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This is part 2 of my blog series called Religion is Not Required for Morality. Here’s the link for part 1:
Let’s look at the argument that religion is required for morality. I ended up discussing this with my fundamentalist Christian former boss because he was more open to discussion than I assumed. He made the claim that you can’t be a good person without the bible. We had a detailed conversation about why I disagree.
This is why religion is not required for morality. In terms of Christianity, people in every faith group think that their’s in the only right choice. Who is right and who is wrong? No one can know for sure because no one can actually tell you what happens after you die. Maybe Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists are right and everyone else is wrong. Maybe Mormons or Scientologists have the answer. Perhaps every god and version of the afterlife exist. Or what seems more likely to me is that none of them are real. Either way, no one can objectively argue that one book contains the correct recipe for everyone’s moral compass.
If someone thinks that they get their morality from the bible, there’s nothing inherently wrong with believing that. However, scientifically speaking, they’re partially right at the most. From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, we can trace psychological traits associated with morality back through the evolutionary history of our species. Our moral compasses didn’t suddenly spring into existence after the bible or some other book was written.
There also were countless religions before Christianity and every other religion that exists today. So people were developing morality and associating it with religion for thousands of years. An evolutionary mechanism is partially responsible for us believing that our mythologies give us the moral high ground.
Evolutionary psychology also tells us that we develop moral compasses whether we want to or not. So it is partially true when someone claims to get their morality from a religious text. But no one ever gets their entire moral framework from one book. Someone can use the bible or the Quran to teach them the difference between right and wrong. However, you would get that from somewhere else if not those books. Our morality is not dependent on religious texts.
We also evolve a moral compass based on our entire life experiences within our cultures and upbringing. So everything else influences us to an extent, whether we want it to or not. Neuroscience backs up similar claims to those in evolutionary psychology. As Robert Sapolsky, the Stanford neuroendocrinologist and professor of biology and neurology explains, our moral compasses are developed by our prefrontal cortexes. That’s a small region in the front of our brains that evolved more recently than the rest of it.
So evolutionarily speaking, morality is a relatively recent advent. To me, this means it makes sense that we have trouble adapting to and accepting moral frameworks that we disagree with. Our prefrontal cortexes have much less evolutionary practice than the rest of our brains.
As Sapolsky and plenty of other scientists explain, our prefrontal cortexes adapt to different environments. So depending on where we grow up, we’ll develop different moral compasses. That’s why your religion or lack thereof is highly dependent on your geographical location. There are more Muslims in the Middle East for many reasons, including that it is more common in that local culture. The same applies to people in the West, where we’re more likely to be Christian. Our environments within our cultural upbringing shape our moral compasses. So our interactions with our families and other people throughout our lives construct the way we see the world. Neurological pathways are created by the ways our parents raises us, the friends we have and groups we join, and the local culture. This is another reason that it’s hard to accept different beliefs. We all have neurological tendencies developed through childhood that associate strong emotions with how we define “right” and “wrong.”
There’s nothing wrong with people choosing to be religious. Seeing religion as an enormous problem in dire need of fixing is a parochial way of viewing the world. That’s a single-factor analysis. However, even militant atheists sometimes make good points. Stereotypes exist because they apply to some people. Even though they get ridiculously tribal sometimes, atheists do a great job of pointing out and demolishing ridiculous fundamentalist claims. Everyone, whether we’re religious or not, believes that our moral compass is superior. The extreme Christian view that we can only be a good person if we follow the bible is ludicrous in several different ways. All you have to do is look at the history of pretty much every religion with an official text. They made the same kinds of claims about their worldviews.
If that isn’t convincing enough, you can look at studies in evolutionary psychology that show how our moral compasses evolved along with every other aspect of our species. We can also see in neuroscience that our prefrontal cortexes construct our moral worldviews based on our cultural upbringings within our local environments. Religion is not required for morality! It’s an aspect of many of our cultures, so our brains can develop neurological attachments to its importance. That’s fine. But our morality is shaped by our environments and prefrontal cortexes. Religions are often part of these environments. But we would still be moralizing beings even if religion had never existed.
No one has the moral high ground. However, maybe we can enhance the development of our prefrontal cortexes. Perhaps we can adapt better to different environments by learning to accept different worldviews. I might be idealistic. But I think that if we can all learn to accept different ways of looking at the world that we all share, we might make the our planet a better place and have an easier time solving global issues. I know I sound like a hippy, but we’re all one species, man!