I was having a philosophical discussion with another scientist one time, a friend who was well known for being logical and emotionless. No flights of fancy or wild speculation for this guy. All facts, and nothing but the facts. He had been raised a catholic but had long ago rejected religion as being illogical and irrational. Now he was an atheist.
The conversation came around to the subject of morals. I said I thought morals derived naturally from biological and behavioral evolution. Groups or tribes of animals whose members shared resources and took care of each other saw increased reproductive success. In other words, these animals survived better and produced more offspring. In this way, empathy evolved, an ability to feel how another of the species (or even a member of a different species) feels. And this is the basis of morals.
My friend disagreed. “No,” he said. “Morals come from God.”
I looked at him, flabbergasted, and said, “Tony (not his real name), you don’t even believe in God!”
He was stunned. From the look on his face, I could tell he couldn’t believe he had just said what he said. And I realized in that moment that when something is drilled into your brain as a child, it never goes away. No matter how much experience and rational thought your life piles on afterward. Our minds are like onions, and the right trigger will pull up something you thought you had discarded long ago. On the surface, Tony was a logical scientist, with no use for religion. Deep down, he was still an alter boy.
What made me think of this story is something I saw recently:
It’s really true. You don’t need a deity to threaten you with damnation if you are cruel to someone, you just need to have the very human capacity to feel what that person feels, to understand what it would be like to be in their shoes. And act accordingly.