It is surprising to see the number of articles written about the relationship between religion, science, and morality by people who seem to have very little knowledge of the philosophical nature of the debate. In a recent commentary in the New York Times, the author makes some of the same familiar mistakes. He asks:
Perhaps it is just me, but I am wary of anyone whose belief system is the only thing standing between them and repulsive behavior. Why not assume that our humanity, including the self-control needed for livable societies, is built into us? Does anyone truly believe that our ancestors lacked social norms before they had religion?
It is all too common to see people looking to science to answer questions about morality. The crucial mistake is what people like this author are actually trying to answer. If they are trying to explain why there seems to be some fundamental moral nature to humans, they are entirely justified in looking to evolution. It does seem as though it has been built into us over thousands of years. But that is not what theists are challenging when they say, “There is no universal morality without God.” Of course, we can see that moral intuitions and feelings exist, but that does not make them universally true. The question is whether or not these moral intuitions are actually true or objective. That is, in what are they grounded?
Assuming that evolutionary theory is correct, our belief-forming faculties, just like the rest of our faculties, exist because they’ve helped us survive, not because they give us true beliefs. It would probably be beneficial for people to be slightly paranoid about possible dangers around them, which doesn’t mean those dangers actually exist (e.g., that rustling really wasn’t a tiger trying to eat me), but that we are more likely to survive if we believe they are there. In the same way, our sense of morality is something that has helped us survive. This explains why we have a sense of morality, but does absolutely nothing to answer the question of whether or not it is objectively wrong to, say, kill a child. Not killing children has simply been a way to perpetuate the species (duh).
People like Hitchens and Dawkins (people who this author, to his credit, finds overly insulting, as do I) like to point the plausible hypothesis that belief in God was likely built into us through the evolutionary process (the idea that everyone in fact believes in God is a biblical one – see Romans 1). This leads them to believe that because our belief in God is merely a product of evolution, it is a false belief. Well, why wouldn’t that apply to their belief in morality? If belief in God and morality came out of the same process, and one belief is not justified, wouldn’t the other be as well? And to push it even further, if their belief-forming faculties were created from this same process, wouldn’t all of their beliefs that came from those faculties be subject to their same objection about belief in God?
I am not saying it is impossible to ground a belief in objective morality without belief in God (although I haven’t found any other way – but I’m still looking). What I am saying is that by appealing to evolution, non-theists can only explain why we have a sense of morality, not that those moral sentiments are in fact objectively true. Indeed, the central confusion is that one can’t make the jump between the way things are, and the way things ought to be (e.g., the fact that humans have capacities, desires, and needs and try to fulfill them is an observation, while saying that we should allow humans to do these things and create a society that facilitates that is actually a judgment, one for which I’ve never found a rational explanation – see the next paragraph).
In my philosophy courses in Boulder, my classes on ethics were attempts to find a theory that helps us decide what is right and wrong, not whether things are actually right and wrong. I was never able to get much into meta-ethics, or the discussion of whether or not ethics actually exist, and if so, how/why. Most of my non-theist professors were content with saying they know something is right or wrong by “intuition.” That never satisfied me, and even many of the students in class that were not religious found it flimsy (which is why some didn’t believe in objective morality).