Are Religions Evolving?

Last night Dr Mike Taylor came to Malmesbury Abbey to talk about Dinosaurs and God (see pic). A self-proclaimed ‘armchair Palaeontologist’, with a PhD no less, he spends his spare time trawling through fossils in museums across the world. He has particular fondness for the long-necked dino’s called Sauropods, two of which he has been able to name – Xenoposeidon proneneukos meaning “alien earthquake god” and Brontomerus mcintoshi meaning “thunder-thighs”. These choices of names perhaps reflect his controversial belief that taxonomy is merely an art. Besides this, the reason for Mike’s talk was that he is an avid Christian who believes science and his (blind) religious faith can co-exist in harmony, and don’t contradict one another.

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Now as a scientist and definite non-believer I find his position quite baffling. I am sure that science can and does answer every single question about how life on Earth (and we humans) came to be here, so I see no need to bother with religion. Mike also fully appreciates the power of the scientific method but argues that there are some questions it cannot hope to answer – what these might be is not quite clear. He is very sure of the evolution of all animals and humans, but suggests that at some point in our relatively recent evolutionary past God recognised that we look close enough to ‘his image’ and waved his magic over us, raising us from mere animals to some higher status that we now enjoy. Mike argues that we are moral, responsible, merciful, forgiving and that these things set us apart from all other animals, contrary to the clear evidence that we are nothing more than a particularly strange ape.

I’m not trying to cause offence, but it’s hard to see why someone who accepts the evidence for evolution needs any further explanation for how and why we got here. Religion seeks to give answers to the ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ of life and being human, but science adequately answers these questions; most people just don’t like to accept the answers it gives. There is no great ‘meaning’ of life, we are here by chance and the only ‘purpose’ we and all other living things have is to produce replicates of ourselves, thereby propagating our genes and outcompeting our rivals. Perhaps this truth is just too anti-climactic for most to accept and therefore religions have flourished by filling people’s need for something more. Being scientifically enlightened does not make you feel empty and meaningless; it fills one with awe, excitement and curiosity as the wonders of life itself are revealed.

As science continues its unquenchable desire to explain, it is constantly putting pressure on religious beliefs, by falsifying them. Their only strategy to survive as a religion is to adapt and admit that certain passages (more and more it would seem) are not meant to be literal historic accounts but are poetic stories with hidden messages. After countless attempts to scupper the advances of evolutionary thinking, religious groups are finally starting to accept that fighting against science is simply hopeless. The result is that people like Dr Taylor are helping to promote the marriage between science and religion. In this way they hope that their faith can continue despite the mounting evidence that there is no need for religion, as everything is comfortably explained by science. Ironically then, religions are now being forced to ‘evolve’ to stay relevant and maintain the appeal of increasingly educated people, most of whom rightly accept science as fact.

Unfortunately, religion will always be able to fall back on the personal nature of ‘belief’ and the impossibility of disproving the existence of (a) God. But with some luck and much quality education, soon parents and their children won’t see any need for religion when science can successfully explain everything there is to know about life on Earth and Homo sapiens.

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28 thoughts on “Are Religions Evolving?

  1. Hi, Simon, thanks for writing about Wednesday. I assume you were one of the two Leeds students that I chatted with (too) briefly at the end — sorry to have rushed off, but the kids had been super-patient up to that point and I saw the early signs of that coming to an end.

    I’m sorry I evidently wasn’t able to say anything to suggest to you that my faith is more than “blind” — remember I was talking primarily to a Christian audience sceptical about evolution. Had I been talking to an evolutionist audience sceptical about Christianity, we might have ended up in different places.

    BTW., there’s nothing controversial about the idea that taxonomy is an art: ask any taxonomist and they’ll tell you the same. I certainly hope I didn’t say it’s merely an art, as though it’s a trivial undertaking. Like all art, doing it well requires taste, experience, judgement and a sense of history.

    “… soon parents and their children won’t see any need for religion when science can successfully explain everything there is to know about life on earth and Homo sapiens.”

    I do hope you’re not holding your breath!

  2. Mike – I understand the talk wasn’t primarily aimed at us, I would be interested to hear you talk to an evolutionist audience although I’m certain we’d still end up disagreeing I’m afraid.

    In terms of taxonomy I’m still not sure why you feel the need to push its status as an art rather than a science. Granted it requires judgement and in some ways involves contentious definitions of individuals (especially fossils) as belonging to one species or another. But, molecular genetic techniques now allow precise relationships and evolutionary histories to be understood, which requires hypothesis testing, not personal taste and experience, to determine. This scientific method allows species to be classified in relation to all other life forms. So surely it is closer to a science than an art?

    And I’m not holding my breath, but I do think religions are quite rapidly losing favour, at least in western societies. We’ll just have to wait and see I guess.

  3. I imagine you’re right that we’d still end up disagreeing; but I hope at least I could leave you with a better impression of why we disagree, and why my position is what it is. I guess in part I’m reacting to your throwaway use of the word “blind” in the initial post.

    Regarding taxonomy being an art, you say “Molecular genetic techniques now allow precise relationships and evolutionary histories to be understood.” Ah! I see the disconnect. Yes, we have these techniques (and indeed morphological cladistics), and they are indeed very powerful for determining phylogeny. But that’s not at all the same thing as taxonomy. Phylogenetic analysis just gives you an evolutionary tree; even if you accept it as 100% accurate, you still need to pick the nodes and branches to name, and choose names for them. That remains an art-form. See for example my 2005 paper on the phylogenetic taxonomy of dipldocoids and my 2007 paper on interpreting vague phylogenetic definitions in the absence of a formal code governing them.

    By the way, I’ve done enough cladistics to know how fragile the topologies can be, and how an apparent consensus can dissolve with only a small amount of changed data. Formulating definitions that are robust to possible changes in tree topology is another area where some artistry is required, as well as a good understanding of how relatively solid the various parts of the tree are.

    Finally, on religion losing favour in western society: it’s certainly true that Christianity isn’t culturally dominant in the way it once was in England. I’m actually not unhappy about that: a cultural tendency is a very different thing from a living faith, and when the two are readily confused (as they still are much of the time in America), the results are rarely good. Still, it’s my understanding that more churches are opening than closing in the UK [citation needed].

  4. I apologise for sounding offensive but it seems to me that all ‘belief’ and ‘faith’ is blind to science and guided by prophetic texts, elders, traditions, or inner knowledge/personal experience. And as I was initially saying, I think religions are being forced into cautiously and reluctantly accepting science because it is now the status quo and widely accepted as true. Additionally, it is more acceptable to question unrealistic and outdated religious teachings as they are being exposed for what they are.

    In terms of taxonomy I guess we just have slightly different definitions of the subject and the tools used to inform it. I agree that there is much to do post-phylogenetic analysis and that you could regard those aspects of naming and defining as an art-form – especially where the picture is subject to change. However, I tend to think of phylogenetic techniques as essential to taxonomy (these days) and therefore as part of it, perhaps contrary to the strict definition. Hence why I still think it’s a science, with some art thrown in the mix.

    So you’re saying the cultural tendency for religion is dying out but that there are still plenty living and breathing the faith. I can see the difference but surely the former encourages the latter; and therefore it’s likely to decline as it fades from mainstream culture.

    1. Let’s do the easy bits first 🙂

      Looks like we’re in agreement on the substantial parts of the taxonomy issue. There’s a science of finding trees, and then an art in naming nodes and branches well. So, appropriately enough, it looks like our argument was over nomenclature.

      To my mind the cultural dominance of Christianity does nothing for the actual faith — and may even be detrimental to it, acting as a kind of innoculation. Surely you and I can agree on this if on nothing else: that if someone only has a faith as a result of its cultural predominance, then it’s not worth a lot.

      Now on to areas of less agreement.

      “I think religions are being forced into cautiously and reluctantly accepting science because it is now the status quo and widely accepted as true.”

      As an analysis of history, this is simply false. A huge proportion of scientific discovery in the West has been not just the work of Christians, but done because they were Christians. Science isn’t something that Christianity has been dragged to kicking and screaming, it’s something it helped to create. The anti-science strand of Christianity that has given rise of Young-Earth Creationism is a pretty new thing, arising only in the 20th Century.

      And as I mentioned at the Abbey, non-literal interpretations of the Bible go back a long, long way before the rise of science: In the 4th Century Augustine of Hippo argued that creation was instantaneous rather than of six days’ duration. Non-literal interpretation is not a corner that Christianity has been backed into, it’s always been (at least one strand of) mainstream Christian belief.

      [Note: much of what I’m saying here is also true to some degree of Islam and other religions, but I don’t know much about them so I’m not saying much.]

      1. “So, appropriately enough, it looks like our argument was over nomenclature.” That is brilliant, if not slightly frustrating.

        I concede that my historic accuracy may be a little off and that there has been plenty of scientific effort and progress made by religious people, often with religious motives. But I think that most of those scientists, were they alive today, would not be convinced and drawn to religion. Science has now advanced to the state where it acts as a strong deterrent to religious belief, for many people, where historically it didn’t always. ‘On the Origin of Species’ publication was probably the moment where religions started to lose favour, and Darwin himself clearly saw the issues with suggesting evolution by natural selection from a religious standpoint. I think it is becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile the two areas given ever-progressing scientific understanding, therefore I think religion is only going to decline. In fact, whatever it does offer to you, I remain surprised at your ability to entertain both science and religion in harmony.

  5. A someone with both a science and a religious background, this is a topic of great interest and great import to me. It might be helpful to distinguish between some ideas.

    Religion, in contrast to spirituality or mysticism, is a human social-political construct and seems to be a response to one of two things: (1) a universal (among humans) desire for the universe to have meaning and purpose, or (2) a recognition and apprehension of a (true) metaphysics, spirituality or mysticism.

    There is also a difference between theism and deism. The former is a belief in a daily-present god who involves himself directly in the daily affairs of individuals. The latter is a belief in a god who created the universe and the physics it operates under and then “stood back” to see what happens. Under deism, prayer is nothing more than a form of personal meditation. (Spinoza and Einstein were believers in a deistic god.)

    Science does explore the physical world very well, but we’re a long way away from explaining everything about it. We have no idea what an electron actually is, we can only speculate on why the Big Bang happened, and we can’t even explain our own daily sense of consciousness and experience (the brain/mind problem).

    At this point, it’s still on the table that some metaphysical being or beings said, in effect, “Let there be light!” and then stepped back to see what happens.

    Perhaps some day we will, and perhaps it will be established that we live in a godless universe with no intrinsic meaning or purpose. And while science and the physical universe does indeed fill one with wonder and awe, it’s ultimately utterly empty. Defining morality in a mechanical universe is extremely challenging. And if the universe is fully deterministic, the very concept of morality is without meaning. Clocks don’t make moral decisions.

    So I think that many intelligent believers choose belief so long as it is not completely ruled out (and so far it is definitely not ruled out). It’s not a blindness, but a hope for a greater reality where life does have purpose and meaning.

    1. To me it seems like there’s been an avalanche of increased understanding about the world over a fairly short period of time as our technological advances have boomed. And parallel to this religious beliefs have been scuppered, falsified and have consequently incorporated and adapted to the new scientific knowledge. So while there is still chance of a ‘metaphysical being’ it seems much more likely that we are going to eventually answer the toughest questions and discover the truth that the universe is godless.

      There is clearly something about religion that humans have an innate affinity for, but perhaps it satisfies our burning curiosity to understand the world by giving sweeping and unfalsifiable explanations. As even when/if we can explain with statistical certainty how life began the hardcore will still argue that (a) god was responsible, when there is no longer a need to use additional explanations. Personally, I would much rather be enlightened and educated about a world that has no “meaning” than to believe something with no tangible evidence because it provides a comforting feeling of “purpose and meaning”.

      1. I agree that religions tend to start with the answer and then fill in an “explanation.” I also agree that it can be driven by our innate desire to understand the world around us. I think it goes beyond that, though, or they wouldn’t be so persistent and universal, especially in light of the success of science (if explanation were the only driver, religion would be science).

        It may be there is an almost universal dread of meaninglessness, or it may be there is an almost universal apprehension of meaning. The persistence of a spiritual view is striking. And when you strip away all the trappings and dogma, you find that all religions share a single thing: the idea that how you live your life matters.

        It may turn out that religion has the evolutionary purpose of creating community and allowing it to flourish. It may be a necessary social tool that creates the grounding for the moral behavior that’s required for a working society. (A problem we seem to have in the USA right now is lack of “moral compass.” Some appeal to what the law allows (and others ignore even the law), but the idea of “doing the right thing” seems increasingly obsolete to many. The reality is that law is never enough to keep a society on the right track; some sense of “right and wrong” is vital.)

        So here’s a question: how do you define morality in a godless universe with no meaning?

      2. All humans, all animals and all life on this planet has survived the cut throat natural selection process and hence they are alive today. All species and all individuals have thus passed the same test and therefore should have equal rights to life. Humans are all equals and (most) can recognise that sexism, racism, ageism, etc are immoral and unfair. Similarly many recognise that it is immoral of us to exploit other animals and drive them to extinction, as they have as much claim over this planet as we do.

        I believe we live in a godless universe and that there is no “meaning” to life beyond reproducing. Morality is treating others as equals, respecting the rights of other animals to exist and living in harmony with other inhabitants of the planet.

      3. I think the evolutionary test is a poor yardstick for morality. Ferns and cockroaches have survived much longer than we have, so is it immoral to kill them — do they have the same right to life as humans? If I take my cue from evolution, then survival of the most fit seems to be the norm.

        If all animals have the same claim to life, is the food chain immoral? If I take my cues from the animal kingdom, rape and murder would appear to be normal acts. Animals (and plants) practice no form of morality I can see — quite the opposite, in fact. The idea of morality and justice appear uniquely human.

        What is the scientific basis for your assertion that humans are equal? Every yardstick I can imagine indicates they are not. Wouldn’t a strict reading of Darwin suggest we not put effort into helping the weak survive?

        If the only meaning is reproducing, why is it “immoral” for me to (by force if necessary) impregnate as many women as possible? I’m a highly intelligent and healthy person; don’t my genes have a better right to survive?

        As you suggest, morality is based on some sense of equality, but nothing in the natural world — the science world — provides any basis for asserting all humans are equal (let alone equal to animals).

        What is the scientific basis for an assertion of equality?

      4. I completely agree that nature and almost all other animals practice no form of morality but as (potentially) the most intelligent animal I think we have transcended the shackles of evolution and seek happiness as much as, or perhaps more than, our own reproduction. With the beautiful knowledge of the evolutionary process and understanding of the world around us we have grown to be a moral creature. I think one of the key aspects of human evolution has been to become moral and considerate of others within our group.

        Our insistence on equality does not have a scientific basis; rather, it is inspired by science. It has parallels with the human ability to choose not to reproduce maximally and to choose to act in a way that ensures group survival rather than individual gain, counter to an adaptive evolutionary strategy. Religions do exactly this and are manifestations and frameworks that human morality works within.

        Morality is applying simple small-group rules to larger groups and even to other species; don’t cheat, don’t punish unnecessarily, don’t cooperate with those that cheat etc. We apply these on large scales where they may be less advantageous and effective, but we still desire the same group outcomes so we change the rules and incentives accordingly through governing bodies, be they religious or political.

      5. I think, perhaps, you’re seeing the difficulties of trying to define morality in a purely Physicalist way. Given that nothing in the physical environment acts morally, what is the bridge from our understanding of that physical world to a sense of morality? What is it about science that ‘inspires’ us to be moral? Why should I apply (or even agree with) “small-group rules” if they don’t serve my interests?

        If we are merely bio-mechanical machines, why does it matter? What is “wrong” about using higher strength and higher intelligence at the expense of others if it makes our personal survival better? What makes a successful strategy “wrong”?

        Given that, at some point in the future, we’ll all be long-dead (and we’re just bio-machines anyway), why should I care at all about the survival of the group? If I care about my descendants, maximal reproduction sounds like a good bet.

        The problem that has confounded moral philosophers seeking to define morality on a rational basis is that morality depends on meaning and equality. But a Physicalist universe lacks both. In such a universe, meaning is arbitrary and equality is something we assert without proof.

        I’ve long seen science and spirituality (which leads directly to morality) as a Yin-Yang pair. Science explores the world of cause and effect, whereas spirituality explores the world of meaning.

  6. One addendum: I’m not trying to convert anyone or argue for the sake of arguing. I only seek to provide some food for thought. Science, after all, requires an open mind until sufficient proof accumulates to draw well-grounded conclusions.

    I also do have some concerns about the “line in the sand” that many of science draw. What’s on one side is valid, what’s on the other is not.

    There is a correlation I see between the rise of science, the concomitant fall of religion and the state of increasing unhappiness in the world. Even people such as us, who are born with a fair degree of privilege and security often lead lives of severe stress over economics, relationships and addiction. Scratch the surface of the modern world, and you find a great deal of unhappiness.

    Whether purely an invention, such as justice, or a true apprehension of underlying purpose, I believe a moral compass is a necessary component in all worlds, and that compass seems (for most) to required grounding in some foundation of belief that ‘how you live your life matters.’

    To the extent that science edges out spirituality, I think we lose something precious. I don’t see it as a zero-sum game. As I said above, I see a Yin-Yang to two necessary aspects.

    Anyway. I just didn’t want you to think I was trying to get your goat or something. 🙂

    1. I agree that there is a universal human draw towards spirituality and belief that ‘how you live your life matters’, and that this provides a moral compass which encourages group cohesion and cooperation. And I also think that it is quite essential to a person’s happiness and quality of life. However, I think (and hope) that people can live morally without having to believe that a higher being exists and is responsible for everything and anything in the universe.

      Your observation that the rise of science and fall of religion in the modern world is leading to increased unhappiness worldwide suggests that you believe religious people to be happier than non-religious people, which I think is completely wrong. And that people in the modern world live unhappier lives than our ancestors did, which again I disagree with. I would argue that the rise of science has given us more spare time to enjoy ourselves with less worries, and that it has opened some of our eyes to the real wonders of the world; the ones that don’t require belief in imaginary, albeit appealing, spirits and deities.

      You are most certainly providing food for thought; a perspective that I don’t quite agree with but that is nonetheless very interesting to mull over and contemplate. Thanks for your comments (:

      1. Simon, you say “I think (and hope) that people can live morally without having to believe that a higher being exists.”

        The problem is getting from “is” to “ought”. Science is great for examining and understanding how things are, but can’t tell you how to get from there to how things should be. In practice we both agree that murder is wrong; but I think you would struggle to explain why it’s wrong, or even really what you mean by the word “wrong”, without reference to something higher. You might, for example, say that murder is wrong because it acts against the survival of our species; but on what basis do you assume that the survival of the species is good? What do you even mean by the word “good”, when it comes down to it?

        (For avoidance of doubt: someone who, following this argument, acquiesces to the existence of a higher something is of course a very, very long way from accepting Christianity. That’s many more steps away.)

      2. I think we’re in synch wrt your first paragraph. I don’t ascribe everything and anything to god. Earthquakes and such are natural, and humans act in the world for good or ill. I do see a vast territory between a Physicalist universe and a Theist one. For example, I’m essentially an Agnostic with Deist leanings (and some life experiences that give me pause).

        We’re less in synch wrt the modern world. Today we worry about global warming, environmental pollution, technology overload and dependence, energy issues, poverty and starvation, over-population, and a host of other modern concerns. All of which come from technology — applied science. I hope (and do believe possible) that same science can solve the problems, but it seems undeniable that we face critical global issues.

        Compare the difference in concerns between a pre- and post-atomic world. It’s not just the awesome destructive power at our fingertips, but the waste products of peaceful use. Or even existence of fissile materials with which it’s easy for terrorists to construct a low-yield, very dirty device (a crude “little boy”).

        The world has become a vastly complex, interconnected place and the demands on the average person to understand their world are much higher. There was a time when a clever person could fix their own car or home appliances. The science of Newton and Darwin (and even Einstein) was fairly accessible to the interested educated person, but how many today even begin to fathom quantum field theory or cosmology (or even the technology behind their own smart phone)?

        And the sad thing about all that leisure time is the degree to which people fill it with frantic and trivial pursuits. Very few have the background, or will take the time, to appreciate those wonders of science (which, I agree, are mind-blowing).

        But my main point is that when science excludes spirituality in favor of a Physicalist view, the average person is left in a materialist world. “I got mine,” becomes the ethic of the day. Or, “He who has the most toys, wins.”

        If the only meaning in life is the meaning we create, then what incentive is there to create deeper meaning than that?

  7. Yes science examines and explains how things are, and it is unwise to believe that nature is always moral and right, as it is obviously brutal and savage much of the time. However, just because we have broken slightly away from most animals in terms of having morality does not suggest to me that there must be a higher being.

    We’ve evolved a moral compass as this facilitated reciprocity and group living. Religion extended this sense of morality and selflessness and thus improved group success even further in some cases. However, religion was not the precursor for morality; religion is not necessary for a person to be moral.

    Science doesn’t need to tell us how things “ought” to be, because everything that has happened has been random, and everything that will happen will happen randomly. There is no ‘right’ path for the future to take. There is a somewhat subjective ‘right’ behaviour for a person to enact, but it is only perceived as being ‘right’ by the animal that is programmed to behave in such an adaptive fashion. It is not ‘right’ in any abstract sense that it ‘matters how you live your life’. We could equally live in a world or a culture where not murdering someone is perceived as being “wrong” or “bad”.

    1. “It is unwise to believe that nature is always moral and right.”

      That’s certainly true, but I am making a more fundamental point: when nature is all you take into account, you have no concept of “moral” or “right” to judge it by.

      “Science doesn’t need to tell us how things “ought” to be, because everything that has happened has been random.”

      I don’t understand how you square that with earlier statements such as “I think (and hope) that people can live morally without having to believe that a higher being exists.” In the absence of an “ought”, what does “live morally” even mean?

      “We could equally live in a world or a culture where not murdering someone is perceived as being “wrong” or “bad”.”

      As science-fiction this is an interesting conceit. (I’ve read several stories based on it.) But as anthropology, it simply won’t fly. There’s an extraordinary unanimity about what the core of morality is across all the major religions and (as best I know) most or all of the minor ones, too. Of course there are plenty of local variations (within religions as well as between them), but there’s a solid core of what shows all the signs of being an objective core of morality common to pretty much everyone, everywhere (atheists included).

      1. I’m trying to make the point that we don’t have to take anything else into account, humans that live without religion or any outside contact know what is moral and right without thinking. As do atheists without a god. The “objective core” of morality is ingrained in our species without authoritative figures and parents preaching religious values and teachings during childhood and adolescence.

        I tried my best at defining “living morally” earlier in the comments – essentially not being a cheat… I think that science can explain why we are moral – it is to our evolutionary advantage – and that there is no further meaning, purpose or divine reason for our morality. It is merely an extension of other animals’ social and group behaviour.

        I was thinking about cultures where young men are required to kill in battle before they truly become a man (or even conscientious objectors). Surely these people see within-group murder as immoral but between-group murder as necessary and perhaps slightly closer to the positive end of the moral compass? As perhaps we all would if it meant survival of our group over threatening rival groups. I don’t think morals are as black and white as you make them seem; I think they are malleable and driven partly by evolution, environment and culture. Not by a divine being.

  8. Simon, you wrote, “…humans that live without religion or any outside contact know what is moral and right without thinking.”

    I agree that if you interview educated, civilized non-believers and try to find the grounding for their morality, a common answer is, “Well, you just know.” But where does that knowledge come from if not from thousands of years of society founded on religious moral principles? It’s difficult to separate the nature/nurture aspects involved to determine where that moral compass comes from.

    Consider primitive tribes who murder (even eat) any outsiders. You make reference to murderous societies, and even in the modern world membership in a street gang may require the murder of some outsider. Would such people have a similar compass?

    On a lesser level, consider modern societies in which women are second-class citizens or which have extreme “outsider” biases (consider the history in the word “barbarian” or the Japanese “gaijin”).

    So, I agree the practice of moral behavior can follow social conventions. (In the USA, many mock our slave-owning Founding Fathers and their assertion that, “All men are created equal.”

    Science involves trying to find the underlying principles. I submit that in all cases — even your earlier go at defining a rational morality wrt cheating — all depend on a basic principle: the idea of parity among members of the group.

    If the group is defined as “our tribe” or “our nationality” or “men” or “white people” we get behavior the group considers moral by its yardstick.

    It is only when we define the group as “all humans” (or for some, “all living creatures”) that what most civilized people consider morality emerges.

    But science tends to argue against this conclusion. Seen as bio-machines, we’re clearly not equal, and the lessons from the animal kingdom clearly argue survival of the fittest. Yet truly civilized societies won’t even kill their worst criminals. Why not?

    What substantial basis is there to argue parity among all humans?

    1. I agree it’s very difficult to separate the nature/nurture aspects of where a moral compass comes from, but I think morals developed to facilitate group social behaviour, and that this then came to be packaged in the form of religion. I therefore agree that society was once based entirely on religious moral principles, but that now religion is waning there is not going to be a resulting drop in moral behaviour – we don’t need religion to guide our morals just because it has been that way for a long time.

      Yes science generally argues against the conclusion that all humans are equal, but perhaps as a highly intelligent species we are beginning to escape the boundaries of individual based natural selection. With foresight, increasingly large social groups and a strong moral compass, maybe we are able to behave in a way that benefits more than just our immediate, close social network and ourselves. Evolutionary biologists generally agree that group selection is possible, but it is usually weaker than selection at the level of the gene (or individual), but maybe, just maybe we are becoming the exception to the rule. Thus, applying our morals of equality across our entire species, as civilised societies do, is scientifically rational and evolutionarily beneficial.

  9. The second conundrum of a rational morality, as you and Mike have already touched on, is the difficulty in defining “right” and “wrong.” These are purely human constructs (like “justice” or even “fairness”), and if — as Atheists assert — the only meaning is the meaning we create, what makes one person’s meaning different from any other?

    Consider an example: is it wrong to drown people, freeze them to death, if the data we obtain could save countless others in the future? The Nazis did exactly that, and many were so horrified at the moral outrage that they argued the data should never be used, even though it already existed.

    But if we are merely bio-machines, why not use a small handful — perhaps some of the indigent or insane or criminal who, after all, are just a drain on our social resources — to the greater benefit of contributing members?

    In the absence of absolute moral law, what makes that “wrong”? Every rational indicator suggests it’s “right”.

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