art morality

photo by Trois Têtes

Frans DeWaal of the New York Times has written a thoughtful piece on the origins of morality, altruism, and whether God has anything to do with it. It’s definitely worth the read, so check it out.

What does science say about morality?

While I do consider religious institutions and their representatives — popes, bishops, mega-preachers, ayatollahs, and rabbis — fair game for criticism, what good could come from insulting individuals who find value in religion? And more pertinently, what alternative does science have to offer? Science is not in the business of spelling out the meaning of life and even less in telling us how to live our lives. We, scientists, are good at finding out why things are the way they are, or how things work, and I do believe that biology can help us understand what kind of animals we are and why our morality looks the way it does. But to go from there to offering moral guidance seems a stretch.

The Moral Landscape

Many people in the comments suggest Sam Harris’ new book The Moral Landscape to help explain what science can offer in terms of moral answers for humanity. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s high on my list! Have any of you read The Moral Landscape? What do you think?

Imagine no religion

DeWaal seems to think any ordered guidelines for moral living—even if formed completely without God—would be indistinguishable from the religion-based guidelines we have today.

… [T]he building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and that we do not need God to explain how we got where we are today. On the other hand, what would happen if we were able to excise religion from society? I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good. Any framework we develop to advocate a certain moral outlook is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion.

Atheists tend to daydream about a world without religion (a la John Lennon). It seems as if DeWaal is afraid of what might happen if such a radical change came to pass. Personally, I don’t see this happening. Do you think we will evolve ourselves out of religion? Will we become a secular  world society one day or simply destroy ourselves first?

I recommend reading the conversation that continues in the comments of this piece. Many mature insights are shared. Here’s one response to the quote above:

But is religion really “an inspiration for the good” ? If the “building blocks” predate religion, why would we need religion to inspire us to do good ? Just like a child will make something out of the Lego blocks you put in front of him without you telling him to, we could very well just be tempted to use those blocks we have. At best, religion just has a placebo effect: some people think they are good because religion tells them to, while in reality, they would be good anyway.

What do you think?

(HT goodreasonnews)

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15 thoughts on “Morality without God?”

Isaac · October 27, 2010 at 6:56 pm

Haven’t read the book either. But concerning the statement, “At best, religion just has a placebo effect: some people think they are good because religion tells them to, while in reality, they would be good anyway.” But how many people follow everything religion tells them to do? I think the same people would be doing good anyway, and there would be other reasons (logical and illogical) that people would feel good doing them.

Henway · October 27, 2010 at 9:58 pm

Your post brings up a great point. Science tells us what is, why things arise, but it’s a stretch to come up with moral principles based on those facts. I think that is the purpose of philosophy like stoicism, and Buddhism to incorporate science and come up with a model on wholesome living. Science and philosophy should mesh together, it’s not 1 or the other, it’s both synergistically working together.

mcbender · October 28, 2010 at 4:09 am

I haven’t read Harris’ new book yet, but it’s probably worth a look. That said, I have listened to a couple of his talks on the subject before it was published… e.g.:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hj9oB4zpHww

Here’s another I found in the course of looking for the first; this one is pretty recent and I haven’t had time to watch it yet, but I plan to soon.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTKf5cCm-9g

I’ve dabbled in moral philosophy myself from time to time, and I have to say that I’m not sure what to make of Harris’ claims about morality so far. Obviously I agree with him that there can be (and needs to be) a secular basis for morality (I prefer the word ethics but I’ll use ‘morality’ because he does), but he seems to end up in a form of hedonistic consequentialism and I don’t find that sufficient to cover all of the cases we want morality to address (I lean towards Kant’s view myself, but not very strongly). He may address my concerns in the book, but my preliminary opinion of what he addressed in the first talk was that he wasn’t breaking too much new ground, but seemed to think he was.

It pains me to say things like this, because I quite like Harris overall and I think a lot of his earlier work (most of The End of Faith, for instance, and his excellent talk at AAI 2007) was very well-reasoned and eye-opening, but I think he’s being a bit too bold with a lot of the claims he’s making here.

My opinion will probably change at least somewhat once I’ve read the book.

TheSecretAtheist · October 28, 2010 at 4:28 am

I haven’t read Harris’ new book yet, but it is in my hold list at the library. I’m 5th in line for it, so it may be the beginning of the next year before I see it…

I’m also interested in checking out Thom Stark’s newest, “The Human Faces of God” which I think talks some about how the god of Judaism (and thus the god of Christianity) evolved.

I’m not sure what the world would look like without religion, but I do not think it would be amoral. I’m not convinced that morality in such a world would begin to look like religion, though.

I’m not even sure that we will ever see a society free of religion. It may diminish, but I doubt it will ever go away. It will also evolve, though.

Very interesting read, though, thanks for sharing!

Jenny · October 28, 2010 at 6:09 pm

Here’s how I see it: it is not a coincidence that religion has been a social institution all over the globe. As the author indicates, even primates appear to have some sense of moral justice; I believe that religion stemmed from a need to have an institutionalized system of morality that reflected the developing societies’ norms as a way to help those societies function (for instance, in nearly every religion it is considered immoral to murder and steal [with exceptions, of course]). Religion, which obviously predated the scientific method, was also a way to explain natural phenomena.

But evolution is not destiny.

We now have governments that regulate behaviors in a way that is both responsive to changing social norms and keeps societies functioning. We have science to explain natural phenomena. We have philosophical methods to help us contemplate issues of ethics, the meaning of life, and other abstract concepts for which religion provided an answer.

I believe we’re slowing “evolving” away from religion. Non-theism, at least in America, is on a slow but steady rise. I bet in a few hundred years religion won’t be such a powerful force in our lives.

    Godless Girl · October 28, 2010 at 8:06 pm

    I believe that religion stemmed from a need to have an institutionalized system of morality that reflected the developing societies’ norms as a way to help those societies function (for instance, in nearly every religion it is considered immoral to murder and steal [with exceptions, of course]).

    It seems this way to me as well. I like the way you phrased it a lot.

    I’d actually say America is behind the curve. At least compared to some countries in Europe, etc.

ereador · November 9, 2010 at 4:22 pm

Hi GodlessGirl, et. al. Is it just me, or is there an almost universal, unsubstantiated meme assuming that, if religion went away, there will be a “void” to fill, so that “…science and the naturalistic worldview…become an inspiration for the good.” To me this sounds circular. It sounds like assuming the existence of this (by its very nature) unfillable void, and then arguing that something (science, etc.) can’t fill it.

As far as I know there isn’t any data indicating that people become immoral if their religion weakens or disappears. And as far as science providing the basis for morality, science, as in knowledge and understanding, or “natural philosophy” in the old sense, absolutely should supplant religion for deciding moral issues. I am happy to adjust morality based on the best information we have on what is and will be useful, beneficial, and healthy for the most people.

No doubt, these can be very complex things to ferret out, and there will always be errors and stumbling, but who better to do it than people who study the universe, the world and the human condition? Is the argument that somehow a dependence on faith in the supernatural can prevent human catastrophe? Don’t make me laugh — look at the track record.

The religions have always claimed they have the best information; I disagree, forcefully. In fact, since religions’ claims amount to airy nothing in the reality-world, why base any important decision on them, ever, even a little tiny bit?

    TheSecretAtheist · November 9, 2010 at 9:00 pm

    If you make everyone believe that without your religion there would be no morality to keep everyone from doing horrible things to each other then they are more likely to want everyone else to believe in that religion. If you, however, admit that people are going to make moral decisions for the most part then your religion suddenly becomes much less important to the general well-being of humanity. It is one of the ways religion has developed to protect and promote itself.

    greengeekgirl · December 3, 2010 at 6:37 pm

    I personally think that religion stunts morality. I wrote a verrrrrry long blog post about it ( http://thegreengeeks.wordpress.com/2009/07/26/morality-and-religion-like-two-peas-in-two-different-pods/ if you’re interested), but in a nutshell, psychologists define morality as having different stages based on Kohlberg’s moral ladder, stages through which people develop as they grow (and sometimes don’t develop… but most “normal” people do). I don’t think people who rely on religion for their moral code are nearly as likely to reach the upper echelons of morality; they are far more likely, I think, to stay plodding through the “law and order,” by-the-book stages in the middle.

Logine · January 8, 2011 at 4:15 pm

As R. Rorty put it, there isn’t any absolute “truth”, just justifications of our opinions (and deeds I would add). And religion just doesn’t have plausible enough arguments on its side. Especially the claim that good comes from “God” and evil from people is a strawman, when God “created” man in his image?! The same seems to apply to the cosmological objection “why is there something instead of nothing”. One can argue with the lovely late Anna Magnani who once said: Why do we have to die if we are born?
So more than ever people of all over the world should look for common grounds, like their being human, loving, striving creatures looking for a living, for themselves and their offspring, a place in this indifferent, cold universe…. and not cavilling about whose ethics or morals are better and whose gods more potent.

Veronica · March 3, 2011 at 2:01 pm

I do say the old cliche about: “I do nice things to people around me because I like those people and I do not want to hurt them here and now, instead of doing nice things just because I get a reward in about 70 years.”

And it’ true. I can’t see any other logic there. Treat people good because treating people nice MAKES SENSE HERE AND NOW. Okey?

Ertyy · May 14, 2011 at 4:50 pm

Religion-less morality is a case of wanting to have one’s cake and eat it too. Like religion itself, there is no objective proof that such a thing as morality exists. What is “good”? Did they discover it at CERN while looking for the higgs boson particle?

The only non-religious justification for morality is social contract, and by then why are we still calling it morality? There is nothing universal or immutable about standards resulting from social contract. Maybe I am in error, and that is what everyone is already thinking when they use the word morality. But the references to religion imply that we are talking about morality as defined in most religions.

I wouldn’t really care so much about the subject except I see a lot of avowed atheists and secularists in general going on about how this is “right” and that is “wrong” in the public discourse. How would they know? Science has not once proven a “should be.”

As to Sam Harris, maybe he makes a better showing in his book (I haven’t read it), but he was not too promising in a talk he gave at TED. IIRC, the justification he gave for his science-based morality was to take Western social norms and pretend they were scientifically-verified standards. I imagine if he tried to sell his story to intellectuals in Tehran or Beijing his examples would conflict.

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