Last time around I proposed that morality was an inevitable consequence of group living, and that - as the most social species on the planet - our ancestors had an extensive history of living in groups. Part of that legacy includes deep concerns about the treatment of others. The rules for such treatment define what we call morality. The point was that an individual who consistently acted in a self-interested, immoral manner would lose the benefits of group membership and be at a distinct reproductive disadvantage. Such an individual might enjoy short-term exploitive benefits, but would be less likely than most to be anyone's ancestor. This view - obviously rooted in evolutionary psychology and discussed in my book Caveman Logic - does not point toward Heaven when it comes time to understanding morality.
But wait, you might say. Where does religion come in? Are you denying that religion has something to say about morality? Of course not. It has plenty to say. But none of it is particularly useful in explaining the roots of morality. The oft-used humorous point is: Before Moses came down from the mountain and told his people "Thou shalt not kill," did they really believe it was OK to go around bumping each other off?
Religion is very good at codifying the rules of morality that are already more or less in place. They take what we already know, add a few "thous" and "shalts" to the rulebook and attach the fear of God as a punchline. That's a winning combination. It leads to pious people talking about those rules, genuflecting, and supporting the church for fear the rules will go away.
Imagine how religious debaters feel about an outspoken atheist who wants to remove their favorite deity, as well as fear of that deity, from the equation. Why, the whole thing will collapse like a house of cards, won't it? It'll be anarchy. Copulation in the streets. Murder and mayhem. As some preachers are wont to say in their rants against Darwin, "If you teach ‘em they're descended from monkeys, they'll act like monkeys."
Some of those fire and brimstone preachers are mighty slick at turning a phrase. You have to give them credit for that. Unfortunately, they're not quite so slick at getting the facts right. At least half the audiences at public talks I give are surprised to learn that Darwin never said that humans are descended from monkeys. That idea is simply wrong. But don't let it get in the way of a good sermon or a sound bite. And never mind that the rate of religious belief among convicted felons in prison is extremely high. Let's keep that one out of the debates. And let's also bury the fact that no one has ever demonstrated that, as a group, atheists are any less moral than theists or anyone else.
One problem with making these points in a public debate is that they rarely have immediate impact. You'd love to see that moment of conversion - the sort of thing that we're told happens in churches all the time, when some atheist sinner suddenly sees the light. Those are memorable moments. But don't expect to see them when you're arguing against theism. The best you can hope for is to offer some new fact or nagging piece of logic that will erode theist belief in the gradual, inexorable way that opinions are changed. Like evolution itself, the rate is painfully slow.
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