Morality, Apes, And Religion

Morality, Apes, And Religion October 18, 2010
Frans de Waal is a primatologist who has written about the moral instincts in our fellow primates and other mammals.  I’ve read his books, Our Inner Ape and The Age of Empathy.
…I am wary of anyone whose belief system is the only thing standing between them and repulsive behavior. Why not assume that our humanity, including the self-control needed for livable societies, is built into us? Does anyone truly believe that our ancestors lacked social norms before they had religion? Did they never assist others in need, or complain about an unfair deal? Humans must have worried about the functioning of their communities well before the current religions arose, which is only a few thousand years ago.
The best part of the piece is what I’m not clipping here.  He has some great examples of moral behavior among animals.  For that alone it’s worth reading.
De Waal is not a religion-basher, though.  At the end of the article he touches on the “atheist dilemma:”
While I do consider religious institutions and their representatives — popes, bishops, mega-preachers, ayatollahs, and rabbis — fair game for criticism, what good could come from insulting individuals who find value in religion? And more pertinently, what alternative does science have to offer? Science is not in the business of spelling out the meaning of life and even less in telling us how to live our lives. We, scientists, are good at finding out why things are the way they are, or how things work, and I do believe that biology can help us understand what kind of animals we are and why our morality looks the way it does. But to go from there to offering moral guidance seems a stretch.
I’ve been in the religion business for a while now.  The challenge for me is that I do not see what the majority of religions do as offering objective moral guidance.  It seems that the guidance they offer is usually a theological, authority-based form of instruction.  On the other hand, religious liberals do not base their moral guidance on authoritarian sources.  I don’t think that my liberal colleagues offer a moral compass that is any different than what their congregants could come up with purely on their own.
Take women’s roles in religion, for instance.  In order for liberal Judaism to promote equality for women its leaders had to overcome and dispense with generations of “moral guidance” about women’s roles.  This was moral guidance that, by our modern standards, wasn’t moral at all.  It was the influence of changing secular standards that finally brought pressure for change.  In fact, its reliance on secularism is precisely the critique brought by Orthodox opponents of egalitarian Judaism.  The same is true of approaches to homosexuality.
After de Waal presents another example of primates behaving in a moral way, he writes:
I take these hints of community concern as yet another sign that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and that we do not need God to explain how we got where we are today. On the other hand, what would happen if we were able to excise religion from society? I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good.
What de Waal is missing here is that our goal should not be to excise religion from society, but to excise God from religion!  This won’t work for the traditionally religious, but it will work for the non-dogmatic, liberal approaches that are really the only truly moral religious movements in our society.  This will allow them to properly re-align with the forces of enlightenment and away from the forces of medievalism with whom they currently share a theistic vocabulary.
How difficult could this be when what’s left of God for these folks is little more than a shadow of the traditional God?  The divine is reduced to Tillich’s non-supernatural “Ground of Being” or Kaplan’s “process that makes for human salvation” or self-fulfillment.  This is scarcely the God of Jewish history and hardly deserves to be called a god at all.
Sherwin Wine set out to initiate this when he founded Secular Humanisic Judaism.  There is a significant minority of Reform rabbis who are “secret” humanists who would be quite glad to rid themselves of theism if it were politically possible.  For the Christians there are people like Bishop John Shelby Spong and his followers who barely need to take any additional steps toward excising God from their religion.
Most dictionaries and people identify the word religion with some kind of faith in the supernatural.  The religion – or whatever we decide to call it – of the future need not be connected to the irrational and unbelievable.  Like Secular Humanistic Judaism and the other very small non-theistic “religions,” they could still be an inspiration for the good simply by convening communities to reflect upon it.

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  • NFQ

    It’s your last paragraph here that really gets me. Yes, most dictionaries and people associate religion with faith and supernatural beliefs. That’s why it bothers me when people who have faith and supernatural beliefs go around saying, “It’s not a religion, it’s a personal relationship with God” — and it’s also why it bothers me when people who don’t base their beliefs on faith and who disclaim supernatural beliefs nevertheless claim to be “religious.” I really like what you write in this blog, and in general I think I like your approach… though I admit I swing back and forth wildly.

    Maybe you and I can find common ground on the part where you say, “whatever we decide to call it.” At the point at which there are no actual teachings (other than, perhaps, “think rationally, be respectful, and try to make good decisions”?) and no supernatural ideas involved, it seems more like it should be a “club” or a “group.” What does this group have that makes it distinct from a quilting circle or a book club? Or would you call those groups “religions” too?

  • NFQ

    I’m sorry, I meant to write “…though I admit I swing back and forth wildly on this point.” That would make it make a bit more sense.

  • NFQ

    Part of what’s so complicated about this whole thing is the inextricability of religion and culture. There certainly are such things as Jewish foods, Jewish music, Jewish humor, or a (stereotypically) Jewish approach to life. It’s harder to imagine this with regard to Christianity, because it’s such a huge and internally diverse religion. (I think “cultural Christians” are people who celebrate Christmas out of habit and like the sound of choirs singing hymns. I’m not sure how much farther it really extends.) I definitely understand the “Jewish identity within a completely humanistic ideology” thing — that describes about 80% of the Jews I know. I wish there were different words for the heritage and the religion (like “Irish” and “Catholic,” sort of).

    Part of why I find your blog so fascinating is that I’ve been trying to find my way through this very issue myself — my family is “ethnically Jewish” but ended up in UUism a generation or two ago, and now is generally secular. Striking a balance between cultural identity and intellectual honesty is tricky when the borders of religion and culture overlap so much… and I’m glad I have some time yet before I’m raising children of my own, to sort through these ideas. One analogy I’ve found helpful is how Native Americans often learn traditional rituals, music, and dance as part of a historical, cultural education even though most of them today are Christian and don’t actually believe that the rituals have supernatural effects. They can say “These are my people” without saying, “I believe in their religion” — even though in some sense it does involve religious services and religious education.

    At any rate, keep up the good work, thanks for listening, and thanks for giving me so much to think about. 🙂