THE BLOG
10/10/2009 05:34 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Morals Without God

Without God, we will live like animals!

After listening to the debate between Bill O'Reilly and Richard Dawkins, it struck me again that the resistance to evolutionary theory largely stems from the illusion that without God there can be no morality. Some believers feel threatened by evolutionary theory not because the theory is right or wrong -- the evidence doesn't seem to matter much to them -- but because accepting it would mean accepting that we have been created by natural processes including our morality. The final part is what bothers them the most.

O'Reilly exclaimed that at least Jesus had "advanced the human condition in a moralistic way" and another believer, Reverend Al Sharpton, expressed the same sentiment in a 2007 debate in the New York Public Library:

"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 literally 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'd be 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 a livable society, is built into us? Does anyone truly believe that our ancestors lacked rules of right and wrong before they had religion? Did they never assist others in need, or complain about an unfair deal?

Human morality must be quite a bit older than religion and civilization. It may, in fact, be older than humanity itself. Other primates live in highly structured social groups in which rules and inhibitions apply and mutual aid is a daily occurrence. Acts of genuine kindness do occur in animals as they do in humans. Altruistic behavior serves a cooperative group life, which benefits the actors of such behavior, yet the behavior is fueled by its own autonomous motivations, which vary from self-serving to other-regarding.

The animal kingdom offers so many examples that I surely cannot summarize them here (see my new book, The Age of Empathy), but the interesting part is not so much whether animals have empathy and compassion, but how it works.

In one experiment, we placed two capuchin monkeys side by side: separate, but in full view. One of them needed to barter with us with small plastic tokens. The critical test came when we offered a choice between two differently colored tokens with different meaning: one token was "selfish," the other "prosocial." If the bartering monkey picked the selfish token, it received a small piece of apple for returning it, but its partner got nothing. The prosocial token, on the other hand, rewarded both monkeys equally at the same time. The monkeys gradually began to prefer the prosocial token. The procedures were repeated many times with different pairs of monkeys and different sets of tokens, and the monkeys kept picking the prosocial option showing how much they care about each other's welfare.

A flourishing new field of evolutionary ethics focuses on how humans solve moral dilemmas (usually not in a rational Kantian way), which parts of the brain are involved (often old "emotional" parts), why moral tendencies evolved in the human species (probably to promote cooperation), what kind of animal parallels can be found (from prosocial tendencies to obeying social rules), how empathy evolved out of mammalian maternal care (which explains why in human adults the hormone oxytocin stimulates trust and empathy), and how religion piggy-backs on moral sentiments to promote a cohesive society. The sequence of how various tendencies came into being is: first social instincts and empathy, then morality, and finally religion. This is of course quite the opposite from the origin story of Christian religion.

If human morality is part of the larger scheme of nature, there is neither a good reason to look at evolutionary theory as undermining morality nor to look at God as a requirement for it. Raping your neighbor is destructive to society whether you believe in God or not. Conversely, I have never seen convincing evidence that a belief in God keeps people from immoral behavior. Those who think that without God humanity would lack a moral compass totally underestimate the antiquity of our moral sense.