Religion’s impact on the initial creation and spread of morality

Feb 11, 2013


Discussion by: spaik
I was watching a documentary of an interview of Professor Dawkins with Al Jazeera in Oxford University. 
(Here is the link for those interested: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=U0Xn60Zw03A#!)

There was an interesting question in it which was the following:
(with a bit of paraphrasing)

There are dark episodes in human history arising from our instinct to survive. Was it not the ideas of religion that took the human species from  the base survival instincts and took them to the paradigm of thinking which was not necessarily in the interests of the instincts they have for survival?

The following is what I thought about the issue:

If religion is a fictional piece of work, then the morality issues involved in religion must have arisen from people prior to religion. In other words, whoever first came up with the moral views included in the first religions must have had the moral views before they had the concept of a religion. Thus, morality must have stemmed naturally within humans and was not spurred by religion. However, one positive influence of religion in those early times could be in the spread and enforcement of those moral views. People could have been more inclined to give up their selfish motivations in place of morality due to the incentives given by religions to be moral. This, I think, may be the one useful element of religion in early morality development, but the actual origin of morality must have stemmed pre-religion. Also, even without religion, I believe that morality would have spread, although possibly at a lower rate, because of various rules and laws that could have been placed separate from religion. 

I would be interested to hear what other people think about the question and about my views on the issue. 

21 comments on “Religion’s impact on the initial creation and spread of morality

  • 1
    BornAfterTV says:

    I assume when you talk about religion and morality you are talking about specific moral issues. No religion stands for womens rights, many religions encourage racism, murder and opression. Of course one can pick out various statements in scripture to support a moral position but thats cherry picking.
    I very much doubt religion had any hand to play in the spread of moral values as we define them today, firstly because there are so many different religions that preech a variety of things (some moral some not) but more over morals is relative to time and place. It’s unlikely that what people deemed moral back when we were living in caves is in anyway moral to us today.



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  • 2
    GospelofJudas says:

    I agree, morals came first, and for lack of a better term ‘spirituality’. Cultivating wisdom and working up from empathy you can see many of the results tucked into religion here or there (whether or not people follow it, the Golden Rule appears in one form or another in every major religion and numerous other cultures besides). Religion is, to my mind, the hardening of philosophy into dogma; the codifying of practices into ritual and ultimately, abasement of reason for the sake of comfort. There are different stops on this path, of course, with some philosophies gaining enough traction to be more easily disseminated (but still relying on belief in fundamental truths), and ‘religions’ which function more like philosophies (many Buddhist sects, or monotheists who don’t take anything from the Bible or other scriptures literally). There is a change that comes over beliefs when they go from an originally noble and reasonable moral premise (the Golden Rule is an excellent example) to a more hidebound set of strictures (those who do NOT do as you do, should be shunned/persecuted, lest they take away your morality).

    Philosophy and religion are ends of a spectrum, and that spectrum is influenced by everything from morality to culture to natural phenomena. To answer your question, it is possible that a specific morality was forged into a religion capable of cutting through the dark ages, but even if that is true humanity is (or should be) growing and evolving, rendering the archaic rituals of millenia past obsolete.



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  • 3
    G_Crotty says:

    If we look at various groups of animals and how they react under different scenarios, they exhibit a morality or behaviour related to their capability (ability to understand their environment). In general I believe that morality evolved at the rate of human development tied to our ability to think and rationalize situations. We can only be as moral as we are capable of understanding and controlling our behaviours.

    All religions package together morality to serve it’s purpose, to guide their supporters in a moral blanket. The other key to this is that there morals are not absolutes. They are relative to the individual, society, religion or any other body that tries to define them. The problem comes when Religion suggests that they are held out as absolutes, which were given to us by god.

    Therefore I agree with your comments about morality spreading without religion based on the fact that not many animals go to church or pray to a god and there is evidence that athiests live to moral standard that is greater than thiests if you consider the openess and acceptance of secular views supported by athiests.

    Just my two cents.



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  • The tragedy is that religion imposed a moral policing environment upon individuals who would not have acted immorally in the normal course of events but who, in the belief that transgressors were similarly policed and would ultimately receive just punishment, allowed major transgressors to act as immorally as they wanted. In other words, instead of rising up against injustice within society, they turned their backs on war-lords, kings and dictators certain in the knowledge that those ‘evil’ people would suffer in Hell.
    It is only now, in this century, that society is beginning to address this problem and demanding equal rights to all citizens rather than remaining impotent through the complacency born of false knowledge.



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  • 6
    Uriel-238 says:

    The basics of our religious morality are survival instincts. These include (a partial list):

    • Reciprocal treatment within the community
    • Protection and care for the meek
    • Isolation from other communities
    • Trust of authority
    • Loyalty to peers
    • Preservation of tradition and vigilance against perversion (or progress).

    These are instincts that we’re born with because they contributed to our survival. They weren’t so much revealed to us in religion as clarified with a common language.

    Granted, there are wonderful advances of which religion played a significant part. The invention of the printing press, for example, was motivated by a message deemed so important as to be mass conveyed. Similarly, cryptanalysis (the fundamentals of contemporary computer security) were started from the need to verify the validity of Mohammed’s scribblings to confirm they were actually his. This is not to say they wouldn’t have been invented elsewhere, but the circumstances that drove their invention were not a common thing, and could have shifted progress by centuries (a la Babbage’s failure to get funding).

    Also, these instincts are problematic in the era of nations in which our “communities” can be hundreds of millions strong and yet our internal drives compel us to want a smaller tribe. This is what drives our conflicts between subcultures into the realm of governance. Racism and intolerance of other religions are instinctive, and we are compelled to try to push for privilege for people like ourselves (which doesn’t fly in large egalitarian civilizations).

    Interestingly, religions are well known for not pushing tolerance, and in the rare occasions they have that message, they’re commonly ignored.

    EDITS: grammatical fixes



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  • 7
    This Is Not A Meme says:

    Derren Brown discusses a theory in this, The God Illusion. He believes we are hardwired to believe in unseen entities that watch us, like ghosts. He asserts that morality would have arisen for social reason, but in the absence of others the paranoid belief that we are being watched assured moral behavior even while alone or when there would be no witnesses. He compares this to other paranoid behaviors we have such as assuming the rumbling in the bushes is a tiger and not the wind (disposition towards false positives). Also in that video, he converts an atheist into a believer using NLP and hypnotism, for the lulz. It’s so sacrilegious, it’s great.

    We see morality in other primates, who clearly have no religion. I can see how lies would play an important role in the promulgation of morality. Lies have done a lot of good in the past.



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  • That was a very interesting interview. But the question I’d like to as the Al Jazeera guy is does he teach his daughter that the testimony of a women counts for half that of a man and if so what is the moral justification.



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  • 9
    BornAfterTV says:

    Law enforcement is not morality.CCTV reduces robbery, but does not increase morality. I’d argue modern day law enforcement is immoral in that it does not take into account all of the factors that lead to human behaviour and pushes the concept of punishment. It has as much greater level of religious thinking than that of a rational scientific mind.



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  • In reply to #8 by Eliot:

    That was a very interesting interview. But the question I’d like to as the Al Jazeera guy is does he teach his daughter that the testimony of a women counts for half that of a man and if so what is the moral justification.

    That is not the worst. Under shariah law, kaffir (you and I) are required to have FOUR witnesses because we are even less trustworthy than their women.



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  • 11
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #6 by Uriel-238:

    The basics of our religious morality are survival instincts. These include (a partial list):

    Reciprocal treatment within the community
    Protection and care for the meek
    Isolation from other communities
    Trust of authority
    Loyalty to peers
    Preservation of tradition and vigilance against perversion (or progress).

    These are instincts that we’re born with because they contributed to our survival. They weren’t so much revealed to us in religion as clarified with a common language.

    If by “survival instincts” you mean “behaviors that it is logical to assume would be beneficial to replication of genes” then things like “protecting the meek” are not survival instincts. Protecting the meek helps the meek, if I’m an alpha male looking to maximize the replication of my genes, a “meek” individual who uses up more than he or she gives back to the herd is not in my interest to protect.

    If you are instead talking about “survival instincts” as behaviors that are beneficial to the species as a whole then that is the currently unsolved problem of altruism. Because a mathematical analysis of behaviors (using game theory) shows that such altruistic behaviors absolutely will not propagate through a species the way behaviors that benefit the selfish genes of an individual do. “Cheaters” (those that don’t have the gene for an altruistic behavior) will eventually win out and their genes will take the place of the altruistic genes.

    That is why its an open question, because clearly there DOES exist truly altruistic behavior and none of our current theories about evolutionary behavior or psychology can adequately explain exactly WHY and HOW such behaviors exist. E.O. Wilson caused a lot of controversy recently trying to bring back the idea of “group selection” (that behaviors can be selected because they benefit a whole species not an individual’s selfish genes) but most people such as Dawkins think he is wrong — and for what its worth I read his book and thought it was fascinating but I do agree with Dawkins, despite pointing out some interesting phenomena with termites and other highly social animals he never addressed the “cheater” question in his book as far as I could tell.



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  • In reply to #10 by TSM:

    In reply to #8 by Eliot:

    That was a very interesting interview. But the question I’d like to as the Al Jazeera guy is does he teach his daughter that the testimony of a women counts for half that of a man and if so what is the moral justification.

    That is not the worst. Under shariah law, kaffir (you and I) are required to have FOUR witnesses because we are even less trustworthy than their women.

    It’s bad for women. An unbeliever can become a muslim. But a women can never become a man, at least not in Islamic countries.



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  • 13
    Pauly01 says:

    I think religion was part of the evolutionary road and it was not all negative. It did enable us to unite people , make social hierarchies thus facilitating economics. That’s to be applauded. Civilized societies are based on these principles. The problem of course was the enslavement of peoples minds. Was there another way? I doubt it. All I can say is that now society and state has developed it is time to free ourselves of this baggage.

    By the way I though the Al Jazeera interview was great. Heard it before but there are notable questions there that Richard found hard to answer. It was very fresh.



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  • 14
    GospelofJudas says:

    In reply to #13 by Pauly01:

    I think religion was part of the evolutionary road and it was not all negative. It did enable us to unite people , make social hierarchies thus facilitating economics. That’s to be applauded. Civilized societies are based on these principles. The problem of course was the enslavement of peoples minds. Was there another way? I doubt it. All I can say is that now society and state has developed it is time to free ourselves of this baggage.

    “No one leads, if no one follows.” -Lao Tzu

    I agree. People let themselves get wrapped up in comfortable and familiar paradigms, just as Americans today (by and large) consume garbage marketed as food. Religion is often times junk food for the mind, but people still go for it…



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  • 15
    TheAllKnowingAgnostic says:

    It seems to me there is a link between religiosity and the blind consumerism that you are referring to. I think indoctrination into blind faith improves the minds natural proficiency at smudging out or ignoring unpleasant or unfavorable truths. Maybe I am just biased from debating with too many irrational religious people.

    In reply to #14 by GospelofJudas:*

    In reply to #13 by Pauly01:

    I think religion was part of the evolutionary road and it was not all negative. It did enable us to unite people , make social hierarchies thus facilitating economics. That’s to be applauded. Civilized societies are based on these principles. The problem of course was the enslavement of peoples minds. Was there another way? I doubt it. All I can say is that now society and state has developed it is time to free ourselves of this baggage.

    “No one leads, if no one follows.” -Lao Tzu

    I agree. People let themselves get wrapped up in comfortable and familiar paradigms, just as Americans today (by and large) consume garbage marketed as food. Religion is often times junk food for the mind, but people still go for it…



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  • 16
    Nodhimmi says:

    Morality of teaching children religion; Richard was derailed by the interviewer reducing the abuse question to the personal level. When asked “is my telling my daughter about the winged horse an abuse?” the answer was YES! But of course he is too refined/polite to say so. Hitch, on the other hand would certainly have ripped the mealy mouthed apologist a new a**hole. Furthermore, Richard could and should have pressed more points about the ROP, its supremacist racism and the psychotic thuggery of its prophet.



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  • 17
    phil rimmer says:

    In reply to #16 by Nodhimmi:

    Morality of teaching children religion; Richard was derailed by the interviewer reducing the abuse question to the personal level. When asked “is my telling my daughter about the winged horse an abuse?” the answer was YES!

    Taught as truth rather than as something some people believe, it is abuse plain and simple. The abused become abusers in time unable to conceive that they themselves were abused.

    Until parents can bring themselves to say to their kids I believe X, but you must make up your own mind, they will remain abusers. They will also mark themselves out as unbelievers in the obvious truth and innate value of their beliefs.



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  • 18
    Dublin-atheist says:

    Religion has hijacked every human emotion a common misperception is that morality and religion is part and parcel, another emotion is patriotism which works a treat in America, in Ireland too many people thought to be a patriotic Irish man you needed to attend mass etc the church will use guilt,peer pressure,fear,inferiority,morality is only one of many tricks used by the church.



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  • 19
    Dublin-atheist says:

    Morality comes from doing good onto others so as they might do good onto us, primates groom each other to strengthen bonds within groups I would say morality stems from this kind of behaviour. The bible writers seen an act of kindness among people and attributed it to themselves.



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  • In reply to #11 by Red Dog:

    If you are instead talking about “survival instincts” as behaviors that are beneficial to the species as a whole then that is the currently unsolved problem of altruism. Because a mathematical analysis of behaviors (using game theory) shows that such altruistic behaviors absolutely will not propagate through a species the way behaviors that benefit the selfish genes of an individual do. “Cheaters” (those that don’t have the gene for an altruistic behavior) will eventually win out and their genes will take the place of the altruistic genes.

    That is why its an open question, because clearly there DOES exist truly altruistic behavior and none of our current theories about evolutionary behavior or psychology can adequately explain exactly WHY and HOW such behaviors exist. E.O. Wilson caused a lot of controversy recently trying to bring back the idea of “group selection” (that behaviors can be selected because they benefit a whole species not an individual’s selfish genes) but most people such as Dawkins think he is wrong — and for what its worth I read his book and thought it was fascinating but I do agree with Dawkins, despite pointing out some interesting phenomena with termites and other highly social animals he never addressed the “cheater” question in his book as far as I could tell.

    As for the question about “cheaters,” wouldn’t it be detrimental for the “cheater” to get caught cheating because he would be disliked and possibly outcast by the rest of the society? Animals (and humans) aren’t purely selfless; even if they have some altruistic properties they also have selfish wants and needs. If they see another animal in their pack or tribe being selfish or cheating in some way, this would bother them and motivate them to retaliate in some way. Therefore, cheaters would be outcast or shunned, and they would not be able to survive or reproduce as well as the non-cheaters. This is all just my specualtion, however, and I would love to hear other people’s thoughts on this.

    P.S. I believe this retaliation is also dealt with in game theory. For example, in the tragedy of the commons case, the players can implement a punishment for breaking the agreement of limiting their consumption. (an example of the case goes like this: imagine there’s a village of fisherman with a limited supply of fish. If they all catch the fish to their maximum capacity, the fish will be gone, and they will have no more fish to catch in the later years. Therefore, the fisherman can all agree to fish under a certain limit. However, if one fisherman cheats, this would not create a large enough impact on the number of fish to make them go extinct. Therefore, if everyone else abides by this limit, the fisherman has an incentive to go over the limit (thus cheat). To prevent this cheating, a punishment can be implemented so that the cost of the punishment is higher than the benefit of cheating. )



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