Sunday, August 5, 2007

The God Delusion, Part 6 – Roots of morality


In chapter six of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins deals with the roots of morality. There seems to be a major concern amongst religious people that should people become atheists there would no longer be any reason to behave morally. After all, why would anyone behave in a good way if there was no after-life reward, and if there was no hell fire, what would stop people from murder and rape??? On the question, "If there is no God, why be good?" Dawkins writes:

Posed like that, the question sounds positively ignoble. When a religious person puts it to me in this way (and many of them do), my immediate temptation is to issue the following challenge: 'Do you really mean to tell me the only reason you try to be good is to gain God's approval and reward, or to avoid his disapproval and punishment? That's not morality, that's just sucking up, applepolishing, looking over your shoulder at the great surveillance camera in the sky, or the still small wiretap inside your head, monitoring your every move, even your every base thought.' As Einstein said, 'If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.'

So what is the danger associated with atheism and in particular, a belief in the Theory of Evolution? It seems to me that many people mistakenly believe that the theory of evolution teaches us how to maximize fitness and perhaps more dangerously that maximizing fitness is necessarily a good thing…. There is nothing in the theory of evolution which tells us how we should act, that is for us to decide. Dawkins writes:

A great deal of the opposition to the teaching of evolution has no connection with evolution itself, or with anything scientific, but is spurred on by moral outrage. This ranges from the naive 'If you teach children that they evolved from monkeys, then they will act like monkeys…

I have written about this before in my post "Ethics of an atheist", but it is important so I will say it again. I think that the role of the Theory of Evolution is not to tell us how to act i.e. we should not derive our morality from the theory of evolution. Rather, I think, the theory of evolution can be used to make informed guessed about how people are likely to act in various situations. On a larger scale, I think that Evolution can help us predict which policies are likely to succeed as well as which ones are likely to fail because they violate our instincts? I think that in many ways a communistic society, as it is described in theory, would be quite nice. Marx's (see picture) slogan "From each according to his ability to each according to his needs" may be sexist, but aside from that it sounds like a very sensible principle to my ears. Unfortunately I think that a society based on this principle would never work, simply because it is human nature to want more than one need (this is probably the reason it never has worked to)… Largely for this reason I favor a market-based society. For those who are interested in this line of thought I recommend Matt Ridley's The Origins of Virtue (the last chapter is about implications for society). Dawkins writes that:


A great majority of religious people, I am sure, are moral and responsible human beings. However, the following letter to Brian Flemming, as well as countless historical episodes (9/11, Crusades, Inquisition etc), shows that religious belief indeed does not make people immune from primitive "ape like" behavior…

You've definitely got some nerve. I'd love to take a knife, gut you fools, and scream with joy as your insides spill out in front of you. You are attempting to ignite a holy war in which some day I, and others like me, may have the pleasure of taking action like the above mentioned…

Dawkins then points out the absurdity in defending an omnipotent omniscient God. Isn't it enough that all atheists will burn in hell forever after we die? Can't your God just punish us if he wants to, or perhaps this is where your faith breaks down? My advice to those who feel the need to fight in the name of God is, why not let God take care of it, should he exist then it should be a piece of cake…

So where does morality come from? Without going into the details the Theory of Evolution provides a perfectly valid explanation of the phenomenon. In experiments where people are given ethical dilemmas, religious people and atheists give pretty much the same answers, again suggesting that religion doesn't make you more moral... How did morality evolve? Here, to confine the length of this post, I will simply refer to Matt Ridley's The Origin of Virtue, which deals exhaustively with the subject...

14 comments:

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
stormen_per said...

But that spam-tv-station is probably absurdely boring. I'd recommend http://www.ted.com instead. Thousands of the planets brightest minds gather and hold lectures/seminars/talks and exchange ideas.

I get stuck for hours watching talks on HIV-countermesures, evolution, the visualisation of statistics...

Here's Dawkins for instance: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/98

Bayman said...

Perhaps natural morality follows from citizenship, rather than the pursuit ideological or religious utopias (such as heaven, free markets or the communist state).

John Ralston Saul in The Unconscious Civilization quotes Hume's biographer Nicholas Phillipson who says it well:

"All of Hume's philosophy, all of his history, was to be directed towards the goal of teaching men and women to seek happiness in the world of common life, not in the life hereafter, and to pay attention to their duties to their fellow citizens rather than to a superstitious God".

This is real democracy; perhaps from it stems the natural morality of the individual.

rasmussenanders said...

Thank you for the comment Bayman,
I would definetly agree with you that living in a group will naturally require many norms.

I think that our morality is probably to a great extent a product of the evolutionary pressures associated with living together. Those individuals who broke the code (whether it was killing another member or stealing or something else), on average would probably not become very popular and perhaps even be killed...

Right there you have the evolutionary pressure needed for feeling such as shame, hate, gratitude and guilt to evolve.

In modern societies we have been able to make things even better, by inventing the police. Apparently, the chance of dying from the violence of another human being is many times greater among native population (e.g. In the jungle or on the savannah) where there is no police... South Central is a paradise in comparison...

John said...

Hi, Im from Melbourne Australia.
Please check out this Illuminated understanding between scient-ISM and exoteric religiosity---and also the roots of true morality and the cullture of fear

1. www.dabase.org/spacetim.htm
2. www.dabase.org/dht7.htm
3. www.dabase.org/ilchurst.htm
4. www.dabase.org/christmc2.htm
5. www.dabase.org/coop+tol.htm
6. www.coteda.com
7. www.dabase.org/2armP1.htm#ch2

rasmussenanders said...

A bit to many references there. Please state some general points here in the comments section.

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Anonymous said...

Being a former atheist, I know for a fact that atheists can be moral. I did not seek rewards in the afterlife or to avoid burning in hell. I sought rewards in this life and feared the law enforcement agencies. I was raised in a Christian culture, so I benefited from Christian morals even though I did not believe in their God. I think atheist have to be careful not to throw out morality in the name of non-belief. Sadly many do just that.