In New Zealand we often hear the claim that the ethics, morals and values of our society are Christian. Some will even go as far as proposing that this claim should be enshrined in legislation. That the government should declare the country Christian in law. This proposal is rejected by members of other religions, the non-religious and many Christians. Many people are unhappy with the proposal because they see it as a step towards a theocracy.
Human values, not Christian values
In fact, the values of our society are not specifically Christian. The values are common to other religious and non-religious beliefs. However, the popular labeling of these beliefs is hard to counter. Even the non-religious will use terms such as “Christian charity” or “Christian kindness.” Perhaps there are equivalent terms in other societies – “Buddhist charity,” “Muslim Charity,” and “Hindu Charity” all meaning the same thing – charity. Perhaps this is just the chauvinism of the major religion. But it is demeaning for those who don’t belong to that religion. And sometimes these claims of Christian values are presented in a hostile manner. For example, when some Christians make the claim that the non-Christians have “stolen their values”, or only have these values because they have been raised on a Christian society, etc.
A similar example of ideological chauvinism occurred under the “developed socialism” of the last years of Breshnev’s rule in the USSR. Soviet ideologists of the time proudly proclaimed a new “Soviet man” displaying communist ethics and morality. Of course this was just an example of common human values, ethics and morality being claimed for a specific ideology.
To some extent this problem arises because of the popular conception that religions play a special, exclusive, role in moral guidance. Historically, religions did evolve as institutions codifying and teaching moral and ethical values. They also served the same purpose with legal and other social concepts, including justification for the existence and policies of the ruling caste. Religions also made claims to special knowledge about the natural world, about origins of the universe, life and humanity.
In modern society religion has largely conceded most of these roles. It is no longer seen by most people as a reliable source of information about the natural world or the origins of the universe, life and humanity. In this respect their ancient teachings are seen as myths. Similarly most countries now reject a special role for religion in their legal arrangements. Isn’t it about time Christianity also conceded that it has no special, exclusive, role in ethics and morality. That other ideological systems (non-religious and non-theist as well as theist) also codify and teach these common human moral and ethical values.
Dangers of “Christian values” claims
The danger of these sort of Christian claims is that they use common values to then attempt to impose a sectarian agenda on society. Claims of a “Christian society” and “Christian nation” are then used to impose irrational beliefs (e.g., creationism/intelligent design), sectarian expectations about human behaviour and the accompanying atmosphere of guilt (attitudes towards sex, dress, marriage). They are also used to justify imposing sectarian Christian ceremonies on society (national anthems, bans on trading on public holidays, imposition of Christian prayers).
Of particular concern is that “Christian values” are sometimes used to attempt to create hostility towards those with different beliefs, particularly those with atheist beliefs. By claiming exclusive right to these human values some Christians attempt to paint atheists as immoral, having not ethical or moral code. In effect they attempt to deny atheists rights to social participation – the right to be heard when society discusses ethical and moral questions.
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