Of the claims that come forth from religious people, there is one that is probably the most commonly used, and it is the one the majority of theists have in common despite their highly splintered sects. Whether fundamentalist or name-only, whether christian or pagan, there is one area they generally (not always, but generally) tend to agree. That area, that argument, is that one cannot be good without god.
It doesn’t seem that offensive a statement, does it? Really though, it is a horribly offensive and rude thing for them to say. Essentially they are saying that those who do not have a positive belief in a god or gods are evil people, amoral, completely unable to be good, deceptive, rude, backstabbing, conniving. How would you feel if someone were to say that to you?
But do morals really come from a god or gods?
Well for starters how about we define what exactly morals are. Essentially what most if not all definitions boil down to, is the ability to make a distinction between what is right and wrong and what one chooses to be in each category. The more altruistic actions are generally considered “right”, while self centred and harmful are considered “wrong”. Of course there is also a grey area, but generally the stricter you are on what gets considered “right” and the looser you are as to what gets considered “wrong”, the more moral you are considered to be.
Most of the time when questioned further and asked for clarification as to where these morals come from, the religiously inclined will say they come from god’s words. A god or gods have told people the difference, what is right and what is wrong, how to act, how to behave. It is from these supreme commands that we get our morals.
I don’t know about you, but to me this sounds suspiciously like rules and laws, not morals. So do we get our morals from our laws, or do we get our laws from our morals? Observing the ways laws change in societies, I would have to say without a doubt that the latter is the case – our laws stem from and are based upon our societies morals.
Generally when a conversation on this topic develops further, religious people often (but not always) pull out the “Of course morals come from god. If it were not for my god’s commands and/or the threat of hell, I would not have anything to stop me from killing and raping indiscriminately” card. This one always fills me with great fear. The person is all but saying that they have a deep seated desire and wish to kill, rape and pillage, they have no issue with such actions other than that they are against commands from their supreme being – and that the only thing stopping them are these rules put on them by their god or worse yet, the threat of eternal punishment. They always fail completely to see the irony in their statements.
It is often argued by the religious that morals could in no way shape or form have come from evolution as evolution is a purely random process which demonstrates survival of the fittest and “kill or be killed” attitudes. But this is a complete and utter straw man. Personally, I would argue evolution is precisely where morals come from.
While it may be true for tigers, sharks, and many other creatures in nature that one has to kill or be killed, this style of natural selection only applies to solitary creatures. Many creatures such as deer, wolves, bison etc operate in herds or packs. These animals cannot survive by themselves and rely on their herd or pack.
Chimpanzees, wolves, and many other social creatures have demonstrated countless times a social structure in their group. If one animal violates that social structure and steals from or harms another they are shunned, their health deteriorates. Conversely, raising ones order in the social structure is not only done through being larger and more powerful, but also being more generous and friendly with ones time and energy.
For this to work, a very interesting trait had to evolve in these creatures. A trait known as empathy. The ability to put yourselves in another’s shoes and feel what they feel. This trait allows these creatures to realise that being hurt does not feel nice, so hurting others would make them not feel nice. This in turn leads them to the ability to work together peacefully towards a similar goal. The best chance for survival of pack and herd creatures is to put the needs of the pack against one’s own personal needs. Sometimes it is best to make the group happy at ones personal expense.
Or in other words, from empathy they get consideration of others. From consideration of others they get co-operation. From co-operation with others they get altruism. Bring this all together, and we have morals.
We humans are nothing more than pack animals. We outgrew our packs a long time ago, long before recorded history and agriculture, but we still demonstrate on a daily basis those very same social interactions and instincts. Every trait we have has been demonstrated numerous times in other creatures in the wild, including an evolutionary empathy-derived system of morality.
Personally, I’ll take my empathy-based morals any day over religious “morals”.
Edit: It looks like I made this post a day early. Over at Pharyngula we find a great story that very clearly demonstrates altruism, good morals, and helpfulness in animals. Here a dog gets hit by a car, and another dog rushes in to traffic to drag the injured one off the road. As PZ says, even dogs can be good without god.