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Religion & Science
June 10, 1997

The Basis of Morality:
Scientific Vs. Religious Explanations

[Editor's note: The following is a transcript of the presentation by Mr. Timothy Madigan on April 17 at the Harbinger symposium, "Religion & Science: The Best of Enemies - the Worse of Friends."]

by Timothy J. Madigan

Editor, Free Inquiry

"A man who has no assured and ever present belief in the existence of a personal God or of a future existence with retribution and reward, can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones. . . . If he acts for the good of others, he will receive the approbation of his fellow men and gain the love of those with whom he lives."

- Charles Darwin[1]

The above quote, taken from The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, addresses a central issue in the ongoing debate between science and religion: How does one best understand the origins of human morality? There is still a popular assumption that religion and morality are synonymous. This is not surprising, since almost everyone is raised within some type of religious community, which teaches various rules for how to act, and sanctions these rules by claiming they were created by a deity. This so-called "Divine Command Theory" of morality has had many prominent defenders. And yet, it is by no means self- evident that our sense of right and wrong, and the codes of behavior we are expected to follow, come from a supernatural source. The following analysis will criticize the claim that morality comes from and is sanctioned by a deity or deities, and will present a naturalistic alternative view regarding the origins of our moral sense.

To be sure, religions have traditionally played a large role in shaping people's behavior, and in inculcating a set of practices for them to follow. Such practices are presented as being beneficial to society as a whole, and also as having good practical effects for those who adhere to them, usually by having some sort of ultimate pay-off after the death of that individual. Why be good? "You'll get your reward in heaven," as the saying goes.

To ask questions about the origins of moral principles was often taken to be the same thing as raising questions about either the existence or the goodness of the supernatural beings who had supposedly given these tenets. The philosopher Socrates found this out, when, in 399 B.C.E., he was placed on trial by his fellow Athenians for the capital offense of spreading disbelief in the gods. In his defense, he argued strongly that, in encouraging people to try to understand the meaning of moral terms like "goodness", "virtue" and "happiness" he was actually acting on behalf of the gods. He did not convince the jury, which sentenced him to death - an act that has generally been thought to have been highly immoral.

There are problems with the claim that morality comes from a divine source. I will list and briefly examine a few objections, before then looking at some arguments for the origins of morality which do not rely upon the existence of a divinity.

1.) How do we know this Law Giver exists? For most people, the existence of God is something they learn from earliest infancy. They seldom think much about it. But if they do, they would find that the arguments to justify this existence have serious flaws. There are many such arguments that have traditionally been given to support God's existence. I will not examine these here, as it would constitute a separate treatment (for a good overview of these arguments and their flaws, I recommend two books by the philosopher Michael Martin: Atheism: A Philosophical Justification and The Case Against Christianity). Suffice it to say that there is no argument for the existence of a transcendent deity which has proven to be generally persuasive or which has withstood rigorous philosophical analysis. If the very existence of God cannot be proven, how can one argue that morality is grounded in his commands?

In response to this challenge, there have been those, like the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who admit that all such arguments are faulty, but who then take a "leap of faith" and believe in God's existence anyway. But to believe in God purely on faith is a very shaky foundation indeed. How does one convince those who do not accept one's faith that the commandments of this being should be followed? Darwin, in his usual incisive fashion, raised a powerful objection to this claim that God exists because we just feel that he exists:

"At the present day the most usual argument for the existence of an intelligent God is drawn from the deep inward conviction and feelings which are experienced by most persons. But it cannot be doubted that Hindoos, Mahomadans and others might argue in the same manner and with equal force in favour of the existence of one God or of many Gods, or as with the Buddhists of no God . . . This argument would be a valid one if all men of all races had the same inward conviction of the existence of one God; but we know that this is very far from being the case. Therefore I cannot see that such inward convictions and feelings are of any weight as evidence of what really exists."[2]

Finally, even if one could demonstrably prove that God exists, this alone would not be sufficient to justify the claim that his rules should be obeyed. This leads to the second question raised by a Divine Command Theory.

2.) If God does exist, how do we know that he is good? Many acts attributed to divinities in various societies seem barbarous or harmful. Why, for instance, did the gods of Ancient Greece place a curse upon the head of baby Oedipus, dooming him to kill his father and murder his mother? Why did the Hindu god Shiva continuously destroy civilizations? And why did the God of the Old Testament enter into a bet with Satan and allow the latter to torture and torment poor Job, in order to see if he was truly devout? If such acts were performed by human beings, we would not hesitate to castigate the perpetrators.

The philosopher A. C. Ewing expressed this criticism nicely: "Without a prior conception of God as good or his commands as right, God would have no more claim on our obedience than Hitler or Stalin except that he would have more power than even they had to make things uncomfortable for those who disobey him."[3] Is it right to follow such a being's commandments simply because he is more powerful than we are? Perhaps the best discussion of this can be found in Plato's dialogue Euthyphro, in which the title character is a callow know-it-all bent upon prosecuting his own father for murder - not because he is particularly upset by the action itself (the victim was a slave who was left in a ditch overnight and died of exposure) but because to commit murder is to go against the will of the gods, and so is impious. Socrates, who meets Euthyphro outside the courthouse (where he himself is scheduled to go on trial on the charge of impiety), asks him a seemingly simple question: Is an action moral because the gods decree it, or do the gods decree it because it is moral? For instance, if the gods should decree that all left-handed people be slaughtered, would it be right to do so? Such a question cuts to the very heart of all divinely sanctioned ethical systems, for it shows that mere belief in the gods or a god is insufficient to justify following their dictates. Morality takes precedent over divinity. Perhaps not coincidentally, Euthypro never grasps this point, while Socrates was executed a few days later for his impertinence.

The English philosopher John Stuart Mill raised a further criticism, by addressing those who claim that God, although the creator of the world, is not responsible for all the evils found within it. He listed a catalogue of unpleasantries which seem hard to square with a loving and benevolent creator: the infliction of physical suffering, the permission of moral evil, the prosperity of the wicked, and the misery of the innocent. To say that such a creator is "good" seems to be using the term in a different way than when it is used to describe human actions. Yet if "good" for God means something different than "good" does for humans, how can we base our morality on such a being? Mill wrote:

"Whatever power such a being may have over me, there is one thing which he shall not do: he shall not compel me to worship him. I will call no being good, who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow creatures, and if such a being can sentence me to hell for not so calling him, to hell I will go."[4]

The nonbeliever Mill has seized the moral high ground. And by raising the issue of eternal punishment, he leads us to the third question that divinely- sanctioned morality must address: Why should we follow divine commandments?

3.) Must we follow these divine rules out of compunction? If we break them, will we be punished eternally in some fashion? This is surely a powerful sanction for inculcating moral codes. But it also seems to imply that one follows these rules out of fear - if religion were taken away, all hell would break loose on earth. Yet if this is so, what does it say about humans? Are they not capable of taking responsibility for their own actions without constantly looking up over their shoulders to see if God is watching? As Mill pointed out so powerfully, evils occur even with religion. Why assume that its absence would lead to even greater atrocities? The absence of religion would present an opportunity for people to take full personal responsibility, rather than claim that "the devil made me do it" or "God will forgive me for my transgressions".

If morality, then, is not founded on the dictates of some divine source, from where does it arise? Perhaps it is perfectly natural. The desire to act kindly toward others, and to try to see the world as they might see it, could have arisen as a consequence of human beings' biological and social characteristics. In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin addressed the development of a moral sense from a naturalistic perspective:

"The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable - namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man. . . . the social instincts led an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them. The services may be of a definite and evidently instinctive nature; or there may be only a wish and readiness, as with most of the higher social animals, to aid their fellows in certain general ways. But these feelings and services are by no means extended to all the individuals of the same species, only to those of the same association."[5]

Darwin's writings revolutionized the field of biology. Yet he scrupulously avoided public discussions of religion, since he knew that it would be difficult enough for his theory to be accepted by the scientific community. The general public, weaned on the age-old teachings of Christianity, would find the view that the human species was not specially created to be even more troublesome. In a letter he wrote in 1880 to a friend, Darwin spelled out his own views regarding the topic of religion and science:

"Though I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity or Theism produce hardly any effect on the public, and freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual advancement of science. It has, therefore, always been my object to avoid writing on religion, and I have confined myself to science."[6]

Still, in his private writings, Darwin was willing to offer telling criticisms of the moral teachings of Christianity. In his Autobiography, written privately for his own amusement and for the interest of his children and grandchildren, he spelled out his personal views. Although it first appeared in print in 1887, in an expurgated form, the passages on religion were not published by his descendants until 1958. In them, there is substantial discussion of morality. Darwin repeats the objections to the Divine Command Theory raised earlier. Why, he asks, should one accept the Bible as divinely- inspired, rather than other holy books, such as the Koran, the Analects of Confucius or the teachings of the Buddha? And if one does decide that the Bible is superior, how can it be understood? Are the stories of miracles to be taken literally or only figuratively? He critiques specific doctrines of Christianity, especially the doctrine of hell:

"I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my father, brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine."[7]

Darwin broadened the argument raised by Mill. There is certainly much evil in the world, but it is not just evil for humans - why did the deity create so many species and why for millions of years preceding the emergence of humans did they suffer?

"That there is much suffering in the world no one disputes. Some have attempted to explain this in reference to man by imagining that it serves for his moral improvement. But the number of men in the world is as nothing compared with that of all other sentient beings, and these often suffer greatly without any moral improvement. A being so powerful and so full of knowledge as a God who could create the universe, is to our finite minds omnipotent and omniscient, and it revolts our understanding to suppose that his benevolence is not unbounded, for what advantage can there be in the sufferings of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time? This very old argument from the existence of suffering against the existence of an intelligent first cause seems to me a strong one; whereas, as just remarked, the presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection."[8]

For all of this, Darwin remained leery of grand speculations, holding that the human mind cannot be completely trusted when it draws such grand conclusions. Such advice is needed, especially when one makes grandiose claims about evolution and its impact on ethics, as Herbert Spencer did during Darwin's own time. Scientific thinking stresses that one's theories not outrun the evidence that is needed to support them.

Nonetheless, much fruitful speculation on the naturalistic basis of morality is being done today, following up on many of Darwin's suggestions. Two recent books explore the implications of evolution for ethics: James Rachels' Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism (1990) and Frans de Waal's Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (1996). Both of them claim that coming to grips with our moral sense involves looking not toward heaven but rather toward our fellow members of the animal kingdom, particularly the three great apes.

Rachels points out that the argument for the co-existence between science and religion is itself a great comedown for theology. Traditional religion drew much of its strength by explaining the universe. Darwin provided a rival theory which gave alternative answers, especially regarding the relationship between human beings and other animals.

"Before Darwin, our understanding of the nature of non-humans was controlled by a certain picture of the world: according to this picture, the gap between human nature and animal nature was established once and for all by God in his original act of creation. To men he gave souls, free will, rationality, and moral judgement, the other animals he created as lesser beings. Against the background of this picture, any attribution of moral qualities to animals would seem impossible. What is needed, in order to make such attributions possible, is the substitution of a different picture. Darwin provided the new picture, and tried to show that once it is adopted the view of animals as (at least partially) moral beings follows naturally."[9]

The key to understanding ethics, in Rachels' view, is to examine the nature of social instincts and the ways in which these allow for greater harmony among groups. In this, Rachels follows Darwin's lead. We can envision a 3-step process of morality, in which reciprocal behavior spreads to more and more members of a given society:

1. Kin altruism: this involves showing special regard for one's family members.

2. Group altruism: such regard goes beyond one's immediate family to encompass those belonging to the larger group of which one is a member.

3. Widespread altruism: each and every member of one's species is held to be worthy of regard.

In discussions of morality, Rachels asserts, it is a mistake to hold, as many religions do, that we begin with step 3. "By far the most powerful kind of altruism," he writes, "even among humans, is kin altruism. Truly disinterested, generalized saintliness might exist in a few people, but it is so rare that it may be regarded, in the naturalist's terms, as a mere 'variation' - and whether it is something that could be spread to the population as a whole might well be doubted."[10]

Religions, then, from this perspective, do serve an evolutionary role by encouraging greater fellowship and social interactions among people who are not biologically related or members of the same social group. The biblical story of "The Good Samaritan" is an excellent example of this. The Samaritan in question belonged to a social group which was on the worst possible terms with its neighbor, the Judeans, yet he freely chose to treat a victimized Judean - complete stranger - as he himself would wish to have been treated if he had been robbed and abused. This is a symbolic representation of stage 3 morality. The parable serves the further purpose of encouraging such behavior.

But religions by no means always lead to such widespread altruism. When their theologies become fossilized, or when their priests become more concerned with preserving power than with encouraging benevolence, they are often far more capable of keeping humans on a lower stage of morality. As Socrates discovered, raising questions about religious authority can have deadly repercussions. Rachels' stage 2 is comparable to tribalism, a condition which is often sanctified by religious practices. "The Lord thy God is a jealous God" is not a statement likely to encourage interactions between social groups with differing metaphysical belief systems.

Rachels goes further, again following Darwin's lead, and argues that similar stages of morality can be found in non-human species, especially in our fellow primates. He draws a connection between the moral sense and the development of reasoning capacities, which he claims are not unique to humans:

"Is this anything more than a suggestive fantasy? Why should we think that the key to understanding altruism beyond one's relatives might be something like this? It is significant that all the most impressive examples of non-kin altruism are from the so-called "higher" animals - humans, monkeys, baboons, and so on - animals in which the power of reasoning is well developed. This seems to confirm Darwin's speculation that the development of general altruism might go hand-in-hand with the development of intelligence."[11]

Might there be something to this claim? Frans de Waal's book Good Natured attempts to verify this. A primatologist at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta, he is critical of those who attempt to understand morality from a non-scientific basis. "We seem to be reaching a point at which science can wrest morality from the hands of philosophers," he writes.[12] These are fighting words - one wonders how James Rachels - an ally of de Waal's point-of-view, but also a professional philosopher - would react to such a statement.

Like Rachels, de Waal argues that the key element to morality is "reciprocal altruism": treating others kindly with the expectation that they will accord one the same treatment should a similar situation arise (a notion similar to, if not identical with, the so-called Golden Rule). Such reciprocal altruism will not occur when individuals are unlikely to meet again. It requires good memories and stable relationships, conditions which occur mainly in the primates. "Evolution has produced the requisites for morality: a tendency to develop social norms and enforce them, the capacities of empathy and sympathy, mutual aid and a sense of fairness, the mechanisms of conflict resolutions, and so on."[13]

De Waal's book is filled with examples of monkeys and apes taking care of disabled members of their group, showing sympathy for those in pain, and engaging in mutual aid. The principle of parsimony, he states, holds that if closely related species act the same, then the underlying process is probably the same, too. Much, if not all, of what constitutes human morality can be found by closely studying the social practices of our fellow primates. De Waal writes: "It is not hard to see why monkeys would want to avoid harm to themselves, but why would harm to another bother them? Probably they see certain others as extensions of themselves, and the distress of those resonates within them."_ To see one's self in the plight of another is perhaps the basic building block of morality. Religious believers express this in the sentiment "There but for the grace of God go I", but one can grasp this point without reference to sanctity or divinity.

De Waal speculates that primates look at each other as sentient beings. The capacity to care for others is the bedrock of all of our moral systems. The rules which arise from such a capacity nurtures and expands upon it, but they are not its foundation. Other conditions for morality can be found in non-primates who have the capacity for rule-learning, internalization of commandments and guiltlike behavior when such commandments are disobeyed. Witness, for instance, a dog which has chewed up its master's slippers and is caught in the act. But no species has perfected these traits to the extent that humans have.

For all of the astute observations made by de Waal, there is a limit to how much we can learn by observing fellow animals. It is hard not to be anthropomorphic when examining non-human animals. I call this the Doctor Doolittle Problem - until such a time as we can talk to the animals and learn their languages, we cannot really know what it is that they are sensing. Also, what are the normative implications of such findings? Rachels, for instance, argues that evolutionary ethics must ultimately lead humans to embrace vegetarianism, for it is morally wrong to kill and consume one's fellow moral creatures - widespread altruism, he feels, must go beyond merely human concerns. De Waal, on the other hand, states that the sharing of meat is an important social function for both humans and many other primates.

Evolutionary ethics is a controversial field. It draws a very close connection between humans and other members of the animal kingdom - for many religious believers, a connection too close for comfort. As de Waal points out, it is hard to imagine human morality without such tendencies as sympathy-related traits (such as attachment, special treatment of the handicapped, and empathy); internalization of rules and regulations; reciprocity; and conflict-resolution abilities. Other species besides our own demonstrate these characteristics. For humans, the transmission of such tendencies occurs through culture. Religions play a large role in all of these transmissions. But religions are not the origins of these tendencies. In de Waal's words:

". . . conscience is not some disembodied concept that can be understood only on the basis of culture and religion. Morality is as firmly grounded in neurobiology as anything else we do or are. Once thought of as purely spiritual matters, honesty, guilt, and the weighing of ethical dilemmas are traceable to specific areas of the brain. It should not surprise us, therefore, to find animal parallels. The human brain is a product of evolution. Despite its larger volume and greater complexity, it is fundamentally similar to the central nervous system of other mammals."[15]

Darwin brought about a new way to understand the human species, grounded in science. His hope, as expressed in his 1880 letter, was for the gradual advancement of science coupled with an increasing cooperation among the people of the world. Such a hope does not accord with the views of those who feel morality means adhering to commandments from a mysterious being from on high who damns all who refuse to kowtow to him. But it is in harmony with those who feel that the golden rule - regardless of where it comes from - is worth following, for both its intrinsic value and for the benefits which result. One need not be a theist to appreciate the wisdom of the Good Samaritan story.

In the conclusion of The Descent of Man, Darwin presents a vision of the moral sense which is at once humbling to those who wish to claim that the human species differs in kind from all other species, and ennobling to those who attempt to understand the origins of morality from a naturalistic standpoint:

"The moral nature of man has reached its present standard, partly through the advancement of his reasoning powers and consequently of a just public opinion, but especially from his sympathies having been rendered more tender and widely diffused through the effects of habit, example, instruction, and reflection. It is not improbable that after long practice virtuous tendencies may be inherited. With the more civilised races, the conviction of the existence of an all-seeing Deity has had a potent influence on the advance of morality. Ultimately man does not accept the praise or blame of his fellows as his sole guide, though few escape this influence, but his habitual convictions, controlled by reason, afford him the safest rule. His conscience then becomes the supreme judge and monitor. Nevertheless the first foundation or origin of the moral sense lies in the social instincts, including sympathy, and these instincts no doubt were primarily gained, as in the case of the lower animals, through natural selection."[16]

There is still much that needs to be learned about the connections between human morality and other animal behavior. The scientific attitude is better able than dogmatically-based religions to pursue such an understanding, for it is not beholden to ancient writings or priestly authorities in its explanation of the moral sense.


1. Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1958), p. 94.

2. Ibid, pp. 90-91.

3. Quoted in Kai Nielsen, Ethics Without God (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1973), p. 4.

4. Quoted in David Berman, A History of Atheism in Britain: From Hobbes to Russell (New York: Routledge, 1988), p. 236.

5. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (New York: The Modern Library) p. 472.

6. Quoted in James Rachels, Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 101.

7. Darwin, Autobiography, p. 87.

8. Ibid, p. 90.

9. Ibid, p. 152.

10. Ibid, p. 158.

11. Ibid, p. 157.

12. _Frans de Waal, Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 218.

13. Ibid, p. 39.

14. Ibid, p. 69.

15. Ibid, pp. 217-218.

16. _Darwin, The Descent of Man, p. 914.


Birx, H. James. "Catholic Primate Clings to Evolution", Free Inquiry, Vol. 17, No. 1, Winter 1996/97, pp. 10-11.

Birx, H. James. Interpreting Evolution: Darwin & Teilhard de Chardin. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1991.

Clark, Candace. Misery and Company: Sympathy in Everyday Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Farber, Paul Lawrence. The Temptations of Evolutionary Ethics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Flew, Antony. Evolutionary Ethics. London: Macmillan, 1967.

Kurtz, Paul. Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1988.

Martin, Michael. Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.

Martin, Michael. The Case Against Christianity. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

Nielsen, Kai. Ethics Without God. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1989.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits. Translated by Marion Faber. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. On the Basis of Morality. Translated by E.F.J. Payne. Providence: Berghahn Books, 1995.

The Harbinger symposium, "Religion & Science," is made possible by a grant from the Alabama Humanities Foundation, a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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