“If God does not exist, everything is permitted”.
This quote from “The Grand Inquisitor” section of The Brothers Karamazov is frequently invoked by those who believe in God. Without faith in a god that lays down the rules, their argument goes, we are lost in moral nihilism. We cannot truly know right from wrong.
A common argument, perhaps, but one that ignores much of world history. In truth everything has never been permitted, and this applies both to those who believe in such a god and to those who don't.
Two examples are sufficient to establish this point. Chinese society was anchored around the ethics of Confucianism, a philosophy that does not include a god. Similarly, Theravada Buddhism tends to view deities as of limited significance. Both of these systems have moral codes, and their practical impact has been substantial, guiding the actions of millions for over two millennia.
But here in America this kind of historical fact carries little weight. Rather, the belief here tends to be “no God, no morality”. National surveys have reported that in the opinion of a majority of Americans, there is a direct link between a lack of belief in God and a lack of personal morals. For many, a moral nonbeliever is just a contradiction in terms. After all, where else could morality come from, if not from religious faith?
Let’s look briefly at these two issues. First, the possible origins of morality, and second, the documented consequences of nonbelief.
From the viewpoint of evolutionary psychology, there is a case to be made for moral codes having developed, in part, as a matter of reproductive success. Consider the small Paleolithic band of hunter/gatherers, the social structure in which homo sapiens evolved. What might contribute to the reproductive success of an individual in such a group? Lying to, stealing from, and murdering other members? Sometimes, yes.
But there is another important question. What might contribute to the success of the group as a whole in its competition with other groups? Cooperation of course. Social bonding in general, and cooperation in particular. Working together in various ways, especially with close kin but with other group members as well, would be a contributing factor to group success. Thus, tendencies toward in-group cooperation would undergo genetic selection, becoming more prevalent in the population.
Such tendencies were subsequently augmented by countless varieties of tradition, small and large, religious and secular. And these traditions themselves continued a cultural evolution, with some practices expanding, others dropping out. For example, in the not so distant past slavery was not only widespread, it was also heartily endorsed as an ethical practice, even by religious adherents. Today, of course, it is a nearly universal abomination.
So as to the origin of morality, the short answer is: both biological and cultural evolution.
What about the consequences of nonbelief? Aren’t nonbelievers evil? If they are, we can’t seem to find any evidence to that effect. The sociologist Phil Zuckerman, in his book "Living the Secular Life", has done the helpful job of summarizing the research literature.
First, regarding individuals. Today about 11% of American children are raised in homes without any religious influence. “Are children raised in such secular homes disproportionately criminal or malevolent? Absolutely not. No study exists that even suggests that kids raised in secular homes are disproportionately immoral, unethical, or violent”.
What about states within the United States? “As expected, when it comes to nearly all standard measures of societal health, such as homicide rates, violent crime rates, poverty rates, domestic abuse rates, obesity rates, educational attainment, funding for schools and hospitals, teen pregnancy rates, rates of sexually transmitted diseases, unemployment rates, domestic violence, the correlation is robust: the least theistic states in America tend to fare much, much better than the most theistic.”
And what about different countries in the world? At this point you can probably anticipate the data. By just about whatever measure of societal health you choose, the least theistic countries fare better than the most God believing.
Now let me hasten to add that this correlation does not establish causation. It is not necessarily the case that secularity causes societal well-being; for example, it might be just the reverse. In fact I suspect it is largely the reverse: the more prosperous, democratic, educated, egalitarian, and peaceful a society becomes, the more it moves away from theism.
For those who are waiting with the “how about Stalin” question, the real issue there is totalitarianism, not secularity. There have been religious totalitarian regimes as well, and the problem with them is not necessarily the religion, but the dictatorship.
So returning to the primary issue, has the concept of “no god, no morality” survived scrutiny?
It has not. The concept is grossly inconsistent both with world history and with contemporary research. It drastically underestimates the formidable capacity of human beings for developing codes to help order their own social existence.