Afternoon Inquisition 9.3

So…I was discussing religion and morality with a friend of mine the other day and the conversation came down to this question:

Which came first: religion or morality?

The original conversation was about whether morality would exist without religion. And that is actually the real question, so feel free to speak on that. Determining which came first doesn’t answer that question (unless morality evolved first), but this chicken-egg sort of debate caused us to carefully examine our positions, which was the most interesting part of the convo. Here are our basic premises:

My friend believes that morality wouldn’t exist without religion. People are inherently selfish and need a higher power to rise above that. Religion “controls the people”.

I think “morality” is basically the set of behaviors necessary for cooperative functioning within any group. Those who lie, cheat, steal from, or murder others in the group are likely to be outcast. This POV would suggest that morality evolves from self-interest.


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  1. Morality. So say I all.

    Our ethics evolved right along with the rest of our parts. If you folks haven’t read “The Origins or Virtue” by Matt Ridley, scamper off quicklikeabunny and do it. Or, if you live in Atlanta, you can borrow mine.

  2. Morality. I agree with the whole “we evolved our sense of right and wrong thing.” It’s a no brainer, even monkeys have morals. And I do live in Atlanta, so if you’d like to bring “Origins of Virtue” to the next SITP, that’d be great!

  3. It’s pretty clear that our sense of morality is evolved, both genetically and socially, and I think it’s safe to assume that at least the precursors to morality existed before any kind of religion.

    There is also current empirical evidence for this: more and more animals are shown to display moral behaviors, and it’s pretty clear that humans are the only ones to have religion.

    What I think religion does is attempt to consolidate certain moral dicta into a code of ethics.

    So… morality came first, and then the social engine of religion augmented (or distorted) this innate and socially-constructed sense of morality.

  4. Morality. I think religion was just a fancy way to write it down and force people to listen before we had police and laws to do that. Sure, people can be dicks, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know the difference between right and wrong — it just means they don’t care that much. Religious people are equally capable of that attitude.

  5. I don’t know if we can ever be sure. Certainly the earliest humans that were able to communicate ideas would have come up with a system of mythologies to explain the world around them. Whether they would have applied that mythology to their own behavioral system we can only speculate.

    I will say that there is a lot of evidence suggesting we evolved our big brains in part due to our social nature. And as such, it seems unlikely that we could have ever existed as groups without some system of morality. It might not be the same as what we have in place today, but certainly it was something. Perhaps it was something closer to the social codes of modern apes.

    On the other hand, we can’t deny that religion has influenced morality like nothing else in history.

  6. Clearly morality came first. And in exactly the way you describe. Your conversation with your friend is making one major assumption, though: that religion is the source of law.

    I know your friend is saying that religion gives a reason to be moral, as in a supernatural motivation to behave ethically, but when you break down that belief it becomes clear that it’s an issue of reward and punishment, dictated by an authority. Basically, “be moral, or else” – so, morality comes from laws, and those laws come from religion.

    The problem with that assumption is that prior to any system of religious laws that we know of, there were secular laws. Laws passed down by kings without any supernatural overtones. Laws such as the Code of Ur-Nammu, which included prohibitions of theft, rape, vandalism, murder, and other immoral acts. The Code of Ur-Nammu was written 1500 years before the Pentateuch – well before any religious system of laws that we have yet discovered.

    The second problem with your friend’s assertion is the very nature of morality and religion. Religion is about one’s relationship with their gods. It’s very much a vertical relationship. God is on top, you are on bottom, and the entire relationship is built on that fact. Morality, on the other hand, is a horizontal issue. It pertains to how people treat other people. A person’s relationships with gods is not even on the same plane as their relationships with other people.

  7. I think this question also requires a definition of “religion” – obviously, as early humans banded together for better survival, they must have created some basic community standards that could be construed as “religion”, but wouldn’t be like a modern equivalent (i.e., the catholic church, mormonism, paganism, whatever).

    I think it highly likely that the two things developed in tandem, rather than one before the other. Human beings seem pretty hardwired for social interaction.

  8. The only way to even suggest that morailty comes only from religion is if people were to follow every moral put forth by said religion. For christianity, that would be over 613 things one must do or avoid in order to please their god. As it stands I know very few christians (if any) that honestly think that wearing fabric woven of 2 different cloths is an abomination and should be avoided as a matter of morality.
    People still pick and chose their morals, even within a religious context. This is indicative that humans follow the same idea of morals regardless of their religious affiliation (or lack thereof).
    Thanks to FMRIs, we are getting better at determining exactly where activity occurs when making moral decisions. This can only lead to a better knowledge of where our morals come from.
    I am betting they are hardwired into our brains (for the most part) as a matter of a very social animal survival.

  9. @JSug I’m pretty sure we can never be sure. :)

    But as for the main question I think the terms are a bit ambiguous. Are we talking about a formalized concept of morality or a particular set of behaviors? And are we speaking of formal religious doctrine or the earliest attempts to explain the unknowns in the world around us through magical thinking?

  10. I’m no sociologist or social biologist or evolutionist or any of those other -ists, so my opinion probably holds as much water as a fork. I view morality as a form of altruism, or at least what I understand to be altruism. People help people for the sake of the species’ continued survival. It’s only with our big brains that we’ve categorized altruistic acts as “right” and non-altruistic acts as “wrong.” Religion later pushed these concepts to the extreme and defined “good” and “evil,” claiming these terms to define morality.

    And altruism isn’t reserved to highly evolved beings such as humans. Even E.coli in our guts have shown signs of altruism: When two colonies of bacteria are close together, competing for nutrients, certain members of one will develop a toxin, to which other members of their colony are immune, and burst, showering the competitors in a sort of microbiological warfare.

    So not only did morality evolve with us long before religion, weapons of mass destruction evolved with bacteria long before either of them!

  11. Sethmanipo — It’ll be there. I want to stay on D*C security’s good side :) Treat it well, since I think I promised to eventually send it to Tina in Destin, since her dad has a boat and they scuba.

  12. Definitely morality came first.

    In answer to your friend’s comment, people are inherently selfish. We are also inherently empathic and altruistic and loving and hungry and intelligent and …

    I figure that we want explanations for things. Philosophy, in its earliest form, probably grew up to explain why we behave the way we do, and why we like some types of action and dislike others. When put together with our first guesses at why the world works the way it works, we had religion.

    To the extent that religion is universal (historically as well as currently), it is simply a philosophical hypothesis of the human condition. In that sense (and only that sense), humanism/atheism is a “religion”. We all need some such a hypothesis to help us navigate the adult world of social interactions and decisions.

    Of course, that’s not what most people mean by “religion”, and religion in its common sense is neither universal nor necessary.

    And possibly not all that old either. (As far as I know, the ancient Greeks and Norse don’t seem to have considered their gods to be moral lawgivers. Enforcers at best. They were instead simply explanations for the puzzling aspects of the natural world.)

  13. Chicken and egg.

    I mean, a child has morality before he/she has religion. And heterochrony often (but not always) mimics phylogeny. So I suppose there is (circumstantial) evidence that morality came first.

    But I would suggest that morality intuitively stems from external influence. In a child: their guardians. In a teen, their peers. In an adult, their gods.

    So I believe–in the absence of objective evidence–that the two are tightly inter-twined, all chicken-y and egg-y.

  14. From the original question:

    this chicken-egg sort of debate

    It was the egg. The egg came first.

    I am a Hedge

  15. I agree that we can never be sure. However, to me it does seem clear that religion has influenced morality but is not necessarily the cause of it.

    I think that’s more evident now than ever since several religions live in societies together and more or less agree upon what is and is not moral (there are obviously still many disagreements).

    I also think the biggest differences between ideas of morality exist because of cultural disconnetions, not necessarily religious.

  16. Do chimps have religion? I think there’s some decent evidence that have morality. That is, they behave in ways that indicate they have some sense of right and wrong and some sense of fairness. So if chimps don’t have religion, it seems likely that morality came first. (this is not an airtight case, as morality may have developed independently in chimp and human lineages, and not been present in the most recent common ancestor).

    I am a Hedge

  17. Not only did morality come first there really isn’t a connection between the two. Religion has often been, and still is, used to justify very immoral acts. Murder, rape, salvery, misogny, bigotry, theft are all justified through religion. I don’t think that these would be justified through morality.

  18. Oops. My apologies to NeuroTrumpet @4, who scooped me on the chimp thing.

    I am a Hedge

  19. Religious types try to stake a claim on morality but they’re stealing. Morality is a product of our tribal roots and necessary to our survival as a species.

    Remove religion and morality would still exist even without the promise of some mythical “heaven” or multiple virgins.

  20. @Gabrielbrawley:

    I don’t think that these would be justified through morality.

    Sure. It’s easy. We just have to not see the other side as ‘people’ and thus deserving of moral behaviors on our part.

  21. To be honest, I can’t imagine a religion in a preliterate society. I know there were (and are) such things, but I would think that the experience of religion in a shamanistic oral tradition and canonical textual tradition would be so completely different as to be non-comparable. The question is not really “Did morality exist before religion?” but did the earliest morality exist before the earliest religion.

    Morality is a form of metacognition. You have to be able to think about your thoughts before you could think about whether they are moral or not. At the same time, you have to be able to think about your thoughts before you could be capable of magical thinking.

    Thus, I think that morality and magical thinking (which is religion) existed in the human mind together pretty much from the beginning because they are both symptomatic of the same mental capacity (metacognition), just different ways of relating to it.

  22. “Religion has not civilized man — man has civilized religion. God improves as man advances” – Robert Green Ingersoll, an early ‘new’ atheist. The Ghosts 1877

    The general consensus here has some empirical meat that he lacked, but basically Ingersoll said it all over a hundred years ago.

    I would also use this as a response to Taypro’s comment (#16) suggesting that religion has influenced morality. You may be right, but for any sensibly naturalistic definition of morality, all of the evidence points the other way: morality influences religion.

    And I disagree – it is not the case that we can “never be sure”. Perhaps we can’t be sure yet, but the evidence continues to pour in. Reasonable certainty may not be far off.

  23. Josh,

    I think if we were to describe the other side as not being people would be an immoral act in and of itself. Then any acts stemming from the original immoral act would be immoral. I think. But hell, I could be wrong.

  24. Religion has often been, and still is, used to justify very immoral acts. Murder, rape, salvery, misogny, bigotry, theft are all justified through religion. I don’t think that these would be justified through morality.

    I agree and this is one of the scary aspects of religion, IMO. Some religious people believe that they are listening to “god’s voice” when they are really listening to their own. The result ranges from (example) my cousin, who says that god is “calling” her to have a professional singing career when the truth is she just wants to sing – to – war & terrorism based on the ideas of individuals that believe they’re doing god’s work.

  25. I think we are all pretty much in agreement here that morality could exist without religion, and numerous commenters have pointed out evidence along those lines. When I read the statement, “The original conversation was about whether morality would exist without religion,” I wondered about the “would” replacing the “could.” If religion is also a byproduct of our evolution and circumstances, will we ever be free of it? It may be used to justify morality or supernatural beliefs for a long, long time to come. Or it may be that superstitions continue to prevail due to some innate gullibility, while religion as we know it fades out of use and again detaches from morality.

    Historically speaking, morality and religion have been byproducts of our brains and societies from long, long ago. I tend to think that they popped up near-simultaneously and independently, and that religion was later connected with morality as the religious beliefs became more complex and pervasive.

  26. Timothy – oops! I’m sure I meant we “may never be sure”, not “can never be sure”

    And I certainly don’t disagree that morality influences religion as well. But that really just furthers the chicken-and-egg… ness of the question. Hence, we MAY :) never be sure.

    So I guess my point is that I have no point.

  27. Og no hit woman.
    Woman stay in Og’s cave longer.
    Og no hit kids.
    Kids live longer.
    Og no take Ug’s meat.
    Ug help Og hunt.

    Morality came first.

  28. @Gabrielbrawley:

    I think if we were to describe the other side as not being people would be an immoral act in and of itself.

    It isn’t a binary progression. You grow into the idea a bit at a time through a process of stereotyping, which is really just another word for dehumanization.

    We do a low-scale version of this every day, any time we confuse an opinion, belief, or behavior (with which we disagree) with the individual or group expressing it.


    I agree and this is one of the scary aspects of religion, IMO.

    It goes beyond religion. Any idea can be taken to a dogmatic extreme that dehumanizes the opposition and permits atrocity.

  29. Just chiming in to mention that modifying your behavior because you expect a reward or fear a punishment is not morality. That’s actually the opposite of morality. In that context there are no good or bad actions; the are just actions that will give you either a candy or an electric jolt. If that’s morality, then a trained hamster is a moral being. Morality is about knowing that something is the right thing to do, even if you get an electric jolt out of it.

  30. Morality, I think people can be good or bad regardless of what they believe. It is the people themselves that makes them moral/non moral, not what some higher power’s divine plan says.

  31. Josh,

    I think I understand what you are saying. I guess that we just have to be aware of the tendancy to do this and guard against it.

  32. It goes beyond religion. Any idea can be taken to a dogmatic extreme that dehumanizes the opposition and permits atrocity.

    I agree. The danger occurs any time someone is given absolute authority, deity or otherwise. When the authority is given to an abstract deity, however, the element of human interpretation is added.

  33. Just chiming in to mention that modifying your behavior because you expect a reward or fear a punishment is not morality. That’s actually the opposite of morality. In that context there are no good or bad actions; the are just actions that will give you either a candy or an electric jolt. If that’s morality, then a trained hamster is a moral being. Morality is about knowing that something is the right thing to do, even if you get an electric jolt out of it.

    This is a really interesting point. And it applies both to religious (if you don’t follow these rules, you’ll go to hell) and non-religious (if I am good people, they will be good to me) contexts.

    So, does morality require selfless motives? Or is that taking basic morality a step further – to altruism?

  34. Since we’re in agreement that morality probably came first…

    Here’s a theory: people love a good story. How many religions of the world began as bed-time stories? Imagine, if you will, parents telling their children something Santa-Claus-like, meant to still an overactive mind. But those stories ended up believed, and told to the next generation as truths. And over time, more was added to these stories, through analogy, misinterpretation, confirmation bias, mass hallucination, or deliberate abuse of power, until a critical mass was reached and the story graduated to a belief system?

    And a bonus question:

    If pictures are worth a thousand words, what is an experience worth?

  35. @Gabrielbrawley:

    Totally agree! That’s why I think skepticism (which I choose to define tentatively as an evidence-based lifestyle) is so very useful.

    What I personally struggle with is sources of morality; theoretically, I should be able to hand another person something and say ‘this is how I derived my morality’. They could then read the same books, have the same experiences, and arrive at the same conclusions. In practice, I haven’t found a good way to do this.

    Religions have, for the most part, a shorthand for describing their version of morality to another person. A Baptist believes in the moral principles ‘x’, a Muslim believes in the moral principles ‘y’.

  36. @André³ Diplotti: “Morality is about knowing that something is the right thing to do, even if you get an electric jolt out of it.”

    Yep, pretty much candy or a jolt.
    I would postulate that the “knowing” started with more primary behaviors and developed from there as humans evolved. Emotional development and the evolution of family and group bonding come into play in the same way they do with other animals. Altruistic ideas of morality do not exist outside of our genetic and biological makeup. We are biological creatures who act and react based on our genes and what environment we live in. That we have evolved into a more complex and intelligent animal than a dog or chimp does not make out behaviors (moral or not) much more complex than said dog or chimp.

  37. @André³ Diplotti:

    If that’s morality, then a trained hamster is a moral being.

    Hey hey HEY! Don’t be dissin’ hamsters!

    “Go for the eyes, Boo! Go for the eyes!” – Minsk, Balder’s Gate

  38. Metal Opera Chick,
    What the heck to you have on your website? I just clicked on your link and sonic wall blocked you as adult mature content. What do you have that is NSFW?

  39. I’m not sure it can be put into words, Gabrielbrawley. It’ll twist your senses and warp your soul.

    I’m surprised Sonic Wall only blocked it. I’m surprised it didn’t burst into virtual tears and uninstall itself.

    In any case, take what MOChick says about Shermer with a grain of salt. After the D*C debate, I told her she could pick Shermer up, shove him in her purse, take him home, love him and squeeze him and call him Hubert.

    No one saw Dr. Shermer after that.

  40. I suspect morals arrived via altruistic behaviors. In other words, the “Golden Rule” was discovered long before religions, or even humans. There is enough evidence that non-human beings have at least a rudimentary version of altruism. I think religion co-opted altruism and then attributed it to a deity/deities much later. Humans are a story-telling race, a thought that I am certain is not original with me. I wish that I could remember the attribution. We made up our religions later to explain the world and ourselves to ourselves. I think JRice is onto something here.

    MetalOperaChick: Shermer does have some good arguments, but I think the case is still open and may never be conclusively “closed.”

  41. Morality came first — and exists separate from religion.

    I know many skeptical people that are very moral
    I know quite a few “religious” people that aren’t.

    I have a friend who is Jewish — one day she did something nice for someone else (I don’t recall exactly what it was — maybe it was bringing someone a casserole or something). She was told that it was mighty Christian of her to do that.

  42. I suspect that it ‘morality’ evolved with humans and are based on ‘suvival of the tribe’. If you are a group on the savannah spending most of your time either hunting crittiers you can kill and eat or running from critters that can kill and eat you, it doesn’t do the tribe any good to be killing each other off or snatching food away from the younguns. I believe that all rules for a moral healthy society have their roots in simple concepts like that and as people became more numerous, more established, and safer from enemies, the moral rules got more and more sophisticated again to ensure survival of not just a tribe but of that newly established society.
    But what the hell do I know…

  43. @James Fox: Absolutely perfect. May I add to the saga of Og:
    Og eat meat from animal that not chew cud, not have cloven, split hoof, make Og sick. Og work too hard, Og die. Better rest one day when Moon is full, half full, and not there.

  44. @ Gabrielbrawley Uhmm…I have no idea. It’s just my myspace. o.O

    @Phlebas HAHA! Of course. Michael Shermer is locked up in his cage as we speak (next to his shrine in my closet of course)…I let him out every once in a while for a walk and play time but he keeps messing up the carpet.

    Yeah that was scary. I’m sorry.

    Josh K You’re Welcome! Enjoy!

  45. Many scientists, sociologists, and other deep thinkers have pondered deeply into this question. From my reading I would say there doesn’t really seem to be much doubt (to the rational, skeptical thinker) that morality is an evolutionary by-product.

    MetalOperaChick cited Shermer’s “The Science of Good and Evil,” as a place to ponder the origins of morality.

    Another excellent book for the same and other highly interesting ponderings is Pinker’s “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.”

    The wonderful Carl Sagan often touched on morality and its origins in many of his works.

  46. I won’t even read the comments first. Obviously “morality” came first. Animals has it,even. Religion came after we could agree that if you don’t want to get hit in the face, you should probably think twice about hitting someone in the face, and we had time to wonder and tell stories about stuff.

  47. “so my opinion probably holds as much water as a fork.”

    yeah,but ice is water. a fork can hold a lot, especially if it’s embedded in the ice chunk! Just saying.

  48. I second the vote for “Science of Good and Evil.” “Freedom Evolves” by Daniel Dennet is another place to look.

    I’m going to have to go with morality too-sort of. One can start to see the advantages of pre-moral sentiments in other animal lines running further back in time, and further across the tree of life, than anything worth calling religion-a construct that seems likely to have required language to emerge, while moral sentiments do not.

  49. I’m going to go out on a limb and say moral outrage came before either one; next came morality, then religion. Apes, especially humans, seem to have a great knack for ostracizing or punishing those who violate the established moral order. How many times have you been consumed with rage upon seeing an able-bodied young adult steal a handicapped parking spot? Don’t you hate it when someone takes advantage of an honors-system, not paying their fair share?

    I don’t know about the rest of ya’llz, but I become deeply offended in such situations, even when I already have a parking spot, or when I am not even involved in the check being split, etc. A few years ago I did read a research paper suggesting that such a sense of moral outrage has great evolutionary significance- it helps us uphold the social order thru simple, social cues. It’s so much easier to whip someone into shape with an angry glare or the silent treatment than it is to say, go on an open tirade against them.

    Evolutionary psychology is flawed, of course, but this explanation seems plausible. I hypothesize that humans began with a strong sense of outrage directed and those who violated social scripts; this frequent outrage developed into a moral framework of do’s and don’t’s. They were incidentally created as a way to avoid the social pain that comes with being the bane of someone’s existence. Once these morals became long-standing and a little dogmatic, religion sprouted forth.

  50. Has anyone suggested “Moral Animal” by Robert Wright yet? Anyway, Religions are part of human culture which evolved much later than morality which is basic social behavior (emotionally controlled in intelligent animals). The answers are out there for everyone inquisitive enough to want to learn but the religious folk keep harping on this issue. Either they are ignorant of the science or they just don’t care…

  51. I agree with some of the comments above. If “ethics” is the internal determination of what is “correct” based upon X, and “morals” are the external application of that determination, then the question is what is “X” – the determining factor? I would say culture probably has and always had a bigger influence than anything else (in spite of the search for some objective concept of virtue by many of the the great philosophers), and religion is really only one aspect of culture.

    Correct me if I am wrong, but I beleive that many primitive cultures adopted religions as explanations for natural phenomenon, as opposed to bases for establishing normative guidelines.

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