Morals without God?

I was born in Den Bosch, the city after which Hieronymus Bosch named himself.1 This obviously does not make me an expert on the Dutch painter, but having grown up with his statue on the market square, I have always been fond of his imagery, his symbolism, and how it relates to humanity’s place in the universe. This remains relevant today since Bosch depicts a society under a waning influence of God.

Heironymus Bosch, "The Garden of Earthly Delights" (detail)

Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights depicts hundreds of erotic naked figures carrying or eating fruits, but is also full of references to alchemy, the forerunner of chemistry. The figures on the right are embedded in glass tubes typical of a bain-marie, while the two birds supposedly symbolize vapors.

His famous triptych with naked figures frolicking around — The Garden of Earthly Delights — seems a tribute to paradisiacal innocence. The tableau is far too happy and relaxed to fit the interpretation of depravity and sin advanced by puritan experts. It represents humanity free from guilt and shame either before the Fall or without any Fall at all. For a primatologist, like myself, the nudity, references to sex and fertility, the plentiful birds and fruits, and the moving about in groups are thoroughly familiar, and hardly require a religious or moral interpretation. Bosch seems to have depicted humanity in its natural state, while reserving his moralistic outlook for the right-hand panel of the triptych in which he punishes — not the frolickers from the middle panel — but monks, nuns, gluttons, gamblers, warriors, and drunkards.

Five centuries later, we remain embroiled in debates about the role of religion in society. As in Bosch’s days, the central theme is morality. Can we envision a world without God? Would this world be good? Don’t think for one moment that the current battle lines between biology and fundamentalist Christianity turn around evidence. One has to be pretty immune to data to doubt evolution, which is why books and documentaries aimed at convincing the skeptics are a waste of effort. They are helpful for those prepared to listen, but fail to reach their target audience. The debate is less about the truth than about how to handle it. For those who believe that morality comes straight from God the creator, acceptance of evolution would open a moral abyss.

A Large Monkey Brain

Echoing this view, Reverend Al Sharpton opined in a recent videotaped debate: “If there is no order to the universe, and therefore some being, some force that ordered it, then who determines what is right or wrong? There is nothing immoral if there’s nothing in charge.” 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.

Deep down, creationists realize they will never win factual arguments with science. This is why they have construed their own science-like universe, known as Intelligent Design, and eagerly jump on every tidbit of information that seems to go their way. The most recent opportunity arose with the Hauser affair. A Harvard colleague, Marc Hauser, has been accused of eight counts of scientific misconduct, including making up his own data. Since Hauser studied primate behavior and wrote about morality, Christian websites were eager to claim that “all that people like Hauser are left with are unsubstantiated propositions that are contradicted by millennia of human experience” (Chuck Colson, 8 September 2010). A major newspaper asked “Would it be such a bad thing if Hausergate resulted in some intellectual humility among the new scientists of morality?” (Eric Felten, 27 August, 2010). Even a linguist could not resist this occasion to reaffirm the gap between human and animal by warning against “naive evolutionary presuppositions.”

These are rearguard battles, however. Whether creationists jump on this scientific scandal or linguists and psychologists keep selling human exceptionalism does not really matter. Fraud has occurred in many fields of science, from epidemiology to physics, all of which are still around. In the field of cognition, the march towards continuity between human and animal has been inexorable — one misconduct case won’t make a difference. True, humanity never runs out of claims of what sets it apart, but it is a rare uniqueness claim that holds up for over a decade. This is why we don’t hear anymore that only humans make tools, imitate, think ahead, have culture, are self-aware, or adopt another’s point of view.

Frans de Waal delivers an address on animals at the 2007 Autonomy Singularity Creativity conference at the National Humanities Center.

If we consider our species without letting ourselves be blinded by the technical advances of the last few millennia, we see a creature of flesh and blood with a brain that, albeit three times larger than a chimpanzee’s, doesn’t contain any new parts. Even our vaunted prefrontal cortex turns out to be of typical size: recent neuron-counting techniques classify the human brain as a linearly scaled-up monkey brain.2 No one doubts the superiority of our intellect, but we have no basic wants or needs that are not also present in our close relatives. I interact on a daily basis with monkeys and apes, which just like us strive for power, enjoy sex, want security and affection, kill over territory, and value trust and cooperation. Yes, we use cell phones and fly airplanes, but our psychological make-up remains that of a social primate. Even the posturing and deal-making among the alpha males in Washington is nothing out of the ordinary.

The Pleasure of Giving

Charles Darwin was interested in how morality fits the human-animal continuum, proposing in The Descent of Man: “Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts … would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed … as in man.”

Unfortunately, modern popularizers have strayed from these insights. 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? Fortunately, there has been a resurgence of the Darwinian view that morality grew out of the social instincts. Psychologists stress the intuitive way we arrive at moral judgments while activating emotional brain areas, and economists and anthropologists have shown humanity to be far more cooperative, altruistic, and fair than predicted by self-interest models. Similarly, the latest experiments in primatology reveal that our close relatives will do each other favors even if there’s nothing in it for themselves.

Chimpanzees and bonobos will voluntarily open a door to offer a companion access to food, even if they lose part of it in the process. And capuchin monkeys are prepared to seek rewards for others, such as when we place two of them side by side, while one of them barters with us with differently colored tokens. One token is ‘selfish,’ and the other ‘prosocial.’ If the bartering monkey selects the selfish token, it receives a small piece of apple for returning it, but its partner gets nothing. The prosocial token, on the other hand, rewards both monkeys. Most monkeys develop an overwhelming preference for the prosocial token, which preference is not due to fear of repercussions, because dominant monkeys (who have least to fear) are the most generous.

peace-making among chimpanzees

Maintaining a peaceful society is one of the tendencies underlying human morality that we share with other primates, such as chimpanzees. After a fight between two adult males, one offers an open hand to his adversary. When the other accepts the invitation, both kiss and embrace. Photograph by Frans de Waal.

Even though altruistic behavior evolved for the advantages it confers, this does not make it selfishly motivated. Future benefits rarely figure in the minds of animals. For example, animals engage in sex without knowing its reproductive consequences, and even humans had to develop the morning-after pill. This is because sexual motivation is unconcerned with the reason why sex exists. The same is true for the altruistic impulse, which is unconcerned with evolutionary consequences. It is this disconnect between evolution and motivation that befuddled the Veneer Theorists, and made them reduce everything to selfishness. The most quoted line of their bleak literature says it all: “Scratch an ‘altruist,’ and watch a ‘hypocrite’ bleed.”3

Not only humans are capable of genuine altruism, but also other animals. I see it every day. An old female, Peony, spends her days outdoors with other chimpanzees at the Yerkes Primate Center’s Field Station. On bad days, when her arthritis is flaring up, she has trouble walking and climbing, but other females help her out. For example, Peony is huffing and puffing to get up into the climbing frame in which several apes have gathered for a grooming session. An unrelated younger female moves behind her, placing both hands on her ample behind and pushes her up with quite a bit of effort, until Peony has joined the rest.

We have also seen Peony getting up and slowly move towards the water spigot, which is at quite a distance. Younger females sometimes run ahead of her, take in some water, then return to Peony and give it to her. At first, we had no idea what was going on, since all we saw was one female placing her mouth close to Peony’s, but after a while the pattern became clear: Peony would open her mouth wide, and the younger female would spit a jet of water into it.

consolation and empathy among chimpanzees

A juvenile chimpanzee reacts to a screaming adult male on the right, who has lost a fight, by offering a calming embrace in an apparent expression of empathy. Photograph by Frans de Waal.

Such observations fit the emerging field of animal empathy, which deals not only with primates, but also with canines, elephants, even rodents. A typical example is how chimpanzees console distressed parties, hugging and kissing them, which behavior is so predictable that scientists have analyzed thousands of cases. Mammals are sensitive to each other’s emotions, and react to others in need. The whole reason people fill their homes with furry carnivores and not with, say, iguanas and turtles, is because mammals offer something no reptile ever will. They give affection, they want affection, and respond to our emotions the way we do to theirs.

Mammals may derive pleasure from helping others in the same way that humans feel good doing good. Nature often equips life’s essentials — sex, eating, nursing — with built-in gratification. One study found that pleasure centers in the human brain light up when we give to charity. This is of course no reason to call such behavior “selfish” as it would make the word totally meaningless. A selfish individual has no trouble walking away from another in need. Someone is drowning: let him drown. Someone cries: let her cry. These are truly selfish reactions, which are quite different from empathic ones. Yes, we experience a “warm glow,” and perhaps some other animals do as well, but since this glow reaches us via the other, and only via the other, the helping is genuinely other-oriented.

Bottom-Up Morality

A few years ago Sarah Brosnan and I demonstrated that primates will happily perform a task for cucumber slices until they see others getting grapes, which taste so much better. The cucumber-eaters become agitated, throw down their measly veggies and go on strike. A perfectly fine food has become unpalatable as a result of seeing a companion with something better.

We called it inequity aversion, a topic since investigated in other animals, including dogs. A dog will repeatedly perform a trick without rewards, but refuse as soon as another dog gets pieces of sausage for the same trick. Recently, Sarah reported an unexpected twist to the inequity issue, however. While testing pairs of chimps, she found that also the one who gets the better deal occasionally refuses. It is as if they are satisfied only if both get the same. We seem to be getting close to a sense of fairness.

Such findings have implications for human morality. According to most philosophers, we reason ourselves towards a moral position. Even if we do not invoke God, it is still a top-down process of us formulating the principles and then imposing those on human conduct. But would it be realistic to ask people to be considerate of others if we had not already a natural inclination for it? Would it make sense to appeal to fairness and justice in the absence of powerful reactions to their absence? Imagine the cognitive burden if every decision we took would need to be vetted against handed-down principles. Instead, I am a firm believer in the Humean position that reason is the slave of the passions. We started out with moral sentiments and intuitions, which is also where we find the greatest continuity with other primates. Rather than having developed morality from scratch, we received a huge helping hand from our background as social animals.

At the same time, however, I am reluctant to call a chimpanzee a “moral being.” This is because sentiments do not suffice. We strive for a logically coherent system, and have debates about how the death penalty fits arguments for the sanctity of life, or whether an unchosen sexual orientation can be wrong. These debates are uniquely human. We have no evidence that other animals judge actions that do not affect themselves as right or wrong. The great pioneer of morality research, the Finn Edward Westermarck, explained what makes the moral emotions special: “Moral emotions are disconnected from one’s immediate situation: they deal with good and bad at a more abstract, disinterested level.” This is what sets human morality apart: a move towards universal standards combined with an elaborate system of monitoring and potential punishment.

This is where religion comes in. Think of the narrative support for sympathy, such as the Parable of the Good Samaritan, or the challenge to fairness, such as the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard with its famous conclusion “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” Add to this an almost Skinnerian fondness of reward and punishment — from the virgins to be met in heaven to the hell fire that awaits sinners — and the exploitation of our desire to be “praiseworthy,” as Adam Smith called it. We are sensitive to public opinion. In experiments, humans only need to see a picture of two eyes glued to the wall to respond with good behavior, which no doubt explains the image in some religions of an all-seeing eye to symbolize an omniscient God.

The Atheist Dilemma

Over the past few years, we have gotten used to a strident atheism arguing that God is not great (Christopher Hitchens) or a delusion (Richard Dawkins). The new atheists call themselves “brights,” thus hinting that believers may not be so bright. They urge trust in science, and the rooting of ethics in a naturalistic worldview.

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.

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. It is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion. It would require a visit to a human culture that is not now and never was religious. That such cultures do not exist should give us pause.

Bosch struggled with the same issue — not with being an atheist, which was not an option — but science’s place in society. The little figures in his paintings with inverted funnels on their heads or the buildings in the form of flasks, distillation bottles, and furnaces reference chemical equipment.4 Alchemy was gaining ground yet mixed with the occult and full of charlatans and quacks, which Bosch depicted with great humor in front of gullible audiences. Alchemy turned into science when it liberated itself from these influences and developed self-correcting procedures to deal with flawed or fabricated data. But science’s contribution to a moral society, if any, remains a question mark.

Other primates have of course none of these problems, but even they strive for a certain kind of society. For example, female chimpanzees have been seen to drag reluctant males towards each other to make up after a fight, removing weapons from their hands, and high-ranking males regularly act as impartial arbiters to settle disputes in the community. I take these hints of community concern as yet another sign that the 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.


[1] Also known as s’Hertogenbosch, this is a 12th-century provincial capital in the Catholic south of the Netherlands. Bosch lived from circa 1450 until 1516.

[2] Herculano-Houzel, Suzana (2009). The human brain in numbers: A linearly scaled-up primate brain. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 3: 1-11.

[3] Ghiselin, Michael (1974). The Economy of Nature and the Evolution of Sex. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

[4] Dixon, Laurinda (2003). Bosch. London: Phaidon.

34 comments to Morals without God?

  • I really appreciate de Waal’s anchoring of moral behavior in our evolutionary past, contemporary animal behavior and our own human social instincts.

    But even more important is his balanced approach to the question of god. So many atheists are hurling invectives at believers, viewing religion as a blot on human kind, that one yearns for a more calm, grounded argument that simply says that moral behavior does not depend on a belief in god. That humans have invented religion, that they has imbued it with a lot of moralistic teachings, and that they fight wars over whose god is the real, one, only god is simple fact. Morally bad behavior can be addressed in many ways, ostracism, banishment, arguments in the public square, various punishments. So, bad behavior in the name of a religious creed, can be equally countered. The fundamentalist, war mongering atheists are not helping themselves with their vituperation. If tolerance is to be expanded, a more pluralistic approach is needed. De Waal elegantly provides it.

  • Pat

    I have had many friends over the years who are not members of any organized religion and who do not think of God in the classical third party context. These friends do not believe in heaven or hell, and yet, they are far more ethical and moral than many of those who do have traditional faiths.

    There are three apparently universal virtues respected and sought by these friends: honesty, responsibility, and compassion. These goals are valued completely independent of any belief in life after death.

    As de Waal has noted, empathy and expectation of reciprocation very likely play a role in the practical application of this value system. However, it is easy to imagine that communities sharing these goals would have had an advantage in the natural selection process. It is conceivable that, over many years of evolution, these propensities might have become incorporated into the feedback systems of our neurobiology.

    Whatever the explanation, I know from years of experience that belief in God is not an essential requirement for (nor an assurance of) moral behavior.

  • Gabi

    You mention that “It would require a visit to a human culture that is not now and never was religious. That such cultures do not exist should give us pause.”

    In his Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage (1935), Will Durant mentions the existence of contemporary cultures without religion (p. 56): certain Pygmy tribes, the dwarfs of Cameroon, the Veddahs of Ceylon, etc.

    While the book is out of date, there may indeed be such cultures. Could you do a fact-check on that?

  • Joe Clarkson

    It is probable that almost all religious dogma is based on the codification of evolved behaviors. Those who believe that this dogma receives its moral authority from God have boxed themselves in. If there is no God, then there is no moral authority.

    But an understanding of the survival value of our evolved behavioral preferences can provide a strong foundation for advocating those preferences, far stronger than the slender reed of “God’s Word”. If there is no God, one can still rely on the principle that behaviors which promotes human survival are “good”. Those who argue that God’s morality is more important than human survival have a tough case to make. If there were no humans to engage in moral behavior, what’s the point of any morality?

    Even though this existential imperative is “unconscious” in animal behavior, it provides a pretty good initial axiom for humankind’s rational exploration of good and bad behavior. I would certainly give more credence to a convincing explanation that a certain behavior promoted human survival than to anyone’s exhortation that the behavior was mandated by God, especially in light of the tenuous basis of God’s existence.

    And I doubt that using human survival as a “greatest good” would lead to religion-like claims of moral authority by anyone. The rational analysis of the consequences of certain behaviors (nuclear war – bad, provision of adequate food for everyone – good) would trump any “authority’s” claim that a behavior that might lead to our extinction was good. The vast majority of behaviors for which there is no strong case to be made one way or another can fit in that great middle ground of “whatever floats your boat”, in which case we can happily ignore authority.

    Unless of course, like most people, one has chosen to live in a culture where one voluntarily gives much prescriptive authority to majority decision. In that case we can keep our heads down and “go with the flow”, only seeking to persuade others when we think that a certain course of action is really repugnant and only taking action against others when it is immorally dangerous to humanity. I can live with that.

  • Richard Guha

    I do not see how the existence of a God must be postulated to create morality. Morality and good behavior are not necessarily the same thing. If the coercion, whether by God, or society is the only thing forcing good behavior, then I fail to see how that is morality. Morality is surely an inner sense of what is right or wrong. While, one can say that God has placed that in us, like a sort of spiritual pacemaker, it seems to be equally valid to say that we have evolved it because it is beneficial to our evolution as a species if we do not kill each other, steal from each other, or lie to each other so that we can co-operate with each other. Incidentally, even if you believe in God, this sense of morality can still be an evolutionary outcome, rather than the result of a God which gives out free will imposing it from outside.

  • Mark Sloan

    Joe, I hope de Waal would disagree (as I certainly do) that science is somehow telling us that morality is all about defining human survival as the “greatest good”.

    For our pre-cultural ancestors, moral emotions such as empathy and shame and innate judgments concerning fairness and willingness to risk injury and death to defend family and friends existed because they increased reproductive fitness. However, our ancestors were (based on likely similarities with chimpanzees) also jealous, greedy, deceptive, and sought to dominate others through violence. All of these positive and negative emotions and behaviors existed because in some environments they had increased reproductive fitness. The most you can say about even these pre-cultural ancestors is their ‘morality’ was a set of strategies for increasing reproductive fitness by increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups. Saying that human survival is the “greatest good” in a moral sense implies that jealousy, greed, deceit, and violence would be moral to the extent they increase human survival. This sounds unsupportable.

    Defining human survival as the “greatest good” goes even further off target after the emergence of cultural moral standards. Groups can select cultural moral standards based on expected synergistic benefits (including both emotional goods and material goods benefits) from increased cooperation in the group. Indeed, particular cultural moral standards may have no effect on reproductive fitness or may even reduce reproductive fitness – for example, some moral standards advocate chastity.

    It is important to understand that after the emergence of cultural moral standards, morality became un-tethered from reproductive fitness. The most accurate statement I am aware of science can make about morality (or at least a growing consensus I am aware of in evolutionary morality) is something to the effect of “Moral standards and behaviors are heuristics and strategies for increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups by acting unselfishly”.

    The above assertion about moral standards and behaviors is an empirical claim that science should be able to show is either provisionally true or false. I look forward to the day it (or something close to it) becomes generally accepted as ‘true’ as a matter of science.

  • A.j.

    As F de W surely realises, corelation is not cause: that morality evolved in tandem with religion and the idea of God among humans does not necessarily mean that the former is a by-product of the latter!
    The political animals that we are are perfectly aware that the propensity for good and bad within us is universal so it’s helpful to think that — in reference to the “fairness” principle — an omnipotent being exists to insure that others will abide by those rules we try to follow…

  • It seems to me that there is an unquestioned assumption in Frans de Waal’s essay, namely, that nonhuman animals do not have religion. In other words, the title of the piece, “Morals without God?” seems to be short-hand for the question, “Since human beings almost universally have religion, and other animals don’t, do we have reason to believe that, despite the continuity in something moral-like between other animals and ourselves, full-blooded morality requires religion?” Surprisingly, given the emphasis on that continuity in the bulk of the essay, de Waal’s answer appears to be “Yes.”

    But I am moved to ask why we should accept the assumption that nonhuman animals lack religion. If at least the “building blocks” of morality are to be found in other animals, why should we not also expect that the same could be said about religion? Although I am not acquainted with the relevant literature, I’d bet my bottom dollar that this thesis has been defended somewhere with ethological evidence. Should we be at all surprised to learn that observation of other animals in their natural habitats shows them occasionally engaging in behavior that could plausibly be interpreted as, say, prayer-like, and given some kind of adaptive explanation? As de Waal says, “humanity never runs out of claims of what sets it apart, but it is a rare uniqueness claim that holds up for over a decade.”

    Despite de Waal’s title, and the topicality of the question of morality’s dependence on religion, I’m not sure that this is the heart of the matter anyway. Of more significance may be his claim and argument that full-fledged morality is something distinctively human because only human animals seek, or are capable of seeking, “universal standards combined with an elaborate system of justification, monitoring and punishment.” Thus, it is our special cognitive and particularly intellectual capacities that set apart the human brand of compassion, fairness, etc. In this way de Waal seems to have the best of both worlds: Nonhuman animals must be recognized as moral progenitors, but human animals are still special in being the only full-blown moral beings.

    I would like to point out that there are at least two other logical possibilities in light of both the data and defensible analyses of morality. First is that the tables could be turned. While it seems uncontroversial that no other animals will be pondering the relative merits of utilitarian and deontic ethics, or explicitly deriving decisions about what to do from first principles, or questioning the genuineness of their altruistic impulses because of knowledge of their own egoism or selfishness, or attempting to discern the implications for morality of its having some kind of evolutionary function, does it follow that the morality of other animals is thereby less moral? Why not argue just the opposite? Every one of those abilities could be seen as a corrupting influence on genuine moral responsiveness. For example: Who is more moral – the being who acts on spontaneous impulse to help another, or the being who calculates that she ought to and therefore does? Again: the one who feels a pure desire to come to another’s aid, or the one who has an altruistic feeling adulterated by awareness of a possible reward for so acting?

    Finally, taking this a step further, might we not see our human capacity for seeking those “universal standards combined with an elaborate system of justification, monitoring and punishment“ as putting as at not only a moral disadvantage, as I have just suggested, but even an intellectual one? By this I mean: the real superiority we humans have may be our ability to imagine intellectual fantasies. Perhaps the notion of universal standards of morality that can be justified is as much a wisp o’ the wisp as the God we may also be uniquely-among-animals equipped to conceive.

  • I have been a longtime admirer of Frans de Waal as one of the surprisingly few researchers working to embed human emotion, reason, and ethics in their evolutionary context (Sarah Blaffer Hrdy is another). De Waal’s measured and grounded description of the bases of human morality is a welcome tonic, when some of the most prominent and strident among evolutionary theory’s supposed champions (including the atheist Richard Dawkins) speak contemptuously of religious metaphysics but seem to posit an extra-biological, almost numinous essence lighting the human brain in distinction from all others. I do not ascribe to any religion, but the ubiquity of belief strongly suggests that it has some adaptive value, and I am willing to suppose that my atheism might be of a piece with my choice not to have children: a marker or symptom of my general unfitness.

    That said, I think an evolutionary perspective can support morality at its most abstract, paradoxically by insisting on our animal natures. The widespread reluctance to acknowledge how deeply we remain embedded in animal life has serious practical consequences, as it accelerates our destruction of the world we commonly inhabit. This is obvious in the sense that our failures of identification with other species remove barriers to violence and rapacious exploitation; it is less obvious in our expectation that “uniquely human reason” will rescue us from our own greedy appetites. We wishfully suppose ourselves ennobled by our comparatively well-developed cortices, but the reasoning (or rationalizing) power supplied by those wrinkly blankets obfuscates as much as it elucidates; it has made us masters at self-deception.

  • Jerry Landis

    The rise of formal religion from evolved social norms is due simply to our inheritance of another primate behavior – the tendency of the tribe to submit, often without question, to the authority and leadership of a few dominant members. As we can see, this may or may not prove beneficial in a given situation.

  • Enrique

    Abrahamic religions are based on some ancient book, a cursory and objective evaluation of which shows that they fall far short of our secular laws in terms of compassion, justice, and, yes, morals. The concept of eternal punishment, for example, far exceeds our worst punishment of a death-sentence and cannot be morally justified, full-stop. You refer to the Fall, as another example. It’s nothing but a clever ruse to pronounce the innocent guilty of a crime they could not possibly have committed. Is there any parallel to this in our secular laws? (Apart from Nazism and other unsavory -isms?)

    One only has to look at our secular laws — man made laws — to see that religion is unnecessary to define moralistic behavior. Consider, for example, any of the isolated pagan tribes that have not been reached by Abrahamic proselytizers. They seem to have managed fine without any capital-G singular god. Of course, they have their “religions” or superstitions; perhaps a substitute for a lack of scientific knowledge or even the guile of some power-hungry authority figures.

    While I find the study of moral behavior in primates to be interesting, mixing religion into the equation turns it into another thing altogether. Your premise that atheists rely on science, and your question about what science has to offer, seems to be flawed if you define science in its classical sense. Science includes the study of behavioral patterns of primitive societies, advanced animals, and even religion. The ubiquity of Abrahamic religions is easily explained by a scientific examination of their characteristics, namely their reliance on the cornerstones of proselytization and income generation (Mass, Shabbat…) masked as they are as something else.

    I find that Science is absolutely in the business of telling us the meaning of life and how to live our lives. If we only listened; if humanity had not been so polluted by organized religion, our overall condition and that of our limited planet would be much improved. Perhaps that is why there are “strident” atheists. What is obvious to them cannot be seen by the brainwashed.

  • Religion provides a motive for morality but does not define morality itself. If God would have us do what is right, then presumably that is because it is right and not merely because God wills it. Taking objective criteria for arbitrating between scientific theories as a model, it is possible to advanced counterpart criteria for arbitrating between theories of morality. The most defensible turns out to be the deontological conception of always treating other persons with respect and never merely as means. This is not only the only theory that satisfies the objective criteria but it also supports the “Golden Rule” of doing unto others as we would have then do unto us. I have spelled this out in The Evolution of Intelligence (2005) and Render Unto Darwin (2007). There are good reasons for doing what is right even in the absence of any God or gods. One of the features that distinguishes humans from other animals thus turns out to be that we can embrace a morality that transcends our biology. And this realization enhances our appreciation for our fellow humans and for the nature of human nature.

  • Andrew Jehan

    Is an action really altruism if we are driven to it by our instincts alone? Does an evolutionary account of morality live up to all we have envisioned morality to be? Sure, it provides an argument against the claims that without religion we would cease to act in the interests of other people, but is that really an account of morality? A person who has a natural drive to act in the interests of others seems less worthy of esteem than a person who has a natural drive to act in her own interests, yet nevertheless acts in the interests of others.

    While this article may reveal evolutionary reasons that the average person wouldn’t be wholly selfish in the absence of religion, it does not provide any reason to believe that the average person wouldn’t also be also somewhat selfish in the absence of religion. Admittedly, the average Christian is probably somewhat selfish, but the view of morality espoused by Christianity is, at least, a higher ideal than merely a person giving into whatever mix of selfish and selfless instincts she may happen to have.

    As our experience shows, and this article provides no reason to deny, people can have both selfish and selfless instincts. The question of morality is not, as this article assumes, whether abandoning religion in favour of evolutionary theory will lead to a purely cold and selfish society – it surely wouldn’t. The question of morality is whether abandoning religion in favour of evolutionary theory will destroy any reason to strive to become better people than we would become by our instincts alone. It’s not a question of how we would behave in light of our instincts, but rather a question of how we should behave in light of our instincts. This article provides no naturalistic answer to this true question of morality.

    If naturalists want to maintain the essence of morality, they must provide some reason that people ought to defy those selfish instincts they may happen to have.

  • J. Edward Hackett

    How does De Waal know that when he claims, for instance, that the golden rule is produced by mechanisms of empathy and reciprocity that such mechanisms are not also the byproduct of cultural development? Everyone runs to the guns of evolutionary accounts, but it seems uncertain that we can parse with exacting measure the point where culture and nature can be separated so easily.

  • Nick Healey

    I am not convinced that “veneer theory” can be dismissed as easily as, “Morality is just a thin veneer over a cauldron of nasty tendencies”. Morality as an existential concept is a human construct requiring complex language. In terms of our evolutionary development, complex language and therefore any definitions of morality are relatively modern and thus are veneer thin layers on top of the substrata of millions of years of evolution. It is not a thin veneer over a cauldron of nasty tendencies, but a thin linguistic veneer over millions of years of evolutionary pressures. De Waal cannot have it both ways. He cannot on the one hand observe empathy and altruistic behaviour in apes and then hesitate to describe them as moral beings, purely because they are unable to vocalise why, and on the other hand deny the concept of morality as a thin veneer even though the development of complex language and thus the existential concept of morality is relatively recent in evolutionary terms.

    I would argue that morality is merely a label we slap on to our instinctive behaviours to help justify and rationalise our animal behaviour. The best illustration that morality is a veneer over our animal instincts is revenge. Revenge is one of those acts with no place in modern morality and yet people will often sympathise and empathise with the perpetrator of revenge whilst publicly decrying the act as immoral. It is an instinct. Revenge cannot be rationally defended as morally good (though people try) and yet it continues to permeate our culture (particularly movies), our psyches and the justice system, as though it has some sort of virtue.

    I think the mistake made by people dismissive of “veneer theory” is that beneath the veneer is nastiness. This is not the case. Beneath the veneer is millions of years of evolutionary pressure, which is not evil, or good, but is exerting extraordinary and often subconscious influence on animals in order to propagate itself. Sometimes this results in what we now label “morally good” behaviour such as altruism, empathy and innate fairness, other times it results in what we label “morally bad” like greed, dishonesty and even genocide.

    De Waal’s argument that it would be impossible to know what morality would look like without religion is nonsense. Despite the all-pervading influence of religion, the philosophical “golden rule” appropriated and adapted by nearly every religion is the basis for morality and the basis of the behaviour he observes in apes every day. No need for religion.

  • Paul

    While thoroughly enjoying this article, I think it is necessary to address the claim that “New Athiests” are suggesting that science should, or even could, fill the ‘void’ that would be left should religion not exist.

    Having read many of the works of the authors stated (amongst others), I can say with great confidence that, not only do the authors not make these claims regarding morality, they go out of their way to state the opposite. Their main argument centres around the fact that we should question, sceptically, all people who tell us how we should be living our lives such that some evidence is proferred as to why we should do as they say.

    Given that, if one has atheistic beliefs, one does not believe in a god, why would a void exist at all, upon removal of religion? If you remove nothing (which is what god is to an atheist), you’re actually preserving the status quo.

  • Tom Givon

    Frans de Waal has made a most valuable contribution to a discussion that is not likely to end soon, given the starkly divergent philosophical premises of the participants. The two comments below are only intended to amplify the points de Waal has made so eloquently.

    First, there is a large body of relevant literature on the evolution of Religious Prosociality, such as the works of Atran and Norezayan (2004), Norezayan and Shariff (2008), Shariff, Norezayan and Heinrich (2009), inter alia. This literature supports the points made by Prof. de Waal, suggesting that the evolution of religion in humans piggy-backed on various evolved pre-human precursors.

    And second, Frans de Waal should be commended for pointing the finger at the rather bizarre human exceptionalism pushed by some linguists, most conspicuously—and persistently—N. Chomsky (viz his collaboration with M. Hauser & T. Fitch, in Science 2002). To many linguists who are interested in the evolution of mind, sociality and communication, this emphatically anti-evolutionary stance by prominent members of our discipline has been an abiding embarrassment (see Givon 2009). It takes the clear eyes of a primatologist to call the linguists’ bluff.

    Tom Givon
    Institute of Cognitive and Decision Science
    University of Oregon

    Atran & Norezayan (2004) BBS, 27: 713-770
    Givon, T. (2009) The Genesis of Syntactic Complexity, Amsterdam: J. Benjamins
    Norezaya & Shariff (2008) Science, 233
    Shariff, Norezayan and Heinrich (2009), in Schaller, Norezayan, Heine, Tamagishi &
    Kameda (eds 2009) The Evolution of Culture and the Human Mind, LEA

  • You are missing one critical element in your argument, that being that persons who have unhealthy narcissism (meaning a maladapted personality and grandiose, albeit, unhealthy sense of self) have a very different, if not absent, moral compass. They are motivated by excessive need for attention and domination. Therefore, this type personality throws aside common morals and ethics and will engage in lies, half-lies, deceit, aggression, covert and overt manipulation to get what they want from others. Their inability to recognize otherness is at the root of their blindness to morally acceptable behavior. Although we find many unhealthy narcissists in the clergy it is due to their need to align themselves with a superior ideology, and not to attend to the needs of others. It is Self first and others last and only present as props. Unhealthy narcissism develops as a result of inferior parenting, neglect, abuse, overvaluing or undervaluing the child thus resulting in the child suppressing the true authentic self. The pathology as recognized today is all but impossible to change. This behavior is encouraged and reinforced by competitive societies where winning is valued over everything else. Cooperation needs to be stressed and moral ethics taught to children to curb this behavior.

  • Dean

    Communal living requires ethics, however basic, and every human community demonstrates these ethics in religion, and in law in more advanced groups. Religion and law formalize the community’s agreed upon ethics/morals, which explains why religion varies greatly around the world down through the ages, but the basic ethics has been and still is pretty similar around the world. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ (at least in this community) is as constant as anything in human systems. Community requires ethics, but how those ethics are lifted up in religion shows the creative side of humanity—not any absolute Truth.

  • Israel Dalven

    If I may repeat something that has been said many times, the god that the writer and commentators do not believe in, I and my fellow orthodox Jews also do not believe in. The God of the Jewish Bible defines morality because he defines everything, having created it then and now. The thought that this magnificently ordered world and especially the complex living creatures on it came about by random mutations is absurd and were it not for self interest and peer pressure, honest scientists would admit it. Let’s face it, it took a long time for scientists to abandon other beliefs as well. I do not know much about biology, but there are many religious scientists that do and have told me that the chance of a Human eye with its support system (for example) developing by chance is very close to zero. But the alternative of a God defining moral behavior is unacceptable to the modern intellectual as it was to the ancient hedonists. I am not suggesting an equivalency, just a similarity. Humanist morality took a serious blow when the the most advanced and cultured civilization in Europe became Nazi. What happened? They reverted to their ancient gods of war and conquest. They abandoned whatever semblance of Biblical moralty their culture had and turned on the people who presented the Bible to the world. No, I’m sorry, there is good social behavior without God-based religion, but no real absolute obligatory morality. Good behavior will stick when things are good, but not when things go bad – as they often have in human history.

  • rdp

    Come on now, people. It is not surprising that everything inside a paper bag looks brown.
    Many posters seem to discount the tint this culture casts on questions about religion and morality.

    Why is it such a struggle for so many folks to recognize that the society we are living in is the product of only one of any number of possible cultural “solutions” to organizing intelligent social mammal life? Surely it must at least occur to some that Abrahamic religions dovetail nicely with male dominance and yet male dominance is hardly necessary for successful human life. In fact, some people might suggest it is quite the opposite.

    Instead of starting with formulaic belief systems that brutal cultures have left us, why not start by asking what kind of a culture would conform to our better natures? Then maybe we’d get around to entertaining questions the answers to which have real consequences for human happiness. Like, how do we care for our children? How do we treat those who do the caring? How do we educate citizens and to what end? And so forth.

    If bonobo and chimpanzee societies can differ as much as they do, how hard is it to imagine organizing ourselves differently than we do and yet still serve our human needs? So far we have tried the punitive, authoritative, hierarchical approach with great cost to life and liberty. We have chosen systems that reward the greedy and punish the meek. We have permitted great evil to be done in the name of religion, and left great good mostly to individuals.

    Religion was developed to control people who were mostly not capable of self-regulation. But they were –and many remain– in this condition because we continue not to educate them in a moral culture. We tell children the story of “human nature,” as Dr. de Waal notes, in which “Morality is just a thin veneer over a cauldron of nasty tendencies.” Do you imagine this is the ideal way to encourage the development of their higher natures? We don’t have to take on faith what the consequences of our choices have produced; just look at the evidence in the world around us. What we haven’t tried is an approach that accepts the human tableau of instinctual behaviors and tries to bend us toward the good. Why not, I wonder.

  • John C. Cox

    First off one does not need a “God” to have a moral point of view. Anyone can have a moral framework, which allows one to decide, discern, and/or evaluate what are “good” and “bad” actions. The trick is, can this framework hold under examination? Frans de Waal seems to be arguing that our morals are based on social instinct, and presumably these instincts are based on traits/genes passed down by surviving creatures, who give birth to more creatures that survive and continue this cycle. Since Humans have “better” intellectual capacities, we gain a better “moral conscience”, and we develop social norms.

    Let me find a definition of instinct. “1. (adj) instinct, inherent aptitude; inborn pattern of behavior often responsive to specific stimuli “the spawning instinct in salmon”; “altruistic instincts in social animals” and:
    “2. (adj) instinct: natural inward impulse; unconscious, involuntary, or unreasoning prompting to any mode of action, whether bodily, or mental, without a distinct apprehension of the end or object to be accomplished.”

    Let me get this straight. Our moral beliefs are as involuntary as “the spawning instinct of salmon”, or migration patterns of birds. Here lies the crux of the problem; we all have moral beliefs. We argue that rape is wrong, racism is wrong, big government is a bad thing, Capitalism is good thing, and Courage and Love are virtues worth having. No matter what we argue though, the assumption is that we are arguing above our own personal likes and dislikes. That what we are arguing for is rational. One aspect is rationality is the ability to discern between two opposing alternatives. We can actually see one course of action is “better” than another. For example I have A and B to choose from, but due to instinct, upbringing, societal constraints I can only choose B, then am I really rational?

    The point is can we really say we are rational in our moral decisions, if they are based on instincts? The answer I believe would be no. Another problem has just occurred. If my moral thoughts are by definition irrational, then what about the other areas of my thought? My views on Science, Religion, Philosophy, and Politics are called into question. If moral thought is based on instincts and therefore irrational, then why not my other thoughts? A strange problem arises: can de Waal argue rationally that we are irrational? It might be true, but it does not seem possible to attain that height of sleight of hand.

  • William N. Hayes

    I found De Waal’s commentary to be refreshing and timely. Ditto most of the comments. A recently published novel, Lucy, by Laurence Gonzalez, deals with some of the same issues, and I suspect many other readers of this blog would find it worth reading. Lucy is a bonobo/human hybrid, and her existence challenges many hominid belief systems, including some religious ones.

  • Michele Briere

    Are we born with this sense of morality or is it taught? Babies see it, live it, since their first moments after birth. What about children who have been neglected? They frequently have emotional and social issues.

    While I agree that morality exists without God’s help, I also have to question how much is ingrained through social interactions when very young.

  • Sally Haslanger

    I think a number of different questions are being run together. For example:
    1) Is it possible to believe that something is moral or immoral without believing that there is a God?
    Of course, many atheists believe in and act on moral principles.
    2) Is it possible for someone to behave in ways that we consider moral (or they consider moral) without their having a belief in God?
    Of course, even theists can recognize that some atheists behave morally.
    3) Are there any objective moral rules binding on us, i.e., a source of genuine moral obligation, without God?
    Some theists believe that God is the source of normativity, the bindingness of morality on us. Kant, utilitarians, many others disagree. The issue here isn’t where we got the idea of morality, or why we sometimes behave morally, but what makes morality obligatory. I don’t see how comparisons with other primates help us answer this question. To inquire into the source of moral obligation is to inquire into the foundation of moral obligation, not its origin. After all, I may have evolved to believe certain actions are moral, and to act in accordance with those beliefs, even though nothing is genuinely, or objectively, obligatory.

  • María Ávila

    We can grasp others’ mental contents -their beliefs and intentions, and also their interests and needs. These grasped contents are certainly weaker than ours. If there is a full contradiction between my own and not my own interests, it is due to the fact that only the former (in the beginning) are able to guide my behaviour. (What do I mean by full contradiction? It only focuses on really costly and effortful helping behaviour. In addition, this contradiction does not cease even after considering, firstly, kin altruism, secondly, reciprocal altruism, and thirdly, possible gains in social prestige for altruist behaviour.) However, human subjects know that both–my own and others’ interiority–are at a similar level morally speaking. I would suggest that this contradiction between an actual, practical, lower-rank status and a theoretical, recognisable equal-rank status is one of the defining features of human beings. This problem, this contradictory duality of opposed estimations, can only be alleviated by means of an effort aiming at focusing on the complete known reality.

    Boyer, 2008 has suggested that the capacity for episodic future thought –also referred to as prospective mental time travel– may underlie the human ability to make choices with high long-term benefits. (It is well known that humans discount the value of future rewards over time. This issue –although, in my view, it is a less interesting one– is similar to the role of interests of others.) Likewise, the capacity for inner speech (an ability that arises at the age of seven) may support the effort aiming at focusing on the complete known reality -that is, on the truth. What is the conclusion? Morality -and moral freedom – is supported by the human capacity for objective (and not merely subjective, selfish) knowledge. Thus, morality would be beyond non-human primates. Since the Big Bang and since unicellular beings, a very long and, at the end of the day, clearly progressive evolution has produced us, our language, our developmental trajectory from children to adults and our capacity to focus on the truth or objective reality.

  • Tsvetoslav Shalev

    In our search for truth, it seems to me that we need a completely different approach altogether. The answer is an actual problem, for our very thoughts are but an automated process. We feel, we think, we believe things are. But whether things are or aren’t, it is a matter of personal experience. Is there God? If not, then we have to throw away a fact that there’s such thing as universal consciousness. Then why are we working so hard on creating such? Why do we establish connections, why do we try and find people who’d agree with us on a given statement?

    On the other hand, you have morality, the moral freedom. We use it, we claim it’s there to undo the chaos, to support life; a building block of progress, both inwards and outwards. But then why does our society flourish, with immorality in its very core? Personally, what would you choose: an eternal afterlife, or providing your loved ones with the things they need now?

    Morality and God is all the same. We give it different properties, we try and organize it, we try and find it a place in our tiny little space called ego, put a label on it and then find something else to do. In my opinion, it all comes down to personal choice – whichever it is, it is the right one!

  • Myranda

    The main problem of morality without God, is that it is either nonsensical, nonexistent, or a distortion of the true meaning of the word. Science is a very powerful tool, but it is limited in that it can only describe the world as it is. If we take science/naturalism seriously, we must admit that all teleological explanations, all purposes, all non-material things are illusory at best. What we refer to as “right” or “wrong” is at bottom a judgment rendered by society expressing its preferences–likes and dislikes–for no reason other than the operations of blind chance. Certainly, you may think you have logical and well-considered reasons for believing such ideas, but in reality it is simply that your neurons are firing a certain way due to genetics, environmental conditioning, and chance. The “morality” of a highly educated philanthropist is equal to that of a petty thief. Ultimately, the naturalistic view believes that “morality” in the truest sense of the word, is an illusion.

    Stating that morality cannot exist without God does not mean that religious people are more moral than non-religious people or atheists. It is simply admitting the fact that any discussion of morality that does not presuppose a God, or at least something higher than mere fermions and bosons, is somewhat ridiculous. To actually get anywhere in most discussions of morality, we say “assume life has meaning”, “assume we have control over our actions”, “assume our ideas of right and wrong matter” without any explanation or support for these assumptions. Using a philosophy that ultimately destroys these assumptions to build something on top of them is useless. Any such moral debate will, under some level of scrutiny, collapse under its own weight.

    I do find it interesting that the existence of altruistic instincts is being used as evidence against religion. If there is a Creator God, is it so surprising that he would create human beings with some kind of natural inclination to moral behavior? Even the Bible says “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law…. they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts” (Romans 2:14-15). It seems to me the heart of this argument is a chicken-and-egg type question: Did God provide revelation to clarify the morals he had already written into our biological make-up? Or did humans somehow evolve conscience-like instincts and then invent religion as a means of justifying it? I feel that how we answer such questions will go a ways toward deciding how seriously we should take morality.

  • Dave Elders

    The conclusion we end up with often depends upon where in the continuum of the story of life we start and stop. The question may not simply be answered because conscious (but not self-conscious)animals exhibit traits which self conscious human mind defines as displaying a kind of morality that religion claims is rooted in God. But doesn’t true morality demand self-consciousness–that is that we knowingly act in an unselfish manner for another’s benefit? At least some philosophers and religionists alike have concluded that the highest morality is giving up one’s own life to save another…a child or perhaps a fellow soldier. That kind of choice would not seem destined to insure the survival of the best among us. It would be hard to argue that animalistic behavior which might seem to us as rudimentary morality would seem to the animal as such. They just do what their conscious but not self-conscious brains direct them to do. With this as context, the notion that “brain is consciousness and mind is God” perhaps points to the larger question: if self-consciousness is required as the basis for true moral choosing, where then did it come from? Self-conscious human beings, not God, created their religions. But what makes an animal self-conscious rather than just conscious? To me it is a reality question not a religious question. If we start the story at what we think is the beginning instead of part way along, is it possible/likely that it was and is God after all who created a reality in which human beings could evolve (perhaps God’s process for growth to perfection in the finite?) to a point where they would come to manifest characteristics–like self-conscious morality–which must surely be inherent in an absolute creator personality? And is it also possible that it is unique personality which God bestows on humans during the evolutionary process which forever separates personal human beings as self-conscious from their animal forbears whose growth apparently stopped (at least so far) at the level of consciousness.

  • Stephanie L Brown

    Moral Systems Without God
    In his compelling analysis, Frans de Waal aligns human morality with nonhuman moral instincts, while simultaneously distinguishing human morality as efforts to “judge the appropriateness of actions” that do not affect us. As he puts it, distinctly human morality is characterized by “a move toward universal standards combined with an elaborate system of justification, monitoring, and punishment.” This statement, however true, begs the question of “why”. Why do we care what others do? De Waal notes that “at this point religion comes in,” and he describes how religious beliefs may provide something that science cannot. Without disagreeing with this latter point, must religion come in to explain the uniquely human rules of engagement? As another evolutionary psychologist, I wonder how evolution supports the considerable amounts of energy and time that go into monitoring and punishing others, not to mention the mental gymnastics required to justify our behavior. Surely evolutionary pressures run counter to this extreme level of investment in matters that do not affect us. Or do these matters affect us? Are we missing some sort of profound benefit to our genes that justifies these top-down, conscious and unconscious mental gymnastics that are time consuming, and result in compulsive monitoring of ourselves and others?

    To address this question requires that the analysis consider selection pressures on qualities that are uniquely human. Many scientists agree that humans are unique in the extent to which they must give prolonged care to helpless infants. My work suggests that this uniquely human condition shaped a human capacity for suppressing self-interest, at high cost, over long periods of time, and even in the absence of reciprocity. The implication of this capacity is that self interested motives such as the desire for resources and sex are at war with our “other-regarding” motives that direct sustained help to others. It is not unreasonable to speculate that this almost ubiquitous war between self and other, and among others, (moral dilemmas) produces “WarGames” (MGM,1983), systems of moral thought that help us run simulations to decide when and whether we should choose ourselves or others. This process would create increasingly intricate and subtle neuroanalytic capabilities for attempting to solve the unsolvable. Because these mechanisms, iterated over time, equip us with rather large computational devices, we are able to anticipate the inherent tragedies that result from this war between self and other, and among different others. Whether it is a jealous lover who cannot reconcile his hatred and love for his wife or a single mother who cannot reconcile her cocaine addiction with her need to work for a living, on some level we know that motivational conflicts can and do result in tragedy. As we are interdependent with individuals in our social world, perhaps it is in our evolutionary interest to use our reason to create and follow rules, to reduce (even slightly) the prevalence and incidence of harm to all. In this way, the uniquely human part of morality—our allegiance to creating, following, and enforcing rules—may amount to a desperate act of altruism, so compelling that we give up our own freedom, wants, and needs to try to prevent the horrific inevitable consequences of being endowed with competing and contradictory social instincts.

    As for God and religion, perhaps it takes faith in a higher power to live with the irresistible conclusion that the war between self and other cannot be won. But then this means that faith also excuses us from following the moral systems that are distinctly human, permitting arguably the most heinous types of tragedy.

  • Charles Wolverton

    In the final paragraphs of the essay, Prof de Waal expresses concern about the moral status of a prospective religion-free society (although in a pluralistic society, the question seems better addressed at the level of community, defined broadly). It isn’t clear whether implicit in his concern is that the moral status of some religion-infused societies/communities is (or ever was) admirably high. If that is implicit, it would be enlightening to hear about those societies/communities. Surely no one in this forum considers the moral status of contemporary religion-infused societies (including, sadly, the US) even acceptable, never mind admirably high (or can have failed to note that the moral status of the US seems steadily to decline as the degree of religious infusion increases). It’s enough to “give us pause”.

    Commenter Paul makes a point that I think warrants elaboration. Many who thankfully did not “absorb the basic tenets of Christian morality” (as practiced rather than preached) from the society of their youth (in my case, a “morality” that included 50s Bible belt racism, sexism, homophobia, tribalism, et al) nor any other dogmatic and theistic belief system nonetheless feel no void in need of being filled, whether by science or anything else. Such people are often labeled “nihilist”, commonly but mistakenly understood to be a debilitating curse. Yet in my experience, they often are a generally cheerful, productive, and arguably “moral” bunch. So, I suggest that we actually do have some idea of what a religion-free community might be like, and it’s actually rather attractive.

    As for criticism of the polemic strategies of so-called “new atheists” (seemingly quite irrelevant to the topic at hand but apparently de rigueur in some circles), it should at least be accurate lest it worse on the critic than the target. Eg, the observation about “brights” is at best misleading (see Brights Movement entry in wiki), there is nothing “supposed” about Dawkins’ status as a “champion” of evolutionary theory, and the incoherence of “fundamentalist, war mongering atheists” admits no substantive response.

  • William Hong

    I think that Buddhism would answer a lot of Professor de Waal’s questions. This is because Buddhism is not based on any God (Buddha was just a man) to make sure that you are moral, but stresses the importance of practicing selfless behavior as guided by your conscience. In fact, doing “good” because it is stated somewhere in a scripture or commandment is less valued in Buddhism than doing a good deed out of the compassion in your heart.

    Furthermore, Buddhist practice and beliefs are scientifically-based. Many of the things that Siddhartha predicted when he was here on earth are just starting to be confirmed scientifically. This includes the size of atom and dark matter.

    Maybe what religion is good for is practicing what we intuitively know. We cannot always count on science to prove something before we believe it because there are limitations on how fast science can improve and how fast it can generate information. Therefore, as science catches up, we can try to live our lives to the fullest by using our most powerful tool-the mind-to truly “know.” This is the benefit of Buddhism.

  • Science and Religion

    What is striking about the hundreds of reactions to my blog here and elsewhere (such as is that even though 90% of my text questions the religious origins of human morality, and wonders if we need a God to be good, it is the other 10%, in which I tentatively assign a role to religion, that has drawn by far the most ire. Atheists don’t like any less than 100% agreement with their position.

    To have a productive debate, religion needs to recognize the power of the scientific method and the truths it has revealed, but its opponents need to recognize that one cannot simply dismiss a social phenomenon found in every major society. If humans are inherently religious, or at least show rituals related to the supernatural, there is a big question to be answered. The question is not whether God exists, or not — which I find a monumentally uninteresting question defined by the narrow parameters of monotheism — but why humans universally feel the need for supernatural entities. Is this just to stay socially connected or does it also underpin morality? And if so, what will happen to morality in its absence?

    Just posing such an obvious question has become controversial in an atmosphere in which one has to be either pro science or pro religion. How did we get maneuvered into this polarization, this small-mindedness, as if we are taking part in the Oxford Debating Society, where all that matters is winning or losing? Remember, we are talking about how to lead our lives and why try to be good — very personal questions — and all we get is a shouting match. There are in fact no answers to these questions, only approximations, and while science may be an excellent source of information it is simply not designed to offer any inspiration. It used to be that science and religion went together, and in fact (as I tried to illustrate with Bosch’s paintings) Western science ripened in the bosom of Christianity and its explicit desire for truth. Ironically, even atheism is a product of this desire, as explained by the philosopher John Gray:

    “Christianity struck at the root of pagan tolerance of illusion. In claiming that there is only one true faith, it gave truth a supreme value it had not had before. It also made disbelief in the divine possible for the first time. The long-delayed consequence of the Christian faith was an idolatry of truth that found its most complete expression in atheism.” (Straw Dogs, 2002).

    Those who wish to remove religion and define morality as the pursuit of scientifically defined well-being (à la Sam Harris) should read up on earlier attempts in this regard, such as Walden Two by B. F. Skinner, who thought that humans could achieve greater happiness and productivity if they just followed reward and punishment schemes. Skinner’s colleague John Watson envisioned “baby factories” which would dispense with the “mawkish” emotions humans are prone to, an idea applied with disastrous consequences in Romanian orphanages. And talking of Romania, was not the entire Communist “experiment” an attempt at a society without God? Apart from the question how moral these societies turned out to be, I find it intriguing that Communism began to look more and more like a religion itself. The singing, marching, reciting of poems and pledges and waving in the air of Little Red Books smacked of holy fervor, hence my remark that any movement that tries to promote a certain moral agenda — even while denying God — will soon look like a religion. Since people look up to those perceived as more knowledgeable, anyone who wants to promote a certain agenda, even one inspired by science, will inevitably come face to face with the human tendency to follow leaders and let them do the thinking.

    Individual and Community

    The German philosopher Immanuel Kant saw as little value in human kindness as former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney did in energy conservation. Cheney mocked conservation as “a sign of personal virtue” that, sadly, wouldn’t do the planet any good. Kant praised compassion as “beautiful,” yet considered it irrelevant to a virtuous life. Who needs tender feelings if duty is all that matters?

    I had to think of this reading Andrew Jehan’s commentary that anyone with a natural drive to act altruistically may be less deserving of our esteem than someone who has no such drive, yet still shows altruism. The opposite view was voiced by Joel Marks, who prefers someone with the spontaneous impulse to help over someone who helps based on the calculation that it will be good to do so. It is an interesting dilemma, comparable to the question whom you want to be married to, someone who loves you or someone who is equally nice but acts out of duty? The latter partner is surely putting in more effort, and deserves our admiration, but I’d much prefer the former. Human morality is sturdier and more reliable if supported by genuine prosocial tendencies, which is why it is so important to demonstrate, as I have done in my primate research, that many of these tendencies are older than our species.

    Morality is a system of behavioral rules that transcends the individual. Self-interest is of course recognized, but it is weighed against the interests of the larger community. The typical argument runs like “we understand that you might want to steal someone else’s possessions, but if everyone were to do so, society would fall apart, and you would not like it either if it happened to you.” Morality appeals to the community level, and indirectly to your own interests as a member of the community. It is designed to reduce strife and promote social cohesion. Concern about the community is to some degree recognizable in chimpanzees, but humans are masters at it and have turned it into a set of social norms that everyone is supposed to obey.

    This is in everyone’s interest, albeit to differing degrees (e.g. the rich have more interest in rules of possession than the poor). So, when Stephanie Brown comments that “surely evolutionary pressures run counter to … investment in matters that do not affect us,” her interpretation of the disinterestedness of Adam Smith’s “impartial spectator” may be a bit too literal. Smith meant that we judge situations as moral or immoral even if we are not directly involved, but this is not to deny our interest in the moral level of society as a whole. Morality promotes cooperation, as Darwin already speculated, so it is important for us to monitor it at every level, whether we are directly affected or not. As soon as morality begins to crumble around us, our own well-being as a member of society is at risk.

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