Frans de Waal: Morality Without Religion

A long tradition of thinking tells us that due to man’s animal nature we need to have order imposed from above, in the form of religion. Without religion, we could not live together, and that is why all human societies believe in the supernatural and have developed one religion or another. This view, which the biologist and primatologist Frans de Waal calls Veneer Theory, is an essentially pessimistic view “that morality is a thin veneer over a nasty human nature.”

Well, religion is an interesting topic because religion is universal. All human societies believe in the supernatural. All human societies have a religion one way or another. Which for the biologists must mean that religion has some advantages — offers some advantages to a society. Otherwise we wouldn’t have that strong tendency to develop it. And so for me that’s actually a far more interesting question of whether God exists or doesn’t exist. That sort of question I cannot answer. But the question of why we have religions is an interesting question. And my view is that morality, our human morality, is older than religion so instead of saying morality comes from God or religion gave us morality. For me that’s a big no-no.

Our current religions are just 2,000 or 3,000 years old which is very young. And our species is much older and I cannot imagine that, for example, a hundred thousand years or two hundred thousand years our ancestors did not have some type of morality. Of course they had rules about how you should behave, what is fair, what is unfair, caring for others — all of these tendencies were in place already so they had a moral system and then at some point we developed these present day religions which I think we’re sort of tacked on to the morality that we had. And maybe they served to codify them or to enforce them or to steer morality in a particular direction that we prefer.

So religion comes in for me secondarily. I’m struggling with whether we need religion. So personally I think we can be moral without religion because we probably had morality long before the current religions came along. So I think we can be moral without religion but in large scale societies where we are not all keeping an eye on each other because we — in societies with a thousand people or several thousand or millions of people we cannot all keep an eye on each other. And that’s maybe why we installed religions in these large scale societies where a God kept watch over everybody.

And then the question becomes is this really needed? Now in northern Europe — I’m from the Netherlands — there is basically an experiment going on. In northern Europe the majority of people are not religious anymore. When you ask them they say they’re nonbelievers. And they still have a moral society as far as I can tell. And so there is a sort of experiment going on there — can we set up a society where religion is not dominant at least? It may be present but it’s not dominant anymore, there is still a moral society. And until now I think that experiment is going pretty well. And so I am optimistic that religion is not strictly needed. But I cannot be a hundred percent sure because we’ve never really tried — there is no human society where religion is totally absent so we really have never tried this experiment.

  • carroll price

    By far, some of the most cruel and immoral individuals I have ever known were deeply religious. While on the other hand, some of the kindest and most moral individuals were those who reject religion in all its forms. One of my favorite quotes of all time is credited to Steven Weinberg who said “With or without religion you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion”

  • Marcus Ampe

    It is always possible to set up a society where religion is not dominant. Religion in spe is not needed to come to a moral which tries to bring everyone with different ideas in a respecting and ethical society.

  • Marcus Ampe

    A comment to take note of: “Religion can encourage people to take a step back and contemplate the bigger issues. It can help break the hypnotic spell that a shallow, individualistic culture can cast over young minds.”

    It is true that we do not need religion to help us think about life, universe and everything. Every human being shall have such questions going on in his mind.

    Though it is not because there have been certain religions or denominations in particular religions that have misused people and have indoctrinated people, that we need “to destroy religion so that we can prevent it from alienating rational people from doing just that.”

    We have to let people see the dangers of certain religious groups and show them that it is always very important to think for them selves, and not letting others think for them.