Many religious folks argue that while science can explain much of the natural world, some issues are simply outside of the scientific realm, the classic example of which would be morality. The late Harvard evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould formalized this position via his Non-Overlapping Magisteria Principle. The argument goes something like this: Without a final arbiter (ergo God), how could humans have an absolute sense of what is right or wrong? Morality would apparently disintegrate into a relativistic mélange of “arbitrary” rules of conduct. I shall explore this position in today’s post.

1. In two earlier posts (see here and here), I demonstrated the extraordinarily contradictory positions taken by religions on every imaginable issue of human import, let alone the fact that there are thousands of religions and Gods. Which God/religion should one use to guide his/her moral system?

Let’s take a few examples: Is homosexuality an immoral abomination? Some Anglican and Lutheran denominations condone same-sex unions whereas the mainstream position of the Abrahamic religions is that homosexuality is deeply sinful and immoral. What about mating systems? What does God consider to be moral in this domain? Well, if you are Mormon or Muslim, God finds it perfectly moral that a man might take multiple women as wives while Judaism and Christianity believe in monogamous unions as sanctified by God. What about the moral precepts associated with the treatment of animals? Again, God seems to have completely different moral precepts depending on whether you are Jewish (Kosher slaughter rituals), Muslim (Halal slaughter rituals), Jain (the use of brooms whilst walking to ensure that you do not inadvertently step on insects), or Hindu (do not slaughter cows). What about the moral codes associated with the treatment of individuals arising from different faiths? Are we all equal under God’s dominion? Read the precepts of Sharia Law and let us know if God is equally appreciative of Muslims and the Kuffar (non-Muslims). As a matter of fact, according to the Sharia, a moral transgression (and associated legal punishment) is more or less severe depending on the faith of the perpetrator and victim. This does not sound very moral according to our Western liberal democratic values. What about the proper treatment of insolent children? The Bible is quite clear…stone them to death. Most contemporary Americans find slavery to be a morally grotesque and repugnant practice. How do we reconcile the latter aversion with the fact that the Abrahamic religions are all quite clear that the practice of slavery is perfectly acceptable under specific contexts (and hence moral)? I could list an endless list of additional examples stemming from the 10,000 documented religions but I suspect that you get the point.

Incidentally, I have never received a reply from a religious person as to how to resolve this conundrum of religious contradictions other than to state: “Well, the other 9,999 religions are false. I know this to be true because my religion is the correct one. It states so in my holy book.” Ah, the power of logic and reason.

2. There are endless instantiations of moral, compassionate, and kind acts that are committed by atheists. How are such non-believers able to engage in such acts without a belief in any supernatural deity? Is it that God in His infinite benevolence has imbued the non-believers with moral sentiments notwithstanding their rejection of His infinite splendor? Do most people refrain from killing, raping, committing pedophilic acts, torturing puppies, and setting their neighbors’ houses on fire (for fun) because these acts have been codified as religiously forbidden (by the way, many religious moral codes implicitly if not explicitly condone such acts!)? Would we all engage in nihilistic crime sprees of unimaginable depravity lest we were guided by religion? And again, which religion should we turn to for this moral guidance? Recall that religions agree on very little even the circumstances under which it is permitted to kill another.

3. Countless philosophers and scientists (including no lesser a man than Charles Darwin) have offered very compelling scientific-based arguments to explain the evolution of morality (especially in the context of social species). Hence, to repeatedly utter the banal canard that morality is outside the purview of science is astonishingly false. Innumerable books and scientific articles have been written to explain the evolution of morality, empathy, kindness, cooperation, altruism, parental love, romantic love, love for one's friends, and numerous other emotions that constitute integral elements of our moral fortitude.

Bottom line: Morality exists outside of religion. As a matter of fact, religion does nothing short but create a complete relativistic conundrum as to how to lead a moral life. Most individuals are endowed with the capacity to be moral (psychopaths are void of some important moral sentiments) without the requisite belief in an invisible deity.

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About the Author

Gad Saad

Gad Saad, Ph.D., is a professor of marketing at Concordia University and the author of The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption and The Consuming Instinct.

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