Gene Expression

God & morality

In response to my post about Heather Mac Donald and her debate with others on the Right about the fundamental role of religion within “the movement” Steve Burton has offered his own thoughts. Roughly, I see Steve’s points as being this:

  • The misery of the historical record does not exhibit man’s natural goodness, simply, basal a morality.
  • Mac Donald’s innate morality is not so innate after all, but is bathed in the sensibilities of a Christian culture. Take away that Christian culture, roughly, anything is permissible if there is no savior.

I think there are multiple ways to respond to Steve. First, I think we need to be precise and clear about what we mean when we speak of religion. Here is cognitive scientist Pascal Boyer in Religion Explained:

In no human society is it considered all right, morally defensible to kill your siblings in order to have exclusive access to your parents’ attentiosn and resources. in no society is it all right to see other members of the group in danger without offering some help. Yet the societies in question may have vastly different religious concepts. So there is some suspicion that perhaps the link between religion and morality is what psychologists and anthropologists call a rationalization, and ad hoc explanation of moral imperatives that we would have regardless of religion.

The rough hypothesis is the the connection between religion and morality is more tenuous than one would think based on what individuals avow, religious specialists and the believers. What people say they believe, and what they truly believe, and how they behave, maybe separate and distinct. Now, consider these survey results when asked if “Religion is Very Important”:

France – 11
Czech Republic – 11
Japan – 12
Bulgaria – 13
Russia – 14
Germany – 21
Vietnam – 24
Korea – 25
Italy – 27
Slovakia – 29
Canada – 30
Britain – 33
Ukraine - 35
Uzbekistan – 35
Poland – 38
Argentina – 39
Mexico – 57
US – 59
Venezuela – 61
Turkey – 65
Boliva - 66
Peru – 69
Honduras – 72
Brazil - 77
Guatemala – 80
Angola – 80
Tanzania – 83
Ghana – 84
Uganda – 85
South Africa – 87
Kenya – 87
Philippines – 88
Bangladesh – 88
Pakistan – 91
Ivory Coast – 91
India – 92
Nigeria – 92
Indonesia – 95
Senegal – 97

Do the nations near the bottom of the list seem fundamentally more “moral” or “ethical” than the nations at the top? Do you believe that the Japanese can not comprehend the Golden Rule? Do you believe that Nigerians, Indians or Indonesians are exemplars of morality?

The key, which I think Steve would offer, is that it is not just religion, but a religion. Christianity,1 as he he suggests when he offers that “But she, like me, is a skeptic whose sensibilities were thoroughly shaped by growing up in a community that was itself thoroughly shaped by a hard-fought and hard-won Christian consensus.” Now, Japan and China are nations which have never fallen under the “Christian consensus,” but I don’t think anyone would say these are amoral or chaotic nations. In fact, both of these nations, especially China, are grounded in a ethical philosophy of deep lineage, Confucianism. Unlike Christianity Confucianism makes minimal theistic claims, and its metaphysical baggage tends to be a later accretion in response to Buddhist and Taoist influences. But, one might argue that liberalism, individualism, freedom, that these are the gifts of Christianity. Are they though? There are several issues.

First, Christianity is not sufficient for a liberal or proto-liberal culture. Eastern Orthodoxy is just as authentically Christian as the Western Church, but it has never given rise to a liberal culture. Additionally, many Western Christian cultures have been less than liberal (e.g., Spain). Then there is the dimension of time: a rather long latency occurred between the rise of liberalism and scientific culture (probably no earlier than the 1700s) and the dominance of Christianity in the West. In the ancient world one can point to Julian the Apostate, who left Christianity for paganism, and also transformed his court back to the less pretentious and autocratic style of the early princeps as opposed to the diademed Christian monarchs of his predecessors in the dynasty of Constantine who followed in the footsteps of the Persian King of Kings. Here is a case where the movement toward paganism coincided with a reversion toward simplicity and an espousal of equality before the law, as opposed to an assertion that the emperor was the axis mundi between heaven and earth, the vice-reagent of God upon the earth. An exception to the rule I suppose? Perhaps.

This goes to a second point: civilization exists outside of Christianity. The Romans who suppressed Druidic human sacrifice were pagans. The Buddhists and Jains who argued against caste were pagans. The revulsion of Classical Greeks toward their folk legends, such as the sacrifice of Iphigenia by her father, show that prior to Christianity a lurch toward human dignity and civility was occurring in the ancient world (the Bronze Age Greeks were enthusiastic human sacrificers, as can be attested on the tablets of the palace of Pylos as men and women were being killed while chaos engulfed the citadels of the Mycenaeans). The injunction toward ethical behavior in Zoroastrianism emerged independent of the Hebrew revelation (and later shaped it). The rise of ethical religion was a symptom, not the cause, of the Axial Age (the Hellenistic philosophies such as Stoicism or Epicureanism are strands of the same trend without the religious trappings, though Stoic ideals and Epicurean “cell” organization both can be found in early Christianity).

I bring all this up because too often in my reading of Biblical literature and commentary Jewish and Christian thinkers speak as if the revelation of God to the Jewish people, and the emergence of ethical monotheism, was a light until the nations which rolled back the ocean of barbarism. And yet a close examination of the Hebrew Bible shows that the Lord God commanded his people to engage in acts of genocide, to burn women who were not virgins, that the Lord God wiped mankind, innocent and guilty, young and and old, from the face of the Earth. A naked and plain reading of the Bible does not, to me, show that it is exposing to the world a particular moral or ethical message which can find no equal or superior in The Analects or the Gathas. Ethics of a grand Bonhoefferian character maybe extracted from the text, but so maybe racism of the likes of R.L. Dabney. As an unbeliever I believe that Christianity in the first few centuries emerged via the synthesis of Hellenistic and Hebrew thought, the former of which was a melange of Roman and Greek influences, and the latter of which was powerfully tempered by the ideas introduced from Zoroastrianism. As the new religion expanded over the face of Western Eurasia it encountered other cultures and further transformed itself, going from an individual creedal religion which tore communities apart to the faith of the kings of men. Did men and women change their lives because of the new confession? I would argue not. While the primitive faith stood in opposition to the powers that be, in northern Europe the Christian religion offered the imprimatur of Romanitas to barbarian tribes, and justified the consolidation of monarchies. One god, and one king. Salvation came through the prayers of the religious communities, but society remained operationally pagan, even on the manors of nobles like Martin of Tours.

Myself, I am a keen reader of histories. But I am cautious about taking what I read as the sole reflection of the reality of the past. Christians might write about atrocities committed by the pagan Wends or Vikings, but what of the dehumanizing genocide of the Prussians (insofar as the Crusades of the Teutonic Knights resulted in their extinguishment as a people)? What of the enslavement of pagan Balts on Christian estates in Livonia? What of the snake pits into which Olaf Trygvasson threw unrepentant pagans? All these we know of in passing, inconsequential trivialities in the grand progress of Christianization in Europe.

Another point is that the written record, explicit coda, formulae and ideals, does not always translate into reality. Early Christian thinkers warned their charges from visiting prostitutes in cities where they abandoned children. Ah, but Christians didn’t abandon children! In pre-Christian Europe infanticide was common, during 18th century France the poor sent their unwanted children to orphanges. Nevermind that mortality rates were in excess of 19 of 20 by the age of 5! (One reason why Rousseau’s behavior was so repulsive to his contemporaries)

As this post is already overlong, I will conclude in this manner:

1) Religion as it exists as an explicit exposition of moral and ethical truths simply codifies human universals. It gives justification for what does not need justification. You do not eat your children, nor do you copulate with your sister, nor do you casually kill a stranger, in any normal circumstance. The modern cross-cultural evidence does not suggest to me that religious, or Christian, nations are particularly moral or ethical. Some would argue that godlessness led to German fascism, but I know that 96% of Germans avowed a Protestant or Catholic confession in 1936. Their leaders were far less Christian (in the 1940s nearly 90% of SS officers avowed “God belief,” as opposed to Christian theism), but it makes you wonder as to the effectuality of religion if a pagan amoral leadership could drag the Christian masses toward the crimes of the 20th century. Some of the same applies to Russia, which was a staunch Orthodox nation which even promoted the Islamicization of its Central Asian subjects in the interests of moral and social stability.

2) Religion exists as a basal “theory” of the universe around us, an instinct or hunch that gods dwell in the darkness. This is probably the substrate which “higher religions” draw upon. But, this is decoupled from ethics or morality.

3) Moral sense exists within the bounds of a human group. As a social animal a host of feedback mechanisms and biases tend to prevent us from behaving in a Hobbesian “state of nature.” The war of “all against all” has very little mammalian grounding in reality, even monkeys have been shown to exhibit a sense of “fairness.” This does not negate that cannibalism and savagery have been part and parcel of our species, but that is due to our general tendency to dehumanize outgroups. Universal religions can dampen this tendency by including everyone with the sphere of potential humans, but one sees in Christian treatment of black slaves and Lithuanian pagans, Muslim treatment of kufirs, etc. that the mentality of the “Chosen People” does not imply a universalization of ethics outside of the bounds of salvation.

4) In the late 18th and 19th century slavery and anti-slavery passions flared up in both secularists and Christians. The disestablishmentarians who visited Haiti were instrumental in promoting the rise of the black man, white Frenchmen who rejected the Christian religion and the dehumanization of their fellow humans, seeing beyond the differences of race in a manner which would not be out of place in the modern post-1964 era. Similarly, eugenical secular theories that arose in the 19th century resulted in the systemitization of racism and slavery into a rational framework. John Brown was a Puritan Calvinist of the old school, but his son who fought and died with him was a Free Thinker who rejected his father’s Christianity. Thomas Paine was an anti-slavery infidel, while William Wilberforce was a passionate evangelical against the bondange of his fellow man. As Christianity declined and as Christendom has become the West the magnitude of both barbarism and human generosity seems to have increased. One may say that all that was good was the ghost of Christianity, but why was not the evil which arose the seed of Christianity? God is responsible for all goods, but no ills? For all ills, but no goods?

History, psychology, evolution. These can all tell us many things, but the answers are complex, textured and multi-faceted. Can religion support morality? Yes. But religion is not the cause of morality, it is the scaffold. It is not a set of rules or regulations, it is does emerge full formed from reveleated texts. It is a constellation of behaviors and beliefs which manifest themselves in a broad context. Can religion support perversion? Yes, but again, it is not the cause of perversion, it is simply the rationale offered post facto. Part of the problem is the perception of religion as a Platonic ideal, a neat and demarcated set of rules and regulations, when in reality it is weakly bounded in relation to the surrounding culture, when feedback from within and without exist in a dynamic tension. And yet we can not address this in a calm and reflective manner in many cases because so many individuals place into the vessel of their gods the ontology of the cosmos, the seat of their existential salvations.

Selected Sources:

Religion Explained
In Gods We Trust
Darwin’s Cathedral
Theological Incorrectness
Why Would Anyone Believe in God
The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity
One True God
A Theory of Religion
The Rise of Christianity
The Barbarian Conversion
Lithuania Ascending
Prehistory of the Mind
Grooming and Gossip
Mother Nature

I also recommend this paper, Religion’s Evolutionary Landscape, for those who want to get a better understanding of the context I’m working within.

1 – Ah, but those African nations at the bottom are often quite Christian but not necessarily renowned for their morality or ethical culture. But a rejoinder might be, “Those are not true Christians, but still pagans at heart.” Yes, just as violent Muslims are not “true Muslims.” Additionally, when Africans espouse a “conservative” position on homosexuality, in that case they are being true to genuine Christianity (of course).


  1. #1 plunge
    August 19, 2006

    I’ve actually been stunned at how absurdly shallow the debate along these lines has been. Christianity i treated as a unitary, magic totem, that once it has touched a culture, is suddenly responsible for everything in it.

    You often see this with the discussion of the founders. Many were Christians (yes, some were deists, but it’s possible to overstate that). So does this mean that everything they did and thought was all inspired by and in the service of Christianity? No: that’s absurd. In some cases, they were reacting AGAINST Christianity as practiced by some. In other cases, they, even though Christians, were being pragmatic and political, reacting to circumstances as best they could. It makes no more sense to credit their accomplishments solely to Christianity than it does to claim that Christians all brush their teeth at night in a distinctively “Christian” manner.

    In short, the Christian triumphalist view is both absurd as sociology, but at the same time has a deeply impoverished view of Christianity: failing to take it as complex and diverse and itself changing in response to cultural shifts.

  2. #2 somnilista, FCD
    August 19, 2006

    Maybe it is shallow to treat “Christianity” as a monolith, but I have encountered Christians who believe that, not only does Christianity promote morality, it has a monopoly on it! So: Boo-ya on them.

    Here’s an example: Michael Novak says:

    So many of the atheists of our generation do in fact live (at least in many respects) as though they were devout Christians or Jews. What do they lack but churches or synagogues, to distinguish themselves, so far as praxis goes, from being Christians or Jews?
    That was the question Albert Camus put after watching the secular saints of his generation sacrifice themselves under conditions of war. That was the paradigm he sketched in the life of the heroic Dr. Rieux in The Plague.
    If you listen to their words, they are atheists. But if you watch how they actually live, they are Christians or Jews.

    What does he mean by that? Do these atheists he is speaking of wear yahmulkes, or make the sign of the cross? He is not explicitly clear, but I think he is saying that they act morally and are nice to other people. If I misinterpreted, please correct me.

    Our current (21st century, USA) morality was greatly influenced by the enlightenment, so I don’t think it is accurate to characterize it as a “Christian environment”. You already mentioned slavery; the role of women in society is another issue where the modern viewpoint is noticably non-Christian.

  3. #3 razib
    August 19, 2006

    taking michael novak seriously is poblematic.

  4. #4 Steve Burton
    August 20, 2006

    Good grief, razib – you think & write too fast for me.

    Sorry – just now caught up with this post. Trying to think it through. Give me time.

  5. #5 somnilista, FCD
    August 20, 2006

    Have you read Freethinkers by Susan Jacoby? It is an extremely readable account of the participation of freethinkers (deists, agnostics, atheists and others who venture ouside the orthodox box) in social progress. It also points out how freethinkers have consistently been told to shut up and move to the back of the bus in order to not compromise the movement at hand.

  6. #6 razib
    August 20, 2006

    no. i’ve been meaning to.

  7. #7 Steve Burton
    August 20, 2006

    (1) From your summary of my position:

    “…anything is permissible if there is no savior.”

    No. Not “anything.” Just lotsa stuff that tends to bother us, these days.

    (2) “…perhaps the link between religion and morality is what psychologists and anthropologists call a rationalization, an ad hoc explanation of moral imperatives that we would have regardless of religion.”

    No. The extension of reciprocity beyond the bounds of the in-group seems rare outside religion.

    (3) “What people say they believe, and what they truly believe, and how they behave, may be separate and distinct.”

    Yes, of course.

    (4) “…consider these survey results when asked if ‘Religion is Very Important’ (etc.)…Do the nations near the bottom of the list seem fundamentally more ‘moral’ or ‘ethical’ than the nations at the top?”

    Obviously not. But so what? Who are the people insisting on the importance of religion, here? Victims, or victimizers? Muslims, or Christians? Or what? Without more detail, this means nothing.

    (5) “Do you believe that the Japanese can not comprehend the Golden Rule?”

    No. Comprehension is not a problem for the Japanese. But in-group chauvinism notoriously is.

    (6) “Japan and China are nations which have never fallen under the ‘Christian consensus,’ but I don’t think anyone would say these are amoral or chaotic nations.”

    Agreed. But, by all accounts, in-group chauvinism is, if possible, even more firmly entrenched in China than it is in Japan. Just try to discuss the human rights situation in Tibet even with relatively Westernized/liberalized Chinese. John Derbyshire had a great piece about this, way back when, if only I could find it now…

    (7) “Christianity is not sufficient for a liberal or proto-liberal culture.”

    Yes. I agree.

    (8) “Julian the Apostate…is a case where the movement toward paganism coincided with a reversion toward simplicity and an espousal of equality before the law…”

    Arguably. You will get no defense from me of the “Christianized” emperor Constantine, or the counter-scriptural union of church & state he fostered.

    (9) “…civilization exists outside of Christianity.”

    Undoubtedly. But the *universalization* of the “golden rule,” *beyond the bounds of the in-group*, is rather unusual, isn’t it? I don’t find it even in Plato or Aristotle, let alone in Greek folk culture – though admittedly the Greeks were bothered by the idea of a father sacrificing his grown daughter to the war effort. In-group taboos, you know.

    (10) “The injunction toward ethical behavior in Zoroastrianism emerged independent of the Hebrew revelation (and later shaped it).”

    Could be. I’m focused on one relatively narrow but, I think, crucial issue (to repeat): the *universalization* of the “golden rule,” *beyond the bounds of the in-group.* Who came up with it? Who spread it around the world (whether or not they ever actually practiced it)?

    Just for the record, I am *not* a Christian believer, and I am *not* at all sure that this was, in the end, such a great idea. Among other problems, I think it greatly weakens Christianity in its ongoing conflicts with Islam (to the extent that it is taken seriously, anyway).

    Well, gee. I’m only about half way through your post. And I’m already exhausted.

    This will have to do, for now, for whatever it’s worth…

  8. #8 razib
    August 20, 2006

    steve, i don’t work on the weekends :)

    1) i’m getting a lot out of this debate, so don’t expect me to get exhausted

    2) i have had this debate multiple times. i’m not recycling some arguments here

  9. #9 somnilista, FCD
    August 21, 2006

    Another must-read for someone interested in religion and morality is Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, which established the dilemma of divine command 2400 years ago by asking, Is a behavior moral because God says so, or does God say so because it is moral? In the former case, morality is arbitrary, it depends on the whim of God. In the latter, God is not the root of morality.

  10. #10 somnilista, FCD
    August 21, 2006

    Do you believe that the Japanese can not comprehend the Golden Rule?

    Are you aware that almost every human religion or culture has some version of the Golden Rule? It is not by any means original or exclusive to Christianity.