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As I did research for a book manuscript in the past several years, what I learned reaffirmed for me that genetics alone, not divine grace, must underlie humanity’s seemingly hard-wired compulsion to believe in the unbelievable.

In fact, genes underlie absolutely everything about us.

Thus, our enthrallment with the divine can’t be the result of  invisible, omnipotent deities that actually exist and who purposely created us to imagine and worship them, can it?

Logically speaking, therefore, if our DNA is so foundational, we bow down to divinities not because it makes sense in material reality but because we just instinctively do, for wholly ungodly reasons from the long-vanished past that we still only very partially understand.

I mean, when a deafening thunder clap in a raging electrical storm startled a prehistoric hunter-gatherer band, surely a god didn’t put it in anyone’s head to say, “The gods are angry!” But, to people ignorant of scientific explanations of storms or any other such basic empirical knowledge, it sure might have seemed that way at the moment.

Angry gods

Since time immemorial, members of our species have credited all manner of natural phenomena (especially the potentially catastrophic kind) to the machinations of all-powerful phantoms, good and evil — from the childish, lightning-bolt-throwing gods of the ancient Greeks, to the raging mono-God of the Old Testament, to even the purportedly far-more-kindly trinity God of the New Testament (and his dark cousin), who humans in the past several centuries have credited with everything from plagues (e.g., AIDS) to wars (e.g., against godless Communism) to famines to “free love” to the increasing prevalence of divorce.

It seems nigh impossible for most of us to just say, yeah, life and its catastrophes, personal and universal, are generally random, but we also cause a whole lot of our own misery ourselves, as well. Gods, considering one has never been irrefutably produced in our world, seem to have zero to do with any of it, if you’re thinking about this reasonably.

I began revisiting this stuff again this weekend while reading a compelling article in Free Inquiry (available by subscription only), the bimonthly periodical of the American secular organization Center for Inquiry, which promotes reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.

The article, titled “The Science of the Evolution of Morality,” is by Doug Mann, a retired experimental psychologist and medical school professor.

Traditionally intertwined with the human tendency to imagine gods with supreme powers is the equally human tendency to believe that, without gods, there can be no morality. This specious belief, as faith itself, is of course unsubstantiated, but it has played a major role in religion’s perpetuation through the epochs.

Humanity, not divinity

People who rely on reason rather than faith have a substantiated sense that religious belief and morality must both rely on actual human agency, not imagined divine intervention. The question is how? Dr. Mann convincingly explains.

He points out that the founder of evolutionary theory, Charles Darwin, in his 1871 book The Descent of Man:

“… provided a general description of how morality evolved, with the advantageous foundations of morality emerging in social animals, in particular among our primate ancestors. Darwin’s explanations—and subsequent scientific discoveries—show that mortality is not a mysterious exception to evolutionary theory that required supernatural intervention to emerge, as proposed by proponents of ‘theistic evolution.’”

Mann continues:

“The evolution of human morality is entirely explained by the competitive and reproductive advantages of a highly structured, cooperative social life within groups whose members are of the same species.”

In other words, “morality” — “conformity to ideals of right human conduct,” according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary — is, in an important sense, as evolutionary as natural selection itself. It represents an evolving consensus among human groups over long time about what is “right” behavior, a general agreement of what cooperative and congenial behaviors are most positive to the material and reproductive success of the group, and even its happiness.

So, in this sense, morality is reflected by helping a sick person get well, or donating labor for another’s or a group project (e.g., digging a water channel for growing vegetables for the group) that will ultimately benefit everyone, not just the individual labor donor.

The answer: parents

Therefore, fast forward to the modern world, when, say, a stereotypical Boy Scout helping a little old lady across the street would commonly be viewed as an altruistic, meaning moral, act. But it also reflects a fundamental benefit to the scout’s group and the wider society in that it shows he was raised by his parents to bestow such kindnesses, which are then exponentially expressed in many children whose parents value such things. And, thereafter, such altruism can be expected to be further expressed in even broader and more impactful ways that benefit the group and society when the kids reach adulthood and throughout their lives.

But to the casual observer, it’s just a kid helping an elder, a seemingly insignificant but actually momentous act of kindness. Even if the scout, in his heart, is not the kindest kid in his troop, the act will have the exact same effect.

My point here is that the scout’s parents in this fictional scenario, not an invisible, remote divinity somewhere, were compelled to teach their son that kind generosity is highly valued. They did this because they knew by practical experience — and a sense of tradition, which is often morality codified — that such simple, priceless acts yielded far more profit to kith and kin and the wider society than the cost of the effort expended. And acting moral, even if we are sinners at heart, can have an enormous multiplier effect.

In a very real sense, then, kindness, for example, is just practical human relations — an urging of people to act better than they might be — and thus contributing to the peace and overall well-being of the group (and each’s own tribe), which indirectly also contributes to more robust reproduction by happier, more robust members. That’s how morality operates.

No God in sight.


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Image from “3,001 Arabian Days” — Son of an Arabian American Oil Co. (Aramco) employee learns to ride a camel in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, 1955. (Photo courtesy Saudi Aramco)

Available on Amazon!

FYI, my new memoir — 3,001 Arabian Days — is now available in paperback and ebook formats on Amazon, here. It’s the story of growing up in an American oil camp in the Saudi Arabian desert from 1953-1962.

Reader review:

“Author Snedeker’s wit and insights illuminate the book’s easy narrative. His journalistic style faithfully recreates the people, places and events, and keeps the story crisp and moving from one chapter to the next. More than a coming of age story, 3,001 Arabian Days is a moving tribute to the intricacies of family, a celebration of Saudi Arabian culture, and a glimpse into a time gone by, but whose shadowy specter you can still almost reach out and touch.” — Mark Kennedy

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...