On Morality and Religion as 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



Morality is concerned with right and wrong conduct among human beings. For thousands of years now, the proselytisers of organised religion have declared morality to be one of the greatest blessings 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 evolution to instil the soul in man, i.e. that which elevates him above the apes, that which allows him to be held accountable on Judgement Day.

Outside religious circles, however, this view has now been completely discarded. Ever since evolution by natural selection was proposed by Charles Darwin, the scientific world has given birth to a plethora of highly credible hypotheses surrounding 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. This is but one of many hypotheses advocated by one of the world’s leading authorities on evolution, Richard Dawkins. Here is how he 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 do we know of one in which generosity is considered a vice and ingratitude a virtue. While the Golden Rule is not usually obeyed to the letter – we are only human, after all – in general, we do try to refrain from harming others. 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.

Indeed, given the fundamental necessity of ethics in building a functional society, it is clear that morality predates religion by quite some way. There are obvious biological reasons why people tend to treat their parents well, and to think badly of murderers, adulterers, thieves, and liars. 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.

Yes, organised religion cannot come about if the community in question is not already held together by a general out-group code, enabling individual tribes with an in-group focus to cooperate. This was certainly the case with pre-Islamic Arabia: Muhammad wouldn’t have been able to unite the Meccan tribes so easily if they did not already cooperate on some important level. The Golden Rule thus lies at the heart of the world’s major religions, at least in theory.

With regards to the origins of such supernatural belief systems, these can perhaps be considered a product of man’s inherent need to make sense of the world around him, as a sentient being. As Charles Darwin once put it:

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 the 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 that preceded us, it would seem that we construct gods when we are dissatisfied with natural explanations for how the universe operates, or are too lazy 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 responsible for their individual activity, who reside in “the heavens” above; this is polytheism by definition.

Monotheism comes about 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 per cent of Japanese citizens accept the process of evolution, as compared to 40 per cent 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; it allows the bourgeoisie to subjugate the proletariat, etc. No doubt there are elements of truth to each of these statements.

None of them, however, really explain why people are vulnerable to the charms of religion in the first place, and therefore open to exploitation, misplaced loyalty and false hope. 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 quote Richard Dawkins in this regard:

My specific hypothesis is about children. More than any other species, we survive by the accumulated experience of previous generations, and that experience needs to be passed on to children for their protection and well-being. Theoretically, children might learn from personal experience not to go too near a cliff edge, not to eat untried red berries, not to swim in crocodile-infested waters. But, to say the least, there will be a selective advantage to child brains that possess the rule of thumb: believe, without question, whatever your grown-ups tell you. Obey your parents; obey the tribal elders, especially when they adopt a solemn, minatory tone. Trust your elders without question. This is a generally valuable rule for a child. But, as with the moths, it can go wrong…

 

The flip side of trusting obedience is slavish gullibility. The inevitable by-product is vulnerability to infection by mind viruses. 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 that might not actually exist (Guthrie, 1980, 1993). Thus, people are particularly sensitive to the presence of intentional agency and seem biased to over-attribute intentional action as the cause of a given state of affairs when data is ambiguous or sketchy. These observations suggest that whatever cognitive mechanism people have for detecting agency might be extremely sensitive; 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 the HADD might lead people to posit agents, perhaps of a counterintuitive sort, that are then 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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