You've felt it your entire life, that there's something wrong with the world.  You don't know what it is, but it's there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Morally speaking

(Originally posted 12/16/2007 on MySpace)

"Free your mind."

What's your religion?  Mormon, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, or something else?  It doesn't matter.  Your choice of religion is essentially meaningless.  The important thing is how you behave.

Controlling behavior is one of the two primary foundations of religion, the other being explaining the unknown.  Religion provides a framework of rules that are meant to codify behavior.  Some rules are simple and repeated often, and these become rituals.  Ritual reinforces community behaviors while simultaneously strengthening the sense of community.  Other rules are harder to understand and follow, but these give the preachers ammunition for their sermons as well as a justification for their authority.  Religion likes to claim that it is the source of these rules, and that without religion, there are no rules.  This is absolutely false, yet the argument is still made today.  "Our morals come from God," the pious shout at the non-believers, "where do your morals come from?"  The implication is that the non-believers have no morals and are the devil incarnate, living lives of sin and depravity.

So, the common misconception is that morality comes from religion.  The religious claim that without religion telling us what's right and wrong, and rewarding or punishing us appropriately, we would sink into barbaric selfishness.  It's pathetic nonsense, but few people know why.  The answer has been known for over 30 years, but I never heard about it until recently.  The truth clearly demonstrates the impoverishing effect that religious belief has on the human condition.

Morality, astoundingly enough, develops naturally from selfishness, from the dog-eat-dog world that exists in our deepest fears.  By studying a simple game called the Prisoner's Dilemma, social scientists have shown how cooperative behavior can develop from a situation where logic dictates that non-cooperation is the only viable solution.  The keys to making it happen - iteration, memory, kinship, and community - are all common in nature.  Not surprisingly, cooperative behavior is commonplace in nature, not only among people, but even between different species of animals.  It was there well before humans invented religion, even well before humans evolved as a species.  However, explaining the origins of this cooperation between essentially selfish life forms has been elusively difficult.  Our woefully limited understanding of the world forced us to relegate answers to the all-knowing creator of everything that our needy imaginations helpfully created out of thin air.

Finally, true understanding has arrived.  Using computer simulations of numerous simple programmed behaviors interacting in a mixed environment, experiments have shown that the fundamentals of morality (like The Golden Rule) develop spontaneously from selfish foundations, and more importantly, are robust and stable.  There is a natural evolutionary path from cheating at every opportunity to cooperating at every opportunity (unless cheated on).  The clear explanations and examples eloquently presented by Richard Dawkins in the 30th Anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene (see chapter 12 - "Nice Guys Finish First") would be difficult to improve upon, so I won't bother.  Read it if you can, as the human ingenuity derived from scientific thought is a most welcome contrast to the impoverishing effect of religious dogma.


  1. My favourite counter-argument in this accusation, non-Christians have no morals because they refuse the love of Christ is:

    "Where do ants get their morality?" If you study them, you will find ants to be incredibly numb-witted creatures with a memory capacity of approximately ten seconds. But as a colony, they possess a certain "swarm intelligence" or morality; protect the young, don't eat each other, work together, protect the queen. Theoretically, no one could tell them that, because their memory couldn't exceed the first clause. So where do they get their morality? From God? How many ant-churches have you seen?

  2. Yes, if religion had any real basis, why wouldn't other life forms be practitioners? Why only a portion of this quasi-insane species called Homo sapiens?

    I imagine it is hard to get inside an ant's mind to really be sure of his memory longevity. I bet that's a good trick for a quasi-insane species like Homo sapiens.

    Am I starting to see a pattern here?



About Me