Frans de Waal is a Dutch/American biologist and primatologist. He teaches at Emory University and directs the Living Links Center for the Study of Ape and Human Evolution, in Atlanta, Georgia. He is known for his popular books, such as Chimpanzee Politics (1982), Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape (1997) and The Age of Empathy (2009). He has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences.
Frans de Waal: Well, religion is an interesting topic because religion is universal. All human societies believe in the supernatural. All human societies have a religion one way or another. Which for the biologists must mean that religion has some advantages – offers some advantages to a society. Otherwise we wouldn’t have that strong tendency to develop it. And so for me that’s actually a far more interesting question of whether God exists or doesn’t exist. That sort of question I cannot answer. But the question of why we have religions is an interesting question. And my view is that morality, our human morality, is older than religion so instead of saying morality comes from God or religion gave us morality. For me that’s a big no-no.
Our current religions are just 2,000 or 3,000 years old which is very young. And our species is much older and I cannot imagine that, for example, a hundred thousand years or two hundred thousand years our ancestors did not have some type of morality. Of course they had rules about how you should behave, what is fair, what is unfair, caring for others – all of these tendencies were in place already so they had a moral system and then at some point we developed these present day religions which I think we’re sort of tacked on to the morality that we had. And maybe they served to codify them or to enforce them or to steer morality in a particular direction that we prefer.
So religion comes in for me secondarily. I’m struggling with whether we need religion. So personally I think we can be moral without religion because we probably had morality long before the current religions came along. So I think we can be moral without religion but in large scale societies where we are not all keeping an eye on each other because we – in societies with a thousand people or several thousand or millions of people we cannot all keep an eye on each other. And that’s maybe why we installed religions in these large scale societies where a God kept watch over everybody.
And then the question becomes is this really needed? Now in northern Europe – I’m from the Netherlands – there is basically an experiment going on. In northern Europe the majority of people are not religious anymore. When you ask them they say they’re nonbelievers. And they still have a moral society as far as I can tell. And so there is a sort of experiment going on there – can we set up a society where religion is not dominant at least? It may be present but it’s not dominant anymore, there is still a moral society. And until now I think that experiment is going pretty well. And so I am optimistic that religion is not strictly needed. But I cannot be a hundred percent sure because we’ve never really tried – there is no human society where religion is totally absent so we really have never tried this experiment.
Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler and Elizabeth Rodd