Yesterday, I heard a reiteration of the creationism vs. evolution argument in which a Christian stated that the existence of morality proved the existence of God. The assertion was that there has to be a creator because people know right from wrong, and since morality and ethics are not traits that could evolve naturally, our understanding of what is moral and ethical must come from a higher source. There are a few problems with this argument, as you’ll see. If anyone wants to believe in either creationism or evolution as a matter of personal faith, there is nothing that anyone can say to sway that belief. When people propose “proofs” for their point of view, those proofs warrant scrutiny.
The most obvious flaw with this particular argument is the idea that morality and ethics are not “survival traits” for humanity. There is some confusion between the idea of “survival of the fittest” and the concept of “might makes right.” The theory of evolution doesn’t place value on what is best for one individual creature in the moment, it places value on what is best for the survival of a species over time. While there are people who engage in immoral or unethical behavior, humanity cannot thrive on those principals. Without developing some principles of how to treat one another, human beings could never have created anything in cooperation with one another. The concept of every man for himself would not have gotten our species very far. Survival of the species requires sacrifice on the part of the individual.
This concept bears itself out in nature as well. There are animals who do things that are not so healthy for the individual creature, but are necessary for the survival of future generations. The insect world is full of examples of seemingly instinctual behavior that is detrimental to a single creature and yet beneficial to a multitude. If creatures instinctively did only what was best for a single animal, there wouldn’t be any animals left. Nature does not reward selfishness.
Historically, human civilization has also demonstrated the necessity of moral and ethical behavior. When oppressed by an immoral or unethical minority, the multitudes have consistently revolted and punished the oppressors. It may seem that people in the present are getting away with horrific crimes, committing atrocities without consequence, but historically speaking, societies have only tolerated that kind of behavior for so long. When people openly behave immorally or unethically, their society eventually punishes them. So, even for the individual, it’s a bit of a gamble to operate outside the accepted bounds of morality and ethics.
Not only is there nothing in the development of morality and ethics that requires the existence of a supreme being, the belief in a supreme being has historically been used to condone immorality. It is rather convenient to be able to defer to a presumably perfect authority who just happens to agree with your world view. Throughout history, doing what a particular god wants has often overridden the accepted rules of behavior. We all know that killing people is immoral, except perhaps when we are killing in the name of something greater than ourselves. Belief in God allows for “justified” exceptions to the accepted moral and ethical boundaries of a society.
If morality and ethics were dependent upon belief in God, one would think that there would be a clear dividing line between believers and non-believers. Yet there are believers who behave immorally and unethically, and there are non-believers who behave morally and ethically. Not all the time, mind you, like some two-dimensional B-movie character, but often enough that one could not reliably distinguish a Creationist from an Evolutionist based merely on how their behavior stacked up against the moral and ethical standards of their society. This shouldn’t be the case if belief in a creator was necessary for morality, although it makes perfect sense if our sense of morality and ethics (and our willingness to try to push those boundaries) was in a broader sense evolutionary. We are all human beings, after all, even though our beliefs differ.
The bottom line is that belief in a creator has nothing to do with one’s capacity for moral and ethical behavior. Religion is simply a great tool for enforcing moral and ethical behavior among people who are unwilling to accept personal responsibility for their own actions. If God says to be moral and ethical, and if God will punish immoral and unethical people, then it makes sense for someone who believes in God to be moral and ethical. Such behavior is often thoughtless, because no one has the authority to question what God wants. It can also be selfish, because the threat of punishment often receives greater emphasis than the value of the behavior itself.
Morality and ethics make it more possible for humanity to thrive as a species. People should respect one another because people are worthy of respect. People lose a piece of their own humanity when they behave in a way that dehumanizes other people. Moral and ethical behavior ultimately benefits everyone. Claiming that a higher power has to be involved creates the illusion that the benefits of moral and ethical behavior aren’t enough in and of themselves. When we are willing to discard the illusion, perhaps we will be better able to see the intrinsic value of relating to one another in a moral and ethical manner. Until then, the concept of morality really has no impact on the creationism vs. evolution debate.