Philosophy, ethics and belief in God1
Published: 28 July 2016 (GMT+10)
It’s rare for the secular media to give a balanced airing of the issue of evolution. Consequently, I was somewhat encouraged to read a short opinion piece recently, intriguingly titled, Teaching philosophy rather than RE will still lead to God.2 Author Dr Vince Vitale3 was responding to atheist philosopher A.C. Grayling’s call for the replacement of school RE (religious education) lessons with ‘ethics and philosophy’.4 Grayling wants the subject broadened to include discussion of contemporary questions such as the rights and wrongs of sex outside marriage. Vitale responded:
“Why should we trust any conclusion about premarital sex we reach in the classroom? The supposedly unguided evolutionary process that developed our reasoning ability is aimed at survival, not truth, and these are not the same thing.”
Quite right, and The Times is to be congratulated for allowing this opinion in print. Vitale went further:
“Trusting that a philosophy GCSE5 is going to produce true beliefs about ethical questions is like stepping on the scales and assuming they will tell you the time. Likewise, true ethical beliefs are not what unguided evolution would construct our brains to produce.”
This reminds me of the observation of C. S. Lewis, that if humans are merely the product of happenstance and evolution, our thoughts and reasoning are “merely accidental by-products” and there’s no reason for believing them to be true.6 Yet Vitale is highlighting the important fact that one cannot sensibly discuss ethics and morality without allowing questions of God’s existence into the discussion—hence the title of his newspaper article. Before proceeding further, perhaps we need to step back and ask a base-line question.
What is philosophy?
Many Christians are wary of ‘philosophy’, perhaps reminded of some bright young person they knew whose youthful enthusiasm for Christianity died on the vine through their pursuit of a university philosophy degree. Much of what is taught in secular philosophy courses is contrary to the Scriptures, and nobody should undertake studies in such a hostile environment lightly. For others, the word ‘philosophy’ may call to mind the apostle Paul’s warning to the church at Colossae:
“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8).
Does this mean all philosophy is dangerous?
Philosophy literally means the ‘love of wisdom’. To desire wisdom is a good thing. The young King Solomon’s prayer for wisdom to govern the people of Israel was commendable before God who gave it to him beyond measure” (1 Kings 3:9–12; 4:29; 2 Chronicles 1:10–11). Notice, God did not grant him wisdom, discernment and understanding for himself, rather for the benefit of others. Wisdom with this motive in mind is to be greatly desired; we might even say ‘loved’. We are to ask God for it, just as Solomon did—and we are promised that He will give it generously (James 1:5).
The downside is that human beings are apt to glory in their own wisdom and in the wisdom of others, rather than acknowledging and glorifying the God who is its source. When people celebrate knowledge and wisdom without “the fear of the Lord” (Job 28:28, Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 1:7), it is sheer idolatry. The love of wisdom which does not come from God (Proverbs 2:6) ultimately leads people to cynicism, depression and despair, even nihilism (Ecclesiastes 1:18). The type of philosophy, therefore, which is engaged solely with human wisdom, is certainly to be handled with care (1 Corinthians 2:5; 3:19). Indeed, a lot of what passes for wisdom should be shunned completely (James 3:15).
A philosophy that leads to God
In principle, then, we can envisage young people being schooled in wholesome, biblically-based philosophy. Such philosophy would engender and sharpen in those students’ minds, a love for its author, the All-Wise God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:3). The book of Proverbs personifies God’s attribute of wisdom as Creation’s “master craftsman” (Proverbs 8:22–31). The One whose incarnation we celebrate—“Immanuel … God with us” (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23)—is He who made all things (John 1:1–3; Colossians 1:15–16). There is no wiggle-room here for those who wish to make Him the Evolver God.7
Furthermore, as CMI emphasises, the only logically defensible basis for dignity, equity and justice in human relationships (and much else besides) is the distinctly Christian teaching that human beings are made in God’s image. In answer to atheists like A.C. Grayling:
“ultimately, either nothing is immoral (because there is no God, and thus no such thing as morality) or atheism is itself immoral. There are no coherent alternatives.”8
God-honouring philosophy acknowledges that our moral compass is God-given. Evolution cannot provide people with any logical or rational basis for morality, except what they choose (see Roots and fruits and Dawkins’s view on our moral compass). We all know in our hearts that lying, cheating, theft, adultery and murder are wrong. Whether acknowledged or not, these things are also acts of defiance against the Creator. To genuinely love wisdom is to love God, the epitome of knowledge and wisdom, and to embrace wholeheartedly His Supreme Gift, the Lord Jesus Christ. The first step is to acknowledge and confess our sins to God (1 John 1:9), then to turn to and embrace Christ as our Saviour by faith (Matthew 1:21; Romans 10:9).
References and notes
- This first appeared as a CMIExtra letter, CMI-UK/Europe, December 2015. Return to text.
- Vitale, V., The Times (UK), 5 September 2015. Return to text.
- Dr Vince Vitale is “Team Director and Senior Tutor at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, Tutor in Philosophy and Mission at Wycliffe Hall, a member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford, and a speaker for the Zacharias Trust”, theocca.org/bios/vince-vitale; accessed 25 February 2016. Return to text.
- Jackson, R., ‘AC Grayling is wrong … ’, www.tes.com, 2 March 2015. Return to text.
- General Certificate of Secondary Education, a high school qualification in England and Wales. Return to text.
- Lewis, C.S., The Business of Heaven, Fount Paperbacks, UK, p. 97, 1984. Return to text.
- Bell, P., The perils of theistic evolution, Creation 37(3):44–47, July 2015. Return to text.
- Anderson, D., Can we be good without God? 29 July 2008; creation.com/good-without-god. Return to text.