As part of a 9 page critical review of Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God, Jerry Coyne levels more than a few incisive challenges countering Wright’s faith in religion as an indispensible aid to moral progress. Here are just a few of Coyne’s key points.
One can in fact make a good case that, contrary to Wright’s claim, ethics went downhill as religion evolved–specifically, that it declined in the transition from polytheism to monotheism. Hume insisted upon this, expounding admiringly on “the tolerating spirit of idolaters.” He maintained that a plurality of gods led to social and intellectual pluralism, whereas the belief in a single god led to exclusiveness and intolerance. “The intolerance of almost all religions, which have maintained the unity of God, is as remarkable as the contrary principle of polytheism,” he wrote in The Natural History of Religion. And he added pungently that “if, among Christians, the English and Dutch have embraced the principles of toleration, this singularity has proceeded from the steady resolution of the civil magistrate, in opposition to the continued efforts of priests and bigots.” This is sound intellectual and religious history, belying Wright’s view of theology’s linear march toward goodness and light.
To address the question of moral progress, it helps to divide morality into “ethics,” which the philosopher A.C. Grayling calls “thinking and theorizing about what is good and bad, and how people should live,” and “moral presupposition,” or “what, either consciously or unconsciously, governs what people do, or aspire to do, in the conduct of life.” Ethics involves values and principles codified in law, religion, or philosophy, while morality is the way people actually behave. These are obviously connected: people take their guidance from moral codes, and those codes change in response to people’s feelings. Still, it is possible for ethics to improve while individual behavior changes little. India outlaws discrimination by caste, for example, but in much of the country this has little or no impact on how people treat each other. Even the most cursory survey of human history suggests that while ethics has improved somewhat, morality may have barely budged.
He also makes the case that periods of the flourishing of secular thought were historically those in which we advanced morally the most:
There have been two periods in Western history when large groups of people made serious and concerted attempts to improve ethics–and contra Wright, those changes involved not religion, but secular reason. The first period began in Athens in the fifth century B.C.E. and continued to first-century Rome. This was the time of Socrates and Aristotle, Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, the Stoics and the Epicureans, when philosophers and citizens hashed out and codified their moral responsibility toward each other and society. The medieval era of religion certainly included sophisticated discussions of moral philosophy, but it was not until fifteen hundred years later, when the grip of the church was broken, that the second period began, as the thinkers of the Enlightenment introduced the strong idea of human liberty, and chose to ground authority on rationality rather than dogma. It is not at all clear that the intervening period, with its feudalism, sacred despotism, and religious persecution, was in any way an improvement over the earlier societies of classical Greece and Athens. As for tolerance in our own progressive time: there is the Holocaust, Stalin’s purges and slaughters, Mao’s bloody reign of terror, the massacres in Darfur, Rwanda, and Cambodia, and the ethnic and religious savagery in Northern Ireland and Bosnia and Sri Lanka to remind us that spectacular intolerance is still with us. I do not see how a progressivist view of human moral development can survive all this terrible knowledge.
consider what most of us agree are real improvements in ethics over the last several centuries: the idea of democracy; the elimination of more horrible punishments; the adoption of equal rights for racial and ethnic minorities, homosexuals, and women; the disappearance of slavery; the improved treatment of animals; and the increasing view that adult sexuality is a private matter. In each case, the impetus for change came overwhelmingly from secular views. Religion either played no role, or it played a small role, or it opposed the moral innovations, or it came aboard only when change was underway. (It is true that the American civil rights movement was supported by many churches, but we should also recall that in earlier times the faithful cited the Bible as support for slavery.) If a part of the world has improved morally, this change may have occurred not because of religion, but in spite of it.
I also recommend you look into his critique of Islam.
UPDATE: Wright has replied to Coyne’s interpretation of his book and argued that he agrees with many of the positions that Coyne is raising allegedly in opposition to him. Here is my summation of Wright’s challenge to Coyne’s reading and my own analysis of Wright’s views, as far as I understand them.