The Origins of Morality: Challenging the Religious Claim That We Have No Morality Without God

 

Abstract

Ever since the beginning of mankind, the age-long questions surrounding the topic of morality has stirred a never-ending debate within the fields of philosophy and religion. Within the last few decades, however, advances in neuroscience and improvements in psychological methods has allowed for science to be an additional voice in that passionate debate. To preface this piece, I will not be undertaking the impossible task of finding the solution(s) and answer(s) for the age-long philosophical questions of morality—questions such as; What is morality? Is it objective/subjective? Is there such thing as universal moral truths? What is morality’s origins? etc. Instead of searching for the key that would unlock the answers to all these questions, I will be addressing a certain claim made by religion, specifically, Christianity. The bold claim that I will be addressing, is the claim that we inherit our morality from God and are, therefore, born evil and broken (due to Adam’s original sin). Though we will be analyzing morality through the lenses of religion, science and philosophy, our objective here is to discover if the claim that morality’s origins is in fact, God-given or if it originated by some other means; and, as consequence of our lack of natural morality, that means we are born evil as the Bible suggests. I chose Christianity’s doctrinal claim to morality due to its widespread prevalence and domination in the US; for we see many Christian-specific moral standards and teachings infused in our government laws and legislations, guiding our views in civil rights movements, determining our actions over environmental issues, affecting most social circles, and in how it has played a crucial role throughout my personal life.

Keywords: religion, morality, philosophy, neuroscience, truth, ethics, evolution, altruism, Christianity

The Origins of Morality:

Challenging the Religious Claim That We Have No Morality Without God

Growing up in a Christian household, I never once questioned the idea and claim that my morality came from God. It was a truth that I fully assumed and believed to be true. It never once occurred to me that there could possibly be any other explanation or theory as to the origin of Morality. As far as I was concerned, humans didn’t evolve from primate ancestors, the earth was not millions of years old, I did continue living after my mortal death, and God was the orchestrator behind the principles of good and evil. I passionately believed that anyone who did bad was because they were simply influenced by the temptations of the Devil. In contrast, if a person did good, it was obviously due to the influence of God. In other words, and in my religious worldview, Ted Bundy was evil and possessed by the devil. The alternative explanations that he could have suffered from antisocial personality disorder or a plethora of other mental disorders due to his traumatizing childhood, were not even a possibility for me.

In more recent years, due to certain life events and to various education acquired, my personal philosophies have evolved, and my religious worldview has deteriorated. Because of my adoption of a more secular worldview, one might assume that my current views on morality would be highly bias. Though it is true that there is some bias, my newfound secular mindset is only a few years into its adolescents compared to the many years I harbored my religious ideologies. So, though I may naturally favor my biases, I admit that I haven’t given much thought as to where my continued morals originated. With that context as my platform, I’d argue that the material in this paper that will be researched and presented, the evidences found for or against, and any philosophical arguments being made—will be as objective as naturally possible.

The Case for Divine Morality

I believe it is important in understanding the theology and doctrine behind Christianity’s claim that a person cannot be moral or good without God. The ultimate source that we find the core teachings of mainstream Christianity can be found in the Bible. In the Bible, specifically the Old Testament, it begins with the story of Earth’s first man, Adam. To spare readers from being exposed to a lengthy theological history lesson, I’ll make this short. Adam and Eve were naughty and as consequence, God essentially damned them and the rest of their posterity. From that time forth, all of Adam’s curse or sinful state would be ubiquitous in lineage, inheriting Adam’s “original sin”. As the New Testament prophet, Paul said, “Wherefore, as by one man (Adam) sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned (Romans 5:12). To solidify this doctrine, here are three more passages that expound on man’s natural evil that is inherited at birth:

“Because of the fall our natures have become evil continually;” (Ether 3:2)

“For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man…” (Mosiah 3:19)

“Therefore, as they had become carnal, sensual, and devilish, by nature, this probationary state became a state for them to prepare; it became a preparatory state.” (Alma 42:10)

Logically, if we humans are born “bad”, that would mean we are naturally lacking a moral compass. Logic aside, that religious truth is made manifest throughout religious Christian canon. For example: “And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.” (Philippians 3:9, KJV). When reading Christian scripture, it is also quite clear that man is not only lacking moral judgement but is lacking moral structure. The Bible and other religious scripts are permeating with all sorts of commandments, laws, standards, etc. These rules are given with the notion that, if not for God’s instruction, human beings would naturally resort to all sorts of heinous acts and unimaginable debauchery. In other words, and quoting the Old Testament Psalmist, “The wicked are estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies.”(Psalms 58:3, KJV)

As Christian doctrine shows, there is strong support for a Christian to get behind the argument that we humans are born evil, therefore, need God to give us our morals. According to the philosophy of ethics, and according to the famous philosopher and Catholic priest, Thomas Aquinas, this claim fits in with the theory known as the Natural Law Theory. The Natural Law Theory is a theory within the philosophical debate of morality and ethics that relies on the starting assumption that God created the universe according to a well-ordered plan. This well-order plan would include a moral code for human beings to abide by.

Does Science Have a Compelling Explanation for Morality’s Origins?

Over the last few thousand years, philosophers and religious demagogues have had advantageous time and experience in discussing their takes on morality and in strengthening their arguments for its origins. Science, however, is the new kid on the block in tackling all the various aspects of life’s mysteries. Despite being the newest contestant in the arena of life’s mysteries, science has profoundly reframed our views of the world, corrected errors in various epistemologies and has codified the methods for findings truth in every facet of life. Since the conception of science, we have been able to fix the errors of our ancient folk wisdom. Because of science, we no longer believe the Earth is flat—we now know it’s a globe. Because of science, we no longer believe the universe is centered around our world—in fact, we now know we are a tiny dot among the vast, ever-expanding cosmos. Because of science, we no longer burn innocent women at the stake with the superstitious belief that they were responsible for the sickness that devastated a small village—we now know that viruses are contagious, and, because of science, we now have the vaccines to cure or prevent disease. The list goes on and is exponentially growing by the day.

Science has been a reliable powerhouse in finding answers to the world’s mysterious. We have a better understand of the earth, space, the ocean, other animal species, history and our own bodies all because of the scientific method. We have become very good at explaining our temporal world and the external components of our lives. Over the last few decades we have applied that experience we’ve gained in utilizing the scientific method, to exploring and figuring out our more internal components: our minds, our feelings and our behaviors. What is called “The Grounding Problem of Ethics” is the search for a foundation for our moral beliefs, something solid that would make them true in a way that is clear, objective, and unmoving. Psychologists and neuroscientists have now become the reliable authorities and are leading the way in finding relevant answers to our most internal questions; in successfully satisfying the Grounding Problem of Ethics. There have been numerous studies conducted in figuring out our human nature. We have been answering questions such as why we behave a certain way in a certain scenario, to understanding where are emotions come from. We have also conducted studies to determine if we are, in fact, moral and naturally altruistic beings from conception.

One of these psychologists who studies the origins of morality is Dr. Paul Bloom, a professor at Yale University. Aside from his book, “Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil”, he has conducted numerous and notable studies which have demonstrated our moral nature at infancy. In an interview with the Scientific American he explained, “I think the strongest evidence that morality has a genetic component has little to do with human differences, and everything to do with human universals. Every normal person has a sense of right and wrong, some appreciation of justice and fairness, some gut feelings that are triggered by kindness and cruelty. I like how Thomas Jefferson put it—the moral sense is “as much a part of man as his leg or arm.” Based on the outcomes of his studies, Dr. Bloom went on to share a list of moral principles that infants and adolescents all seem to share which is “An understanding that helping is morally good, and that harming, hindering, or otherwise thwarting the goals of another person is morally bad. A rudimentary sense of justice—an understanding that good guys should be rewarded, and bad guys should be punished. An initial sense of fairness—in particular, that there should be an equal division of resources. And alongside these principles are moral emotions, including empathy, compassion, guilt, shame, and righteous anger.”

Another one of these psychologists who has accepted the challenge of conducting studies that determine our morality, is Dr. Karen Wynn, a professor and researcher from Yale University. Based on one of her many studies titled, “Social Evaluation by Preverbal Infants”, Dr. Wynn, discovered that at 3 months old, infants recognize good and bad behavior and overwhelmingly prefer the good behavior. In her puppet study that was featured on CNN, Dr. Wynn showed a 3-month-old infant observing a puppet show. In that show, a puppet was having difficulty opening a box. A different puppet in a certain color shirt was shown helping the other puppet open the box. Later, she conducted the same show and had a different puppet with a different color shirt, approach the puppet having difficulty opening the box—and slammed the box lid down violently. After repeating both scenarios a few times, the infant was later given the option of playing with either the helpful puppet or the mean puppet. Out of all the infants who participated in this study, 86% of them immediately reached for the helpful puppet. After other various controlled studies of this nature, Dr. Wynn et al, concluded that infants naturally and overwhelmingly preferred good behavior. However, despite the optimistic outcomes of these studies, there is a certain paradox that needs to be addressed and is crucial to understanding our human evolution. There were two other outcomes that were found in Dr. Wynn’s studies that, on the surface, may seem to be negative aspects of our humanity: racial bias and selfishness. Dr. Bloom commented on these outcomes of his own study Three-month-old Infants Show a Negativity Bias in Social Evaluation by saying, “We are by nature indifferent, even hostile to strangers; we are prone towards parochialism and bigotry. Some of our instinctive emotional responses, most notably disgust, spur us to do terrible things, including acts of genocide.”

One might be thinking, after learning of these two other outcomes, that it doesn’t get much worse than discovering we are genetically and inherently racist and selfish. Do these findings support the religious claim that we are, in fact, born evil? According to our evolutionary makeup, not necessarily. So, let me explain. The short explanation for racial bias is this; being genetically wired to exhibit racial bias is the evolutionary leftovers of our instinctual, natural selection defense mechanisms. To survive, our original ancestors needed to stick together for there was strength in numbers. As part of that survival, and to ensure natural selection, we developed the instinctual mentality of “Us vs. Them”. Essentially, anything (even within the same species) that didn’t look like you or your tribe, couldn’t be trusted. So, I would argue that those traces of instinctual bias that has lingered to this day, aren’t necessarily racist as we would define racism today. At the same time, those naturally inherited feelings of bias towards those who do not look like a member of our “tribe”, can be emphasized and perpetuated through conditioning, learning and development in early adolescents. Now, the short explanation for our genetic selfishness; our inherited and natural selfishness is the origin of our morality.

How did our selfish, primal self-preservation evolve into what we consider our modern morality? Well, I’d argue that it all began at the biological origination of our primate ancestors, specifically with our genes. Richard Dawkins, an Internationally renowned biologist and philosopher, authored a book entitled, “The Selfish Gene”. In it, Dawkins explained that the “selfish gene” was a crucial aspect of our primal ancestor’s survival as a species. He argued that our survival for natural selection started at the gene, for it is genes that assure our continued evolution and lineage. For example, an everyday person witnesses a mother sacrifice herself to preserve the life of her child, they would be quick to label that action as a form of altruism. Altruism being the idea that an organism do or give something of themselves for another organism at some potential risk or cost to themselves. According to the principles of evolution, we are judged by our ability to move forward in natural selection based upon our evolutionary fitness. In other words, we are judged based upon our ability to reproduce and create offspring that survives and carries our genes. So essentially, the mother who sacrifices herself for her offspring, is doing so on a genetically selfish level in order to preserve and guarantee the survival of her genes. Selfish, self-preservation began on an individual level, but then spread to a more tribal level as we learned reciprocal altruism: the idea that a person will do something for another, with the expectation that they will eventually get something in return from another individual or even the group. We can observe examples of this in modern primates who literally fulfill the adage, “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” as monkeys are seen cleaning each other in areas they, themselves, cannot reach. That is an example of reciprocal altruism. We see this behavior in many other animals in the animal kingdom; bees are known to sacrifice themselves in order to protect the queen, which, in turn ensures the continued life of the hive. As the human species has evolved past our ancestor’s realization that cooperative behavior ensured our species survival, our reciprocal altruism has also evolved. Though at its core altruism is a continued topic of debate as to its genuine selflessness, one thing is generally accepted; that the purest form altruism exhibited in human beings—is our ability to empathize with others.

Philosophical Critiques, Thoughts & Proposals

I’m fully aware that the topic surrounding morality is broad, with numerous different theories, claims, arguments, etc. In cultural and social settings alone, our metaethics produce numerous questions such as; Is morality subjective? Objective? Has it/does it change with time? Does it have different standards in different cultures? Is it interpreted differently in different religions? Are people who exhibit pure altruism by sacrificing themselves for others–likely to believe in an afterlife and, perhaps a reward for their earthly, selfless act? Other species have been known to die for other animals, even animals not in their tribe or species–Why is that? Is there such thing as morality without God? If not, which God’s morality is the standard by which to orchestrate our lives? I pose this exhaustive list of questions, not to overwhelm, but to show just a few examples of the complexity of Morality and the myriad directions we could go with it.

Can a religion alter its own morality? The bible teaches many things that are “not moral”. Does that mean when we pick and choose out of the bible, it’s according to our own, internal (or socially acceptable) morality? For example; we all know that slavery is immoral. But they didn’t seem to know that in ancient times. What changed? Another poignant example found in the Old Testament is the story of Joshua. After conquering a certain tribe of people, Joshua was commanded by God to order his army to kill every man, woman and child. He carried out full on genocide. Has that ever been viewed as moral? Currently, people in the west are outraged when they hear or learn about a woman being stoned to death for voicing her opinion; yet, those same westerners ascribe and believe in an ancient book condoning those same exact acts. Does morality truly come from religion?

In my opinion, there is another set of important questions to ask ourselves; does the indoctrination of being taught we are born evil and broken have long-term (or short-term) psychological effects and potentially create mental health disorders/issues? If that indoctrination produces disorders, depression, anxiety, lack of self-confidence, etc., can we therefore label it as a form of abuse? Not all indoctrination is harmful; being indoctrinated that the Utes are a better school than BYU is a harmless thing to be taught—it’s also a fact so. But I’d argue that being taught that you are born broken and “speaking lies from the womb” is not a harmless foundation of learning in creating a psychologically healthy, developmental trajectory. There have been numerous studies conducted which show that shame and feelings of inadequacy create all sorts of negative, short and long term affects of self-perception; and disorders such as depression, anxiety or feelings such as rage and sadness. Clinical psychologist, Mary Lamia concluded from a study on shame, that “Regardless of the trigger, when shame is experienced the deterioration of an esteemed sense of self can be devastating. In addition to the typical emotions that can accompany shame, such as envy, anger, rage, and anxiety, we can also include sadness, depression, depletion, loneliness, and emptiness as a result. And this is where shame can become a dangerous emotion. When shame results in self-attack, it is overwhelming, and it can negatively color how you view yourself and how you assess the prospect of recovering your self-esteem. Even so, people do recover from experiencing shame and they learn a great deal about themselves if they can step back and take a look at what is going on within them.”

If there is anything we are able to observe and learn from, it’s our own human history. In 1633, astronomer and physicist, Galileo was persecuted and found guilty of heresy by the Catholic church for his discoveries that went against the teachings and knowledge of the church. At that time, the Catholic church (like many other religions) believed that the Earth was the center of the universe. As you might guess, Galileo proved otherwise and stated that the Earth revolved around the Sun. It took the Catholic church over 300 years to admit Galileo was right and publicly apologize. With this historical event in mind, we seem to see history repeating itself every time science makes a claim that is contrary to a previously held religious claim. In this instance, it is the claims over the origins of morality and whether we are born evil or not. Today, we see that pushback from religious apologists when discussing “morality”. When various religious apologists try to debate the topic of morality, it is commonly observed in public forums that they typically resort to and engage in ad hominem attacks by stating atheists or secular people don’t have morals ad nauseum. They will go as far as to claim that atheist have nothing stopping them from senselessly murdering innocent people.

To pose a rhetorical question of a philosophical nature, I’d argue that the motivations of secular people to do good and behave morally according to their social paradigm (and despite inheriting the evolutionary “selfish gene” as discussed earlier) do so with more altruistic and authentic reasons. To better support that claim, all we need to do is analyze the underlying, but poignant, motivations as to why religious people strive to behave morally. Coupled with the “selfish gene”, religious people seem to be motivated and guided to do good and to behave morally because of two opposing, simultaneous potential outcomes: 1) the anticipation of Heaven and 2) the fear of Hell. If you are good and moral, you are rewarded with a paradisiacal Heaven and enjoy the joyous company of God and the pleasure of praising His name forever. If you are not moral, you are punished in Hell to endure eternal torment and live under the ruthless reign of the Devil. Is it moral for religious demagogues to capitalize on our natural fears and hopes? Religion seems to offer hope that we will see our loved ones again after death, and in instilling fear of eternal death; all of which both outcomes seem to come at a monetary, earthy cost. A product of eternal life being purchased here on earth, with the promised delivery of that product in the after life. Does that sound ethical? Moral?

In addition, I would feel amiss if I did not mention the irony—which may seem taboo to some—that, to guarantee reward and placement into Heaven, some religious zealots carry out so-called divine mandates or adhere to certain doctrinal standards which are blatantly and obviously immoral to the rest of the civilized world. As Blaise Pascal pointed out, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.” And as Steven Weinberg once amply said, “’With or without religion, good people can behave well, and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion.”

Conclusion

With religion being our species first tribal attempt in providing social and cultural structures, it assumed the authority over every epistemological topic—attempting to provide answers of the world and for the world. Though religion carries a certain amount of respect due to it’s ancient origins, it is not exempt of critical examination and scrutiny. Just as any scientific claim or theory is subject to critical evaluation, it’s only fair that religious claims undergo the same treatment; and currently, religion has not provided enough satisfactory evidence to support the claim that morality comes from god and humans are born evil. A claim that, for most of my life, I unquestioningly believed was true. Because I believed we were born evil and lacking natural morality as claimed by Christianity, my confirmation bias allowed me to see observable evidence throughout my daily life in support of that claim. Science, though it is humanity’s newest method for answering life’s questions, has become our most reliable method of discovering truth and in proving or disproving philosophical and religious claims. Aside from evolutionary bias and selfishness, there is no evidence that we are born inherently evil or bad. In fact, evidence heavily leans in the opposite direction. Essentially, morality is a Darwinian byproduct of our evolutionary history.

In the modern world of academia and science, if a certain individual or entity wishes for their truth claim to be considered relevant and filed under the label of “facts”, that claim needs to be accompanied by verifiable evidence and have that evidence survive the scrutiny of replication. Unfortunately, Christianity faces an issue that far outweighs providing the burden of proof to support their claim that morality is a product of God; first, they would have to satisfy the overwhelming burden of proof that their God even exists in the first place. As much as I truly intended to refrain from inserting my secular biases as best I could, and after discovering the scientific facts and evidences of evolutionary morality, I could not get myself to truly entertain the claims to morality from a supernatural standpoint. Especially with that supernatural standpoint essentially demanding their claim be respected as “fact” and simultaneously not feeling the need to offer substantial and relevant evidence or verifiable support for that “fact”.

In conclusion, with science being able to confidently and accurately apply the scientific method into the realm of cognition, emotion and behavior; we need not feel the inclination to rely on bronze-age, religious speculation and folk wisdom. In the science community, we have ample evidence and the support of peer-reviewed and replicated studies that help in answering where our morality is derived. In comparison, the Christian community’s claim for morality fails in all the categories needed for evidential reasoning (FILCHERS). To be clear, I am an advocate for the freedom of religious-thought to be expressed, even in public forums. But, if we find ourselves in the hallway of academia, let us be sure to escort that religious dialogue to the doors of philosophy or history—before it stumbles further down the hall into the science classroom.

As the late Christopher Hitchens so wisely stated:

Religion is our first version at the truth. It’s our first attempt as a species. It’s what we tried when we didn’t know anything. We didn’t know we lived on a spherical planet. We didn’t know that our planet revolved around the Sun. We didn’t know that there were microorganisms that explained disease. We thought diseases came from witches or curses or ill-wishing or devils. We didn’t know anything from the childish, terrified, ignorant origins of our animal, primate species. It was also our first attempt at philosophy, it was our first attempt at morality. It was also our first attempt at healthcare. But, because it was our first, it was our worst. We now have better explanations for all these dreads.”

*Note (to avoid the appearance of plagiarism): This piece was originally a research paper submitted at the University of Utah, Psychology Department.

By: Cody Anderson

Submitted: April 14, 2018

References

Bloom, Paul. (2012). Religion, Morality, Evolution. Annual Review of Psychology, 63, 179-199.

Bloom, Paul. (2007). Religion is Natural. Developmental Science, 10, 147-151.

Cook, Gareth (2013). The Moral Life of Babies. Article: http://www.scientificamerican.com.

Danovitch, J. & Bloom, P. (2009). Children’s extension of disgust to physical and moral events. Emotion, 9(1), 107-112.

Dawkins, Richard (1976). The Selfish Gene. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

French, Marvin (1991). FILCHERS—The Six Rules for Evidential Reasoning. Telicom: The Journal of the International Society for Philosophical Enquiry.

Hamlin, J.K., Wynn, K. & Bloom, P. (2010). Three-month-old infants show a negativity bias in social evaluation. Developmental Science, 13, 923-929.

Hamlin, Kiley J., Wynn, Karen & Bloom, Paul (2010). Social Evaluation by Preverbal Infants. Yale University, Department of Psychology. Published in Nature.

Lamia, Mary C. (2013). Emotions! Making Sense of Your Feelings. Chicago, IL: Magination Press.

Pizarro, D. & Bloom, P. (2003). The intelligence of the moral emotions: A comment on Haidt (2001). Psychological Review, 110, 293-296

Shuttleworth, Martyn (2008). Helping Behavior. Retrieved Apr 14, 2018.

One thought on “The Origins of Morality: Challenging the Religious Claim That We Have No Morality Without God

  1. Hmmmm! Now then, we might infer that the genetic basis for morality is its underlying thermodynamic driven capability to express reproduction with its underlying capability for genetic improvement, i.e., Darwinism. It seems to me that the inherent problem for each person and their genetically unique CLUSTERS of Human Capabilities is that that they are encumbered by a gestationally unique INNATE TEMPERAMENT and its baseline homeostasis. For an independent person, the result is “free will” as molded initially by the Caring Relationships offered by the person’s Family during the first 3-5 years of life and the associated, life-long occurrence of Disruptive Processes beginning before birth. The result requires a more nuanced definition of HEALTH as opposed to a simplistic “absence of disease” or “wellness.”

    See 6 fundamental definitions at http://www.nationalhealthusa.net/home/rationale/

    Cody, accept my kudos for the post. With all my own warts of life, the creativity of free-will keeps me going “three score and ten” plus.

    Liked by 2 people

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