Apr 9th 2013

God and Morality: Asking the Wrong Question

by Jeff Schweitzer

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology

Frans de Waal's new book The Bonobo and the Atheist asks a question that vexed Greek sages thousands of years ago and every philosopher since: are we moral because we believe in god, or do we believe in god because we are moral? Cutting to the chase, his answer is a resounding 'yes' to the latter.

Ah, the benefits of having a good publicist. De Waal, whom I have admired for years, has found a real pro, because his latest book probing this age-old question has received much press lately in print, radio and television, even though he breaks no new ground. I am delighted that he has found this audience because his message, while not new, is vitally important.

However, while de Waal gets the attention, I would like to suggest that his question about morality and god is not quite right. The question as posed implies that morality, even if derived from our biology and without any reference to religion, will lead to a belief in god. He is almost right. But Captain Edward Smith almost missed the iceberg. Even a small mistake can be catastrophic, and de Waal's error in linking morality to god, even while inverting the usual relationship, is a fatal flaw in his thesis.

Five Pillars

From his writings, de Waal clearly believes that religion retains some purpose in modern society, mainly in the form of strengthening community and providing the comfort of ritual. Again, he is almost right. As I argued in Beyond Cosmic Dice, religion pathologically persists in service of five different masters of human weakness: fear of death and the promise of seeing lost loved ones; the need to explain away the unknown; hope for controlling one's destiny; a desire for social cohesion; and the corrupting allure of political power. So we create, each of us, and collectively, a god who is all-powerful and all-knowing to address some combination of these five masters, or all of them. Holding on to two of the five is where de Waal goes astray.

There is no link between morality and the five pillars; nothing about being moral would lead to a belief in god. The two concepts do not intersect. The history of religion proves the point.

That morality does not derive from, or lead to, religion has been the conclusion of some of humanity's greatest minds, including David Hume, the father of religious studies. Due to certain inconveniences, like the possibility of being burned alive at the stake, Hume restricted his writings to polytheism. But it takes no great leap to read between the lines and apply his words to monotheism and Christianity in particular. Hume did not believe morality is a gift from god because he thought religion a false construct and therefore no foundation for human behavior or thought. Instead, humanity's first beliefs in a higher power were borne of ignorance and fear of the natural world: every disaster that befalls us demands an explanation. Naturally, multiple unknown causes leads to the idea of multiple powers; polytheism is the natural state of a primitive mind.

We hang in perpetual suspense between life and death, health and sickness, plenty and want; which are distributed amongst the human species by secret and unknown causes, whose operation is oft unexpected, and always unaccountable. These unknown causes, then, become the constant object of our hope and fear.

From Many, One

But so too does this apply to belief in one god; one is just a derivative of many. The idea of powerful gods, or a god, controlling each important aspect of our lives would not by itself be satisfying. We want to put a face to the power; we want to be familiar with the deities that control our fate; we want to know them so that we can communicate with them and solicit their interventions. We are all Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, seeking to reveal the nature of the man behind the curtain, hoping to strike up a conversation with whoever is in charge.

By no coincidence then do our gods take on idealized human form. Our egoistic species has a universal tendency to transfer human-like qualities to surrounding objects, giving them characteristics that are familiar to us. This tendency to anthropomorphize everything around us has the consequence that we attribute human malice or benevolence to inanimate objects, and of course to the gods above. With their human form, gods also take on human personalities, with passions and weaknesses that make them jealous, vengeful, spiteful, fickle, wicked and foolish. How comforting to know that one's fate and fortune, tossed about by unknown causes, can be controlled by dialogue with an invisible power that possesses familiar sentiments and intelligence!

But attributing human qualities to a higher power has a paradoxical consequence, one leading inevitably to the idea of multiple gods, at least initially. We raise our own estimation of ourselves as god-like, but diminish the power of the very gods we create by humanizing them. Once again, Hume is right on the money:

They suppose their deities, however potent and invisible, to be nothing but a species of human creatures, perhaps raised from among mankind, and retaining all human passions and appetites, together with corporeal limbs and organs. Such limited beings, though masters of human fate, being, each of them, incapable of extending his influence everywhere, must be vastly multiplied, in order to answer the variety of events, which happen over the whole face of nature. Thus every place is stored with a crowd of local deities; and thus polytheism has prevailed.

The idea that deities are "nothing but a species of human creatures, perhaps raised from among mankind" of course applies to more than the old discarded gods of the past. The words exactly describe Jesus. The link between the one god of today and the many of the past is forged in steel. The characteristics that originated in polytheism continued to apply even as the number of gods diminished. One could argue, in fact, that today's religions are not truly monotheistic. Christianity has created hundreds of objects of worship in the guise of saints, who have become minor gods to many followers. So this conclusion from Hume is particularly poignant:

... it will appear, that the gods of all polytheists are not better than the elves or fairies of our ancestors, and merit as little any pious worship or veneration. These pretended religionists are really a kind of superstitious atheists, and acknowledge no being, that corresponds to our idea of deity.

So we conclude that most of the multiple divinities of the ancient world were supposed to have been human or human-like, thereby diminishing their power. Yet Christianity is no different: we have Jesus, in the flesh, bleeding like a regular guy, no different from what Hume disparages in his idea of a cruder polytheistic god. Like many gods, one god is nothing better than the elves or fairies of our ancestors. Nowhere in this narrative is there any suggestion that morality is linked to religion, or that morality elsewhere derived would lead to a belief in god.

While I emphasize David Hume as the father of religious studies, we cannot neglect to mention its grandfather, Baruch de Spinoza, who preceded Hume by almost 100 years. When Spinoza took on the question of ethics he created a path to secular enlightenment that Hume did not fully assimilate. I raise this here because at no point in Spinoza's masterpiece, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus did he ever link the development of human morality with a future belief in god. As did Hume later, Spinoza concluded that the history of religion precludes any connection at all between morality and religion, in any order.

Poseidon and Morality

Religion's history begs an important question: why of all the gods does the god of Abraham own the right to morality? The history of religion can be understood as the winnowing of gods from many to one. What this means is that all of us are atheists, even the most devout, undoubting, dedicated priest, rabbi or mullah. Atheist means "without god," and all of us are without at least some gods. All monotheistic believers reject all gods, except one. They reject all the Greek elder gods Cronus, Gaea, Uranus, Rhea, Oceanus, Tethys, Hyperion, Mnemosyne, Themis, Iapetus, Coeus, Crius, Phoebe, Thea, Prometheus, Epimetheus, Atlas, Metis, and Dione. Muslims, Jews and Christians all deny the existence of the Greek Olympic gods Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Hestia, Hera, Ares, Athena, Apollo, Aphrodite, Hermes, Artemis, and Hephaestus. All major religions today dismiss as nothing but myth the Roman gods Jupiter, Juno, Neptune, Pluto, Apollo, Diana, Mars, Venus, Cupid, Mercury, Minerva, Ceres, Proserpine, Vulcan, Bacchus, Saturn, Vesta, Janus, Uranus and Maia. Yet this roster of gods was real to multiple thousands of people for thousands of years, every bit as real as the one god worshipped by Christians, Muslims and Jews today. Was the morality derived from a belief in those gods any different from what we see today with one? If asked, Christians, Jews and Muslims today would use numerous and diverse reasons to deny the existence of Greek and Roman gods, who were so important to so many people for so long. I simply extend that reasoning to include the one remaining god. Everybody rejects as silly the idea of gods; I merely exclude the existence of one more god than those who consider themselves religious.

Something that we all reject is hardly a sound basis for morality. A more compelling basis would be the Tooth Fairy. Hear me out. No adult takes the myth seriously, of course. Yet the evidence for the existence of the Tooth Fairy is in fact more compelling than that for any other belief system. As a child, you put your recently yanked tooth under your pillow. The next morning, lo and behold, you have a quarter where the tooth used to be. That is concrete, real, undeniable evidence that the Tooth Fairy came to visit during the night. What other explanation could be possible with such incontrovertible evidence? What could be more compelling: you can hold that quarter in your hand, and you know for a fact that the previous night only a tooth lay beneath your head. The Tooth Fairy exists, end of story. Now, science might try to convince you, as a five-year-old, that there indeed is a more rational explanation for the nocturnal switch, such as a caring parent acting the part, for example, but you will have none of it. You believe the Tooth Fairy exists, have evidence to support your belief, and dismiss the scientific explanation as heretical.

Fortunately, we all grow out of believing in the Tooth Fairy. Well, no, we don't. We just transfer that belief to something we call "god." God is the Tooth Fairy, and the Tooth Fairy is god. Instead of looking for a quarter under our bed, we look to miracles as evidence to support our belief, ignoring the fact that belief cannot be supported by evidence. Yet, we insist. We see statues of the Virgin Mary crying blood, or the face of Jesus on an eggplant, or witness a healer laying hands giving ambulation to the disabled. Instead of the story involving a tooth and quarter, our narrative becomes more complex (we are adults after all), with the plot thickening to include creation and an afterlife. But both stories are made up, figments of our imagination, equally supported by "evidence." Both are valid only because we believe. The first impulse would be to dismiss as completely absurd any equality between god and the Tooth Fairy. But resist the temptation, and ask yourself a simple question: how do the two really differ? Whatever argument you come up with to support a belief in god, can you not also apply to the Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus, or trolls under a bridge in Ireland? Yes, of course, the concept that the Tooth Fairy is real is lunacy. But so, too, the belief in god. The notion that god exists is as childish and as silly as the belief that a mythical creature enters your bedroom at night to give alms for your milk teeth. This is a poor foundation for human morality.

Morality and Biology

Fortunately, we can understand the basis for morality without invoking god either as a cause or a consequence. There is no compelling evidence that morals are derived from religion, nor god's grant of free will. Instead evidence points to morals arising from inherent characteristics embedded in human nature as a consequence of our sociality. What we view as moral behaviors -- kindness, reciprocity, honesty, respect for others -- are social norms that evolved in the context of a highly social animal living in large groups. The evolution of these social norms enabled a feeble creature to overcome physical limitations through effective cooperation. Morality is a biological necessity and a consequence of human development. Morality is our biological destiny, deeply embedded in the human psyche. Our moral characteristics are primeval adaptations that helped our ancestors survive. In a world of dangerous predators, early man could thrive only through mutual cooperation: good (moral) behavior strengthened the tribal bonds that were essential to survival. What we now call morality is really a suite of behaviors favored by natural selection in an animal weak alone but strong in numbers. Religion has nothing to do with morality: our understanding of human history, and the development of religion over the ages provides compelling evidence that morality is not derived from religion, nor leads to a belief in god.

 


Book Introduction:

Beyond Cosmic Dice: Moral Life in a Random World

by Jeff Schweitzer and Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara 

June 22, 2009
"Beyond Cosmic Dice" offers a new perspective on the purpose and meaning of life free from any divine influence. By rejecting the false premises of religion, readers are free to pave their own road for a better life.


Jeff Schweitzer
 spent much of his youth underwater pursuing his lifelong fascination with marine life. He obtained his doctorate from Scripps Institution of Oceanography through his neurobehavioral studies of sharks and rays. He has published in an eclectic range of fields, including neurobiology, marine science, international development, environmental protection and aviation. Jeff and his wife live in central Texas, moving there after retiring from the White House as Assistant Director for International Science and Technology.

Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara is an evolutionary biologist with a doctorate from the University of California. He serves as a marine policy advisor to various national and international bodies, and has recently represented Italy in multilateral environmental negotiations. Through appearances on television and radio, and the publication of articles and books, he has been striving to increase public awareness of marine conservation. Giuseppe lives with his family in Northern Italy.




  

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

May 27th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Monetary policymakers are talking tough nowadays about fighting inflation to head off the risk of it spinning out of control. But that doesn’t mean they won’t eventually wimp out and allow the inflation rate to rise above target. Since hitting the target most likely requires a hard landing, they could end up raising rates and then getting cold feet once that scenario becomes more likely. Moreover, because there is so much private and public debt in the system (348% of GDP globally), interest-rate hikes could trigger a further sharp downturn in bond, stock, and credit markets, giving central banks yet another reason to backpedal." ----- "The historical evidence shows that a soft landing is highly improbable. That leaves either a hard landing and a return to lower inflation, or a stagflationary scenario. Either way, a recession in the next two years is likely."
May 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "No, I am not arguing that Powell needs to replicate Volcker’s tightening campaign. But if the Fed wishes to avoid a replay of the stagflation of the late 1970s and early 1980s, it needs to recognize the extraordinary gulf between Volcker’s 4.4% real interest rate and Powell’s -2.25%. It is delusional to believe that such a wildly accommodative policy trajectory can solve America’s worst inflation problem in a generation."
May 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "It will be critical in this context how China will act and whether it will prioritise its economic interests (continuing trade with Europe and the US) or current ideological preferences (an alliance with Russia that makes the world safe for autocracies)."
May 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "The document is full of embarrassing and damming stories of illegal gatherings and bad behaviour. There was “excessive alcohol consumption”, a regular fixture referred to as “wine time Fridays” and altercations between staff. Aides are shown to have left Downing Street after 4am (and not because they had worked into these early hours). Cleaning staff and junior aides were abused, and a Number 10 adviser is on record before the infamous “bring your own booze” party...."
May 17th 2022
EXTRACT: "But even a resounding Russian defeat is an ominous scenario. Yes, under such circumstances – and only such circumstances – Putin might be toppled in some kind of coup led by elements of Russia’s security apparatus. But the chances that this would produce a liberal democratic Russia that abandons Putin’s grand strategic designs are slim. More likely, Russia would be a rogue nuclear superpower ruled by military coup-makers with revanchist impulses. Germany after World War I comes to mind."
May 8th 2022
EXTRACT: "For citizens of states that are members of NATO, taking all possible steps, short of all-out war, to ensure that Russia does not conquer Ukraine is not even an altruistic sacrifice. It is a long-term investment, for themselves and their children, in freedom, democracy, and the international rule of law."
May 4th 2022
EXTRACT: ".....a remarkable transformation is taking place in Ukraine’s army amounting to its de facto military integration into Nato. As western equipment filters through to the frontline, Nato-standard weaponry and ammunition will be brought into Ukrainian service. This is of far higher quality than the mainly former Soviet weapons with which the Ukrainians have fought so capably. The longer this process continues and deepens, the worse the situation will be for the already inefficient Russian army and air force."
May 3rd 2022
EXTRACT: " The conventional wisdom among students of the Russian arts and sciences is that Russian culture is “great.” The problem is that, while there are surely great individuals within Russian culture, the culture as a whole cannot avoid responsibility for Putin and his regime’s crimes." ---- "Russianists will not be able to avoid examining themselves and their Russian cultural icons for harbingers of the present catastrophe. What does it mean that Fyodor Dostoevsky was a Russian chauvinist? That Nikolai Gogol and Anton Chekhov were Ukrainian? That Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was an unvarnished imperialist? That Aleksandr Pushkin was a troubadour of Russian imperial greatness? May these writers still be read without one eye on the ongoing atrocities in Ukraine?"
Apr 29th 2022
EXTRACT: "The following day Lavrov met his Eritrean counterpart, Osman Saleh, in Moscow. Eritrea was the only African country to vote against the UN resolution condemning the invasion. In this refusal to condemn Russia, Eritrea was joined by only Belarus, North Korea and Syria. Even longstanding allies such as Cuba and China abstained. It’s an indication of Russia’s increasingly limited diplomatic options as this war continues."
Apr 24th 2022
EXTRACT: "Although the milestone lasted only for a brief time, it points to a future in which California runs on 100% wind, solar, hydro and batteries, a future that will certainly arrive even faster than the state plans. As it is, California is ahead of its green energy goals." ...... "A world of 100% green energy and electric cars is not only a healthier and more comfortable world, it is a world where oil and gas dictators like Vladimir Putin are defunded."
Apr 17th 2022
EXTRACT: "Kazakhstan’s authorities have also showed uncharacteristic leniency in allowing public rallies in support of Ukraine. Thousands of protesters holding banners reading “Russians, leave Ukraine”, “Long Live Ukraine” and “Bring Putin to trial” marched across the capital, Almaty, wrapping monuments to Lenin and other Soviet-era figures with yellow and blue balloons symbolising the Ukrainian flag."
Apr 15th 2022
EXTRACT: "People’s identification with the Soviet Union appears to have a clear and growing basis in Russian public opinion. Surveys we have conducted throughout the Putin period show that Soviet identification among the general population – something that had been steadily declining after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – began to increase in 2014, when the Russian government annexed Crimea and supported rebellions in the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. By 2021, almost 50% of those surveyed identified with the Soviet Union rather than the Russian Federation."
Apr 13th 2022
EXTRACT: "Worse yet, the Hungarian government has effectively been helping Putin by prohibiting the shipment of weapons to Ukraine across its borders. Hungarian public TV spreads Russian disinformation day and night. The day before the election, an assembly of ordinary people expressing solidarity with Ukraine was framed on state television as a “pro-war rally.” "
Apr 13th 2022
EXTRACT: "It may well be that the Russian army’s fate has already been sealed in what is likely to be a long war. The single qualification to this may be that Russia could default to escalation using “weapons of mass destruction” of one form or another – whether tactical nuclear warheads or chemical weapons."
Apr 13th 2022
EXTRACTS" "Ukraine and Russia produce a substantial amount of grain and other food for export. Ukraine alone produces a whopping 6% of all food calories traded in the international market. At least it used to, before it was invaded by the world’s largest nuclear power." ...... "When it comes to cereals like wheat, corn, rice and barley, the big players talk about millions of metric tonnes, or MMTs. A single MMT of wheat contains about 3.4 trillion food calories,." ....."Ukraine produced about 80 MMT of grain (a category that includes wheat, corn and barley) in 2021, and is expected to harvest less than half of that this year. A shortfall of 40 MMT is enough missing calories that a country like the UK could only make it up by having everyone stop eating for three years. That’s the thing about tonnes of grain: a million here and a million there and pretty soon you’ve got a real issue on your plate."
Apr 11th 2022
EXTRACT: "I don’t even know the little girl’s name. All I do know is what a friend of a friend wrote on Viber: that her relative, a senior nurse in one of Kyiv’s hospitals, “saw in the morgue a child with 20 varieties of sperm on her small body.” Since this information was conveyed in a private conversation, there is no reason to doubt its veracity."
Apr 8th 2022
EXTRACT: "Russian society has so far failed to stop Putin, just as German society failed to stop Hitler. And so, like a poisoned chalice, that task has fallen to the West, as it did in 1939. The West must now treat Putin and his regime the same way that Winston Churchill treated Hitler: Don’t talk to him, just defeat him. Dead-enders such as Putin are too fanatical and desperate to be reliable negotiating partners."
Apr 3rd 2022
EXTRACT: "From 1807 to 1814 on the Iberian peninsula, Napoleon had to fight Spanish, Portuguese and British armies while beset by ubiquitous, ferocious insurgents. He described this war as his “bleeding ulcer”, draining him of men and equipment. It is the west’s aim to make Ukraine for Putin what Spain was for Napoleon. In the absence of a negotiated settlement, Ukraine and Nato will continue to grind away at Russia’s army, digging away at that bleeding ulcer and prolonging Russia’s agony on the military front, as the west continues its parallel assault on its economy. If Putin’s plan is to proceed with the Korea model, he will fail. There is a strong possibility that Putin has only a limited idea of how badly his army is faring. So be it – he’ll find out soon enough that there is now no path for him to military victory."
Apr 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "Policymakers expected that the country would be able to secure its energy supply entirely from renewable sources, so they resolved to phase out coal and nuclear energy simultaneously. The last three of Germany’s 17 nuclear power plants are set to be shut down this year." ---- ".... the share of wind and solar power in Germany’s total final energy consumption, which includes heating, industrial processing, and traffic, was a meager 6.7%. And while wind and solar generated 29% of the country’s electricity output, electricity itself accounted for only about a fifth of its final energy consumption." ----- "If Germany suddenly halted Russian gas imports, gas-based residential heating systems – on which half the German population, approximately 40 million people, rely – and industrial processes that rely heavily on gas imports would break down....."
Apr 1st 2022
EXTRACT: "For Putin, the past that matters most is the one the dissident author and Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn exalted: the time when the Slavic peoples were united within the Orthodox Christian kingdom of Kievan Rus’. Kyiv formed its heart, making Ukraine central to Putin’s pan-Slavic vision. ---- But, for Putin, the Ukraine war is about preserving Russia, not just expanding it. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently made clear, Russia’s leaders believe that their country is locked in a “life-and-death battle to exist on the world’s geopolitical map.” That worldview reflects Putin’s longstanding obsession with works of other Russian emigrant philosophers, such as Ivan Ilyin and Nikolai Berdyaev, who described a struggle for the Eurasian (Russian) soul against the Atlanticists (the West) who would destroy it. ---- Yet Putin and his neo-Eurasianists seem to believe that the key to victory is to create the kind of regime those anti-Bolshevik philosophers most detested: one run by the security forces. A police state would fulfill the vision of another of Putin’s heroes: the KGB chief turned Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov."