Even in the deepest depths of a discussion on morality, God is almost nowhere to be found. Does moral action depend on reasoning – or on religion? Why do we act in an ethical manner in some cases – but not in others? There were just a few of the questions batted about by contending forces at the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowship in Science & Religion's invitational seminar "Morality: Evolution, Brain, and Religion" that I was fortunate enough to attend in mid-March.
As has become increasingly the case in today's society, there were the usual declarations that morality has almost nothing to do with religion. However, there was a lot said about the relationship between our ethics and our brains and how moral decisions are largely shaped by past experiences.
I understand that morality is not dependent on religion, but I also believe religion can provide a valuable moral compass, a set of guidelines from which many followers have been able to derive a sense of right and wrong. Just look at studies showing that children who attend church have a better chance of staying out of trouble than those who don't, or studies showing that volunteerism among the religious is more widespread.
And so it's hard not to find a seminar focused in large part on morality a bit disquieting at times when there's so little mention of religious belief.
At the seminar, Herb Gintis, an American behavioral scientist who has carved out a distinct niche for his foundational views on altruism, spoke at length about how culture and morality are products of our genetic evolution, and how our genetic evolution is the product of our cultural evolution.
"This process occurred over hundreds of thousands of years," he said.
Michael Gazzaniga, one of the world's leading neuroscientists, talked about how morality and choices are based on a value system formed over a lifetime – one that has little to do with free will.
Our brains, he said, make decisions before we're conscious of them.
"We're all on a little bit of taped delay between unconsciousness and awareness," he said.
Another speaker, Kathleen Taylor, a psychology and science researcher at Oxford University, also talked about the brain.
"We have had thousands of years of morality but we still have genocide," she said, pointing out, though, that large genocidal systems generally don't last. Instead, they are wiped out by a universal revulsion to the evilness of these systems, a revulsion rooted in our brains.
Michael Reiss, a professor of science education at the University of London as well as an ordained Anglican priest, conjured up the most colorful imagery by using vampire bats to illustrate why humans are altruistic.
He said that bats form reciprocal relationships. If a bat fails to find food one night, the other bat will naturally regurgitate a meal of blood in order to satisfy his buddy's hunger. Known as reciprocal altruism, the phenomenon is found in many species including humans.
Reiss said that the roots of human morality are in a Darwinian understanding of helping behaviors – the idea that individuals are more likely to help relatives than non-relatives – and that it's a phenomenon demonstrated even in vampire bats.
"Most of the acts of kindness for which I am tempted to congratulate myself are either self-serving or of very little cost," he said. "In the conditions in which we evolved, when our behavior was under far greater scrutiny than it is today, any individual who did not show occasional acts of kindness would soon be seen by others as self-centered and self-serving, and so be shunned or treated with suspicion."
In other words, morality has an awful lot to do with whether or not we're being watched – by other people.
Reiss insisted that what society considers to be morally acceptable is rested on society's evolutionary past.
"Had we been a social insect we might have considered it morally unacceptable not to eat our dead relatives," he said. "Nevertheless, we human beings can go beyond our genetic inheritance in deciding what is right and what is wrong."
Depressingly, when Reiss did speak of God, it was to say that he had "absolutely no idea" whether or not God was dying. He said that human conceptions of the divine have changed and might change even more from what we know today.
Generally speaking, most everyone at the seminar agreed on one thing: that there had been an erosion of moral frameworks in modern society. And this, in my mind, seemed to raise the question of "why?"
Does it have anything to do with religion? Has a rise in secularism caused some people to lose their moral footing? Perhaps morality is simply instinctive. But perhaps a growing emphasis on religion-based ethics could help turn around a moral malaise.
For many who believe in God, it's too embarrassing to talk about morality with the issue of sexual abuse by clergy in the Catholic Church having become a multi-national scandal. But I still believe that the life and teachings of Jesus – who set an example of service by washing his disciples' feet – could be used to inspire moral behavior.