One of the problems agnostics and atheists often face when discussing moral matters with Christians is the tendency the latter have of quoting biblical chapter and verse in support of their argument, willfully ignoring the fact that atheists (or followers of other religions) do not recognize Christian scripture as authoritative. The motive behind scriptural citation is presumably to bestow one’s argument with the legitimacy of divine command. While this may work among those who share the same faith, it tends to bring the discussion to a screeching halt when used in the presence of non-believers. Even more unfortunately, the negative effects of this behavior extend far beyond the average forum discussion and lie at the core of many of the current political struggles being played out in pluralistic societies.
This phenomenon, and recommendations on how to overcome it, is the subject of Godless Morality: Keeping Religion out of Ethics by the Right Reverend Richard F. Holloway, the retired Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church. It may surprise readers that such a seemingly combative title has been authored by a man of the cloth, but Holloway's intentions are as much to keep Christianity relevant as to encourage Christians to bring more to the table than scriptural citations when discussing moral issues. Motivated by empathy and practicality rather than by zealotry, he negotiates controversial discussions with even-handed lucidity, carefully weighing pros and cons and modeling the type of rational, compassionate thinking we wish everyone had.
Clearly a disciple of Christianity, he nevertheless advises against over-reliance on dogma, challenging Christians to forge new interpretations of biblical doctrine. Reasoning that arguments from authority or tradition are not as compelling in pluralistic societies as they were when the Church's power was extensive and its authority went largely unchallenged even in the realm of science, Holloway challenges Christians to provide practical reasons for solutions to modern problems. He also compels them to reconsider contentious issues such as homosexuality, medicinal marijuana, and abortion in the light of recent scientific and social advancements, asserting that the Bible is more flexible on these issues than they presume.
His efforts are not directed wholly at people of faith, however. He challenges opponents on both sides of hotly debated ethical arguments to frame the issue in more flexible terms, arguing that ethics often comes down to a matter of minimizing harm and maximizing good rather than of choosing between clear-cut moral and immoral outcomes.
As with other books that call for the separation of religion and ethics, atheists and agnostics will find themselves nodding their heads in agreement with much of what Holloway says. Unlike more belligerent authors such as Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, however, Holloway approaches both believers and non-believers with respect. This attitude, coupled with a strong dose of much-needed rationality, makes Godless Morality the book atheists wish their Christian neighbors would read. Unfortunately, with a title that seems to belie the judicious nature of Holloway's writing, it's doubtful that many of them will do so.