Did Morality Emerge Before Religion?

Marc Hauser of Harvard University and Ilkka Pyysiäinen of the University of Helsinki have published an opinion piece in Trends in Cognitive Sciences that looks at the link between morality and religion.
They point out that several psychological studies (many conducted using the Moral Sense Test) have shown that when it comes to unfamiliar moral dilemmas, atheists and those with a religious background show no difference in their moral judgments—suggesting that our intuitive judgments of right and wrong operate independently from our religious beliefs. Experiments did show that people with a religious background were more likely to sacrifice their own lives to save the greatest number of others, but the researchers argue that “religious pressures might lead people to offer this judgment because they believe it is the morally appropriate answer. What religion can do, and what political and legal institutions can do as well, is alter local and highly specific cases. And yet, they appear to have no influence at all on the intuitive system that operates more generally, and for unfamiliar cases.”
Here’s a good example to illustrate the point:

In a wide variety of studies, using different methods and populations, subjects consistently judge actions that cause harm as worse than omissions causing the same harm—a distinction referred to as the omission bias. In some studies, and in some populations, specific examples might not reveal the omission bias, but rarely does one observe a reversal such that omissions are judged more harshly than actions. For example, although the Netherlands passed a bill in 2001 making both active euthanasia (administering an overdose to an individual who is suffering) and passive euthanasia (allowing to die by terminating life support) legally permissible, the Dutch show as strong an omission bias as American subjects, despite the fact that in the USA, active euthanasia is illegal. This reveals that the law, as a formal moral system, can only provide specific guidelines for specific actions, but such knowledge fails to penetrate or alter our folk moral intuitions. According to this view, and as noted above, explicit religious commitment seems to be comparable to law, providing specific guidelines for specific actions, but dissociated from the system that mediates moral intuitions.

The authors hope we can use their paper as a jumping-off point to further explore (and, in some ways, rethink) the complex relationship between religion and morality, concluding:

It seems that in many cultures religious concepts and beliefs have become the standard way of conceptualizing moral intuitions. Although, as we have discussed, this link is not a necessary one, many people have become so accustomed to using it, that criticism targeted at religion is experienced as a fundamental threat to our moral existence.

Category: Morals


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