, , , , , , , ,


EthicsJesusI ran into an article the other day, that seemed to support my contention that morality is independent of faith in God. As you might expect, I was rather impressed with the logic expressed by the writer on the subject.

I have long been told by, especially conservative religious types, that religion, specifically Christianity, is responsible for moral behavior in humanity. In this, I have always contended that they are quite wrong. I have long concluded, through both reading and study, and personal observation, that morality is part of the human condition, and is subject to evolution like many other things.

Frans de Waal is of the same opinion, and shows how animals can be shown to exhibit traits that are akin to real caring and empathy for others, and moreover, they can make choices to indicate their preference for cooperation and sharing rather than ego driven personal selfishness.

He claims that certain people who are creationists object to evolution for this very reason. They cannot accept, and believe somehow that religion will fail, if morality is not tied to God. Their conclusion is that man cannot evolve morality, but it is a precept that goes hand and hand with God.

I think that thinking rather shallow, and certainly not in accordance with the evidence. I refer of course to the growing fields of evolutionary brain study, and ethics. Taking, as countless other scientific disciplines now do, the evolutionary model as their start, those who study the brain and human ethical systems, are more and more convinced that morality is a natural outgrowth of man’s evolving life.

Yesterday’s liturgy consisted of readings in Job and in Mark. They both raise interesting possibilities. The issue in Job is whether humans will worship a God only if there is a reward or if Job will continue to follow Yahweh even when he is visited by unimaginably wretched calamities. Does Job change his tune when his life devolves from happy and fulfilled to miserable and seeming abandonment?

Similarly, in Mark, Jesus tells the young wealthy man to go and sell everything and give to the poor and follow him. In return he will gain everything in life and eternal life in death. Pretty neat rewards wouldn’t you say?

Evolutionary ethicists and others are rather concerned about a reward/punishment system that is the basis for being “good.” And well they should be. I suspect there are few people indeed who would claim that fear of God’s retribution is the only reason for their “moral” behavior.

There is every good reason to conclude that morality is independent of God belief. Certainly humans were well along in cooperating and helping each other, sacrificing purely personal motives for the sake of the group, well before anyone suggested a “being” might be in control of the universe.

I’ve discussed the issue of evolution and the dilemma of the creationist with a lot of people, and from many different angles. Some scientists simply won’t engage, finding the discussion wasteful. The creationist has everything at stake in being right, and thus cannot engage logically with the issue. I too subscribe to this conclusion, but sadly continue to find myself drawn into argument. The argument always ends the same however, since the average creationist would rather listen to a self-styled “expert” (read no credentials), rather than one who is actually trained in the area–namely evolutionary biology.

I had, honestly, never seen the issue of morality as being tied to this issue. But de Waal certainly makes a good case. However,  there are those who, at this point in time at least, still place little credibility on the entire field of evolutionary ethics or brain development.

For me, I am suspicious of any religious conclusion that starts from the proposition that we are coerced into behaving well. I find nothing free in being presented with two alternatives, one good, the other bad. That’s not choice, that’s simply following the logic of doing the least harm to self.

And moreover, as most of us know, realizing that morality is a natural development in evolutionary growth, has nothing to do with reducing God to some smaller sphere of influence. God is still God and has always been God. Releasing ourselves from outdated and I would argue harmful conclusions about God are both mature and useful in the journey to discover who God really is.

Let me say that I think that the correct reading of the Mark story I mentioned above, is not that Jesus promised reward for following him. In fact, desiring the reward would be counterproductive in the end. One must, to do it right, be selfless in our service to others. And I think the Christian theology is quite clear on this point. But what is clear theologically, is not always how it comes across to Joe Coffee at the plant. It comes across as coercive and thus not free.

The non-believer is right to sit back with arms crossed and demand explanation. Our complicated philosophical ruminations don’t ring true in Average America. It seems to me that it is better to acknowledge the truth:

We are moral because we have evolved to that, to whatever degree that we can claim it today. We share that with the higher forms at least of the animal kingdom. Religion serves as a mighty re-enforcement and that is a good thing. But our non-believing brethren deserve more than our claim that only in faith can we be moral actors in the world.

Just sayin’.

Bookmark and Share