Many times, I’ve come across arguments positing that morality cannot exist without religion, and variants thereof that assert that the tenets of Western law and civilization are themselves born of religious teachings (aka The Ten Commandments in the Public Square). I don’t find the latter compelling, for reasons I’ve detailed before and, in looking across the world and across history, I find ample reason to conclude that those arguments have it backwards: that religious teachings are themselves born of a morality that’s innate in human nature. This reverses the standard theistic religious premise that morality is “external,” i.e. defined by a higher power or greater being, and undermines the conclusion that religion is a necessary element in establishing and anchoring against drift a moral code upon which to build a legal system.

There are, by one count (itself subject to somewhat arbitrary definitional parameters), 4200 religions and variants in the world. Many of these follow what we in the West might call a “traditional” model, in that they postulate the existence of an interventionist Creator deity (or perhaps multiple deities collected into a Pantheon), but many do not. Some are more deistic, in that they postulate a non-interventionist Creator (i.e. a clockmaker God, that created the universe and then left it to run as it would), and some are nontheistic. There are also many religions that have died out, or that exist primarily as relics of history.

Religion and religious belief/practice in some form is found in the vast majority of history’s cultures, which tells us… something. I’m partial to the conclusions posited in J. Anderson Thomson’s book Why We Believe in God(s), that there are elements of human nature (i.e. our evolutionary DNA encoding) that strongly bias us to belief. That our behaviors and tendencies are driven by our DNA is obvious. We prefer sweet foods over bitter. We react, near-instantly, via chemical reactions and not conscious thought, to external stimuli, whether they be a lion charging, a twitching blade of grass that might be a lion about to charge, a person we find attractive, a toddler about to fall down a well, or the scent of a cinnamon bun wafting through the airport. That human cultures throughout history nearly-universally contain religions, but religions of widely disparate forms, leads us to a conclusion that we tend to religion itself, not the teachings of a particular religion.

With a sorta-caveat: that tendency towards religiosity is an outcome, not a foundation.

Successful societies throughout the world and throughout history have several common elements. They include proscriptions against murdering each other, against stealing from each other, and against doing other unjust things to each other. There are exceptions and “work-arounds,” of course, often put in place by people whose desire for power dominates, but in general, we witness a basic set of rules that societies, in order to survive, find their way to codifying.

This all makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Human babies are born wholly unable to fend for themselves, for a loooong time. In order for their DNA to propagate, they must be cared for and protected until they can, i.e. more than a decade. For this and for other reasons related to survival and the propagation of genetic code, human tendencies toward tribal living emerged. We are more likely to live long enough to procreate if we live in a group than if we live alone or in a pair. This is all beyond dispute.

Here’s where I diverge from those who believe that the moral values that keep societies functional are informed in us by a higher power. It’s evident that murder, theft, and false accusation work contrary to the success of a tribe. Across tribes? Well, that’s another story, and there are evolutionary benefits in tribe-vs-tribe hostility, which prompt other behavioral tendencies, but hold off on those for just a moment. Within the tribe, the person who murders another, or steals from another, or spreads lies about another, works against the well-being of the tribe, and reduces both his own chances to pass along his DNA and those of everyone in the tribe. This is an evolutionary pressure that will favor those who are, of their own inherent nature, less likely to murder or steal or perjure. The moral tenets reflected in the Sixth, Eighth, and Ninth Commandments are born of human nature, not declared from on high to codify proper behavior. They’re wired into us by evolution, not written by an external Creator to guide otherwise-rudderless humans.

This explains why we find the same principles in every successful society, no matter that its prevalent religion is theistic, deistic, or nontheistic. If humans were inherently rudderless, then societies would emerge with wildly divergent moral codes, but we don’t see such out there. Yes, many tribal societies have had no problem with killing those of other tribes, but as I noted, that’s the spawn of a different set of evolutionary drivers, drivers that explain the ubiquity of war throughout history (and, indeed, countless wars informed by religious beliefs). Once a tribe reaches a certain size, the benefits to genetic propagation bestowed by allegiance to community reach a peak, and the benefits to genetic propagation from defeating or co-opting other communities come into play. This can explain why we’re so averse to harming our own, but often have far less problem with the collateral damage of war waged upon others.

The answer to this essay’s question, “whence morality?,” is innateness. The basic moral behaviors, the things we might do or not do that are codified into both religious teachings and secular law, are born of human nature as it has evolved over millennia. That innateness is why I don’t accept the arguments that, without religion, society will drift away from morality and devolve/dissolve into chaos. It’s why overt atheist Penn Jillette can say with total honesty and conviction:

The question I get asked by religious people all the time is, without God, what’s to stop me from raping all I want? And my answer is: I do rape all I want. And the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero.

We don’t need a culture born of religious dogma to establish morality or anchor it against drift. Our human nature, which evolves far more slowly than cultures do, serves to keep things pointed in a consistent direction. That doesn’t mean it’s an ideal direction, just that the nature of humans is not going to change in any relevant time frame, and that we can reliably predict and try to manage human behaviors based on that unchanging nature.

A person of faith may rebut this conclusion, and may argue that the tendencies I assign to genetic coding are themselves bestowed upon us by God (and indeed there is a tenet in Islam that posits we are all born with an innate submission to God). If so, that actually bolsters the case that morality is innate, and not subject to drift without belief in a deity or higher power.

I’d also ask that person of faith, “which religious teachings are the ones that define morality?” Is it the Judeo-Christian ethic, as embodied in the Ten Commandments? And, if so, which is it, Judeo- or Christian? The Bible contains substantial contradictions, and contains numerous teachings apart from those contradictions that run against what a secular person of today would deem moral, including human sacrifice, slavery, the subjugation of women, the sale of children; and some teachings that make no sense or seem oddly trivial. Religious teachings are not supposed to be a menu from which to choose. They are a body of work that expects full obeisance, if they are to be deemed an immutable and foundational basis for morality. You can’t just choose Commandments 6, 7, and 9, and dismiss a good chunk of the Old Testament (as well as a number of New Testament teachings) in your declaration that morality is derived from God’s teachings.

And, what of all the other religions of the world, religions that have spawned the same moral basics against murder, theft, and perjury? Did they just luck into the same rule set as that of the Abrahamic religions? This, again, takes us back to the conclusion that, if God inhered into us a moral compass, we don’t need to hold that faith or religious teaching is necessary.

It doesn’t matter whether or not you believe that morals were imbued by an anthropomorphic and interventionist Creator, or by a watchmaker deity, or arose via evolutionary pressures. The result is the same – you don’t need a religious ethic to have an anchoring basis for society’s morals. Whether we’ve been wired to morality by a God or by evolution, the wiring is there, and it’s not going to go away if you don’t profess a faith in a God.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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