Can we teach moral education without reference to belief?

February 27, 2012 · Posted in Blog · 2 Comments 

In the Guardian, Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association argued that schools should teach morality for the here and now, and not out of some kind of religious life hereafter consideration. On the face of it, to teach children who may come from any or no religious background a kind of morality that has reference to religious beliefs seems unreasonable. After all, surely you have to have some confidence in the basis of those morals and if you do not share the beliefs then it would hardly lead to a resilient moral education.

What Copson is really worried about may be that we limit our behaviour, in negative ways, because of the fear of hell, or out of a desire to please some deity. He clearly believes this is not a good way to live.

However, there might be reasons to question this. First, is it not at all reasonable to consider how we may look back on our actions afterwards, even towards or at the end of our life, when thinking about the big decisions in life? Surely I will want to feel that I have made decisions I am content with. I will surely feel some consolation if I can look back with some sense of having done the right thing. This means it is not enough to consider the here and now when making moral decisions. Perhaps a kind of “God’s perspective on our life” is a way of lifting us out of the moment when we make moral decisions to think beyond the immediate. Is this really such an unhelpful thing when making moral decisions? To have some consideration for how our future selves will view current behaviour is one way of avoiding impulsive action that we may later regret.

More generally, Copson refers to the separation of moral education and religious education, but it is not clear that moral education can be taught or understood without reference to beliefs. Human rights themselves can be seen as things people belief in. Values such as equality, dignity, liberty and compassion and ideas that are believed in and inspire moral conduct. It is not clear that there are any moral systems which do not have some reference to beliefs of some sort. In some cases these are beliefs about the divine, but in many other cases it is beliefs about virtues, values and beliefs about what makes a good live.

While it would be unwise to teach British children exclusively from the moral canon of a single religious tradition, it would be equally unwise to teach them morality without reference to belief. It is hard to see how such a thing could be possible.

Better, to teach about the moral understandings found in the many ways of life experienced by humankind, religious and philosophical and especially those understandings that are commonly held by many, or all, such as compassion and dignity.

Living in an age of extremism

July 23, 2011 · Posted in Blog · Comment 

The news is still changing after the dreadful Norway attack which BBC is now reporting has left over 80 dead, mostly the young students and the Labour rally on an Island outside Oslo. Increasingly it would appear that this is a far right extremist attack, by someone known to have anti Islamic and anti multicultural views. It is perhaps closer to Oklahoma than the 9/11 Militant Islamist.

The last decade of the 20th century and the early stage of the 21st have been marked by extremist acts of terror which show that we as a species have lost none of our propensity to produce individuals who take innocent human lives to make political points. The terror which has struck at the heart of Norway, and which has struck in such a devastating way, the politically interested youth is a late manifestation of this. It shows the callous and curious tendency for extremist groups of contrasting political opinions, such as right wing fascists and Islamist militants, to borrow strategies for one another. The use of a mass bombing in a city centre has echoes of the IRA bomb in Manchester and Oklahoma. But the use of a double attack is something seen by Islamist extremists and mass shootings echo the Islamist attack on a hotel in Mumbai.

It is not only in the tactics that such extremists share, but also the total disregard to the dignity of the human person in the pursuit of a political statement. Yet the expression of concern for the dignity of the human person is the fundamental political and ethical responsibility – the concern for the other, rather than the sole interest of the self. Militant extremist attacks cloak themselves in some greater common task, some sophisticate communal movement, but this obscures a radical individualism that totalises self interest and the self orientated view of the world. It is an act of utter selfishness, that feeds an overblown sense of self importance and significance; a grotesque murder dressed as a political statement to be lapped up by a global media.


May 31, 2011 · Posted in Blog · Comment 

FIFA is having difficulty with it’s ethics. It would appear that the billion dollar industry that is world football, is not as transparent, honest and moral as it ought to be and perhaps things like the decision making process that chose the lucky recipient of the world cup, may not have been done ‘on the level’. While FIFA struggles to keep it’s closed operation from spilling over into the clear light of day, and Mr Blatter calls out ‘problem, what problem’, the upstanding bastions of truth and justice, Sony and Coca-cola, have decided that they might not want to appear to be associated with corruption at the heart of the world’s favorite sport. Let’s hope we can rely on market forces to clean up the shadier side of … well, market forces.

Ratko Mladic:

May 26, 2011 · Posted in Blog · Comment 

Ratko Mladic is a wanted war criminal who has been on the run for 16 years, accused of overseeing genocide, the killing of thousands of Muslim men and boys in concentration camps, and the oversight of systematic rape of Bosnian Muslim women. These killings and crimes against humanity, were carried out within Europe, within a couple of hours flight from UK airports. Finally, after living in hiding for many years, justice has caught up with him. For years it seems that he was protected but at last it seems as though there is a chance that his many many victims will see him tried for what he is accused of. Today is a good day.

Should Christian ethics focus on convergence and correlation or on distinctively Christian features?

May 22, 2011 · Posted in Blog · Comment 

There has been a great deal of interest in the development of common ethical approaches that transcend distinctive philosophical and theological boundaries. Karen Armstrong has argued about the importance of the Golden Rule as it is something that crosses many boundaries, and is found in many religious traditions from Confucius onwards. There is the work of the Charter of Compassionate uniting different believers around that concept. Some look to universal human rights as providing a common framework, with concepts of dignity and equality at their heart. The Earth Charter presents another of these movements.

But religious traditions do offer distinctive ethical perspectives that can define the religious outlook. In Christianity the love of neighbor is also the love of enemy. What is more it is a sacrificial love, the love that Jesus showed humanity. ‘Lover one another – as I have loved you’ . The concept of self sacrificial love is distinctive and binds the ethical conduct of Christians to the revelation of Christ and the crucifixion. Being Christian in ethical terms entails living a Christ- like life. The ethic of reciprocity is superseded by an ethic of self sacrifice. This does not mean that reciprocity is not there, but that a greater ethical pricniple is also pointed to.

For many Christians, this has inspired them to take particular and sometimes unpopular and uncompromising ethical positions – pacifism for some. It means a willingness to face martyrdom. Self sacrifice is an ultimate ethical act, demonstrated by the primary school teacher in Dunblane, when she stood in front of her young pupils as the gunman began to fire. The actions of some on the Titanic who made sure the women and children had priority seating on the few lifeboats meant they themselves would not survive.

Of course many people, of many different religious backgrounds have given their lives for others. The difficult question is whether, in searching for a common ethic, some of the most important and distinctive elements of religious ethical traditions may be lost. What is the balance that a Christian should strike between seeking to engage the ethical discourse of the common community, and seeking to give a distinctive justification for moral action.

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

May 2, 2011 · Posted in Blog, Book Reviews · Comment 

Reviewers are talking about Sam Harris’ new book, The Moral Landscape, available from Amazon.  Harris’ first book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason attacked religion ( see my discussion of it here) but in this book he is preposing science as a source for ethics. This sounds like Harris might be a naturalist, but he doesn’t think morality is directly measurable in that way, but rather that morality is linked to wellbeing and wellbeing can be grounded in measurable things.  He discusses it in Radio 4s Start the Week, available here.  It’s on my reading list.

David Eagleman’s Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

April 24, 2011 · Posted in Blog, Book Reviews · Comment 

Eagleman was recently interviewed on Andrew Marr’s Start the Week (  In his new book ‘Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain’ he explores the brain and presents, in an accessible way if the reviews are to be believed, his case that decisions are made by the brain all the time and that we are usually not aware of the reasons for the decision.

“In a recent experiment, men were asked to rank how attractive they found photographs of different women’s faces. The photos were 8 x 10 inches, and showed women facing the camera, or turned in three-quarter profile. Unbeknownst to the men, in half the photos the women had their eyes dilated, and in the other half they did not. The men were consistently more attracted to the women with dilated eyes. Remarkably, the men had no insight into their decision making. None of them said, “I noticed her pupils were 2 millimeters larger in this photo than in the other one.” Instead, they simply felt more drawn toward some women than toward others, for reasons they couldn’t quite put a finger on.

But their choices weren’t accidental. In the largely inaccessible workings of the brain, somethingknew that a woman’s dilated eyes correlates with sexual excitement and readiness. Their brains knew this, but the men didn’t—at least not explicitly. Presumably, the men also didn’t know that their sense of beauty and attraction is deeply hard-wired, steered in the right direction by programs carved by millions of years of natural selection. When the men were choosing the most attractive woman, they didn’t know that the choice was not theirs, really, but instead the choice of successful programs that had been burned down deep into the brain’s circuitry over the course of millions of years and hundreds of thousands of generations.”  (page 6)

Read more here:

For philosophers and politicians the question here is if our decisions are largely made by our brains, rather than ‘us’ (and by us we mean the conscious self) to what extent are they free and therefore to what extent can we be blamed for our choices, for example to commit crimes. Eagleman thinks this is the wrong question to think about.  The right question is what to do with an individual who has done something, in the light of the brain that they have.  He thinks that punishments should be individualised to the particular individual, rather than universalised.  If human judgments are the result of the particular developments of the brain caused by decades of experience  and inherited genes, the important thing to do is work out what needs to be done to that individual to prevent a repeat of the offence.  It is simply not a question of moral responsibility which is something Eagleman finds mysterious and perhaps inaccessible.    Eagleman is not a hard determinist in that he believes there is some space for free action, but it is a small space.

This leaves questions for religious systems that place a lot of importance on moral responsibility, such as those that consider ‘sin’ an important feature or karma.  Eagleman’s work is based on neuroscience, not theology, but surely theology must respond to these new understandings of our brain operations?

You can buy the book here:

Talk at Benenden School

March 24, 2011 · Posted in Blog · Comment 

Many thanks to the students of Benenden school for their hospitality and conversation this evening.

Religious Rights Violations| Reports for 2010

March 21, 2011 · Posted in Blog · Comment 

International Religious Freedom Report The International Religious Freedom report is submitted to Congress annually by the US Department of State. This report supplements the most recent Human Rights Reports by providing additional detailed information with respect to matters involving international religious freedom. It includes individual country chapters on the status of religious freedom worldwide.  Also available as a pdf here:

Persecuted and Forgotten Aid to the Church in Need have published their report on persecution against Christians.  Free copies may be ordered from .  Examples of persecution are reported from around the world including Asia Bibi on Death row in Pakistan for blasphemy, the murder of priests in Iraq, restrictions in China and bombings at Churches in Egypt.

Five Year Report: Intolerance against Christians in Europe compiled by the

Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians.

1000 Cranes for Japan

March 19, 2011 · Posted in Blog · Comment 

Dear Reader

I attach a flier which has suggestions for how school children may respond to the Japan emergency.  I taught in Japan for a year many years ago, in a county called Toyama, on the west coast of the central Honshu island. Tragically, a whole class of children from Toyama were killed when they were visiting Christchurch, New Zealand in the earthquake a few weeks ago.  Of course this is now overshadowed by the scale of the greater disaster that has befallen Japan.

My year in Japan was part of a cultural project to bridge our countries and encourage friendship between our peoples, and at the end of it I made a commitment to be a friendly envoy for Toyama county and the people of Japan.  In the light of the disasters that have befallen that people I, and my wife who also taught in Japan,  have decided to try to encourage schools to do something.

The flier has a couple of suggestions, one of which is to encourage the act of making origami cranes, which is a tradition that every Japanese school child learns and participates in.  It is linked with the story of Sadako Sasaki, the girl who wanted to make a thousand cranes as an act of peace after the dropping of the atomic bomb.  In Japanese tradition a crane lived for a thousand years and it was said that if you made a thousand cranes your wish would come true.  Sadako wished for a nuclear free world of peace.  She died of leukemia, from the bomb, before she finished her task so her school friends finished it for her.  Now every school in Japan participates in this act of peace in her memory and in the hope of peace.

I would like to inspire some schools in England to take up this tradition as an act of solidarity with the school children of Japan and in the hope of peace for them and for the world.  If stories were to reach Japan of school children from across the seas making cranes for Japan then it might just give them a little hope.

If you feel you can help, click the link below

Many thanks for your time.

Response to Japan
Bob Bowie

« Previous PageNext Page »