An Experiment That's Never Been Tried: Morality Without Religion

If being moral is so easy, can we dispatch with religion altogether?

A long tradition of thinking tells us that due to man's animal nature we need to have order imposed from above, in the form of religion. Without religion, we could not live together, and that is why all human societies believe in the supernatural and have developed one religion or another.


This view, which the biologist and primatologist Frans de Waal calls Veneer Theory, is an essentially pessimistic view "that morality is a thin veneer over a nasty human nature."

In his new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, de Waal challenges this theory, arguing that human morality is older than religion, and indeed an innate quality. In other words, religion did not give us morality. Religion built onto a pre-existing moral system that governed how our species behaved. 

de Waal's argument, which he has been making for years, is strengthened by the fact that recent research is starting to paint a better picture of the kind of cognitive processing that empathy requires. It turns out that empathy is not as complex as we had imagined, and that is why other animals are capable of it as well as humans. 

So if being moral is so easy, can we dispatch with religion altogether?

That is an experiment that no one has tried, and which de Waal finds intriguing. The problem, as de Waal points out in the video below, is that we need someone to be keeping watch in large-scale societies in which "we cannot all keep an eye on each other."

Watch the video here:

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Related Articles

Wider-faced politicians are seen as more corrupt

New research offers a tip for politicians who don’t want to be seen as corrupt: don’t get a big head.

Researchers at Caltech discovered that wide-faced politicians are seen as more corrupt. (Keystone/Getty Images)
popular

Keep reading Show less
Playlists
Keep reading Show less

Five foods that increase your psychological well-being

These five main food groups are important for your brain's health and likely to boost the production of feel-good chemicals.

Mind & Brain

We all know eating “healthy” food is good for our physical health and can decrease our risk of developing diabetes, cancer, obesity and heart disease. What is not as well known is that eating healthy food is also good for our mental health and can decrease our risk of depression and anxiety.

Keep reading Show less