The Frontal Cortex

Here’s the Pope, speaking on his recent trip to Brazil:

Where God is absent — God with the human face of Jesus Christ — these [moral] values fail to show themselves with their full force: nor does a consensus arise concerning them.

I do not mean that nonbelievers cannot live a lofty and exemplary morality; I am only saying that a society in which God is absent will not find the necessary consensus on moral values or the strength to live according to the model of these values.

I think the Pope gets his causality backwards. Human morality is largely a product of natural selection, not religion. It depends on our instinctive emotional reactions to situations that involve hurting another person. (I’ve written about this before.) According to scientists, when we think about hurting somebody else (like pushing a man onto trolley tracks), we automatically generate a visceral set of negative emotions, which discourage us from behaving in immoral ways. As Joshua Greene has noted, “Our primate ancestors…had intensely social lives. They evolved social mechanisms to keep them from doing all the nasty things they might otherwise be interested in doing. This basic primate morality doesn’t understand things like tax evasion, but it does understand things like pushing your buddy off of a cliff.” Our moral reactions are simply side-effects of natural selection, the necessary consequence of monkeys living in a group.

Of course, this is a blasphemous idea. Religious believers assume that God invented our moral code. It was given to Moses on Mount Sinai, a list of imperatives inscribed in stone. (As Dostoevsky put it, “If there is no God, then we are lost in a moral chaos. Everything is permitted.”) But this cultural narrative, which is promulgated by people like the Pope, inverts the causality. Our moral emotions existed long before Moses. They are writ into our primate mind. Religion simply allows us to codify these intuitions, to translate the ethics of evolution into a transparent legal system. Just look at the Ten Commandments. After God makes a series of religious demands – don’t worship idols and always keep the Sabbath – He starts to issue his moral orders. The first order is the foundation of primate morality: Thou Shalt Not Kill. Then comes a short list of moral adjuncts, which are framed in terms of harm to another human being. God doesn’t just tell us not to lie; He tells us not to bear false witness against our neighbor. He doesn’t prohibit jealousy in the abstract; He commands us to not covet our neighbors “wife or slaves or ox or donkey.” The God of the Old Testament understands that our most powerful moral emotions are generated in response to personal harm, so He forces us to imagine personal scenarios. We hate hurting each other, and that is what the Ten Commandments tell us not to do. God is simply regurgitating our most natural moral instincts.

So religion didn’t invent morality. Nevertheless, it still played an important historical role in helping humans legislate their moral intuitions. The ten commandments explained our own primate own morality to us. Of course, now that we have secular legal systems, religion is no longer a necessary part of the moral order. As the Pope himself admits, even atheists can still act in a moral manner.

Comments

  1. #1 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    May 15, 2007

    More from the Pope:

    Benedict also defended the church’s campaign centuries ago to Christianize indigenous people, saying Latin American Indians had been “silently longing” to become Christians when Spanish and Portuguese conquerors violently took over their native lands centuries ago.
    .
    “In effect, the proclamation of Jesus and of his Gospel did not at any point involve an alienation of the pre-Columbus cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture,” he told the bishops.

  2. #2 Ted
    May 15, 2007

    I’m not sure if last Friday’s WSJ references your link from NYT in March. They seem to read slightly differently but maybe it’s just the WSJ writing style.

    No comment on the Pope’s views on Marxism? Does the Pope strongly prefer the compassion of capitalism to social democracies I wonder?

  3. #3 Gerard Harbison
    May 15, 2007

    Now science has provided us with a good explanation of origins, the claim of an ethical monopoly is about all most religions have left. And by and large it still works. How many unbelievers do you know that give their children religious instruction or send them to religious schools because they can’t conceive of an a-theistic ethical system? I know several.

  4. #4 rjb
    May 15, 2007

    Now science has provided us with a good explanation of origins, the claim of an ethical monopoly is about all most religions have left. And by and large it still works. How many unbelievers do you know that give their children religious instruction or send them to religious schools because they can’t conceive of an a-theistic ethical system? I know several.

    I’m not disputing the fact that atheists may send their children to religious schools, but are you certain that the reasoning is because they can’t conceive of an atheistic ethical system? That seems impossible to me, unless I believe that I am an unethical person, or that I am some special case that can rise above the unethical position of atheism. I can’t imagine any parent who is an atheist believing that their philosophical ideals do not permit ethical behaviors.

    I’d find it more plausible that an atheist parent would send their child to a religious school if they looked at the school and realized that the quality of education at the school was superior than any other alternatives available to them. But that’s just me, thinking that one chooses schools for their educational value.

  5. #5 Daniel
    May 15, 2007

    The Pope, as spokesman for the Catholic Church, has very little moral or historical credibility. If you measure morality by blood, violence, repression, torture, and war, the influence of the Catholic Church throughout the ages does not seem to have been very helpful, to put it kindly, and was, in fact, often, part of the problem. The Pope carries heavy baggage with him, very heavy, indeed, and lots of it.

  6. #6 MattXIV
    May 15, 2007

    Our moral emotions existed long before Moses. They are writ into our primate mind. Religion simply allows us to codify these intuitions, to translate the ethics of evolution into a transparent legal system

    I actually think this may be similar to what the pope was going for. He doesn’t seem to be arguing that morality stems from religion as much as that the codification of moral values in religion is necessary to maintain the level of consensus across society necessary to enforce those values. It may in part be a swipe at Liberation Theology’s for putting social justice before religious belief, too.

    It’s akin to the neoconservative argument that religion is necessary to provide social reinforcement of morality, which I find amusing since the neoconservative argument allows for false beliefs to be propagated as “noble lies” as long as they encourage morality.

    While I find the argument as a whole unpersuasive, they do have a tiny, oft-overlooked point in that secular law doesn’t have the moral authority over people that religious belief does since it is a product of human moral reasoning instead of revelation, so there is no reason to grant it moral standing beyond agreeing with the reasoning behind it. When people disagree with the moral reasoning behind a law, the only thing that keeps them from violating it is deterrence. Relatively few people will disagree that murder is immoral, but vice laws are much more contentious – how many illicit gamblers or drug users think their behaviors are immoral? Maintaining and enforcing these laws is much easier when there is a broad moral consensus on them, which is easier to create when people don’t use their own moral judgment.

  7. #7 Will
    May 15, 2007

    “secular law doesn’t have the moral authority over people that religious belief does since it is a product of human moral reasoning instead of revelation”

    Also, a law isn’t a law just because someone wrote it down. There needs to be institutions in place that coordinate society’ actions in order to perpetuate the law. I think this is what the Pope meant by “I am only saying that a society in which God is absent will not find the necessary consensus on moral values or the strength to live according to the model of these values.” Religion is a coordinating institution.

    Your post doesn’t seem to address this aspect of the Pope’s quote. We may be preprogrammed to be moral creatures, but that doesn’t mean we’ll come to agree on what morals to follow. This seems to be an important aspect of morality.

  8. #8 Corkscrew
    May 15, 2007

    …secular law doesn’t have the moral authority over people that religious belief does since it is a product of human moral reasoning instead of revelation, so there is no reason to grant it moral standing beyond agreeing with the reasoning behind it.

    I disagree.

    Religious law: do what we say or God will send you to Hell
    Secular law: do what we say or the police will send you to jail

    IMO both these added extras have exactly the same moral weighting. I’d expect that a kid who’d been trained to fear jail would react to secular law with the same fervour as a kid who’d been trained to fear hellfire.

  9. #9 MattXIV
    May 15, 2007

    Corkscrew,

    I’m not denying both institutions make their threats – the influence of religion is to make the kid feel guity about it too.

  10. #10 Daniel
    May 16, 2007

    Religion is not just little old blue haired ladies, saints, nuns, and monks. Religion is brutal presecution of heretics; religion is flying planes into the twin towers on 9/11. All of the foul things that man has done in the name of religion undermine the moral credibility that some people, like the Pope, would like to attribute to relgion and religious morality.

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