Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Morality beyond religion

I have a personal hypothesis that I’d like to offer based on my reading of “The Moral Animal” (talked about in my previous post). I think that it’s probably the case that religion is not “in our genes” (despite this humorous look at the subject). This would be important, if true, because it would seemingly make it much easier to weed out of culture. Not that we couldn’t get rid of it even if it were genetic. It's "genetic" to have sex by whatever means necessary and to do so with the explicit and sole reason of pregnancy. Most of us have gotten beyond these two genetic imperatives.

So let’s look at religion as merely a vessel which, conveniently for our ancient and unknowledgeable ancestors, carried morals and also answers to what are now simple scientific questions.

Many of the anciently evolved morals of various societies converged on common truths of necessity in advanced social creatures. Don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t cheat, don’t lie, don’t do anything that you don’t want done to you. All of these emerge quite naturally from reciprocal altruism. But once they have emerged, to what authority did the brightest of our ancestors appeal for authoritative agreement?

The most convenient authority would be the entity that folk tradition assigned the various inexplicable random tragedies and “bizarre” occurrences. We would all it "God". They almost certainly didn’t. But they had some name for “it” or “them”. Lightening, earthquakes, floods, fires, eclipses, stars, moon, sun, death – all were given some explanation and it wasn’t a scientific one back in 1 million B.C.

If a band of hominids could be convinced by their leader that the same entity(s) responsible for all of these calamities, strange occurrences and unusual objects (a deity they must have all been terrified of) was also ordering them to behave in a proscribed manner, it would greatly facilitate compliance.

Granting this much, you will also grant that many other behaviors would get added in. I won’t go into the reasoning that Robert Wright employs in the afore mentioned book regarding why we have had some of the sexual morals (justifiable from the perspective of Natural Selection, but not necessarily from the minds of rational hominids), but it is understandable how they would have been included in the “god orders”.

Most of the great “unanswerable” questions remained that way throughout 99.9% of our evolutionary history. They would have had many millennia to embed themselves in every culture (in various ways) throughout the world. One thing that is understood from evolutionary psychology is that there is great flexibility in human consciousness, and this is why great import is also assigned to environmental factors (they just aren’t the "be all and end all"). It’s within that realm of flexibility that we see cultural variants of common themes.

We are no longer in that past 99.9% of our ancestral environment. We are in the .1% that we fondly call “now”. And we now have the knowledge that allows us to maintain the evolved morals that make sense and to discard those that are artifacts of ignorance.

While none of this is brilliantly insightful on my part, it is well worth keeping in mind as we confront theists on the issue of "how do you have morals without a god"?

3 comments:

The Exterminator said...

So let’s look at religion as merely a vessel which, conveniently for our ancient and unknowledgeable ancestors, carried morals ...

I wouldn't so readily grant that religion carried morals. In fact, I don't think it did carry morals, per se. I think it carried rules, some of which were moral and some of which were highly immoral. Very little of religion has to do with being a truly moral person, despite what the pulpit bullies say. Religion is about fighting for the team and following its rules. I'm not comfortable granting it any authority, ever, in the realm of pure morality.

PhillyChief said...

"how do you have morals without a god"?

1. Morality doesn't come from any god (psst, gods are make believe)
2. If they did, they'd be subjective and therefore not morals but will that's imposed
3. If morality is objective, then they don't come from a god. At best, it merely passes them to us like a delivery man

That's all you need to say to them and then step back and await the tantrum. If online, get ready for the responses loaded with ALL CAPS, mispled wrds, and logical fallacies. Oh, and of course copy/pasted passages from their holy books and holy websites. ;)

the chaplain said...

It may not be brilliantly insightful, but it pretty much lines up with my thoughts right now. Therefore, I pronounce it to be moral wisdom and I coronate you a first-order moral wizard.