Explaining Morality Religiously


The Op-Ed page of the New York Times again has a challenging discussion of morality. The well-known atheist Sam Harris expresses some reservations about President Obama’s nomination of Francis Collins as Director of the National Institutes of Health.


Harris recognizes Collins’ important scientific accomplishments. But he quotes some statements by Collins about religion and morality that trouble him (and me). Collins is well-known for claiming that religion and science are compatible. He accepts current accounts of cosmology and evolution, but also accepts evangelical Christianity. He is quoted as follows:

“After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’ (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul….

We humans used our free will to break the moral law, leading to our estrangement from God. For Christians, Jesus is the solution to that estrangement….

If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?”

As Harris sees it, Collins’ religious views as such do not present an obstacle to his appointment. But he asks whether someone who holds these views is suited to oversee the enormous research budgets that the Institutes control.

As someone who believes that our understanding of human nature can be derived from neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science and behavioral economics, among others, I am troubled by Dr. Collins’s line of thinking. I also believe it would seriously undercut fields like neuroscience and our growing understanding of the human mind. If we must look to religion to explain our moral sense, what should we make of the deficits of moral reasoning associated with conditions like frontal lobe syndrome and psychopathy? Are these disorders best addressed by theology?

Good questions! Furthermore, I would note, it’s not just new disciplines like neuroscience that can help us to understand moral and immoral behavior. Political science, sociology, law and economics can, too. Turning elsewhere in today’s Times, and moving down from the cosmic scale, we find an enlightening treatment of a venerable moral question, namely, why are New Jersey politicians so corrupt?


Here are some of the things that are mentioned.

A decade-long building boom has flooded towns with millions of development dollars, as well as wealthy businessmen eager to secure sewer permits and zoning waivers. The Democratic Party firmly dominates local politics, turning most elections into sleepy coronations. The state’s news organizations, once vigorous watchdogs, have been decimated by a deep industry downturn.

Add to all that the fact that New Jersey is divided into hundreds of tiny fiefdoms, where part-time elected officials without much education and with small salaries wield considerable power, and the heady mix of arrogance, control and promised payoffs dissolves the will of even the most determined reformer….

Academics say that the state’s history of decentralized, small-bore government is to blame. There are 566 municipalities, many with paltry budgets and skeletal staff, whose leaders arrive in government with little training and salaries of less than $15,000 a year.

Some politicians hold two elected offices at once—allowed under state law—which makes them “really susceptible to corruption because they have a powerful role at two levels of government,” said Christopher J. Christie, the former United States attorney who has indicted a parade of New Jersey officials and who is now the Republican candidate for governor.

Secrecy prevails, sometimes for lack of resources, shielding the graft.

“You can’t even get a copy of the municipal budget online in many of these towns,” said Ingrid W. Reed, the director of the New Jersey Project at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. “That structure does not exist.”

In that environment, she said, ethics is often the first casualty.

These factors, of course, don’t completely explain any individual politician’s wrongdoing because, thankfully, not every official in New Jersey takes bribes. But thoughtful study suggests that they have an influence on the occurrence of serious misbehavior. There is always something inexplicable and mysterious about any very marked act of wickedness or virtue, but the way forward, I think, is to work on the assumption that human behavior can be explained scientifically. This doesn’t mean that “there is no such thing as good or evil”. Part of what it means is we can get a better understanding of the causes of good and evil, which will enable us to change their relative proportions. Like Harris, I would like to know that the Director of the National Institutes of Health, among others, shares these beliefs.

Here are the letters the Times published today (7/28/09) in response to Harris:


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