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Morality and the 'new atheism'

By Benjamin O'Donnell - posted Friday, 1 February 2008

A common criticism of the so-called “new atheists” (who I prefer to call the "new anti-dogmatists") is the "problem of morality": how, many religious critics ask, can we be good without God? Isn’t the fact that people are good, that people can tell good from evil, evidence for the existence of God? Even if God is a myth, isn’t He necessary to inspire people to acts of goodness and to keep them from falling into immorality? And in any case, don’t we get our morals from our religious traditions?

A key problem here is that this “good without God” criticism is really at least five different arguments jumbled together.

The argument from scripture

First comes the argument from scripture: “how can we know what's good without a book of rules, like the Bible?” This is the one that Richard Dawkins so ably rebuts with his "cherry picking" point in his recent best-seller, The God Delusion. The Bible is full of horrible acts and recommendations. It also contains some very kind and good acts and rules. Most Christians don't follow the former any more, but continue to follow the latter. How do they chose? What do they use to “cherry pick” the Bible in this way? It's not something in the Bible, it's something in the reader. If this moral sense exists in us and allows us to pick the good bits of the Bible from the bad, what do we need the Bible for, except as one among many anthologies of moral propositions on which to practice our moral sense?


The platonic argument

Second, there's the Platonic “by what standard” argument: “granted we have an innate moral sense, but how can we know what's right and wrong if there is no absolute standard of right in the universe?”, says the theist. “Doesn't our ability to recognise that some acts are good and others evil imply that there must somewhere exist a perfect thing of goodness to be the standard? Doesn't our moral sense itself act as evidence of the existence of God?”

Here the error is epistemological: of course we can judge degrees of something even though a perfect sample of that something does not really exist. Nowhere in reality is there such a thing as a perfectly straight line. Yet we are easily able to judge and even rank the straightness of connections between two points in the real world with relative ease - this hand-drawn line on this piece of paper is straighter than that one; this rooftop is straighter than that one; the path of this meteor is straighter than that one, and so on.

The argument from the mysterious origin of morality

The third argument is related to the second, the “origins of morality” point: “Granted we have a moral sense, but where did that come from?” say the critics. “It can’t have evolved, because it often gets us to do things that aren't selfish, even in the sense of enlightened selfishness.”

This argument misunderstands the neo-Darwinian insight popularised in Professor Dawkins’ 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. We are genuinely altruistic because our genes are “selfish”. A gene that causes its carriers to be genuinely altruistic will have a reproductive advantage if its carriers live in groups of largely related individuals. By risking its life for the group because of the genuine altruism given to it by the gene, one carrier of that gene will increase the reproductive chances of other carriers of the same gene. (The selfish gene explanation also works for groups where the same non-relatives regularly interact and can engage in “reciprocal altruism”.)

Evolution has given us what Dawkins calls a “lust to be good”, much in the way it has given us a lust to have sex (we’re “horny to do good”, as one interviewer put it recently). Does this mean that altruism only makes sense if it’s for relatives? Only in the sense that sex only “make sense” when it’s done for procreation - or that love only “make sense” if it’s being used to solidify a pair-bond for the 20 or so years needed to help the survival of offspring. The evolutionary explanation for an urge is not the same thing as a justification for why we should, as rational creatures, promote or fight that urge today.

Mirror neurons and moral progress

Recent research by neuroscientist such as VS Ramachandran and Marco Iacoboni have discovered what are being called “mirror neurons”. When a monkey experiences pain from, say, being kicked in the testicles, several neurons can be observed to fire in his brain. But if the monkey observes another monkey being kicked in the testicles, a few (not all) of those same neurons fire in the observing monkey’s brain. (I’ve chosen the example for dramatic effect. I doubt this was the actual experiment conducted.)


It seems mirror neurons evolved as the means by which primates learn skills from each other: observe the other primate doing the skill, feel which mirror neurons fire, then try to make the same mirror neurons fire by doing the action - repeat, refine, learn skill. One side effect was empathy, the ability to feel the pain and pleasure of others (another side effect, according to some researchers, may have been the development of consciousness itself).

It appears that this new capacity for empathy allowed altruism to develop, and that mutation propagated because of the reproduction-enhancing properties of altruism discussed by Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. But from the gene's perspective, altruism is a two-edged sword: it’s great if your carriers sacrifice themselves for other carriers, but it’s horrible if your carriers start sacrificing themselves for non-carriers.

The solution seems to have been the “taming” of the empathy/altruism characteristic by the evolution of in-group v out-group thinking. What evolved (one suspects both genetically and culturally) was a distinction between the in-group, where empathy was appropriate (and whose members were likely to carry many of the same genes) and out-groups, where empathy was blocked or even turned into its dark twin antipathy - the tendency of animals to feel the pain of others and enjoy it.

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About the Author

Benjamin O'Donnell is a Sydney lawyer.

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