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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Do Christians have a monopoly on morals?

Written by: on January 25, 2018

In The Soul of Doubt Erdozain contends that most of Christianity’s starkest critics (i.e. those who cried, “Foul!” when Calvin burned “heretics” at the stake and Luther thumbed his nose at morality) made arguments rooted in genuine Christian ethics. His essential claim is that “[T]he ‘secular’ critique of Christianity was a burning product of the religion it dared to appraise.”[1] While his arguments are convincing, reviewer Hecht challenges this premise, insisting that Christianity doesn’t have a corner on the morality market: “The real roots of secular ethics in the 18th to 20th centuries are to be found in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Star Trek.”[2] She contends that “some element of personal ethics seems to be hard-wired in humans.”[3]

Throughout his book, Erdozain points out how often dissenters cited “conscience” as their basis for dissent—from Luther to Marx, there was a sense that the human conscience played the starring role in reshaping Christianity and the societies in which it took root. So what, then, is the source of our conscience? Is conscience simply the “personal ethic” that is “hard-wired” in humans, or is it the “inner light”—that trace of the divine that points to a higher power? And if it is the trace of the divine, can that divine be clearly revealed to be the God of the Bible?

Hecht’s challenges to Erdozain made me realize how euro-centric both arguments are. In other words, if we are trying to determine if some form of personal ethics are indeed hard-wired into humans, we would need to look beyond the borders of Europe. Hecht refers to Buddhism in her critique, but doesn’t acknowledge the extreme difference in the Asian “personal ethic” as contrasted to the European “personal ethic.” Is there a difference between the collective conscience of Africans and the collective conscience of Native Americans? Do they, too, reflect the same values?

Jeff Fountain, former European director of Youth With a Mission and founder of the Schuman Centre for European Studies, believes that the basic values that are held by the modern European collective conscience are essentially Christian, and that even though many Europeans have rejected Christianity as religion, the continent continues to benefit from a long history of Christian influence.[4] Building on that premise, he works with an ecumenical Christian initiative called “Together for Europe.”

Together for Europe proposes a culture of fraternity based around seven yeses: a yes to life from conception to natural death, to the family based on marriage between a man and a woman, a yes to creation defending nature and the environment, a yes to a just economy at the service of every person, a yes to solidarity with the poor and marginalised, near and far, a yes to peace and a yes to responsibility towards the whole of society so that cities become places of welcome for people of different nationalities and cultures.[5]

While these “yeses” are essentially founded on a Christian ethic, the Together for Europe movement is not advocating for a Christian society like Calvin sought to establish in Geneva. Fountain asserts, “Let us take another look at Europe—this time to see what God is doing. ‘Wheat and tares’ will always grow up together. We should focus on the ‘wheat’ and look for signs of hope, faith, and vision among the ruins. God is not finished with Europe yet!”[6] In other words, they have no desire to root out those who are apostate, but rather to be attentive to and active where God is at work in and through their society.

In essence, Fountain is of the opinion that Christian values have shaped the European conscience and thereby contributed to much of what is beautiful, good, and admirable in Europe, including a general concern for human rights and an appreciation for the arts. He believes that “Christians should be aware of how the Bible and the story of Jesus have been the most influential shapers of Europe’s past” because too often we remember the negative effects of religious wars and the hypocrisy of the Church while failing to acknowledge the positive influences that have also made their mark.[7]

The truth in Fountain’s assertions can be tested by comparing Europe with continents that have not had a long history with Christianity. In a 2015 listing of the 11 countries with the best human rights ranking in the world –ten of the eleven countries listed were in Europe, and the only one that was not in Europe—Canada—has distinctly European roots.[8] Interestingly, one of the key measurements used was whether or not the country valued “freedom of conscience.” Furthermore, in a 2016 report on human rights, 36 of the 50 top rated countries were in Europe.[9] Is this just coincidence, or might Jeff Fountain be on to something?

And if Fountain is correct in his assertion, then perhaps Erdozain has a response for his critic, Hecht. Maybe the secular ethic (in Europe, at least) can be linked to a Christian ethic, rooted in the belief that humans are made in the image of God and have inherent worth. For if the ethics were, indeed, “hard-wired” in humans, wouldn’t the same value on human dignity be evident across the globe? While I do not mean to insinuate that Christians have amonopoly on morals, I do think that there is some evidence that shows that those countries where Christianity has had a significant historical presence do tend to be places where freedom of conscience, religion, movement, and speech are broadly enjoyed. And I don’t think that is a coincidence.

[1] Dominic Erdozain, The Soul of Doubt: The Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016). 4.

[2] Jennifer Michael Hecht, “How Secular Are Secular Ethics?,” Chronicle of Higher Education 62, no. 24 (February 26, 2016): 7–7.

[3] Hecht.

[4] “Europe,” Lausanne Movement (blog), November 11, 2014, https://www.lausanne.org/content/lga/2014-11/europe-strategic-mission-field.

[5] “Europe Must Be Attentive to Its Soul | Ireland,” accessed January 25, 2018, http://www.focolare.org/ireland/news/2016/07/02/europe-must-be-attentive-to-its-soul/.

[6] “Europe.”

[7] “Europe.”

[8] “11 Countries with the Best Human Rights Ranking in the World,” Insider Monkey, accessed January 25, 2018, http://www.insidermonkey.com/blog/11-countries-with-the-best-human-rights-ranking-in-the-world-348260/.

[9] Ian Vasquez and Tanja Porcnik, The Human Freedom Index 2016: A Global Measurement of Personal, Civil, and Economic Freedom, 2016, http://www.deslibris.ca/ID/10065297.

About the Author

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Jennifer Williamson

Jenn Williamson is a wife and mother of two adult sons. Before moving to France in 2010, she was the women's pastor at Life Center Foursquare Church in Spokane, WA. As a missionary with Greater Europe Mission, she is involved in church planting and mentoring emerging leaders. Jenn benefitted from French mentors during her transition to the field, and recognizes that cross-cultural ministry success depends on being well integrated into the host culture. Academic research into missionary sustainability and cultural adaptation confirmed her own experience and gave her the vision to create Elan, an organization aimed at helping missionaries transition to the field in France through the participation of French partners.

15 responses to “Do Christians have a monopoly on morals?”

  1. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Jenn,

    Thanks for sharing these two thoughts:

    “…even though many Europeans have rejected Christianity as religion, the continent continues to benefit from a long history of Christian influence.”

    And, “…there is some evidence that shows that those countries where Christianity has had a significant historical presence do tend to be places where freedom of conscience, religion, movement, and speech are broadly enjoyed.”

    That would include America I believe, but would want to know your opinion because you have more of a global viewpoint. Could this also be describing the USA?

    • mm Jennifer Williamson says:

      Hey Jay, The United States is still a pretty Christian nation, with over half of its citizens (some statistics say as many as 70%) claiming to be Christian, and of those more than 45% actively involved in a church body. Compare that with France, where 45% say they are Catholic, but of those only 50% believe in God and only 10% go to Mass as least twice a month. Evangelicals in France are about 2% of the population. In other words, the US is benefitting from a current -day Christian presence, while most European nations are benefitting from an historical Christian presence.

      But yes, as far as human rights are concerned, Christian nations tend to be more hospitable to women, children and strangers and have more stable justice systems.

  2. mm Dan Kreiss says:

    Jen,

    Great post. Your critique of Hecht is spot on. I think she doesn’t give credit to the thousand year influence of Christianity on the thinking of Western Europe. It also begs the question as to whether the standards being used by the Truth Foundation are also Eurocentric. Does that mean nations that do not share our Christian heritage do not have the sense of human rights we do or that we do not recognize altering versions of human rights?

    • mm Jennifer Williamson says:

      Good point, Dan. I thought about that, too. In essence, is ‘human rights” even a thing in some countries? In other words, why do we think humans have any rights at all? I think it is rooted in the Christian belief that humans are made in God’s image, that they are unique as a species, and therefore worthy of greater values than, say, a cow. But a Hindu conscience would push back on that. Their belief in reincarnation leads them to place higher values on all lives, which reduces the value on human life, in that it is not more valuable than a cow. The hindu migh say, “Why should a human have special rights that a cow doesn’t have?” And therefore consider a European understanding of human rights as unjust.

  3. mm Trisha Welstad says:

    Jenn, you give me some good learning points in your post. I had not heard of the two lists on human rights rankings or had thought much about the long history of Christianity in Europe and its effects on their continued on humanity today. Great insights and critique which brings me to think of Hecht. Although I read her review, I did not use it because I thought many of her assumptions were a little too far afield. It seemed a personal critique in many ways, especially after noting her connection with Spinoza.

    Do other Christians in France and Europe that you have met come to similar conclusions about the history still playing a large role on society today and the collective conscience of valuing humanity? Do you think non-Christians would agree or be repelled by this idea?

    • mm Jennifer Williamson says:

      Hey Trisha, good question. I do think that most French people I know would actually agree. I think this because, as I reported to Jay, about half of the French population will identify as “Catholic” even those half of those people also say that they do not believe in God. To me, that affirms the idea that they recognize the cultural and social value of their Catholic roots even though they no longer hold to their religious beliefs.

      But I could be wrong 🙂

      • mm Trisha Welstad says:

        Fair enough. Next question- was the US on any of the human rights lists you mentioned? If we are a ‘Christian nation’, I wonder how we rank (and why).

  4. mm M Webb says:

    Jennifer,
    I found Hecht to be an interesting critic for Erdozain too. As a self-proclaimed Jewish atheist, she calls it like she sees it with Erdozain. Out of all the critics against his Soul of Doubt, she was the only one that I saw where Erdozain wrote a journal article to defend himself against her claims. 1
    I have always thought that you and I “see” things in a similar way, as missionaries, and lay Christian leaders. Great closing with Fountain and your position on religion and secularism (conscience). I found it to be a kind of symbiosis, that did not necessarily need each other to survive, but in this case, grow into the Western model of Christianity that portrays the freedom’s you describe in your closing.
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb
    1 Erdozain, Dominic. 2016. “A History of Unbelief.” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 18. 11. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed January 23, 2018).

    • mm Jennifer Williamson says:

      Hey Mike, thanks for sharing Erdozain’s rebuttal article. I did not see that one before, but wish I had, as it would have helped me to better nuance this post! He makes an interesting statements in the article about how more people are drawn to doubt Christianity because of teachings on predestination than teachings on evolution. I’m not sure what his source is for that claim, but it rings true for me. He says that his point was that doubt more often came from within the Church than from without. This turned the book in its head for me, as I read it thinking his main point was that those critics who came from the outside were using Christian arguments against the Church.–the idea of the prophetic voice coming from the margins as we heard Michelle talk about in Cape Town.

      Now I’m wondering if I missed the whole point of the book! Not a good feeling this late in the game :/

  5. Greg says:

    Interesting direction of your post. I too quoted Hecht, but I like the way you challenged her thinking and western perspective. The questions of westerners and asians are considerable different. I do feel like the European initiative to see the positive and beauty in the culture and countries of Europe to have been the influence of Christians is very Erdorzain-like. At a time the Europe is often referred to as post-christian, it is good to hear that there are those calling people back to remember what has made them what they are. Do you find it difficult to own up to the Christian historical influences and not get bogged down with all the tragic (burning at the stakes) times done in the name of Christ?

  6. mm Jennifer Williamson says:

    Hey Greg, I was wondering what your perspective would be on the Asian collective conscience, particularly as far as human rights are concerned.

    French people have been in the cross-fires of religious wars for centuries, particularly battles between Catholic and Protestants. So the biggest hurdle is working towards reconcilliation and educating people about our shared roots. The French are also moving towards reconcilliation on their own, in some pockets.

  7. mm Jean Ollis says:

    Hi Jenn! I found your writing to be insightful and fascinating. As someone who hasn’t gone to seminary and feels like I don’t have much voice to add to this discussion, your blog resonated with me. This statement “I do think that there is some evidence that shows that those countries where Christianity has had a significant historical presence do tend to be places where freedom of conscience, religion, movement, and speech are broadly enjoyed. And I don’t think that is a coincidence” is an interesting observation. I believe I would connect this to a sociology perspective – values, belief systems, historical trauma, etc. are all generationally learned and modeled. How can you integrate this very concept to your research? And can you speak more specifically to the church decline in France?

    • mm Jennifer Williamson says:

      I was having a really hard time connecting this book to my research. The best I can see is a parallel–I think global missions is currently in an enlightenment/doubt phase, and I think we need to be paying attention to the critics. And I am one of the critics, though also an insider. But I came late to the party (ie, I had a life before missions, outside of missions, and I bring that perspective with me.)

  8. mm Kyle Chalko says:

    Provocative post. Your post is like the religious version of Guns, Steel and Germs by Jared Diamond, which made the argument that the global north advanced more quickly than the south because of a few key criteria. Your idea of ethics and Christianity being a contributing factor to countries human rights rating is very interesting. Of course, as we learned in week 1, Africa has had more Christian roots than we have realized, although it obviously was not as prevalent.

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