Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Morality: Part 1

This is the first of several part blog on the evolution of morality.  [Next]

A Gallop Poll in 2009, on Darwin’s 200, birthday showed 39% of Americans believe in  evolution.  A BBC poll had just determined that 8 of 10 Americans believed in God.  I suspect these values have a high negative correlation, and if you look at data across countries it does seem to be true.  This is because, while it is possible to believe in both, since they explain the same things, it’s really best if you choose one. 

I doubt that Americans have discovered a major flaw in the theory of evolution, and I bet most know the basic idea.  So it can’t be a logical reasoning about evolution itself, or lack of exposure to the theory, which makes them doubt Darwin.  There must be another explanation, and I think I’ve found it.

I wonder if Americans do see the  fundamental contradiction between religion and evolution, and know that a serious consideration of the latter may take one down a path from which from which religion will soon part ways.  If religion is the source of our moral order, without it people will be bad.  Social ruin will follow.  We need only look within, to see temptations to profit from another person's loss, to find evidence of natural badness.  Catholics call it original sin.  Without God to police our thoughts, and to mete out rewards and punishments, what would stop everyone from misbehaving, all the time?  

It doesn't matter much that you believe (as private doubts are tolerated), but it does matter that there is generally professed belief in a higher power.  The specific denomination is not so important as this.  But if we were not under constant surveilance (by god or by the state) much of our life would be unchecked and anarchy would follow.  Atheists, by this view, are dangerous in voicing their disbelief.  Traitors to goodness.  And the stronger the evidence for evolution, the more sharp its break from religion, so the more it must be resisted.

Maybe Americans don't deny evolution because of mental sloth or ignorance, but rather a love of goodness, a fear of anarchy, and a clear understanding that real science and real religion are fundamentally incompatible.  I respect all of that.   But they also seem to assume that people are inherently bad.  That is the presumption which I would like to explore.  Are we really that bad, to need religion?

First, a quick comment about religion itself.  It is interesting that many people generally consider scripture to be the source of morality.  But the Bible prescribes murder, slavery, rape, theft, looting, genocide, plunder, human sacrifice, animal cruelty, and other things we can safely say are wrong.  It is also capricious.  The second commandment not only prohibited graven images (!?) but promised to punish not just the artist but also his offspring “unto the third and fourth generation.”  Steven Pinker, in his new book The Better Angels of our Nature, gives a chilling synopsis of the Bible story, remarking that it is "one long celebration of violence."

The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery. People enslave, rape, and murder members of their immediate families. Warlords slaughter civilians indiscriminately, including the children. Women are bought, sold, and plundered like sex toys. And Yahweh tortures and massacres people by the hundreds of thousands for trivial disobedience or for no reason at all. p10

I've mentioned that for comparison  -- the alternative to secular morality is not all that rosey.  But what then of nature?  The law of the jungle is kill or be killed.  Evolution means survival of the fittest (and death to the weak).  This dilemma -- between Christian and natural morality -- was the point of Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem, published around the time Darwin was preparing his thesis.

        Who trusted God was love indeed
        And love Creation's final law
        Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
        With ravine, shriek'd against his creed

This may be true of crows and squirrels, but is just too dim a view of the human condition, I think.   

After all, many European countries have parted from the religious paradigm.  Eurostat Eurobarometer poll in 2005 found 80% of Czech and Estonians, 76% of Swedes, 68% of Danish, 64% of Dutch, and 60% of French and British don’t believe in a god. Their belief in evolution is 62% and 61%, 80%, 81%, and 79% and 77% respectively.  Without a moral collapse, I think.

In the next few blogs -- perhaps with some hops, skips, or jumps --  I intend to deal with the question of secular morality.  I will argue that people are naturally good, and that we should thank evolution,  not fear it.

Next: part 2: definitions

*Source of graphic


  1. EH, good first post. Are we Americans really that dumb? Its depressing. I have never believed that the two had to be incompatible, but Americans do seem to put the two issues on one coin and say: Either or, it can't be both. You know Science proved the earth wasn't flat, and nobody, even religious folks, seem to have an issue with that (well, it took them a while). How is this different?

    Also, for clarification, isn't the quote "Evolution means survival of the fittest (and death to the weak)" slightly ambiguous? I mean because of your use of "weak", the word "fittest" would indicate "strong" when I think Darwin meant "fittest" as "better adapted" or my understanding, more responsive to change. I think the way I have remembered it was this: "its not the strongest, not the most intelligent that will survive, but those most responsive to change". Perhaps I am splitting hairs with that. Actually, Darwin never used the phrase so often attributed to him; it was Herbert Spencer, an Economist who was drawing parallels to the theory of evolution and economics. I think that whole concept has lead people to think of evolution as "eat or be eaten" "Be strong or DIE" when in fact most adaptation is environmental which includes things other than just competition as food and for food. I have my own theory that if people thought of evolution as "un-tapped potential" it would make more sense. Anyway, enough rambling for now. :)

  2. Thank you for the comment! :)

    My answer to your first question is that this particular incompatibility (between religion and evolution) is different than a simple fact like the Earth is a sphere, when you carry it out, because the theory of evolution is simply so devastatingly robust.

    Second -- the semantic issue, I agree that fit/weak would not be as good as fit/unfit, because "weak" often just means lacking physical strength which may or may not be a disadvantage.

    But though he didn't coin it, Darwin did use "Survival of the Fittest," attributing it to Spencer (with complete approval), in the sixth edition of Origins and maybe earlier ones. Darwin used Natural Selection and Sexual Selection most of the time.

    Thanks again for commenting.


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