Monday, August 13, 2007

Biology, Morality, Religion

I have been invited to write on this topic by our kind host here. [This was written to be cross-posted at Inalienable Rights] The invitation stemmed from some discussion surrounding the “New Atheist” writings of people like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris.

These are different writers who have written different books, but I feel that there is fairly good reason to speak of them as a sort of movement. But we should remember (I should remember) as we move along that these writers have written distinct books and what is attributable to one is not necessarily attributable to them all.

The focus here, as it has been in most discussions I’ve seen on the web, will be on Dawkins. Dawkins’ book The God Delusion was published in 2006 and has sold more than a million copies to date, which is remarkably successful for a book advocating atheism or for a book written by a scientist. If the goal of such a book as this is to nudge public discussion in a particular direction, then Dawkins has succeeded. It has been a long time since atheism has gotten as much sustained and serious attention in the popular media as it has over the past year or so.

Before I venture forth, I’d like also to point out that this is an essay—there are lots and lots of assertions here without real evidentiary support. But this is in keeping with the tradition of the essay. So how does one evaluate these assertions? Not by rejecting them because there is insufficient evidence provided here. In fairness, take a minute to think about a) what might have prompted me to write what I have and b) what specific arguments you may have against my assertion, and if you think you’ve got a valid criticism or something that could be interestingly hashed out: post away!


The rise of the “new” atheism has a lot to do with the political changes wrought by the election of an evangelical christian as President of the United States, the attack on the US by Islamic fundamentalists on 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the general divisiveness that has arisen in US politics through all this and two very closely contested presidential elections.

And Dawkins’ book is not at all immune to this air of contention. In fact, Dawkins wrote a much-publicized (metaphorical) call to arms against religion in the immediate aftermath to 9/11. And while The God Delusion has been a great success in many regards, some have pointed out a certain contemptuous disregard—by which I mean not just a lack of respect, but also a lack of attention—for his subject in the book, religion.

And that is more or less where I come in: complaining about the fact that The God Delusion reads more like wartime propaganda than the work of a prestigious scientist helping the public delve into a difficult subject. Not to say that Dawkins ought not have an agenda, but to say he ought to pursue that agenda while upholding a certain level of scholarship.

Here is Dawkins in a atheist FAQ:

Q: There are billions of people across the world following their faiths and living their life. How do you describe them?

A: Of course, there are billions of people living their religious life and most of them are harmless people. But, they are carrying a virus of faith with them, that they transmit from generations to another, and could create a 'epidemic' of faith any time. As I said, I am a kind of person who cares about the truth and also want to see people following the truth. The truth is not a revelation, but truth that has been established though evidences and repeated experiments.

And what repeated experiments have established the existence of this “virus?” Metaphor has been a powerful force in Dawkins’ career, for both good and ill*. [note 1] And here I think we see it used decidedly for the ill. Religion is to be thought of as a force of nature, as a thought contagion colonizing human minds because otherwise we’d be forced to ask, “What good does religion do that so many people adhere to it?” And that, for very unscientific reasons, is a question Dawkins just doesn’t want asked.

One of the “goods” that religion has traditionally been thought to deliver is “morality.” Dawkins also specifically addresses this issue in the same FAQ:

Q: Religious people claim they derive their morality from religion. Where from an atheist derive his morality?

A: Religious people do not derive their morality from religion. I disagree (with the interviewer) on this point. Almost all of us do agree on moral grounds where religion had no effect. For example we all hate slavery, we want emancipation of women - they are all our moral grounds. These moral grounds started building only a few centuries ago and long after all major religions were established. We derive our morality from the environment we live in, Talk shows, Novels, Newspaper editorials and of course by the guidance of parents. Religion might only have a minor role to play in it. An atheist derives his morality from the same source as a religious people do.

This actually makes for a pretty good starting point for a discussion of biology, morality and religion.

First off, I’d agree to some extent that people do not derive their morality from religion. Religion is the invention of man, and whatever is in it, whatever it inculcates or demands of us, man put in there. And so we’d have to look elsewhere for the ultimate origins of our morality.

But this does not mean that most people have not derived their morality through religion; that religion may be an important delivery system for things like morality.
Secondly, I’d point out that this passage represents an interesting departure from some of Dawkins’ earlier assertions on this subject: there is no mention of innate empathy, which figured prominently in the last chapter of The God Delusion.

[I don’t have a copy on hand so this summary from John Hick will have to serve] :

Richard Dawkins, in his widely read book The God Delusion speaks of 'our feelings of morality, decency, empathy and pity . . the wrenching compassion we feel when we see an orphaned child weeping, an old widow in despair from loneliness, or an animal whimpering in pain' and 'the powerful urge to send an anonymous gift of money or clothes to tsunami victims on the other side of the world whom we shall never meet' (215); and he has his own biological explanation of this. He lists four Darwinian sources of morality. One depends on what he calls 'the selfish gene'. He says that 'a gene that programs individual organisms to favour their genetic kin is statistically likely to benefit copies of itself. Such a gene frequency can increase in the gene pool to the point where kin altruism becomes the norm' (216). Hence, he thinks, parents' care for their children, both in humans and other animals. This care is undoubtedly the case. But whether an individual 'selfish gene' wants to benefit itself by making unconscious statistical calculations about how best to do this, seems to me to be suspiciously like an anthropomorphic fairy tale. And indeed how does it benefit an individual gene that there exist many copies or near copies of itself? The second Darwinian source of morality, according to Dawkins, is reciprocal altruism: 'you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours'. This occurs not only within but between species. 'The bee needs nectar and the flower needs pollinating. Flowers can't fly so they pay bees, in the currency of nectar, for the hire of their wings' (216-7). This is the basis of all barter, and ultimately of the invention of money.

So, why doesn’t innate empathy figure in Dawkins 2007 FAQ? Dawkins certainly still believes in it, I’m sure, as do I. But I think Dawkins may have come around to my point of view as to how important it is since he wrote the last chapter of his book. What would now be considered abhorrent practices—like slavery, the mass execution of war prisoners, the suppression of women, the exposure of children, the wholesale rape and slaughter of non-combatant populations—all of these things thrived for quite a long time before the emergence of a sensibility which could effectively suppress them.

In other words, morality is historical to some extent: what we consider abhorrent was once considered acceptable or even praiseworthy. So, apparently, a fairly broad variety of human practice can be accommodated to our innate altruism. The line that Dawkins has previously taken up, that religion is the “root of all evil” so to speak in that it allows us to rationalize our behavior when it defies our altruistic instincts is only half true.

Human beings have a great many other innate drives aside from empathy. Some of them lead to behavior that we would regard as selfish, acquisitive, violent, and paranoid. So when I ask myself whether or not I should seduce my neighbor’s attractive wife, my empathy for the plights of the cuckold and the guilty wife are only part (and perhaps a small part) of what goes into the moral calculus behind the decision.

So, moral decisions often involve a conflict amongst our instincts and between our instincts and our reasoning abilities. As Dawkins would readily point out, one role that religion has undoubtedly played over the millennia is as a mechanism by which one set of instincts may be assuaged when we choose to follow another, conflicting set of instincts.

But, this critique of religion has its limits. First, religion is but one mechanism that can accomplish this task of adjudicating between our good and bad angels. When the Mongols swept over the Eurasian landmass, destroying entire cities and spreading terror over two continents, they were not driven by religion, and they did not justify themselves through religion. Religion is just one way for a people to justify the rape, murder, dispossession and even elimination of other peoples.

Also, the mechanism works both ways: I can tell myself that though burning people alive for what they believe seems brutal, when it is done for the greater glory of god it is alright. But I can also tell myself that though my selfish instincts cry out when I give my wealth to the poor, that I am paving my way to heavenly rewards by doing so. The idea, which Dawkins endorses, that “you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion,” is just plain wrong, and oversimplified wrong at that.

People commit evil acts, even atrocities, out of all kinds of motives, some evil, some mistaken. And religion, as I point out above, doesn’t just cut in one direction: toward justifying evil. It justifies all kinds of acts, kindly and self-sacrificing ones as well as vicious. The balance between the two is dictated not by religion itself, but by our nature and the nature of our social behavior.

What Dawkins and his adherents should acknowledge on the point of human morality is that all the elements at play here--empathy, altruism, reason, greed, glory-seeking, selfishness, xenophobia, brutality and rationalization—all of these things logically precede religion.

While morality can indeed be said to derive ultimately from some of our kinder social impulses, what we recognize today as our “moral consensus” does not just arise naturally from innate empathy. That moral consensus has a pretty specific and well-known history.

Religion in some sense of the word—animism, ancestor worship (?)—no doubt precedes civilization. And the impulses that drove these earlier forms of religion are doubtlessly still important in people’s personal adherence and belief, but as Dawkins has pointed out elsewhere, his real beef is with more developed forms of religion. The kind that arose with civilization.*[note 2]

The rise of the city took us out of the simple contexts (small bands of related individuals with more or less constant mutual surveillance and strong hierarchal relationships) in which our instincts—selfish, empathetic, greedy, fearful—were a reliable guide to social behavior. As cities grew, with large numbers of unrelated people performing differentiated tasks grew, something that would shape and guide those instincts had to arise with them.

The state and its organized violence (executions, seizing & destruction of property, enslavement, forced exile) were one way of accomplishing this, but attempting to avenge every crime takes up a lot of resources. It is far more efficient to have the people police themselves. Hence the rise of “The Law” (e.g. the Torah) as a set of rules that not only lay out those practices that will (if discovered) result in immediate stoning, but a set of rules you ought to follow in order to be righteous and deserving in the eyes of the gods (or god).

Religion, therefore, could be quite useful in inculcating forward-thinking behavior among those who were less inclined to it; in regularizing people’s expectations of one another; in encouraging solidarity and socially-beneficial self-sacrifice in time of war; in wealth redistribution.

Unfortunately, religion could also put at the service of all the bad motives of those in charge, as well. And it could become the vehicle through which the mania of an individual or a small group could be given the force of an entire society.

Marx famously called religion the opiate of the masses. But it is much, much more than that: it is the hallucinogen of the masses, its stimulant and sedative. Actually drugs are probably too limiting a metaphor: Religion is a mechanism through which the play of reason and instinctive impulses in a large and disparate population can be affected to create outcomes we would not otherwise expect.

Dawkins, no doubt, has plenty of reason to hate religion, but I think this is one that he hasn’t openly acknowledged. Religion is to be hated because it throws into high relief the limitations of his own field of study: biology. The virus (or meme) explanation for religion is more or less his white flag. Religion makes it obvious that culture creates forms that are too complex and distinct to explain easily in terms of biology, much as biology creates forms that are too complex and distinct to easily explain in terms of chemistry. Since he is unwilling to admit the limitations of his explanatory tools, Dawkins’ only recourse is to the mythological: memes.

But I digress.

One of the things that will no doubt be pointed out is that I have dealt with religion and morality in a very non-personal way—from the perspective of a putative social entity. I take this tack because I think that it is in its social role that I feel religion is primarily important in our world. Religion as a truly and deeply held belief system with all the attendant consolations is important, but, I would argue, for a relative few.

More important is religions role in structuring society and helping create a certain kind of social imaginary. For most people religion is important less on a personal basis but rather on a basis of the fact that it helps create predictable interactions with others. It is less important that I actually believe in a resurrected Christ than it is that I believe that others believe (or at least others will behave much as I do) and that the socially prevalent version of Christianity (which may have little to do with textual Christianity) will serve as a rough framework guiding most people’s behavior.

It is only for a select few sensitive and discerning souls that the qualities of the religion itself—its poeticism, its ability to capture and express the human situation, its plausibility, whatever—is a great matter of import. Religion is not one’s personal relationship with God. It is one’s personal relationship with the mass. Of course, religious people will vehemently deny this. But remember, these are the same people who claim to believe people like Joe Smith.


Our modern sense of morality developed just as the first great challenge to religious belief arose in our civilization. The Enlightenment was inspired largely by the challenge to custom—religious and other customs—that was presented when Europeans encountered civilizations—both ancient and contemporary--that were coherent, accomplished, even noble, but which had no notion of the western god.

The Good Life apparently was not dependent upon one particular religion. And philosophers began working on ways in which morality could be thought about without recourse to revealed truth. Kant’s categorical imperative is probably the most famous of these efforts: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

The retort “Why should I?” has never been sufficiently answered.

Ultimately, as Kant intimated in his Critique of Judgment these things come down to an aesthetic judgment on the part of the agent, and that judgment probably comes down to certain inherent capacities we have as well as “talk shows, novels, newspaper editorials and of course by the guidance of parents.” But the final outcome of our individual moral judgments ends up being highly contingent, not universal. And even if they were, there is no universal police force enforcing the secular universal law, and the temptation to be a free rider on this moral system is obvious—“let everyone else embody universal law, I will look to myself” would appear to be a highly profitable strategy in a Kantian society. Thus we have the moral crisis depicted in so much literature created in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries. Secularism brought Raskolnikov onto the readily imagined horizon of possibilities. It doesn’t matter that there will never be many Raskolnikovs in any readily conceivable society, it is the fact that such a man is easily imagined is the key factor.

Now, instead of imagining a moral order shaped by a common, sometimes deeply sincere, sometimes hypocritical belief in religion and religious morality, I imagine a world of moral free agents all susceptible to the same temptation toward low-consequence free-riding as myself. In such a situation defection—acting selfishly rather than morally—seems a more reasonable course.

I should note here that the two social imaginaries I have depicted here—one of Christian regularity; one of moral free agents—always co-existed in Western societies. The key factor is the balance, the relative strength of the two visions. And religion, so far, has been an important factor in managing that balance.

We cannot just rely on our innate empathy to see us through this one, because there are (at least equally strong) innate impulses pulling in other directions. We can’t relay on pure reason, either, because a) the moral reasoning vs. amore-propre is always a bad bet from a social perspective; and b) because reason will probably tell us to defect more often than any society can live with.

We have to create social structures and well-accepted guarantors of social reciprocity in order to encourage what we would call morally acceptable behavior and social stability. And it is only through stability that the billions of people who inhabit this earth will have any hope of the good life at all.

The question for activist atheists is what those social structures will look like in the absence of religion. Atheists have to stop thinking about religion as if it were a way of explaining the world the way science is, or as if it were a leach that must be pried from the skin of our culture. It is a social structure with functions. Functions that must operate within the moral universes of illiterate peasants as well as for clever college undergraduates.

Religion is here and has been here for reasons. Whatever its origin, religion has come to serve important functions within human societies. Otherwise it would not be as widely practiced as it is and we wouldn’t currently be arguing about whether it is time to jettison it.

I am personally all for moving forward to a post-religious future. I just think we ought to have a cold honest look at what religion is and how it works before we do that. So far, none of the new atheists has gotten very far in doing that.

* [note 1] Andrew Brown on Dawkins’ birth: The good fairy gave [Dawkins] good looks, intelligence, charm, and a chair at Oxford specially endowed for him. The bad fairy studied him for a while and said: `Give him a gift for metaphor.'

* [note 2] I’d very much like to extend the discussion of morality and religion backwards to more “primitive” religions and lifestyles, but I am not prepared to do so at present. My supposition is that early religion did much the same thing—encouraged self-surveillance—for somewhat simpler groups. I think there are more powerful influences at work in early religion, like fear of mortality. But not the subject for here and now.