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Religion and the science of virtue

By Mark Vernon

There is an intimate link between religion and morality. It’s not fashionable to say so: many argue that talk of a link – and talk is all it is – should be stopped. After all, individuals can clearly be good without God, and religious individuals hardly stand much scrutiny as paragons of virtue. However, there’s something more subtle to tease out here, and support for a connection is coming not from preachers or prelates, but science.

The source is neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. As these new sciences explore the nature of morality, they tell a story that goes something like this. Many animals, perhaps most, don’t live in isolation; they co-operate. Even bacteria work together for the sake of the group. There is good reason to think that this co-operation gives rise to behaviour that can be called altruistic: it’s good for others but not necessarily for the individual. The story develops further when it’s observed that higher animals, like chimps or dogs, don’t just behave in ways that might be called altruistic, but have social emotions too. They feel shame; they empathize; they take pleasure in pleasing others.

The implication for the human animal is that our morality is based upon an evolved set of predispositions. When we take pride, feel guilty, act honestly, show trust, we too are following social emotions that make us feel good. No doubt, this is the origin of the powerful intuition that the good life is a happy life.

Read the original article at: The Guardian

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