Morality, Evolution, and Darwin

THIS is another in a series of posts that began with Debating Creationists: The Big Lie. That dealt with some general myths about the theory of evolution, and it was followed with some essays dealing with specific myths, including: Hitler and Darwin, and Marx, Stalin, and Darwin, and Atheism, Science, and Darwin.

We’ve dealt with the topic of morality and Darwin in bits and pieces in several other posts, including: But They’ll Behave Like Monkeys! Now, however, we’ll try to tie some of it together into one convenient essay. But be warned, this is a large topic, so there are limits on what we can do here.

First, why do the creationists focus so much moral outrage on Darwin and his theory of evolution? Why not Isaac Newton and his laws of motion? Why not chemistry? Biology is no more anti-religion than any other science. By that we mean that none of them is anti-religion. They’re all concerned with observing and explaining the observable world in natural, comprehensible, verifiable ways. No science deals with supernatural affairs; those are the subject of theology. So why is biology — and evolution especially — the subject of so much moral outrage?

We think it’s because Genesis — if read literally — provides an alternative to evolution. But the bible, which creationists claim is God’s full and complete science text, is silent about physics and chemistry, so creationists ignore them. The bible mentions the planets only once (2 Kings 23:5 — criticizing false religions that are concerned with them), so astronomy isn’t a problem for scriptural literalists — well, except for that pesky solar system thing that got Galileo into trouble; but they’ve gotten over that. Oh, there’s the matter of the age of the universe, which creationists don’t like at all. There’s also geology, which reveals an ancient earth, and geography, which teaches that the earth isn’t flat. We expect that creationists will be targeting several sciences after they outlaw evolution. Chemistry seems reasonably safe, however, as does physics.

But the question remains: If the theory of evolution indicates that the creation account in Genesis can’t be read literally, only metaphorically, why is this such a problem for creationists? They’ve managed to accept the solar system by ignoring or re-interpreting the scriptural passages that caused such problems for Galileo. Two of those were:

Ecclesiastes 1:5
The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.

Joshua 10:13
And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.

Somehow, because the Genesis account of creation is so “clear,” the creationists insist upon its literal veracity, without which they fear they’ll have no moral compass. We can see this in an earlier post: Creationism and Morality, in which we criticized a very primitive claim that “only creationists have a rational, logical, and consistent reason for morality.” And another claim that “God as the Creator has the right to define absolute standards of behavior.”

We pointed out Socrates’ Euthyphro dilemma — “Is what is moral commanded by the gods because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by the gods?”

We also asked how divinely defined standards of good and evil could explain:

… Abraham’s behavior when God announced His intention to exterminate the populations of Sodom and Gomorrah? Abraham objected and told God that it would be unjust to kill the good along with the rest. And what of Moses’ reaction when God announced His intention to exterminate the Hebrews because of the golden calf incident? Moses argued God out of doing it.

Having demonstrated, at least to our satisfaction, how even scripture teaches that man’s morality is independent of deities, we said:

Claims to the effect that “Without Genesis there is no morality” come up frequently, and it’s always surprising, because basic morality is such a simple thing. Suppose you evolved from some primordial blob without any divine action at all. Okay, you’re on your own, with no bible, just your intelligence to guide you. You’re looking for a place to settle down with your family and your flocks. Assume that the cities you might move to have signs outside their gates, telling you the rules. One says: “Murder is okay with us!” Another says: “Welcome, and we’ll rape your women!” Yet another says: “No private property here. We’ll take all your stuff!” Do you need to consult Genesis before you to decide to avoid those places?

But there’s much more to be said on the topic. Let’s start at the beginning — What is the source of morality? Illustrious philosophers have offered their opinions on this over the centuries. We’re being outrageously presumptuous to attempt even as little as we do here, but this is our humble view:

Regardless of whether we were specially created or evolved, and regardless of any supposed instructions from or even the existence of gods, every sane adult you ask will tell you that: (1) he doesn’t want to be murdered, enslaved, raped, or otherwise assaulted; (2) he doesn’t want his property stolen; (3) he doesn’t want to be told lies or be cheated; (4) he doesn’t want his private behavior or his honest and voluntary dealings with others to be restricted; and (5) he doesn’t want his thoughts regulated. Given mankind’s unanimity on the foregoing, would it not be reasonable to conclude that the desire to be free from those conditions is an objectively verifiable attribute of all humans, and therefore any system of morality should be based thereon?

What we’re trying to say is this — The more we know about ourselves — and everything else, the better able we are to devise a proper moral code. We’re not saying that science is morality; but science gives us knowledge, and knowledge is essential to morality.

Consider a trivial example of an improper morality — A self-proclaimed moralist asserts that we must never eat meat. He’s demanding that we deny something which is fundamental to our nature. Or maybe he claims that gravity is an evil illusion that can be overcome by prayer. Now he’s demanding that we deny something which is fundamental to the nature of the world. Reality denial can never be the foundation of morality.

Which brings us to Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution. We won’t waste time here arguing the scientific validity of the theory. All the available evidence supports it, and none contradicts it. It explains what we are and where we came from. Denying it is absurd, and attempting to build a moral system on such denial is preposterous.

Note that we’re not claiming to build a moral system on the theory of evolution. That’s not what one does with scientific theories. But we are saying that evolution is real, and a genuine moral system can’t contradict reality. If someone’s proffered system does deny reality, it can’t be moral.

We leave you with this thought — If Abraham could tell God that His intended obliteration of Sodom and Gomorrah was unjust, we can certainly tell a creationist that his moralistic claims are worthless

Update: See A Secular Source of Morality.

Copyright © 2009. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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10 responses to “Morality, Evolution, and Darwin

  1. Curmudgeon wrote: “We think it’s because Genesis — if read literally — provides an alternative to evolution.”

    But that doesn’t explain why most rank-and-file Biblical literalists embrace Behe but want no parts of Miller (Kenneth or Keith), Collins, Haught, Lamoureux, etc. If anything Behe has the least God-friendly words of all of them. Plus as you know he has plainly conceded common descent, said that reading the Bible as a science text is silly, and has even admitted that the designer could be deceased.

    In recent decades at least it seems that the key to winning the hearts of existing and wannabe Biblical literalists is not to argue for any of the mutually contradictory “literal” interpretations of Genesis, but to bad-mouth “Darwinism” (note how often that word is used in lieu of evolution). And to do it in anyway possible, inconsistencies, “is/ought” fallacies etc. be damned.

  2. Eric Strickland

    There is a wing of the science establishment, perhaps best represented by Richard Dawkins, that is clearly and outspokenly anti-religion of all kinds.

    Then there are the religious scientists, e.g. Ken Miller & Francis Collins, who believe that science and religion can co-exist without necessarily stepping on each other’s toes. Next, there are the moderate Christians, mostly in “mainline” denominations who have reconciled the findings of modern science along with their faith. (I’m not bringing in other religions here, to avoid making ignorant mischaracterizations.)

    And then there is the fundamentalist wing of most major religions, including Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism, as well as ‘inerrancy theory’ Christians, that are anti-evolution. To fundamentalist Christians, members of churches in mainline denominations are apostates, who don’t follow the teachings of the Bible.

    Eugenie Scott, executive director of NSCE, used to be more open about her atheism, but seems to have downplayed that some in recent years, and taken a pragmatic tack, realizing that it’s better to seek allies among moderate Christians, rather than alienate everyone who professes faith. I believe J.S. Gould travelled a similar path that also led him to an ‘accommodationist’ position.

    Richard Dawkins, who does not have to deal with the realities of American society, where about 90% of the people still say they believe in God, thinks that Scott, et al. are sell outs.

    I’m surprised to hear the Curmudgeon say:
    “Biology is no more anti-religion than any other science. By that we mean that none of them are anti-religion. They’re all concerned with observing and explaining the observable world in natural, comprehensible, verifiable ways”
    is to take on the accomodationist cloak.

    Hasn’t SC been more explicitly anti-religion in its other posts?

  3. Eric Strickland

    The faith of ‘inerrancy theory’ Christians has become narrowly focused on a leather bound idol that they can carry around with them, wave and thump while shouting at passers by on the street or in their revival tents and churches.

    Indeed, they worship this object, created by the hand of man. All of the words contained within it are held to be the immutable word of God. They are bibliolaters. As such, they must defend it against all who would dare to question any of the sacred truths found on its pages.

    There can be no reasoning with people when their dogma is called into question. Any perceived assault on their eternal text causes instant blindness to the logical contradictions and inconsistencies that arise from a faith founded on these ‘incontrovertible’ writings of ancient man. Their “truth” is unassailable.

    The Curmudgeon has documented with much irony some of the “wisdom” that flows from this wellspring of everlasting certitude. Although creationist claims to the only proper morality are worthless, they will never be deterred.

  4. Eric Strickland asks: “Hasn’t SC been more explicitly anti-religion in its other posts?”

    No. My position was most recently stated here, in the midst of the “accommodationist” discussions: Religion and Evolution: Part II.

  5. Eric Strickland

    My bad.

  6. Have you ever read this conversation at Fourmilab?

  7. I just read it. Not all that great. Cute, however.

  8. Gabriel Hanna

    Indeed, they worship this object, created by the hand of man.

    One of the more curious passages in the Bible is about Nehushtan.

    Numbers 21:6-7: Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

    2 Kings 18:14: [Hezekiah] removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan.

    Mark Twain draws on it in Huckleberry Finn:

    Then the preacher begun to preach, and
    begun in earnest, too; and went weaving first to one side of the platform
    and then the other, and then a-leaning down over the front of it, with
    his arms and his body going all the time, and shouting his words out with
    all his might; and every now and then he would hold up his Bible and
    spread it open, and kind of pass it around this way and that, shouting,
    “It’s the brazen serpent in the wilderness! Look upon it and live!”

    Now he was writing in a much more Biblically literate time; was he being satirical? Or maybe revival preachers really said this.

  9. Eric Strickland

    Sounds completely plausible to me. I think there are still some preachers who use that style today.

    BTW, according to the Gospels, Jesus likened his imminent crucifixion to that of the serpent being lifted on high.
    (can’t remember which of the four Gospels that’s recorded in, maybe more than one)

  10. Very good article. Creationists and many concservative Christians overlook the passages of Abraham and Moses you mentioned, and they think of moral laws as immaterial laws that reflect God’s nature, whatever that means.

    So, they argue that without the Creator, there’s no immaterial laws, then, no morality. It is really a black or white worldview.

    My take on Creationism