A. C. Grayling: Meditations for the Humanist

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The religious reply to the moral sceptic`s question, `Why should I behave in such-and-such a way?` is simply `Because God requires it of you.` But this is merely a polite way of saying, `Because you`ll be punished if you don`t. [...] But a threat is never a logical justification for acting one way rather than another. If there exists a deity with the punitive vengefulness of the Judaeo-Christian variety, then it might be prudent to obey it, and thus avoid the flames of hell; but the threat of punishment is not a principled reason for obedience.

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It is not long in historical terms since Christian priests were burning people at the stake if they did not believe that wine turns to blood when a priest prays over it, and that the earth sits immovably at the universe`s centre, or [...] since they were whipping people and slitting their noses and ears for having sex outside marriage [...]. To this day adulterers are stoned to death in certain Muslim countries; if the priests were still on top in the once-Christian world, who can say it would be different?

The great moral questions of the present age are those about human rights, war, poverty, the vast disparities between rich and poor, the fact that somewhere in the third world a child dies every two and a half seconds because of starvation or remediable disease. The churches` obsessions over pre-marital sex and whether divorced couples can remarry in church appears contemptible in the light of this mountain of human suffering and need. By distracting attention from what really counts, and focusing it on the minor and anyway futile attempt to get people to conduct their personal lives only in ways the church permits, harm is done to the cause of good in the world.

If anyone bothered to examine what a Christian - or indeed any religious -morality demanded, he would be amazed by its diametric opposition to what is regarded as normal and desirable now, yet he would see - independently of whether it is the Christian or the contemporary morality which is `right` - the reason why the former is irrelevant to the latter.

If love [...] is the reason for being moral, what relevance does the existence or non-existence of a deity have? Why can we not be prompted to the ethical life by our own charitable feelings? The existence of a god adds nothing to our moral situation, other than an invisible policeman who sees what we do (even in privacy and under cover of night), and a threat of post-mortem terrors if we misbehave. Such additions are hardly an enrichment of the moral life, since the underpinning they offer consists of fear and threats of punishment: which is exactly what, among other things, the moral life seeks to free us from.

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