Does Morality Need Religion?

2013 Annual McDonald Centre Conference, University of Oxford

For centuries, atheism was suppressed because of its supposed amorality. Now, New Atheists such as A.C. Grayling and Sam Harris argue that decent, liberal morality is perfectly possible without religious belief—indeed, that it is only possible without it. Others, such as Jürgen Habermas, acknowledge that Christianity has had a peculiar capacity to articulate humanist values and norms, but that these can be extracted without loss from their theological roots. This May, the McDonald Centre, together with the Department of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology at the University of Exeter, gather ten philosophers and theologians—both believers and unbelievers—from the UK, the USA, and New Zealand to address questions such as these:

  • Even if morality in general does not need religion, might specific moralities nonetheless need it?
  • Might morality be better off without religion? Is it better off without any religion or only certain kinds?
  • When notions of human dignity or rights are extracted from theological language, is anything important lost in translation? Are such notions really sustainable apart from a theological worldview?
  • Are religious believers more, or less, moral than others? Or are such questions philosophically irrelevant?

Speakers include: David Baggett (Liberty), Julian Baggini (The Philosophers’ Magazine), Nigel Biggar (Oxford), John Cottingham (Reading), John Hare (Yale), Terence Irwin (Oxford), Michael Hauskeller (Exeter), Tim Mulgan (Auckland), Keith Ward (Oxford), and Mark Wynn (Leeds).

The conference programme was as follows: 

Session One
Nigel Biggar, ‘How Some Moralities Need Some Religion’
Mark Wynn, ‘Religion & Morality: The Perspective of Some Christian Spiritual Traditions’

Session Two
Julian Baggini, ‘A Fistful of Morals: Spaghetti-Western Moral Philosophy’
David Baggett, ‘Missing the Point: Why Functional Accounts of Ethics are Antirealist’

Session Three
John Hare, ‘Three Arguments for the Dependence of Morality upon Religion’
John Cottingham, ‘Commands & Reasons: Can There be Theistic Foundations for Morality?’

Session Four
Keith Ward, ‘Kant on Why Morality Needs Religion’
Terence Irwin, ‘Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die: St Paul & Kant on the Moral Argument and Practical Faith’

Session Five
Michael Hauskeller, ‘Something that Matters: The Religious Dimension of Moral Experience’
Tim Mulgan, ‘Objective Value and Cosmic Purpose’

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