Monday, November 19, 2012

Does Morality Come From Religion, Or Are We Born With a Sense of Morality?

I ran across this study, publicized on the CBS news show 60 Minutes tonight about morality. It poses the question of whether or not infants have a sense of morality, or can even comprehend in any what morality is.

In the study, infants watched a puppet show with actions being performed by a "nice" or "mean" puppet, and then find out which puppet the baby then prefers. Three quarters of the time, the baby reaches for (or stares for a prolonged time if if they can't reach well yet), the "nice" puppet. Infants as young as three years old clearly show a preference.

religion, creationism, atheism
It begs the question then as the blog Debunking Christianity, which brought the study, and the 60 Minutes segment to my attention says: Does morality come from God, or are we born this way?

There are many people in this world, that feel that morality can only come from religion, but many of the better rules for living such as the Golden Rule, are found in many different religions and cultures.

How is it that people from different religions and cultures, that had little contact with each other came up with extremely similar rules?   It's because it is common sense. We know that harming others is wrong, with or without a religion or holy text to tell us this, or without threat of eternal punishment/reward.

As Einstein once said about religion, "If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.". 

I think morality came before religion, religion is both an attempt to put morality into a formal code/system, and it was also a way to explain the natural world, which people knew little about when religion first came about. For instance, the ancient Greeks did not know what caused lightening, so they explained it by saying that it was a result of Zeus hurling down thunderbolts from Mount Olympus when he was angry.

Zeus, Greece, ancient Greece, religion

It is no coincidence that if you look at many of the more powerful and well known ancient cultures, that the chief gods in their hierarchy was a god that had control over some aspect over nature (a sun god, a fertility god that held power over fertility of both crops and of reproduction). People have for many centuries longed for control over the uncontrollable (maybe if I pray to this god enough, this will happen). It gives a sense of comfort, lead us to think that we have more power and control over the world and circumstances than what we do. 

For many in our modern culture, the thought that one can escape the suffering of this world for a better place in the afterlife, and that those who cause that suffering will be punished is comforting to them, because it makes them feel that there is a sense of justice in this world, and that our choices can affect our destiny in the afterlife.

Those were the reasons for the origins of religion, and though misguided, you could say that they were understandable, and in some cases noble intentions. The problems in religion started when people started noticing how devoted adherents were to their religion, and decided to take advantage of that. A marriage made in hell (no pun intended) resulted between governments and religion. Religious leaders and government leaders became one and the same in many instances, or the government leaders were nothing more than puppets of the religious leaders.

This was the beginning of much of the suffering in this world, the formation of what I prefer to call fundamentalism. The leaders of nations and cultures started exploiting the masses and using faith as an excuse to control, abuse, and even kill people. "Common enemies" were created out of people around them to unify them to fight (and also to unify them behind their leaders).

 Wars even up to today point directly at this. The present day Israel-Palestine conflict, though it may not appear to be about religion on the surface, actually is all about religion. Both sides want the same land,  because historically it has belonged to both sides, but more importantly, there are holy sites from both religions there in Jerusalem, whoever controls that area has possession of the holy sites. There is a reason Israel is often called the "Holy Land". Both feel that because of their faith, they right a right to control the

Gaza, Israel, war

Fundamentalism leads to people feeling that anyone who isn't "one of us" is evil, it leads to people shutting themselves out of the world around them, and it leads to hate of other people. The isolation, combined with a culture of too much reverence and unquestioned loyalty to leaders sets up a situation where horrific abuse can occur, in the US, no better group shows this mentality than the Independent Fundamental Baptists, which I blog about often.

Morality is something we are born with, morality formed religion, not vice versa as fundamentalists claim, if that were true, then why is it that fundamentalism is responsible for a large portion of the suffering in this world?

(Sheldon's note, hat tip to the page, Atheist ® for posting the bumper sticker picture above on Google +)


  1. Good article Sheldon. I have long known that morality comes from us and is molded by society, unless you are a psychopath. No worse deeds and wars have been done but in the name of religion.

    1. Why doesn't blogger have a +1 button for comments like Google + ? ;)

  2. I can remember the "Human Spark" with Alan Alda had a segment which showed spontaneous sharing and helping in very young children.

    This aired recently on CBC here in Canada which explores the origins of empathy in animals.

    1. Thanks for the link, Poutine, I'll check it out.

  3. It's an evolutionary trait we share, we're social creatures. A great example of this would be Sugar Gliders and Red Pandas. Both are social creatures like humans, both treat each other well and refuse to do harm to another of the same species. Oh, and you won't find a sugar glider nor a red panda reading the "Holy Bible". Religion not required.

    1. I've heard of primitive, yet similar social structures within ape communities.


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