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Is Christianity a Threat to Ethics?
by Caleb Colley, M.L.A.

Broadly speaking, there are two prominent, opposing views to the role of religion generally, and Christianity particularly, in ethics. One view suggests that ethics in society disintegrate when they are deprived of their religious foundation. Leo Tolstoy expressed this view:

The attempts to found a morality apart from religion are like the attempts of children who, wishing to transplant a flower that pleases them, pluck it from the roots that seem to them unpleasing and superfluous, and stick it rootless into the ground. Without religion there can be no real, sincere morality, just as without roots there can be no real flower (1964, pp. 31-32; cf. Lipe, n.d., p. 4).

Religion, on this view, is essential to the perpetuation of a healthy moral condition in society (e.g., Miller, 2003). The investigation of both meta-ethics and normative theory can grow and become more helpful for mankind, if such inquiry acknowledges and proceeds in a way consistent with its religious roots. A Christian is specific in the application of this thesis, proposing that Christianity is the exclusively necessary religion.

Some, however, have adopted an opposite stance concerning religion’s role in the development of ethics. Simon Blackburn is a professor of metaphysics, ethics, and philosophy of mind and language at the University of Cambridge and at the University of North Carolina (“Simon Blackburn,” 2008; “Simon Blackburn,” 2010). He edited the scholarly journal Mind from 1984 to 1990, and his influence has been widened by his production of popular works about philosophical topics. One of these is his book Being Good (2001), a text regularly encountered by undergraduates in introductory ethics classes. In this book, Blackburn addressed several items that have been purported to be threats to meaningful ethical inquiry, showing that each item may not be a real threat to ethics after all. One of these potential threats is the dismissal of God as an authority source, which Blackburn calls “the death of God.” Insofar as religion can serve as a myth that showcases the symbolic expression of our beliefs, Blackburn thinks that religion serves a good purpose (p. 18). However, Blackburn argues that religion “is not the foundation of ethics,” noting that religions have serviced both good and bad morals.

Of course, in light of the multitude of religions, with their contradictory ideologies and implications, it is impossible to endorse all of them as productive of good ethics. Almost any kind of act is sanctioned by one faith or another. However, Blackburn made a fatal mistake when he ruled out the possibility of any religion whatever serving as an ethical foundation, because in so doing, he eliminated biblical Christianity (pp. 10-14). With little argumentation, Blackburn provided a list of biblical passages and ideas, the ethical implications of which he thought so outrageous as to convince his readers to abandon the pursuit of biblical ethics altogether. The speed with which Blackburn flew through his allegations against the biblical text is breathtaking. However, Blackburn’s erroneous dismissal of biblical principle means that he failed to prove that religion is necessarily a threat to ethics.

Blackburn cited a number of Mosaic laws and asked how we could possibly be expected to obey such commands today (pp. 11-12). For example, Blackburn implied that biblical adherents are being inconsistent if they do not carry out the biblical penalty for working on the Sabbath—death—when they come across someone working on Saturday (Exodus 35:2; cf. Blackburn, p. 11). Of course, New Testament Christians do not claim to follow the Old Testament, because Christ has replaced it with His law (Colossians 2:14; Galatians 3:24-29; 5:1-6). In a similar vein, Blackburn failed to appreciate that those who burned alive “tens or hundreds of thousands of women in Europe and America between 1450 and 1780,” due to charges of witchcraft, were not subject to Exodus 22:18, the text which prescribed the killing of those who practiced sorcery (p. 13). [God’s desire to keep his people pure in a world of superstitious, immoral idolatry led Him to institute decisive, swift punishment on those who would introduce threatening practices.]

Blackburn objected to other laws  (from both the Old and New Testaments) which he thought reflect immorality on the part of God, including the following:


Blackburn’s strategy is typical of atheistic philosophers who dismiss biblical Christianity as a meaningful source of understanding and guidance. As might be expected, Blackburn used the so-called “Euthyphro dilemma” to argue that even were we to acknowledge the existence of a god much better than the god Blackburn has characterized, it still would be impossible to look to that god as an authority source (pp. 14-16). We have dealt with the Euthyphro dilemma previously (see Colley, 2010). Good ethical philosophy, when it utilizes the Bible, will involve a close study of the text and its historical context prior to a dismissal of its precepts as being wrong.


Bales, J.D., Woe Unto You? (Searcy, AR: College Bookstore and Press).

Blackburn, Simon (2001), Being Good (New York: Oxford University Press).

Butt, Kyle (2005), “Defending the Bible’s Position on Slavery,” URL:

Butt, Kyle (2006), “Jesus, the Syrophoenician Woman, and Little Dogs,” URL:

Colley, Caleb (2010), “Why is Good Good?,” URL:

Henry, Matthew (n.d.), Commentary on Leviticus (Electronic Database: MacSword).

Jackson, Wayne (n.d.), “Evolution—Fact or Theory,” URL:

Lipe, David, “The Foundations of Morality,” URL:

Miller, Dave (2003), “America, the Ten Commandments, and the Culture War,” URL:

Miller, Dave (2004), “Homosexuality and Female Menses,” URL:

“Simon Blackburn” (2008), Cambridge University, URL:

“Simon Blackburn” (2010), UNC College of Arts & Sciences, URL:

Tolstoy, Leo (1964), “Religion and Morality,” Selected Essays, trans. Aylmer Maude (New York: Random House).

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