In reading the nearly 700 reader responses to my Oct. 17 essay for The Stone, (“Morals Without God?“) I notice how many readers are relieved to see that there are shades of gray when it comes to the question whether morality requires God. I believe that such a discussion needs to revolve around both the distant past, in which religion likely played little or no role if we go back far enough, and modern times, in which it is hard to disentangle morality and religion. The latter point seemed obvious to me, yet proved controversial. Even though 90 percent of my text questions the religious origins of human morality, and wonders if we need a God to be good, it is the other 10 percent — in which I tentatively assign a role to religion — that drew most ire. Atheists, it seems (at least those who responded here) don’t like any less than 100 percent agreement with their position.
To have a productive debate, religion needs to recognize the power of the scientific method and the truths it has revealed, but its opponents need to recognize that one cannot simply dismiss a social phenomenon found in every major society. If humans are inherently religious, or at least show rituals related to the supernatural, there is a big question to be answered. The issue is not whether or not God exists — which I find to be a monumentally uninteresting question defined, as it is, by the narrow parameters of monotheism — but why humans universally feel the need for supernatural entities. Is this just to stay socially connected or does it also underpin morality? And if so, what will happen to morality in its absence?
Just raising such an obvious issue has become controversial in an atmosphere in which public forums seem to consist of pro-science partisans or pro-religion partisans, and nothing in between. How did we arrive at this level of polarization, this small-mindedness, as if we are taking part in the Oxford Debating Society, where all that matters is winning or losing? It is unfortunate when, in discussing how to lead our lives and why to be good — very personal questions — we end up with a shouting match. There are in fact no answers to these questions, only approximations, and while science may be an excellent source of information it is simply not designed to offer any inspiration in this regard. It used to be that science and religion went together, and in fact (as I tried to illustrate with Bosch’s paintings) Western science ripened in the bosom of Christianity and its explicit desire for truth. Ironically, even atheism may be looked at as a product of this desire, as explained by the philosopher John Gray:
Christianity struck at the root of pagan tolerance of illusion. In claiming that there is only one true faith, it gave truth a supreme value it had not had before. It also made disbelief in the divine possible for the first time. The long-delayed consequence of the Christian faith was an idolatry of truth that found its most complete expression in atheism. (Straw Dogs, 2002).
Those who wish to remove religion and define morality as the pursuit of scientifically defined well-being (à la Sam Harris) should read up on earlier attempts in this regard, such as the Utopian novel “Walden Two” by B. F. Skinner, who thought that humans could achieve greater happiness and productivity if they just paid better attention to the science of reward and punishment. Skinner’s colleague John Watson even envisioned “baby factories” that would dispense with the “mawkish” emotions humans are prone to, an idea applied with disastrous consequences in Romanian orphanages. And talking of Romania, was not the entire Communist experiment an attempt at a society without God? Apart from the question of how moral these societies turned out to be, I find it intriguing that over time Communism began to look more and more like a religion itself. The singing, marching, reciting of poems and pledges and waving in the air of Little Red Books smacked of holy fervor, hence my remark that any movement that tries to promote a certain moral agenda — even while denying God — will soon look like any old religion. Since people look up to those perceived as more knowledgeable, anyone who wants to promote a certain social agenda, even one based on science, will inevitably come face to face with the human tendency to follow leaders and let them do the thinking.
What I would love to see is a debate among moderates. Perhaps it is an illusion that this can be achieved on the Internet, given how it magnifies disagreements, but I do think that most people will be open to a debate that respects both the beliefs held by many and the triumphs of science. There is no obligation for non-religious people to hate religion, and many believers are open to interrogating their own convictions. If the radicals on both ends are unable to talk with each other, this should not keep the rest of us from doing so.
Frans B. M. de Waal is a biologist interested in primate behavior. He is C. H. Candler Professor in Psychology, and Director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University, in Atlanta, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences. His latest book is “The Age of Empathy.”