Religion as the Basis for Morality Is a Creationist Notion
by Lorna Salzman
Letters to the NY Times on June 18, 2017 from the “religious left” may have proven the incompatibility of science and religion. Even secularists and atheists will be soothed into agreement with their substance and tenor, which, among other things, continued the conflation of religion and morality. The writers laid out the long history of human morality,which they either claim or infer has its origins in religious belief. This is arguably the most arrant and arrogant nonsense ever written, arrogant because it dismisses any naturalistic explanation for the origin of human morality while inferring that nonbelievers are not and have never been capable of moral choices.
At the distance of thousands of years and in the face of ancient art and documents, it is difficult to know just how many humans actually believed in (as opposed to practiced) the religious doctrines and fables of their time. And given the grim sentences imposed on apostates, the doubters would never have spoken out, as is true today of Islam. As far as pagan gods and goddesses are concerned, it was probably comforting to accept them as explanations for how earthly things worked and for support in troubling times. It was a reasonable position for pre-scientific societies.
It was only the appearance of alternate belief systems - notably Judaism and Christianity - that created doubt and conflict and made apostasy dangerous, primarily to political leaders and government. In modern, post=Enlightenment times, it was alternate secular belief systems that threatened the hierarchy’s grip on power and led to the entrenching of political ideologies: capitalism, socialism, communism, Nazism and the posing of totalitarianism as religion in the case of Islam.
One remains incredulous at the ignorance of evolution and anthropology exhibited by religious believers, not only at their insistence that morality and religion are one and the same but their inability to imagine that primitive and indigenous people were able to develop their own moral codes independent from belief in a deity, or to understand that indigenous taboos and beliefs were an attempt (absent the scientific method) to explain how the world works. Before the Enlightenment and the spread of unfetteredscientific research that flourished in the eighteenth and ninetheeth centuries, the means of finding explanations were meagre and insufficient. It was therefore quite natural that phenomena became explanations or that the phenomena were transmuted into specific gods and goddesses.
Science then started discovering explanations for the world and the cosmos: how plants grow, why the weather changes, why life forms die and reappear. Mysterious forces and beings were no longer needed, nor were the saints and preached doctrines. But religion dies hard when it has been cemented into a social hierarchy that has drummed into human heads the notion that THEIR form of morality was god=given and still operative. Like politicians of our day, the religious hierarchy was still required (and even more urgently) to prove and justify its necessity and existence. The priests didn’t have to run for congress every two years but they still had to please their superiors. The pope didn’t have to run for president since he had a lifetime job.
And then suddenly people started deserting the churches, as they have done wholesale and continue to do so in most of western Europe, the cradle of modern science. But strangely, this didn’t cause more crimes and sins. In fact, aside from secular profane sins of thievery, corruption and revenge, most of the violence became the near-sole “privilege" of religion or its secular equivalent, ethnic conflict over territories and resources. Of all the global or widespread wars of the post-Enlightenment age, none of them had anything to do with ordinary human immorality but were initiated for political and/or economic reasons. Meanwhile, most people went on with their lives in quite normal inconsequential ways, with occasional moral deviants and maniacs disturbing the peace.
What this illustrates, and that of the NY Times letter writers, is that in fact science and religion ARE incompatible: because believers reject the notion of any innate or evolutionary sense of morality, they in effect are rejecting reason and evidence in favor of supernatural beliefs and constructs. They cling tightly onto the mistaken notion that only religious belief and trust in those who promote it confers a moral sense on humanity, and the corollary odious notion that secularists, agnostics and atheists are incapable or less capable of moral and humanitarian acts.
They mistakenly think that their liberal/left beliefs are a result of their religion and of religion in general. Thus they dismiss the truths about our evolutionary history which, when learned, prove that morality arose out of reproductive exigency, the need for adaptive social structures and practices, and local environmental conditions of our distant ancestors. Scientists call this altruism, and volumes have been and are being written on its origins. But religious believers, not understanding how evolution works and how human traits and behavior almost always have a genetic basis, still insist on considering atheists pariahs and on awarding themselves the Medal of Morality. In the end, attributing human morality to religion is as irrational as attributing the universe to a deity. No matter how “liberal” his political beliefs, the believer has accepted unsubstantiated explanations for why morality exists. A creationist would consider him a firm ally no matter how secular he professed to be.
This medal might more sensibly be awarded to some ancient goddess rather than a nonexistent deity in the sky. Indeed, the old time paganism would be far more compatible with complex modern society than our present monotheistic religions. Sensibly for the ancient era, it recognized a complexity in Nature that deserved attention and respect, in effect an “ecological morality”. Such complexity had no need for a human hierarchy to explain and justify why some things worked and others didn’t. If you had a goddess of education, you knew that you would be protected if you became educated or skilled. If you had a god of war, you knew that displeasing him would bring dire consequences. If you had a goddess of love, you knew that human love was a good and desirable thing. You have to give “primitive” humans credit for searching for explanations rather than just accepting the word of a preacher whose job depends on making you believe stories that support and increase his power.