A long time ago, there was a small band of cavepeople trying to survive in a harsh world. The group’s two best hunters, Grog and Zog, had been tracking prey together for years. Among the many things Grog and Zog had learned was that when they worked together, they were more likely to catch the meat that helped feed themselves and their band and to get all sorts (yes, all sorts) of adulation and affection as a result.
One morning, Grog and Zog were out hunting when a bear ambushed them. Grog knew that if he sprinted away, he’d probably survive, but his trusted friend Zog would be killed. Zog knew that if he bolted, he’d be the only reliable hunter left in the band, the thought of which saddened and terrified him. Whether they realized it or not, there was a good chance they would both survive if they both stayed and fought. For whatever reasons, they stood their ground together, fought off the bear with their spears, and lived to hunt again.
And hunt they did, that very day. They used their imaginations to “think like a deer,” employing that early form of empathy to track a big buck and eventually kill it. But soon after they hoisted the carcass onto their shoulders, a large man they’d never seen appeared on their path. He was just one man, but he looked strong, and he had a club. With the bear incident fresh in their minds, Grog and Zog decided to play it safe, stick together, and kill the man before he could hurt them.
As night fell, Grog and Zog returned to the cave to much drooling and cheering. The two hunters relayed the story of that eventful day while the others shouted and danced with abandon. Everyone ate as much as possible while the food was available. The old man of the clan, perhaps feeling left out of the hunt, warned the others not to get too happy because The Spirits could take everything away. After all, that had happened to a less-cooperative clan in the next valley: their single best hunter had been hit by lightning, and the little band had perished the following winter.
And now back to modernity.
Polls show that most Americans are people of faith and that those who aren’t comprise the least-trusted group in the nation. Among people of faith, the most persistent obstacle to entertaining the possibility that a moral nonbeliever might exist is the widespread intuitive assumption that nonreligious equals nonmoral. (If experience or careful thought hasn’t yet brought you to this conclusion about our faithful friends, take it from a writer who lives in Alabama.)
Given this reality, wouldn’t it be useful to have a simple, reproducible way to explain how and why human morality stems not from religious belief or ancient texts but from a natural process? What if this secular humanist teaching aid was a four-paragraph story that could be read or told in roughly two minutes, with perhaps another minute of explanation if necessary? That additional explanation, by the way, might go something like this.
Imagine the events in the story of Grog and Zog repeated hundreds, thousands, millions of times, down through the generations, wherever there were people. Which individuals would last long enough to reproduce? Which would reproduce more while alive? And which types of bands were more likely to survive? (Further hints here could include the words strength, intelligence, imagination, cooperation, nurturing, and trust, as in trust in your teammates in the game of survival.)
Of course, true biblical literalists—the hardcore “Young Earthers”—wouldn’t accept the point of the story because it doesn’t jibe with their archaic conceptions of the age of the universe. But in this real world of limited time and resources, it’s not the fundamentalist “thumping thoughtless” whom we secular humanists should strive to convince of the possibility of our being moral. It’s the relatively reachable and reasonable middle—the thoughtful people of faith who sometimes ponder morality on a level deeper than “God says x” or “The Bible says y.” To believers or nonbelievers who’ve kept up with recent science on genetic altruism and the like, and to people with the most basic grasp of human history, it’s clear that small bands of weak, slow, tiny-toothed, nearly clawless early humans couldn’t have survived and thrived in an indifferent world without working together. And the parable of Grog and Zog—a simplified fusion of relevant events that must have happened to our ancestors countless times—offers a snapshot of how. But in this case, the snapshot comes before the bulb flashes: once a reader or listener understands that cooperation and altruism (not just fear, aggression, and greed) have worked for us through the ages, it’s a tiny leap to grasping how, over time, basic human morality came about through a natural process independent of religion. It evolved, even if that “e-word” is something to avoid with certain audiences.
An understanding that morality has natural roots would undercut the no-religion-means-no-morals equation. It would also help chip away at one of humanity’s most persistent sources of division, erode belief systems that undoubtedly contain lots of wisdom (which can be retained) and lots of nonsense, and wear down mindsets that cause many humans to shirk ultimate responsibility for what happens here on Earth.
More specifically and locally, the knowledge that morality has natural roots would counteract the self-fulfilling and institution-serving notion that a newborn baby is a somehow a “sinner”—a sick, damaging concept that persists despite a growing body of research that shows humans are born with an urge to help others.
As freethinkers around the world know consciously or intuitively, and as the parable of Grog and Zog demonstrates, basic morality is human, not Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist. This is not to say that religious belief hasn’t been beneficial to humanity and therefore bred into us also (there is such a thing as a helpful misconception), only that human morality— which of course is shaped, molded, undercut, or bolstered by our physical and cultural environment—evolved long before the faiths we know today. It’s sad that the idea that morality evolved is so out of left field, so alien to most believers. Sadly, it makes perfect sense that many believers would see things that way, given that they’ve been taught since toddlerhood that God/Jesus/Allah/etc. is what makes you (and life) good or provides even the possibility of goodness. The lack of the knowledge that morality evolved—and is therefore shared—is the main barrier to a less superstitious view of the world and to a less judgmental view of people who don’t buy into a particular orthodoxy or believe in a warden in the sky. The assumption that the good in humans comes exclusively from God (and the bad from nature) will always trump antireligious metaphysical arguments about the universe. So we have to address the questions “How would I live without my faith?” and “What would be my guide?”
Luckily, stories have power (see the Bible), and a simple tale that shows how natural processes account for the roots of human morality is no exception. The parable even illustrates how seemingly opposite traits—productive and counterproductive aspects of human nature—arose from the same process. After all, some of what worked for us a long time ago (say, preemptive aggression with spears) is generally unhelpful today. It’s a simple and elegant explanation that has the added bonus of being true. There’s no need for a God as interpreted by fallible primates in order to explain the origin of morality, or for God’s horned opposite—tellingly, often a symbol of nature—in order to explain our worst behavior. There’s also no need for the futile mental gymnastics required to rationalize a moral, omniscient, and omnipotent God currently allowing, say, a starving little girl to be raped and butchered by drug-addicted child soldiers. (One’s revulsion at that has nothing to do with faith. It has to do with being a human who hasn’t been made into a killing machine by horrendous external factors and/or abnormal wiring.) The believer’s problem of evil is sidestepped, its burden made moot by basic and increasingly verifiable knowledge of ourselves.
Nature has long been blamed for the Hobbesian “nasty, brutish, and short” aspects of human existence, but it is only recently getting the credit for other traits that have made us human, not to mention humane. Our natural heritage is complex, and it’s our job—our job—now to decide which traits to try to perpetuate and reinforce (cooperation, empathy, altruism, curiosity?) and which traits to try to mitigate or outgrow (aggression, prejudice, fear of the other, gluttony?). It turns out that the big ethical question isn’t “Which faith must win out for us to live in peace?” but, “Which human traits are still desirable and which are now counterproductive?” I think most people would even agree on the answers, once the right question is asked.
Imagine a world where the vast majority of people—religious and otherwise—understood that the baseline, if not the particulars, of morality itself was something that grew out of our long history of working together; that it was something shared throughout humanity. That’s not an antireligion idea. It’s a unifying, prohuman concept regardless of one’s faith or lack thereof.
So with that in mind, go forth, my brothers and sisters. Spread the word. Tell it. Copy it. Paste it. Post it. E-mail it. Snail-mail it. Inject it in one form or another into the body societal. Make it a meme. Make it a vaccine against the insidious equation. Plant a seed of self-knowledge that sprouts up through the orthodoxies that seal off otherwise fertile minds. Go forth, fellow secular humanists, and spread the gospel of Grog and Zog. Given a wide audience and time, it could help us all.