In my travels across the unending reaches of the ether, I communicate with a vast amount of people from different walks of life and worldviews. Outside of my sphere of like-minded friends and acquaintances, most of the people I deal with have, to one degree or another, a belief in the supernatural. They believe in God, and their belief serves as the source of their ethics and morality. Ergo, one of the first questions I am asked as an unbeliever can be amalgamated into something like:
“If you don’t believe in God, there’s nothing to prevent you from committing crimes, is there? Without the fear of punishment, you can do anything you like, can’t you?”
This is a common conception that is held by most believers and is present in individuals from the barely educated all the way to those who hold post-graduate college degrees. It is because of this variety in the society of believers that make it obvious that holding to this conception is not due to a lack of intelligence. It is simply what they were taught and the psychology of maintaining their worldview that plays into it.
The religionist is behaviorally motivated by fear of punishment from God for disobedience. Good behavior does not come into play except as a reward for blind faith, even though they believe that their selfless behavior comes from religion. Although being a “good Christian” may result in some admirable benefits to society, such as feeding the hungry, religious morality is not the reason why altruistic behavior exist. This is evident in the existence of non-religious charity. Altruism has been extant for many millennia and pre-dates all religion. Religious doctrine, particularly Christianity, teaches that we are all born evil and require the intervention of a supernatural being to “change” us into moral and ethical individuals. A process referred to as “sanctification”, which varies in intensity and definition between denominations. In reality, acting in a moral and ethical way out of fear of punishment or hope of reward is the definition of “behavior modification through self–preservation”, which is one of the facts of evolution. This is ironically viewed by the religionist as immoral.
Albert Einstein stated, “A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death”
The behavior of unbelievers is subject to the same rules that govern the behavior of everyone. Ethical behavior has nothing to do with the presence or absence of religious belief. The fact is that human beings are social animals through evolution, and our system of morals and ethics is part of it. It is not our choice, no matter how much we may want to believe it to be. We are sensitive to the emotions of other humans, and emotion is contagious. We are happy when we are in joyful situations and we are sad when in miserable ones. We are even happier when we are around other happy people, and thus, it is in our nature to make others people around us happy.
It is because of this aspect of our nature that we tend to form strong interpersonal bonds, and that we are able to both satisfy ourselves while simultaneously satisfying others. Even the social behavior of other primates is evident of our evolutionary moral and ethical behavior. Communities of gorillas and chimpanzees have no religion or belief in god, but yet they behave in ways that show they honor their mothers and refrain from killing their brothers and sisters. And although anti-social behavior exists in all primate societies, so do ethics, morals and altruism, everywhere and at all times.
Morality and ethics revolve around how we solve problems. Unlike our primitive ancestors, our world today is complex. Heredity can control our general behavior but has little to do with how we solve problems in a modern society. By modern, let’s say, the last couple hundred thousand years or so. Our ability to think, reason and adaptively learn was activated by circuits that had been evolutionally hard-wired. This hard-wiring is known as instinct, and instinct alone served us well for millions of years. However, it became more and more inadequate as our environment became more and more complex.
As a substitute for instinct and to increase the efficiency of learning, we developed civilization through social community – the ability to teach as well as to learn. Learning by instinct became a method of last resort. It is because of our evolution into social beings who can teach learned behavior to our children that we’ve adapted and continue to adapt much faster than our instinct-only ancestors to changes around us. And although our societies are developing and advancing at exponential rates, our genetics do not necessarily keep pace.
We may be able to produce complex machines such as the Large Hadron Collider, but just a couple thousand years ago we were no closer to understanding where thunder and lightning came from than we are currently to a practical application of cold fusion. The Ten Commandments are the moral counterpart of the “rub two sticks to make fire” phase of our technological evolution, which works fine if you want to roast marshmallows, but completely inadequate to launch the space shuttle. To propel a four and a half million pound object into space required some change and adaptation. The same holds true with morality and ethics. Absolutist religious morality is stuck back in the stage of our evolution where we were ignorant of psychology, biology, embryology and the other developmental sciences . We are trying to launch the space shuttle with a campfire, and it is no longer working.
Here’s the basic paradox. If something is good simply because a god has commanded it, then anything that god has commanded could be considered good. The very nature of the diverse interpretations of holy books and the actions that are perpetrated on our society by those interpretations gives no way to predict what god might desire next. Ergo, bashing babies with rocks, flying airplanes into buildings and murdering physicians would be just as likely to be good as would the loving your enemy, giving to the poor and taking care of widows and orphans. On the other hand, if god commandments are based on the inherent goodness of an act, then we have a standard of goodness independent of god. This results in the fact that god cannot be the source of morality and we must seek it though the world in which we have evolved.
And we have found it. It is what is known as “enlightened self-interest”, which is simply behavior that maximizes the intensity and duration of personal gratification and cooperation with others in a selfless, altruistic fashion. But cooperation is a two-way street and demands reciprocity. Enter justice, which determines fairness and allows cooperation to operate at maximum efficiency. Enlightened self-interest is moral and ethical because it entails a desire for personal happiness, the happiness of others, justice and cooperation. Selfishness, however, is immoral and unethical because such behavior results in actions that harm others and make them unhappy, thus making us less happy. Thus, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.”
The task of moral education is not to spew forth a list of do’s and don’ts, but to help people to predict the consequences of actions they are considering. What will be both the long-term as well as immediate rewards and draw-backs? This is the basis for morality and ethics. No holy book, fear of punishment or reward by a mythical and non-existent deity is needed because evolution and natural selection have already solved the problem for us. Religion and it’s accompanying unnatural degradations, bigotries and intolerances are the result of vain attempts by ignorant men of long ago to accommodate human needs by basing moral and ethical behavior on the perceived commands and desires of mythical deities with bad attitudes. Religious morality is counter-productive to the survival of our species. If we do not plant our ethics in the improvable and adaptable soil of science, natural selection and our own willful ignorance will insure our demise in short order.