Frans de Waal: “Morals Without God?”

Over at The Stone, the primatologist Frans de Waal asks whether we can act “morally” without being “religious.” I quote-bracket these terms because they are not without complication, and we should be careful about using them in the context of such discussions.  Regardless, de Waal poses some questions for which we have historical answers.  For instance, he asks:

Why not assume that our humanity, including the self-control needed for livable societies, is built into us? Does anyone truly believe that our ancestors lacked social norms before they had religion? Did they never assist others in need, or complain about an unfair deal? Humans must have worried about the functioning of their communities well before the current religions arose, which is only a few thousand years ago.

We do not need to assume this — we know it.  I have often made the point that in most societies which are not Western and Christian (that is local and recent), ethical and moral behaviors are not linked to religion.  The normative codes that one can find in all hunting and gathering groups are not dependent on, or linked to, ideas about gods or the supernatural.  And this is not limited to hunters and gatherers.

Just last night I was reading Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus, in which he correctly observes:

For modern people intimately familiar with any of the major contemporary Western religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), it may be hard to imagine, but books played virtually no role in the polytheistic religions of the ancient Western world.  These religions were almost exclusively concerned with honoring the gods through ritual acts of sacrifice.

There were no doctrines to be learned…and no ethical principles to be followed, as laid out in books. This is not to say that adherents of of the various polytheistic religions had no beliefs about their gods or that they had no ethics, but beliefs and ethics — strange as this sounds to modern ears — played almost no role in religion per se.

Of course these polytheistic societies had ethical codes and standards concerning right conduct — it was just that these codes and standards were not linked to religion.  Such a linkage appears first in human history with monotheistic religions of the books.

Given these historical facts, I find the following statement by de Waal — who argues in favor of an evolved moral sensibility that can be glimpsed in chimpanzees and other primates — puzzling:

It is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion. It would require a visit to a human culture that is not now and never was religious. That such cultures do not exist should give us pause.

It is not impossible to know what morality would look like without the modern concept of organized and systematic “religion.”  Anyone who reads an ethnohistory of North American Indians can see morality existing apart from religion.  Many such cultures did in fact exist.

Indeed, the majority of human societies or cultures have had what we consider “morals” without any linkage to “religions.”  This correction aside, de Waal’s many additional points are well taken.

Did you like this? Share it:

Leave a Reply