A Question Of Morals
The Pope’s high profile visit to the UK, and the enormous amount of commentary and debate surrounding it offer a good opportunity to talk about Catholicism in the Philippines. In particular the common local response I’ve experienced to my own professed agnosticism can be revealing about how ideas of morality can be constructed differently in different belief systems, and this realisation can in turn provide an interesting perspective on the Pope’s mission to the British people.
The Philippines is the only South East Asian country (other than East Timor) to have a predominantly Christian population – 92.5%, of which 81% are Roman Catholic. Of the rest, 5% are reported to be Muslim, 3% Buddhist, 1% “Other” and only 0.5% claim to have no religious belief at all. It is no surprise therefore that religion is heavily present in both public and private life. Images of the Virgin Mary can be seen all over the country – in shrines built in the street, painted on the sides of jeepneys, hanging from key chains, windows and door handles. In the workplace, meetings, training sessions and seminars are always begun with a prayer, graces are uttered before meals in popular fast food chains and users of public transport will be careful to cross themselves whenever a church is passed. Christmas and Easter are celebrated with mass participation and fervour, as are Saint’s days, and in the provinces large devotional festivals that centre on the veneration of particular Catholic icons draw pilgrims from far and wide.
“What religion are you?” is an almost inevitable question I get asked when I meet new people, and it is one I have come to anticipate with a kind of steely dread, mostly because of the similarly inevitable awkward response my answer always elicits. As I am English, and religious belief is so prevalent in their local experience, most Filipinos tend to assume that I am Anglican; my actual response, that I don’t have a religion, tends to be an answer that they genuinely hadn’t considered as a possibility. This nearly always leads to a familiar pattern of questions that continues until we get to what seems to be the fundamental point – “but you do believe in God, right?” It is the “no” that really tends to shock – it seems that holding any non-Catholic religious viewpoint would be acceptable as long as belief in God remained, but without that I become suspect (a reason that I tend to avoid the word “Atheist” which in the local context tends to imply an “amoral” and “militant” standpoint against religion). But what is really revealing is that my status as a volunteer worker for a charity is often used to call my “no” response into question. In fact it has even been put to me once or twice in so many words – if I don’t believe in God, why do I want to “do good”? In other words, the shock comes not from the fact that I don’t believe in God (after all, Filipinos are well aware of the existence of Atheists), but from the fact that despite my professed non-belief in God I am recognised to share with them familiar moral values.
This idea of the absolute connection between belief in God and morality is similarly expressed in the tone of the Pope’s visit to the UK. The Pontiff’s statements on the moral dangers of “the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life” and “aggressive secularism” have been treated as a direct attack on the morals of those who don’t share the Pope’s belief in God. It’s not surprising therefore that the large secular population of the UK feel wronged by the Pope’s stance and are eager to call it to question – as I try to explain to my Filipino friends, it is perfectly possible to have moral values that are recognisable to and shared by Catholics, but that don’t stem from a belief in God.
However, I also hold moral values that might not be recognisable to a Catholic (although, of course, “Catholics” are by no means a homogenous group, no matter what the Pope might like to think) and that’s where the conversation becomes more difficult. If I don’t follow a religion, and base my morality on a belief in God, from where do I draw my ideas about what is right and what is wrong? That is also the question the Pope is raising, but the very act of doing so creates a situation in which, I believe, the Pope’s mission to encourage more people in England to turn to God as their moral compass will ultimately fail – because the secular standpoint and the Catholic standpoint on morality are so different that the Pope is really talking straight past the secularists. He has not considered (or has chosen to ignore) two important factors: firstly that some people may not agree with what “God (via the Church)” says is right and wrong (which, given the rigid, historical stand the Catholic Church takes on many controversial issues, is often the case in this day and age), or secondly that they may not even desire to hold right and wrong as moral absolutes.
Like many Atheists and Agnostics (and I understand also many followers of organised religions), I do not believe that morality is a simple case of black and white. However, clearly this doesn’t mean I don’t believe it is possible to develop a set of shared moral values – after all, moral values are ultimately an expression of how we feel that as humans we should live together in society, and they are vital for society to exist at all. For example, the Human Rights project is the most well known attempt to establish a secular system of shared moral values for all people on the planet, and while obviously it has it’s inevitable problems and contradictions, I think it is a fascinating and very important experiment in trying to develop a shared morality based on a balance between moral absolutes and moral relativity.
As with right and wrong, absolutes and relativity represent a well known dichotomy, but they aren’t the only two conceivable options available, even though it may seem that way at first glance. The Pope preaches moral absolutes, and in doing so rejects moral relativity, but his critics recognise that this approach will inevitably lead to undesirable intolerance. However, from the Pope’s point of view the only alternative to moral absolutes is a similarly undesirable extreme moral relativity, perhaps even “ethical idiocy”, where it is impossible to establish any moral standpoint at all. This is a variation on the classic universalism/relativism debate, which was, I think, very sensibly responded to by anthropologist Clifford Geertz who presented a third possible standpoint – that of “anti anti-relativism”. Both relativism and anti-relativism are, he explains, extreme points of view that cannot be applied usefully to any real situation without running into massive contradictions. Anti anti-relativism recognises these contradictions will always exist at the logical extremes, and therefore posits that a middle ground should be sought in spite of them. This is the position that the secularist morality of human rights could be seen to begin from – moral differences across cultures are recognised, but a set of shared values is sought in spite of this, and most importantly for me personally, this is achieved through a process of debate until a consensus is agreed upon.
The Pope himself has drawn clearly the line between these two starting points for constructing morality – in his first public speech during his UK visit he stated “If moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident – herein lies the real challenge for democracy.” The Pope posits God as the “solid” alternative, yet social consensus achieved through tolerant and respectful debate is itself the very principle that secular morality seeks to create and uphold as its foundation, and it is “rationality” (rather than “belief” in God or otherwise) that will typically be cited as their “solid” basis for this position. Put simply, as with many of the ideals expressed by the Catholic Church, there are a growing number of people whose ideas about morality are fundamentally incompatible with the Pope’s standpoint. By attacking their views, the Pope not only reveals the huge gaps in understanding between the two positions but is likely only to further alienate those whose opinions he is trying to sway. If the Catholic Church wishes to remain relevant to the increasingly secular society in modern Britain, (and religion can have a lot of relevance for secular morality) this kind of preaching will need to give way to a willingness to engage publicly in the debate. But then, given the grounding of Catholic morality in absolutes, that might defeat the point.