Acton Institute Powerblog

The Myth of Morality without Faith

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A flap over religion in schools developed last week at Newark High School in Delaware. According to reports, “The principal of a public high school apologized to parents for allowing a Christian-themed assembly that featured two Philadelphia Eagles players, saying he was misled about what the presentation would cover.”

“Principal Emmanuel Caulk of Newark High School wrote in a letter that he expected the talk by players Tra Thomas and Thomas Tapeh to focus on ‘values, choices and challenges that adolescents face in today’s society.'”

But apparently the players were to talk about such topics without any reference to their own experience…since that experience is Christian. Caulk claimed to be ignorant of the fact that Tra Thomas is a founder and spokesman for Athletes United for Christ.

“What we’re trying to do is to help the kids make better decisions in life. I guess I understand,” why some people objected,” said Thomas, “because you have other religions there. But we’re not preaching to the kids.”

He continued, “I’m just trying to get them to identify with me, the person, rather than just Tra Thomas, the football player, so we can relate to each other better. And my Christianity is a big part of what I am.” What might have been an acceptable post-modern claim to individuality in other circumstances is not acceptable for a Christian, apparently.

The requisite outrage from the ACLU was reflected in a statement by Drewry Fennell, executive director of the of the Delaware chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union: “Organizations like this one across the country are gaining access to schools through the famous people and entertainment value and then using those opportunities to proselytize.”

More details and reactions to the event are available here.

The critical error of events like this in public schools rests on the assumption that you can have a morality based purely on secular humanism. And this further assumes that such a position is not reflective of any particular “faith” or “belief system.” All morality is founded on a belief system of some kind or another. To expect that Christians can talk about, in the principal’s words, “values, choices and challenges that adolescents face in today’s society,” without reference to Christianity is patently absurd.

Scottish theologian John Baillie insightfully relates the following: “The progress of modern thought seems every day to be making it clearer that between religion and naturalism there is no final resting-place in humanism. As regards anything we are in ourselves naturalism is true, and ‘a man hath no pre-eminence above a beast’. When man ceases to be rooted in God, he relapses inevitably into the sub-human.” The final choice can only be made between naturalism or religion (supernaturalism).

Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck discusses the necessity for a supernatural foundation for a coherent system of morality. He writes,

The only true alternative to the recognition of the supernatural, accordingly, is not a rationalistic deism but naturalism, i.e., the belief that there is no other higher power but that which is immanent in the present natural order and reveals itself [there]. But then one loses all warrant for believing in the triumph of the good, the ultimate victory of the kingdom of God, in the power of the moral world order. For the good, the true, the moral world order, and the kingdom of God are matters that have no power to realize themselves on their own. The hope is that human beings will bring supremacy and yield to the power of truth is daily dashed by disappointments. Their triumph is assured only if God is a personal omnipotent being who, in the face of all opposition, can lead the entire creation to the goal he has in mind for it. Religion, morality, the acknowledgement of a destiny for humankind and for the world, belief in the triumph of the good, a theistic worldview, and belief in a personal God are all inseparably bound up with supernaturalism.

The secular humanist myth of morality without religion, supernaturalism, or faith of some kind is exposed for what it is in instances like this one. The sad part is, of course, that these children desperately need to be taught moral truths, but the public school system is increasingly unable and unqualified to do so, because of institutional, legal, and personal barriers.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • As my pastor used to say, “all education is religious.” If you think that the public schools provide a non-religious education, you’re deluding yourself – the religion at the core of american public education is hollow secular humanism.

    People (especially Christians, IMO) really need to wrap their heads around this concept.

  • Susan

    It’s not the job of the government schools to teach your religion to all children. It’s the parents’ job to teach it to their own children. Somewhere the Religious Right got the idea that they have a right to use governmental power to prosletyze. Those players knew they were in a setting where they they should not be talking religion to other peoples’ children.

    And morality has nothing to do with religion.

  • I’d agree that it isn’t the job of the government to teach religion. In fact, I’d argue that it isn’t the job of the government to teach children at all. (That’s why I’ll be sending my child to a private school.)

    By the same measure, it’s also not the job of government to drum any public mention of religion out of the public square. The US Constitution does not forbid the discussion of religion in any public place. In fact, it makes clear that the government may not forbid the free exercise of religion. Somewhere the left got the ideal that the “seperation of church and state” exists to protect the government from being tainted by the influence of religious people. As a result, we have our current situation – where those who purport to be staunch defenders of free speech are the first in line to condemn anyone who dares mention religion in a public place.

    As for morality having nothing to do with religion, well, you’re entitled to your opinion.

  • Nick Sheltrown

    I would like to respectfully dissent with Jordan’s position as to the possibility of morality outside of religion. To denounce the possibility of morality outside of faith systems as “patently absurd” is a bit closed-minded (or at least not very intellectually generous). As a Christian, I wish I could agree with Jordan’s conclusions (in fact, it would be very convenient); however, there is compelling evidence that simply invalidates his rigid position. In his thoughtful book “The Origins of Virtue : Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation,” Matt Ridely presents compelling evidence from science, political theory, and game theory that supports the rise of “virtue” (altruistic behavior) through evolutionary mechanisms. In short, there is a competitive benefit of generally self-interested animals to cooperate to their mutual benefit. Evolutionary biologists and psychologists have developed compelling arguments (at least rhetorically, if not scientifically) that explain rise of emotions and a sense of morality in humans as essential to our survival and propagation as a species. Morality and a sense of justice are essential to protect the common good, and to punish those who cheat our local communities (thus hurting our chances for survival).

    Of course, I sometimes wonder if God has used such mechanisms through our planet’s history to give humankind its sense of consciousness, morality, and justice. I think such arguments as Ridley’s do not kill God, as Nietzsche proclaimed, but rather explain God as a masterful designer. The point here, though, is to add caution to Jordan’s inflexible position. I only wish to temper these discussions with an alternative view. Many thoughtful and intellectually honest people hold to Ridley’s position, and we (as Christians) should not vilify them for doing so. After all, we might just learn something about God from their body of research.

  • Nick, thanks for the response. What kind of Calvinist would I be if I weren’t accused of being “rigid” and “inflexible”?!

    On a more serious note, however, such arguments may well be rhetorically persuasive. But I don’t think they are logically consistent. I’ll refer you to Alvin Plantinga’s so-called [url=]”evolutionary argument against naturalism”[/url], ([url=]audio available here via RealPlayer[/url]).

    And just to clarify, I said it was patently absurd to expect Christians to talk about such things without reference to Christianity.

  • I might also note that even if parents try their best to teach morality to their kids at home, the left doesn’t seem to have any problem with [url=]using the power of government[/url] (and those wonderful schools) to undermine parents’ efforts:

    “A three-judge panel held the parents have a right to inform their children as they wish about sex but do not have the right to prevent a public school from providing students with information it deems appropriate.

    ‘Schools cannot be expected to accommodate the personal, moral or religious concerns of every parent,’ Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for the panel. ‘Such an obligation would not only contravene the educational mission of the public schools, but also would be impossible to satisfy.’ ”

    So who’s prosletyzing?

  • Nothing offered here proves Supernaturalism is logically necessary for a theology supporting ethical and moral reasoning.

    With the mapping of the human genome, we are much closer to a 100% materialist explanation for all human features. Alvin Plantinga simply fails to grapple with modern cellular microbiology and biology in general. His claims regarding human uniqueness are artificially drawn and require ignoring evidence to the contrary from modern science.

    We are finding 98% similar genes between chimpanzee and human. The appeasing smiling behavior shown to ‘superiors’ is hardwired into the brain of nearly all primates. The ability of primates to fashion and use tools to solve problems has been shown amongst gorillas and chimpanzees.

    Every advance of Science has pushed aside the mysteries theists hoped to attribute to god’s supernatural hand. The explanatory bankruptcy of supernaturalism has no place in the world of modern science. It simply provides no information of theoretical or technological value. This is far more true today than it was in Darwin’s time.

    In Darwin’s time, millions of years were hard for the populace to digest. Now we grapple with astronomical evidence showing a universe billions of years in age. And our largest infrared telescope arrays are now able to see light 13 billion years into the past, light from galaxies and stars from near the initial expansion of the known universe. We live in a universe so unimaginably huge and wonderful it is laughable that some still cling to a belief in a 6000 year old world specially created for man’s dominion around which all the stars and sun revolve. Galileo bravely shot that down, but suffered the unwarranted persecution of the supernaturalistic theists who held political and economic power.

    Today we know from scientific measures that the known universe is over 13 billion light years across. As humans, we can’t even work out how to treat this one planet right, so that dominion over Creation mission isn’t working out very well. Thanks to global warming, and the rabid return to weapons of mass destruction building, billions of us may lose even that chance as well.

    If you want a theology which has far less ridiculus metaphysical foundation than supernaturalism, try Alfred North Whitehead’s Process Philosophy, with the theological component as articulated by Charles Hartshorne or David Cobb.

    Let’s try an experiment to really test your faith. Supernatural theists like to claim 85% of American’s believe in God…although the type of God isn’t actually mentioned. Bush has indicated 15% of the population may be innoculated if Avian Flu breaks out. I suggest the faithful Supernaturalist Theists volunteer to not be innoculated so as to allow those with a non-supernaturalist view to receive the innoculation. I highly doubt this sort of bold, trusting faith exists in this day and age. No, I predict instead, the ‘good’ Republicans will attempt to insure the good wealthy ‘Christians’ are innoculated first, on some lame justification, perhaps protecting ‘decision makers’ in faith based agencies.

    I charge this Supernatural God is being used by the rich to rob and repress the poor and middle class. I accuse proponents of supernatural theism of intellectual, spiritual and economic fraud. Show your faith! Spurn all antibiotics.

    Wealth is not created by a god. It is a socially determined unit of value, no more no less. There is no divinely inherent right to accumulate hundreds or thousands of times the income our poorest neighbor receives. We need to reshape our distribution system so that no one lacks food, security, shelter, the opportunity to learn or work. It’s a very simple human problem to solve collectively once we debunk the mythology around it, and clip the wings of the unmeritorious rich.

  • Nick Sheltrown

    Rational Mind,

    You certainly present your ideas with passion and force, and I believe we all can respect that. However, in my opinion you are guilty of the same rigid inflexibility that Jordan demonstrated in his original post. Your ideas, while well-stated, strike me as a purely modernistic. While I think science has done much to illuminate the mysteries of this world, I don’t think it’s as well-defined as you present. Yes, the universe is a masterfully complex and wondrous place. Yes, Darwin, Galileo, and Copernicus (among others) served us all well with their rigorous efforts. Yes, fundamentalism has hurt Christianity (i.e. a 6000 year old earth). But please don’t confuse modernist Christianity with the redemptive work of Christ. If you want a fair assessment of what it means to be a follower of Christ (and not a follower of fundamentalism), I would recommend reading Brian McLaren’s writing. He deconstructs many of the cultural influences on 20th Century, fundamentalist, modernist, consumerist-oriented Christianity through a postmodern lens, which I tend to appreciate.

    I think you need to temper your enthusiasm for the accomplishments of science with a bit of revenge effects of the discipline. It seems like you prefer to speak of “Science” versus “science.” Science has brought us vaccines, but it also brought us an unprecedented century of war, death, and destruction. We have antibiotics, which also create super-germs. Science has not narrowed the enormous economic inequities we find in the world, but rather exacerbated them. Those stricken with AIDS in the West have access to powerful drugs that help mitigate its horrible effects, while millions in Africa are left to die in agony. Left on its own, science has no redemptive sensibility.

    It was one of the Greek skeptics (though I can’t remember which one) who said that “We can be certain of nothing…not even that.” Do you think you might be a little too certain in the conclusions of science? Do you think you are in the position to speak of “ridiculous metaphysical foundations”? Shouldn’t we move past positivism, given all that the last century has taught us? Perhaps Foucault, Derrida, or Latour would be a better framework on which you could stand.

    Richard Tarnas, who certainly does not write from a Christian perspective, explains with sharp precision in The Passion of the Western Mind that science is not the adversary of faith. Science has no opinion on the matter (though it appears you certainly do). Again, I can understand how one could confuse fundamentalism with the teachings of Christ, but don’t judge Christianity by what the televangelist say or do. I have tried to maintain my intellectual integrity as I explore my faith, but my faith is exactly that…belief. I do not “choose cunning instead of belief,” as C.S. Lewis warns in the Last Battle. But it seems to me that you are as intolerant of those that acknowledge other ways of knowing – mystical, spiritual, etc. – as the fundamentalists are of Darwin. Is this your intended legacy?

    P.S. I agree. Political dialogue in this country should move its focus of attention from silly republican vs. democrat issues (really, they are both slaves to corporate interests) to discussions of how we can better serve the poor. I think that’s what Christ would have us do.

  • Rational Mind

    Intellectual rigor is not being inflexible. Surely you won’t mind my setting aside rhetorical flourish and waves of the hand which do not advance knowledge, or misplaced rhetorical attacks. When faced with the light of reason and need to furnish empirical proof many Christians seem not ashamed to scurry to the corner of ineffable mysticism, or to blame the wrong end of the whip.

    Please separate Science and Technology. You erroneously indict the discpline when the problem is the amoral users of the technology derived from the fruits of science. What unethical people do with scientific understanding is not Science. It is putting technology to bad purposes that results in that ‘revenge’ problem. Greed, ambition, lust for power are terrible weaknesses of corruptable human beings. The urge to lie, cheat, betray and murderously kill has yet to be vanquished within the human being. Perhaps Science will someday be able to fix the genes which support these behaviors.

    The indescriminate use of antibiotics by doctors treating patients begging to be cured of viral problems has led to the superbug invasion. Again, inappropriately applied technology is the problem–it is bad actions by humans using poor judgment. Science continues work on improved answers. And if politicians could kindly step out of the way, stem cells may offer significant benefits to the living in this world, offering all sorts of potential for rebuilding very badly damaged tissues.

    And blaming Scientists for AIDs distribution makes no sense either. The making available of AIDs antivirals isn’t even the scientist’s decision. The scientist researches and identifies the helpful medication and can outline a process for it’s production. But it is fundamentally a political and economic choice of peoples/nations as to the decisions about it’s production and distribution, and whether to leave it up to private groups/industry or to act decisively to care for the human beings in Africa as nations.

    One must sadly conclude it is the world community’s political decision to not prioritize saving Africans, and to just let Africans die. Billions can be spent monthly to fight indescript insurgents who now are skilled in blowing up M-1 tanks. Yet only a few million found by our leaders to fight a truely terroristic problem, the ever mutating AIDS virus, one that is destroying entire nations in Africa while we fret over oil and torture, and debate whether our constitution needs an amendment to define marriage or whether the phrase ‘under God’ belongs in the pledge to a piece of cloth.

    The push for superweapons and improved instruments of torture is the ‘resolute’ politician’s aim, but it is most certainly the scientists’ nightmare. The waste and stupidity of war is something I’ll happily stand with any supernaturalist, Wiccan or athiest to oppose.

    Shifting gears to your suggestion of reviewing Rev. Brian McLaren’s Emergent Christianity. His ‘movement’ appears to be arisen as a personal reaction to his daughter’s probing questions.

    He was forced to move to a universalist understanding by his college-age daughter’s concerns over the exclusivistic doctrine of Hell. He has two more cognitive contridictions to resolve before the post-modernist fog can lift. Transcendental supernaturalism and the arcane notion God must be outside of time, a concept C.S.Lewis revived in his mid-20th century novels and writings.

    McLaren’s current trajectory appears to be more in the direction of relational theology (ala Bruce Larson) that cropped up in the early 1980’s. He’d make a better Methodist than Calvinist at this point.

    I wonder how McLaren would fare in this PBS situation of the colonial version of the theocracy of the sort Farwell and Robertson seek:

    What is clear is that insisting on a Revealed Infallible Word from a remote Transcendent Divine Being doesn’t get us closer to living in the Kingdom of God Jesus talked about. It divides and condemns, and it disconnects ‘believers’ from those who don’t share that belief. That sets up all sorts of potential evil where if the believers gain tactical advantage, they will be happy to treat others as heretics, heathen, scum who don’t matter to God or whom God prefers destroyed.

    Shifting gears again, the real philosophy of science question which matters is ‘what is data?’ Having a broad, flexible, even imaginative but rationally based anticipation of a matter and energy-based understanding, produces the most testable and productive research and theories which interconnect. This is eyes-wide open ‘trust’. Not blind faith.

    This is not analogous to faith or belief in a supreme transcendental being, but there is a trust that for humans this universe is knowable, ultimately law-abiding, and its features are repeatably testable. On this matter, where epistomology turns, one must commit to following and improving perceptions through rigorous testing, deliberation, and careful imagination, using mathematics to it’s fullest extent.

    I don’t deny the appeal of mysticism, such as offered by Origen, St. Francis, St. Theresa of Avila, or Matthew Fox. But it is love, basic humility and honesty which is required in mapping the reaches of the soul and the reshaping of human ‘spirit’, by which I mean our core aspirations and the root of intentions, into the finest it can be. When Jesus said the Kingdom of God is within, and now, and requires a total commitment to love even enemies, to the point of martyrdom, there is no more room for condemnations under human law, or even special revelation Law.

    The take-away I have from Jesus is the time for divine judgment is permanently shifted to love in the current moment. Having a firm ethic rooted in love isn’t rocket science. It is the most important work, and play, that we do, even if there is no floating divine daddy dangling above us. The Kingdom of God is what we make of it now, using our wisdom of scientific serpents and gentleness of doves. I can join with others in this around this world, if you all don’t mind my ignoring the transcendental malarky.