Christianity, ethics and journalism: An anti-sermon on Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday and I feel like giving an anti-sermon on religion. I’m one of those heartless media types that thinks the Pope and the Catholic Church should be given “Hell” over allegations of child abuse going back 50 years.

On March 10, the chief exorcist of the Vatican, the Rev. Gabriele Amorth (who has held this demanding post for 25 years), was quoted as saying that “the Devil is at work inside the Vatican,” and that “when one speaks of ‘the smoke of Satan’ in the holy rooms, it is all true—including these latest stories of violence and pedophilia.” This can perhaps be taken as confirmation that something horrible has indeed been going on in the holy precincts, though most inquiries show it to have a perfectly good material explanation. [The great Catholic cover-up]

I agree with the eminent jurist Geoffrey Robertson that the Pope should be put on trial for covering up systematic child abuse that amounts to a crime against humanity.

Well may the pope defy “the petty gossip of dominant opinion“. But the Holy See can no longer ignore international law, which now counts the widespread or systematic sexual abuse of children as a crime against humanity. The anomalous claim of the Vatican to be a state – and of the pope to be a head of state and hence immune from legal action – cannot stand up to scrutiny. [Put the Pope in the dock]

But my real inspiration today is a couple of nice lines in Rosemary McLeod’s  “Easter” column in the Sunday Star Times, and a point that’s worth challenging.

This is quite good:

I’d guess that most journalists have barely had a Christian upbringing, have scant religious knowledge in general.

It might or might not be true. Certainly in my experience, there’s no shortage of Christian students in my journalism class; they’re probably in a slightly higher proportion than the gay and lesbian students and there might even be the occasional overlap between these cohorts. I’ve usually had more Christians than Muslims (for example) in my tutorials.

On the general point though I think Rosemary is right. Journalists tend to be cynical, hard-bitten and to swing along the spectrum from agnostic to atheist to humanist.

I am an atheist, but to me such a philosophical position is not adequately defined by an “absence of belief”. It is for me, more specifically an absence of belief in religious ideas of any shade. I actually have  a strong belief system and a strong system of ethics based on that world view. I am a Marxist; a materialist-humanist and I endorse this definition of humanism from the International Humanist and Ethical Union:

Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives.

It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities.

It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality. [IHEU]

I agree too with the Communist Manifesto‘s arguments about socialism and religion:

The charges against Communism made from a religious, a philosophical and, generally, from an ideological standpoint, are not deserving of serious examination. When the ancient world was in its last throes, the ancient religions were overcome by Christianity…

When Christian ideas succumbed in the 18th century to rationalist ideas, feudal society fought its death battle with the then revolutionary bourgeoisie. The ideas of religious liberty and freedom of conscience merely gave expression to the sway of free competition within the domain of knowledge. ..

But Communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion, and all morality, instead of constituting them on a new basis; it therefore acts in contradiction to all past historical experience.” …

The Communist revolution is the most radical rupture with traditional property relations; no wonder that its development involved the most radical rupture with traditional ideas.

While I take some pride in my philosphical groundedness, not all journos have deep roots in an intellectual tradition. Rosemary McLeod’s also probably on the money about most journalists having  “scant religious knowledge in general”. Despite my studies and reading over 40 years, I certainly fit into that category and recently took up Bible study in order to rectify that gap in my education.

An aetheist and his Bible #1 #2

However, I disagree with Rosemary’s core premise in this column Individual belief is crux of what really matters.

If I worry about the decline of Christianity as a mainstream belief – in the western world at any rate – it’s because of what may take its place. Our ethical framework, right and wrong, gets shaky once you kick its foundations from under it, and key among these is the importance of each individual human being, whoever they are, and the inherent value of their life. These are Christian concepts, surely.


Rosemary, you were doing so well until this point. It’s a concession to theism that is not necessary. There is no moral equivalence between Christianity as a “mainstream belief” and our “ethical framework”. This is a fallacy and the value of human beings and the inherent value of life are not “surely” Christian concepts.

As I pointed out in my previous posts on atheism and the Bible; much of the Old Testament at least is premised on mass murder, rapine and pillage, baby-killing and God-sanctioned genocide.

Surely that is a shaky premise for any ethical framework. I think journalists do need some understanding of philosophy and also to be critically conscious of their own world view. But that does not mean, as Rosemary seems to believe, that you have to have Christian morals to be ethical.

There are plenty of resources that will help Rosemary overcome this deficiency in her education.

For example:

Thus it happens, when the Atheist approaches the problem of finding natural grounds for human morals and establishing a nonsuperstitious basis for behavior, that it appears as though nature has already solved the problem to a great extent… It is in our natures to desire love, to seek beauty, and to thrill at the act of creation. The labyrinthine complexity we see when we examine traditional moral codes does not arise of necessity: it is largely the result of vain attempts to accommodate human needs and nature to the whimsical totems and taboos of the demons and deities who emerged with us from our cave-dwellings at the end of the Paleolithic Era – and have haunted our houses ever since. [Ethics without Gods]

The key point here is that atheists need to know how to counter the religious argument that the existence of morality proves that a god exists, or that morality is impossible in the context of atheism [Ethics and Morality].

I would see myself in the camp of what’s become known as the “New Atheism”, which according to some accounts is aggressively anti-religious.

The New Atheist movement — closely associated with prominent non-believers such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennet — has undertaken a confrontational and controversial campaign against religion. Its tactics have profound implications for the future of religious tolerance.

I see nothing wrong with a confrontational campaign against religion. Like Marx I believe it is the “opiate of the masses”. But I actually also promote “religious tolerance”. Unlike many Christians – for example in heavily Catholic France – I have no problem with Muslim women wearing the hijab or the burqua. I’d be happy to live next door to a Mosque as much as a Cathedral.

It’s actually amazing when you consider just how intolerant most religions are – the faithful are encouraged to cut themselves off from anyone who’s different and to engage in cultish rituals designed to brainwash and deceive. It’s actually atheists who are tolerant and open-minded.

We actually put up with your religious shit and the hijacking of our public holidays. Why shouldn’t I be able to shop and drink and go to the movies on Good Friday, Easter Sunday or Christmas Day? Why should my social life and vactation options be limited by some out-of-date and crazy belief system that I don’t subscribe to?

However, as a humanist and Marxist I fully support the rights of those who work on these public holidays to be properly compensated through penalty rates etc.

I have no problem tolerating what I consider foolish habits of worship, but I also reserve my own right to preach against what I consider the idiocy of religion.

I can sum it up like this: “I respect your right to believe in false ideas, you have to respect my right to try and talk some sense into you.”

But it’s not just about an individual’s right to believe in what are basically fairytales, I am with Christopher Hitchens on this issue:

For a combination of reasons, the subject of religion is back where it always ought to be—at the very

Forcing God to choose - stupid is as stupid does

center of any argument about the clash of world views. [Faith no more]

This is the case today and there’s fault with any group that claims “God on our side”.

Finally, I like this. The author is a radical theist, but this is a good acknowledgment of what it means to be a practising atheist today:

Atheism takes guts. It is the only faith that stipulates that if you believe in it completely, sincerely and with conviction, your only reward will be that when you die, you end. There is no prize for good deeds, no Santa Claus who brings presents if you’ve been good, no bunny laying chocolate eggs for un-believers.  [Ethics for Atheists]

Ask the Atheists – this site is full of questions and answers.

Journalists don’t need Christian or any other religious ideas to be ethical, but they do need to think critically about their role in the world and their ideological position in it.

3 Responses to Christianity, ethics and journalism: An anti-sermon on Easter Sunday

  1. Tsk, tsk, tsk Mr Hirst, I fear that that was all just a little bit glib.

    The French Republic, for example, does not object to the wearing of the burqa because the majority of its citizens are Catholics – quite the reverse.

    Even the most passing familiarity with French history would have told you that the battle between the secular and humanist values of the French revolution and the republic to which it gave birth, and the ultramontane and clerical values of the French Catholic community is one that has raged for more than 200 years.

    The French Republic objects to burqas precisely because they are an affront to the republican virtues of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

    In other words, their fight is against the claims of the Muslim religion over the lives of its citizens – which is surely your fight too?

    And excuse me for being picky, but the public holidays, which you object to religious people taking-over, are only public holidays (holy-days) because they are infused with religious significance. It was to protect that significance from the encroachments of secular capitalism – which recognised (and recognises) nothing as sacred, and which was determined to reduce every aspect of human existence to the dreary calculus of profit and loss, that the State fenced-off these days from the bosses’ materialist claims.

    This is, of course, the theme of Charles Dickens’ famous short story “A Christmas Carol” – which, in the character of Ebeneezer Scrooge, mercilessly satirises the materialistic (atheistic) viewpoint.

    So you see, me old comrade, you find yourself in some pretty odd company when you head-off down this path.
    To your right are the Muslim Fundamentalists, determined to swathe their daughters in the suffocating mummery of the 8th century; and to your left are the money-grubbing Scrooges of this world, who will ask of the merry Christian gentlemen, come collecting money for the poor and needy: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses!”

    Yes, you are right when you say that Karl Marx described religion as the opium of the masses, but he did so not with a sneer, but with a sigh. The full quote, you see, is a little longer:

    “Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.”

    In other words, Comrade Hirst, you make revolutions with the people – you do not make revolutions for them.

    [I couldn’t agree more about your last point Mr Trotter, I have always been a ‘revolution from below’ socialist, not a bring the masses to the party (even if they don’t want to come) Stalinist.
    However I disagree with the noble aim you claim for the French disapproving of the burqa. The effect – on the street – of state attempts to ban it, are that the racist right gets a boost in the polls etc.
    This is what’s happening now too with the disgusting “English Defence League”.

    There is no excuse for religious intolerance and racism. The way to smash Islamic fundamentalism is not by banning the burqa, but by political engagement with young Muslim workers – like the Stop the Nazis campaign in the UK.
    Chris Harman, The prophet and the proletariat EM]

  2. […] Oh, OK, the same crap arguments about religion and ethics. We’ve had this conversation. […]

  3. Ummm … the latest round of regional elections in France ended with a decisive victory for the Socialist Party.

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