Human Morality IV: Role of religion

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

Guns, Germs, and Steel
Image via Wikipedia

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.”

Diamond presented a more detailed description of this in the lecture presented in the video below (Thanks to Damian’s post Jared Diamond on the Evolution of Religion).

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.

Divine commands

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.


See Also:
Human Morality I: Religious confusion
Human Morality II: Objective morality
Human Morality III: Moral intuition

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9 responses to “Human Morality IV: Role of religion

  1. Shamelessly Atheist

    Religion as a moral guide (writing that makes my skin crawl…) only demonstrates its utility, not its veracity. Far too many counter-examples of how religion is out of step with the current moral zeitgeist can be found to lend any support to its usefulness. Gay marriange, anyone? Bueler?


  2. …yeah, because if 50.0000000001% of people agree that something is ‘moral’ than, duh, it, like, is…


  3. Heraclides


    I can’t see where anyone has written anything about a “majority vote” in the above, so what are you responding to?

    I believe Ken is working towards the logical basis of morality, not something as arbitrary as a “majority vote”.

    (Incidentally, you could argue that religions use a “majority vote” in a sense. The organisation declares what is accepted. Those who don’t accept are excluded, and what you wind up with is essentially a “rigged” majority vote. By analogy you can think of rigged political elections.)


  4. Far too many counter-examples of how religion is out of step with the current moral zeitgeist can be found to lend any support to its usefulness. Gay marriange, anyone? Bueler?

    Gay marriage freaks religous people out.
    They know it’s wrong.
    They just…know it.
    Only, the rest of us don’t believe it any more.

    Nowadays, gay people are our neighbours, our relatives, and our friends. Society has figured out that they pay their taxes like everybody else and they don’t have three heads and a pitchfork.

    As the older folks die off, they take their archaic phobias with them.
    Fear of gay people is going the same way as fear of mixed marriages.
    Nobody gets worked up about it any more.

    Only (fifty?fourty? thirty?) years ago, a fag was a fag.
    A bunch of sickos hang around in toilets with lisps.
    If you suspected that one of them was working in your company or school then…you could fire them or blackmail them.
    Condemnation was cool. Acceptable. Everybody did it because society said it was OK.

    However, the moral zeitgeist had changed sharply and religious groups are left behind the curve.
    As the next generation in religious homes grow up, they are presented with a terrible choice.

    Do I want to be a bigot like Mom and Dad or should I accept gay people like everybody else?

    Those that choose to accept gays will question the value of their parent’s religion that reinforces bigotry.

    Sadly, there will be children that never question their parent’s indoctrination and are happy to call a fag a fag because…well…that’s what they are, dammit!
    These people will breed exclusively with only their own kind. Their group will get smaller and smaller and eventually they will build compounds, collect firearms and wait for the end-times.

    However, those children that question will lead to two groups.
    The first group will reject religion completely as a package deal.
    “If your god has a problem with gays then…I don’t want any part of your “god”.

    The second group will somehow reconcile their belief system with society’s acceptance of gay people.
    It will become…
    “My religion has no problem with gay people. There are some religious people that had a few problems with them back in the old days but…they were just reading the bible wrong. Just like those bible-thumping racists in the Deep South used religion to justify their fear of black people.
    We understand the Bible better now. Problem solved. Come and meet our new gay bishop and his life-partner”.

    Naturally, when somebody asks them “where do you get your morality from” or “Is morality objective?” they will hold up their bible and smile.

    God’s morals are immutable and unchangable yet they are carefully cherry-picked by every new religious generation and the distastful ones are glossed over, explained way or just politely ignored.
    Go against the cherry picking, refuse to embrace the shifting moral zeitgeist and your own religious community

    starts to look like this …<


  5. I think Dale was referring to the “current moral zeitgeist” concept.

    However, I don’t think we should reject such majority concepts out of hand. Sure there are times when the majority in a society may be morally wrong (when judged in an objective sense). I’m sure that was the case where societies supported racism, slavery, oppression of women, discrimination against gays, etc. And, let’s be clear, prevailing religious teachings have often lined up with the objectively wrong moral positions in these cases. (Sometimes religion goes with prevailing prejudices, as well as helping to create them).

    However, humanity does make intellectual and social progress. Therefore we should not reject a moral position because it has popular support either. That would be silly. We should apply our intelligence and reason, get beyond any reactionary negative moral intuitions, try to see the objective moral truths in the situation and then come to a conclusion.

    I think, to some extent, that is what society does when it makes democratic decisions on so-called moral questions. I think we have done that (in my lifetime) on things like segregation, apartheid, rights for indigenous minorities, rights for women, rights for gays, etc. It also seems to be the case on questions like stem cell research in the USA where “people of faith” seem to have thought more deeply that the leaders of their churches.

    It’s an ongoing process. But one I think (and hope) we are getting better at all the time.


  6. Shamelessly Atheist

    I totally agree, Ken. But we should never simply accept anything simply because it is the majority position, or the religious one, or because it is tradition. These are nonreasons for maintaining any ethical position. We have to weigh each against our sense of right and wrong, something that is continually in flux. Religion got some of it right, but much of it is simply no longer relevant. That’s to be expected when what was laid down in works like the bible were a reflection of the moral zeitgeist of the time. It simply doesn’t work well anymore. Society has moved on yet many of its members still adhere to antiquated moral codes and many are left wondering why there is a conflict.


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