Philosophy & Ideas

The Origins of Morality: God versus Nature

Morality is central to who we are. Despite large-scale moral lapses down the centuries and a myriad of smaller ones in everyday life, we must be moral creatures, at least overwhelmingly so. If this were not the case, we would surely lead a very fearful, brutal, rude and tenuous existence. Is this morality a gift from God or is it from evolving nature? This is an important question as religious observance fades in the Western world. God is immutable. The state of nature is not.

Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published in 1759, reflected the predominant view of his time:

The happiness of mankind as well as of all other creatures seems to have been the original purpose of the Author of Nature when he brought them into existence … by acting according to the dictates of our moral faculties, we necessarily pursue the most effectual means for promoting the happiness of mankind and may therefore be said, in some sense, to co-operate with the Deity.

Times have changed and there is now a large body of opinion, tracing back to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, that believes morality to be a product of nature, unaided by any deity.

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Both Darwinians and those who believe in a creator agree that our drive to do good and to act decently with one another is innate. However, there is irreconcilable disagreement about where this comes from. Is it from God, as Adam Smith assumes, or from nature? In exploring that question, I will talk about God and religion somewhat interchangeably but, at the last, will also argue that it is important to keep in mind a distinction between the two.

Paul Kelly, writing in the Australian on August 28, quoted Liberal backbencher Julian Leeser speaking at the St Thomas More Society: “The maintenance of religion and religious institutions is vital to the moral ecology of our nation.” Leeser’s view is common in Judeo-Christian conservative circles. Here is US Attorney-General William Barr speaking (and brilliantly I think) at the University of Notre Dame on October 11:

Religion helps promote moral discipline within society … the [consequences] of the growing ascendancy of secularism and the doctrine of moral relativism … have been grim. Virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground.

Here is British commentator Melanie Phillips writing in her newsletter in November:

The attack on the West has been driven by the combined forces of secularism and Marxist beliefs posing as liberalism, with the aim of creating a new world order in which God is dethroned by mankind, biblical morality is replaced by secular ideology, and truth is subordinated to power.

I would like to be more specific than Leeser, Barr and Phillips. I believe that the maintenance of Christianity and Christian institutions is vital to the continued reinforcement of our moral values. I am happy to throw in Judaism—Christianity’s root—into the mix. Of the rest I am indifferent except to note with emphasis that no one in their right mind would say that Islam reinforces the moral values which have underpinned Western civilisation. That isn’t a provocative statement; simply one founded in reality.

To say that not everyone agrees that morality is beholden to God or religion is an understatement. Richard Dawkins is a leading figure among the many who hold a contrary view. In prosecuting his view, he faces two historical facts, both of which he acknowledges. First, in his uncompromising words in The God Delusion, “no known culture lacks some version of the time-consuming, wealth-consuming, hostility-provoking rituals, the anti-factual, counter-productive fantasies of religion”. Second, all cultures and societies have moral standards which, if not entirely coincident, are broadly similar. Thus, religion and morality have been integral parts of human history. However, this doesn’t mean that one is related to the other. And Dawkins sees no relationship between the two.

Dawkins believes that religion and morality are independent of each other. At the same time, in his world, there is no getting away from the inevitability that both must spring from the same evolutionary forces. Everything about the way we look, act and think must be rooted in these forces if, indeed, as he believes, we emerged from extremely primitive life forms through spontaneous variations and natural selection. As Charles Darwin himself put it, “natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being”.

There is a question to answer. How come Darwinian natural selection which, as Dawkins writes, “habitually targets and eliminates waste” did not weed out religion, which is “so wasteful, so extravagant”? Dawkins does not pretend he knows the definitive answer; which is fine. He offers a theory which I will cover later, though its specifics are not so important. What is important to understand is that whatever the question dealing with human development, Dawkins and those who believe as he does never leave their plantation. For them, the answer must lie in evolutionary theory. It cannot possibly lie outside.

This belief in the completeness of evolutionary theory is both a weakness and strength. Justified or not, it constitutes by definition a blinkered search for the truth. On the other hand, it is powerfully immune from contradiction. There is simply nothing that cannot be explained by evolutionary conjecture. This is not necessarily science in the Popperian sense because it is hard to disprove conjecture. But it is watertight, inspired by an absolute conviction that if something can’t be explained by evolutionary theory today it will be explicable tomorrow or on some future day. The drawbridge is up and the moat wide and full. Religion has no way in.

You might think that religion is more accommodating of evolutionary theory than evolutionary theory is of religion. Seemingly it is. In reality, it is not. Take Francis Collins in The Language of God. Here we have a leading scientist, writing in 2006 when head of the Human Genome Project, explaining his apparent acceptance of all of the tenets of Darwinian evolution yet believing in God. Collins goes as far as any believer of God can go in embracing evolutionary theory. But it simply won’t do.

Collins’s God isn’t the one using Intelligent Design to mould evolution, as is favoured by some Christians trying to build a bridge between evolution and religion. Intelligent Design mainly rests on the irreducible complexity of the simplest life forms. In other words, if multiple co-dependent components are needed to make even the simplest life form, without any one of which it wouldn’t work, which is apparently the case, how does natural selection alone account for the “miraculous” coming together of all components at the one time? A mystery indeed and one which John Lennox, Dawkins’s occasional antagonist, explores in God’s Undertaker. However, the problem with seeing irreducible complexity as the pathway to God is that science has a way of explaining tomorrow what is inexplicable today.

Collins, in my view, sensibly rejects Intelligent Design, which is essentially a variant of a “god of the gaps” theory, in favour of what he calls “theistic evolution”. This points to God outside of time and space who, as Collins says, “created the universe and the established laws which govern it”. Thus, “the outcome would be entirely specified [but] from our perspective … would appear [to be] a random and undirected process”.

In short, God determined, and knew, by the way he started the process of creation and its guiding laws, that it would inevitably evolve to where it is. “Intelligent conception” is perhaps a better term to describe this process than the one Collins uses. But whatever it is called, I happen to find this idea, this conjecture, for that is all it can be, about the relationship of God to existence, to be the most appealing of those available. However, that is by the way. We should be clear. This way of looking at things is as equally exclusionary of evolutionary theory as evolutionary theory is of religion. To understand why this is so, it is instructive to again turn to Dawkins; most particularly to his account in The Blind Watchmaker, where it is made clear that evolution is a bottom-up process blind to its fulfilment. In other words, it is blind to the way things will turn out. This is the complete opposite of the top-down approach of intelligent conception. There is no blindness there. God knows exactly how things will turn out.

The competing theories have no substantive meeting place. Those who believe in God fool themselves if they think that accepting natural selection gives them a taste of the Pierian Spring. If you do not accept the bottom-up process as being all that there is to evolution then, to Dawkins and his fellow travellers, you are akin to those who believe in tooth fairies and hobgoblins.

I was struggling to find a down-to-earth analogy to explain the unrepairable rift between the two theories. Here is one. In poker, everyone agrees that the evolvement of two pairs into a full house occurs on drawing a fifth card of the same value as one in either of the two pairs. But an unresolved question is whether the deck was randomly shuffled or stacked. That is an important question in poker. Its counterpart question in the theory of evolution is a defining one.

Dawkins, and evolutionists generally, look to natural selection to explain morality. The underlying explanation is that acting morally was advantageous at both an individual and societal level. For example, in primitive societies, without the benefit of insurance companies and government bail-outs, people depended on their kin and neighbours to help them in hard times. So, they helped others in expectation of being helped. Societies within which this didn’t happen would not fare as well; as neither would societies within which a large proportion of people were thieves and murderers.

By the way, I don’t think we are meant to assume that there were primitive societies within which people were complete rotters to each other and thus perished. Moral behaviour must have been built in at earlier stages of evolution. It’s a bootstraps theory of moral behaviour; eventually codified. The codes, drawn up and taught, reflected the proposition that something was prohibited if its large-scale adoption would be damaging to societal survival and flourishing. We, most of us at least, thus became good through genes and memes. The theory is unassailable in the sense that it can’t be disproved.

According to Dawkins, religion is a misfiring by-product of valuable evolutionary traits. He mentions numbers of possible candidates to explain this, provisionally favouring regard for authority. This regard for authority takes on mythical forms fuelled by dualism—the innate but, in his view, common misconception that the mind and material body are separate. Children, he notes, survive better if they do what grown-ups tell them. It is a short step from this to have regard for priestly authority and for an ultimate authority operating on a non-material spiritual level. The form of the ultimate authority, varying at different times and in different places, becomes a meme passed from one generation to the next.

It is not important that my concise take on Dawkins’s complex accounts of the possible development of morality and religiosity is exactly right or complete. The central point, which runs through everything he writes, is that morality and religiosity, like any other aspect of human behaviour, must be explicable in one way or another by natural selection. For example, on the suggestion that there might be a cerebral disposition to believe in God, Dawkins says this: “If neuroscientists find a ‘god centre’ in the brain, Darwinian scientists like me will want to understand the natural selection pressure that favoured it.”

On religion, Dawkins and other atheists make a lot of the Bible having passages which provide a poor guide to moral behaviour. For example, there is a deal of slaughter and some questionable treatment of women in the Old Testament. How do Christians square this? My own perspective is informed by a cautionary appreciation that our puny human minds might not be up to comprehending the context and import of everything in scripture. The anguished attempts by Job and his companions to comprehend the mind of God in the face of Job’s unjust torment is emblematic of the problem. C.S. Lewis in his essay “The Weight of Glory” provides insight into our limitations: “Heaven is, by definition, outside of our experience, but all intelligible descriptions must be of things within our experience.” These limitations are not embraced by those who believe in only what can be seen and touched or potentially seen and touched.

Former Presbyterian minister and later self-proclaimed rationalist, Mangasar Mugurditch Mangasarian (1859–1943), was as fervent as modern militant atheists in prosecuting the case against religion. He does not appear among the most prominent of theologians in any list I can find but his address “Morality without God”, delivered in Chicago in 1905, is a tour de force. It contains all of the principal arguments that atheists would want in their kitbags. He had invited the bishop of the Episcopal Church in Chicago along to provide counter-arguments but was rebuffed, which was probably sensible of the bishop.

Mangasarian frames his arguments around a number of propositions. First, that there are many good people who are not religious. Second, that there are many religions and they can’t all be right. Third, that the character of God is unknown to us despite what priests tell us. Fourth, that the God of the Old Testament routinely breaks his own commandments by, for example, encouraging killing, adultery and theft. (Mangasarian doesn’t mention Allah but you have to think that the Islamic god would provide him with even more ammunition.) Fifth, that Jesus’s advice to turn the other cheek is misconceived and would leave us victims of every evil, morbidity and iniquity. And lastly, and key, that acting morally for the sake of earning reward in an afterlife is ignoble as compared with the nobility of acting morally simply for the sake of it.

This summary of mine does not catch the richness and flamboyance of Mangasarian’s assault on religion. They obviously came from his heart. To give a flavour: “The God of the Jewish and Christian scriptures is not a moral being.” “We are better than our beliefs, better than our creeds.” “There is nothing more immoral than unending torture.” “I can not think of a greater insult to human conscience than to say that this fearful establishment [Hell] with its everlasting stench in our nostrils is the parent of all virtue, and that if its fires were to be extinguished there would be an end to human morality.”

Mangasarian and Dawkins would undoubtedly be in furious agreement on most things; certainly, they would agree on the relationship between God and morality. As Mangasarian puts it: “The scientist’s position is that morality is independent of a belief in God.” Believers dissent, seeing the whole process of human evolvement as being set in motion top-down by God. At the same time, some of the incidental arguments of non-believers are far from trivial. In particular, we all know good people who do not believe in God.

These days, many of our friends and family members might not be believers. Of course, this is not conclusive. Those with any lineage in the West will have been influenced by Christianity and Christian traditions. And everyone else comes from a society influenced by religious cum spiritual traditions of some kind, most of which have some variant of the Golden Rule. So, disentangling human behaviour from the influence of religion is not straightforward. Is it important to try? It depends upon the inquiry. When it comes to the relationship between morality and God it leads down a false trail. Focusing on religion, on its character, on its effects, or on its observance or non-observance, is beside the point. God isn’t religion.

Atheists like Dawkins and rationalists (or humanists) like Mangasarian fight robustly but without landing any telling blows on God. They are here, as it were, among religions and human beings, while God is over there, at some considerable distance. Nothing that Dawkins says about the bottom-up development of morality grapples with Servais Pinckaers’s conviction (in Morality: The Catholic View) that “the moral law expresses the divine will”. C.S. Lewis has the same conviction. In Mere Christianity he begins developing his theme this way: “We have not yet got as far as the God of any actual religion … We have only got as far as a Somebody of Something behind the Moral Law.” He instructively notes that this moral law takes on similar characteristics across time and in different nations and cultures.

Simply put, Pinckaers and Lewis have “thou shalt not” predating the tablets of stone. It can be summed up this way. Religion reinforces moral values and therefore to believers performs an indispensable role in underpinning a well-ordered and moral society. However, that is not the same thing as saying that religion created those same moral values. 

Whether you are Pinckaers or Lewis or Dawkins, you equally believe that the moral law has been hard-wired into human beings. To that extent there is a meeting of minds of a sort, but one that offers no resolution. The premises are poles apart. At the same time, the unfolding experience is the same regardless of the premise. Thus, evidence and empiricism have no power to uncover the truth.

What evidence might be culled does not go to the central issue of whether morality is a product of God’s will or man’s evolution. It can potentially go to the effect of religion and its observance in determining the extent to which society and morality at times draw closer together and at times drift further apart. Much has been written on whether religion has been more a cause for good or for ill. Historians can pick woeful parts of history and make a case either way, depending, at least in part, on their political and religious dispositions. But that is commentary on the past. As we speak, a decline in religious observance is unfolding in the West; certainly, when it comes to Christianity. How is morality doing?

My view, along with the views of Julian Leeser, William Barr and Melanie Phillips, is that morality is suffering. Moral values are not being reinforced as they should. However, not everyone is similarly minded. Unfortunately, or perhaps inevitably, the interpretation of current experience is as susceptible to the religiosity and political leanings of observers as are past experiences.

Some look at societal developments like the undermining of the presumption of innocence and of free speech; the rise of identity politics, new tribalism and victimhood; the elevation of agenda-driven factoids over facts; bringing LGBTQ sexual preferences into classrooms; and the relaxation of laws and conventions around abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage, as some prominent examples of a causal connection between a decline in religious observance and moral regression. Others see these developments as redressing past wrongs or part of a laudable flowering of human expression and freedom. I know this, because (sadly) I know some such people.

But, to be clear, debate about societal developments and religious observance does not directly bear on the central unresolvable question. Are we, and the way we are innately programmed to behave, the end product of bottom-up natural selection or the end product of divine top-down creation? I plump unequivocally for the latter and pin my hopes for our future on it. At the same time, I can’t help but admire the unquestioning certainty of Dawkins. In words essentially matching those attributed to Catholic historian Hugh Ross Williamson in describing agnostics, he’s certainly not one of those “wishy-washy boneless mediocrities who flaps around in the middle”.

Peter Smith, a regular contributor, wrote on “Christianity and the Economic Order” in the January-February 2019 issue.


  • lloveday

    In God Delusion, Dawkins cites a 1-7 scale where 1 represents a probability of 1.0 (100%) that God exists and 7 represents a probability of 0.0 (0%) that God exists, Dawkins classified himself as a 6 – viz he thinks there is a significant 14% possibility of God existing. To me that, unless, like misogyny, atheist has be redefined, marks Dawkins as an agnostic rather than an atheist.
    Adding to the veracity of that tag is the title of Chapter 4 “Why there almost certainly is no God” – again Dawkins declines to deny the possibility of God existing.
    Horses win at 7.00 (14% chance) every day; I got 6.90 about Trump – 14% is, to me, far from indicating “the unquestioning certainty of Dawkins”
    I don’t know Dawkins but my feeling is he says and writes for money, not from any serious conviction.
    PS: I got 9.20 about Bloomberg getting the Demorats nomination (now into 4.60).

  • gavanhe

    Having read Stephen Meyers “Darwins doubt” and the “Signature in the cell”, I am now of the persuasion of Intelligent design. The astounding complexity of the cell and it’s intricate workings leave little to no doubt that intelligence was required to create it. Whence this intelligence…..? There can be no doubt that it is all Gods’ work. No mere God of the gaps. The cell is prior to evolution. No cell no evolution!
    One astounding fact: there are somewhere near 10 raised to the power of 80 elementary particles in the universe, to create one functioning protein (a relatively simple protein) consisting of 150 amino acids of which there are 20 requires one chance in 150 raised to the power of 20 to get it right, a truly impressive figure.

  • Andrew Campbell

    Thanks Peter.

    I’ve spent the last few days trying to get three chooks to accept another. The three are settled and happy, daily free-ranging. But would they accept the new chook?” No way. He was pecked, hounded, and chased away. Now he won’t go into the cage at night and will soon become fox’s dinner.

    What’s the point? Well, there are two possibilities. There’s an evolutionary/atheistic worldview that says the chooks are just doing their thing, progressing their species, eliminating the weakest. It’s all nature, normal, and has to be ‘moral.’

    On the other hand, perhaps there’s a God, God who didn’t make a world like this in the beginning; and it won’t be like it at the ending. God who will one day redeem and restore His world and perfect it. Give me the later worldview any day.

  • Ian MacDougall

    A well-written piece by Peter Smith on just about the oldest topic around.
    I went to a public lecture by the philosopher of science Daniel C Dennett of Tufts University a while back, at which he pronounced that in his view, Charles Darwin was the greatest scientist who ever lived: “greater than Newton; greater than Einstein.” That was in Dennett’s view because Darwin’s theory had such wide applications and implications for so many fields across the whole of biology and perhaps even beyond.
    One estimate: There are about 100 billion stars in our galaxy, up to 10 trillion galaxies in the universe. That means up to 10^24 (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) stars. As well, there are up to ~10^22 (19,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) stars similar to our Sun, each having at least one planet similar to Earth.
    All this is in a Universe estimated to be 13.8 billion years old, which brings to mind the comment of JBS Haldane to the effect that the Universe is not only most likely queerer than we suppose, but also queerer than we can suppose.
    The Bible has largely lost the authority it once had on Nature, and priests and prophets held to be in constant communication with The Creator of the Universe have been surprisingly ignorant of the truths of it revealed by science. (Christ himself is reported to have cured a madman by commanding the demons to come out of him. The man was likely suffering from schizophrenia, the latest research on which indicates it may be due to chronic inflammation of the brain. Christ appears to have been unaware of that.)
    The God held to have created all of the Universe and laid down the laws of Nature, is also reported in the Bible to have disguised himself as a burning bush.(!) Evil in the world is down to a talking snake, also created by God (maybe when he was not concentrating properly) which first corrupted Eve, who went on to corrupt Adam, by persuading him to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And what human discipline covers that? Why, philosophy: which includes all of science.
    I think it likely that in the Bible we see the battle shaping up between religion and philosophy, which has seen religion retreat pretty decisively.
    But the greatest insight I have found is that of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who maintained that in any religious ritual, the congregation or group involved is actually worshipping itself. It that idea is there IMHO in Matthew 5.

  • PT

    Ian Mac. Typical comment of a tool who fails to understand what he reads!

    Firstly, our galaxy is a giant amongst galaxys. Secondly, Sir Fred Hoyle undertook your “probability analysis” but with much greater mathematical understanding, and decided that the odds of creating matter that had self awareness was a few orders of magnitude greater than the possible numbers of habitable planets taken from even the most optimistic estimates.

    Do I really need to push further?

    My issue with you is the very inconsistent claim that lefties have to “scientific truth”! Something conspicuously absent with GMOs, fracking, etc. Your clear animus with mining fits in perfectly!

  • Ian MacDougall

    Your rant is noted, as are your unfounded and questionable assumptions. Also I have no trouble with genetically modified organisms, if that is what you refer to by GMOs. You provide no cited reference to Hoyle, so I cannot check that, nor his assumptions for that work. But SETI (championed by NASA astronomer Carl Sagan, who you may have heard of) goes on. I think it should. While we are on that, though its prospects are rather small, if successful it would be the scientific game-changer of all time, IMHO.
    “Do I really need to push further?” Yes, I think you have to.
    “My issue with you is the very inconsistent claim that lefties have to ‘scientific truth’!”
    Please explain? And how on Earth is that relevant to me? (nb: I assume you are speaking as a shill for coal.)
    And re Peter’s article: the God of all that enormous Creation, from the galactic level down to that of quantum mechanics, was one who demanded appeasement via blood sacrifice, and so took human form and had himself crucified as a sacrifice of himself to himself. For the Original Sin, somehow transmitted down the generations to pollute us all; via a mechanism no geneticist I am aware of has ever suggested or postulated upon, raised in conversation, or even hinted at.

  • deric davidson

    There is an on going rise in satanism and the occult around the world. Satan is real as is hell. The need and the call for exorcisms is on the rise. Moral decay is on the rise even within religious institutions. There’s not a climate emergency world wide there is a moral emergency. As more and more deny God (as did Lucifer) things are going from bad to worse in societies around the world – a rise in hate, division, violence and the abominations and perversions of abortion and sodomy. The Dems in the US are a personification of this collapse in morality.

  • Ian MacDougall

    “There is an on going rise in satanism and the occult around the world.” Be that as it may. But we, and perhaps some other species of social animals, could not function socially without the ability to empathise, which in turn rests on perception, which is at the heart of intelligence. (Some psychologists maintain that intelligence is perception.)
    Christ’s Golden Rule is all about empathy. ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ = ‘see any situation as your neighbour sees it; imagine yourself in your neighbour’s situation.’
    nb: The earliest formulation of the Golden Rule apparently comes from Confucius, in the 6th C BC.

  • Rob Brighton

    Jordan Petersen seems to thread the needle rather neatly with his theories outlined in Maps of Meaning without denying god. From my understanding, he claims the underlying metaphors in stories such as religious texts provided a method by which moral teachings were passed generationally to the benefit of society.

  • pgang

    Jordan Peterson is in rehab for drug abuse. The man is a crackpot.

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