Sunday, February 15, 2009

Was My Dog Christian?

Marc Hauser has done a series of experiments showing that in the U.S., atheists and religious people give almost exactly the same answers to moral questions. Dawkins refers to Hauser's work in the God Delusion. These experiments are so important, and so simple to run, that you wonder why it's taken us this long to do them. Take a look here for some of the questions used in the experiments. This is why, when asked what the world would look like tomorrow if people stopped believing in religion today, Christopher Hitchens responded: not that much different.

Religion has usually been divided into two departments: 1) cosmogony - telling us how the world works and how it got to be this way, and 2) morality - telling us how to live. Is it any wonder then that in atheism/evolution discussions, theists so frequently conflate the two? An example is the 2008 Christmas-wars Op-Ed in the Wall Street journal, where it was argued in so many words that atheists were causing the credit crisis. Of course it wasn't phrased exactly this way, but it always boils down to "forget about whether religion is true, because if people stopped believing it, all hell would break loose."

Of course, we now know that statement to be disproven six ways from Sunday, by studies like Hauser's, and by books like Phil Zuckerman's Society Without God, examining how it is that the world's least religious nations are among the safest and most contented.

So if religion is not the source of morality - and if the supposed followers of Leviticus et al are making the same moral choices as you and me, it can't be - then where does it come from? This is a question we've been debating for millennia, but it immediately raises the further question of whether there are moral universals, and for the "big ones" there seem to be. For example, don't kill, and don't steal. Somehow, half the world's people figured that out without a magic stone tablet from the Bronze Age telling them. So where do these universals come from? Is it just because some universal cultural norms had taken hold before the human diaspora spread across the planet, and someone staying in camp shouted across the savanna to the departing tribe members "Remember not to kill children!" Or is there something deeper than culture, something in our biology?

Growing up, I had a schnauzer named Heidi. In general she was pretty well-behaved. That's probably why my mother didn't believe me one day when I was ten, and my breakfast plate and utensils and salt shaker were found under the family room couch, and I blamed it on Heidi (the only possible explanation!) A week later I caught Heidi in the act, but before I yelled at her, I realized my vindication was at hand. I went and got my mother, who still laughs at the story just like I do: the stealthy schnauzer walked around the room, looking north and south, but not up, at the open stairwell from whence she was being observed. And then she got up on the table with her front paws and started lapping away like the disgusting schweinhund she was.

For having lost her innocence by eating of the Fruit of Knowledge (or in this case the Bacon and Eggs of Knowledge) Heidi received a sound chiding, and for days afterward she slunk around the house, hiding from us in what seemed very much like shame. As her fellow group-dwelling mammals, we shouldn't be surprised she would have had something like a superego to secrete guilt into her small but functional schnauzer brain.

Heidi is no longer with us but her silly deeds, and those of other doggies not as clever as they think they are, will enrich us as long as we live. One way I've been enriched recently was in thinking about this episode during a run and laughing out loud, and then asking myself whether she had a moral sense, and if so, what could its source have been other than her biology? I submit that she clearly did have a moral sense, and I think few dog owners would disagree with me on this. She knew she was doing something wrong, and when chastised, behaved as if she were experiencing guilt or shame. How is this possible? Was Heidi Christian? Did Heidi believe in God?

Even leaving aside the inevitable questions and dyslexia jokes about canine theology, it would have been difficult for Heidi, living as she did in a house with three atheist humans, to count herself among the faithful. Of course, you could argue that she was merely an unfeeling, calculating breakfast-plate-licking machine, and her north-and-south look was mechanical self-interest, and I'm just anthropomorphizing her subsequent shame. Of course, the best answers to these questions will come not from bloggers' anecdotes but from more actual experiments like Hauser's, to explain how dogs can be good doggies without being religious.

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