“Atheists, if there’s no God, where do you get your morals from?”

Evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker says, shockingly, evolution.

Pinker is the Harvard prof I mentioned in an earlier post about swearing, and whose new book, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature, I’ve just started.

Pinker’s latest article for the New York Times Magazine titled The Moral Instinct engagingly and elegantly tackles an oft-asked R&S favorite, Where do atheists get their morals? Pinker draws us into the article with this question:

Which of the following people would you say is the most admirable: Mother Teresa, Bill Gates or Norman Borlaug?

….[A] deeper look might lead you to rethink your answers. Borlaug, father of the “Green Revolution” that used agricultural science to reduce world hunger, has been credited with saving a billion lives, more than anyone else in history. Gates, in deciding what to do with his fortune, crunched the numbers and determined that he could alleviate the most misery by fighting everyday scourges in the developing world like malaria, diarrhea and parasites. Mother Teresa, for her part, extolled the virtue of suffering and ran her well-financed missions accordingly: their sick patrons were offered plenty of prayer but harsh conditions, few analgesics and dangerously primitive medical care.

Pinker asks far too many provoking questions and posits too many solid points in his succinct survey of the science of morality; I wish I could excerpt and synthesize more. You should just go read the article.

I will, however, leave you with a few more nuggets to whet your appetite. Pinker cites those who believe evolution has left us with an innate moral grammar. But with so many divergent cultures, is there a true universal morality? Consider this hypothetical:

A runaway trolley is about to kill a schoolteacher. You can divert the trolley onto a sidetrack, but the trolley would trip a switch sending a signal to a class of 6-year-olds, giving them permission to name a teddy bear Muhammad. Is it permissible to pull the lever?

This is no joke. Last month a British woman teaching in a private school in Sudan allowed her class to name a teddy bear after the most popular boy in the class, who bore the name of the founder of Islam. She was jailed for blasphemy and threatened with a public flogging, while a mob outside the prison demanded her death. To the protesters, the woman’s life clearly had less value than maximizing the dignity of their religion, and their judgment on whether it is right to divert the hypothetical trolley would have differed from ours. Whatever grammar guides people’s moral judgments can’t be all that universal.

Pinker later explains:

All this brings us to a theory of how the moral sense can be universal and variable at the same time. The five moral spheres are universal, a legacy of evolution. But how they are ranked in importance, and which is brought in to moralize which area of social life — sex, government, commerce, religion, diet and so on — depends on the culture. Many of the flabbergasting practices in faraway places become more intelligible when you recognize that the same moralizing impulse that Western elites channel toward violations of harm and fairness (our moral obsessions) is channeled elsewhere to violations in the other spheres. Think of the Japanese fear of nonconformity (community), the holy ablutions and dietary restrictions of Hindus and Orthodox Jews (purity), the outrage at insulting the Prophet among Muslims (authority). In the West, we believe that in business and government, fairness should trump community and try to root out nepotism and cronyism. In other parts of the world this is incomprehensible — what heartless creep would favor a perfect stranger over his own brother?

Pinker imagines the criticism that morality being a product of evolution and culture will just lead to moral relativism. Don’t we need God to set the moral baseline?

Putting God in charge of morality is one way to solve the problem, of course, but Plato made short work of it 2,400 years ago. Does God have a good reason for designating certain acts as moral and others as immoral? If not — if his dictates are divine whims — why should we take them seriously? Suppose that God commanded us to torture a child. Would that make it all right, or would some other standard give us reasons to resist? And if, on the other hand, God was forced by moral reasons to issue some dictates and not others — if a command to torture a child was never an option — then why not appeal to those reasons directly?

I wish all the theists who ask about atheist morality would read this article. I doubt it would change too many opinions about the connection of God and morality, but it may pry open a few minds and force some people to rethink the origins of morality. Hell, I’m an atheist and it informed me and expanded my thinking.

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