I saw an article headline recently that said something along the lines of “Atheists are smarter because they overcome religious instincts.” I confess I didn’t read the article, but it did get me thinking, What should we do with our moral and religious instincts?
First, it’s worth noting that we do, indeed, have moral and religious instincts. Sociologist/Moral philosopher Jonathan Haidt, talks in The Righteous Mind of people having moral “taste buds” which we use to intuitively make moral judgments. He describes his own journey of discovering this principle and his surprise at how universal those moral senses are. Some cultures consciously ignore or downplay certain senses, but according to Haidt we’re all basically pre-wired to make moral judgments, to distinguish between right and wrong.
Along the same lines, we all have a religious sense, a sense of the transcendent, a sense of meaning and purpose, and a sense that there is a God (or are gods). Even the article mentioned above (which I presume to be anti-religion) concedes that people are pre-wired with a “religious instinct.”
The question, then, is how do we interpret that instinct and what should we do with it?
Haidt interprets both morality and religion as products of evolution processes. Unlike other atheists he sees them as good things which help us work together and therefore accomplish more overall good in the world. But for Haidt they don’t correspond to any reality outside of themselves. We have a “moral sense” but there is not “objective morality.” Morality is merely a product of brains and our civilization. We have an intuition that things are right and wrong, but there are no corresponding abstract “rights” and “wrongs” which could ultimately act as judges.
Haidt doesn’t indicate that we should therefore jettison/overcome either the religious or moral instincts (even though he has, so to speak, seen through them.) But other’s do.
But there’s another way to interpret these religious instincts and moral senses, that they correspond to an objective morality. Haidt’s metaphor of “senses” is apt. Our senses do provide us with an “evolutionary advantage” in the sense that they help us to survive in a hostile world. But they also correspond to the world outside of ourselves. In fact, the two are interrelated. The fact that I can taste spoiled food helps me survive, because it corresponds to the reality of spoiled food. Likewise, moral instincts that have both helped us accomplish great things and correspond to a moral reality outside ourselves, to real categories of right and wrong, justice and injustice, good and evil. The same with religion. Perhaps we should understand the universality of religion as evidence that there is a corresponding religious and spiritual reality, that we have a sense of God because there is a God.
This is in fact what the Bible says. The Bible says that all of us have a sense that God exists and that there is a moral law (to which we fall short.) We have religious and moral senses. The Bible also says that those senses and instincts have been dulled and twisted by sin. We all can see that there is a God and that there is a moral law, but we do not see those things clearly.
So what do we do with those instincts? Should we “overcome” them? I’m pretty sure that’s the definition of being “too clever by half.” The Bible also has a name for that, it’s called “suppressing the truth.” Or, should we seek greater clarity? Let’s not try to see “through” religion and morality. Let’s try to see their reality more clearly.