David Brooks argues that the view that moral decision-making results from an intuitive, pre-rational engagement with the world, rather than from logical deduction from a set of moral principles, is a challenge to “the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning.”
With all respect to David Brooks, this claim, in an otherwise lucid column, strikes me as nonsensical. The new atheists are arguing not against the view that morality is innate, but that it is the product of formal religious teaching. It is the theistic and theocon worldview that is challenged by what Brooks calls the “evolutionary approach to morality,” not the skeptical one. It is the theocons who assert that unless society and individuals are immersed in purported Holy Books, anarchy and depredation will rule the world.
Skeptics respond that moral behavior is instinctual, that parents build on a child’s initial impulses of empathy and fairness and reinforce those impulses with habit and authority. Religious ethical codes are an epiphenomenon of our moral sense, not vice versa. The religionists say that morality is handed down from a deity above; secularists think that it, and indeed the very attributes of that deity himself, bubble up from below. Children raised without belief in divine revelation can be as faithful to a society’s values as those who think that the Ten Commandments (at least those not concerned with religious prostration) originated with God.
As for non-believers’ purported faith “in the purity of their own reasoning,” I have no idea what Brooks is talking about. The new atheists are not on an intellectual purity crusade; they see the whole of human thought as evidence of the richness of the human mind. They embrace the gorgeousness and grandeur of music, art, and literature as a source of meaning and wisdom.
Brooks appears to want to unite neuroscience and evolutionary psychology with staunch support of religion as a precondition to decent society. I’m not sure that this balancing act will hold, but we’ll have to wait and see.
The Templeton Foundation discussion that spurred Brooks’s column is here. Readers can judge for themselves whether secularists should feel rebuked by its contents.