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The best books on Morality Without God

recommended by Mary Warnock

Dishonest to God by Mary Warnock

Dishonest to God
by Mary Warnock


Which comes first, morality or religion? And what happens when religious dogma clashes with the morality it purports to uphold? British philosopher Mary Warnock recommends the best books on morality without God.

Dishonest to God by Mary Warnock

Dishonest to God
by Mary Warnock

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Your first choice is by David Hume.

I think it’s a remarkable book. The Dialogues were published after he died, though the Natural History of Religion was published in 1757. There is a piece published in this collection from his Enquiry on Human Understanding which was first published in 1748, so it’s all more than 200 years ago.

His argument was largely that, supposing the then very fashionable view that the universe must have been created by a designer, God, supposing that were true, it wouldn’t tell you anything about the nature of that God, other than that he had created the universe. It wouldn’t allow you to infer that God was what Hume called provident, that he looked after his people and that he was interested in their well-being and that he made human beings in his own image. It would tell you nothing whatever about God except that he designed the universe.

Hume thought it didn’t actually make much difference whether you believed that God did design the universe or whether you didn’t, because if you could say nothing about this God then it wasn’t a very interesting belief to hold. This is all extremely pertinent, I think, to the kinds of argument that Stephen Hawking is producing, in so far as I can understand them, that there is no reason to suppose that there’s a God who created the universe. I think people ought to read these pieces, the parts of Hume that are concerned with this, because it is actually an argument that is useful now, 200 and something years later.

I imagine that people who do believe in God aren’t looking for reasons to believe in God. For them it is more a question of faith, so they wouldn’t be interested in Hume’s arguments. 

Yes, and I think people take a great leap, actually, who say that God can be inferred from the marvels of the universe. People who say that immediately go on to say that that God who must have created the universe is interested in the moral laws of the universe as well as the natural laws. What they’re saying is that the God who laid down the natural laws by which the universe operates is the same God who laid down these moral laws by which we ought to conduct our lives. But actually the two things are completely separate.

Tell me about the Philip Pullman, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

I love this book. I have lent it to various people who haven’t loved it for various reasons. I found it absolutely gripping. It’s told like a child’s story, written in very simple language. There’s nothing in it that is the least bit difficult to understand. But it is a marvellous fantasy which is that there were twins born to the Virgin Mary and when the shepherds came to the stable it so happened that she was feeding one of the twins but the other one was lying unseen in the manger, so nobody knew that there were these twins, but in fact they grew up together. One of the twins was the Jesus whose story is told in the Gospel, of the revolutionary and humble moralist who wanted to break down the snobbishness and the ritual rubbish that had grown up around the Judaism of his day, but the other twin was extraordinarily ambitious and saw that if Jesus, his twin brother, would keep on performing miracles, then he could gain enormous power and a huge church could be born and the whole world could be covered with the power of this church.

I think this is an absolutely brilliant allegory of what’s happened to Christianity and particularly to the Roman Catholic church which became an empire just as this messianic twin thought that it could, whereas the humble Jesus was simply interested in preaching a gospel of loving your neighbour. He was a real true moralist and not a seeker after power. What is so ingenious in Pullman’s telling of this story is that he goes through all the miracles recorded in the gospels, like turning water into wine and he explains how they actually happened, why and how a lot of wine was found at the last minute and then the miracle-mongers, all the people who wanted these miracles to happen, created the legend of a miracle and latched that on to these ordinary events.

Is this a novel? 

Well, it’s like a novel. It’s told as a child’s story, but he knows the Gospels extremely well and he takes the central figure of Jesus of Nazareth and the things that he did very seriously. It’s incredibly readable. I sat down and read it in an afternoon and was absolutely delighted by it.

Tell me about Godless Morality by Richard Holloway.

That is an amazing book, because it was written when he was still Bishop of Edinburgh. He was very much loved as bishop because he’s a wonderful pastoral clergyman but also a man of great learning and he was anxious to say that there’s no need to found morality on religion. There is a connect, obviously, between the Christian religion and the morality that he teaches, but people can be morally highly principled, conscientious without necessarily tangling with any religion whatsoever. This is what he sought to say in this book.

“People can be morally highly principled, conscientious without necessarily tangling with any religion whatsoever.”

Later, in another book, he actually went further and said that he personally couldn’t believe in, let’s say, the resurrection, so he himself could hardly call himself a Christian any more. This is after he had retired from being a bishop. Here he simply wanted to drive a wedge between Christianity and, indeed, any other religion, and the foundation of morality. And in that I think he is absolutely right. It is highly derogatory of all the really good, morally thoughtful people who are not religious, to suppose that they can’t have morality without religion.

And yet, with Nazism and Communism, and if you think about the Grand Inquisitor chapters in The Brothers Karamazov, or Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, it’s clear that people do tend not to be moral without religion. People do want a symbolic spiritualism that will act as their super ego and stop them running riot. 

I entirely agree with you, but I would rather that morality, behaving well rather than badly, is really a human necessity and people have got to be induced to recognise that all of us, every one of us, has a responsibility not to behave badly. We’re all tempted to be greedy, to take more for ourselves, to overlook the interests of others, but we’ve got to learn that everybody is of equal value, so we’ve got to take other people’s likes, dislikes, horrors and wishes as seriously as our own. So religion, in my opinion, is a kind of clothing that these moral sentiments take on to be more appealing to the imagination.

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I mean, the Jews probably urgently needed a firmly-based morality when they were coming out of exile that ensured that they respected other people’s lives and property and then, out of this morality, arose the legend that Moses went up to the top of Mount Sinai and was handed the Ten Commandments, among other commandments, from God. So the morality comes first, and the story, that appeals to people and that they can understand, comes afterwards. So I would rather found religion on morality than the other way round. When it comes down to it, morality comes first.

But societies, whether moral or not, always need an enemy, don’t they? 

Human beings have common needs. They are very vulnerable. They are vulnerable to one another, to the elements, to awful things like storms and floods and all human beings are in the same boat. They need to protect one another, not to rock the boat, not to take too much for himself. That is common to humanity. Sound societies are founded on the respect for human life and the respect for human property, the need that people have to be allowed to bring up their families. These are basic moral needs and everybody has those needs. That seems to me to be the basis of morality.

I think of the parable of the Good Samaritan. It seems to me the most marvellous invention of religion because it has everything. You have somebody who, with no gain to himself, looks after someone else and not only that but he was a Samaritan. This was a despised person, not a religious figure, but an ordinary bloke and he put himself out and that is a marvellous illustration of how society ought to be. We ought to help one another.

Next on your list is by G. E. M. Anscombe. 

She was by far the most formidable woman philosopher of the 20th century. She was a disciple of Wittgenstein and she translated his books from German into English and was very instrumental in us all getting to know his work. She was a very high-powered moral philosopher but she also became a Roman Catholic. There is one essay in this book in which she says that if you don’t believe in the commands of God then you have no business as a moralist to talk about duties or what people must or must not do. There can’t be any commands except the commands of God. I think that is total nonsense, but it is extraordinarily powerfully argued and one must respect the kind of relentless logic with which she argues that the concept of duty cannot exist without the authority of God who commands it. I think everybody ought to read it and see how impressed or not impressed they are. My own view of what one ought to do comes from what human beings need, but that is not her view.

Would you not agree though that if human beings create a moral society, as mammals, and looking at the way that Freud writes about society, we will always say that we are good and moral but those people over there are bad and immoral? Inclusion involves exclusion. 

Yes, but I think it’s more of a danger for religions than for people who don’t accept any religious dogma. I think religious people are very much at risk of saying: We know by revelation that this is what is right. They are not subject to the consideration of whether people are harmed, damaged by the consequences. A telling example is the attitude of the Roman Catholic church to contraceptives. You only have to look at any country plagued by AIDS to see that Catholic dogma is appallingly damaging and there is no moral justification for this, only a dogmatic religious justification. That seems to me to demonstrate the appalling dangers of the arbitrariness of being able to hear the commands of God. An obvious example would be the theocracy of Iran that believes that adultery must be punished by stoning to death. There is nothing humanly intelligible in that decree.

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I suppose Hutus and Tutsis kill each other on racial grounds and we all hate each other on class grounds. Religions just seem like yet another excuse to hate each other. 

I think this can be a consequence of religion, but it shouldn’t be. In Christianity the commands of God were supposed to include everybody.

Your last choice is Mansfield Park. 

This is an oddity but it is a highly moralistic novel. Fanny Price, the heroine, whom many people find rather tiresome, is a highly moral and articulate character and one of the things that intrigues me so much is that Jane Austen at the beginning of the 19th century had the correct view that you can’t be morally involved unless you feel strongly that some things are good and some things are bad.

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If we go back to humanity all being in the same boat and we have responsibility for all the other people in the boat you’ve got to feel in your guts that if you rock the boat you are harming everybody and they are your responsibility. Fanny Price comes up with the moral condemnation: ‘They do not feel as they ought.’ Jane Austen is absolutely right. Children ought to be brought up to be moral agents, to teach them to feel in certain ways, to ask them how they would feel if someone else took their chair. They’ve got to learn to control their feelings and understand how other people feel. If you don’t teach people to think morally then society really is at the end of the road.

December 6, 2012

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Mary Warnock

Mary Warnock

Baroness Mary Warnock (1924–2019) was a moral philosopher, a patron of the Progress Educational Trust (PET), and was a Crossbench Peer in the House of Lords. From 1984 to 1991, she was Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge.

Mary Warnock

Mary Warnock

Baroness Mary Warnock (1924–2019) was a moral philosopher, a patron of the Progress Educational Trust (PET), and was a Crossbench Peer in the House of Lords. From 1984 to 1991, she was Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge.