by Kenneth W. Krause.
Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer. Formerly a contributing editor and books columnist for the Humanist, Kenneth contributes regularly to Skeptic as well. He may be contacted at email@example.com.
“The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.” Psalm 14’s moral indictment against atheism is presented self-servingly, over-broadly, melodramatically, and without a single shred of logical or empirical support—in other words, exactly the way monotheists prefer to hear it.
But today, in stark and refreshing contrast, we have popular authors like Michael Shermer—psychologist, science historian, publisher of Skeptic magazine, and monthly columnist for Scientific American—who recognize that moral issues, like all others, must be subjected to rational scrutiny.
Drawing from history, anthropology, science, and common sense in the finest tradition of intellectual eclecticism, Shermer adeptly demonstrates that ethics originate from neither gods nor religion, but rather from the same source as humanity itself—evolution. Religion, in its time, was partially successful in identifying universal moral and immoral thoughts and behaviors, and it may have been the first social institution to canonize moral principles, but despite the allegations of monotheists, it was hardly responsible for their genesis.
We evolved as a social primate, according to Shermer, “with an ascending hierarchy of needs from self-survival of the individual (basic biological needs), to the extension of the individual through the family (the selfish gene), to a sense of bonding with the extended family (driven by kin selection [or] helping those most related to us), to the reciprocal altruism of the community (direct and obvious payback for good behaviors), to indirect altruism of society (doing good without direct payback), to species altruism and bioaltruism as awareness of our membership in the species and biosphere continue[d] to develop.”
Moral sentiments and behaviors developed over hundreds of thousands of years. Our Paleolithic ancestors initiated the process that we inherited, our obligation being to “fine-tune and tweak” such sentiments according to our cultural preferences and unique historical context. “In this sense,” Shermer argues, tossing a bone to pups with a craving for transcendence, “moral sentiments and behaviors exist beyond us, as products of an impersonal force called evolution.”
Religion came of age approximately 5,500 years ago in the environs of the Fertile Crescent of western Asia as tribes coalesced into chiefdoms, and finally, into states. It was designed to enforce these moral sentiments, to “accentuat[e] amity and attenuat[e] enmity,” and, of course, as a justification for the power of the ruling elite. Both anthropomorphic divinities and the codification of moral principles evolved as “a form of social control to ensure the survival of individuals within groups and the survival of human groups themselves.” Religion also provided simple explanations for natural phenomena and a convenient mechanism for social interaction. As such, religion served its ancient purpose on a sparsely populated planet for people of relatively limited knowledge regarding the nature of themselves and their surroundings.
But just as religion did not invent morality, neither is it essential to its development. “[W]e can improve on the ethical systems developed thousands of years ago,” writes Shermer, probing beyond mere historical analysis. “As we transition from kin and reciprocal altruism to species altruism and bioaltruism, and as religion continues to give ground to science, we need a new ethic for an Age of Science, a new morality that not only incorporates the findings of science, but applies scientific thinking and the methods of science to tackling moral problems and resolving moral dilemmas. We have done well thus far, but we can do better.”
Indeed, the facts confirm that in the modern world organized religion is simply inadequate to the task. As his narrative progresses, Shermer ingresses and egresses through various familiar but always intriguing subjects such as the problem of evil, the inconsistency between free will and an omnipotent and benevolent divinity, the undeniable connection between violence and monotheism (including Nazism and Christianity), a short examination of the abortion controversy, and various studies and statistics revealing an inherent and intimate relationship between modern religion and depraved behavior.
In 1934, for example, Abraham Franzblau discovered a negative correlation between religiosity and honesty. In 1950, Murray Ross discovered that agnostics and atheists were more willing to help the poor than their deeply religious counterparts. In 1969, sociologists Travis Hirschi and Rodney Stark found no difference between young churchgoers and young non-churchgoers regarding their propensity to commit crimes. Other studies revealed that college-age students in religious schools were no less likely to cheat on exams.
Finally, David Wulff’s comprehensive survey of studies on the psychology of religion revealed a consistent positive correlation between religious affiliation and ethnocentrism, authoritarianism, dogmatism, intolerance, and racial prejudice. “The conclusion is clear,” writes Shermer, “not only does religion not necessarily make one more moral, it can lead to greater intolerance, racism, sexism, and the erosion of other values cherished in a free and democratic society.”
Even born-again Christian pollster, George Barna, confessed to such discrepancies in his 1996 “Index of Leading Spiritual Indicators.” Based on interviews with nearly 4000 Americans, Barna found that “Born-again Christians continue to have a higher likelihood of getting divorced than do non-Christians,” and that “atheists are less likely to get divorced than are born-again Christians.” The divorce rate for born-again Christians was 27 percent, according to Barna, while the rate was only 24 percent for non-Christians.
Over the centuries, monotheism has proved an ineffectual prescription for morality. “Personally,” the author reveals, “it would frighten me to believe that the people I deal with on a day-to-day basis treat me tolerably well only because they are afraid of God and divine retribution.” Indeed, what manner of behavior should we expect from people of received ethics, i.e., from those who have never struggled consistently and independently with questions of right and wrong?
“[W]hat if religion is not the solution but is actually part of the problem?” Shermer inquires, as if the question were legitimately debatable. “[I]f more (and a greater percentage of) Americans believe in God than ever before in history, and if America is going to hell in an immoral handbasket as never before, then at the very least the argument that we cannot be good without God would seem to be gainsaid.” (my emphasis).
Shermer’s analysis of moral evolution is undeniably correct and suitably detailed; but in the end, it too was less than original. In 1927, for example, Sigmund Freud presented some of the same general views in The Future of an Illusion (“[R]eligious ideas have arisen . . . to rectify the shortcomings of civilization. . . . It has ruled human society for many thousands of years and has had time to show what it can achieve. . . . [But i]t is doubtful whether men were in general happier at a time when religious doctrines held unrestricted sway; more moral they certainly were not. . . . Men cannot remain children forever. . . . Their scientific knowledge has taught them much since the days of the Deluge, and it will increase their power still further. . . . [A]n illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give us we can get elsewhere.”).
Despite his faults, Freud probably deserved his reputation for exceptional insight and wisdom. Thus, to compare any thinker’s capacity to penetrate an issue with that of Freud would be cruel to say the least. And although Shermer was certainly not among the first writers to make these observations, one should not fault an author for repeating something that, sadly, cannot be repeated enough.
Arguably, though, Shermer overreaches as well in attempting to provide for the reader a relatively unsophisticated alternative ethical system based on four principles: happiness (always seek happiness with someone else’s happiness in mind), liberty (always seek liberty with someone else’s liberty in mind, and never seek liberty when it leads to someone else’s loss of liberty), moderation (when innocent people die, extremism in the defense of anything is no virtue), and ask first (always ask any person who might be affected by your actions).
While antisocial types (including monotheistic fundamentalists) would surely benefit from serious consideration of these principles, much as they would from the reigning king of moral banalities, the Golden Rule, I think such standards are mostly intuitive for readers of this review. Although writing for a general audience, Shermer should have known better than to attempt to construct a complete moral edifice from such delicate timbers.
People of reason must take care not to repeat the mistakes made by their religious counterparts. Serious ethical predicaments, I fear, will never be anything but complex for individuals and excruciatingly burdensome for societies. At this point in our moral evolution, after all, we have yet to agree upon even the most obvious precursor to moral development—that our children should be educated to think critically and independently. The author’s well-intended principles fail to address this fundamental problem, at least directly.
Nevertheless, Shermer’s text is replete with valuable insights and facts. It urges us to stand firm in the face of irrationality and intellectual lethargy as we reason and empathize our way through crises, great and small, judging them individually according to their particular challenges. “I stand before my maker and judge not in some distant and future ethereal world, but in the reality of this world, a world inhabited not by spiritual and supernatural ephemera, but by real people whose lives are directly affected by my actions, and whose actions directly affect my life.”