The origin of morality

Psychologist Steven Pinker in a TED debate with philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein who argues that reason is the key driver of human moral progress. This is a wonderful debate with brilliant animations but it ignores the single most important fact that evolution not philosophy is the primary driver of moral progress.

Morality and the family

The family, although primarily an evolutionary adaptation, is a principal provider of stability and continuity as three or four generations of consanguineous individuals typically coexist. This is reinforced with the addition of relatives by marriage, the extended family, the inheritance of hard-wired memories in the form of photographs and artefacts belonging to our ancestors and also by the use of the family name. The family group is the basic building block of all human societies, no matter where in the world you were born and whatever your economic circumstances. It provides the security and stability necessary for the next generation to flourish. We are programmed to love and care for our children (or they would not survive) and in return they love us. Many of the most significant components of human behaviour like empathy, altruism and tolerance, are acquired and then constantly reinforced within the family.

It is from within this family setting that we first develop a moral awareness and concepts like fairness and justice. We have developed institutions of government and civil society that recognise fairness as a necessary component and we have created laws that prohibit discrimination and guarantee rights. It is reason that enables us to understand the origin of morality, but it is not the cause.

Atheists have morals, why is that a surprise?

30 Days to prove it

People cling to religious belief for many reasons and one of them is that it provides them a moral framework to live by. Without it, so they would say, there is nothing to stop them reverting to savagery. Putting to one side the savagery that religions have (and still do) inflict on each other, it reveals a profound misunderstanding of the origins of moral behaviour that is simply part of our human evolutionary development. Nine years ago the film maker Morgan Spurlock produced a brilliant episode in his 30 Days series in which an atheist mom went to stay with a devout Christian family for 30 days.

Impervious to reason

At the end of the 30 days the atheist mom was joined by her husband and children, the Christian family were amazed to see that they shared many of the same values as the atheist family, the main difference being that for the atheist holy books and supernatural happenings were not necessary. The Christians were forced to rethink their opinion of atheists but not to the extent that it weakened their own faith and this is the conundrum, religious belief cannot be contested by rational argument, it resides behind a firewall that is impervious to reason, that is why it is called faith.

Check out this film it is well worth watching

The Cambridge Secular Society Blog

Although the Cambridge Secular Society was founded to champion secular issues this blog has a wider remit than simply confronting religious privilege and bias. It will encourage all who challenge the status quo, will not accept received wisdom, are skeptical of authority and are very likely to be atheists. It is important that the secular mindset be brought to bear on all issues that affect human well-being: politics, economics, education, health, equality etc in order to frame the debate using rational, evidence based argument as opposed to ideologically driven or partisan opinion. You only have to listen to the US Republican Presidential candidates debate to see how necessary this is.

A dangerous world

The world in 2015 is a very dangerous place, not simply the turmoil in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan and the rise of Islamism and the alarming evidence of accelerating climate change but global political insecurity with Russia and Israel violating UN resolutions and trampling upon internationally agreed boundaries. The global economic system is still at the mercy of mammoth and largely unreformed financial institutions that caused the crash of 2007/8, the EU is struggling with a massive immigration crisis and even in the wealthy developed world, anxiety or at the very least deep dissatisfaction is eroding belief in a democratic system in which all stakeholders can benefit.

Reason not Religion

So what is to be done? Religious fundamentalism as been allowed to flourish in developed nations by the misguided policy of multiculturalism that regards the values and culture of every minority group as equally valid rather than measuring each by the value it brings to individuals and to society as a whole must be challenged. We must re-assert our democratic, secular values and expose all those who oppose or undermine them. Politics cannot continue as usual and it is too important to be left to politicians, they have proved incapable of pursuing long term goals and see every issue though the outdated prism of Left and Right. This is examined in The Future: for Better or Worse?

We are floundering in a fast changing world of immense complexity, the old certainties like a job for life or communities of like-minded people have vanished to be replaced with anxiety and insecurity. There is as yet no road-map, ethical, political or economic that will get us out of this mess. It will take imagination and courage but let’s at the very least give it a go.