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.
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?
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?