Magazine article The Spectator

Matthew Parris: Why It's Obvious That Morality Precedes Religion

Magazine article The Spectator

Matthew Parris: Why It's Obvious That Morality Precedes Religion

Article excerpt

At a beautiful church service recently I encountered again a Gospel parable that left me, again, torn between sympathy and doubt. You will recognise Matthew 25: 35-40, for its phrasing has entered the idiom: 'I was hungry and you gave me food ... sick and you visited me ... in prison and you came to me ... a stranger and you took me in ... naked and you clothed me ... '

The story is of a king praising his subjects for these kindnesses to him. This puzzles them: 'When did we see you hungry, and feed you ... a stranger and take you in...' (etc)? The king replies: 'Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these, my brethren, you did it to me.' The moral Jesus is pointing to is double-headed: by serving your fellow men you serve God; furthermore God is watching you, so you had better behave to others as you would to Him.

That second thought, more admonitory, is unmistakable in Luke 12: 40-48 ('Be ye therefore ready also: for the Son of man cometh at an hour when ye think not'). This time, Jesus's parable is of a lord who, departing his household, leaves his steward in charge. Not expecting his master back soon, the steward starts abusing his privileges and neglecting the household. Foolish, because 'the lord of that servant will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in sunder'.

These are powerful parables whose message has easy purchase on the human imagination. In both, God is watching us: a kind of celestial CCTV. If we abuse any of our brothers and sisters, He will take it personally. If we are good to them, then a God who 'seeth in secret, shall reward you openly' (Matt 6:6).

I have a big difficulty with the central idea driving these stories. Recently reading Theo Hobson's challenging book God Created Humanism has reminded me of it.

Mr Hobson's argument is sometimes dense but its central thrust is nicely summarised in the book's subtitle: 'The Christian basis of secular values.' Hobson thinks humanists and secularists should acknowledge that the fount of their moral sentiments is a religion which, though they may no longer adhere to it, still underpins their morality. Politicians and others loosely employ this argument when they talk (as is their wont) about 'Judaeo-Christian values'. I cannot think why the 'Judaeo' has been tacked on here because Judaic values are significantly different from Christian ones and Christianity's claims are more like Islam's than Judaism's, but nobody speaks of 'Islamo-Christian values', probably because we've recently stopped beheading people. I conclude that the anomalous insertion of 'Judaeo' is to avoid insulting Jewish opinion, which is likely to form a significant part of intelligent writers' and politicians' audiences in the West. But the anomaly is a useful pointer to the two objections that any argument that 'our religion is part of us even if we don't subscribe' must encounter.

The first can be phrased by the rejoinder 'Will any religion do, then? …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.