Morality Without Religion

November 3, 2010

Primatologist and ethnologist Frans de Waal has recently stated his opposition to atheism’s agenda, unable to imagine a world with no religion. But his own research shows us how.

In his essay “Morals Without God” in a New York Times blog , de Waal says that science and the naturalistic worldview could never supply any meaning to life or answers to ultimate ethical questions. In his words, “Science is not in the business of spelling out the meaning of life and even less in telling us how to live our lives.” De Waal gives us only two options to choose from: a world with lots of religion and morality, or a world with no religion and no morality. He judges that we must prefer the first option. This forced choice makes no sense, though.

Ironically, his own primate research opens the door to a third and better option. He describes how chimpanzees sustain social relations using rules and mediation, to help with communal peace and cooperation. His view, like that of Marc Hauser’s and others, is that morality is far older than religion, as it emerged among the early homo lines that evolved towards homo sapiens. It is plausible that the early homo species used their even larger and more socially-oriented brains to contrive even more social rules of proto-morality, all without the gods.

De Waal describe the origins of morality in this way:

“[Primates] strive for a certain kind of society. For example, female chimpanzees have been seen to drag reluctant males towards each other to make up after a fight, removing weapons from their hands, and high-ranking males regularly act as impartial arbiters to settle disputes in the community. I take these hints of community concern as yet another sign that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and that we do not need God to explain how we got where we are today.”

If enforcing proto-morality has long been a primate capability, which the homo lines kept going, how could homo sapiens have missed out on morality? Did humans invent religion, suddenly forget all morality, and then have to invent stories of gods delivering commandments? De Waal tells us the more plausible account himself:

“Why not assume that our humanity, including the self-control needed for livable societies, is built into us? Does anyone truly believe that our ancestors lacked social norms before they had religion? Did they never assist others in need, or complain about an unfair deal? Humans must have worried about the functioning of their communities well before the current religions arose, which is only a few thousand years ago. Not that religion is irrelevant — I will get to this — but it is an add-on rather than the wellspring of morality.”

De Waal has rightly demoted religion to a secondary role. Human ancestors have been using their greater intellects to sustain complex cultures containing moral rules and enforcements, for a hundred thousand years or more. Anything resembling the religions that we observe today, with divine beings creating the world and commanding its obedience, is likely of more recent origin, as a cultural supplement to moral enforcement .

With such a strong start to his essay, how could he end up apologizing for religion? De Waal goes on to make a series of bizarre blunders. De Waal next reminds us that ethnology cannot observe a society that has never had any religion. Yet he rashly concludes that we can’t have any notion of what a religion-free culture would look like. This is astonishing, since the best research of his own fields suggests how religion-free cultures would work. Imagining a moral culture with no religion isn’t that hard to do, after all, and de Waal has told us why.

But a second blunder is coming. De Waal is evidently troubled by a deeper problem, about ultimate answers. Recall his claim that “Science is not in the business of spelling out the meaning of life and even less in telling us how to live our lives.” But why should anything, much less science, try to do such things? De Waal expects a satisfying morality to tell you the meaning of life, and to tell you how to live your life. That sounds just like what a religious morality tries to do: to dictate what the meaning of your life must be, and to dictate the rules for living your life. Yet these are no longer appropriate things for a grown-up morality to do anymore, not for intellectual and civilized peoples today.

In today’s civilized world, people have the liberty to create their own meanings to their lives, and to have some control over social norms and political laws. Among today’s civilized peoples, the priests and kings and dictators have been mostly replaced with constitutional republics and participatory democracy. By gradually liberating their peoples from the mind-control of religious delusions, these cultures are returning to an earlier period of human life when only our wits were guiding moral systems. And our wits are vastly better today; even if religion had been supplementing morality for a while during primitive times, its utility has by now largely evaporated. No civilization worth the name can any longer allow religion to control its culture. Modern civilizations undertake a quasi-scientific experimental approach to re-fashioning social systems, by the trial-and-error method of gradual social reform. Democracy is hardly perfect, but consulting the people for their view on how society is working is always smarter than consulting holy scriptures.

How can de Waal give so much credit to the low intelligence of simple primate societies, and so little credit to the vastly greater intelligence of human societies? Evidently, de Waal forgets his own research and keeps reverting to the false notion that the only alternatives are science and religion. This may be his worst blunder in a series of blunders, as he insists on imposing a false dilemma, religion or science:

“On the other hand, what would happen if we were able to excise religion from society? I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good.”

This is a completely false dilemma. Again, human culture is the third factor, beyond the narrower realms of science’s knowledge and religion’s myths, which de Waal conveniently forgets. An ethnologist should know better. Cultures offer innumerable inspirations and meanings to life – all of the enticing, enriching, enchanting, and ennobling things that people can pursue and enjoy. Cultures naturally supply all the meanings to life that anyone could want, and bold people busily invent more and more. Cultures have a variety of moral systems trying to sustain modes of social cooperation, and visionary people propose many improvements. There are so many choices about how to live, in fact, that people of timid character and submissive mind often prefer to be authoritatively told how they must live. But why should their quest to surrender their wits slow down the rest of us, who are ready to take responsibility for figuring out how to live our lives? We can have plenty of morality and no religion.

De Waal has one last desperate punch to throw at atheism. Laughably, he supposes that any atheistic morality will only end up being religious. In his words,

“Any framework we develop to advocate a certain moral outlook is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion.”

This is a ridiculous statement, from a scientist still caught in the cozy embrace of religion’s slumbers. A liberal and liberating civilization uses principles indeed: they are moral codes of civilized peoples; the rights and responsibilities of citizenship; and the political constitutions that protect those rights. Unlike religion, these codes and principles are justified and modified by public reason, not prophetic revelation. Unlike religion, they can be openly criticized, without fear of death as a heretic. Unlike religion, they can be experimentally tested in the actual welfare of the lives they are designed to serve. Unlike religion, they look forward to making a better life, and not recreating an imaginary past golden age or leading to some fanciful afterlife. Unlike religion, secular codes and principles represent what is intelligent in us, and not what is asleep.

Of course humans can be moral without religion. De Waal doesn’t want to believe in the natural evolution of human moral culture that his own research has been confirming. Too timid to trust in his own experimental science, he turns back to religion’s dogmatic authority. What the long history of our pre-human ancestors gradually awoke, de Waal would put back to sleep, and deliver us to religion’s nightmares.


#1 bobrect on Wednesday November 03, 2010 at 10:01am

De Waal is by no means unique in this blunder.  This is the flaw exhibited by most scientifically-oriented thinkers whose work should impact religion, but who prefer to remain above the fray.  The fundamental error is the belief that “religion” is somehow different than “science”.  Both are human artifacts.  As a student of theology and ancient texts, I can clearly see a process analogous to natural selection at work in the history of religion(s).  The notion that there are different “magisteria” is impossible to hold when you realize that religion is a discipline completely any other discipline. Religion, after all, is a form of art.  Claiming that science can’t decide questions related to religion is analogous to claiming that science can’t be used to date or validate a work of art, like whether or not a piece was composed by the author it’s attributed to or from the era it’s claimed to have originiated in.  No scientist would accept that his methods were invalid with respect to art on the basis of how a given work of art made a person feel.  Yet, when it comes to religion, this is what conventional wisdom accepts. 

This shouldn’t deter anyone from reading De Waal, however, whether he’s willing to follow the obvious conclusions of his own work or not.

#2 Jean K (Guest) on Friday November 05, 2010 at 5:52am

“Atheism’s agenda”

What agenda? Isn’t atheism just the view that there is no god?  Why think it comes with an agenda, like working toward a word with no religion?

#3 christopher story (Guest) on Friday November 05, 2010 at 1:07pm

Our biological predisposition to moral behavior is not thorough nor consistent. The act of being skeptical, of limiting ones faith to reputable scientific knowledge is politically insufficient. We absolutely need religion to fill the gaps in reputable scientific knowledge. Those that propose that science has proven the virtue of what they value are prophetic. Science does not use a pulpit, it advances by it’s intrinsic merit. Because politics require common values and common values characterize a religion, religion can not be forsaken. The difference between forsaking religion and preaching a godless one is I think critical.

#4 maccapen (Guest) on Saturday November 06, 2010 at 4:42pm

I could be shot down in flames here but didn’t Marxist Leninism (Communism) try to do just that and finished up with a society the opposite to what they all wanted. And it seems to me that the flaw with using culture to undergird a society is that most ethnocentric (racist) problems grow out of the conflict of cultures so would we just finish up with lots of warring tribes? (pretty much what we’ve got I guess).
Still an interesting article and a thoughtful site thanks.

#5 lordfenriz on Sunday November 07, 2010 at 11:57am

Excellent post John.  I’ve been following your blog ever since the Huff Po dustup and have enjoyed it.  Ophelia Benson has quoted your new book several times over at Butterflies and Wheels and claims it is quite good.  I look forward to reading it.

#6 John D (Guest) on Thursday November 25, 2010 at 10:00pm

@maccapen - You are making a critical error.  Just because Lenin’s communism was partially dependent on the elimination of religion does not mean that eliminating religion would result in communism (or other social problems associated with communism).  Communism was an experiment that failed.  This failure does not prove that religion is needed to run a civil, free, and worth society for man.  Many western societies are throwing off the idea of the supernatural.  It is baggage that may have served a useful purpose, but is no longer required.  Our civil and criminal law, concepts of justice, and ethical structure (include the concept of choice) are cemented into the “mind” of our modern western style societies.  These concepts work and will be perpetuated without the reliance on an unprovable sky daddy to enforce them.

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