Having heard the protests by prominent atheists against the excerpt published by salon.com (under the inflammatory banner “Has militant atheism become a religion?”), let me say that the role of religion and atheism covers only about 10% of my book. It is an important part, hence the book title, but needs to be weighed against the rest of my message. In order to discuss the biological origins of morality, which is its central theme, I need to get two groups out of the way. One is fundamentalist religion, for which morality comes from God. The other are the neo-atheists who, by labeling themselves rational and everyone else irrational, have closed the door to open and tolerant debate. Calling believers idiots can’t possibly be a good discussion opener. This explains my stance against militant atheism (a label that is not mine, but Dawkins’ by the way).

My book is about how morality doesn’t come from above but rather is an evolutionary product. I speak of bottom-up morality, in line with the ideas of some psychologists (Haidt), philosophers and neuroscientists (Kitcher, Churchland). The book is rooted in my research on monkeys, apes, elephants, and other animals, and my conviction that they show the beginnings of morality. I have written about this before, but now I am bringing religion into the mix. Even though I don’t think religion is absolutely critical, it is also not irrelevant. The question how humans would fare without it is hard to answer for the simple reason that religion is universal. There are no societies that are not now and never were religious.

Morality promotes cooperation. It asks us to put our personal interests on the back-burner and work for the common good. It is a complex system that religion and philosophy have tried to capture in simple rules (such as the golden rule or the ten commandments), but these rules provide only imperfect summaries. We like to think of morality as top-down, but this is merely a left-over of the story of God on the mountain top. There is no evidence that it started out as a top-down system. Science is rather coming around to the Humean view of morality guided by intuitions and passions. Looking at other primates, we recognize many of the same tendencies that underlie our morality, such as rules of reciprocity, empathy and sympathy, a sense of fairness, and the need to get along. Monkeys, for example, object to unfair distributions of resources (see the end of my TED talk), and chimpanzees do each other favors even if there is nothing in it for themselves. Bonobos are probably the most empathic animals of all, and the recent genome data places them extremely close to us.

Human morality goes beyond all of this, but ancient primate tendencies do play a crucial role. We have been indoctrinated that nature is “red in tooth and claw,” and entirely selfish, but we are now learning about conflict resolution, cooperation, empathy, and the like, in our fellow primates. They are far more harmony-oriented than people realize. I don’t necessarily call apes “moral beings,” but we share with them an old psychology without which we’d never have become moral.

Atheism will need to be combined with something else, something more constructive than its opposition to religion, to be relevant to our lives. The only possibility is to embrace morality as natural to our species. Otherwise atheism will end up in the Big Black Hole that Thomas Henry Huxley created for himself in the 19th Century. He did not believe morality came from God, but also denied its possible evolution. He could not explain where it came from except for saying that we had to fight very hard against our own nature to become moral (which is of course an ancient Christian position related to original sin, and so on). In this, Huxley went against Darwin himself, who did see room for moral evolution, as explained in “The Descent of Man.” To debate these important issues we all need to step back, stop shouting, and move beyond unanswerable questions about the existence of God. Atheists should be interested in this debate and I hope they will join in.

Published On: March 30, 2013


  • John S Wilkins says:

    Atheism is a privative category defined by what it is not. As such it cannot offer any moral or ethical program. Humanism, naturalism, and other such views may provide this, but they are equally available to nonatheists (a privative privative category). What the “militant” (or as I prefer to call them affirmative) atheists offer is a melange of these nonreligious stances. The problem is not that they do this, but that some of them tend to adopt the sociological strategies that religions adopt, of demonising the other, and building social cohesion by ideological, ritual and social exclusion.

  • Chip Grandits says:

    I find arguments about the truth of religion a little bit boring; a more interesting question emerges, “Does belief in religion confer an evolutionary advantage?”  Of course this gets entangled up with the hot-button topic of group selection.  Nonetheless, a respectable foray into this question is _The Faith Instinct_ by NY Times Science Page Editor Nicholas Wade. It came out shortly after _The Age of Empathy_.

  • Todd says:

    “Atheism will need to be combined with something else, something more constructive than its opposition to religion”

    Of course.  Fortunately, empathy is “baked in” to our genes. Does it really take so much effort to embrace a morality that combines that empathy with an intelligent analysis of the world around us to come up with rules of behavior?

    The alternative is to stick with religion, an unthinking approach that relies, not on a consideration of facts and application of logic, but on blind adherence to rules handed down by (usually ancient) proclaimers.  The results have been predictably horrible, both throughout history and today, when we face religious terrorism, suicide bombers, oppression of women, discrimination against gay people, bans on contraception, the sabotaging of science education, etc. etc.  Why is Frans so reluctant to let go of such a miserable failure?

  • Angela Martin says:

    Frans wrote: “Atheism will need to be combined with something else, something more constructive than its opposition to religion, to be relevant to our lives.”

    Frans, are you ignorant of Humanism or Transhumanism? I suggest you look them up on Wikipedia. Simply put, Atheism + Secularism + Humanism is the morality without religion you’re looking for.

  • Andy Garza says:

    Wow…seems folks have neglected to acknowledge the susceptibility to the availability heuristic. Recent culture and religious phenomena have now allowed folks to paint the entirety of religion and religious history as “predictable horrible outcomes.” I suggest one should take a stroll through history and see what GOOD religion has done for humanity. I suggest a refresher in illusory superiority as well.

  • Brian Gregory says:

    This is nonsense.  Atheism is a freedom from wishful thinking about an all seeing, all knowing god.  Atheism does not need a crutch.

  • Dave Gerstle says:

    de Waal’s argument here is certainly not new, and it has much attraction to many non-believers… if contemporary scientists can demonstrate that our species (internally and with our recent ancestors) a set of rules that seem to hold true across most interactions, then they have the foundation for an argument of morality that is not tied to religions, governments, history, language, or any of the institutions we might include in ‘culture’. By spreading ‘the word’ (to take this a bit further) that all of humanity shares a common sense of fairness, we could – perhaps – ground human rights, international aid, anti-war movements, etc. in our shared (scientifically-demonstrated) knowledge that all people are of the same species, and therefore deserving the same rights.

    The problem for me is that this kind of activism explicitly ties scientific knowledge to the ideals of liberal humanism, and thus endangers our capacity to fairly assess and criticize research that offers counter-evidence. In the Soviet Union, biologists who rejected Tromfim Lysenko’s lamarkian projects (in favor of growing evidence in favor of modern genetic theory) were demonized for agreeing with ‘race theories’ that proposed inherent and unchangable human differences. At the same time, the latter ideology was busily being entangled with politics by the Nazis, to even more gruesome results – not the least of which was persecution of scientists who disagreed with them.

    When the fascists and the communists obliged science to perform moral arguments, it ultimately resulted in the persecution of scientists who criticized the project or offered counter-evidence. Should we imagine that we are so different because we’re ‘right’ and we have the best intentions? The Germans and Russians thought those things too.


  • Paul Dobson says:

    Atheists in most the world, including in the U.S.A., are struggling against religion and the religious.  We are fighting to get religion off the mantle of public institutions and out of our science classes.  We have to deal with people like Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA), Chairman of The Subcommittee on Oversight that has general and special investigative authority on all matters within the jurisdiction of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology—http://2012.talkingpointsmemo.com/2012/10/rep-paul-broun-r-ga-evolution-big-bang-lies-straight-from-the-pit-of-hell.php.  One might see the following in a classroom that accommodates believers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oNJjLq5wg4g.  North Carolina recently had a close call with a bill that would have designated Christianity a state religion, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/03/north-carolina-religion-bill_n_3003401.html.  As Lawrence Krauss argues, religious indoctrination is child abuse: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UTedvV6oZjo, and it is easy to find examples of such abuse, http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=1d7_1364881001.  Where is the militancy in atheism?  http://lh6.ggpht.com/_WJylQZPr0k8/TJxCgW8kHuI/AAAAAAAAE-Y/86gCsdb1ZSg/s800/Militant Atheist.jpg Muslims and Christians kill and threaten eternal damnation. Hindus and Sikh’s kill each other.  All believers bring to a table is meaningless debate and rhetoric. Facts fly over their heads.  Atheists should freely ridicule logical inconsistencies of theist claims, including the claims that organized religion can cure social ills, especially when religion is responsible for most social ills and when believers inflict continuous injury to reason and progress in society.

  • @EdGibney says:

    Evolutionarily Stable Systems remain stable as long as “cheaters” don’t win. (Enough to upset the apple cart anyway. Cheating around the margins is a low-level noise in the stable system.) So, if we want to change the norm of religion being the majority view, we have to consistently win as cheaters to that belief. We are starting to see this with atheists tending to be more educated and successful, but nothing so strong yet as to actively pull people off the fence to say, “huh, that looks like a better choice.” A-theism, is simply an absence of belief. We do need something to put forward in it’s place. Secular humanism has not answered that call in the past (and I believe it is too narrow a focus to think only of humans in the tree of life). May I suggest an Evolutionary Philosophy (www.evphil.com). In an uncaring universe, survival is the only goal we have and our best bet at attaining that goal is to study the lessons from our evolutionary past and apply them philosophically to ourselves and our societies. If we banded together around that idea (and added in some ingredients from Atheism 2.0 to make a thriving community), then we could start to really provide an alternative to religion.

  • Susan says:


    Above, de Waal says “by labeling themselves rational and everyone else irrational, have closed the door to open and tolerant debate.” All atheists, however, do not say the same thing, nor do all atheists refuse tolerant debate. “Calling believers idiots … .” All atheists do not call believers idiots. This kind of blathering clearly shows that de Wall does not have the intellectual discipline that scientists are trained to have.

  • […] atteggiamento decisamente aggressivo. Alla fine, per chiarire la situazione, de Waal ha dovuto fare un altro intervento in cui ha chiarito che in realtà il suo libro parla solo in minima parte di queste tematiche, […]

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