Can Morals Exist Without God?

24 12 2010

This is the question that Frans B. M. de Waal explores in his NY Times opinion column article titled “Morals Without God?” In an attempt to sound fair and balance, he tries to give room to religion as an inseparable portion of society, giving weight that we have never existed without religion.  He also highlights science’s ineptitude in filling a potential void left by the possible excision of religion, which, if it happened, would only cause another formulation of any old religion, i.e. rules and principles. “Science,” as he rightly claims, “is not in the business of spelling out the meaning of life and even less in telling us how to live our lives.”

But as he tries to give room to religion, one can tell that de Waal, understandably, is not well versed in philosophy. Though he states that religion is not irrelevant, he will only place religion as an ‘add-on’ rather than a source for morality:

Similarly, I have heard people echo Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, exclaiming that “If there is no God, I am free to rape my neighbor!”

Perhaps it is just me, but I am wary of anyone whose belief system is the only thing standing between them and repulsive behavior. Why not assume that our humanity, including the self-control needed for livable societies, is built into us? Does anyone truly believe that our ancestors lacked social norms before they had religion? Did they never assist others in need, or complain about an unfair deal? Humans must have worried about the functioning of their communities well before the current religions arose, which is only a few thousand years ago. Not that religion is irrelevant — I will get to this — but it is an add-on rather than the wellspring of morality.

This structure of science and religion filling separate ‘voids’ misses the structure of worldviews or philosophies upon which both schools are founded. On the surface, science and religion do occupy different realms of knowledge, but underneath, they share the same source of knowledge. Any philosopher who is familiar with the nature of epistemology must at least consider the question of ‘how we know what we know’ and in doing so, brings into question the source of knowledge and the possibility of that source being “shared.”

Of course, de Waal may respond by stating that the shared source of knowledge is the process of evolution. At the risk of being cowardly, the lack of space and time makes it unfeasible for a proper rejoinder to such a potential response. But before tackling such a foundational issue, there is a particular issue that must be raised. The use of religion in de Waal’s argument, or the definition thereof, leaves very little room for distinctions between religions. He amalgamates all religions into ‘religion’ and treats them as one entity that often contends science. I am sure that other religions would like to have their own distinctives highlighted in such a discussion, but here, it is Christianity that will receive its proper coloring. For one, I am inadequate to speak on behalf of the others, and two, as a member of Western society, I must agree with de Waal, that most of the time when religion is under discussion in the West, it is Christianity that is implied.

Even the staunchest atheist growing up in Western society cannot avoid having absorbed the basic tenets of Christian morality. Our societies are steeped in it: everything we have accomplished over the centuries, even science, developed either hand in hand with or in opposition to religion, but never separately.

So what is the color of Christianity? Simply, it is not of conventional religion. Rules and principles exist in it but it does not constitute its entirety. Quite the contrary, rules and principles are expressions of the way the world was meant to be. This is one reason why evolution is inadequate, it cannot factor in the ‘should’ and the ‘ought’. In his discussion on Veneer Theory, de Waal argues against those trying to make morality just a guise for deeper selfishness, he claims there is possibility for altruism and non-selfish behavior.

Like Robert Wright in “The Moral Animal,” they argue that true moral tendencies cannot exist — not in humans and even less in other animals — since nature is one hundred percent selfish. Morality is just a thin veneer over a cauldron of nasty tendencies. Dubbing this position “Veneer Theory” (similar to Peter Railton’s “moral camouflage”), I have fought it ever since my 1996 book “Good Natured.” Instead of blaming atrocious behavior on our biology (“we’re acting like animals!”), while claiming our noble traits for ourselves, why not view the entire package as a product of evolution?

As the discussion is not merely a matter of defining the scope of the term ‘selfish’, de Waal is wrong and Wright is correct, not about the existence of morality but the nature of man. We are one hundred percent selfish. Christianity does claim this. But what they both miss is the other ‘half’, that as Christianity is the most pessimistic of human nature, it is the most optimistic of our future. That transformative nature of the history (which includes the history of morals) is an essential part in any discussion of morals, rules, and principles, and without it, the best one can do is to sound fair and balanced, yet be essentially incorrect.


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2 responses

30 01 2011
Charlie Fritsch

Nice post, Paul. I like! I frequently run into the argument that religions are just an evolutionary adaptation to organize in a manner that will most effectively promote the species, but this always seemed curious to me. Many religions are about denying oneself, which is the total opposite of the selfishness observed in biology!

1 02 2011
Paul Park

That’s a very good point. I agree.

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