Paul Monk wrote in the November Quadrant on a book by Lyle Shelton, formerly of the Australian Christian Lobby. He moved one by one through Shelton’s opinions, sometimes stopping to point out their virtues, before going on to tell us what Shelton should have said if he had been properly tuned in to the modern world and had not been in the grip of anachronistic biblical sexual ethics. Shelton, he says, “assumes that Christian faith is intrinsically wholesome and epistemologically sound”. This doesn’t seem fair when his own article is full of assumptions and statements unsupported by evidence.
But let’s examine Shelton’s two assumptions. First, is there anything intrinsically wholesome about Christianity and does it make people happier or healthier? Numerous studies have been undertaken to answer that question, and they unequivocally show Shelton’s assumption is a fact.
This essay appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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Andrew Sims, former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, in his book Is Faith Delusion? cites the American Journal of Public Health’s major meta-analysis of epidemiological studies on the psychological effects of religious belief:
In the majority of studies, religious involvement is correlated with well-being, happiness and life satisfaction; hope and optimism; purpose and meaning in life; higher self-esteem; better adaptation to bereavement; greater social support and less loneliness; lower rates of depression and faster recovery from depression; lower rates of suicide and fewer positive attitudes towards suicide; less anxiety; less psychosis and fewer psychotic tendencies; lower rates of alcohol and drug use and abuse; less delinquency and criminal activity; greater marital stability and satisfaction …
David Myers in The Science of Subjective Well-Being cites a Gallup survey in 1984 on religion in America which concludes that spiritually committed people (people who agree that God is very important in their lives) are twice as likely to report being “very happy” than the less religiously committed people (people who do not regard God as important to them).
Coming to the second of Shelton’s assumptions, I’m not sure what Paul Monk means by “epistemologically sound” or how, once we know what he means, we could prove Christianity’s “soundness” or otherwise. But if to get the accolade of “epistemologically sound” Christianity needs to be a system created by reason from some logically supportable axioms, then by that definition it is not. It arose not out of ideas, but out of historical events: the actions and the teachings of a person who lived for about thirty years in Palestine.
Jesus usually gets off fairly lightly from atheists, Christians being a far easier target, but that doesn’t mean he gets off scot free. After mentioning with approval the way Jesus handled the men who brought the woman taken in adultery, Paul Monk goes on, “But even Jesus was quite severe and is nowhere attributed with remarks that lavish praise on sexual pleasure or freedom.” True, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Anyhow Christians as a group are apparently open to this charge. He says Lyle Shelton “needs to address the ancient Christian preoccupation with the presumed evils of sexual desire in and of itself and the supposed ‘holiness’ of sexual abstinence”. Why does he need to address these things? Christians have always believed that as sexual desire has been created by God that it is good “in and of itself”, although it needs to be exercised within the bonds of marriage. The Bible does not teach that sex is evil, nor have I found this taught in any Christian books I have read or any Christian teaching I have heard. Sexual abstinence was practised by monks not because it was holy, but so as to free them from family responsibilities so they could devote themselves to the worship of God, together with some labour in the fields and the giving of charity to the needy. Monks did as much as anyone to preserve the learning of the ancients and even to pioneer better farming methods.
According to Monk, Shelton and the ACL are in error about “biblical sexual morality” being a gold standard and that because of this error and their own adherence to religious beliefs that many others now find alien they find themselves in difficulty in reasoning with their critics about Western civilisation and moral standards. It’s hard to see what point is being made here. Why use the word now when this has always been the case? Does he mean we need to take more notice of the “many” now than the “many” previously? Is he saying that if Christians don’t want to be trounced in argument they need to change elements of their faith? I would have thought that the primary aim of all, Christians and atheists alike, should be not to agree with others or to win arguments, but to find the truth even if this leads to “difficulty in reasoning with their critics”.
Indeed Paul Monk does think it possible for Christians and others to reach some kind of common understanding of marriage and of related issues. The views expressed in his article show how impossible this is likely to be. It’s not the only barrier to agreement. Some assumptions, that cannot themselves be proved, must be accepted before any reasoning can begin at all. Christians make the assumption that there is a supernatural world and that Jesus came from there to here. Atheists assume that this material world is the only world there is, and that therefore the human mind came into being by random evolution. If this is the case there is no reason to believe that the reasonings of such minds are any guide to truth or the content of goodness. Christians who believe that God is the source of all goodness and truth avoid this dilemma.
A third area of intractable disagreement is the nature of ethics. Christians believe the rules for goodness are out there able to be discovered by humans. Atheists believe that they are things we humans construct. As a result, atheistic ethics is more likely to be a reflection of the wants and desires of the human beings involved. As David Bentley Hart said, speaking of modern man:
For us it is choice itself, and not what we choose, that is the first good, and this applies not only to such matters as what we shall purchase or how we shall live. In even our gravest political and ethical debates—regarding economic policy, abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, censorship, genetic engineering and so on—“choice” is a principle not only frequently invoked, by one side or both, but often seeming to exercise an almost mystical supremacy over all other concerns.
Christians, on other hand, believe there is a “timeless moral code” that has been given to us by God that is not at the mercy of human choice. It is to be discovered not by pressing forward into an evolutionary golden age, but by going back. God has already communicated its content to a greater or lesser extent to all peoples. Paul said, “When Gentiles who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts.”
What is surprising is that, while moral systems sometimes differ, they so often agree. Murder, lying and theft are usually considered wrong, and kindness and generosity are normally appreciated, no matter where or at what time they are manifested. Whenever these values are widely ignored, then societies begin to disintegrate, families break up and individuals become unhappy. It is a misunderstanding to think that Jesus came with a completely different moral code. “Don’t think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.” His is the greatest and most perceptive expression of the moral law that God wants everyone to observe. However, Paul Monk doesn’t see it that way. He thinks he can improve the ethical teaching of Jesus. Well, he can make changes, but to determine whether the changes are an improvement they need to be measured against some standard. James Haught says:
In order to make such value judgments, one must assume … that there exists somewhere, in some mode of being, a realm of rightness that does not owe its existence to human invention, Darwinian selection or social construction … If absolute values exist, then God exists. But if God does not exist then neither do absolute values …
As Jesus is God then his ethical teaching is the standard by which all ethical novelties ought to be measured. Consequently any change to the standard will not be an improvement.
Paul Monk thinks modern circumstances cannot be confronted without ethical change. The French revolutionaries believed the same. Edmund Burke responded:
We know that we have made no discoveries, and we think no discoveries are to be made in morality; nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the ideas of liberty, which were understood long before we were born …
Of course there will be difficult cases where moral laws conflict, where new scientific discoveries make procedures previously impossible possible, or where a simple answer to some dilemma cannot be found. We need wisdom and prayer in such matters.
As the area of disagreement in ethics is constantly widening, tolerance is going to be needed, but that is becoming rarer as activists of various kinds are using all the coercive methods available to them to silence those with whom they disagree. It’s getting more risky to have a public debate about climate change or gay marriage or gender fluidity, or about the ever-increasing number of ethical areas that have become no-go zones if you want to live a quiet life. Things that were once accepted as commonplace are now matters of dispute. It used to be thought that if you were a girl, you couldn’t become a boy and vice versa. Paul Monk, along with quite a few others, thinks you can. But disagree with this view in public, as J.K. Rowling has, and you could get your books banned. Lesser mortals, if they happen to work for an “inclusive” company, may find the company isn’t wide enough to include both them and their views.
In another article, in the May issue of Quadrant, Paul Monk expressed his desire to find something solid and lasting in this world where so much is temporary and superficial. He speaks of Christianity having been inadequate for himself as a “modern young man”, as if things might have been different if he had been born in some other century. The passing of time seems to make a difference, whereas the Christian position is that the really important things don’t change and are entirely adequate in any place and at any time. As Sophocles has Antigone say:
I did not think your proclamation of such force that you, a man, destined to die, should override the laws of the gods, unwritten and unvarying. For those are not of yesterday nor of today, but everlasting. No one knows when they began.
There are, I believe, at least three everlasting absolutes: truth, beauty and goodness. Atheists are unlikely to believe in the existence of any absolutes, and therefore will feel no need to explain their existence. Indeed they have no explanation for the existence of anything.
While evolution may explain how living creatures have changed, it is unable to explain how there could be anything available to be changed. Atheists, by not believing in a Creator, have given up the only possible credible explanation of why anything should exist. Why should there be an explanation, or a potential explanation, for everything that happens in the universe, but no explanation for the existence of the universe itself? Why should there be evidence for the exquisite design in living things and in the laws of science and yet it be felt impossible to believe in a designer? David Bentley Hart said:
The question of existence does not concern how it is that the present arrangement of the world came about, from causes already internal to the world, but how it is that anything (including any cause) can exist at all. This question Darwin and Wallace never addressed, nor were they so hopelessly confused as to think they had … Even the simplest of things, and even the most basic of principles must first of all be, and nothing within the universe of contingent things (not even the universe itself, even if it were somehow “eternal”) can be intelligibly conceived as the source or explanation of its own being.
Paul Monk, speaking of Christianity, said, “I have not for decades been able to accept that this heritage is adequate to the realities that have emerged in the modern era as our natural and human sciences have explored the world and taught us very much more than was known to the ancients who constructed Christianity long ago.” The picture that came into my mind when I first read this was of a group of men sitting around a table discussing potential ideas that could be fitted into a religion they were constructing. This is very likely an unfair characterisation of what Paul Monk actually thinks, but he does appear to believe that Christianity is essentially a collection of doctrines. It is true that Christians with the passing of time tried to make sense of what had happened and this led to the creation of a theology. But this was secondary and after the fact. Christianity is based on a person: Jesus the man who came from the village of Nazareth, who his followers slowly over time came to believe was God here on earth. The Gospels are eyewitness accounts or based on eyewitness accounts of historical events in which Jesus was a participant. The Apostles Creed, which is a succinct early summary of Christianity, lists some of these events. What had a powerful effect upon people was not a “constructed Christianity” but the person of Jesus, who even after he was no longer physically present could be spiritually experienced. Paul said, “I long to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings.”
Simone Weil said, “Christ likes us to prefer truth to him, because before being Christ he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go to the truth, one will not go far without falling into his arms.” Jesus is goodness, truth and beauty incarnate. I don’t think it is possible to find a stronger foundation on which to rest our lives. The next best thing is to love these three absolutes, not just to philosophise about them, but experience and live them. It is significant that in the picture of the last judgment that we have in Matthew’s gospel, the way Jesus separates people is by behaviour. Had they fed the hungry or visited those in prison or done the other acts of kindness that are mentioned? This parable makes it clear that loving others is loving Jesus. “Whatever you did for the least of my brothers you did for me.” Once when asked by a scribe what the greatest commandment was, Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength and all your soul.” And the second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” In Matthew’s account Jesus adds the following words: “On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” There is only one moral code and it is summarised in those two commands.
Peter Ryan wrote in the September 2006 edition of Quadrant:
In a few decades of my lifetime, Australians have thrown aside the most wholesome doctrine of ethical regulation that the world has ever seen … How many Australians stand in a morally sheepish and shifty position similar to mine. I cannot take the step of becoming a Christian in the full confessional sense, much though I treasure the liberal, humane and basically Christian polity under which I am so fortunate to live. I fear that I resemble the man who would like to be a member of a club, but who won’t pay the subscription. I suspect that I have a large number of mates (as they say) “out there”.
I know people like him. Though not Christians themselves, they appreciate what it has brought to our civilisation. They are good people who are open to truth and beauty. If you can’t love God or believe in him, the next best thing is to love and practise those absolutes.
Peter Barclay is a minister of religion who has served as a missionary in West Papua among the Western Dan, the province’s largest tribe. He has produced a grammar of their complex and challenging language