Just how voraciously do Americans despise atheists? A study conducted last November found that subjects rated atheists as less trustworthy than rapists. In 2006, Americans said that of all the groups they would most disapprove of their children marrying, atheists were the first. According to a 2007 Gallup poll, Americans are more willing to vote a Mormon, Jew, African American and homosexual into the oval office before an otherwise qualified atheist. Why? A paper by Penny Edgell points to morality:
Some people view atheists as problematic because they associate them with illegality, such as drug use and prostitution—that is, with immoral people who threaten respectable community from the lower end of the status hierarchy. Others saw atheists as rampant materialists and cultural elitists that threaten common values from above—the ostentatiously wealthy who make a lifestyle out of consumption or the cultural elites who think they know better than everyone else. Both of these themes rest on a view of atheists as self-interested individualists who are not concerned with the common good.
One of the most salient convictions of the believer is that religion is a prerequisite for morality. Without supervision from the supernatural the world will fall into moral anarchy where believers and non-believers, having no objective morality to grasp right from wrong, will succumb to social Darwinism, hence Smerdyakov’s maxim, “If there is no God, there is no morality.” The question is, as one audience member put it to Richard Dawkins in a Q&A on Australian TV, “Is it possible for an atheist to be a peace-loving, socially responsible person?”
In 1893, the British biologist Thomas Henry Huxley delivered a lecture to a large audience in Oxford, England, where he compared humanity to a gardener who struggles to keep weeds out of his garden. The weeds represented our selfish and competitive nature: impossible to avoid and difficult to control. The American biologist Michael Ghiselin popularized this view of human nature nearly a century later when he said “Scratch an ‘altruist’ and watch a ‘hypocrite’ bleed.” Morality, in other words, is a veneer that covered our nasty animalistic core.
The famed primatologist Frans de Waal recounts Huxley’s idea in the 2006 book Primates and Philosophers to argue that “Veneer Theory” doesn’t fit with contemporary research from primatology, research that confirms Darwin’s observation that although natural selection is inherently competitive humans possess evolved moral senses.* We’re not saints, but sophisticated prosocial intuitions provide groundwork that guides moral judgment. If humans have a core, it’s simultaneously selfish and cooperative.
We know this because we share basic moral sentiments with primates. For example, chimpanzees display empathy and console, have social rules and they do favors for nothing in return. Capuchin monkeys have a sense of fairness. In one experiment de Waal and his colleague Sarah Brosnan gave two capuchins a cucumber for preforming a task. They happily accepted. But when the researchers gave one capuchin a cucumber and another in a nearby cage a grape for preforming the same task the snubbed capuchin threw a fit.** In a recent Times article de Waal recounts that “female chimpanzees have been seen to drag reluctant males towards each other to make up after a fight, removing weapons from their hands, and high-ranking males regularly act as impartial arbiters to settle disputes in the community.” Taken together, this doesn’t suggest that primates are moral beings, rather that they possess moral senses. We share these senses by virtue of a common ancestry, an ancestry that dates back millennia before religion.
Developmental psychology provides further evidence against Veneer Theory. One piece comes from a study by Marco Schmidt and Jessica Summerville. They demonstrated that 15 month-old babies showed signs of surprise when an experimenter distributed an unequal share of milk and crackers to two recipients, but were indifferent when the experimenter distributed milk and crackers equally, suggesting that babies have a rudimentary sense of fairness. In a clever study conducted by Paul Bloom, Karen Wynn, and Kiley Hamlin a researcher played out “good cop/bad cop” scenarios using puppets. They found that infants preferred the “good cop” puppet over the “bad cop” puppet and a neutral puppet. A growing body of research is producing similar results. As Bloom sums up in a Times article, “babies possess certain moral foundations — the capacity and willingness to judge the actions of others, some sense of justice, gut responses to altruism and nastiness.”
Smerdyakov’s maxim is, therefore, incorrect: we don’t need God to get to human morality. Evidence from primatology and developmental psychology shows that evolution gives us a sense of reciprocity and empathy as well as other moral senses that develop over a lifetime into more complete moral systems.
Where does this leave religious-based morality? In The Evolution of God Robert Wright shows that the Judeo-Christian God we know today only showed up after our hunter-gatherer ancestors organized into large societies. Gods in hunter-gather societies did not establish rules and regulations because in a tribe of a few dozen kin – the type of social environment we evolved into – it was impossible to harm, steal or cheat without getting caught and punished. The Gods of large monotheistic societies, in contrast, embodied morals and virtues, such as the golden rule, to crack down on free riders, knaves and wrongdoers harmful to the community. Not everyone was family or friend; we needed a supernatural police force to restrain our Glauconian impulses.
Psychological evidence suggests that supervision from above does, in fact, curb wicked behavior. A group of researchers at Newcastle University led by Melisssa Bateson and Daniel Nettle devised a clever experiment demonstrating a version of this. Over the course of 32 days they observed how tidy students in a cafeteria were. The researchers found that when they hung a poster of eyes (instead of flowers) twice as many students near the poster cleaned up after themselves. Thomas Jefferson was right: “Whenever you do a thing, act as if all the world were watching.” (A similar study found that participants primed with thoughts of God were able to resist their desires better than a control group.)
That said, the facts of history remind us that the Gods of large civilizations were not perfect peacekeepers. A string of recent books including Winning The War on War and The Better Angels of our Nature demonstrate that we are living in the most peaceable era in our species history. People aren’t killing each other like they did in the past. The percentage of deaths due to violent trauma (we know this from archaeological studies) in hunter-gatherer societies was on average about 15 percent; in 2005 the percentage was less than point one of one percentage. Violent crimes are historically low. In England between 1200 and 1400 roughly 20 to 30 of every 100,000 English person was murdered; in 2000 that number is less than one. We’ve made humanitarian progress. Between 1700 and 1850 every major European country abolished judicial torture including “breaking at the wheel, burning at the stake, sawing in half, impalement, and clawing.” Slavery is outlawed in every country on Earth. Civil rights for minorities are at an all time high. We’ve made significant moral progress, and almost none of it was in the name of religion. To the contrary. Religion spurred countless wars. Apologists and theologians have historically opposed humanitarian progress. Suicide bombing is difficult to explain without religion. If God is good, he has circuitous way of showing it.
Using history to illustrate our moral progress in spite of religion deflates the role of faith-based morality. But it does not dismiss it completely. The Quakers supported the abolition of slavery in the United States long before most. Desmond Tutu has been instrumental in reducing global and nation conflicts. The Dalai Lama is a renowned advocate of peace and interfaith dialog. Religion has, at certain moments, made notable contributions. But we get our morals from modern principles, the big ideas – commerce, democracy and reason - that paved the way for a world where interacting with another human being was not a zero-sum game.
The ideas in this essay echo a few excellent books on morality and evolution that are decades old, including Peter Singer’s The Expanding Circle and Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. We have known for quite some time that morality doesn’t require a subscription to a deity. Why, then, are people still asking Richard Dawkins if this is true? One guess is scientific ignorance; another is religious dogmatism. Whatever the source of confusion I, to be clear, doubt that replacing religion in favor of a scientific worldview will bring out the best in humanity. As de Waal says, “Any framework we develop to advocate a certain moral outlook is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion.” To that end, I’m not in the business of using science to convert people.
But recall the statistics introduced at the beginning: Americans believe that atheists are untrustworthy, immoral, materialistic, connected with drugs and prostitution, self-interested and apathetic towards the greater good. These are incorrect beliefs, and we should use science to demonstrate that God doesn’t have a monopoly on morality.
* In The Descent of Man: “The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable- namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man. For, firstly, the social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them”
** Check out de Waal’s TED