Can Science Replace Religion In Our Lives?

How can we establish the authority of a decent public morality in a plural society?

Comte identified morality with altruism

To answer this question, some post-Christian secularists turn to evolutionary biology and game theory.  They identify morality with altruism and then seek to conjure altruism out of genetic selfishness.  In his recent article in Standpoint Magazine, Professor Nigel Biggar outlines the problems associated with this approach and argues how the Christian moral vision tells a better story.

Thomas Aquinas and Joseph Butler tell a better story than Hobbes. They can account for the various data of the springs of human motivation without having to force them onto a procrustean bed of materialism. What is more, their story gladly embraces the notions of human dignity and rights that most materialists strive to retain in schizophrenic defiance of all their premises. This is why Jürgen Habermas, the eminent (and atheist) German public intellectual, was moved to confess to Le Monde some years ago that religious traditions — not least the Christian one — “have the distinction of a superior capacity for articulating our [liberal, humanist] moral sensibility”.

Upcoming Book Launches: June 4 & 13

Please join us for two exciting book launches in Oxford this June.

Hordern Cover

Political Affections: Civic Participation & Moral Theology

by Joshua Hordern

June 4, 1.15pm, Philosophy Room, Radcliffe Humanities Building

Free lunch provided; RSVP

View launch invitation or book flyer offering a 20% discount

Clarke CoverReligion, Intolerance, and Conflict

with a critical commentary by John Perry & Nigel Biggar

June 13, 6.45pm, New Ryle Room, Radcliffe Humanities Bldg

Wine and refreshments; remarks by Nigel Biggar


Does Morality Need Religion?

Registration is now open closed for the conference, Does Morality Need Religion?

  • 16-17 May 2013 at the University of Oxford
  • View or print the poster to help us spread the word
  • Email us with a question


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), Mark Wynn (Leeds).

The Idea of a University

Two of the speakers from last May’s McDonald Centre conference, Christianity and the Flourishing of Universities, have been hard at work on a project that addresses some of the same themes.

Led by Mike Higton and David Ford from the University of Cambridge, the study asks, “What place does religion have in the Western research university?” Visit their website, The Idea of a University,  for resources or to join the discussion.

Flourishing of Universities Conference

Last week, the McDonald Centre was honoured to host one of its most exciting events. Eleven leading scholars from top universities in the US and UK gathered to study the recent plight of universities.

It was the first time that these scholars, all of whom have been supported in various projects by the McDonald Agape Foundation, were together at a single event. They represent the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Duke, Notre Dame, Yale, Chicago, and Emory.

The conference, entitled Christianity and the Flourishing of Universities, explored a variety of questions, including:

  • Can theology justify its place in the secular research university?
  • Should theology be studied in universities rather than churches and seminaries?
  • What is lost when governments decide what research is worth funding solely by economic-utilitarian measures of ‘impact’ or monetary pay-out?

This was the fifth major McDonald Centre conference, with previous events on justice, forgiveness, human enhancement technologies, and and an engagement with the work of Peter Singer. This year’s conference was attended by well over 100 scholars, students, clergy, and laity from across the UK and numerous other countries.

Videos of all conference sessions are now available.

L-R: Peter McDonald, Nigel Biggar, Nicholas Wolterstorff, John Witte, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Al McDonald, Paul Griffiths, Suzie McDonald, Miroslav Volf, David Ford, Sarah Coakley, Richard Hays, David Hempton, Mark Noll. Photo: Ralph Williamson.

Panel Discussion: Religion in War and Peace

On Thursday, 17 May, Nigel Biggar will participate in a panel discussion on the role played by religion in war and peace. It will be chaired by Professor Jennifer Welsh and will also include Tony Coady and Rama Mani. The event has been organized by the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law & Armed Conflict. It will be held in the Manor Road Building, Seminar Room A, University of Oxford and begins at 12.30pm. This event has now concluded and an audio podcast is available from the ELAC website.

Nigel Biggar at Mayo Clinic

Last month, Nigel Biggar was the keynote speaker for an event at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. In his lecture, Biggar discussed what it means for religious believers to engage with others on moral debates generally, as well as on specific matters related to medical ethics, such as abortion and euthanasia.

The event, entitled Why Religion Deserves a Place in Secular Medicine, was organized by the Veritas Forum and respondents included the Reverend Dan Hall of the University of Pittsburgh, and Professor Warren Kinghorn of Duke University Medical School. The full text of the lecture is available here.