Morality and religion

If a Supreme Being did not exist, say theists, there would be no morality, debauchery would reign and humans would behave as animals. “Not everything is permissible, therefore God exists,” suggests Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Both opinions are wrong and science is confirming the error. Morality and religion are separate things.

Ethics–the study of ideas about what is right or wrong, and morality–the conformity of an action with the guidelines of ethics–are matters embedded in the human nature. Let us look at it in this way: It is righter –more moral– to do good and avoid evil because of the intrinsic goodness or badness of actions than by the pursuit of a heavenly reward or the fear of an infernal punishment. “We must be honest because to be honest is the right thing,” said once American civil rights leader Martin Luther King.

According to evolutionary sciences, moral behavior is a cultural development that helps to the preservation of both the group and its members. “Do no harm to others” favors the survival of the species–of my clan; “do no harm yourself” favors the survival of the individual–of my life. According to primatologist Frans de Waal, the moral behaviors in our hominid ancestors were the result of empathy and reciprocity; the more agglutinated and better structured groups had, of course, higher odds to survive and thrive than isolated individuals. The lonely had fewer opportunities to both leave offspring and hunt the animal proteins that the brain of the ‘Homo erectus’–the immediate ancestor of ‘Homo sapiens–would require over thousands of years to increase its size.

In the same order of ideas, says the American biologist Edward Wilson: “In the course of evolutionary history, genes predisposing people toward cooperative behavior would have come to predominate in the human population as a whole; such a process repeated through thousands of generations inevitably gave birth to the moral sentiments”.

The predisposition to morality resulting from natural selection resides, therefore, in the human condition as such. Specific rules of conduct, of course, are not coded in genes: the DNA molecule does not dictate commandments. Intrinsic morality is a visible but blurry beacon that guides our actions.

The observation of a certain sense of fairness in monkeys and anthropoids has been studied in numerous investigations. These studies suggest that the moral instincts of some apes have deep roots that might have developed long before the appearance of man and that there is also a genetic predisposition toward morality in our animal relatives, with different characteristics in each species or group. It is not surprising then that the codes of conduct of humans, despite some similar rules among them, are different in every culture. The commonality in the codes sits in the human predisposition to moral behavior, not in the details of the specific rules.

Frans de Waal argues that the roots of morality manifest in social animals and, in particular, in our cousins the chimpanzees and bonobos. Their expressions of empathy and expectations of reciprocity are equivalent to the moral sense in their human relatives. According to ‘The Economist’ magazine, the research work of this Dutch “provides plenty of evidence that religion is not necessary in order for animals to display something that looks strikingly like human morality”.

Writes Frans de Waal in “The Bonobo and the Atheist”, his most recent book: “Morality arose first and modern religion latched onto it. Instead of giving us the moral law, the large religions were invented to bolster it. We are just beginning to explore how religion does so by banding people together and enforcing good behavior. It is far from my intention to minimize this role… But religion is not the wellspring of morality.”

Morality is then up to us and for us, the human race, and does not depend on any celestial judge who has decreed ethical norms. And, even less, morality does not require earthly judges, self-nominated or delegated by the organized religions, for them to act as carriers or interpreters of the divine messages.

Atlanta, February 6, 2015


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