Morals without God
August 22, 2011
Frans de Waal, in “Morals without God,” argues against the view of some people of the cloth that without God there would be no morality. Rather, morality arose for evolutionary purposes and is thus more ingrained in the human psyche than cultural and religious conceptions of right and wrong. The evidence for this is in fellow primates. De Waal states:
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….
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…. A dog will repeatedly perform a trick without rewards, but refuse as soon as another dog gets pieces of sausage for the same trick.
While God isn’t needed for morality, according to de Waal, religions serve important purposes in society that should not be dismissed. Hence, de Waal is sympathetic to religions and their morals, which provide a framework for social advances over the centuries:
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….It is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion.
Hence, this leads to the conclusion:
[W]hat 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.
De Waal thus provides a defense of religion as a foundation for justice, which it certainly is. But there are other defenses that rely on the pleasure created by religious practice itself—as in mysticism. That is a topic for another day.