Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Is Empathy Exclusively Christian?

With thanks to "Atheist in a Mini Van" (and a hat-tip to "Unscrewing the Inscrutable"), I bring you this brilliant essay from an eleven year old girl whose teacher asked the class to write a "pop essay" on "What I Want For Christmas". A brief passage:

I take another look around my classroom and notice that Mahmeed is absent-mindedly cleaning underneathe his fingernails with the cap from his pen. Emily is feverishly trying to catch my eye and, having done so, mouthing the words, "I don't celebrate Christmas...I'm Jewish." in a quizzical manner. Jayden is doing what he normally does during such pop essays: he's looking out the window- probably wondering where his parents will get the money for January's rent and feeling guilty for daring to think about a gift. He's pretty sensitive.


What made me write this post profiling the essay, though, is the response of the teacher:

Her teacher wrote this at the end of her essay:
"Possum#1*, thank you for your thoughtful remarks. I don't think you're an atheist but I respect your empathy for your friends. Please see me after class today. A+"

After class, possum#1 said that her teacher told her she couldn't be an atheist because her "ability to care for others feelings isn't an atheist trait." and that her "attitude was very Christian."


I see this a lot, people assuming that certain emotions or morals -- love, caring, tenderness, concern for others -- are the exclusive domain of their own particular faith system. Almost universally, it is assumed that an atheist, who after all doesn't believe in a supreme being who enforces rules, must by the very nature of the universe be incapable of morality. "Why not just go shoot everyone in the face?" is a question I've been asked by believers.

The common atheist response is to say something like "If the only reason you're not shooting me in the face is because you think you're going to get punished for it when you die, then please don't come near me with a gun."

Less whimsically, though, it seems obvious to me that empathy is a universal human trait that faith systems commonly coopt for their own purposes. Most people are capable of understanding that if something hurts them, it's likely to hurt someone else too. That's generally enough to keep them from then going out and doing that to the neighbor. This built-in moral sense, this fundamental understanding that other people are basically like you and you should thus treat them well, is common to virtually every culture in history, including pre-religious ones. It's more commonly expressed as The Golden Rule -- "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" -- and it's something we see even in non-human life.

In other words, the empathy comes first, then morality is built on top of it, and finally religion arises to codify and enforce the moral system erected on the foundation of empathy. Religion doesn't "cause" moral behavior, any more than the institution of monogamous marriage "causes" the birth of children. The urge comes built in ("I want to screw"), then morality arises on how to deal with it ("people should be responsible for the children they produce"), and finally religion comes up with a system for ritualizing and enforcing the moral code ("Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Wife"). It's easy to confuse the effect for the cause, but it's a serious mistake to do so. You inevitably end up with something like "(the) ability to care for others feelings isn't an atheist trait".

We are not moral beings because of religion, we are religious beings because of morality. Once you understand that, it's easy to see why this little girl had compassion for her classmates "even though" she's an atheist. The impulse to love and care for each other is not a purely Christian value, and to label it as such is both incorrect and insulting.

17 comments:

Geopoet said...

Interesting question, Jeff. Of course, the "religous" would say your derivation is exactly backwards. They (we) would say it is the Creator, God, who instills the empathy and thence morality within us as part of our/His innate nature, even when it's against our primival instincts (as C.S. Lewis so clearly lays out), and that religious expression is present througout this entire process, not some post experiental invention. Thus it is perfectly understandable and expected that all people of all cultures, religions and times, even atheists, are endowed with this gift from God. The theists will thus recognize the empathy as coming from God, even if the atheist denies it.

I believe you are correct though to say that the teacher erred in saying the girl was not an atheist or that she is a Christian (hmmm I put way too many negatives in that one!). The personal belief system is a choice (free will), regardless of what the objective and absolute truth may be.

Jeff Hebert said...

Aaargh, Blogger ate my long reply. Feh. I'll try again.

They (we) would say it is the Creator, God, who instills the empathy and thence morality within us as part of our/His innate nature, even when it's against our primival instincts.

This would raise the question from a non-theist of why an omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent God would choose to create a life form with primeval instincts that need to later be contravened by an empathetic moral sense. Why not just make the primeval instincts the ones He finds pleasing, or "right", to begin with? If you're going to argue that He doesn't have a problem instilling some organic mechanism for showing us what is right and wrong, it is illogical to ignore the implicit proposition that He also chose to instill the original, "wrong" primeval instincts as well.

The theists will thus recognize the empathy as coming from God, even if the atheist denies it.

The Christian conception of god is a "heads I win, tails you lose" kind of proposition, where no matter what evidence you provide, the answer "God did it" always suffices. God is responsible for the good feelings of natural, biological empathy we feel, but God is not responsible for the original primeval instincts that the moral sense is forced to combat.

If a person is killed by a falling boulder, it's God's will to take the man's life. If the boulder misses, it is God's will that the boulder missed.

If it is shown that animals -- including non humans -- have an empathic sense, hard-wired parts of the brain that serve to help us feel what another being feels, that is evidence of God's intervention. If it is shown that there is no such organ or set of cells, that also is evidence of God's intervention.

God can't lose. Everything to a theist is evidence of God, and there is no way to ever falsify His existence. You will obviously counter that on the contrary, a non theist will see everything as evidence of the non-existence of God. Yet clearly that is not the case. If it were shown that there was an organ in the human brain that had no analog or precursor anywhere else in the animal kingdom, and the function of this organ was to give us a sense of morality that no other being possessed, I would say that would be powerful evidence of some kind of creator.

No such construct, however, can be imagined for a theist. There is literally no possibility of any kind of evidence that would make a believer stop believing in God, because no matter what you point to, they can always respond "God wanted it that way." And yet, in any other human endeavor, any explanation that fits every single example is pretty much useless. Something that explains everything basically explains nothing. You could just as easily say "The Flying Spaghetti Monster wants it that way, that's why," and you'll have a claim that's just about as useful.

At the end of the day, of course, and for the purposes of this essay, it doesn't really matter if God created the empathic sense or if it evolved naturally, without divine intervention. I think my statement still stands, that empathy is the underpinning of moral thought and ultimately religious belief, and not vice versa. In other words, again, religion doesn't cause good behavior, religion simply coopts the moral sense that is already there and codifies it, regardless of whether God or just plain old natural evolution is behind it.

R. Paul Martin said...

This would raise the question from a non-theist of why an omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent God would choose to create a life form with primeval instincts that need to later be contravened by an empathetic moral sense.

But a non-theist, by virtue of his/her belief system, will never accept a theist's answer, either.

Why not just make the primeval instincts the ones He finds pleasing, or "right", to begin with?

If one can accept the thesis that God's plan includes a relationship with God's creation, it makes sense to build in a certain capacity to say "yes" or "no" to that relationship. To build in the "right" instincts only is to create a coerced relationship, which runs contrary to what we learn from Scripture about God's nature.

The trouble that non-theists and theists alike find with this argument presents itself through the concept of Free Will, which most Reforming theologians don't accept anyway, as far as I can tell. It's kind of confusing, but if I understand Luther's gist (and he considered this concept as central to an understanding of Christianity), Man has no Free Will as it is usually defined.

Luther and Calvin (I believe) both asserted that humans have a self-will, which is inherently sinful (i.e. consists of the "wrong" impulses), and that on his own, Man always wills in his own self-interest, not in the interest of God's desires.

On the other hand, Man is freed from this enslavement to sin by faith (a gift from God) and by God's Grace. Now, this takes us down another road regarding predestination and double-predestination, which I don't even claim to have the shakiest grasp on. So I'll move on.

There is literally no possibility of any kind of evidence that would make a believer stop believing in God

True!

You could just as easily say "The Flying Spaghetti Monster wants it that way, that's why,"

And that would be a theology, but a pretty shaky one. The Flying Spaghetti Monster has been around for how long? And how many believers are there? Contrast that to other theologies - ones that people actually take seriously and have devoted lifetimes to pursuing (and I'm not talking about stupid people here), and you'll see that analogy isn't really a good one. I'm not condoning non-FSM theology on the basis that it's old, but rather on its persistence and continuity through those ages. The more you study the serious theologies, the more they stand up. I don't think the FSM can make such a claim.

religion doesn't cause good behavior, religion simply coopts the moral sense that is already there and codifies it

Can't argue too much with that. One might say that morality inheres in existence and religion (that is, the traditions and practices that define a belief system) codifies that morality. Religion is largely a human construct, but existence is not.

Great discussion!

The Evil DM said...

"Aaargh, Blogger ate my long reply. Feh. I'll try again."


Blogger tip #65879
Always construct your post in Word, then paste it to blogger.

The Cow Whisperer said...

Just as insulting as the teachers comment (which I agree was stupid), is the inference that all Christians feel this way.

The sad thing to me is that there is a Barna study that says something to the effect of only 8 or 9% of "christians" have a worldview that is truly Biblical. As a result, you have people thinking they are christian because they are Americans, or because they got baptized as an infant, or because of whatever...but have no concept of true Biblical Christianity. As a result, we have seen our faith get distorted, rebutted, and rejected because of things like the morons who thought the work of the KKK was the work of the Lord.

The result is the hugely prevalent error of judging God, whether God exists, whether He loves, etc. based on the actions of humans who could not possibly represent the infinite perfection He does.

I know you disagree, and that is your prerogative, and we can be friends regardless. It just gets my dander up when people (like this little girl) take some human screwup and say "See!!! See!!! There's no God! He would never allow this." The whole concept of human freewill is based on us choosing His will over our own. Many Christians blow it, because they (we) are so entrenched in serving ourselves, that they (we) cannot break ourselves of that. If we could and DID, perhaps the world would have a better view of Christianity. But it would still be distorted if it relied upon the actions of humans.

adam H said...

i read the athiest in a minivan's story about the essay a few days ago on her site, and was intrigued by it. such a great example of culture clash and ignorance.

And that would be a theology, but a pretty shaky one. it's yours The Flying Spaghetti Monster has been around for how long? And how many believers are there? none Contrast that to other theologies - ones that people actually take seriously and have devoted lifetimes to pursuing (and I'm not talking about stupid people here), and you'll see that analogy isn't really a good one. it's perfect I'm not condoning non-FSM theology on the basis that it's old, but rather on its persistence and continuity through those ages. i think you just contradicted yourself in one sentenceThe more you study the serious theologies, the more they stand up. I don't think the FSM can make such a claim.

dude, the FSM is satire. no one actually believes in it because it's a joke meant to poke at how genesis is obviously a folk tale and shouldn't be taught in the classroom. the fact that you don't get it shows just how right on the mark the whole FSM thing is.

however, you are accurate about luther/calvin's thoughts on free will, and they did point out the inconsistency between bible teaching and the free will concept. i'll elaborate on my own blog later so as not to leave an obnoxiously long comment here.

R. Paul Martin said...

I don't want to take up a lot of space defending my comments, either. Upon review, I see that they weren't well-stated. The FSM thing, for example: it's clearly satire, but it's not far off the mark in terms of representing many theologies - New Age ones, for example - that just dont' stand up on close scrutiny. I maintain that Judeo-Christian thought does, however, whether that's been your experience or not.

But the real point of Jeff's initial post is well-taken, and The Cow Whisperer hit it on the head - it is an error to judge God based on flawed humanity. I think the teacher in this story was well-intentioned but seriously in error.

And despite this detour down a somewhat dark road, this really is a good discussion and it has been helpful to me.

Geopoet said...

The initial question and comments seem to come down to 3 basic questions:

1. Is religion just an invention that "coopted" our innate sense of morality? and
2. Is this innates sense "good" or "evil"? which then follows:
3. If we do have "evil" tendencies, why don't we blame God for that (or use it to prove He doesn't exist?)

On question 1, if we want to be scientific and factual about it, there is no evidence that this preposition is true; that is, from the earliest accounts, people have attributed their norms of behavior in religious terms, defining it in its proper terms. To say that religion just codified morality is like saying the Declaration of Independence invented freedom, a chicken-or-the-egg type situation. As one would expect, the religous expression only got more organized over time. It is not that different from the formalization that science has gone through more recently (one can imagine the neanderthals experimenting with different ways of making a fire burn hotter or longer, flash-forward to a modern laser).

On question 2, raised by one of the commenters, it should first be recognized that such a statement requires some type of standard or reference on what is meant by "good" and "evil". It makes no sense and is totally subjective without some moral standard or code. Of course, we theists recognize this as God who instilled it in the human race. The atheists say it's evolutionary or social, which brings us right back to the first question and the logic becomes circular, with no proof either way. I can understand their frustration when atheists argue that it's not fair that God gets to win either way, which leads us to the next question.

On question 3, I believe there is an inherant flaw in saying God gets no blame for the evil side of our tendencies. It's not an either-or situation however. Let's use science and reason again, the so-called vices we have (doing evil) spring from what are actually distortions or misuse of a virtue (doing good). In other words, protection of mate or tribe that goes unchecked can lead to jealousy and war; gift of procreation unchecked twists into lust; to eat -gluttony; self preservation - selfishness; etc. etc. It is we who choose to take the natural gifts and abuse them, with the remarkable thing being that the vice is almost universally agreed upon. Thus I also disagree completely with the Calvinistic belief that man is inherently unable to attain virtue and is basically evil. The fact that this logic leads to predestination and "once saved always saved" in that theology is only one example of its falsehood. To put this theology in mathematical terms, that belief says man began at "0" and fell to "-1" due to The Fall, thus man is always inclined toward evil, unable to do good. In Catholic theology, it's more like God created (and intends) us at +1 and The Fall put us at "0", our natural state. It is Free Will that we use to channel these natural laws upward or downward.

The little girl in Jeff's blog exhibits innate morality that comes from God and is an absolute recognized by theists and atheists alike; how she grows, develops and moves toward "good" or "bad" is her choice through the gift of Free Will, but the God that instilled a sense of Himself in her (religion) will always be there to make sense of it all and channel her gifts to her benefit.

One last point about some discovery in a human brain that would be proof of a God, looking to science to prove His existance. Recent discoveries in the heightened use of a part of the brain during prayer of certain monks and nuns is a classical example. The scientists publish the phenomena (facts), the atheistic arms try to find any excuse to de-link it from religion (show it can be replicated), and the theists just say it's exactly what you'd expect, but not "proof", no different that the infinite ways God communicates with us. In the end, no one changes their mind because they begin with a false premise.

Perhaps it is only in the Incarnation of Christ where all Truth could be so fully observed.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I wonder if our attempts to demonstrate our intellect are more of a hobby than true ponderings. What is see time and again in debates are comments that begin with presumption, and then rationalization of that presupposition.

Well, if you would like to dig very deeply into subject matters of Darwinism, intellect vs. faith, and so on, then the work of Phillip Johnson should be on your reading list. A tenured professor at Cal-Berkeley of all places, and a graduate of Harvard and then University of Chicago School of Law, here is a guy that thinks deeper than just about any 3 people I know. His writing might surprise you.

Interview with Phillip Johnson:
http://www.touchstonemag.com/docs/issues/15.5docs/15-5pg40.html

Phillip Johnson's webpage (including contact info at Berkeley):
http://www.arn.org/authors/johnson.html

Jeff Hebert said...

Phillip Johnson is one of the founders of the Intelligent Design movement, and it is his goal to remove methodological naturalism as the cornerstone of the scientific method. He favors instead a method of inquiry based on faith and religion. His "Discovery Institute" is behind the latest flavor of Creationism, and their consistent dishonesty coupled with their complete lack of any scientific input has rendered them a laughingstock. Johnson is on the same level as a Duane Gish or a Kent Hovind, a pretentious huckster peddling age-old anti-science nonsense in a fancy, shiny new package, trying to win converts with appeals to ignorance, misleading characterizations of facts, and a fundamentally dishonest public relations campaign.

I find the DI to be a pernicious, anti-science, old-school creationist organization with a pretty new face. Their goal is to undermine the very foundation of what makes science possible so they can return to their interpretation of what the Bible says, substituting their own judgment for that of scientific inquiry and other theology both.

I've read plenty (more than I wish I had, to be honest) of the garbage put out by the DI and its sycophants and I find it completely without merit, wholly lacking in intellectual honesty, and appalling in its theological obtuseness.

Acroamatic said...

Jeff,

Of course, the teacher erred in her reply to the girl who, by the way, was completely within her rights with her response. I believe the teacher, as a government-school teacher, also erred in asking for that particular assignment in the first place. Have them write about the weather, or a trip they hope to take, but not Christmas.

I say the above as a theist and "practical believer" and as a teacher. It just isn't good pedagogy to introduce distracting elements like that--don't bring the elephant to the room to teach the color grey. There might be moments to talk about that topic (holiday gifts, etc.), but not as a time-filler before the holiday break.

As to the relationship of religion and morality: one author says that the moral code of a faith is a window into its soul. I take that in the best anthropological and spiritual sense, as well as in the sense that many non-theists do, that the moral system of members of a religious community may well be either (a) a work in progress or (b) an outright betrayal of the deepest principles of the faith. Either way, morality is what exists on the level of "praxis" and so it will always be difficult to separate it from its relationship to particular persons in a particular culture at a particular time in history. That also means that a moral critique of any religious system, while always in order, must also consider that the fit between morality and religion is not always comfortable. Like the proverbial broken clock, even the atheist is right sometimes....

Jeff Hebert said...

Acromatic said:

Like the proverbial broken clock, even the atheist is right sometimes....

Gosh, thanks :-)

As for the rest of your post, I think it was very well put, thank you. (Look, now I'm right TWICE! Woo hoo!)

GeoPoet said:
On question 1, if we want to be scientific and factual about it, there is no evidence that this preposition is true; that is, from the earliest accounts, people have attributed their norms of behavior in religious terms, defining it in its proper terms.

This is untrue. From "The Science of Good & Evil" by Michael Shermer:

Such elaborate behavior controls yoked to religious rituals are not needed in bands and tribes, whose numbers are small enough that other less formal methods are more effective. In his three decades of research in New Guinea, for example, Jared Diamond says he has "never heard any invocation of a god or spirit to justify how people should behave toward others."

Religion codifies moral behavior, which is based on the fundamental advantage cooperation gives to social groups. We see that cooperative advantage in many non-human species, from vampire bats who were successful on their nighttime hunting routine regurgitating their catch for other bats in the group who were not successful that night, to dolphins pushing friends in distress to the surface so they can breathe. The impulse to cooperate, the ability to empathize with an other and to internalize their feelings, to give the well being of others the same weight as our own, these are not traits exclusive to the religious or to religious thought. Moral urges come first, and religion serves to codify them. If that were not the case, if moral behavior were solely and only the byproduct of religious belief in a deity, then we would not see such pre-moral behavior throughout the animal kingdom.

A theist can (and will, and has) argue that God works through evolution, thus it is unremarkable that we find traces of naturalistic evolution of religious feelings. Again, there is literally no evidence that would contradict such an omnipotent, supernatural being -- literally anything can be laid at their feet. However, it is simply inaccurate to say that morality is only and inextricably tied to religion, and particularly egregious to claim that morality is the exclusive provenance of any one particular religion.

That is the point of the Atheist Minivan story: to claim that only people of a certain religious faith can possibly feel empathy or follow a sense of morality is simply nonsense. Empathy, morality, kindness, these are human emotions common to us all, whether you believe they were planted in us by a long-visioned divinity or the blind workings of nature. They are a common heritage we share with much of the animal kingdom, and are the bedrock on which we build the way we treat each other. To plant a flag in that wonderful, rich history and lay claim to it as the exclusive property of your particular faith is as abhorrent as it is false.

GeoPoet said:
To say that religion just codified morality is like saying the Declaration of Independence invented freedom, a chicken-or-the-egg type situation.

I don't know what to make of this statement, but I think you're saying exactly the right thing, only you're dismissing it. Of course the Declaration did not invent freedom, it simply codified principles that had long existed. This is exactly the same thing as religion codifying behavior and morality that had long existed previously. Religion did not invent morality, and America did not invent freedom -- both religious and political institutions have evolved over time to shape pre-existing human behavior in the most socially beneficial way.

Geopoet said...

It seems we agree on a couple of key points being 1) morality is not the sole claim of any one religion (I never claimed that) and 2) in your words,it is possible that the sense of morality imbued in all men could be linked to some divine entity (or biological, or both).

The clarification (and side discussion) thus lies in whether or not there is proof of your statement that religion arose from morality. If you are defining "morality" to include biological activities toward propogation of the species and "religion" as being some formal set of beliefs in existance today, I would agree. However, this argument misses the point I was hoping to make and leads to a misleading conclusion (that belief in God is an invention of our species).

Indeed, the acknowledged atheist Shermer goes way off base from a scientific standpoint trying again to use science to disprove God exists, which none of his arguments do, or can. We should be wary of such biased scientists.

The assertiion is rather that there appears to be an intrinsic and intractible link between human expression of belief in a deity (or deities) - what I am calling religion - that extends beyond simply survival instincts and that goes back to the dawn of mankind. This appears to be a scientific fact, according to nearly all other scientific sources (http://www.meta-religion.com/World_Religions/Ancient_religions/prehistoric_religion.htm). In fact, a recent "discovery" of the proof of religion as far back as at least 70,000 years ago (Scientific American.com, Dec 1,2006)was recently announced.

Bottom line, science itself postulates that a sense of God has always been with mankind and this sense has affected behavior. Does this prove God exists? Of course not, but it certainly should be acknowledged by atheists who are being misleading when they take an unsupported position that the idea of God was essentially invented, especially when they follow with mockery of modern religions. It would be much more honest of them to acknowledge there is evidence of a strong anthropological connection between human religious expression and moral behavior that extends as far back as we can see. Similarly, I would agree with you that the theory that religious expressin and ethical morality may have evolved together would be neither surprising nor evidential of the non-existance of God.

Thanks,

Jeff Hebert said...

It seems we agree on a couple of key points being 1) morality is not the sole claim of any one religion (I never claimed that)

I never claimed you claimed that, it's what the teacher in the original article said. It's also a position I encounter very often when discussion religion and morality with Christians. That was the whole point of the original post I made.

and 2) in your words,it is possible that the sense of morality imbued in all men could be linked to some divine entity (or biological, or both).

Of course it could be linked to a divine entity. Everything can be linked to a divine entity. It's one of the privileges of being God, believers can claim literally any evidence at all is evidence for your existence.

Bottom line, science itself postulates that a sense of God has always been with mankind and this sense has affected behavior.

You're ignoring evidence that non-human species also have a sense of morality. Are animals also religious? The evidence of morality (or pre-morality as Shermer calls it) in non-humans divorced from religious sentiment seems to belie the postulate that religion and morality are inextricably intertwined.

Evidence that in primitive cultures religious sentiment is separate from moral behavior would also suggest this. Whether it's the "acknowledged atheist" Michael Shermer talking about the research is as irrelevant as the fact that the "acknowledged Catholic" Galileo promoted the belief in a round earth. The evidence is the evidence regardless of the religious convictions of the one pointing it out -- that's what's good about science, it's personality neutral. The conclusions one can draw from the data, obviously, depends on the individual, but the data is the data.

You get your own opinion, you don't get your own facts.

My basic hypothesis, as stated in the original post, is that empathy leads to moral sentiment, and that religion then utilizes the underlying morality that is already there to strengthen both itself and the moral feelings themselves. The fact that animals exhibit pre-moral behavior without exhibiting concurrent religious behavior is strong evidence for this hypothesis. The fact that humans exhibit moral behavior even when they have never been exposed to the concept of the divine is also evidence for this hypothesis.

If it were true that religion must come before morality, and that you cannot have morality without religion, then this evidence would not exist.

Note that this hypothesis is not evidence against the existence of a God or gods. Again, this data can be read -- like literally any data at all -- as evidence for the existence of God. But what it does do is to disprove the idea that it is only through religious feeling that morality can exist. The two clearly are related, at least in humans, but it's just as clear that religion does not come first. Belief in God is not a necessary condition for the existence of morality. This is not evidence one way or the other for the existence of a God, it is simply data.

Geopoet said...

qJeff said: My basic hypothesis, as stated in the original post, is that empathy leads to moral sentiment, and that religion then utilizes the underlying morality that is already there to strengthen both itself and the moral feelings themselves.

Geopoet says: I think the issue I have with this hypothesis is that it implies invention of religious expression and belief, so forgive me if I misunderstand it. If so, the hypothesis needs to create certain definitions in order for it to work (terms such as “Pre-moral” and “religious behavior” are construed to fit the notion of the invention of God). Rather, it is more scientifically valid to say that the data shows human moral behavior and belief in the divine are intertwined and go back to the earliest humans. With that as a basis, I would agree with the rest of your theory. Perhaps also the problem is that the theory requires a very narrow definition of religion (as an external institution I would guess?) that nicely (and by necessity) sets up its predetermined posit. Again, the theist says even the empathy comes from the divine. Since the conclusion defies the data and cannot prove its basic premise, one has to question the hypothesis.

Jeff said: The fact that animals exhibit pre-moral behavior without exhibiting concurrent religious behavior is strong evidence for this hypothesis.

Geopoet says: The only evidence we have here is that animals exhibit behaviors that are instinctive for survival and propagation of the species. Since there is no way to know if animals have religious beliefs (we cannot read their minds and I hardly expect to find an amoeba altar), there is no evidence and no facts for this statement. Oddly however (and this is another “God wins either way”) if we could read animal’s minds and find they perceive God, it would seem to provide even more evidence of His existence.

Jeff said: The fact that humans exhibit moral behavior even when they have never been exposed to the concept of the divine is also evidence for this hypothesis.

Geopoet says: Actually, this would only prove that God exists in that He has instilled a sense of Himself in all men that is not otherwise explainable. In other words, if a human has never been exposed to religion but still exhibits “moral” behavior (again, behavior that does good in spite of what instinct or preservation would expect) then I can find no greater proof against the “invention of God” idea the author seems to suggest.

Jeff said: If it were true that religion must come before morality, and that you cannot have morality without religion, then this evidence would not exist.

Geopoet says: Since these are intrinsically linked in the human conscience, neither can be said to come first. There seems to be confusion on what “religion” is. The atheists appear to look for temples or something and if they find an example where moral beings don’t have one, it’s proof for them that religion (and thus God) is a sham invention. The theists say empathy, morality and a sense of the divine (religious thought) are expectedly fused from the earliest time, and the science so far seems to agree.

I get the feeling that there is a current of thought in the anti-religious scientific community that formalized religion is the problem, so if they can just plant the idea it was “invented” then they can take the next step and say belief in God is also invented. I offer this concern exactly because such scientists don’t seem to want to remain scientific about their conclusions.

If all the evidence (e.g., anthropological, neurological) showing the connections (between ethical moral behavior and the concept of a divine) is not even acknowledged by the atheistic scientific community, it would seem to me that this is a reflection of institutional bias. One cannot help but wonder if this ignoring of the obvious is just a veiled attempt to discredit the foundational basis of religion. I agree with you then on this point – they should just put the facts out there for the rest of us to ponder.

Jeff Hebert said...

If I am reading you correctly, what you're complaining about is that somehow I'm advancing the argument that because religion does not cause morality, religion is somehow "made up" or "not real". That is not what I am arguing at all. Clearly religious feelings are part of the human condition, rooted in our evolutionary history. There is evidence of religious sentiment going back thousands of years -- longer if you attribute religious motivation to the Neanderthal practice of burying their dead with items from their lives.

The evidence pointing to the fact that religion is not a necessary condition for religious feeling in no way means that religious feeling does not exist or is somehow imaginary. I am not sure how you would get that from anything I've posted here. Even the Shermer link where he quotes the anthropological research has implicit in the statement that the tribesmen were religious.

The difference is one of causation. The woman linked to in the original story said -- as have many others -- that religion causes moral behavior. Pointing out that this is unlikely given the evidence I've alluded to is not the same thing as saying "religion is therefore made up." They are cousins in the human experience, two urges that are similar, which influence each other, and which share some common architecture in the mind, but they are siblings, not parent and child.

That's the point I've been trying to make, and I believe we're in agreement on that. I'm not sure where the "religion is made up" meme comes from.

Geopoet said...

Thanks for that feedback and clarification. Yes, the two of us are in agreement.

My concerns are actually coming from what I'm reading from certain anti-religious scientists (e.g., Harris, Dawkins) who allow their personal beliefs and contempt of organized religion to affect their conclusions - their presentation of altruism, for example. I am thus very excited that people like Francis Collins and others are engaging in debate/discussion with them to better define the gray areas of various disciplines, a very good thing for all of us when truth is so important.