Mar 15th 2014

God and Morality: Never the Twain Shall Meet

by Jeff Schweitzer

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology

Ah for every one step forward two steps backward. The Pew Research Center just published a survey conducted in 40 countries demonstrating that many people in the world still hold onto the idea that one must believe in god to be moral. That view is more common in the poorer countries; and the idea is nearly universal in Africa and the Middle East (with the exception of Israel). The survey is deeply depressing because the idea that faith in god is essential to morality is one of humanity's most dangerous and destructive myths.

Five Pillars

As I argued in Beyond Cosmic Dice, religion pathologically persists in service of five different masters of human weakness: fear of death and the promise of seeing lost loved ones; the need to explain away the unknown; hope for controlling one's destiny; a desire for social cohesion; and the corrupting allure of political power. So we create, each of us, and collectively, a god who is all-powerful and all-knowing to address some combination of these five masters, or all of them.

There is no link between morality and the five pillars; nothing about being moral would lead to a belief in god. The two concepts do not intersect. The history of religion proves the point.

That morality does not derive from, or lead to, religion has been the conclusion of some of our greatest minds, including David Hume, the father of religious studies. Due to certain inconveniences, like the possibility of being burned alive at the stake, Hume restricted his writings to polytheism. But it takes no great leap to read between the lines and apply his words to monotheism and Christianity in particular. Hume did not believe morality is a gift from god because he thought religion a false construct and therefore no foundation for human behavior or thought. Instead, humanity's first beliefs in a higher power were borne of ignorance and fear of the natural world: every disaster that befalls us demands an explanation. Naturally, multiple unknown causes leads to the idea of multiple powers; polytheism is the natural state of a primitive mind.

We hang in perpetual suspense between life and death, health and sickness, plenty and want; which are distributed amongst the human species by secret and unknown causes, whose operation is oft unexpected, and always unaccountable. These unknown causes, then, become the constant object of our hope and fear.

From Many, One

But so too does this apply to belief in one god; one is just a derivative of many. The idea of powerful gods, or a god, controlling each important aspect of our lives would not by itself be satisfying. We want to put a face to the power; we want to be familiar with the deities that control our fate; we want to know them so that we can communicate with them and solicit their interventions. We are all Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, seeking to reveal the nature of the man behind the curtain, hoping to strike up a conversation with whoever is in charge.

By no coincidence then do our gods take on idealized human form. Our egoistic species has a universal tendency to transfer human-like qualities to surrounding objects, giving them characteristics that are familiar to us. This tendency to anthropomorphize everything around us has the consequence that we attribute human malice or benevolence to inanimate objects, and of course to the gods above. With their human form, gods also take on human personalities, with passions and weaknesses that make them jealous, vengeful, spiteful, fickle, wicked and foolish. How comforting to know that one's fate and fortune, tossed about by unknown causes, can be controlled by dialogue with an invisible power that possesses familiar sentiments and intelligence!

But attributing human qualities to a higher power has a paradoxical consequence, one leading inevitably to the idea of multiple gods, at least initially. We raise our own estimation of ourselves as god-like, but diminish the power of the very gods we create by humanizing them. Once again, Hume is right on the money:

They suppose their deities, however potent and invisible, to be nothing but a species of human creatures, perhaps raised from among mankind, and retaining all human passions and appetites, together with corporeal limbs and organs. Such limited beings, though masters of human fate, being, each of them, incapable of extending his influence everywhere, must be vastly multiplied, in order to answer the variety of events, which happen over the whole face of nature. Thus every place is stored with a crowd of local deities; and thus polytheism has prevailed.

The idea that deities are "nothing but a species of human creatures, perhaps raised from among mankind" of course applies to more than the old discarded gods of the past. The words exactly describe Jesus. The link between the one god of today and the many of the past is forged in steel. The characteristics that originated in polytheism continued to apply even as the number of gods diminished. One could argue, in fact, that today's religions are not truly monotheistic. Christianity has created hundreds of objects of worship in the guise of saints, who have become minor gods to many followers. So this conclusion from Hume is particularly poignant: will appear, that the gods of all polytheists are not better than the elves or fairies of our ancestors, and merit as little any pious worship or veneration. These pretended religionists are really a kind of superstitious atheists, and acknowledge no being, that corresponds to our idea of deity.

So we conclude that most of the multiple divinities of the ancient world were supposed to have been human or human-like, thereby diminishing their power. Yet Christianity is no different: we have Jesus, in the flesh, bleeding like a regular guy, no different from what Hume disparages in his idea of a cruder polytheistic god. Like many gods, one god is nothing better than the elves or fairies of our ancestors. Nowhere in this narrative is there any suggestion that morality is linked to religion, or that morality elsewhere derived would lead to a belief in god.

While I emphasize David Hume as the father of religious studies, we cannot neglect to mention its grandfather, Baruch de Spinoza, who preceded Hume by almost 100 years. When Spinoza took on the question of ethics he created a path to secular enlightenment that Hume did not fully assimilate. I raise this here because at no point in Spinoza's masterpiece, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus did he ever link the development of human morality with a future belief in god. As did Hume later, Spinoza concluded that the history of religion precludes any connection at all between morality and religion, in any order.

Poseidon and Morality

Religion's history begs an important question: why of all the gods does the god of Abraham own the right to morality? The history of religion can be understood as the winnowing of gods from many to one. What this means is that all of us are atheists, even the most devout, undoubting, dedicated priest, rabbi or mullah. Atheist means "without god," and all of us are without at least some gods. All monotheistic believers reject all gods, except one. They reject all the Greek elder gods Cronus, Gaea, Uranus, Rhea, Oceanus, Tethys, Hyperion, Mnemosyne, Themis, Iapetus, Coeus, Crius, Phoebe, Thea, Prometheus, Epimetheus, Atlas, Metis, and Dione. Muslims, Jews and Christians all deny the existence of the Greek Olympic gods Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Hestia, Hera, Ares, Athena, Apollo, Aphrodite, Hermes, Artemis, and Hephaestus. All major religions today dismiss as nothing but myth the Roman gods Jupiter, Juno, Neptune, Pluto, Apollo, Diana, Mars, Venus, Cupid, Mercury, Minerva, Ceres, Proserpine, Vulcan, Bacchus, Saturn, Vesta, Janus, Uranus and Maia. Yet this roster of gods was real to multiple thousands of people for thousands of years, every bit as real as the one god worshipped by Christians, Muslims and Jews today. Was the morality derived from a belief in those gods any different from what we see today with one? If asked, Christians, Jews and Muslims today would use numerous and diverse reasons to deny the existence of Greek and Roman gods, who were so important to so many people for so long. I simply extend that reasoning to include the one remaining god. Everybody rejects as silly the idea of gods; I merely exclude the existence of one more god than those who consider themselves religious.

Something that we all reject is hardly a sound basis for morality. A more compelling basis would be the Tooth Fairy. Hear me out. No adult takes the myth seriously, of course. Yet the evidence for the existence of the Tooth Fairy is in fact more compelling than that for any other belief system. As a child, you put your recently yanked tooth under your pillow. The next morning, lo and behold, you have a dollar where the tooth used to be. That is concrete, real, undeniable evidence that the Tooth Fairy came to visit during the night. What other explanation could be possible with such incontrovertible evidence? What could be more compelling: you can hold that dollar in your hand, and you know for a fact that the previous night only a tooth lay beneath your head. The Tooth Fairy exists, end of story. Now, science might try to convince you, as a five-year-old, that there indeed is a more rational explanation for the nocturnal switch, such as a caring parent acting the part, for example, but you will have none of it. You believe the Tooth Fairy exists, have evidence to support your belief, and dismiss the scientific explanation as heretical. Just a bunch of pointy-head liberals who don't understand that of course the Tooth Fairy is real.

Fortunately, we all grow out of believing in the Tooth Fairy. Well, no, we don't. We just transfer that belief to something we call "god." God is the Tooth Fairy, and the Tooth Fairy is god. Instead of looking for a dollar under our pillow, we look to miracles as evidence to support our belief, ignoring the fact that belief cannot be supported by evidence. Yet, we insist. We see statues of the Virgin Mary crying blood, or the face of Jesus on an eggplant, or witness a healer laying hands giving ambulation to the disabled. Instead of the story involving a tooth and quarter, our narrative becomes more complex (we are adults after all), with the plot thickening to include creation and an afterlife. But both stories are made up, figments of our imagination, equally supported by "evidence." Both are valid only because we believe. The first impulse would be to dismiss as completely absurd any equality between god and the Tooth Fairy. But resist the temptation, and ask yourself a simple question: how do the two really differ? Whatever argument you come up with to support a belief in god, can you not also apply to the Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus, or trolls under a bridge in Ireland? Yes, of course, the concept that the Tooth Fairy is real is lunacy. But so, too, the belief in god. The notion that god exists is as childish and as silly as the belief that a mythical creature enters your bedroom at night to give alms for your milk teeth. This is a poor foundation for human morality.

Morality and Biology

Fortunately, we can understand the basis for morality without invoking god either as a cause or a consequence. Morals are not derived from religion, nor god's grant of free will, but instead arise from inherent characteristics embedded in human nature as a consequence of our sociality. What we view as moral behaviors - kindness, reciprocity, honesty, respect for others - are social norms that evolved in the context of a highly social animal living in large groups. The evolution of these social norms enabled a feeble creature to overcome physical limitations through effective cooperation. Morality is a biological necessity and a consequence of human development. Morality is our biological destiny, deeply embedded in the human psyche. Our moral characteristics are primeval adaptations that helped our ancestors survive. In a world of dangerous predators, early man could thrive only through mutual cooperation: good (moral) behavior strengthened the tribal bonds that were essential to survival. What we now call morality is really a suite of behaviors favored by natural selection in an animal weak alone but strong in numbers. Religion has nothing to do with morality: our understanding of human history, and the development of religion over the ages provides compelling evidence that morality is not derived from religion, nor leads to a belief in god. Morality is an embedded human trait that has been corrupted and lost in the cathedrals of false promise and empty threats of eternal damnation. Human are moral without being bribed and cowed; we are moral because we are human. We do not need religion to offer us a morality nurtured on fear and hope or based on the ideas derived from primitive nomadic tribes from 2000 years ago; our morality is stronger than that.


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.



Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACT: "Despite the widespread belief that the global economy is headed for a soft landing, recent trends offer little cause for optimism."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACT: " Consider, for example, the ongoing revolution in robotics and automation, which will soon lead to the development of robots with human-like features that can learn and multitask the way we do. Or consider what AI will do for biotech, medicine, and ultimately human health and lifespans. No less intriguing are the developments in quantum computing, which will eventually merge with AI to produce advanced cryptography and cybersecurity applications."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACTS: "The implication is clear. If Hamas is toppled, and there is no legitimate Palestinian political authority capable of filling the vacuum it leaves behind, Israel will probably find itself in a new kind of hell." ----- "As long as the PLO fails to co-opt Hamas into the political process, it will be impossible to establish a legitimate Palestinian government in post-conflict Gaza, let alone achieve the dream of Palestinian statehood. This is bad news for both Israelis and Palestinians. But it serves Netanyahu and his coalition of extremists just fine."
Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACTS: "According to estimates by the United Nations, China’s working-age population peaked in 2015 and will decline by nearly 220 million by 2049. Basic economics tells us that maintaining steady GDP growth with fewer workers requires extracting more value-added from each one, meaning that productivity growth is vital. But with China now drawing more support from low-productivity state-owned enterprises, and with the higher-productivity private sector remaining under intense regulatory pressure, the prospects for an acceleration of productivity growth appear dim."
Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACT: "When Chamberlain negotiated the notorious Munich agreement with Hitler in September 1938, The Times did not oppose the transfer of the Sudetenland to Germany without Czech consent. Instead, Britain’s most prestigious establishment broadsheet declared that: “The volume of applause for Mr Chamberlain, which continues to grow throughout the globe, registers a popular judgement that neither politicians nor historians are likely to reverse.” "
Jan 4th 2024
EXTRACTS: "Another Trump presidency, however, represents the greatest threat to global stability, because the fate of liberal democracy would be entrusted to a leader who attacks its fundamental principles." ------"While European countries have relied too heavily on US security guarantees, America has been the greatest beneficiary of the post-war political and economic order. By persuading much of the world to embrace the principles of liberal democracy (at least rhetorically), the US expanded its global influence and established itself as the world’s “shining city on a hill.” Given China and Russia’s growing assertiveness, it is not an exaggeration to say that the rules-based international order might not survive a second Trump term."
Dec 28th 2023
EXTRACT: "For the most vulnerable countries, we must create conditions that enable them to finance their climate-change mitigation" ........ "The results are already there: in two years, following the initiative we took in Paris in the spring of 2021, we have released over $100 billion in special drawing rights (SDRs, the International Monetary Fund’s reserve asset) for vulnerable countries.By activating this “dormant asset,” we are extending 20-year loans at near-zero interest rates to finance climate action and pandemic preparedness in the poorest countries. We have begun to change debt rules to suspend payments for such countries, should a climate shock occur. And we have changed the mandate of multilateral development banks, such as the World Bank, so that they take more risks and mobilize more private money."
Dec 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "....if AI causes truly catastrophic increases in inequality – say, if the top 1% were to receive all pretax income – there might be limits to what tax reforms could accomplish. Consider a country where the top 1% earns 20% of pretax income – roughly the current world average. If, owing to AI, this group eventually received all pretax income, it would need to be taxed at a rate of 80%, with the revenue redistributed as tax credits to the 99%, just to achieve today’s pretax income distribution; funding the government and achieving today’s post-tax income distribution would require an even higher rate. Given that such high rates could discourage work, we would likely have to settle for partial inequality insurance, analogous to having a deductible on a conventional insurance policy to reduce moral hazard."
Dec 21st 2023
EXTRACT: "Shocks are here to stay, and our task is not to predict the next one – although someone always does – but to sharpen our focus on resilience. Staying the course of politically mandated policies while minimizing the inevitable dislocations is easier said than done. But that is no excuse to fall for the myth of being victimized by the unprecedented."
Dec 21st 2023
EXTRACTS: "A new world is indeed emerging. It will be characterized not only by more interdependencies, but also by more insecurity, danger, and war. Stability in international relations will become a foreign concept from a bygone age – one that we did not fully appreciate until it was gone."
Dec 14th 2023
EXTRACT: "Yet one must never forget that Putin is first and foremost an intelligence officer whose dominant trait is suspicion."
Dec 2nd 2023
EXTRACTS: "In a recent commentary for the Financial Times, Martin Wolf trots out the specter of a 'public-debt disaster,' that recurrent staple of bond-market chatter. The essence of his argument is that since debt-to-GDP ratios are high, and eminent authorities are alarmed, 'fiscal crises' in the form of debt defaults or inflation “loom. And that means something must be done.' ----- "If, as Wolf fears, 'real interest rates might be permanently higher than they used to be,' the culprit is monetary policy, and the real risk is not rich-country public-debt defaults or inflation. It is recession, bankruptcies, and unemployment, along with inflation." ---- "Wolf surely knows that the proper remedy is for rich-country central banks to bring interest rates back down. Yet he doesn’t want to say it. He seems to be caught up, possibly against his better judgment, in bond vigilantes’ evergreen campaign against the remnants of the welfare state."
Nov 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "The first Russia, comprising those living in Russia’s two biggest cities, Moscow and Saint Petersburg, can pretend there is no war at all." ---- "Then there is the other Russia, the one you find in small towns and villages scattered across the country’s massive territory. Here, the Ukraine war is a source of patriotic pride,"
Nov 27th 2023
EXTRACTS: "I interviewed Wilders in 2005 " ---- "Frankly, I thought he was a bore, with no political future, and did not quote him in my book. Like most people, I was struck by his rather weird hairstyle. Why would a grown man and member of parliament wish to dye his fine head of dark hair platinum blond?" ----- "His maternal grandmother was partly Indonesian" ----- "Eurasians, or Indos as they were called, were never fully accepted by the Indonesians or their Dutch colonial masters. They were born as outsiders." ---- "Ultra-nationalists often emerge from the periphery – Napoleon from Corsica, Stalin from Georgia, Hitler from Austria." ---- "Henry Brookman founded the far-right Dutch Center Party to oppose immigration, especially Muslim immigration. Brookman, too, had a Eurasian background, as did another right-wing politician, Rita Verdonk, who founded the Proud of the Netherlands Party in 2007." ---- "A politician who might fruitfully be compared to Wilders is former British Home Secretary Suella Braverman. As a child of immigrants – her parents are double outsiders, first as Indians in Africa and then as African-Indians in Britain – her animus toward immigrants and refugees “invading” the United Kingdom may seem puzzling. But in her case, too, a longing to belong may play a part in her politics."
Nov 19th 2023
EXTRACT: "The good news is that the San Francisco summit was indeed an improvement on last year’s meeting. Above all, both sides took the preparations far more seriously this time. It wasn’t just the high-level diplomatic engagement that resumed in the summer, with visits to Beijing by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, and climate envoy John Kerry. Equally important was identifying in advance the key issues on which the two leaders could cooperate and eventually agree."
Nov 11th 2023
EXTRACT: "It would be naive to hope that the Russian government or US diplomatic outreach would prevent nuclear war in the event of a serious threat to Putin’s political survival. The risk that Russia’s Ukraine misadventure could culminate in nuclear nihilism demands nothing less than a systemic review of America’s options."
Nov 11th 2023
EXTRACT: " Hamas’s barbaric massacre of at least 1,400 Israelis on October 7, and Israel’s subsequent military campaign in Gaza to eradicate the group, has introduced four geopolitical scenarios bearing on the global economy and markets. As is often the case with such shocks, optimism may prove misguided."
Nov 10th 2023
EXTRACT: "The last two years have been catastrophic for investors in US Treasury bonds. By one measure, 2022 was the worst year for such investors since 1788. Bond prices are poised to fall again in 2023, making this the first time in US history that they declined for three consecutive years. But now the “smart money” is jumping back in."
Nov 6th 2023
EXTRACTS: "China’s economic slowdown could lead the CPC to embrace a militant form of Chinese nationalism in an effort to maintain public loyalty. This would spell trouble for Taiwan, the Asia-Pacific region as a whole, and China itself in the long run. Given the threat posed by China’s assertiveness, it is no surprise that Japan is increasing its defense budget and that other countries have decided to follow America’s lead and explore ways to support Asia’s liberal democracies." .... "The difference between China’s and Japan’s economic trajectories raises the question: Can a corrupt Leninist regime outperform a free society? Whatever the answer, China is facing an uphill battle."
Nov 2nd 2023
EXTRACT: "Of course, Putin owes his authoritarian mandate to Russians themselves. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians – reeling from rapid, profound economic changes and the new culture of consumerist individualism – grew nostalgic for the 'strong' state. Their superpower status, historic breakthroughs in space, and grand victories on the battlefield were all long gone. Trading their new freedoms for the promise of renewed imperial glory seemed like a good deal." ----- "After Stalin, the only time the state engaged so openly in such violent repression was under Yuri Andropov, who headed the KGB in the 1970s before becoming General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1982 (he died in 1984). -- Putin, who regards Andropov as a personal hero, has reinstated the Andropov-era 'disciplinary check-ups' of cultural institutions." ------ "We are dealing with people who want 'full revenge for the fall of the Soviet empire.' The empire they want to build will include Andropov-style control over every aspect of Russian life, as well as a grander claim of being anointed by God. Like the Orwellian equation “2+2=5,” it is a story that you would have to be insane – or brutally compelled – to believe."