A reader asks:
How does one argue successfully that morality pre-dates religion? It seems difficult to prove that religion hasn’t always been wedded to the moral impulse through the codifying of social behavior in some way.
It’s not at all hard to show that morality pre-dates religion and even human speciation. Not all of our morality goes back that far, of course, but most of the relational models that govern our interactions can also be found in other species. An anthropologist named Alan Fiske (cited by Pinker in his book) identified four models, three of which pre-date homo sapiens sapiens.
First there’s Communal Sharing, which is thought to be facilitated by the release of certain hormones such as oxytocin, the “trust hormone,” particularly in females during and after childbirth. Many species exhibit strong bonding behavior, share resources freely, and synchronize their movements and in some cases their feeding. In humans, the communal sharing mode manifests in a variety of ways: commensal meals, rituals of bonding, singing in unison, synchronized dancing, and the co-mingling of bodily fluids.
Then there’s Authority Ranking, which Pinker characterizes as “a linear hierarchy defined by dominance, status, age, gender, size, strength, wealth, or precedence.” And he adds, “Presumably it evolved from primate dominance hierarchies, and it may be implemented, in part, by testosterone-sensitive circuits in the brain.”
Third is Equality Matching, which involves tit-for-tat reciprocity and is the basis of our sense of fairness. Pinker writes: “Few animals engage in clear-cut reciprocity, though chimpanzees have a rudimentary sense of fairness, at least when it comes to themselves being shortchanged.” But he adds, “the neural bases of equality matching embrace the parts of the brain that register intentions, cheating, conflict, perspective-taking, and calculation.” These are all behaviors that other animals engage in to greater or lesser degrees, especially the primates.
Only the fourth model, Market Pricing, is unique to our species.
If the first three of these moral models pre-date homo sapiens sapiens, then religion must have inherited them. And so there you have an anthropological answer to the question that theists and atheists have recently been debating: “Can one be good without God?”
Yes. The answer is, unequivocally, yes.
Religion may have been a vehicle for moral models, but these models were on the scene long before religion was there. And if religion were to evaporate, they would still be there to guide and regulate our behavior.