Saturday, April 14, 2012

M is for Morality and Religion

One of the arguments I often hear from the faithful is that without religion where would get morality.  People need religion to act good.

I have thought about this for a while, and something about this argument never really made sense to me.

The bible is under the best of circumstances only a few thousand years old.  Or rather the texts that lead to the modern bible which it self is less than 2,600 years old.  What governed morality for the 2+ million other years before that?
Simple. Religion does govern morality.  It may codify it, but it did create it.

Today M is for Morality and Religion.

This is a topic I have wanted to investigate.
So instead of talking to religious experts I instead have been talking sociologists, social psychologists and trying to find some evolutionary biologists.

It seems (and please keep in mind I am only in the Research phase) that morality was a system that developed around the same time as civilization.  As we learned to live in groups, we learned to live together.  Behaviors that were positive to society were rewarded, behaviors that were not, well were not.

We know the Code of Hammurabi comes from around 1770 BCE, the earliest parts of the Bible, the Torah, from only around 600 BCE. So that gives us1,000 years of coded morality before the Bible was even written.
Then that is not even counting the civilizations since 3500 BCE.

So where did morality come from in the 2,000 years humans were living together and writing about it before the Bible was written? Or the nearly 2 million before recorded history?

We can observe tribal cultures around the world now, especially ones that do not have easy access to modern humans. Thee cultures have behaviors that are considered moral, but they don't read the bible or have access to the christian religion.

What of these earliest humans? We can't observe their behavior.  They are long since dead and left very few traces behind. We can however observe chimps, our closest biological relative, and especially Bonobos which a complex system of governing their sexual behavior.

This leads to a probable hypothesis, that morality evolved along with humans as a means of social interaction.  Put Freud aside we can say humans are predominately good and gravitate towards socially acceptable behaviors.  Altruism and socially accepted behaviors then have a genetic base, where the humans that had these genes were give more chances to breed and pass their genes on to the next generation.  Something we can see today, right now in Bonobos.

Richard Dawkins covers this a bit in his book, The God Delusion.  But I think I should read more on it.  Another name for me to check out is Matt J. Rossano and his book "Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved".

Afterall, secular morality tells us that slavery (even sexual slavery, Exodus 21:7) and beating your wife or children are all wrong, but the Christian Bible tells you these things are ok.


  1. You do realize that Hammurabi had a religion... the oldest temples date from the Neolithic... (Göbekli Tepe, in Turkey) Human sociability, morality and religion may well share the same biological roots deep in our brains.

    And modern Western morality is completely rooted in Christianity because the church dominated society for over a thousand years. Show me a moral code that has no roots in any religion.

    I don't mean to be snarky or aggressive. I would genuinely like to know if there is one.

    1. Yes. The Code of Hammurabi did have all sorts of religious doctrines. The question is which came first? The former statistics prof in me has to point out that correlation is not causation.
      And my point you can have morality without religion. You do often see them together.

      As I mentioned before this is an investigation, I am no where near conclusions.

  2. Social Contract Theory and the Prisoner's Dilemma -

    - have always convinced me that morality can evolve within humanity itself. Morality, which includes rules for co-operation, is part of human history, and the human condition. A good part.

    I think however you overstate Exodus 21:7. For two reasons - the first is you deny the opportunity for the God's revelation in the Bible to develop over the thousands of years the bible covers. If the bible is so pro slavery, why were slaves (and women and the oppressed) some of the biggest converts in Roman times? Secular morality wasn't saying slavery was wrong anytime in that same period. The Christian Faith was radical, and its message re: slavery, murder of enemies and innocents, had evolved over time from Old Testament to New.

    The second reason is you have taken the verse out of context, both literally and historically. The following verses in Exodus, give a level of protection to the woman, not always available in other cultures at the time, where she may have in a very real way been a slave. This is a passage dealing with how a family is to survive starvation, not an infrequent concern for many in that time period. This is a passage where the aim is protection, a passage that immediately follows the Ten Commandments, that's how important it is.

    "If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself,[b] he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. 9 If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. 10 If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. 11 If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.'

    This may still sound all strange and horrible to our ears now, but I suspect it was radical, forward and progressive at the time.

    Keep up the interesting posts - I may not agree, but I am enjoying.

    1. I had used the Prisoner's Dilemma in one of my games once.

      Glad you are enjoying. This is still a journey for me and I don't know all the answers, nor do I know all the right questions.

      But I do know where I want to go, let's see what this trip does.

  3. I'm so glad you dropped in on my blog and commented. thanks.

    I've just finished watching a fantastic 4 part documentary, slightly off topic for your theme, but vaguely relevant in a roundabout way. They were talking about the earliest known inhabitants in Australia (about 30K years ago) and there is evidence of cremation and ritual burial. Of course we don't know anything about their social behaviours, or religious beliefs or not, but the Australian aborigines certainly survived in this harsh land very successfully.
    Sue: An A-Z of Climate Matters

  4. I found your blog on the A to Z list, and I'm now a follower. I really, really enjoyed this post. I have long believed that morality and decency are not based in religion, but simply in humanity. I really like your hypothesis that morality evolved along with humans. That acutally makes a lot of sense.

  5. There is a famous line that says, religion can not make an evil person good, but it can make a good man evil.

    I have been on this journey of understanding and finding truth for 10 years. I believed in a God for most of my life but only because I was indoctrinated as a child. It will be interesting to see where your investigation takes you.