The first problem is that this particular claim is that, like most of the folks that I know who share my views on religion, I’m pretty boring on the whole sin front. For the most part, I don’t have any particular vices that aren’t also shared with the religious people I know, and I lack even many of those (I don’t drink, never been unfaithful to a partner, no drugs, tend to be a goody-two-shoes as applied to other people’s property, etc.). Where I tend to differ from them is that I do not view arbitrary things that don’t harm anyone as sins – I have no problem with gay people, I don’t really care if someone “blasphemes”, and so on.
In other words, I’m a good citizen, decent neighbor, and all without thinking that there is some sort of being hanging doom over my head if I do wrong. And I am not alone. Time and again, research into the relationship between violent crime, divorce, substance abuse, willingness to cheat others, and so on has shown that these things are not negatively correlated with religious belief. If the non-religious were truly adrift in a sea of immorality, the situation would be quite the opposite.
In fact, as a general rule*, high rates of religious belief in a nation or region correlates with higher rates of crime, drug use, divorce, unplanned pregnancy, abortion, poor social and personal health, etc. (see here and here). This is not necessarily to say that religion causes all of the strife – there are many factors that play a role (some of which have non-causal correlations with religion) – but it doesn’t prevent these problems and may bear some responsibility (by making some topics taboo – such as accurate information about sex education and STDs - or placing some legitimate solutions arbitrarily off-limits – such as the Catholic Church’s official refusal to accept that condoms may be of use in combating the spread of HIV – or placing belief ahead of action – such as the tendency amongst many Christian sects to argue that belief in Jesus is more important than behaving morally, or sanctifying anti-social actions as moral – such as suicide bombers in the Middle East or the murder of people who leave Islam in many Middle-Eastern nations). That religion is not the bulwark of morality against a rising tide of social ills is further illsutrated by the fact that the non-religious make up a smaller portion of the prison population than of the general population (see here and here). Independent of the question of whether or not religion causes social ills (a very complex question outside the scope of what I am writing here), it should be obvious to anyone with two brain cells to rub together that if religious belief was in fact the source of morality, then belief in gods would correlate with higher rates of moral behavior, but this proposition is demonstrably false.
There is a further problem with the notion that religion is the source of morality: most religious believers don’t actually follow the moral codes that they claim to believe – and, for the record, this reflects well on the believers. For example, in the recent Proposition 8 debate here in California, believers frequently stated that the Bible condemned homosexuality, and therefore gay marriage should not be allowed. They are, of course, correct that the Bible condemns homosexuality**, but they ignored that the Bible also calls for the death penalty for homosexuals – for that matter, most of them even feel that the mandatory prison sentences for homosexuality that were common up through the first half of the 20th century were overly harsh. And we see a similar rejection of harsh punishment for other religious “crimes” amongst most modern believers. In other words, the average believer today demonstrates a stronger sense of compassion and, well, morality than the authors of their holy texts did, and in demonstrating these commendable traits, they are, by the standards of the texts that they claim to follow, committing a sin***. And good for them I say, they are clearly better people, citizens, and neighbors than the original authors of the texts, and I think that this shows some degree of moral progress. But it also shows that even those who claim religion is the source of morality don’t actually behave as if it is.
So, if the majority view is wrong, and morality does not come from religion, where does it come from? How can we be moral? Why aren’t we doomed to nihilism and wickedness?
Well, the answer seems to come from a rather obvious place, really: our evolutionary origins. Put simply, we are social animals, and as such, we have had to evolve both biological and cultural traits that allow us to function in groups.
Let me phrase my argument as a hypothesis to be tested. If our sense of morality comes from our evolutionary origins, then it follows that other animals that are close to us either genetically or in their social organization will demonstrate similar traits to deal with social organization – constrained by their own biological capacities, that there would be evidence of moral behavior across all human societies and not just those with the “correct” religions, and that those traits that are universally “moral” should have adaptive use to mobile hunter-gatherers (our ancestors).
So, let’s start with other animals. When we look at other social animals, we see development of social rules that allow these animals to interact successfully and with minimal conflict – even the fights observed amongst packs of dogs are geared at determining the leader to be followed rather than violence for the sake of violence. As we come closer to humans, we see more and more traits that are recognizable. Chimpanzees, for example, show such human behaviors as warfare and outgroup exclusion (both part of most human moral codes, interestingly), but also show our better traits such as compassion and cooperation. As Jane Goodall, puts it:
They kiss, embrace, hold hands, pat one another on the back, swagger, shake their fists, and throw rocks in the same context that we do these things. There are strong bonds of affection and support between family members. They help each other. And they have violent and brutal aggression, even a kind of primitive war. In all these ways, they’re very like us.
For more information, look into the work of Dr. Goodall, or the work of others researching the origins of morality.
Likewise, we do find certain universals amongst human populations, and I have seen these time and again in my studies and research as an anthropologist: the preservation of the in-group is seen as good; altruism is good; harm to the in-group is bad; harm to the out-group may be neutral, good, or bad, depending on the impact that this has on the in-group; individual compassion is used as a guide to correct treatment of others, but is influenced by the relation of the other to the individual acting; the definition of in-group and out-group is flexible and dependent upon the situation, but is generally correlated to the social and genetic relationship of the individual being acted upon to the individual doing the acting.
So, we do see universals that make sense for mobile, stone-age hunter-gatherers, but not necessarily for modern humans. For example, look up the “Trolley Problem” (listen here) to see how the interjection of technology into the equation causes us to view what is logically an equivalent situation as being morally right or wrong (long story short – technological harm to an individual is seen as being more “okay” than directly-caused harm, even if the resulting harm is identical), or check out how an action that would generally be considered evil can be made acceptable through the phenomenon of groups absolution or the placement of those being acted upon into the out-group. These traits are not adaptive to a modern post-industrial society, in which we have the ability to impact masses of people both positively and negatively, but make perfect sense in the context of stone-age hunter-gatherers.
Now, of course, religion is itself probably a result of our evolutionary histories, and so it is no surprise that it often becomes conflated with morality. But the difference is that when we drop the notion that religion is the source of morality, rather than something that evolved along with it, we can see that morality is a natural thing – that is, it is something that has come about because we need it, rather than being enforced on us by an external force. This has an important implication: we can use the needs of living people as guides to moral behavior, and we can see where there is wisdom to be gained from our evolutionary past, rather than continuing to claim arbitrary and silly traditions from bronze-age societies.
A lot of people find this idea of a changing and fluid morality uncomfortable, and as such they declare that such a notion is bad (some particularly bigoted individuals will then go on to claim that the non-religious are unable or unlikely to be moral – but this says more about the insecurities, and, let’s face it, immorality of the people who claim this than the immorality of non-religious people). However, even these people subscribe to the notion of a fluid and changing morality, whether they admit it or not. As noted above, most believers are not in favor of the execution of blasphemers and homosexuals, though that is what their religious texts call for and their ancestors would have demanded. The reason for this is that our society has changed – for the better – and these old ways are seen as harsh and maladaptive now. Religion has not tamed society and made it more moral, rather, culture has tamed religion and forced it to actually behave in a more moral way. Anyone who clings to the notion of an eternal and unchanging code of morality is lying, either to themselves or to you.
Some may claim that giving up even the illusion of an unchanging morality from the divine will lead to moral decay - gulags for the sick, eugenics, violence against those of a different intellectual bent, etc. Assuming that such a thing is true - which is a debatable point - this claim in favor of a religion-based morality still doesn't hold water, and is in fact rather dishonest (and, ironically, therefore probably immoral) for a simple reason: through most of human history, people have clung to models of morality either dictated by or justified through perceived divine revelation, and that has resulted in persecution of dissenters, genocidal wars, torture, suicide bombings, honor-killings, etc. etc. Even if an openly fluid non-religious moral ethos completely replaces religious ones, and even if it is the worst that all believers claim it might be, it would not really be any worse than the religion-based versions. At worst, it would be pretty much the same, and then we're in the same place that we've always been - except that now we're honest about it.
In truth, those who push the notion (even if they don’t actually subscribe to it) of an un-changing morality handed down by god are the ones who are unmoored from moral anchors. They are allowing arbitrary codes that they themselves only half-heartedly hold to take precedence over the very real needs of people. They are more concerned with having their own prejudices and psychological comforts unquestioned than with actually doing good. They will often try to misdirect you – claiming that you are entering into a dangerous moral relativism, when they are the ones who are holding that their own arbitrary a-priori beliefs are somehow more important than the suffering or joy of others - and the assumption that arbitrary positions are somehow equal to verifiable facts is the very definition of relativism.
In other words, don’t buy it. Think about morality, consider that we do have moral impulses that we can sharpen and make use of for the good of ourselves and those around us, and don't allow yourself to be sold on something that may be doing more harm than good.
*I say “as a general rule” because there are, of course, some exceptions.
**Or, at least, most modern translations do – but what the original Hebrew and Greek said, and whether it was a blanket condemnation or rather a rejection of ritual homosexuality (common in the ancient Middle East), is a matter better discussed by people who know more about the subject than I currently do.
***There are, of course, many rationalizations that believers may give for ignoring these rather evil commandments – “that was a ritual requirement that Jesus did away with,” “that was specific to that time and place,” “God’s subsequent commandments show that this changed.” The problems with these rationalizations are twofold: 1) the same believers will still cling to commandments that can be easily dismissed in exactly the same way (such as the general condemnation of homosexuality), and 2) the same believers often claim that the moral codes of the Bible are “eternal and unchanging” while simultaneously admitting that they have changed.