When asked for his view on morality, Albert Camus, the French philosopher offered a simple answer—“If someone told me to write a book on morality, it would have a hundred pages and ninety-nine of them would be blank. On the last page I would write, ‘I recognize only one duty and that is to love.’ And as far as everything else is concerned, I say no.”
I thought about the simplicity and clarity of his thinking because one often hears the convoluted observation that without belief in God or a deep dedication to religion there is no basis for morality and that society would disintegrate. From what I have observed and distilled during my life, I respectfully disagree because it is very clear to me that neither plays a driving role in morality. Humans are intrinsically well intentioned and designed to do good with a steady moral compass. Our sense of right and wrong is hardwired into us.
Religion can play a supporting role by reinforcing human nature but it is not the origin of morality. Morality actually has a Darwinian explanation: altruistic genes, selected through the process of evolution, give people natural empathy. If one asks, “Would you commit murder, theft or rape if you knew that no God existed?” Very few people would answer “yes”, undermining the claim that religion or belief in God is needed to ensure moral behavior.
And this value is not uniquely human. Scientists have compiled evidence from around the world that suggest that many different species of animals appear to have an innate sense of fairness and display empathy to help other animals that are in distress.
Does that mean every human being is intrinsically good, and will behave with decency and moral rectitude forever? Absolutely not. My point is that we are inclined to be moral and have a good running start but some of us can get misdirected.
While religion has the power to do good and often does, history is replete with outrageous examples of religion-inspired violence and mayhem. Where was morality in the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Thirty Year War and the Indo-Pak partition? Was morality hiding in Ahmedabad and Godhra in 2003 and in New York in September 2011? And what holds back the moral sense amidst the ongoing Middle East violence or made it look the other way during the pogrom in Bosnia, the ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and the horrors of the Holocaust? I say religion has a lot of ‘splainin to do.
Can one, then, come to the conclusion that religious people are primarily immoral and deceitful? Of course not. Most religious people are also inherently decent. In fact, religion inherits its moral DNA from human nature. Socrates characterized it as his daemon—an inner voice that stopped him when he was trying to take advantage of someone. Each of us has this internal voice or compass. It can be twisted and modified by circumstance but that is not the norm.
I have observed and practiced religion during my life. I have also questioned its goals and values. After years of being either religious or agnostic, I have come to conclude that that religion is a at its core false platform that is mostly based on fiction, greed, and imagination.
It does a very good job of creating a false sense of calm and peace and taking credit for morality, which is actually a very human trait. Organized religion is a powerful force that can subdue dissent and rational thinking and lull people into a false sense of morality. But what does morality actually mean? Morality means different things to different people. While it resides within a narrow spectrum of common definition, individuals can emphasize one part of it over another. It can mean honesty, fidelity, rules of conduct, personal values, representation of one’s character or a system of beliefs. Morality can refer to the “rightness, wrongness, goodness, or badness” of our actions. Some people also measure it relative to the context one lives in. What does it mean to be moral in war-ravaged Bosnia or Rwanda versus peaceful Los Angeles or Chennai or Paris? I believe that morality needs to stand on its own and independent of any philosophy or point of view, geography and time and most certainly with no attachment to religion. Can religion advance human morality? Absolutely.
Religions can play such a role by delivering sermons, promoting morality, and engendering a spirit of community.
Physicist Steve Weinberg opined – “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” That is no basis for morality. Religion does not drive morality and has often given cover to immoral behaviors. Humans are inherently decent and moral and left to themselves and guided by rational thinking, very capable of hewing to a consistent and sensible moral path. It is our own nature, not religious guidance that is the source of our species’ morality.
Jawahar “Joe” Samagond is a technology communications professional based in Northern California. Originally from Bombay, India he has spent time on both coasts (Boston and San Francisco). He is an avid reader and serves on the Fremont Library Advisory Commission. He is interested in global politics, science and social trends. More about his thoughts at http://joes9.wordpress.com.