Frans de Waal is a biologist specializing in primate behavior—mostly non-human primates. He wrote an article for The New York Times on Morals Without God.
Like so many others, de Waal can't imagine what kind of morals and ethics a society would create without guidance from supernatural beings.
Even the staunchest atheist growing up in Western society cannot avoid having absorbed the basic tenets of Christian morality. Our societies are steeped in it: everything we have accomplished over the centuries, even science, developed either hand in hand with or in opposition to religion, but never separately. It is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion. It would require a visit to a human culture that is not now and never was religious. That such cultures do not exist should give us pause.I do not accept that my society is steeped in Christian morality. I believe that Christianity has borrowed some very sound ethical principles shared by all societies and tried to make them its own. That does not mean that our wish to discourage murder and theft is a Christian value.
Furthermore, those values that are uniquely religious—such as banning contraception, prohibiting gay marriage, and rejecting evolution—are frequently the very ones that are rejected by modern Western societies.
It is NOT impossible to know what a society would look like without religion. It would look very much like the societies of Western Europe. Those societies have retained the moral and ethical values that pre-date and supercede religion and they have rejected the values of Christianity that they have outgrown. In countries like France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Denmark citizens are rapidly approaching the point where religions are completely irrelevant. The Pope can continue to hold Sunday mass at St. Peter's and he can create a bevy new saints every year, but hardly anyone will care. Most of them don't even care today. In fact, most Canadians don't care even though more than 40% of us are nominally Roman Catholic.
I'm surprised that de Waal doesn't mention this since he is from the Netherlands and he makes this an important part of his opinion piece in The New York Times article.
It's true that no historical human cultures have been free of superstition. Almost all of them believed in magic. Our ancestors thought there were gods who controlled the weather and they feared evil gods who would do them harm. They believed in magic potions, fairies, and dragons. They believed in lucky numbers and developed elaborate rituals to avoid bad fortune (don't let a black cat cross your path).
The fact that all past cultures were highly superstitious is interesting, but it certainly doesn't trouble me the same way it troubles Frans de Waal. He said, "That such [non-superstitious] cultures do not exist should give us pause." Why? Is it hard to explain why older cultures believed silly things that aren't true?
Other primates have of course none of these problems, but even they strive for a certain kind of society. For example, female chimpanzees have been seen to drag reluctant males towards each other to make up after a fight, removing weapons from their hands, and high-ranking males regularly act as impartial arbiters to settle disputes in the community. I take these hints of community concern as yet another sign that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and that we do not need God to explain how we got where we are today. On the other hand, what would happen if we were able to excise religion from society? I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good. Any framework we develop to advocate a certain moral outlook is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion.This is really hard to understand. On the one hand, de Waals admits that we don't need God to make us moral. On the other hand, he suggests that our society is steeped in Christian morality. He seems to be saying that religion is important even if God is unnecessary.
One of the essential hallmarks of critical thinking is skepticism, especially skepticism about your own personal beliefs. One should always be prepared to question one's own assumptions.
One way of doing this is to look for evidence that will back up or refute your assertion. In this case, Frans de Waal should be asking himself whether there are any examples of societies that are adopting naturalistic worldviews and abandoning religion. If there are such societies, then is it true that they are in the process of evolving prophets and devotees and forming another kind or religion?
I've been in Europe many times over the past decade and I've not seen any evidence of this new religion that's supposed to look just like any old religion. There's no evidence of this new form of religion in North America either. I currently live in a very secular society in the suburbs of Toronto. Half of the people in my immediate neighborhood are non-believers and most of remainder do not agree with the moral and ethical tenets of any religion—especially Christian ones.
None of the non-believers in my neighborhood seem to have a pressing need to find another kind of religion to replace the one they've discarded. We are happy that Canada legalized gay marriage, prohibits capital punishment, allows abortion, promotes gender equality, and defends the right of every Canadian to have affordable access to health care. We don't need prophets and priests to tell us that this is good for society.
Frans de Waal is wrong to claim that our ethics and morals are derived from religion. He is wrong to claim that past belief in silly superstition is evidence that those superstitions can't be discarded. And he is wrong to believe that when societies discard religion they will be faced with such a void that they will have to re-invent religion.