Timothy DeChenne, Ph.D. “If God does not exist, everything is permitted”. This quote from “The Grand Inquisitor” section of The Brothers Karamazov is frequently invoked by those who believe in a supernatural god. Without faith in such a god, their argument goes, we are lost in moral nihilism. We cannot truly know right from wrong. A common argument, perhaps, but one that ignores much of world history. In truth everything has never been permitted, and this applies both to those who believe in a supernatural god and to those who don't. Two huge examples are sufficient to establish this point. Chinese society was anchored around the ethics of Confucianism, a philosophy that denied the need for a god. Similarly, Buddhism flourished in virtually all of Asia at one time or another, and it too rejected the notion of a deity. Both of these major systems have moral codes. The codes that developed in them are not flimsy or anemic; they are robust, extensive, and detailed. Nor are these codes just a matter of theory rather than action. Their practical impact has been enormous, guiding the actions of millions upon millions of people for some 2500 years. But here in America this kind of historical fact carries little weight. Rather, the belief here tends to be “no God, no morality”. National surveys have reported that in the opinion of a majority of Americans, there is a direct link between a lack of belief in God and a lack of personal morals. For many, a moral nonbeliever is just a contradiction in terms. After all, where else could morality come from, if not from religious faith? Let’s look briefly at these two issues. First, the possible origins of morality, and second, the documented consequences of nonbelief. From an anthropological and evolutionary psychology point of view, there is a case to be made for moral codes having developed as a matter of survival. Consider the small Paleolithic band of hunter/gatherers, the social structure in which homo sapiens evolved. What could have contributed to the survival of such a group? Lying to, stealing from, or murdering other members? Not so much. These kinds of events occurred, of course. But a modicum of cooperation and empathy were more likely the anchors on which the survival of these tiny groups depended. Tendencies toward these traits probably underwent genetic selection. The tendencies were subsequently augmented and sustained by countless varieties of tradition, small and large, religious and secular. And these traditions themselves continued a cultural evolution, with some practices expanding, others dropping out. For example, in the not so distant past, slavery was not only widespread, it was heartily endorsed as an ethical practice, even by religious adherents. But today, of course, it is a nearly universal abomination. So as to the origin of morality, the short answer is: both biological and cultural evolution. What about the consequences of nonbelief? Aren’t nonbelievers evil? If they are, we can’t seem to find any evidence to that effect. The sociologist Phil Zuckerman, in his book entitled Living the Secular Life, has done an excellent job of summarizing the research literature. First, regarding individuals. Today about 11% of American children are raised in homes without any religious influence. “Are children raised in such secular homes disproportionately criminal or malevolent? Absolutely not. No study exists that even suggests that kids raised in secular homes are disproportionately immoral, unethical, or violent”. In fact there is some indication that “having no religious affiliation is the best predictor of law-abiding behavior.” What about states within the United States? “As expected, when it comes to nearly all standard measures of societal health, such as homicide rates, violent crime rates, poverty rates, domestic abuse rates, obesity rates, educational attainment, funding for schools and hospitals, teen pregnancy rates, rates of sexually transmitted diseases, unemployment rates, domestic violence, the correlation is robust: the least theistic states in America tend to fare much, much better than the most theistic.” And what about different countries in the world? At this point you can probably anticipate the data. By just about whatever measure of societal health you choose, the least theistic countries fare better than the most God believing. Now let me hasten to add, especially for any non-scientists reading this, that correlation does not establish cause. It is not necessarily the case that secularity causes societal well-being; for example, it might be just the reverse. In fact I suspect it is largely the reverse. Whether comparing states within the U.S. or countries across the world, the more prosperous, democratic, educated, egalitarian, and peaceful a society becomes, the more it moves away from theism. For those who are waiting with the “how about Stalin” question, let me point out, as Zuckerman also does, that the real issue there is totalitarianism, not secularity. There have been many horrendous religious totalitarian regimes as well, and again, the issue with them is not necessarily the religion, but the totalitarianism. So returning to the primary issue, has the concept of “no god, no morality” survived scrutiny? It has not. The concept is grossly inconsistent both with world history and with contemporary research. It drastically underestimates the formidable capacity of human beings for developing codes to help order their own social existence.