Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Morality and religion

My compatriot Frans de Waal wrote an interesting discussion of the evolutionary roots of morality in the New York Times over the weekend: Morals without God? He frames the article with a reference to Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights. It's a great painting, but I'm not convinced it works all that well as a framing device. De Waal argues that the central panel of the triptych depicts humanity free from guilt and shame; I think he intends to argue that, at the same time, the humans depicted are not behaving immorally, but he does not make this explicit.

A key point of the article is that there is no evidence that religion is necessary for morality. Moreover, religion, while being key to certain specific systems of morality, also tends to introduce morals that, to external observers, appear arbitrary at best (and reprehensible at worst). It is in this sense, I think, that de Waal points to the central panel of Bosch's painting as showing behaviour that appears not to have been considered immoral by Bosch (hence the panel's occupants display no guilt or shame), although religious mores at the time probably held some of it (naked frolicking! :-) to be immoral.

The article's main contribution is to put forth a number of striking examples of apparently 'moral' behaviour among animals, and it is worth reading for those examples alone. I think de Waal is less successful in making his more philosophical point about religion and morality.

As de Waal notes, the problem is that we don't really have a good example of a society with no religious influences. So we know that it is perfectly possible for an atheist to live a very moral life. But although it seems certain that atheists can derive a set of moral values without any external input from (or reaction to) any religion, this cannot be demonstrated empirically. Moreover, de Waal suspects it cannot be proven, since this would require a stable society without religion, and he suggests that a religion would inevitably emerge in such a society almost as soon as (and maybe even before) any coherent moral code were established.

Of course, this quandary does point to a key issue with the relationship between religion & morality: depending on your beliefs, either all religions or all but one (your own) are human, not divine, creations and thus no more than an instrument to obtain some other benefits. Morality may be one of those benefits, or it may be an unintended side effect; in either case, to suggest that morality requires religion is to suggest that people will not behave morally unless fooled into doing so by religion. This is both a rather depressing view of humanity and entirely at odds with the evidence from the animal kingdom offered by de Waal.

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