• Susan Humphreys

    Atheists (in my opinion) have failed to grasp that religion serves many purposes and IF you want to get rid of religion, they will have to find another way to meet those different purposes, offer something better. This is pointed out by Frans de Waal with his comment about religions providing “community and narrative”. I know many religious folks who would be lost without their church, the support system it provides them, the activities they participate in, family activities, groups for women only and for men only, and for kids. Church’s at one time were the glue that held small towns together. Now they are part of the problem that tears those same towns apart. My little town of 1000 has five churches, all struggling to stay afloat. They rarely cooperate on joint community projects, and definitely not on secular (historical society) projects, or participate in the Chamber of Commerce. This town could use a “better” alternative! But community is only one purpose of religion.

  • Jay

    Sounds like its time for a New type of bible.

  • Big Dirk
  • Big Dirk
  • The Great God Pan

    I think the real question is whether we can have morality WITH religion.

  • Larry

    Certainly not from the Abrahamic ones.

    Their believers are the most morally relativistic people out there. Everything is permitted if you say God told you to do it. No personal moral decisions, just outsource it to arbitrary and capricious authority.

    Buddhism does morality nicely. More telling yourself what to do and less telling others.

  • “On the Origin of Species”?

  • Anton


  • Anton

    Sociobiology is a broad and interesting field. De Waal’s work with primates is remarkable. It provides a glimpse into the evolutionary development of our own moral sense. However, his work is the tip of an iceberg. Scientists are conducting studies with populations of microbes, insects, plants and animals, to investigate the biological basis of social interactions. They study things like cooperation and altruism. I am confident that their studies will ultimately reveal a biological foundation of our own morality.

  • bruce

    I wonder what he thinks of the
    humanest manifesto?

  • Dayan

    If there’s one thing that religion does well it’s community. It’s great to feel part of an in group of likeminded people. But any in group needs a defining out group of people who for whatever reason, are not members of the group. And that’s the problem. Look at your small town of five church’s where no single church has enough resources to do substantial charity work. Religion suppresses cooperation and blocks progress. It’s ironic that you argue the practical benefits of religion while remaining blind to this clear downside. But that’s another thing that religion does well.

  • great interview.. I’ve also interviewed Frans de Waal about the role of empathy and collected quite a bit of material about his views on empathy. see

    Edwin Rutsch
    Center for Building a Culture of Empathy

  • Dayan

    So atheism with an added sense of community and narrative leads to humanism? Not so sure about that one. Any sports fan will tell you that they can get plenty of community and narrative from supporting their local team. It’s entertaining, it’s engaging, and when it’s really intense it can lead to pseudo religious devotion even including charitable work. But morality? Humans get their morality from sources beyond empathy like biology. Babies have an innate sense of morality. Google this to see more:

    Can babies tell right from wrong? Inside Yale’s ‘Baby Lab’ – CNN.com

  • Fisher

    Zen At War: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zen_at_War#Further_reading
    Zen War Stories: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=10817
    Buddhist Warfare: http://books.google.com/books/about/Buddhist_Warfare.html?id=cXORqV4AZjcC
    Buddhist Fundamentalism: http://www.lankaweb.com/news/items/2013/04/11/buddhist-fundamentalist-attacks-on-christians-and-other-minority-religions-in-sri-lanka-deplorable/
    Buddhism and Violence: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhist_Terrorism

    The evidence is quite clear that Buddhist leaders have sanctioned violence and even war over the past 1,600 years. Their reasoning is just as arbitrary and capricious as the Abrahamic religion you’re attempting to marginalize.

    Our compulsion to moralize the world seems to be a universal innate “appetite” for rightness; and appetites have powerful and sometimes perverse potential. This creaturely behavior is so basic and so disturbing that we rarely pause to acknowledge that in our escape from evil we may be compulsively feeding an appetite for more self-righteousness

  • Larry

    Fine, Have it your way.

    That means there are no religions with a real concept of morality. I was willing to cut religious belief a bit of a break. But obviously it is not worth the effort.

    Might as well marginalize them all. 🙂

  • alan

    It’s difficult to believe in any degree of social order when the laws of nature have seemed to bypass the human species. I mean, nature controls the populace of all species, but what controls the population of man? Where will evolution have the human race is 200 or 300 years?
    Evolution is a farce.

  • Ham did show Nye a piece of evidence, ie, the 45,000 year old wood encased in a rock millions of years old. Did Nye change his mind? Nope. He just ignored it. Just because someone says evidence will change them doesn’t mean it will. Nye just wanted to sound like a “reasonable” man, but clearly he isn’t.

  • Susan Humphreys

    How can you say I am blind to the downside when I pointed it out quite clearly with a concrete example? It seems that you just look for an attack point whether it is grounded on fact or not. The point is there are positive sides to religion and many Atheists refuse to acknowledge this dimension AND there are negative sides and many Religious folk refuse to acknowledge the negative dimension. People need to be aware of both.

  • Susan Humphreys

    There has been violence committed by Hindus as well, all religion and I mean this in the broadest use of the word (group with a defined philosophy/dogma) are subject to an “us and them” mentality and the willingness to use their beliefs to justify and sanctify their actions (good and evil actions). Green Peace activists have done it, Civil Rights activists did it and we see what is happening in the Middle East and Africa now. I think your last comment tis right on, the cure can sometimes be worse than the original illness! IF we aren’t careful and cognizant of what we do.

  • Susan Humphreys

    Youth Gangs (and criminal gangs) are very successful because they provide the same sense of community that is provided by your sports team fan group example. The problems stem from Black and White thinking, “us versus them”, things are right/moral/good or they are wrong/immoral/evil (not just bad but evil). In Chinese Philosophy we get the concept of Yin and Yang, two parts of one whole, there is a little good in things that are bad and a little bad in things that are good, assets can also be liabilities and liabilities can also be assets, there are no absolutes in either direction.

  • Susan Humphreys

    Homosexuality controls the population of man and our complex brain with the abilities to think, to ask questions, to make connections between seemingly disparate events, for abstract reasoning and visualization…… We have this great brain, too bad more don’t use it to its full capacity!

  • DeWaal on “veneer theory”: …”they’re probably putting up a show to get your money or to get something from you because we have selfish genes and we’re only out for ourselves.”
    I’m surprised that DeWaal seems not to have got the point of The Selfish Gene! (Reminds me of the inordinate number of people who think The Ugly American was the bad guy!)

  • Vic

    Bill Nye did address this: he suggested that the wood perhaps had slipped into some moving plated of older rock.
    I was curious about this Australian find myself, so I did some research on-line. Guess what–all the accounts of this “find” are in creationist journals from the 1990s, not one in a scientific journal with a high impact factor. Something very fishy here.

  • Larry

    So one should not bother to look towards any religious belief for a moral guide. They have none.

  • Fisher

    It is tempting to marginalize all religions yet we cannot ignore the fact that religion has a place in the lives of people for which it seems that secular humanism is trying just as hard to make the world the opposite of what it is ‘religious’. We moderns are creating our own ‘private religions’ apart from the group of religionist over there with our individualistic creative agnostic workings being the expression of our heroism and the justification for it. Somehow we begin to believe that our individuation (morality) is unique enough to give us some sort of personal salvation that our own transcendence and not that of the herd will deliver us.

    Whether we’re religionist or secularist each is trying to win converts for their point of view because morality is more than merely an outlook on life: it is an immortality formula. Of course when it comes to the issue of immortality everyone has the same self-righteous conviction of putting forth diametrically opposed views with the same maddening certainty.

    It seems to me that religion is not somehow on the decline but the religious narrative of where people appropriate power, meaning, and purpose is shifting from the immaterial to the material. If you don’t have a God in heaven we will simply use what is nearest at hand to work out our problems; for we are as religious about our politics, economics, technology, and entertainment.

  • Susan Humphreys

    Larry commented that no one should look to any religion for a moral guide because they have none. That comment shows great ignorance of religion. All the world’s religions have guides for correct, moral, virtuous, upright behavior. It is simply that many folks choose to ignore the recommendations! There is also great agreement across cultures and across religions about what is right and moral. The Golden Rule for example is found in all the world’s religions and the first written form appeared with one of those great pagan Greeks. It is still sound advice and we’d all be better off if we followed it, “do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you.”

  • John

    This whole ‘where does morality come from’ seems all over the map. Everyone has a different opinion. What gives? The only morality is to do no harm to others. Beyond that lies endless arguments and the one with the most power wins!

  • Larry

    Not at all. Its just an understanding of what morals are and how they are really applied. Despite the assertions of many self-interested parties, morality is not the assigning of decisions to outside parties. Religious authority is always self-serving, prone to exceptions which undermine itself, and loaded with arbitrary and capricious rules.

    Religion does not guide morality as much as give a simple shorthand for very complex and philosophically difficult concepts. It does not create moral concepts, merely codify them for easy digestion. The Golden rule, reciprocity, does not require divine authority or divine origin. It is the simplest form of cooperation among groups larger than one’s family. It is based on intuition, awareness of one’s self and empathy of others.

    It is much easier to say something will please the Sky God watching than to explain how we are connected as people who feel emotions and can empathize with the existence of other people. 🙂

  • Gilbert Pilz

    People don’t need religion but they do need myths or that de Waal called “narrative”. Religion is the *misuse* of myth for political purposes. We need to liberate myth from religion and restore it to its proper function.

  • Susan Humphreys

    I agree with your comment about myth. I have discovered that many fundamentalists don’t understand myths. It is I think part of their black and white thinking, things are true or they are lies! They can’t grasp that a myth can be true in one sense (the message conveyed, morality tale, or origins story) and not true in another sense (the reality factor, real events, real people)! Those that fail to understand myths I think miss a great deal of what the Bible has to teach us as well as what we can learn from other religious and ethnic myths.

  • Susan Humphreys

    Larry not all religious rules are arbitrary or capricious. There is great wisdom and rational thinking behind The Ten Commandments for example. Some such as “thou shalt not bear false witness” (lie or spread misinformation about another) are as valid today as when they were first written down (by whomever or whatever wrote them down!). Wise words, great wisdom, sound advice, need no claims of divine inspiration or scholarly credentials, they stand or fall on their own merits.

  • Susan Humphreys

    Larry you are right in one sense, it is easier for people to claim that God justifies and sanctifies their actions rather than for them to accept responsibility for their actions. What is morality? You haven’t actually defined what you mean by the word so your comments don’t make a great deal of sense. deWaal mentions some aspects of morality in this piece (empathy and compassion) but he also doesn’t exactly define the term.

  • Larry

    Morality as defined is the weighing in of personal decisions and choices to do something in consideration or for the good of others, beyond self-interest. It is the expression of empathy and compassion in terms of actions. The highest forms of morality consider humanity as a whole. What would be beneficial to any/all human beings.

    Religion tries to assign these decisions to outside sources. To forgo personal reflection, compassion and empathy in exchange to following authority. It also makes numerous exceptions to ideas and rules involving peaceful co-existence with others. Add to that a self-interest element with divine punishment and rewards. So religion doesn’t really create a really healthy climate for actual moral decision making.

  • Jack

    The mental gymnastics going on here are just incredible. All we need are the facts of life and each other. It is a fact we exist on this earth. It is a fact that working together we can help each other and build a better world. It is a fact that we can learn how to be nicer to each other, it’s a fact we enjoy each other’s company… That’s all we need, we don’t need to share beliefs in myths to achieve this… One myth is that you need any kind of belief system or philosophy or religion at all to get along and enjoy life… one thing we do need is to understand the various facts of life such as 1. There is such a thing as mental illness, people aren’t possessed by demons. 2. People are born gay, can’t be changed, and it’s natural like in other animals in nature 3. There is no evidence that we survive death or that we can communicate with spirts. Yes we need facts in order to make the right choices, I think everyone already agrees on that, it’s just what do you think the facts are…

  • Fisher

    Even within secular humanist societies such as Asia and Russia people ‘forgo personal reflection, compassion and empathy in exchange to following authority.’ In your opinion which society, if any, has created a really healthy climate for actual moral decision making?


  • Bryce

    Plenty of atheists grasp the functions religion serves other than the facilitation of a belief system. Just as any commonly held belief among a community strengthens their ability to communicate and cooperate, so too would religion. There are plenty of religious people who can’t separate religion or their sense of community from their belief in the supernatural, and hence think atheism is amoral or cynical. There are also atheists who want or need a ritualistic commune, and have formed ‘Atheist Churches’.

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