Gods, morality, society. Religion, identity, and our sense of right and wrong. How can we explain the way these interlock, and can we test our suggested explanations against observation? An article titled Birth of the Moralizing Gods, in the latest issue of Science, suggests that we can.
Logically, of course, we cannot derive morality from religion. The reasons were spelt out by David Hume, and go back all the way to Plato’s “Euthyphro’s dilemma”. The bumper-sticker version is “No ought from is”; you will find my own simplistic exposition here, and a proper grown-up discussion in Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass. Do the gods desire what is good, because it is good? Or is it good because the gods desire it? In the first case, we do not need the gods to define goodness, because it already exists independent of them. In the second, goodness is defined by their arbitrary whims, which does not seem very satisfactory either.
Psychologically, things are very different, and both horns of the dilemma crumple as soon as we put any weight on them. The gods are very wise and very loving, and so, if they have revealed their wishes to us, that is trustworthy guidance as to what is truly good. So the first horn crumples under the weight of their authority. At the same time, the gods are arbitrary and irascible Oriental despots, and if we offend them, we risk bringing down powerful vengeance on our communities as well as on ourselves, or at least the withdrawal of divine protection. According to Jeremiah, the Babylonians were able to destroy the First Temple in Jerusalem because the people of Judah had sinned by tolerating Ishtar worship; according to Pat Robertson, Al Qaeda was able to destroy the Twin Towers because the people of America had sinned by tolerating homosexuality. If you really believe such things (and I think Jeremiah was completely sincere in his beliefs), then the second horn of the dilemma cannot withstand the pressures of prudence.
The persistence and near-universality of religion presents a problem for non-believers. Indeed, the persistence of what must by exclusion be false religions presents an at least comparable problem for believers. This problem was discussed at some length by Jared Diamond in his 2012 book The World Until Yesterday. Diamond adds, to his knowledge of earlier discussions, his experience living in New Guinea among people recently emerged from tribalism and his perspective as an evolutionary biologist. Religions, like body organs, have evolved by a process of Darwinian selection, but, again like body organs, their functions may have changed over time. Since the practice of religion always involves some cost, religion would seem to incur some benefits that outweigh this cost.
The oldest functions may well be the explanation of phenomena in terms of agency, and the illusion of control through ritual; a divine charioteer carries the Sun across the sky, and you will have a smoother sea voyage if you make the proper libations to Neptune. This is now a relatively minor function. It survives in First Cause and related arguments, but by an interesting inversion, these are used not so much to explain phenomena as to justify religious belief itself. Relatedly, there is prayer as a way of making things happen, petitionary prayer. This Diamond expects to be most evident among people facing uncertainty about subsistence; few of us nowadays, at least in the developed world, are really anxious about our daily bread.
Next we have religion as in-group membership, and this helps explain the willingness to make sacrifices, either material or intellectual. To benefit from group membership, you need to show that you’re entitled to it. You can prove you’re a good Catholic by believing in the physical assumption of the Virgin into Heaven. You can prove you’re a good Muslim by praying five times a day, fasting through Ramadan and visiting Mecca. You can prove you’re a good Jew by elaborate dietary restrictions, and avoiding motor transport on Saturdays. And since the more extreme sacrifice is seen as the more admirable, the more inflexible belief is seen as the more authentic; this may help account for the metastasising spread of Creationism in all three Abrahamic religions.
Another surviving major function is consolation. Prayer provides at least the comforting illusion of action, and may also help reconcile the person praying to the outcome, whatever it may be. The misfortunes and injustices of this world will rankle less if you believe that they will be rectified in the Hereafter. It is certain that many people find consolation in religion when faced with the death of loved ones, or when contemplating their own mortality, in belief in an afterlife, although some, alas, believe in a final judgement that makes death itself seem all the more terrifying.
This comforting function shades into the one singled out in the Science article, namely the provision of a basis for morality in complex societies, in which conduct can no longer be regulated purely by personal relationships and reputation. As Diamond puts it,
“Hell has a double function: to comfort you by smiting your enemies whom you were unable to smite yourselves here on earth; and to motivate you to obey your religion’s moral commands, by threatening to send you to there if you misbehave.”
On his analysis, this moral function, as well as hierarchical organisation, religion as the basis for political obedience, and religious justifications for wars “were absent in small-scale societies, appeared with the rise of chiefdoms and states, and have declined again in modern secular states.” This seems plausible, especially when we compare 21st-century Europe either with 16th century Europe, or with the 21st-century Middle East.
The work described in the Science article attempts to go beyond such common generalisations. It starts from a surprising discovery, advances a counter-intuitive hypothesis, and points towards a highly ambitious multidisciplinary research programme. The discovery is that of an 11,500-year-old elaborate religious site at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, apparently predating the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture, and the increases in population density and social organisation that this made possible. The hypothesis is that moralising gods are a precondition for achieving complex social organisation, rather than its product, and this is in principle testable archaeologically. So we should go looking for the earliest evidence of religious or symbolic activity in the various other sites where complex societies emerged independently. The overall research programme involves, among other things, the compilation of cross-cultural databases, such as the Database of Religious History, and is backed by a much-cited experimental study in which religious cueing (but not self-reported religiosity) led to more generous sharing behaviour in the laboratory.
It would be easy but, I think, a mistake to make fun of a programme that involves, for example, reducing the Epistles of St Paul to a series of yes/no answers, or attempting to generalise from the behaviour of North American laboratory subjects. At the very least,we have an enterprise bringing together an unusually wide range of scholars, to work together on problems involving archaeology and history, psychology, and textual analysis. At best, we will have new perspectives on the deepest, darkest, and most complex recesses of our own behaviour, and perhaps, even, some answers to the challenges posed by religion at its best, and at its worst, in the world today.
A comment on the scene illustrated: even as a child, I remember being puzzled by this story. God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son; Abraham prepares to do so, thereby demonstrating his obedience to God; then God intervenes, provides a ram for the sacrifice, and rewards Abraham by promising to make him the father of a numerous and successful people. At first, I wondered whether Abraham really did the right thing. Then I realised that by even asking the question, I was drawing a distinction between what God wanted, and what was morally right. It was only much much later that something occurred to me that may also occurred to Rembrandt, to judge from the violence with which he depicts the scene; Abraham was about to offer up Isaac’s life, but Isaac’s life was not his to give.
1] It is possible that religion itself conveys no benefits, but is the historical byproduct of some other, more advantageous, behaviour. However, it is not clear what this would be, and in any case that merely pushes the problem back one stage.