Leading Article: The baubles and the real light

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IT IS always an advantage for preachers to inveigh against impossible vices: it makes their positive message seem more credible. And the privatisation of morality, one of Dr George Carey's favourite targets, has the merit from this viewpoint of being utterly impossible.

What is odd, and worth denunciation, is the belief that morality could ever be privatised. It was an affectation of the Eighties. The defining couple of that period can still be seen in vodka advertisements: they have no children, no parents, and no characters, only hairstyles; in fact there is nothing fixed at all about them except an unendingly disposable income. Their choices really do affect no one. Their fun hurts no one else. Nothing means anything to them 'unless they want it to'. They are not remotely human. They could never even have been potty trained, let alone taught to use language. A human two-year-old knows that morality is not private.

If only the argument were that simple. The real problem is that, no matter how often it is preached, it does not follow that because morality is necessary, religion is true. Looking around the world today we would be better off asking ourselves whether true human evil flourishes without a firm belief in God. Of course, it has done in this century: there is the career of Stalin to remind us of that. None the less, religion is a defining factor in most of the most brutal and insoluble conflicts on the Earth at the moment. And it is in general the monotheistic religions, which preach, in theory, the brotherhood of all mankind, that have proved the most efficiently intolerant in practice.

But to propose the abolition of religion because it makes people evil is a programme as ridiculous as to propose the abolition of sin, and leads to the same sort of horrible consequences. The religious urge is as deeply human as selfishness. Because of this, any public morality will have a religious flavour at the very least.

This does not mean that the role of religious people is to act as moral exemplars to society. The religious urge is not to be good, but to please God by being perfectly human. A robot could be taught to behave in perfectly moral ways, but that would not make it a saint. As Professor Robin Gill argues on our news pages, the role of religious communities in a secular world is to act as carriers of virtue, not exemplars, and to concentrate on qualities such as responsibility and faithfulness, not their application.

At Christmas, this becomes very obvious. All that makes the materialistic scrum of Christmas tolerable, and even necessary, is the sense of transcendental value in what is being celebrated: the triumph of light and warmth over winter, and of the family and the hearth against the outside world. The baubles are precious because they reflect real light.

Christmas, however, is a time when many people feel they really can no longer stand the pretence and horror of a family gone sour for a moment longer. Yet those who break under the strain, along with the rest of us who merely buckle from time to time, are at least acknowledging their responsibilities and trying to live up to them.

The figure of the helpless new-born child at Christmas reminds us, too, of where the recognition of responsibility, and with it adulthood, most often begins: with parenthood. Looking down at a baby we feel a combination of the clear and public demands of morality with a blurry private love for whoever the innermost self of the baby may turn out to be. Without some link between the public world of morality and the private world of love, both wither. Religion may not be a wholly satisfactory link between the two, but it is the most communicable one we have.