An evolutionary process or a Bronze Age book?
Morality; that wonderfully loaded word. Christians still try to demonise atheists, claiming they have no ethics, without God. Nothing, absolutely nothing, could be further from the truth. As we shall soon see. Are they honestly suggesting that the Christian view of this magnificent, elegantly carpeted, richly draped, and heavenly inspired “high ground” of morality, is entirely their province? Christians have been around for a mere two millennia — but our ancestors have been shaping morality and ethics — the concepts of right and wrong — for more than 150 thousand years!
What many Christians today call “morality” is essentially a middle class concept of “decency”. Their sensitivities get rattled by nudity, or a sexual orientation that doesn’t match their own, or simply by bad language. But morality and ethics have been the very cornerstone of human survival — long before we left Africa, prior to the last ice age.
Our sense of morality lies deep in our Darwinian past. Modern research techniques have confirmed what evolutionary scientists have long suspected, that our entire human community — irrespective of race, colour or religion — has an inbuilt “survival” tendency towards “doing the right thing”. Not that everyone has moral rectitude. No, no. Just as most of us have the desire to be good, there are always those, regrettably, who choose otherwise. Christian ministers, as we have seen recently (and throughout history) can be among the worst offenders.
So, where does our “morality” come from . . .?
A key factor that allowed early humans to survive, in a hostile African savannah, was “cooperation”. It would quickly become apparent that members of the group needed to follow certain rules. They didn’t have the Ten Commandments to survive and prosper — and they didn’t need them.
Fast forward 150 millennia to the plush chrome and glass offices of a corporate Human Resources department. For decades, HR staff have been putting potential new employees through IQ and “personality” assessment to gauge (essentially) their ability to “work within the team”. Not wholly dissimilar to the African Savannah . . .!
Hundreds of tests and scores of books have been written on the subject — generally with the same themes and conclusion. But perhaps one of the best known is Harvard biologist Marc Hauser, and his book Moral Minds: How Nature Designed our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong.
The tests pose myriad hypothetical dilemmas. A person is drowning, or a group is trapped in a high rise building which is on fire, or someone is about to die in a variety of randomly contrived situations. A common thread proposes the unavoidable death of one person, to save the lives of many others. Or it may suggest that no one should be sacrificed to save others. One situation poses whether it is acceptable to terminate one near-death patient, in order to retrieve organs that will save 5 others who are about to die from organ failure.
These tests have been in used around the world, and adapted to the full spectrum of socio-economic, cultural and regional scenarios. In one venture, Dr Hauser adapted his tests to the Kuna people — a small Central American tribe with little contact with the modern world. The ‘dilemmas’ were simulated to represent situations they would fully understand. Other tests have been specifically conducted for atheists and religious groups.
The bottom line for all these situations is that participants must make life or death choices. They must choose a hypothetical action which is either morally “obligatory”, or “permissible”, or “forbidden”.
The final conclusion was that “no statistically significant differences” existed between any groups. This included tests between atheists and religious groups. This meshes precisely with the view held by atheists all along. One does not require any religion to provide a moral compass — and to understand the differences between right and wrong. Christians should take note, and refer to atheist ethics on this site.
Atheism SA Inc. active atheist assoc., Adelaide South Australia, for atheists, agnostics and non-believers.