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The Problem Of Moralism

The Southern Baptist theologian Albert Mohler takes up the case of a distraught parent who wrote to an advice columnist, saying she doesn’t understand why her teenage daughter is an atheist, given that the girl was raised with “Christian values.” That, says Mohler, is precisely the problem. [1] Excerpt:

Parents who raise their children with nothing more than Christian values should not be surprised when their children abandon those values. If the child or young person does not have a firm commitment to Christ and to the truth of the Christian faith, values will have no binding authority, and we should not expect that they would. Most of our neighbors have some commitment to Christian values, but what they desperately need is salvation from their sins. This does not come by Christian values, no matter how fervently held. Salvation comes only by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Human beings are natural-born moralists, and moralism is the most potent of all the false gospels. The language of “values” is the language of moralism and cultural Protestantism — what the Germans called Kulturprotestantismus. This is the religion that produces cultural Christians, and cultural Christianity soon dissipates into atheism, agnosticism, and other forms of non-belief. Cultural Christianity is the great denomination of moralism, and far too many church folk fail to recognize that their own religion is only cultural Christianity — not the genuine Christian faith.

Here is a passage from Charles Taylor’s “A Secular World” on the decline of religion into moralism, and how it opens the door for unbelief. Here Taylor is talking about the 19th century reaction against Victorian moralism:

But perhaps the most important for our purposes was the protest against a narrowing of the ends of life to a code of conduct: This ethic of discopline, in both believing and unbeleiving variants, was a moralism. It put discipline, self-control, the achieving of a high moral standard as the supreme goal. This tended to be true even of the Evangelical modes, which had after all started in the previous century as a reaction against narrow moralism, for instance in the emotionally liberating preaching of Wesley. Like all moralisms, it could come to seem too thin, too dry, concerned so exclusively with behaviour, discipline, control, that it left no space for some great elan or purpose which would transform our lives and take us out of the narrow focus on control. The obsession with getting myself to act right seems to leave no place for some overwhelmingly important goal or fulfillment, which is the one which gives point to my existence.

This complaint, sometimes interwoven with the “Romantic” one, that modern moral, disciplined life represses feeling, recurs again and again in the last two centuries. It is one of the defining concerns of the modern world. It is related to that other great defining concern, the worry about meaning, that is, about the possible meaninglessness of life. Indeed, these two are closely linked; they come at the same issue from different directions. The attack on our form of life as having left no place for what is the essential purpose of life, can from another angle be taken up as the anguished question whether there is still such an essential purpose, or whether they have not rather been all equally rendered nugatory by our way of life. It is just that, while the reproach against dry-as-dust moralism has analogies in earlier centuries, the anguish about meaning is quintessentially modern.

Taylor goes on to talk about how the traumatic experience of the First World War damaged the credibility of Christian moralism as the foundation of civilization more than anything could have done. The years between the two world wars, Taylor writes, saw “a further retreat from belief because of the implication of Christian faith in the discredited synthesis.” [N.B., this “synthesis,” in Taylor’s telling, is the combination of law, morality, Christianity, civilization, and cultural identity. — RD]

There is, I think, something important to be learned here about why so many young Americans are turning away from religion. There is no one particular reason, of course, but researchers have identified the strong identification of Evangelical Christianity with the Republican Party and its values and goals as a major reason. Whether fair or not, when a religion becomes closely identified with a political agenda, and that agenda comes to be discredited, or at least unpopular, we should not be surprised when people find it harder to credit that religion’s claims. We see this in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century discrediting of the churches that had become too entwined with the ancien regimes of Europe and Russia.

Anyway, moralism. The correct response to moralism masquerading as Christianity is Peggy Lee’s: “Is this all there is?” Kierkegaard said the answer to Peggy Lee’s question is not to be found in a life of Romanticism, hedonism, or aestheticism — Bloom but in true Christianity. But that’s a story for another day.

62 Comments (Open | Close)

62 Comments To "The Problem Of Moralism"

#1 Comment By JonF On September 16, 2012 @ 7:38 am


When kids learn science in school (especially grade school) they learn it from the teacher instructing them in the facts, in effect a “top-down, authoritative” approach. This is really no different from learning religion via adult say-so.

#2 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On September 16, 2012 @ 7:40 am

David J White asked :

How many people do you know who have personally conducted detailed astronomical observations of the movement of heavenly bodies, compiled the data, and crunched the numbers themselves to confirm heliocentrism?

Venus and Mercury have phases which confirms they orbits the Sun. It’s not hard to observe at all.

When I was in 9th grade I measured the diameter of the Sun using a pin hole in a window shade by the diameter of the image on the opposite wall. The math was simple ratios using similar triangles.

Determining the temperature of absolute zero only requires some gas in a tube sealed by a water drop. You measure the expansion and contraction of the gas over a temperature range and extrapolate.

Actually come to think of it, Brownian motion is confirmation of atomic theory which only requires a cup of hot tea with some tea leaves moving about in the bottom.

I guess my point is that a good science education teaches the students how to confirm what they are taught. Much of the foundations of modern science were laid by people with little to no equipment, so reproducing their results is easier than many people realize.

#3 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On September 16, 2012 @ 7:48 am

Turmarion said :

I suppose it’s “coercion” to refuse a passing grade to a student who insists that 2 + 2 = 17

Well I insist that 1 + 1 = 10 and I was encouraged to believe this by my computer science professors.

#4 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On September 16, 2012 @ 8:14 am

Turmarion said :

The assumption that Cult, Creed, and Conduct are necessarily interlocked is obviously false; but it is very widely held, and accounts for such situations as that described in Mohler’s article.

Calvinism always seemed to me to be an elaborate series of work arounds to you obvious conclusion. Basically Mohler should have answered :

Atheists can be good without believing in God because common grace allows them to be.

Conversely believers can sin because man’s total depravity prevents them from being good without God’s help.

Your daughter doesn’t believe in God because she wasn’t elected by God to do so.

#5 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On September 16, 2012 @ 10:34 am

JonF said:

When kids learn science in school (especially grade school) they learn it from the teacher instructing them in the facts, in effect a “top-down, authoritative” approach.

Well that strikes me as poor teaching. I’ve done some volunteer science enrichment for fourth grade school students and taught them Newton’s laws of motion and how to verify them. Obviously Calculus is beyond a fourth grader, but the concept of inertia for example is not.

Frankly most scientific concepts before the late 1880’s aren’t that hard to present or verify. Now many people may not have an interest in doing so, but that’s different from a metaphysical claim that is beyond verification.

#6 Comment By Turmarion On September 16, 2012 @ 1:18 pm

I just have to second Church lady and MH regarding teaching science. All education has to start with the children believing the teacher knows what he or she is talking about, and the content being “because the teacher said so”. I don’t think that makes it ipso facto “coercive”. As kids get older and the material advances, as MH points out, a good curriculum has lab work, simple experiments of the type he mentions, and so forth, that show kids the why and teach them that science (or math) is always demonstrated, and not “because teacher says so”.

Now obviously it’s unlikely that any curriculum will be able to demonstrate every single piece of scientific truth in a kid’s school career. The point is to show them how to think scientifically and to do demonstrations of enough things so that they can see how it works and understand that someone, somewhere has done the work to show why, for example, the half-life of uranium is such-and-such; and to know that in principle they could do the work themselves, or read the write-up by someone who did do it.

I mean, I’ve never been to Australia, and the images I’ve seen could be an elaborate hoax; but I trust my geography teachers and people I know who say they’ve been there, etc. I could go there in principle to prove it to myself; but pending that, I’m not going to doubt the existence of Down Under! Likewise, a proper scientific education might not prove every single thing, dot every “i”, cross every “t”; but it should put me in a place where I don’t go around doubting the age of the Earth because I didn’t have a course in radiometry, or being suspicious of quantum physics because I’ve never done the two-slot experiment.

I don’t know what Jon exactly is trying to say, but he comes off as implying that “science” is just a bunch of stuff that kids are “forced” to believe because someone told them so and threatened a bad grade otherwise; as if science isn’t our best approximation to what is. I’ve never seen Jon make any posts in favor of creationism, but this is the exact type of argument creationists use, and it’s wrong.

#7 Comment By Church Lady On September 16, 2012 @ 4:42 pm


I suppose teachers could, if they wanted to, take advantage of their young students’ naivete and trust to get them to believe in things that simply aren’t true, or that science has no evidence for. They could tell them that the sun is actually a ball of burning coal, dragged across the sky by the God Apollo on a chariot. They could tell them that the sky is blue because it was painted that way by men on giant scaffolds. Kids would probably believe that.

Of course, eventually they would find out that this isn’t true. And that would lead them to doubt everything their teachers taught them. Which is why science teachers tend not to make stuff up, but only teach students what has been confirmed by the scientific method. More important than such facts, they teach the scientific method itself, and show them how it works. This teaches them how to think empirically, so that they can learn to think for themselves, and verify what they have been taught by looking at the evidence.

Science is not a system of authority, with truths passed on by resorting to arguments from authority. Newton and Einstein and Heisenberg are not like Moses and Jesus and Paul. What they say isn’t true simply because they said it was true. It’s only true because testing and experiment and evidence shows them to be true, and even then only partially, and with the cavaet that future evidence can prove their ideas to be either wrong or incomplete.

We teach kids verifiable scientific truths, not unverifiable beliefs about the world. We teach them how to think for themselves, rather than merely to rely on authority. A schoolteacher certainly is an authority, and kids tend to accept what they say, but it’s an authority they can’t abuse, and still keep their respect over time. The most important thing a science teacher teachers isn’t the facts, but the process of how to think critically, how to doubt constructively, and how to construct a set of ideas about the world that can be tested and falsified. Even if one starts off merely beleiving what the teacher says, one only learns by questioning what the teacher has said. A real teacher encourages that process. A bad teacher discourages it, and even punishes the child for not having sufficient faith in their authority.

#8 Comment By James Kabala On September 16, 2012 @ 11:00 pm

Late to the party here, but I agree with many of the recent comments. Most people are fairly inarticulate, and “close reading” of their words, such as is meant to be applied to a literary text, will not necessarily shed light on what they really meant. It is pretty likely that by “Christian values” this mother meant “Christian faith” – certainly it is hard for Rev. Mohler to parse the phrase without knowing all the facts.

#9 Comment By JonF On September 17, 2012 @ 6:23 am

Re: I don’t think that makes it ipso facto “coercive”.

My point was that it is authoritative, and that the postulate of Adults Have Answers is necessarily an ingredient in educating children (and they younger the child the more adult authority is in play). And yes, this is how religion is taught to children as well.
Sensible parents will encourage their children to begin to explore a bit as they grow older– though our present day practice of giving kids a precise program of planned activities cuts against that grain. And teenagers will begin to question and strike out entirely on their own.
I am NOT saying that science and religion have the same epistemology, or that they are done the same by adults (which is what several posters seem to think I am saying). I was reacting the Church Lady’s comment in regards to how CHILDREN are taught religion and science, and I am pointing out that she is wrong. Science and religion, and everything else, is pretty much taught authoritatively to children. The differences come later in life, when doubting and questioning by adults is (somewhat) welcome in science and (generally) not welcome in religion. But we are talking about kids here, not adults.

#10 Comment By Clay On September 17, 2012 @ 10:20 am

As an atheist, give me people striving for “discipline, self-control, the achieving of a high moral standard” in this life over some metaphysical notion of transcendence in the next, any old time.

#11 Comment By Church Lady On September 17, 2012 @ 1:34 pm


I’m glad you’re finally making the epistemological distinction between science and religion. I would also agree that teaching very young children depends very much on accepting teachers as authority figures, and the facts and even opinions they give as authoritative. That’s simply part of the nature of children.

But when talking about the difference between teaching children science, and teaching them religion takes on two important factros. First, the kinds of things that science teaches children are factual matters that can indeed be observed and verified, whereas religion teaches many things which simply cannot ever be confirmed or verified, because they are of an entirely different order. Children can grow up to be astronauts and discover for themselves that the earth goes around the sun, but even if the grow up to be priests, they will never confirm for themselves that belief in Christ will get them into heaven and give them eternal life. That will always be a matter of faith.

And it is from this that your second distinction comes, which is that children who are taught science, are also taught to question science, to question authority, to come up with theories of their own, and to subject them to testing. They may not be able to do that much as children, but as adults they can and do and even must, especially those who become scientists. WHereas, as you say, doubting authority and asking questions is not at all welcome in a religious upbringing, either in childhood or adulthood. Kids are taught that religious truths are never to be doubted, and that religious authorities are never even to be questioned when it comes to core teachings of faith. This is an entirely different kind of teaching method, both in subject matter, and in style.

And of course, I was also referring to some of the methods I’ve seen or heard about from others, in which very young children are very emotively manipulated and indoctrinated in teaching them their religious faith, in a manner that you will simply never see in a science class. Tremendous pressure is put upon them to emotively demonstrate and affirm their faith in Christ, because it is emotive belief that is the very basis of such faith, whereas this kind of emotion is simply not necessary or implicit in the teaching of science.

Kids in science classes may accept what they are taught because the teacher seems to know what they are talkign about, and their grades depend upon it, but there is no emotional appeal surrounding the subject used to manipulate young minds into believing in scientism. That is not only unnecessary, it would be counter-productive to the teaching of science, which relies on reason, intelligent questioning, and empirical observation, rather than emotional faith. If anything, science requires the removal of emotion from the process of learning. Which is why, perhaps, many kids find it rather boring.

#12 Comment By Steve Sponsler On March 10, 2016 @ 1:34 pm

Spiritually dead is Dead no matter what it looks like…if a Person is so moral see if they can by their own moral self Know God and if they want to know the Picture of Perfect ‘Morality’ which is to give Life Eternal to a fallen world; how moral can that person be if they say no to perfect love?