By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Morality in Primates Makes This Theist Smile

Primate skulls provided courtesy of the Museum...Image via Wikipedia
Our Rhode Island supplier of interesting links sends this link to a N.Y. Times blog essay. The lengthy but very worthwhile essay is by a scientist who studies primates. The title is "Morals Without God?" So a theist's first reaction might be: "Oh, here we go again. Another screed telling us that God is totally unnecessary to explain anything." Now, what does the scientist who wrote the blog essay conclude? As I read him (please correct me in the comments if I have somehow misread him--but, of course, I do not think I have if I am wrtiting this post), the primate scientist is saying that he sees in the primates that he observes many examples of altruistic, compassionate, and empathetic behavior as opposed to coldly selfish behavior. Hence, these animals reflect what we humans would call "moral behavior."

Yet, the primates have no religion. So our scientist-author concludes that the notion of God is not necessary to explain morality among primates, with us humans being simply higher-level primates ourselves. Yet, the same scientist-author refuses to join the tiresome and superficial fad of attacking religion by noting that religion contributes a moral framework that we would have to invent if religion disappeared altogether from human society. Here is a crucial excerpt:

While I do consider religious institutions and their representatives — popes, bishops, mega-preachers, ayatollahs, and rabbis — fair game for criticism, what good could come from insulting individuals who find value in religion? And more pertinently, what alternative does science have to offer? Science is not in the business of spelling out the meaning of life and even less in telling us how to live our lives. We, scientists, are good at finding out why things are the way they are, or how things work, and I do believe that biology can help us understand what kind of animals we are and why our morality looks the way it does. But to go from there to offering moral guidance seems a stretch.
Even the staunchest atheist growing up in Western society cannot avoid having absorbed the basic tenets of Christian morality. Our societies are steeped in it: everything we have accomplished over the centuries, even science, developed either hand in hand with or in opposition to religion, but never separately. It is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion. It would require a visit to a human culture that is not now and never was religious. That such cultures do not exist should give us pause.

Source link (emphasis added).

At the end of the blog essay, our scientist summarizes his view:

 I take these hints of community concern as yet another sign that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and that we do not need God to explain how we got where we are today. On the other hand, what would happen if we were able to excise religion from society? I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good. 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.

Source link above.

So our author seems to be saying (as I paraphrase him): we do not need religion to explain morality, but religion of some kind plays a vital role in inspiring us to do good.

Frankly, to the likely surprise of not a few on both sides of the atheist-theist divide, a Catholic can surely agree with the above conclusion as I have paraphrased it! As Catholics, we do not believe that morality originates with a religious revelation. We believe that the creator made us with a natural morality hard-wired into our human nature. Religion does not add morality to our human nature. Morality is already rooted in human nature. This view is what we call the natural law and has its roots in the writings of St. Paul, especially Romans 2:14 and 15 and its immediate context. To see traces of that same human, naturally hard-wired morality also present in our primate cousins simply makes me as a theist smile in wonder at the marvels of a creation shot through with continuity reflecting various degrees and shades of traits that we humans so dramatically possess.

A Catholic can also, more obviously, concur with the scientist's recognition of the morality-inspiring role of religion. Religious revelation refines our natural moral instincts and makes our natural morality more explicit and more intelligible in a conscious and coherent way. Religious revelation also challenges us and shocks us (think of the parables and life of Jesus) into follow the earth-shaking implications of our natural morality, implications that can be obscured by our selfish and customary tendencies to moral mediocrity.

Bottom Line: The scientifically observed altruism of the primates reminds this theist of a creator who made a moral universe that shines forth in the moral continuum populated both by animals and by humans.