Global Ethics Corner: Are We Good Because of God?

Apr 1, 2013

A new book claiming that bonobos can feel empathy suggests that morality be biological. If this is the case, what purpose does religion serve? Is it still a useful tool for moral guidance or can we get all our answers from science?

In the Congo Basin of Central Africa, bonobos can be found sharing, playing, and even empathizing with their fellow chimps. That’s right. Chimps can feel empathy. At least, that’s what a new book by Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal suggests.

In The Bonobo and the Atheist, de Waal uses evidence drawn from decades of primate research to argue that moral behaviorslike sympathy and kindnessare the product not of God, but of Darwinian evolution. Instead of coming down to us from an external sourcelike Godde Waal says morals come from within. Using data drawn from primates, wolves, orcas, and elephants, he shows that empathy, altruism, and cooperation are actually survival mechanisms that mammals have developed through centuries of evolution. This suggests that biologyrather than religionis responsible for our ability to distinguish right from wrong.

But if religion doesn’t dictate morality, neither is it useless. Unlike neo-atheists like Richard Dawkins, de Waal believes that religion can play a useful role in human society. He points out that unlike other animals, humans are deeply concerned with the abstract appropriateness of human behavior. Just think of the heated moral arguments surrounding topics like the death penalty or abortion. According to de Waal, that’s where religion comes in. At its best, religion can offer abstract moral guidance in a way that science can’t. And it’s that very position which places de Waal firmly at odds with new atheists like Sam Harris.

As you assess the role of religion in your life, where do you think morality comes from? If we don’t need God to be moral, what purpose does religion serve?

By Marlene Spoerri

For more information see:

Frans de Waal, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, Norton, 2013

Elizabeth Landau, "Morality: It's not just for humans," CNN, January 19, 2013

Barbara J. King, "Frans de Waal's Bottom-Up Morality: We're Not Good Because Of God," NPR, March 21, 2013

Frans de Waal, "Morals Without God?," The New York Times, October 17, 2010

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