Which came first, religion or morality? The question is not only of theological interest. Cognitive psychologists, evolutionary biologists and other scientists disagree about whether a capacity for religion evolved in human beings in order to encourage cooperative, “moral” behavior, or whether religion hitched a ride on an already evolved moral capacity.
A number of researchers, including Jesse Bering of Queen’s University, have argued that a capacity for religious belief may have evolved in humans because it offered us a competitive advantage. By encouraging people to cooperate, to share, to refrain from cheating and harming one another, religious belief helped ensure our survival as a species.
Now Marc Hauser, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University, and co-author Ilkka Pyysiäinen of the University of Helsinki, argue that evidence from a new discipline called “moral psychology” suggests that a moral capacity came first, and religion came along later as a by-product of that capacity.
The idea that religious feeling was selected for goes like this. We know that some sort of religion seems universal across human history and culture. A feature that common seems likely to have conferred a competitive advantage on those who exhibited it, possibly by encouraging cooperation and group cohesion.
In 2006 Bering and his co-author Dominic Johnson made a case in the journal Evolutionary Psychology for how an evolved capacity for religion would actually create a survival benefit. Others have suggested that altruism makes evolutionary sense, since it helps ensure groups of altruistic individuals will survive. But altruism is vulnerable to “free riders,” cheaters who take advantage of others’ altruism, but never reciprocate. Theoretically, that could bring the whole system crashing down.
Bering and Johnson suggested that a belief in a supernatural power that punishes wrongdoers would solve the problem. If everyone had the sense that a just god or gods was judging their behavior, then cheating would be less likely. On an individual level, a person who acted morally all the time because god was watching would actually be more trustworthy. Other people in the community would see that and cooperate more with that person, increasing his individual fitness level. So religous belief would increase not only group fitness, but individual fitness.
(It’s worth noting that this theory is agnostic about the actual existence of God. Atheists can use it to explain why so many people hold irrational religous beliefs. Believers can argue that God set things up so that people would develop religious belief in this way).
Other researchers have argued that religious belief simply makes use of cognitive capacities which had already evolved. Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, thinks that religious beliefs are an emergent property of standard cognitive capacities. For instance, we are able to feel that we have social relationships with people who are absent, dead, or even imaginary. We tend to ascribe intentions not only to people, but to inanimate objects and nature. Put together, these and other cognitive capacities are enough to give rise to religious belief.
Now Hauser and Pyysiäinen have joined the conversation. Their argument address not a belief in God per se, but whether religion was necessary in order to give rise to cooperative, “moral” behavior. They argue that humans possess evolved moral capacities which existed prior to and independent of any religious feelings or beliefs.
The researchers use an analogy with linguistics. Linguists know that humans are born with a “universal grammar” — a collection of linguistic parameters that allow them to learn any human language. But as people learn a specific language, some of these parameters will be switched on, others switched off.
In the same way, Hauser and Pyysiäinen think that we are born with a set of universal moral intuitions. Culture, including religion, can affect these, but only so far.
For instance, Hauser and others have carried out a series of experiments in morals. One important thought experiment is referred to as the “trolley problem.” In this imaginary scenario, a trolley is bearing down on five hikers who will be killed if something isn’t done. You’re asked to imagine that you can throw a switch which will divert the trolley onto another track with a single hiker on it. Is it moral to do so? Most people say yes. But ask people if they would push a single person onto the tracks in order to save the five, and most say no.
In another case, people universally judge committing a harmful action as worse than omitting an action, even if the harm caused by each is the same.
These apparently inborn moral intuitions aren’t immediately obvious to us, and we often have a hard time rationalizing them. (In the trolley problem above, people seem to believe that it is all right to harm someone as a side effect of a beneficial action. It is not all right to directly harm that person, even if the result is exactly the same.)
The interesting thing is that religious belief has little or nothing to do with these moral intuitions. Hauser has conducted dozens of moral dilemma experiments with thousands of subjects. In most cases, there is no stastical difference in the answers between believers and atheists. Even in the few cases where there is a difference, the effect size tends to be small, he says.
That’s not to say that religious people don’t differ at all from atheists, or from members of other religions. For instance, religious people are more likely to say that they should be willing to martyr themselves in order to save a greater number of anonymous others. Obviously, there are large evolutionary pressures against such an attitude, and this one seems likely to be the direct result of a moral teaching.
But despite a few differences like these, there are no cases where religious beliefs significantly affect the underlying moral intuitions that are picked up on the moral dilemma tests.
But if religious attitudes don’t affect people’s moral intuitions, Hauser and Pyysiäinen argue, then it seems unlikely that religious beliefs can be at the root of those intuitions. Instead, the moral intuitions likely came first. They arose because they conferred a competitive advantage on individuals and groups of people that had them, and today they form the building blocks of our moral attitudes. Those moral building blocks encouraged cooperative social behavior, but were able to do it with no necessity for religion.
Even though religion did not likely arise as a distinct biological adaptation, it does seem to have hitched itself firmly to moral intuitions. Hauser and Pyysiäinen admit that religion might serve to reinforce our cooperative tendencies. In fact, religion might be so good at making people more moral that it was culturally selected, so that groups which shared religious beliefs were more cohesive and cooperative, and therefor did better than groups without.
Religion has become so entwined with morality that many suggest that there can be no morals without religion. But Hauser’s work suggests that this is wrong. Religion can mediate morality, and even reinforce it. But work in moral psychology suggests that moral intuitions came first, and we continue to have a moral sense even absent religious belief.