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on 13 June 2009
By the late nineteenth century, as Friedrich Nietzsche disobligingly pointed out, most educated people in the West had ceased to believe in God. They had been won over to what they took to be a scientific view of the world. All the same, the traditional morality based on Christian and Judaic religion continued in full flight. Nietzsche protested that this was inauthentic and indefensible. You no longer believe in the foundations of your own value-system: if there is no God, then your morality cannot come from a transcendent source. Or - as Ivan Karamazov argued - if there is no God, everything is permitted.

For more than a century, the question posed by Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky has troubled philosophers and theologians. They have been aware that the relationship between religion and morality is close, but fraught with ambiguity. There are those who regard religion as being morally reactionary and vicious, opposing progress in the name of archaic divine laws. And then there are others who would uphold religion as an important defence of human value, moral dignity and objective moral standards.

Professor Keith Ward is one of the foremost commentators on Christian belief and doctrine in the context of modern science and the world faith traditions. He is Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford, the successor to Rowan Williams no less, and is to be taken very seriously. He is one of our foremost commentators on religious belief in the context of modern science and world faiths. And he comes up to evidence; he is easy to read, his argument is good and accessible. I must also pay tribute to SCM press whose presentation and setting is very easy on the eye. For that is no flattery in a world where theological and philosophy are often printed in texts and literary styles that are wearisome to read and difficult to follow.

The essential argument in this work is that all the major world religions have at their heart a concern for personal fulfilment, and that they place the ideal of such fulfilment in a transcendental or spiritual realm that has primary existence, reality and value. The objective and categorical moral force of morality can be safeguarded by religious devotion to transcendental goodness.

The book follows the structure of a lecture-series and so Keith explores this thesis by a careful examination in successive chapters. He discusses specific moral problems such as violence, human genetic modification and ethical concerns around the beginning and ending of human life. He looks at questions about secular and religious law in Christianity, Islam Judaism and Buddhism. He argues that these traditions have positive and creative vitality that can inspire and re-inforce a humanistic or `personalistic' moral engagement.

For he calls religious humanism `transcendental personalism', and I think that this is a bit of a three-card trick, because they are not really the same. No-one deep in religious faith and particularly in an academic setting like Oxford University wants to hear the proposal that morality is really a human conversational product. That it evolves slowly through a forensic debate, one that is best illustrated by the Jewish Rabbis and by the Jesuits during the seventeenth century. I felt that he missed this in his discussion of religious law when considering the contribution of the Torah; he circles around it but never bites. The same is true of The Case of Islam and Jihad which I thought he gave too easy a ride when you consider the common antipathy towards Islamism (as well as towards any organised `traditional' religion which are commonly viewed as morally ugly and violent. He acknowledges this all right, but does not respond strongly enough.)

In general, Professor Ward does write with a tone of reasonable, easy benevolence. It is a bit like Duke Senior in As You Like It who, free from the envious court, found `sermons in stones, books in the running brooks; good in everything'. However, he appears to realise this in the Prologue, which in some ways is the most interesting part of the book. The lectures from 2006 on which the book is based just predated the stream of literary invective from Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchen, Sam Harris and the boys, which seem to have shaken Keith Ward's goodwill and he feels he has to answer it all. His defence is, broadly speaking, to distinguish between good and bad religion. However, the making of that distinction entails an authentic moral judgement. Which is where we came in.
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