This is the fourth in a series of five posts on morality. They are aimed at countering the usual religious claims for a god-given morality with current scientific understanding of how the morality of our species arose. Also, they at tempt to justify a non-theist objective basis for much of the moral decisions we make. The first post (I: Religious confusion) discussed some of the problems religion has in its understanding of morality and the second (II: Objective morality) argues for a non-theist objective basis for morality. The third post (III: Moral intuition) discussed moral intuitions. This fourth post discusses the role of religion in human morality.
Religion certainly claims for itself a special role when it comes to human morals – and even some non-religious people accept that claim. This is largely because historically religion has played a central role in disseminating moral teaching and resolving moral disputes.
Religion and ideology unify people
Current understanding of religious evolution shows why this is so. In his book Guns Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond briefly discusses how institutionalised ideology and religion arose with formation of chiefdoms and states:
“Besides justifying the transfer of wealth to kleptocrats, institutionalized religion brings two other important benefits to centralized societies. First, shared ideology or religion helps solve the problem of how unrelated individuals are to live together without killing each other – by providing them with a bond not based on kinship. Second, it gives people a motive, other than genetic self-interest, for sacrificing their lives on behalf of others. At the cost of a few society members who die in battle as soldiers, the whole society becomes much more effective at conquering other societies or resisting attacks.”
Ideology and religion helped bind people. They helped convert society from small groups held together by shared kin interests to larger groups needing more than kin interest. The “us” group became larger – but ideology and religion also helped maintain and justify hostility towards the “them” groups.
Supernatural mythology developed beyond the small group superstitions. Thus mythology helped provide divine sanction to a ruling class, the chiefs, priests, kings and emperors. It also sanctioned their wealth, and its acquisition.
Supernatural mythology provided cohesion to the “us” group – often “god’s chosen people.” And it justified aggression and war against the “them” groups. With the accompanying justification for slavery and racial oppression.
Moral codes needed for society’s cohesion and justification of hostility to other societies were embodied into the teachings and dogma of the prevailing religion or ideology.
So, over the years we have seen this strange inversion. Moral codes and teachings were initially derived from the interests of social cohesion, relationships within society and between societies. Religion often used supernatural arguments and mythology to justify these codes and teachings. And today, some religious apologists now complete the acquisition and claim a supernatural divine origin for the moral codes and teachings.
Such theological justifications, however, are superficial compared to the proper scientific investigation and understanding of the sources of human morality. Theological claims that without a god there is no right and wrong are always expressed in vague and flowery terms. When pressed for specific explanations theologians may try to place a supernatural veneer on scientific understandings.
For example, a troll commenting here last year claimed the objective morality he was talking about was “engraved on the human heart” by his god. Perhaps he was admitting the existence of human moral intuitions? But using a “god did it” rather than evolutionary explanation.
In his article on “divine commands” (see Divine Commands and Intuitions: A Response to Ken Perrott) Matt claimed these commands could be discovered in our moral intuitions and in “scripture and theological traditions.” Presumably he believes his god injected these intuitions into us at the moment of creation – and the scriptures are literally the “word of god”. And that his god is involved in the interpretation of theological tradition and scriptures. Interpretation undertaken by divinely gifted individuals, priests, prophets and other religious leaders.
All this seems silly to me. It’s just putting a “god did it” veneer on what we have discovered by normal investigation. And this veneer has no explanation for objective moral values – except to claim divine authority for the commands of religious leaders. As we have seen (With God, anything can be permitted?) these “justifications” result in moral relativism.
Historically religions have had a role in codifying and teaching moral law. However, today they no longer have exclusive power in this area. Other social institutions have taken over and eroded this religious role.
This is just part of the slow and difficult process of the triumph of intelligence and reason over superstition.
In the next article I will discuss the secular conscience.
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- The Evolution of Religions (brainandlearning.blogspot.com)