My turn: Religion a relic of old ways in a world of new truths

Posted: Tuesday, December 30, 2008

I have heard it said many times that religion is necessary to enforce morality and that the Ten Commandments are useful for defining what is right and wrong. I think this is a harmful fiction. It seems obvious that morality, and the rational mind we use to refine it, are products of both evolution and experience. Religion is an artificial construct we do not need.

Animals, just like humans, have learned that there are excellent reasons for cooperating, assisting those in need and not randomly slaughtering one another. This is perfectly self-evident, but for some graphic examples, get on YouTube and look up "dog saves his buddy" or "hippo saves impala."

I have seen video of two cape buffalo defending an old male from a lion attack. The situation was hopeless, the injured buffalo was old and weak, but the two buffalo broke off their initial flight, left the safety of the herd and risked their lives to defend him. Movingly, the two then stayed with the old one until he finally died. The impulse that made these animals put themselves at such risk for no personal benefit is the same impulse that makes a brown bear sow care for her cubs or made Koko the gorilla grieve so pathetically when her kitten died; animals care for their family and friends. They have regard for entities outside themselves. This is morality at its most basic.

Of course, our sense of morality is more sophisticated than a bear's, just as the nature of our evil is more terrifying. We have created many nice distinctions of behavior not found in other animals. Our minds are nimble enough to circumvent our innate sense of good and come up with reasons for behaving badly. Reasons like: "we will be rewarded with 72 virgins in heaven," or "I need the shiny gold thing," or "my race is better than yours." We can convince ourselves to be bad. We can be trained to be evil, but this behavior only thrives and spreads when it exists in a sympathetic environment. Just as animals do in nature, we humans make pariahs of those who don't follow the rules of the pack.

So we need written laws, and we need to teach our children what is right. What we do not need is to invent a deity who dictates laws from his home in the clouds. It is terribly insulting to humanity to suggest that we are incapable of coming up with these laws ourselves.

The wisest among us base our laws on the lessons we have learned over the 8,000 years we have been civilized and the six million years we were evolving before that. We begin with our innate, evolved morality as a touchstone, but we know it is not enough. We need our reason as well. Our lives are more complicated now than they were when we were hunter-gatherers or early city-dwellers. Superstition, xenophobia and basic survival needs ruled us then. In the time of the Old Testament, many behaviors we now justly regard as barbaric and abhorrent were applauded as the highest moral standard.

Thankfully, in the intervening centuries, we have learned profound truths about ourselves and about the world. We have learned to record our knowledge in great detail for the benefit of future generations. We continue to evolve. It would be foolish to squander the wisdom we suffered so much to gain by hobbling our minds with the superstition and fear of our distant ancestors.

It may be that the need for religion is an evolutionary way point in the development of intelligent animals. If this is so, then it is a waypoint we passed a long time ago and should leave by the side of the road.

• Dan Reaume is a longtime Juneau resident.

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