Jewish Journal

Godless morality

by Brad A. Greenberg

August 8, 2011 | 9:19 am

Atheists are not baby eaters and, despite what Steve Harvey might think, they’re not idiots. But are they moral people?

After all, people typically develop their sense of morality from the religious teachings they grow up with. But those morals are not dependent on being a follower of the associated religion.

Along these lines, USA Today had a long opinion piece last week from Jerry A. Coyne, a professor of evolution and ecology at the University of Chicago, in which he argues that morality does not come from God. After cherry-picking a few of the Bible less gracious passages, Coyne writes:

So where does morality come from, if not from God? Two places: evolution and secular reasoning. Despite the notion that beasts behave bestially, scientists studying our primate relatives, such as chimpanzees, see evolutionary rudiments of morality: behaviors that look for all the world like altruism, sympathy, moral disapproval, sharing—even notions of fairness. This is exactly what we’d expect if human morality, like many other behaviors, is built partly on the genes of our ancestors.

And the conditions under which humans evolved are precisely those that would favor the evolution of moral codes: small social groups of big-brained animals. When individuals in a group can get to know, recognize and remember each other, this gives an advantage to genes that make you behave nicely towards others in the group, reward those who cooperate and punish those who cheat. That’s how natural selection can build morality. Secular reason adds another layer atop these evolved behaviors, helping us extend our moral sentiments far beyond our small group of friends and relatives—even to animals.

Should we be afraid that a morality based on our genes and our brains is somehow inferior to one handed down from above? Not at all. In fact, it’s far better, because secular morality has a flexibility and responsiveness to social change that no God-given morality could ever have.

Read the rest here. Tell me what you think below.

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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