If it ain't one dogma, it's another

Primatologist Frans De Waal has done a lot of work on evolutionary models of morality, which undoubtedly provokes the ire of religious believers who simply can't fathom morality being an emergent outcome of evolution divorced from some unseen divine entity. I particularly love this opening statement from an essay he contributed to the Templeton Foundation:
Human nature simply cannot be understood in isolation from the rest of nature. This evolutionary approach is already difficult for many people to accept, but it is likely to generate even more resistance once its implications are fully grasped. After all, the idea that we descend from long-armed, hairy creatures is only half the message of evolutionary theory. The other half is continuity with all other life forms. We are animals not only in body but also in mind. This idea may prove harder to swallow.
De Waal's books are scientific, not polemic, and he only mentions religion in passing. But much as Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained dispassionately took the scalpel of science to the foundations of religious beliefs, De Waal doesn't pull any punches when discussing the real implications of scientific research into our moral evolution, and the science cuts far deeper than any Dawkins-esque polemic ever could. 

So it surprised me a bit when De Waal, in an article some time back for the New York Times, said the following:
[What] would happen if we were able to excise religion from society? I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good. Any framework we develop to advocate a certain moral outlook is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion.
Now, before any of you theists go jumping all over this ("See?!?! See?!?!"), this is from an op-ed in which De Waal argued (quite well, in my opinion) that we do not need God to understand morality [link]. But he raises an interesting issue: if we eradicate the religions we have, would we just replace it with a religious naturalism?

To hear some theists tell it (I'm looking at you, William Lane Craig fan club), we're already there: atheism is indistinguishable from metaphysical naturalism, and we're all a bunch of miserable hedonists and nihilists. We atheists have painstakingly repeated that atheism is not a dogma, but a logical outcome of epistemic naturalism, which makes no a priori assumptions about the existence or non-existence of supernatural beings. The funny thing is, when you really get down to it, religious morality – for all its talk of absolutes – is still just an idea that is communicated through plain old fallible human beings. That's the peculiar thing about absolute morality: there are countless different versions of it, and no one proclaiming it seems to know how they arrived at their conclusions – they're content with barking cliched tautologies. So you end up with a bunch of guys wearing silly robes and proclaiming that their interpretation of their holy book has given them unique insight into absolute truth, and all the other guys making the exact same declarations of authoritative knowledge – except with opposite beliefs – well, they're just wrong, see, and you shouldn't listen to them.

Morality was never given to us by divine decree; it's an emergent concept that is inseparable from our evolutionary heritage. On this point, De Waal would no doubt agree. But I take exception to the notion that a rejection of one dogma would inevitably lead to the adoption of another, as though dogmatic thinking is a deeply ingrained and perhaps inevitable consequence of our biology. And I've no doubt that those of us in the Sam Harris fan club would vehemently object to the notion that science has nothing to say about how we should live; on the contrary, science gives us the only valid basis in which to root our understanding of human nature. It's a fallacy, contra Hume, that ought can't be derived from is – if the concept of morality is to have any utility at all, one can't derive any moral prescription that is divorced from reality.

I think we can evolve past dogmatic thinking, and the domain of morality is one of the best places to start. Instead of rooting our morality in unfalsifiable and usually contradictory claims about the whims of divine beings, we can root our morality in human solidarity – our shared needs, interests and responsibility. As De Waal himself said in his fantastic book Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved:
Free and equal people never existed. Humans started out—if a starting point is discernible at all—as interdependent, bonded, and unequal. We come from a long lineage of hierarchical animals for which life in groups is not an option but a survival strategy. Any zoologist would classify our species as obligatorily gregarious. [p.4]
 If we don't need dogma to understand morality, we certainly don't need dogma to practice it. 


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