Prosocial maintenance in the age of religious decline.

Author:Krause, Kenneth W.
Position:Science Watch - Critical essay

"Religion, then, as a saving resource for the human species cannot gain much mileage from the origins of morality. But the second part of the claim, that relating to maintenance of social morality, remains more persuasive."--Alexander Saxton, Religion and the Human Prospect.

NO, THE HUMAN SLATE hasn't been anything close to blank since the 1970s. As evolutionary psychologist Marc Hauser reiterated in his 2006 book, Moral Minds, all humans are born with a universal ethical predisposition, or "moral grammar" That's quite fortunate, to be sure. But for those of us concerned with the practical nuts and bolts of moral maintenance, it's really just a serendipitous start. How should modern moral minds go about fashioning cohesive other-regarding societies, both large and small? Can we learn a thing or two from our religious counterparts?

Relative to religionists, humanists appear almost mesmerized by questions surrounding the origin and development of moral behavior. We possess few, if any, prepackaged answers because as a general rule we spurn "belief" and conformity. Our skepticism tends to complicate ethical issues to say the least. But even if we could, we should never renounce our insistence on credibility. Intellectual suicide is the answer to no complex societal problem I've ever pondered. On the other hand, to some minimal yet meaningful extent, we might decide one day soon to rethink the typically nonnegotiable character of our individualism.

On October 3, 2008, two psychologists from the University of British Columbia, Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff, published their review of the empirical evidence for and against religious "prosociality," more commonly referred to as altruism (Science 322, 58). The authors began by weighing the strengths and vulnerabilities of various popular theories of religious evolution, but, in the end, found agreement that religious prosociality "may have softened the limitations that kinship-based and ... reciprocity-based altruism place on group size." In other words, natural selection may have favored belief in morally concerned gods that observe, reward, and punish, at least to the extent that religionists have coalesced into relatively large, stable, and cooperative societies of genetically unrelated persons.

Which is not to suggest that Abrahamic monotheists, for example, are more unconditionally or indiscriminately altruistic than others. Although myriad sociological surveys allege that, historically, the...

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