Does Religion Own Morality
The following dialog is a continuation of this discussion between my
rational mind and my devil's advocate, the religious straw-man, Bishop
Pangloss. Hilarity ensues.
"First," I continued, "I've never quite accepted that idea that religion
holds a monopoly on morals. It seems to me that the greatest cause of death
is inspiration from God. From Yaweh's declarations to kill in the
Jewish Bible to the insane warfare divinely revealed to the current
president of the United States.
"That's utter nonsense," Pangloss interrupted, "God inspires Love and
Peace, it is the devil that masquerades as the Lord that tempts men to
warfare." I countered with a raised eyebrow, so he qualified his statement,
"OK, there are a few statements in the Bible where the Lord requires war,
but that isn't the norm. His ways are much higher than ours and so
transcendent as to be completely unknowable to mere mortals."
I sat back and got ready to deliver my sermon, "Then it appears to me that
we may be in need of better inspiration. Plato, in his Republic,
describes his Utopian society. In it, religion is given to the masses of
the people in order to keep them moral. However, they were to be ruled by
philosopher kings, who wouldn't need religion, as they would adhere to
something higher that philosophy would illuminate."
"I suppose you are now going to quote Nietche and how religion is the
opiate for the masses," the bishop said with rolled eyes.
"Actually, it was Karl Marx who said that, and no I wasn't planning on
putting religion down." I continued, "Look at it this way, a child who
obeys his father for fear of punishment is a typical child. But an adult
who obeys the rules and laws of his country for fear of punishment and jail
is not only immature, but not very moral, for if he feels he can get away
with a crime, he probably will."
"But God sees all and knows all!" the Bishop countered with a finger
in the air.
"Yes, and replacing the limited knowledge of society and the state with a
Santa Claus-like all seeing God, doesn't build a mature empathy that is
really required for good morals."
He questioned, "I'm not following you."
I reiterated, "Philosopher's since Plato have been trying to define the
ethics that would inspire men to moral behavior, and they do so based
on rational conclusions, and not on the traditions written in other
cultures. Even though the path is different, in many cases, they would end
up on the same side of a debate with you."
"Let's expand upong Jesus' Golden Rule and expand on it slightly by saying,
'Act as you would want everyone to act that will lead to a better life for
everyone.' Then people will be good, loving and peaceful because it leads
to a better society, and a better life for the individual. Keep in mind that
that attitude does not forbid a God, this perspective does not require
I then quoted Colin McGin, who recently said in an interview:†
† Colin McGin was interviewed by Bill Moyers
in his Faith and Reason
program on PBS.
I don't like to limit reason to science, as I think that science applies
I think that morality is also a rational belief system. We can justify our
moral beliefs. We can have intelligent arguments about moral questions.
If we are discussing capital punishment, we can have an argument about it.
We can discuss that rationally. We don't just say, 'I believe that capital
punishment is wrong and you don't believe it is wrong, and that is the end
of it.' We can have a conversation.
We can say, 'Why do we think that capital punishment is wrong?' We might
say that it deters people. Then we can make observations. Does it deter
people? Turns out it doesn't really deter people. But we can have a discussion
about many subjects. It is part of reason. It is part of the ability to
have a rational argument where you can resolve it.
Whenever morality is based on theology, whenever right is made dependent
on divine authority, the most immoral, unjust, infamous things can be
justified and established.
The bishop slumped back in his chair for a moment-- obviously deep in
thought-- before he continued, "I'll concede the idea that religion isn't
necessary for morals, however, we began this discussion with the lifeless
concept of a life without God."
"Oh sure," I said, getting up to poke the fire and refresh the glasses,
"Let me just catch my breath. I'm not used to all this preaching."
"Really? I would think that all the hot air that escapes your lungs would
warm those vocal cords," he said with a snicker at his poor attempt at
"Now, your sense of humor seems to be warping into mine. Pretty soon you
just may find yourself thinking like me as well." I said trying desperately
to find a way to pause this conversation and continue it later.
The Bishop sat back and I could tell that he was ready to
testify. "Alright, I'll grant you that you don't need God to teach you
morals, however, you definitely need God to give you meaning in your
life," he said with a stern resolve in his voice.
I went to my shelf, and pulled out the book that I've been writing,
and pointed to him my essay entitled, Meaningless Evolution, and
said, "Not really, but it's late, and you can read this when you get
home, and then come back tomorrow."
My friend, Trent, just sent me the following comments:
It is interesting to contrast computer simulations of prisoner dilemna situations with human 'morality'. Not only does it give some interesting insight, but it also gives weight to the argument that god is not necessary for explaining moral behavior. It's only basis is that natural selection, success, and self-interest may be all that is necessary for a moral foundation.
The prisoner's dilemna, a simplification of a moral choice, reduces into one of two possible actions: Be "Kind" or be "Greedy".
The Golden Rule is a strategy that basically says, "Always be Kind". Unfortunately, as simulations have demonstrated, this strategy is not actually a very good strategy. It has no mechanism for discouraging Greedy behavior. Although such a strategy certainly is admirable assuming one can reach utopia where everyone is a Golden Rule child, it seems utopia can not be achieved by Golden Rule followers -- Greedy bastards are simply too successful in a population of Golden Rulers.
The solution: Tit For Tat. I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine. Sometimes refered to as the Silver Rule. You'll be "Kind" to anyone who was "Kind". You will punish any Greedy sinner by being Greedy to them, or communicating to others that they should be Greedy to them. However, you'll also be quick to forgive. As soon as the sinful behavior stops, you'll be quick to be Kind again to them, and invite them once again into your fold. It is uncanny how easily the analogy fits into the pattern of a religious sermon.
And, if you look at real people in real situations, it appears to be a close approximation to how we judge 'moral' behavior. People who do not follow the Tit For Tat are either bad people, or suckers and enablers.
It is also interesting that these insights were the result of computer and mathematical simulations. Tit For Tat, in the simple game arena, is well known simply because it has done so well; it has won competition after competition, and no other strategy has been able to get close (until recently..) No god needed -- the 'morality' simply falls out of the mix from being the most successful computer strategy. It gives one pause to consider that memory, facial recognition, love, fear, anger, hate, etc. provide exactly those mechanism to implement the Tit For Tat strategy in humans.
As suggested above, Tit For Tat has won every competition until recently. It lost it's crown to a 'master/slave' strategy - masters and slaves had a mechanism that they used to recognize each other. If recognition failed, both were Greedy as Heck. If recognition succeeded, slaves would be kind to the master, and the master would be Greedy as Heck. The master beat Tit For Tat -- Tit For Tat was dragged down (screaming, I presume) by the slaves, while the Master went on to rule the domain of his adoring (and suffering) fans. I wonder what insight this might have to human nature. I think it might have something to do with politics.
Yes, indeed. Darwin would say that humans are biologically inclined to be
sympathetic, altruistic, and moral as this proved to be an advantage in the
struggle for existence… but only part of the time. We evolved in packs
or tribes of fellow-beings. There were times when being altruistic towards
other members of the tribe help keep more members of the tribe living. He said:
No tribe could hold together if murder, robbery, treachery, etc., were common,
consequently such crimes within the limits of the same tribe 'are branded
with everlasting infamy.'
And you see this sort of tribal morality clearly taught and illustrated
in the Jewish Bible. However, there are times when our own "reproduction"
is better served by being self-serving. No, not that type of self-serving.
So what is the natural state of man? A confusing mix of both good and evil.
Tell others about this article: