Since Aristotle, we have philosophised a scientific and moral order to the world. A “natural order” or “utopia” to creation. A way things were meant to be. If we acted against this order then nature would be disrupted and chaos would ensue. This pre-supposition was incorporated into the major religions where it is assumed that God had a plan for creation and that plan was “designed” to be harmonious. If we could only understand what He intended for the world then we would know how to behave. But only religion knew how we ought to behave according to God’s design, because only religion knew God’s mind. Religion therefore got involved with “moral teaching”, which was a code of behaviour that God had intended and endorsed.
It was consequently assumed that if we did not believe in God then our moral behaviour could not be guaranteed. If we don’t believe in God what is to stop us murdering and raping? If there is no retribution after death what is to ensure we live a good life? Non- religious people were feared, excluded, subjected to violence and sometimes death. Religious belief was considered the default position. The term “atheist” is a strange word construct that confirms this thinking. We are not normally described as something we are not. We are not non-socialists, or non-Manchester United supporters. Only non-believers. In past times atheists would have been advised to play the game, go to church and pretend to believe in order to avoid persecution.
So religion expropriated moral behaviour.
But mankind is moral and ethical in the absence of religious belief. There is no evidence that religious people are more moral than atheists. Or that they are more law abiding. In recent polls, 65% of British people said they weren’t religious and weekly church attendance in the UK is down to less than 2%. No massive crime wave has ensued. Violent crime is at a 30 year low.
So if it not religion, where do our morals come from?
Interestingly there are a number of psychological tests which can elucidate our moral compass i.e. establish what moral beliefs we all hold. These tests can be applied to people from all different cultures and belief systems. From these tests we can demonstrate that mankind shares an innate moral code, independent of religious indoctrination or cultural teaching. This moral code is hardwired in the same way as much animal behaviour is hardwired. It is part of human nature.
Most humans would feel bad about causing harm to another person. We would generally feel revulsion at seeing a child raped or an innocent murdered. We feel compassion towards small, vulnerable children. We look after our sick and dying. We evolved as an emotional, social, altruistic species (but who admittedly can turn violent if threatened). These behaviours of nurture, collaboration, teamwork, empathy and compassion have led to our success as a species. Altruism works in evolutionary terms if an individual of a species has a reasonable chance of it being reciprocated. This is the “is” of human nature.
However, unlike Aristotle’s assertion and accepted religious doctrine, evolution does no provide an “ought” to human behaviour. There is no intention in evolution. The Universe was not meant to be a certain way. There are just random behaviours encoded by our genes that lead to us to be more or less successful in propagating our genes into the next generation.
Evolution occurs by the process of natural selection. The beneficial behaviours survive and are amplified in future generations and the unbeneficial behaviours die out.
So it seems that our moral code actually has a Darwinist origin, not a religious origin!
Combine this force of nature with our intelligence as a species and our ability to learn, anticipate and interpret our environment and we have very complex “human” behaviour (a “culture”), which in developed countries now includes evidence based debate, democracy and the rule of law. This is where we must derive our “ought” of human behaviour i.e. how we should behave.
If we combine our innate moral code with rational, evidence based debate, democracy and the rule of law we have a functioning society. A “civilization” that can even accommodate a few immoral miscreants that the variation component of the mechanism of evolution by natural selection throws up. Our intelligence as a species has allowed us to plan and control our own society. Most of us have the ability to see how things would be if we allowed anarchy to predominate, so we work hard to create order, security and welfare.
So, we have an inbuilt, genetic, emotional behavioural code and a derived behavioural code from our experience and interaction with our environment. Some things just feel wrong. Some things we rationalise as wrong. Some of these emotional and rational codes we choose to call “morals”.
Religion was once beneficial. It was a good way of creating social control through its teaching and threats of social exclusion and eternal damnation for those that misbehaved. But now we have the ability to collect real evidence through scientific methods for our evidence-based debates. We now have good-enough democracy and adequate rule of law. We have superseded religion.
The negatives of religion are now outweighing the positives: Illogical, irrational thinking; superstition; religious discrimination; the sinister underpinnings of Islamic Jihad and the barbaric treatment of women are all part of the same belief system. The same irrational belief system underpins extreme Islam and the benign Church of England. If we condone one version, we must condone them all. We can no longer claim that we should believe in an untruth (religion) because it is beneficial. The balance has changed. We must now free ourselves from the shackles of religious indoctrination. As Steven Weinburg famously said, “with or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”
We are right to challenge religious beliefs in order to create a better, more moral, more rational, fairer and more equal world.