Morality doesn’t come from religion.by Don Lacey on Jan. 14, 2013, under Christian Self-Righteous Arrogance, Christianity, Critical Thinking, Ethics, Faith, Freethought, Fundamentalism, God & Bible, History, Logic, Religion, Science
Regardless of what you think of his answers, scientist and author Jared Diamond poses some of the most interesting questions around. I often disagree with his answers, or find them incomplete, but he gets you to think about things that you might not otherwise think about, which is a virtue in its own right.
In this article:
Diamond poses the question: why are religious supernatural beliefs highly pervasive, mutually incompatible, yet sharing in certain commonalities the world over?
Diamond’s answer seems to be that such irrational beliefs persist because they are overtly absurd enough and distinct enough that espousing them serves a reliable indicator of group loyalty, but they are also close enough to everyday experience to gratify human emotions.
Diamond’s on to something, but maybe missing something too.
We’ve spoken at length on this blog about how morality, while it is an indispensable component of human life, does not come from religion even for the most devout of religious believers. The Bible, for example, advocates a lot of horribly immoral things!
Moral questions are often difficult ones, and the knowledge of how to answer moral questions has been hard won by human civilization over thousands of years. Because it has built up gradually over generations, our individual moral knowledge is often in-explicit; we say that some things just “feel wrong” but can’t easily explain why.
Yet some things that seem morally horrendous to us now, like slavery, didn’t “feel wrong” to most people a few hundred years ago, or in the bronze age when The Bible was written. That’s powerful evidence that morality is a form of knowledge that can be improved over time, rather than something that’s hardwired into our genes or dictated once, infallibly, for all eternity.
The human mind is thirsty for explanations. one reason that people persist in irrational supernatural religious beliefs is to account for the moral knowledge that they have, but can’t explain otherwise. They may know what the right moral thing is, but can’t explain why it is the right moral thing other than by invoking an authoritative deity who they believe decrees it to be so. Never mind that a few hundred years ago, their religious predecessors were absolutely convinced that the same deity had quite the opposite opinion.
And at a personal level, religious believers may often know that doing the wrong moral thing will eventually catch up to a person and make their life worse. But they can’t explain how that will happen, other than by invoking some kind of deity who punishes sinners and rewards saints.
And sometimes, people also can’t muster the self control to do the things they know are right, unless they can convince themselves that a supernatural deity is always standing over them, watching and judging.
So, while morality doesn’t come from religion, our need to explain morality and muster the self discipline to abide by it can be a powerful force in perpetuating irrational religious beliefs. This has profound implications for atheists: we need to not only live moral lives ourselves, but improve our ability to explain moral truths and how to live by them to others in an objective, rational, non-supernatural way.
Please read Diamond’s article and then comment: Is there anything else you think Diamond missed about this question? What do you think of the conjecture that the need to explain our moral knowledge plays a role in the perpetuation of irrational religious beliefs?