The “moral capital” move
The “moral capital” move that I explored here showed up again in today’s Observer (article here). On page 25, Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, suggests that perhaps modern atheist do-gooders are nevertheless living off the moral capital built up by earlier religious generations (and when that capital finally runs out, then where will we be?!):
“…many people who have strong moral commitments without any religious foundation were shaped by parents or grandparents for whom morality and religion were fundamentally bound up. Moreover, many of those in the forefront of progressive political change, who have abandoned religion, have been driven by a humanism that has essentially been built up by our Christian heritage… How far are we living on moral capital?” (p.25)]
Harries credits Charles Taylor with making this point, though the U.S. neo-cons seem to have got there before him (see below). I have not read Taylor’s “magesterial” A Secular Age yet. Will do shortly. Anyone out there read it?
Earlier uses of the move
Daniel P. Moloney of First Things:
Religious people are the first to admit that many religious people sin often and boldly, and that atheists often act justly. They explain these ethical atheists by noting that when atheists reject the religion in which they have been raised, they tend to keep the morality while discarding its theological foundation. Their ethical behaviour is then derivative and parasitic, borrowing its conscience from a culture permeated by religion; it cannot survive if the surrounding religious culture is not sustained. In short, morality as we know it cannot be maintained without Judeo-Christian religion.
Irving Kristol (so-called “Godfather” of neoconservativism) agrees:
For well over 150 years now, social critics have been warning us that bourgeoise society was living off the accumulated moral capital of traditional religion and traditional moral philosophy.
Gertrude Himmelfarb (who, incidentally, is married to Kristol) also favours the view that we are
…living off the religious capital of a previous generation and that that capital is being perilously depleted.
So too does Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee Judge Robert K. Bork:
We all know persons without religious belief who nevertheless display all the virtues we associate with religious teaching…such people are living on the moral capital of prior religious generations… that moral capital will be used up eventually, having nothing to replenish it, and we will see a culture such as the one we are entering.