Morality and Religion: Natural Phenomena

“The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable – namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man.”

Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

Morality is concerned with right and wrong conduct among human beings. For thousands of years, the proselytizers of organised religion have declared morality to be something extrinsic to our species, a blessing bestowed by God upon his creation. It is a view that continues to be championed in religious circles today, with the most liberal view being that God intervened at some point during human evolution to implant the soul, i.e. that which elevates man above the apes, that which allows him to be held accountable on Judgement Day.

Outside of religious circles, this view has been completely discarded. Ever since evolution was proposed by Charles Darwin, the scientific community has given birth to a plethora of credible hypotheses on the natural origins of human morality. One such hypothesis is that our innate morality stems from a Darwinian misfiring of our primitive altruism, i.e. our unselfish concern for the welfare of close kin and potential reciprocators, such that we extend a helping hand to strangers as well. Here is how Richard Dawkins explains it in The God Delusion:

Natural selection, in ancestral times when we lived in small and stable bands like baboons, programmed into our brains altruistic urges, alongside sexual urges, hunger urges, xenophobic urges and so on. An intelligent couple can read their Darwin and know that the ultimate reason for their sexual urges is procreation. They know that the woman cannot conceive because she is on the pill. Yet they find that their sexual desire is in no way diminished by the knowledge. Sexual desire is sexual desire and its force, in an individual’s psychology, is independent of the ultimate Darwinian pressure that drove it. It is a strong urge which exists independently of its ultimate rationale. I am suggesting that the same is true of the urge to kindness – to altruism, to generosity, to empathy, to pity. In ancestral times, we had the opportunity to be altruistic only towards close kin and potential reciprocators. Nowadays that restriction is no longer there, but the rule of thumb persists. We can no more help ourselves feeling pity when we see a weeping unfortunate (who is unrelated and unable to reciprocate) than we can help ourselves feeling lust for a member of the opposite sex (who may be infertile or otherwise unable to reproduce). Both are misfirings, Darwinian mistakes: blessed, precious mistakes.

Throughout history, this misfiring has been the great enabler of cooperation between strangers, and thus the development of human civilisation. Though the finer aspects of morality may differ drastically from one civilisation or age to the next, the traditional ‘Golden Rule’ has seemingly always been accepted. As the anthropologist Solomon Asch has observed, we have yet to discover any society in which bravery is despised and cowardice held up to honour, nor one in which generosity is considered a vice and ingratitude a virtue.

Now of course, it is true that the Golden Rule is not usually obeyed to the letter; we are only human, after all. In general, however, we do try to refrain from harming others. This is the result of a cursory reflection on the kind of society that we wish to live in; no divine revelation is required, just empathy and common sense. As the physicist Victor Stenger has put it in God, The Failed Hypothesis:

We are sympathetic when we see a person or animal in distress and take action to provide relief. We stop at auto-accidents and render aid. We call the police when we witness a crime. We take care of children, aged parents, and others less fortunate than us. We willingly take on risky jobs, such as in the military or public safety, for the protection of the community. That stealing from members of your own community is immoral requires no divine revelation. It is revealed by a moment’s reflection on the type of society that would exist if everyone stole from one another. If lying were considered a virtue instead of truth-telling, communication would become impossible. Mothers have loved their children since before mammals walked the earth – for obvious evolutionary reasons. The only precepts unique to religion are those telling us to not to question their dogma.

Given the fundamental necessity of ethics in building a functional society, it is clear that morality predates religion. There are obvious biological reasons why people tend to treat their parents well and to think badly of murderers, adulterers, thieves and liars – so obvious, in fact, that these behaviours have been observed in our primate cousins. To quote Sam Harris from Letter to a Christian Nation:

It is a scientific fact that moral emotions – like a sense of fair play or an abhorrence of cruelty – precede any exposure to scripture. Indeed, studies of primate behaviour reveal that these emotions precede humanity itself, albeit in a more primitive form. All of our primate cousins are partial to their own kin and generally intolerant of murder and theft. They tend not to like deception or sexual betrayal much, either. Chimpanzees, especially, display many of the complex social concerns that you would expect to see in our closest relatives in the natural world.

Organised religion cannot come about if the community in question is not already held together by some general code of ethics. This was certainly the case with pre-Islamic Arabia: Muhammad would not have succeeded in his quest to unite the Meccan tribes if they did not already cooperate on some important level. Religion is thus a product of human cooperation, not the other way round.

Indeed, the local origin of religions explains why some of them hold principles which are not universal. This directly contradicts the idea that morality comes from God, for if this were the case, then surely such differences shouldn’t exist? This point is taken up by Harvard biologist Marc Hauser in his study of human morality. To quote from Hauser’s entry in What Is Your Dangerous Idea?:

If you believe that your religion, with its set of doctrinal principles, is perfectly aligned with a divine power’s principles, then you have to agree that the universal incidence of the countervailing intuition is derived from some source other than the divine. Biology would be the logical candidate. Alternatively, you could argue that a divine power is the source of the universal moral sense but that religions have simply chosen to live by other principles. But if religions are free to choose in this way, deriving their inspiration from something other than the divine, then much of the motivation and emotion underlying formal religion is in jeopardy. This is an irrational position to uphold.

With regards to the origins of religious beliefs, these can plausibly be considered a product of man’s inherent need to make sense of the world around him, as a sentient being. One might describe religion as our first attempt at the truth, and therefore our worst. As Darwin put it in The Descent of Man:

The belief in unseen or spiritual agencies…seems to be almost universal…nor is it difficult to comprehend how it arose. As soon as the important faculties of the imagination, wonder and curiosity, together with some power of reasoning, had become partially developed, man would naturally have craved to understand what was passing around him, and have vaguely speculated on his own existence.

Given the mythology of the civilisations which preceded us, it would seem that we construct gods when we are dissatisfied with natural explanations for how the universe operates, or are too uncreative to think of them. Indeed, it is easy to imagine a primitive human in his element, gazing in awe at the majesty of the sun and the moon, believing them to be the ultimate rationale for his existence. He then devises a series of convoluted rituals in order to please these gods, lest they leave him in perpetual darkness. This is paganism by definition.

Eventually – usually with increased prosperity – man concludes that it is not the sun and the moon themselves that are to be worshipped, but the numerous gods that are responsible for their individual activity, who reside in “the heavens” above. This is polytheism by definition.

Monotheism emerges when the number of these gods is eventually reduced down to one, who is regarded as all-powerful. This is by no means the inevitable outcome of an increased standard of living: witness the economic prosperity and simultaneous prevalence of Shinto beliefs in Japan, as well as the fact that 78 percent of Japanese citizens accept evolution, compared to just 40 percent in monotheistic America.

But of course, man’s need to understand why he exists is but one of many plausible theories in this regard; everyone has their own idea of where religion comes from. It fosters togetherness in groups, it provides consolation and comfort, etc. No doubt there are elements of truth to each of these claims. None of them, however, really explain why people are vulnerable to the charms of religion in the first place. Since we are the products of evolution, we should ask what pressures exerted by natural selection originally favoured the impulse to religion.

So what could the Darwinian survival value of religion be? Well, an increasing number of biologists are beginning to see religion as a by-product of something else, such as childhood gullibility. Religious behaviour may be a misfiring of an underlying psychological propensity which was once useful to our survival, but is now unnecessary and even harmful. To expand on this, we might quote Richard Dawkins one more time:

For excellent reasons related to Darwinian survival, child brains need to trust parents, and elders whom parents tell them to trust. An automatic consequence is that the truster has no way of distinguishing good advice from bad. The child cannot know that “Don’t paddle in the crocodile-infested Limpopo” is good advice but “You must sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon, otherwise the rains will fail” is at best a waste of time and goats. Both admonitions sound equally trustworthy. Both come from a respected source and are delivered with a solemn earnestness that commands respect and demands obedience. The same goes for propositions about the world, about the cosmos, about morality and about human nature. And, very likely, when the child grows up and has children of her own, she will naturally pass the whole lot on to her own children – nonsense as well as sense – using the same infectious gravitas of manner…

Evolutionary psychologists suggest that, just as the eye is an evolved organ for seeing, and the wing an evolved organ for flying, so the brain is a collection of organs (or ‘modules’) for dealing with a set of specialist data-processing needs. There is a module for dealing with kinship, a module for dealing with reciprocal exchanges, a module for dealing with empathy, and so on. Religion can be seen as a by-product of the misfiring of several of these modules, for example the modules for forming theories of other minds, for forming coalitions, and for discriminating in favour of in-group members and against strangers. Any of these could serve as the human equivalent of the moth’s celestial navigation, vulnerable to misfiring in the same kind of way as I suggested for childhood gullibility.

On the basis of ethnographic data and psychological research, the anthropologist Stewart Guthrie argues that people have a bias towards detecting human-like agency in their environment which might not actually exist. Thus, when the data on a given state of affairs is ambiguous or sketchy, people are likely to over-attribute intentional action as the cause. In other words, people can be said to possess ‘hyperactive agent-detection devices’ (HADD).

According to Guthrie, such a biased perceptual device would have been quite adaptive in our evolutionary past, for the consequences of failing to detect an agent are potentially much graver than mistakenly detecting an agent that is not there, e.g. a snake. The implication for religion is that HADD might lead people to posit agents, perhaps of a counter-intuitive sort, which are well-transmitted because of their easy fit within intuitive conceptual systems.

Guthrie, S. (1980), ‘A cognitive theory of religion’. Curr. Anthropol. 21, 181–203.

Guthrie, S. (1993), Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion, Oxford University Press.



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Support group and social network for ex-Muslims in Ireland. Empowering apostates from Islam and raising awareness of the jihadist threat. Affiliate of Atheist Alliance International.

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