Wednesday, November 11, 2009

religion and the goodness of our hearts

Recently I've heard more than once the following argument:
If there is no God, then there is no reason to be good, to have high moral standards, to be ethical, or treat others with respect, since all of these are contributions of organized religion to the humankind: because, if we are nothing but beasts, and beasts' offspring, what stops us from turning against each other and rape, kill, steal and lie?
The first time I heard this argument I was 13, and it was my mom who said it. For a while I was quite taken aback, then some reading rid me of the burden of not believing in god and left me with the sometimes heavier burden of accepting responsibility for my own actions and life.
While there are many arguments to counter the "without god we would kill each other" line, recently I have been reading very interesting research about the neurological wiring of the human brain.
What I have gathered is this: the idea of good and bad is deeply rooted in processes of retribution and symbiosis that evolved with all species, but in the case of humans, it went a step further so the human brain has kept an evolutionary memory of those behaviors so now we not only are hardwire to do things that will give us an "instant retribution" but also to engage in behaviors that at some point were beneficial for the species. Though those tendencies (basically, to avoid harming other living beings) have also been observed in some other animals, in the case of human beings it is a consistent behavior (except for psychopaths and sociopaths, but that's altogether another topic), and, most importantly, we do it "on purpose", we have the certainty, deep in our brains, that some behavior or another is right or wrong.
Of course, those "compasses" depend a lot on the culture we grow up in, since the very idea of "living being" differs from culture to culture. But the basics of them conform the ground for all (I think, if somebody knows different, please tell me) human societies.
My point here is, do religious people really believe that, if they lose their faith in god, they are going to go on a murderer rampage? Is really their belief in a superior moral being the only thing that stops them from harming others, or themselves?
Like, the guy in this video...