes in schools aren’t taking the Christianity out of ethics, they are just telling it like it is. You should be a good person because you can, not because the Sky Fairy your deity of choice tells you to. There is no heavenly reward, the reward is on Earth in this life where people think well of you, you do the best you can and sleep with a clear concience. I don’t need religion to help me to do this, I can do it just fine and I learned in the playground to do unto others, not in Sunday school.

SotBO: If this isn’t about you, then it’s not about you. I know plenty of Christians who don’t think they are the only ones with values. If you are one of them – thank you.

Categories: education, ethics & philosophy, history, Life, religion

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45 replies

  1. Yes! This is why I call myself an ethical person, not a moral person. Funny thing: today I was told the world was going to end, and I thought I’d better go out and start sinning. I wouldn’t want to end up in Heaven after all..

  2. I saw that dreck this morning, and just sighed. Has he never heard of Aristotle?

  3. This. Seriously. I hate it when that card gets played. “You can’t be moral, we have the rubber stamps for that approval.”

  4. My experience of Christian morality has been that the louder they are about “morals”, the less likely I am to want to use them as a model of decent behaviour – the Christian Right Wing in the US is unbelievably nasty and intolerant.
    I find it frustrating and terrifying that they’re trying to take over. The most moral people I know (really kind, generous, gentle, people) are atheists. Many of my most admired friends rejected their religious upbringing in favour of a less cruel and punitive view of the world. Religion, for me, is insufficient for moral education – I would say the most important moral value for me is empathy. And there are too many Xtians who are distinctly lacking.

  5. Given the majority of the Greek philosophers and ethicists whose thinking is actually at the basis of a lot of Western thought were extant around 300 years before Christ was apparently born, the claim of certain religious thinkers that the Christian religion is some kind of moral wellspring unique in the history of thought is suspect to say the least. This is to say nothing of the prior existence of Eastern ethical and moral systems, many of which appear to have a lot of commonalities with not only the Abrahamic monotheistic religions, but also the pagan, p0lytheistic religions which were formerly prevalent in these areas. Indeed, it’s worth concentrating more on the commonalities between various systems of religious and secular thinking on both ethics and morals – because in these commonalities lie the basics the majority of people can agree on.

  6. I do find it somewhat ironic that on a blog which generally promotes accepting everyone and does not approve of people using demeaning terms to describe people they dislike, that the author would then put down an entire group of people by describing their religion using demeaning phrases like “sky fairy”. Just because you do not believe in religion does not mean that those who do deserve to be talked down to that way.

    • @Erin S.

      a blog which generally promotes accepting everyone and does not approve of people using demeaning terms to describe people they dislike

      While I see where you are coming from, you appear to be making a category error. We’re regularly quite “demeaning” towards people whose politics we don’t like, for example. Ideology is very different from racial/sexual/gender/ability/etc identity, slurs against which is the sort of demeaning language we highlight and challenge.
      Mindy’s use of “Sky Fairy” seems awfully mild to me, but even if it were harsher, why particularly should religious ideology be exempt from the sort of polemic we regularly serve up against political views? Religion is traditionally held up as special, but should it be?

  7. I love this. 🙂

    Anyone got a link to a bingo card for religious privilege?

  8. tigtog … why do you make a distinction between ideology and identity with regard to politics and religion? Is not ideology strongly connected to identity in those aspects of our lives?

    • People decide their ideologies, Sheryl. Certainly ideologies form part of a cultural identity, but cultural identities can be, and often are, relinquished. Indeed, persuading people to relinquish one cultural identity in favour of another is the entire rationale of religious evangelism, isn’t it?
      Surely you can see the difference between such ideologically-based cultural identities, no matter how deeply felt they might be, and a physical aspect of identity, those fundamental personal attributes, that people do not choose and cannot change?
      This is not to argue that hateful slurs against cultural identities do not happen or that they should not be challenged when they occur. However, is simply refusing to show some expected, elevated, exaggerated level of respect to someone else’s figure of worship really any sort of act of hate? Religions demand that others give them more respect than is given to other cultural affiliations, and religious adherents get offended when people simply give them exactly the same regard instead of extra consideration, simply because they’ve become accustomed to that extra consideration that they have historically received.
      Religions also don’t give all other faiths the same level of special respect they demand for themselves. I seriously doubt that most Christians can honestly say they’ve never disparaged the beliefs of neopagans, Scientologists, Raelians etc. Certainly many Christian preachers are on record as disparaging even other Christians who belong to a different tradition than their own. That’s a very elastic definition of faith as something beyond criticism and deserving of extra consideration in sociological discussions, and it’s not one I feel compelled to abide by.

  9. Scientology isn’t a religion, it’s a scam. It’s really not fair to non-abuse based faiths to call it such.
    I’m not going to lie, I feel offended when someone refers to my beliefs as “Sky Fairy”. I find it infantilizing and condescending, but I support Mindy’s right to express herself and I believe the main point of her post is absolutely correct. Morals and values can stand independent of religion.
    My main belief in regards to this sort of thing is good people are good people.
    [thank you Napalmnacey, post has been edited and apologies for being rude while angry. M]

  10. tigtog … of course I can see the difference between ideologically-based cultural identities and the physical aspects of identity that we cannot change. What I dispute is the suggestion that ideology can be separated from identity far enough to permit one to be demeaning towards those whose politics (or religion) we don’t like. Challenge, yes. Demean, no.

    • Sheryl, I’m never going to not want to heap scorn and derision on the likes of Andrew Bolt while challenging his views, no matter how much I demean him thereby.
      I don’t see that any other views, including mine, are inherently deserving of more protection from scorn and derision than Bolt’s. Obviously, when scorn and derision come my way it is rarely enjoyable, and my rebuttals on the matter at hand may well be forceful, but that’s no reason for me to demand that scorn and derision on matters of opinion should never confront me at all.

  11. Certainly many Christian preachers are on record as disparaging even other Christians who belong to a different tradition than their own.
    Not to mention disparaging women and the evil foulness that our bodies apparently represent. This is well documented. Xtians who complain about terms such as sky fairy seriously need to check their privilege. When there is an atheist public holiday or giant buildings designed for talking about feminism, on every second block, then maybe we can talk about adiosing “sky fairy” from the vernacular.

  12. Linda, I’m not strictly Christian and the term “Sky Fairy” bothers me. I see no point in damning religion/spirituality as a whole because a few belief systems are taken over and screwed up by power-hungry assholes. I like to separate dogma from spirituality, particularly because it helps in creating an understanding between people of differing belief systems.
    I abhor the way certain sects demonise womanhood as well. I just don’t see what any good insulting people does. I do not believe in a Sky Fairy. A lot of people’s belief systems are far more complex than that.
    What atheists don’t seem to understand is that spirituality isn’t just something you “choose”. It takes much soul-searching and deep thought and effort to find it. Finding my true spirituality was as much of a search for me as it was finding out that I was bisexual. That’s my honest, personal experience. And I couldn’t choose it. It’s beyond a simple “idea”. I didn’t just stop and say “Hey, I want to believe this”. If it were that simple, I’d be an atheist myself, but it isn’t.
    I’m not denying the privilege of being a believer in something. Atheists have every right to be angry about the way they are treated, and I make a noise and try to use the privilege of my believing in a God to try to get people to lay off atheism.
    But by belittling and ridiculing my beliefs you are saying that I am stupid and childlike. What am I supposed to do with that? How am I supposed to react? I want to help, but I’m hurting here. Please tell me, because this is a quandry I come into again and again and I really don’t know what to do with it. I want to be progressive and I want to be helpful, but this is a situation I don’t know what to do with.

  13. I am deeply uncomfortable with terms like “sky fairy”, as I not only think that mocking anyone’s deeply held beliefs is an unpleasant and unkind thing to do – and I am all for heaping scorn on the idea that those beliefs should form the basis for anyone *else’s* behaviour, or should shape laws/society/etc, but that’s a different thing – I also think that it’s problematic because it prevents understanding.
    It’s clearly more acceptable to mock the groups with privilege than it is to mock people without it, but on an individual level, it’s just not nice to individual people with deeply held faith. Call them on how they act, and how they try to enforce their ideas on other people, not on their personal beliefs, is how I see it.
    There’s certainly plenty of scope in those two things.

  14. Thanks, Rebekka. You say a lot that I meant to say but couldn’t figure out how to say.

  15. 1. Sometimes framing an argument in an unpleasant way breaks through complacency.
    2. There’s many good points being made about the negative utility of arguments framed in unpleasant or unkind ways, and I agree that this is always worth remembering.
    3. Positioning #2 as something that should automatically override #1 veers perilously close to a tone argument.
    For this post, the point is moot: Mindy has already decided to edit the post and apologise for “being rude while angry” (she added it as an editorial comment on Napalmnacey’s comment at #11 if you’re wondering why you didn’t see it in a subscriber notification).

  16. Tig-Tog, the last thing I want to do is prioritise my hurt over other people’s. I wholly acknowledge the right to anger and expression. I’m not asking people to censure themselves, and I’m sorry if it comes across like that.
    I’m just trying to navigate a difficult situation and understand how it can be approached by me in the best manner. I’m sorry if my privilege upsets anyone, I am. I just wanted to be clear that those sorts of names (Sky Fairy, Sky Daddy, etc) are hurtful. That’s all. I want to be a part of the community, and it’s hard when I feel that a part of myself is abhorrent or hated by people. And my spiritual beliefs are a deep part of who I am, which is why people get so riled up about them, I suppose.
    Sorry if I came close to the Tone Argument, that isn’t okay. Very sorry.

    • Napalmnacey, I do understand and the observation about the tone argument was not aimed at you in particular. I just perceive a direction that the argument is trending towards.

      I do also understand that a yearning for the spiritual is most likely not in itself a choice and/or a cultural imposition but more likely to be a fundamental aspect of neurology (edit: or to be more precise, of some subset of neurological variations). That most people follow the faith of their forefathers points to a social construction of how that yearning is channelled, which is from where religious institutions derive and where analysis of the institutional manifestations of spiritual urges should be focussed. Unfortunately the yearnings and the institutions are so entangled that criticism becomes fraught.

  17. Oh, and I deeply appreciate Mindy’s edit. Thank you so much.

  18. It is fraught, but it’s beneficial for everyone, Atheist or Believer, to keep a critical eye on the behaviour of those in organised religious power structures. Where there is any sort of power, there’s someone twisting it to benefit themselves.
    People here rock, by the way. ❤ 🙂

  19. I will start out by saying I am a Christian who believes that God set a moral standard for the world with the 10 commandments given Moses at Mt. Sinai. As Moyes said, ( which of the 10 commandments would you not want your children to follow? I would imagine the first 4 do not hold as much weight for non-Christians, but the remaining six seem to be pretty widely accepted moral standards. Don’t lie, don’t murder, respect your parents, don’t steal, don’t cheat on your spouse, etc.
    I do not believe you have to be specifically Christian to adhere to these moral standards. Other religions, and even secular laws follow the same guidelines. Whether Christian, Muslim, or atheist, we all have free will to choose whether to act ethically. Just because some people fail to adhere to these guidelines does not make the source of them false. Would you agree that the basis of what we find right and wrong is accepted as supporting the greater good in whichever society we live in, and is universally pretty even across the globe? Or do you think that it is ethically right for certain cultures to practice, say cannibalism, because their society deems it appropriate?

    • Humans are a gregarious species that lives in groups, so it’s hardly strange that similar rules that promote trust between family members and neighbours have evolved in every human society – there’s the “Do Not’s”. They’re empirically obvious, really – this is what we trust people in our group not to do to each other, so do not do the things that will make your community shun you and kick you out to where the wild things are and you have to survive alone without support. (Given the way that the West has industrialised brutality in our prisons, the comparison remains apt.)
      Ethics teaches much more than that. Ethics explains the mechanics of enlightened self-interest generating reciprocal altruism and cooperation. Enlightened self-interest means that doing kind and useful things for others means that they are more likely to be kind and useful towards you in turn, working together to create something to share results in a larger product and bigger shares for all, and everybody benefits.
      Altruistic co-operators, over the long term, accrue more tangible and intangible benefits than non-cooperative group defectors (there’s mathematical proof), meaning that others imitate the altruistic co-operators because they want those benefits as well.
      I want my children to learn these lessons, that kind cooperation makes everybody’s emotional and physical welfare more encompassing and more secure. I don’t want them taught that they won’t naturally want to act this way because they are “sinful” when anthropology shows that every human society does in fact act this way.

  20. Ok, fair response. So how does a governing body determine which values are “obvious”? Here in the U.S., there are groups claiming that homosexuality is “obviously deserving” of an equal status similar to physical attributes like race when it comes to protection and rights. Traditionally, civilized societies have not accepted it as such. I will admit the Christian response has at times been less than ethical, but when it comes down to strictly Biblical teaching, the person should be treated with equal respect, but the behavior should not be granted special status. My question is, how does someone without Biblical ethics draw the line between right and wrong, respect and ethical compromise, and by whose standard is it decided?

    • @Barb

      I will admit the Christian response has at times been less than ethical, but when it comes down to strictly Biblical teaching, the person should be treated with equal respect, but the behavior should not be granted special status.

      Emphasis mine. Exactly what do you see as “special status” about extending exactly the same social recognition to same-sex consenting adult pair-bonds as we do to any other consenting adult pair-bond?

  21. how does someone without Biblical ethics draw the line between right and wrong, respect and ethical compromise, and by whose standard is it decided?
    I do that every day. This is just a version of saying, “Christians are the only people who can be moral.” It’s a nonsense, and it’s incredibly rude and obnoxious to imply that people who don’t share your belief structures can’t be good people. As for defining “good”, try doing an ethics class at your local university, and take a look at utilitarianism, virtue theory (derived from Aristotle) and deontology. Nothing to do with christianity or the bible, but entirely valid ways of doing ethics.

  22. This reference says all that needs to be said about how christian values were used to conquer the world.

  23. “Or do you think that it is ethically right for certain cultures to practice, say cannibalism, because their society deems it appropriate?”
    Yes, actually, I’ll put my hand up and say I think it’s entirely ethically fine to practice cannibalism, as long as the people being eaten are dead already.
    The Wari’ practiced mortuary cannibalism until the 1960s, and I can’t see that their way of disposing of a dead body is any more or less ethical than any other way.

  24. I apologize if my comments came across as self righteous. I am currently taking an ethics class that looks at utilitarianism, virtue theory and deontology. (In fact this discussion is a requirement for my class, but is also helping me expand my horizons and see what other views are out there. ) Nothing in these approaches appeals to me as a person who sees right and wrong as being absolute and universal. There have been some valid points made, but at this point it seems as if we shall have to agree to disagree where absolute truth is concerned. I’m not saying any one group, including Christians, makes the right choice every time, but I am a person who feels comforted at least knowing where the line is and that the standard for my ethics rests in a loving relationship with my God and my fellow man. Thank you for indulging me.

    • Oh dear, this was homework? It’s good that you’re studying something that challenges your worldview, even if you don’t end up changing your stance.

      Nothing in these approaches appeals to me as a person who sees right and wrong as being absolute and universal.

      I very much doubt the existence of any absolute and universal truth. Even those who hold to your Ten Commandments seem to often see no contradictions between “Thou Shalt Not Kill/Murder” and legalised executions for certain criminals, or killing enemies during wars. So is the prohibition on killing absolute, or does it have exceptions?
      That’s merely one scriptural contradiction in the area of “absolute” right and wrong. There’s plenty more. These contradictions don’t mean that people must stop believing, but they should indicate that a more nuanced view is perhaps required.

  25. I actually do think there are some universal truths, but I don’t think Christianity has much of a handle on many of them.
    And Christians who are ethical people generally don’t behave as described in the Bible. When’s the last time a money-lender was stoned to death by Christians for charging interest, enquiring minds want to know.
    And @Sue, asa serious student of religious history, let me tell you that link comes nowhere close to saying everything that needs to be said about the history of Christianity, either in a positive or a negative way.

  26. My speculative-fiction conditioned brane may well be being too literal on the “universal”, here. I can imagine many common human truths that wouldn’t necessarily apply to a sapient alien non-mammalian species.

  27. Oh, Barb, take some Biblical Studies classes along with your philosophy, and you’ll see how shaky the grounding of your ‘absolute and universal’ moral claims are. Translation issues alone are enough to shake them (are ‘catamites’ really ‘homosexuals’ as we have them today? isn’t it a stretch to translate ‘to know’ as ‘to anally rape’ just for example), before we even get to negotiating with the differences in cultures (for example, you seem to suggest that only Christianity allows us to stand against cannibalism, and at the same time, the Bible reckons it’s the right thing to do to stone widows past a certain age…), and the differences in reading and interpretation practices over time (ever noticed how *selective* people get in reading Leviticus? It prohibits polycotton as well as ‘lying with a man as with a woman’, and yet we don’t see people picketing the funerals of those who wear ‘unnatural fibres’ do we? ).
    I also just wanted to point out that ‘enlightened self-interest’ isn’t the sole grounding for a non-religious ethics (and I am, honestly, a bit weirded out by the role that ‘natural’ urges are playing in this whole conversation, for a few reasons I won’t go into here). I appreciate that it’s being used to make a particular argument here, but there’s actually a whole bunch of other ethical frameworks, beyond the Western, Greek-originated philosophies or conventional liberalism suggested here. I’m thinking of Levinas here, but there are many more! To be honest, I wish that ‘values’ teaching in schools contrasted a variety of perspectives, to allow a critical engagement with how society habitually values some lives more than others… that to me would be an ethics worthy of the name! But I know my perspective is not shared by all. 🙂

    • @WP

      I also just wanted to point out that ‘enlightened self-interest’ isn’t the sole grounding for a non-religious ethics

      Totally agreed. I was simply looking at just one set of basic building blocks, and failed to make the “just one approach” sufficiently clear.

  28. @tigtog, you’re right, I was only thinking of humans (although I still reckon, say, a right to bodily integrity might be universal to any sapient species with a physical existence)
    @WP, technically that verse, Leviticus 19:19, only forbids the blend of wool and linen, so polycotton is a-ok. Why exactly an omniscient, omnipotent being would get all het up about puny humans wearing a wool/linen blend is still mind-boggling.

  29. Thanks again. I am majoring in Religious Studies, so I do get a solid background in the Bible, as well as several other worldviews and religious tenets. It’s a shame more people don’t get this view of it, the misunderstandings and misinterpretations would be less prevalent in my opinion. For instance many of the contradictions in the Bible, including “thou shall not kill” come down to translation as mentioned. In essence, murder is equal to hate in the original scripture. I think we can all agree that hatred is something we can all live without.
    In Leviticus, there is a difference between breaking laws and committing what are called “abominations”, including sexual deviance. It was still an issue when Paul spoke to the Romans, and is still widely viewed as such. As for the practices of stoning, slavery, and silly laws, that is in the Old Testament. Jesus came to fulfill the Law (specifically the ones we see as being outlandish) so we are not bound by it. While the 10 commandments are also in the OT, they are referenced by Jesus when he says they must be honored, but more importantly we are to love God and our neighbors. In other words, laws and commands and ethics and even doing the right thing in general mean nothing without love (see 1 Cor. chapter 13).

  30. I think it’s ridiculous to follow the Bible chapter and verse, and I like reading it and believe in some of the things it says. But I’m also the sort of woman that doesn’t like getting all up in God’s business every day, and figure if He wants me to know something, He’ll make sure. (And I use “he” loosely and for convenience, as I believe God is both genderless and all genders and beyond physical form).
    We cannot know for certain what in the Bible is cultural baggage from a far less socially aware time (ie. stoning widows and getting freaked out about eating shellfish) and what is the Word of God. As such, one should never, ever strictly live by a thing that book says. Even the Ten Commandments are problematic and mostly ignored by so-called Christians. (I refer to George Carlin’s classic rip on the Ten Commandments as an example of the problems inherent in them).
    I think it’s perfectly acceptable for someone to come to their morals by their own hearts, and completely possible. I have met a huge number of moral, good and loving atheists and agnostics.
    The moment you let your belief in God get in the way of seeing your fellow human beings as equal, good people, is the moment you’re officially Doing It Wrong. Cause seriously – Jesus didn’t groove that way.

  31. @Barb, as a matter of curiosity, is the institution at which you’re studying religious studies a Christian one?

  32. yes it is, but it offers a fair view of other faiths and encourages students to make up their own minds in regards to the Christian worldview vs. others.

  33. In my mind – and I suspect many people’s minds – it’s not possible to offer a “fair view” when you start from the premise that one set of religious beliefs is true and the others aren’t.
    Ditto for ethics.
    Oh, and in Leviticus, other things apart from sexual “devience” as you so charmingly refer to it as, that are specifically called abominations include:
    1. eating the flesh of a sacrifice after more than three days
    2. seafood without scales and fins
    3. flying creeping things that go on all fours
    4. eagles, ossifrages, osprays, vultures, kites, ravens, owls (of various kinds), hawks (of various kinds), cuckows, cormorants, swans, pelicans, gier eagles, storks, herons, lapwings, and bats.
    What god has against swans, I remain unsure. Ducks? Fine. Swans? ABOMINATION. I mean really. And this is the same book that’s supposed to convince us homosexuality isn’t ok? Come on.
    Or in other words, I’m in agreement with Napalmnacey about the ridiculousness of taking the Bible literally whether or not you believe in god.

    • @Rebekka,

      In my mind – and I suspect many people’s minds – it’s not possible to offer a “fair view” when you start from the premise that one set of religious beliefs is true and the others aren’t.
      Ditto for ethics.

      Oh yes. Randian libertarians are following an internally logical set of ethics, after all. Their premises are just fatally flawed with respect to the externalities of the actual world, IMO.
      This is partly the point of ethics not privileging moral systems above other forms of social organisation – they’re all subject to rational analysis, and although both revelationary dogmas and utilitarian abstractions can be useful starting points neither are anywhere near the most sophisticated forms of framing systems of mutual dependency.

  34. LOL! See, Rebekkah, I’d be screwed without the Apocrypha. They’re my favourite gospels! But I love that “Riddle me this” stuff.

  35. Yes absolutely, and I don’t think I said so before, but I am 100% behind the idea of teaching secular ethics instead of RE in state schools.
    Now if they’d only add formal logic, and take away any RE that wasn’t fact-based, comparative RE, I’d be almost hopeful about the future..

  36. Those who wish to insert some weird division between ‘homosexuality’ and ‘homosexual behaviour’ need to have a read of this:
    Which demolishes that contention for all time.
    And be very careful about claims about ‘all civilised societies’. Sexual ethics is one area where moral universals are at their weakest, and many cultures have drawn the line in very different places.
    .-= skepticlawyer´s last blog ..Playing with fire =-.

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