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Replies to This Discussion

Atheist Ireland is running a campaign for a constitutional referendum to be held to repeal Ireland’s Blasphemy Laws.

We are reaching our target but I think getting international signatures will show that it has reached a global audience.

Remember you have rights, your beliefs don’t. Please sign the petition here.

i wonder about morality preceding religion.  Origins of both seem to go back into prehistory, even before Homo sapiens made its debut.  It is argued that Neanderthal burials included elements of religious ritual. 

There are certainly countless examples of religious countries and societies that we could consider immoral, in modern terms - religious societies which engaged in genocide, lynching, scapegoating, enslavement, theft...   so I wonder if our ideas about morality are modern, and not coming to us from the ancient ones.  Whereas, the moment when pre-religion became religion might be a long blur from our ancestral species.

Certainly, I think morality has evolved, and is culturally influenced.

My problem is not recognizing where Christianity may have had a positive influence on morality. It is with the idea that if it were not for Christianity that we would not have any morals whatsoever. Christians try to claim that if it was not for their religion then we would all be immoral barbarians. They seem to think they are on a higher moral ground that any atheist could be because no matter how good our morals are, they can never be as good as theirs because theirs come from a God.

I do not see what the Bible can offer me in this regard. At the risk of sounding as pious as a Christian, I believe I have higher ethical standards that those most Christians profess to have. The Bible did not introduce anything novel. It may have brought its teaching to a wider audience, often on pain of death, but any “golden rules” were already in existence before Christianity usurped them as their own. It is rather poor on it teachings about the ethical treatment of animals or people from different tribes. It has no issues with blood sacrifices and uses trickery or magic to convince people of it authority with miracles.

I am not saying Christians cannot be moral or ethical. I am saying that I don’t need anything from them to have my own standards and I do not appreciate the way I am often told that I cannot be moral without believing what they believe. I do not need to swallow my moral code in tablet form, as Hitchens put it.

I agree, I think you're right. 

I think there's one extra thing that Christianity brings to the table: the "maximising ethic".  All of us are called to be "good", but Christians (and, I presume, "proper" Muslims) are called to be "as good as possible". 

I put this down to their focus on the pressure to thrive, which the non-religious world hasn't identified and doesn't explicitly focus on in the same way.  Of course, this pressure is where the "maximising" comes from. 

We see this maximising ethic at work in areas like the police, medical services etc. 

I guess I read "religion" as any religion, whether monotheistic, polytheistic, animistic, pre or post Hebrew, pre or post the dawn of history, anywhere.  If christians are so theocentric as to claim that their, relatively recent and highly brutal religion is the source of all morality, well, they are worthy of derision.  Its just completely ludicrous to think that christian=moral.

Human morality is based in cooperation, combined with the capacity for empathic concern and helping which is present within all birds and mammals, since they care for their young. 

I think that logically, this need for cooperation must have started as soon as we hit the savanna approximately 2 million years ago.  This is a harsh environment and the whole point is that we needed to cooperate in order to survive. 

At first we lived, cooperated and survived together in small groups, where we evolved our basic universal moral values like fairness, equality, respect, and care for all.  (Sounds a lot like secular humanism.)  Up until around 15,000 years ago, there is no archaeological evidence of warfare - just the occasional outbreak of fighting, as we would expect, or cannibalistic raids on other human species.  There is a lot of evidence of long-range trade and travel.  In effect, it appears that the entire human race was one big happy family. 

Over time, groups grew larger, and in order to maintain cooperation, culture developed, which is essentially a standardised way of doing things so that strangers can coordinate with each other.  But with culture came new, specifically cultural values to do with our relationship to the group - such as group loyalty, and the need to conform.  The BIG problem is that these new cultural values are [still] seen as at least as important, or more important, than the primitive universal values of kindness, fairness, equality, respect, human dignity etc. 

These cultural values are the ones which vary from culture to culture.  Tradition is seen as an authority, and culture is inherently conservative.  Religion can be seen as an outgrowth of culture: a supernatural way to achieve cooperation on a large scale.  So cultural values came to be regarded as religious values, which just paralyses any kind of progress, since to criticise the culture means to criticise God. 

I read somewhere that human prehistoric culture may have been influenced by our early association with canines - that wolf packs had elements of mutual cooperation, caring for one another, that were mord developed than found in primates.  I am not aware that canines have the cognition neede for religion, but they - and other nonprimate species - do seem to have cultures and a sort of cooperative society.  So that would support the contention that morals, values, etc, could predate formation of religions, however formal or informal.

It's true that many social animals are able to cooperate.  But the difference between them and humans is one of degree, of how sophisticated and closely coordinated the activities are.  It seems that dolphins and killer whales show the highest degree of coordination in their hunting and defense, among the animal kingdom. 

Chimpanzees and bonobos, our closest relatives, are known to join up into alliances that then compete within the larger dominance hierarchy.  This is most likely the evolutionary beginning of the human ability to cooperate. 

When wolves, or chimpanzees, team up in order to hunt, they are more or less acting in parallel: doing the same thing together, side by side.  Humans are able to think and act jointly, so that "two becomes one".  For wolves or chimps, two remains two.  They are social but not particularly cooperative, whereas for us, hyper-cooperation is the way we live. 

Did ability to make reflexive decisions AND jugements emerge at the same time as strange-explanations-of-misunderstood-things? Intuitively I would imagine it would go hand in hand. They form a negative feedback loop where increasingly specific moral decisions AND judgements require at least some consistency which is informed by a shaping and growing world view. These decisions and judgements help shape that world view and the cycle continues growing more and more specific, controlling, unquestionable, confusing etc. Often "simple cooperative protective man with minimal world view" and its transition to "extremely complex social structure and ethical system plus very strange explanations for stuff they don't understand" reveals a negative feedback loop that may head towards a very possible explosion of derranged social insanity. It happens far more often than not in civilizations. I think it is highly unlikely a moral system beyond "cooperation, protection and emotional bonding" would be possible without at least a proto-world view (proto-religion).

"some consistency which is informed by a shaping and growing world view.

- according to my sketchy understanding, I think this would be "a sense of right and wrong" or true morality.  This is made up of 1) feeling a need to treat others with fairness and respect; 2) monitoring of one's cooperative behaviour by others (proto-reputation); 3) self-monitoring of one's own cooperative behaviour (self-image, internalised version of reputation). 

Culture can be seen as a preliminary form of religion: it's just a common tradition that "we do things this way" that unites the whole group into a single cooperative organism.  Monotheistic religion is a way of enforcing this culture (which includes both "human" and "cultural" values). 

From what you are saying it seems as though human beings have a vague template for moral and ethical rules and that they are filled up partly by innate drives/instincts, such as cooperating with family, protecting family, emotional bonds ... as well as arbitrary cultural additions (which also follow a pattern of sorts).

This is the running theory by many evolutionary ethics researchers/writers have (though they admit, as they should, that it is all very preliminary work). This theory is quite similar to how Chomsky theorized that language works (as a very rough analogy).

But what is left out of this, is how the irrational side of man factors into it. We are utterly incapable of not inventing rediculous explanations for what they don't understand (it is innate) and yet our invented explanations morph into narratives that are subjective and "cultural". The question is, if this "innate morality" + "culturally informed morality" is really how it works (and that's a big if), does world view come from the inate side, the cultural side...or both. If they are from both, do they reinforce one another? Can they form strange loops that can drive humans, once they start clustering...into a pack of lunatic sociopaths?

Then much more interesting questions pop up. Those uncommon moments when people have greatly overcome most of their drive to invent explanations and instead disinterestedly search for the answers and also directly analyse and change their own cultural attitudes...is it possible or impossible to do one without the other (that is, question invented knowledge and challenge everything...while at the same time dissecting and directly rethinking cultural attitudes). ?

"does world view come from the inate side, the cultural side...or both.

- culture is basically a combination of the need to cooperate, with all the other local conditions that exist.  So it's about morality plus all the other living conditions for a particular group.  So when ownership of wealth became a thing, and this wealth was passed down the male line, it became even more vitally important to know that a man's children were his own: hence the fanatical control of women's reproduction and repression of their rights. 

"inventing rediculous explanations for what they don't understand

- the need to find rational explanations for everything is one of the factors that feeds into human culture. 

"our invented explanations morph into narratives that are subjective and "cultural"

- every aspect of the culture, whether to do with morality or not, morphs into the general social norms of that group, social norms become moral norms, and moral norms become religious norms.  Conformity and tradition are two aspects of culture that are useful in some ways but also can be repressive. 

I imagine there have always been people who are willing to go against their culture (not all that many, as most people assume that the culture they born into is "objectively" correct).  But some cultures are more tolerant of this than others.  In the West, we see it as a strength that people can innovate or try out new things.  In a theocracy, social deviation tends to be seen as immoral and "against God".  People can in theory study and innovate about anything, including their own culture's attitudes. 

We have to remember that science and technology are a form of culture: a standard way of doing things that is passed down and accumulated through the generations.  Homo heidelbergensis, 400,000 years ago, were using spears, and this is part of a lineage of technological culture that must have been passed down and improved upon since Homo habilis and their stone tools 1.5 million years earlier. 


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