Madeline Bunting claims humanists lack a moral language

Madeline BuntingIt’s that time again for another Madeline Bunting attack on humanists in the Guardian. Apparantly Gordon Brown is using religious shorthand to show moral purpose: “his government was going to be about two things – competence and serious moral purpose. It’s the latter which this son of the manse repeatedly emphasises as he refers back to the devout family background which provided his “moral compass”. He is the third consecutive Labour leader to put religion at the heart of his politics, and it’s not just a matter of leaders.

It’s a curious phenomenon that at a time when Christianity continues its steady decline in this country, religion has re-emerged as a central inspiration of political rhetoric – not as the flash-in-the-pan aberration of one individual but now well established as a convention of the centre ground, acknowledged by the Cameroons as much as by Labour. This strange afterlife of religious belief must be pretty galling to secularists and humanists.

…It is as if with the collapse of what John Gray in his new book calls the “political religions” – most significantly, communism – there is no effective alternative ethical language other than that of the Bible. The 20th-century traditions of humanism, secularism and even atheism have signally failed to develop a popular language of morality in which to describe moral character and the disciplines of responsibility, self-restraint and duty which are essential to democracy and social wellbeing. If you want to convince a sceptical, inattentive electorate of your moral purpose, you have to use the shorthand of faith.”

Hmm.. talking about a ‘moral compass’ and ‘soul’ is hardly putting religion at the centre of politics now is it (more like a desperate attempt at rebranding)?

So what if we still employ language with religious roots? Meanings change and it’s be pretty odd if we threw away our cultural roots suddenly. So for example, when when we talk about charity today most of mean something slightly different than the original biblical concept. Ideas like ‘spirituality’ still are useful to a humanist like myself. None of these indicates a failure of humanism any more than co-opting pagan festivals indicated a failure of Christianity.

What’s important is that non-religious basis of ethics, whether it’s rights, utilitarianism or the Kantian moral imperative (which have been developed by the religious as much as the non-religious) have replaced literal obedience to holy books.

And so what if Gordon Brown is personally religious? As long as people don’t assume that one or any religion is the only way to live a good life.


2 responses to “Madeline Bunting claims humanists lack a moral language

  1. And what about “ethics” and “human rights”, for example? These are not terms loaded with peculiarly religious significance, but secular in meaning and with their historical roots in efforts that are not specifically religious.

    One might also object to he idea that “If you want to convince a sceptical, inattentive electorate of your moral purpose, you have to use the shorthand of faith.” Blair used “whiter than white” which came off the Persil ad, as far as I can see. And people were pretty convinced by that for a few months!

  2. Congratulations, this is a very good blog.

    Perhaps someone should give maddy the C Hitchens challenge – name a single basic principle of human or civil rights that could NOT have been conceived without religion.

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