Yesterday’s New York Times has a long online commentary by renowned primatologist Frans de Waal, “Morals without god.” Read it: it’s a pretty good explication of the evidence for an evolutionary origin of at least the rudiments of human moral sentiments, giving evidence for empathy, fairness, and altruism in our primate relatives. de Waal also explains why these inchoate sentiments aren’t enough to qualify other species as moral beings:
This is because sentiments do not suffice. We strive for a logically coherent system, and have debates about how the death penalty fits arguments for the sanctity of life, or whether an unchosen sexual orientation can be wrong. These debates are uniquely human. We have no evidence that other animals judge the appropriateness of actions that do not affect themselves. The great pioneer of morality research, the Finn Edward Westermarck, explained what makes the moral emotions special: “Moral emotions are disconnected from one’s immediate situation: they deal with good and bad at a more abstract, disinterested level.” This is what sets human morality apart: a move towards universal standards combined with an elaborate system of justification, monitoring and punishment.
If you’re at all interested in human morality, you need to know the evidence for “morality” in other species. Without that you simply can’t have a meaningful discussion about the origins of ethics. de Waals’s article is a good short primer on this, and he doesn’t shrink from its implications for religion. He asserts, correctly, that morality has a biological rather than a divine origin: “. . we do not need God to explain how we got where we are today.” It’s time for people to realize this, especially because the prime defense of religion seems to be its perceived function as a source of morality. de Waal also faults others, like Robert Wright, for arguing “that true moral tendencies cannot exist—not in humans and even less in other animals—since nature is one hundred percent selfish.”
Sadly, de Waal’s otherwise fine piece is marred by two flaws in the writing and several more in the thinking. Minor plaints: he begins (and ends) with a tedious analogy between discussions about morality and Hieronymus Bosch’s painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” The comparison is supposed to say something about morality, science, and the “state of nature,” but it’s simply confusing. Also, de Waal once again brings up the fraud case of primatologist Marc Hauser from Harvard. He uses this to show how creationists jump on such scandals to avoid addressing the substantive claims of scientists. But there’s no need to make this point, and one senses that de Waal is simply kicking the fallen body of a colleague he never liked. (de Waal has publicly criticized Hauser several times in the past few months.) This discussion adds nothing to the essay and is unworthy of de Waal.
What’s more disturbing is that after de Waal explains why morality may have evolved, and why it doesn’t come from religion, he goes ahead and takes a few gratuitous swipes at Gnu Atheists:
Over the past few years, we have gotten used to a strident atheism arguing that God is not great (Christopher Hitchens) or a delusion (Richard Dawkins). The new atheists call themselves “brights,” thus hinting that believers are not so bright. They urge trust in science, and want to root ethics in a naturalistic worldview.
While I do consider religious institutions and their representatives — popes, bishops, mega-preachers, ayatollahs, and rabbis — fair game for criticism, what good could come from insulting individuals who find value in religion? And more pertinently, what alternative does science have to offer? Science is not in the business of spelling out the meaning of life and even less in telling us how to live our lives. We, scientists, are good at finding out why things are the way they are, or how things work, and I do believe that biology can help us understand what kind of animals we are and why our morality looks the way it does. But to go from there to offering moral guidance seems a stretch.
Even the staunchest atheist growing up in Western society cannot avoid having absorbed the basic tenets of Christian morality. Our societies are steeped in it: everything we have accomplished over the centuries, even science, developed either hand in hand with or in opposition to religion, but never separately. It is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion. It would require a visit to a human culture that is not now and never was religious. That such cultures do not exist should give us pause.
Well, first of all, most Gnu Atheism consists not of “insulting individuals who find value in religion” but in criticizing the ideas and evidence for religious belief, and explicating the harm that religion has wrought in the world. (Has de Waal actually read The God Delusion, The End of Faith, or God is not Great?) Presumably he doesn’t think that open discussion of ideas is equivalent to insulting their adherents—even if the faithful often see it that way.
And hasn’t de Waal considered that even if science doesn’t tell us how to live our lives (but see The Moral Landscape on that issue), there is a richly developed field of secular morality that tells us why and how to be moral without religion? de Waal is an atheist—I would ask him why he is a moral being (if he is). What does he see as the meaning of his life, and how does he decide to live it?
As for the impossibility of “knowing what morality would look like without religion,” de Waal should just look at the Netherlands, where he’s from. Or at Sweden or Denmark. Yes, those countries were once religious (but so what?), but they aren’t now. One could consider them, by and large, atheist nations. And what does morality looks like there? Pretty much like in religious American, except better! There’s more tolerance of gays and alternative lifestyles, more social support for the ill and indigent. Any idea that morality falls to pieces without the flying buttress of faith is absolutely falsified by Western Europe. Surely de Waal knows this.
I’m not sure why de Waal (who has received several types of support from the Templeton Foundation) finds it necessary to bash Gnu Atheists in an article about the evolutionary roots of morality and the superfluity of religious explanation. At the end he takes one more swipe, claiming that atheist morality would wind up looking religious:
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. 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.
Yeah, right. I look forward to worshipping St. Hitchens at Our Lady of Perpetual Dickishness, and to receiving infallible proclamations from the chair of His Holiness Pope Cephalopod. The idea that secular morality would look like religion is ridiculous, and is completely dispelled by the example of modern Europe.
What’s bizarre in all this is that de Waal, despite his own atheism, has surely found a way for himself to be moral without being pseudo-religious, and yet he tells everyone else that they need established religion to secure their ethics. Can we not assume, Dr. de Waal, that other people may be as savvy and reasoned as yourself, and find a way to live ethically without a god?
It’s patronizing nonsense, that’s what it is. de Waal should have stuck to the evolution of morality.