Virtually every debate between an atheist and a theist features the question of where humans got their morality; their ideas of right and wrong. Theists say that without a religion to enforce a moral code, we’d all be amoral hedonists. Atheists point out the fact that there are still laws and societal discipline keeps our behaviors in check even if we choose to opt out of having a religion. Could morality exist without a religion and is there something that could point us to an answer? Like tracing our evolutionary lineage perhaps?
When it comes to matters of how we perceive something as right or wrong, we usually turn to a basic concept we call fairness. The idea that things can be fair or unfair and that unfairness is a punishable offense isn’t uniquely human. In fact, it’s something social mammals like primates understand very well and deal with on a daily basis. Theft is unfair. Lying is unfair. Favoritism is unfair. Murder? Probably the most unfair thing to do to someone who’s innocent but justifiable in some cases. We’ll say that murder is wrong but leave ourselves legal and ethical room to kill enemy soldiers in a war or execute criminals who did very unfair and heinous things. The very same ideas can be found in groups of primates who make business deals of sorts, build social hierarchies, have a sense of what’s fair and what’s unfair, refusing to cooperate when they feel mistreated or slighted, wage territorial wars, and seek revenge on those who anger them.
Did you notice something missing though? No known primates except us have religions. They usually keep themselves in check through a social order that evolved because even the smallest society can’t function with a complete lack of subordination and ground rules. If primates didn’t know the difference between fair and unfair to their fellow primates, they would be loners who faced harsh conditions and steep survival odds. If apes and hominids didn’t have compassion or try to look out for one another, more of them would be left to die after injuries and their numbers would be greatly reduced. Simply put, when animals work together, they increase their odds of survival and bolster their genetic variety through growing numbers. Millions of years after the first mutations for more complex brains made it possible, the latest branch on the family tree of primates, the humans, have taken one more step in codifying them through language. The rules are the same. We just try to institutionalize them and carry out the punishments we think are appropriate for the offense in an organized manner, one of which was religion.
One of the biggest misunderstandings theists have when thinking about our ability to separate what’s right and wrong, is believing that humans were zapped with this capacity out of the blue and anything they did with from then on must be attributed to their religious views. In reality, a human sense of fairness had to come from somewhere. Everything in our brain had to develop over a long period of time, slowly, gradually and with a way to trace it back to our evolutionary predecessors, something we’ve been able to do by watching our genetic relatives. Even if we were to take the first form of human religion, prehistoric animism dating back to the Neolithic era if not even earlier, the seeds to develop it and codify basic ground rules for our behavior already had to be there well before the first religious scroll was committed to a tangible medium. As far as we know, religion and faith in higher powers is a uniquely human trait but it couldn’t just come into being from thin air. Maybe this could be a new area of evolutionary study; the evolution of religion and belief in the supernatural.