The science of morality is religion’s servant, not its master, on moral matters

Religious people may object to the idea that morality is an evolutionary adaptation on the grounds that accepting that science would mean surrendering morality to science. However, the science of morality is about means to ends, not ends themselves. Science is silent concerning what our ultimate goals ought to be. By preserving the goals of their social morality as religious goals, the science of morality would be kept in its proper place as as a useful servant, not a master.

Because they are the religions that I am most familiar with, I will use Judaism and Christianity as examples of how mainstream religions might find the science of morality useful.  Here, the “science of morality” means morality understood as biological and cultural evolutionary adaptations selected for by increased benefits of cooperation in groups.

Judaism and Christianity have long faced and dealt with the challenge of traditional moral norms held to be commanded by God, at least at one time, but that now appear counterproductive to religious goals, and to even contradict religious goals. Examples of such problematic norms include prohibitions against eating shrimp and pigs, women’s moral obligation to be submissive to men, and the group’s obligation to persecute homosexuals.

Understanding historical context and identifying norms that are counterproductive to religious goals are traditional justifications for religious groups reinterpreting or even abandoning problematic religious moral norms such as those listed above. Morality understood as an evolutionary adaptation can be useful in both understanding historical context and identifying counterproductive norms. .

The science of morality reveals historical context by, for example, showing that 1) prohibitions against foods are sometimes useful marker strategies for increasing the benefits of cooperation within a sub-group, 2) women’s obligations to be submissive to men is an example of an in-group (men) exploiting an out-group (women) by means of enforced moral standards, and 3) condemning homosexuals exploits them as an out-group ‘threat’, which can be a highly effective means of increasing cooperation within an in-group.

The science of morality also reveals a wealth of factual knowledge about human moral psychology and altruistic cooperation strategies (evolutionarily moral behaviors) that will be useful for achieving any religious goals that are best met by increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups – for example, the maintenance of supportive, loving communities.

The species independent universality of the science of social morality (morality as altruistic cooperation strategies) may be another attractive feature for religious groups. I defend the view that morality is based on universal aspects of our physical reality (see and therefore a human discovery, not a human invention.  Therefore, a religious person who believes that their god created our physical reality might find it an attractive idea that their god, not people, created morality as science understands it.

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