I was involved in a discussion in which the host advocated switching to the word, "ethics", and relegating the word, "morals", to religious types. He wanted to do this because he felt morality was too tied to religion. Yes, religious types would very much like to make morality their exclusive domain. But it's not and never will be as long as there are freethinkers.

I believe that human morality is a by-product of human evolution. As the human capacity for memory evolved, we gained a greater capacity to recall experience. As social animals, empathy evolved because of the advantages it lends to cooperation with others. Together, experience and empathy combine to produce morality. Because we know (from experience) what hurts us, we know what hurts others (empathy). This combination, in effect, makes the Golden Rule a part of the human condition. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you because you need each other to survive.

I say that, to the extent morality is tied to religion, religion is winning the argument. As an atheist, I hate to see a fellow atheist concede unwarranted territory to the enemy.

My take on religion's claims to morality is this:

Creationism is heavily tied to religion.
Intelligent design is heavily tied to religion.
Intelligent falling is heavily tied to religion.
Book burning is heavily tied to religion.
Circular logic is heavily tied to religion.

Since when do we prefer the religiously dumbed-down versions of things? If I don't allow religion to subvert evolution, gravity, education or reason . . . why would I make an exception for language? Just because so many of them think that morality can only be God-given, am I supposed to say, "Okay, morality is your word from now on . . . we'll just use ethics instead."?!?

Not only is this surrendering prematurely, it's missing the opportunity to deflate the religious notion of moral superiority. Religious morality is based on scripture and God-given rules; it's based on authority. Natural, human, morality, on the other hand, is based on empathy and experience (I know what hurts me, so I know what hurts you); the Golden Rule. I ask you: which morality promotes enlightenment?

As we all know, Abrahamic religions, through their scriptures, promote slavery, subjugation of women and some pretty horrendous battlefield atrocities. It can be fairly asserted that the Abrahamic religions have been THE most persistently divisive influence in the history of mankind. Such are the moral products of religion.

Now, look at the reforms in religion. We no longer support slavery, the subjugation of women and battlefield atrocities. That's because our natural, human, morality has overruled religious morality. Not only is human morality more solid than religious morality, it dictates what we accept as religiously worthy. It determines what IS religious. If human morality determines what is religious, why do we need religion in the first place?

So when I hear any suggestion that we relinquish our moral advantage, I get riled up and try to convey the wrong-headedness of such a notion. The claim, that morality has too many religious connotations, is just an ancillary concern to me. The real point is that the religious folks are winning the argument when we lose sight of the REAL force and source for morality . . .


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Replies to This Discussion

Hi JayBarti,

Yes, language is often cited as an essential evolutionary catalyst to human intelligence. I've often wondered if pre-human primates, such as Homo ergaster, had the essentials for real intelligence. In particular, I've wondered which is the first species to believe in abstract notions such as soul or God.

Speech seems to be one of those prerequisites. Until enough speech had developed to ponder life and death, there doesn't seem to be enough conceptual basis for abstractions such as soul or God.

Human superstitions seem to have evolved from animism to anthropomorphism to polytheism to monotheism. Before any of this started, there had to be some notion of soul or spirit. Were homo sapiens the first to develop these ideas? Perhaps not if they weren't the first to have vocal chords and spoken language.
Human superstitions seem to have evolved from ... to polytheism to monotheism.

The evolution from polytheism to monotheism seems purely anecdotal to me. Judaism didn't expand, because Yahweh was the god of the Jews, and only the Jews. Christianism and Islam did because (1) their god didn't allow for competitors, contrary to ancient polytheistic religions in the same area; (2) their creeds were universalist; (3) they benefited from European and Arab/Turkish aggressive expansionism. Polytheism - or other forms of non-monotheism, like ancestor veneration - is still healthy in many parts of the world, and not likely to be superseded by - or 'evolve' to - monotheism.

I was looking at the evolution of spirituality from an anthropological point of view. Animism or anthropomorphism aren't religions of themselves but they DO need the concept of soul or spirit. The data shows a progression from animism to anthropomorphism. It wasn't too huge a step from anthropomorphism to actual worship of gods that control different facets of life.

Once the notion of gods appeared, it spread everywhere. Soon, every tribe had its own god(s). Polytheism became prevalent. The first great religion, Hinduism, still claims almost a billion adherents.

It was quite a while before monotheism appeared. It first appeared in the Bronze Age, by pharaoh Akhenaten, who proclaimed that Aten was the only god allowed. This monotheism was short lived and Egypt reverted back to polytheism 20 years later, after Akhenaten's death.

The exact date that Zoroastrianism began is still debated. Nobody really knows. But many believe it began before Judaism, at about 6,000 B.C. Also debated is whether it was a true monotheistic religion or a duotheistic one. It appears to me to be a duotheistic religion because the Avesta reveals that Angra Mainyu was clearly a supernatural, evil, rival to Ahura Mazda: very similar to the Christian rivalry between Satan and God.

Judaism is definitely a monotheistic religion and may well be considered the first "real" monotheistic one. But they weren't the originator of monotheism. It has always been a religion for Jews and has never proselytized or had missionaries like Christianity and Islam do. As a result, they've never enjoyed the large number of adherents that the other great world religions have.

When I spoke of the "evolution" of spirituality, I was really speaking of an evolutionary progression of conceptual sophistication in supernatural belief systems. A progression revealed by anthropology.
Free Thinker:

When I spoke of the "evolution" of spirituality, I was really speaking of an evolutionary progression of conceptual sophistication in supernatural belief systems. A progression revealed by anthropology.

I understood it this way, but I stand by my point that the concept of an evolution from polytheism to monotheism is a misconception propagated by Western anthropologists because of cultural bias. You won't find, for instance, many, if any, Chinese or Indian historians who support this idea - it'd be too strange and unnatural for them to even consider it.

On the contrary, some even suggest that polytheism might be, at least in part, born from communication between small communities that contributed their own god to the mix. Even in dynastic Egypt gods were not revered everywhere with the same fervor. Amon, for instance, probably originated near the Thebes area, and rose to prominence as the city did. Seth probably emerged in or near Sepermeru. Etc. There's enough evidence to think that at least the older gods of the Egyptian pantheon started as small local patron gods, and that Egyptian polytheism as we now know it is the result of exchanges between the early tribes or villages in the pre-dynastic era. Monotheism/henotheism -> polytheism.

If monotheism was a natural evolution of polytheism, how is it that Hinduism is still, at large, a polytheistic religion, while it has hosted monotheistic traditions for millenia - like Vaishnavism, to name one. Why didn't Vaishnavism evolve as a true monotheistic religion and supersede the other brands of Hinduism?

You can't conclude that monotheism is the natural outcome of religion just by looking at a single example, the Abrahamic tradition. By the way, while it's true that Judaism started as a polytheist religion, it probably borrowed its monotheistic roots from Zoroastrianism during the Babylonian captivity, after a transition through henotheism (Yahveh, the patron god of the dominant Hebrew faction, emerging as the victor).

Once again, I'm NOT asserting that monotheism "a natural evolution of polytheism". It's a conceptual evolution (progression). In as much as primitive man began worship in a polytheistic way (gods of hunting, harvest, weather, fertility, war, etc.) and continued in polytheism for many thousands of years, monotheism (when it finally arrived) represents a higher level of conceptual sophistication. The attribution of different powers to different gods was the original, primitive way of imposing order on the universe. The attribution of all power to one God was the new way to unify such superstitions under a single religion. That's history . . . not a value judgment.

Although that's the way it happened, that doesn't mean there's some sort of "natural evolution" that will push all polytheism out and replace it with monotheism. That's not the way I was using the word, "evolution". Perhaps it was a mistake to use that word. I described a historical and conceptual PROGRESSSION from animism to monotheism. I'm not saying that monotheism is superior to polytheism. I'm only saying that the anthropological record and history shows that this is the way spirituality "evolved".
Free Thinker: Once again, I'm NOT asserting that monotheism "a natural evolution of polytheism".

Sorry, poor choice of words from me - I was thinking in French, and used natural and evolution in the broadest common usage, as most Frenchmen do (unrelated to anything like, e.g., Darwinian Natural Evolution). Be assured I groked your point right the first time, but whether you call it conceptual evolution or progression doesn't change my position:

Although I have no absolute certainty about it, and would admit being wrong when presented strong evidence against it, I believe the situation is more complex that what you describe, and that polytheism, monotheism, henotheism, and all other flavors of theism, likely interacted with and nourished each other since times immemorial. At the moment, and as far as I know, we have no more evidence that primitive men assigned natural phenomenons or specific tasks or domains (hunting, death, childbirth, etc.) to separate deities than they did to a single one, or to avatars of one. For instance, some early Neolithic or pre-Neolithic settlements or burial sites have revealed small statues or depictions of beings that could reasonably be interpreted as deities, except these findings seem to always depict the same 'deity' on a given site. Doesn't seem that 'polytheistic' to me.
Yeah. There is a long history of abused and/or neglected children turning out fine, and privileged, loved children turning into monsters. Parents give themselves too much credit and beat themselves up too much over their parenting, when in fact all they can do is provide a safe, nurturing environment and a little guidance, and hope for the best.

Peers and heroes/idols certainly have a huge influence, but I agree that my inner dialog, informed by copious reading, is what convinced me to reject the supernatural.
Free Thinker, I think you've summed this up pretty well. This is basically how I view morality--the combination of memory, theory of mind, and game theory. We remember who was naughty and nice, We assume that others have wants and needs similar to ours, and we provide assistance to others with a quick guesstimate of a possible return on investment. We know it doesn't always pay off to help others, but it does often enough to be worth it, particularly if the effort we expend to help is not that high. It's sort of like karma, but without the mysticism.

You're exactly right about the fact that morality precedes religion. The Bible contains passages that are clearly immoral commandments or punishments from God (genocide, Original Sin, etc). If we did not have an innate morality, we would not be able to tell that the Bible was full of crap on this score. The explanation that morality is just an outgrowth of cooperation during our evolutionary history is elegant and compelling, unless you are dedicated to defending the Bible's "difficulties".

I think a lot of people get hung up on the idea that morality is a long list of do's and don'ts, so they think it's extremely complicated. That's only true if you try to get your morality from a crusty old book and expect it to cover all possible situations. If you just think in terms of the Golden Rule (or as I like to think of it, The One Commandment--Don't be an asshole), morality is fairly simple. Would I want anybody to do the same thing to me? Really? What if my circumstances or upbringing were somewhat different? Erring on the side of caution is not usually too tricky.

There are nightmare scenarios, of course, like choosing who lives and who dies. The Golden Rule is still instructive in these cases, but we don't like the answers because they are no-win situations.

And I strongly agree that atheists should not cede the field to religion. Morality is something that can and should be investigated scientifically. Lots of useful and interesting research has been done already. It's much too late to even consider the idea that morality is a wholly owned subsidiary of religion. That cat is out of the barn leaving the station.
Hi Jason,

Your perspective added much that needed saying. The game theory was especially helpful.



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