Here’s a blog submission, from Jason Adelstein:
Regardless of what you think of his answers, scientist and author Jared Diamond poses some of the most interesting questions around. I often disagree with his answers, or find them incomplete, but he gets you to think about things that you might not otherwise think about, which is a virtue in its own right.
In this article:
Diamond poses the question: why are religious supernatural beliefs highly pervasive, mutually incompatible, yet sharing in certain commonalities the world over?
Diamond’s answer seems to be that such irrational beliefs persist because they are overtly absurd enough and distinct enough that espousing them serves a reliable indicator of group loyalty, but they are also close enough to everyday experience to gratify human emotions.
Diamond’s on to something, but maybe missing something too.
We’ve spoken at length on this blog about how morality, while it is an indispensable component of human life, does not come from religion even for the most devout of religious believers. The Bible, for example, advocates a lot of horribly immoral things!
Moral questions are often difficult ones, and the knowledge of how to answer moral questions has been hard won by human civilization over thousands of years. Because it has built up gradually over generations, our individual moral knowledge is often in-explicit; we say that some things just “feel wrong” but can’teasily explain why.
Yet some things that seem morally horrendous to us now, like slavery, didn’t “feel wrong” to most people a few hundred years ago, or in the bronze age when The Bible was written. That’s powerfulevidence that morality is a form of knowledge that can be improved over time, rather than something that’s hardwired into our genes or dictated once, infallibly, for all eternity.
The human mind is thirsty for explanations. one reason that people persist in irrational supernatural religious beliefs is to account for the moral knowledge that they have, but can’t explain otherwise. They may know what the right moral thing is, but can’t explain why it is the right moral thing other than by invoking an authoritative deity who they believe decrees it to be so. Never mind that a few hundred years ago, their religious predecessors were absolutely convinced that the same deity had quite the opposite opinion.
And at a personal level, religious believers may often know that doing the wrong moral thing will eventually catch up to a person and make their life worse. But they can’t explain how that will happen, other than by invoking some kind of deity who punishes sinners and rewards saints.
And sometimes, people also can’t muster the self control to do the things they know are right, unless they can convince themselves that a supernatural deity is always standing over them, watching and judging.
So, while morality doesn’t come from religion, our need to explain morality and muster the self discipline to abide by it can be a powerful force in perpetuating irrational religious beliefs. This has profound implications for atheists: we need to not only live moral lives ourselves, but improve our ability to explain moral truths and how to live by them to others in an objective, rational, non-supernatural way.
Please read Diamond’s article and then comment: Is there anything else you think Diamond missed about this question? What do you think of the conjecture that the need to explain our moral knowledge plays a role in the perpetuation of irrational religious beliefs?
Thanks for posting! One of my favorite subjects! I will read it as soon as I have the chance. In general i like Diamond's stuff, though of course I don't agree with his every theory. Also, we have an Atheist Morality group where we have posted many interesting discussions on this subject. Please join the group!
I pretty much agree with the whole article by Diamond. Yes, religion does play an important part in in-group behavior, and in the bonding within a given group. This is why religion is often the perfect excuse to start wars, the perfect excuse for dehumanizing "the other".
It just shows humans are fallible and not "better" than nature itself. I see a cult mentality possibly for survival or weakness or both. Lets look at high school and its cultish ways of those that need to feel they fit into something and would do anything to be accepted. Look at Ohio and that rape situation, prime example yet that seems to be the human way throughout the history of Man.
Religion has NEVER played into my sense of morality, my sense comes from what I consider the correct thing to do. This cannot be for everyone as each person has their own "correct" thing and that is what troubles me.
What is moral and what is not does change from person to person, however there are certain "rules" that humans come equipped with by "default", such as inequity aversion, a sense of fairness, a desire to help others and to avoid harming others, all useful for a social species such as ours. If we inform this general moral sense with scientific findings and other forms of evidence, we can achieve societal consensus on what is morally wrong and what is not, without resorting to religion or to complete amorality.
Morality is the core essence of His Message, Humanity in Motion, written as thus;
"Give drink to the thirsty, food to the hungry, clothes to the naked, make time for strangers, comfort the sick, visit the housebound."
But this is not restricted to human need, it's a morality that encompasses all living things. Humans are supposed to be caretakers of the Natural World, not the destroyer of it.
In Revelations, it's written, "Hurt not the Earth, neither the seas nor the trees."
A close examination shows that the preachings of Jesus are nothing more than ordinary mundane everyday life.