Do We Need God to be Moral?

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One of the world's leading primatologists believes his decades of research with apes answers a question that has plagued humans since the beginning of time.


Are we moral because we believe in God, or do we believe in God because we are moral?

Frans de Waal argues in his latest book that the answer is clearly the latter. The seeds for moral behavior preceded the emergence of our species by millions of years, and the need to codify that behavior so that all would have a clear blueprint for morality led to the creation of religion, he argues.

Most religious leaders would argue it's the other way around: Our sense of what's moral came from God, and without God there would be no morality.

But this is a column about science, not religion, so it's worth asking if de Waal's own research supports his provocative conclusions, documented in the newly released book, "The Bonobo and the Atheist."

Just the title answers one question: he is an atheist, although he disparages the efforts of other atheists to convince the public to abandon all beliefs in the supernatural. Religion serves its purpose, he argues, especially through the rituals and body of beliefs that help strengthen community bonds.

Written By: Lee Dye
continue to source article at abcnews.go.com

12 COMMENTS

  1. “Just the title answers one question: he is an atheist, although he disparages the efforts of other atheists to convince the public to abandon all beliefs in the supernatural. Religion serves its purpose, he argues, especially through the rituals and body of beliefs that help strengthen community bonds.”

    Excuse me for wanting to live in a society where superstition and illogical thinking are not required for strengthening community bonds.

  2. Well if humans and the other apes weren’t social animals, then we wouldn’t be here at all to discuss the matter. ISTM that morals and ethics arise out of the necessity of having to live together. Bloody hell, even dogs feel shame when they know they’ve done something wrong !

    As for God, I’m with Laplace. There is no need for that idea.

    • Hear! Hear! I’m with Laplace, (and the dogs) too!

      In reply to #4 by Mr DArcy:
      Bloody hell, even dogs feel shame when they know they’ve done something wrong !

      As for God, I’m with Laplace. There is no need for that idea.

  3. This is no problem for god or religion. Believers just make a strategic retreat and say it was god that imparted this moral sense to our distant ancestors. It can be worked right into theistic evolution .. it gave time for the evolution of cranial capacity, brain size and structure, etc. to build a suitable home for god’s prize creation: us.

    Why do chimpanzees chew off people’s faces? This seems to be a common element in stories I’ve read of chimp attacks on humans, hands too. Do they do the same thing in their violent attacks on other chimpanzees?

    This statement “All those things are signs of what we would call unmistakable morality, if the subjects were humans, not apes.”

    Not to take away from the qualities our relatives might possess, but isn’t there a danger of projecting our behavior onto them and imputing perceptions or motivations that haven’t been firmly established? In the incident of the vet’s lost finger an alternate view is that the chimp is aware of what it did, cowers in fear and defensiveness of the ass-kicking it would expect to get from any of its colleagues, esp. ones higher in the pecking order. They are long-lived social; beings and keep accounts of good turns and bad ones. Years later, maybe it doesn’t feel guilt, maybe it is incredulous that the vet has returned or that it is not getting the ass-kicking it would still expect to receive?

  4. If morality only came from god, or any kind of 3rd party, it would mean we wouldn’t understand the concept.

    So, if someone said we needed god to give us morals, we’d just shrug and reply, “that’s very interesting, but I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”

    Deep down, religious people know this when they challenge atheists about the source of morality, because they’d know that it would be a meaningless challenge otherwise.

    Anyway, why does this question only come up about morality? Why not “Do we need god for love/hate/fear/laughter/mathematics/banana milkshakes…?”

  5. So which god exactly is supposed to provide this superhuman source of morality?

    And why does Islam claim their fairy story is the one and xtians claim it is theirs?

    Someone, somewhere, is going to be mightily disappointed methinks!

    Of course if it is a human construct in the first place all these inconvenient irritations, claims and diametrically opposite boasts go away!…how about that!

  6. “The moral law is not imposed from above or derived from well-reasoned principles; rather it arises from ingrained values that have been there since the beginning of time.”

    Really? Is he suggesting these “values” sprang miraculously into existence in the first second of the birth of our universe. I suggest that such thinking is somewhat on the wooly side, and therefore detracts from any authority he may have in his area of supposed expertise.

    • In reply to #10 by SomersetJohn:

      “The moral law is not imposed from above or derived from well-reasoned principles; rather it arises from ingrained values that have been there since the beginning of time.”Really? Is he suggesting these “values” sprang miraculously into existence in the first second of the birth of our universe. I suggest that such thinking is somewhat on the wooly side, and therefore detracts from any authority he may have in his area of supposed expertise.

      I don’t think it’s wooly thinking, maybe slightly wooly phrasing. I think “ingrained” means that something becomes deeply established over time, rather than having always been there. But I think in this case “beginning of time” is meant to refer to the beginning of recorded history rather than the absolute beginning of the universe.

  7. I belong to a deeply religious family, and one of my Uncles was an atheist–a most wonderful, kind, and moral man. He rose from an orphan, to an instructor, then professor, then superintendent of schools in a Michigan city. He was a department head at the University of Michigan, and the Michigan chairmen of a political party. He was National Chairman of the Hemophilia Foundation, Director of the Boys’ Methodist Home, raising funds for boys who had no parents. My Uncle was instrumental in forming, with President Carter and other colleagues, the U.S. Department of Education. President Carter, a deeply religious man, recognized my Uncle to be of a most admirable moral character. Why did my Uncle do all this good in our country? These are his words: “I did all the good things I had an opportunity to do, because I want to live on in the hearts of those I helped and those I loved when I leave this Earth.” Yes! Atheists can, most certainly, be good people, and can “pay it forward” for the next generation.

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