Frans de Waal makes a leap of faith in “The Bonobo and The Atheist.” In this book, he argues “that morality antedates religion and that much can be learned about its origin by considering our fellow primates,” especially the bonobos. Based on his observations as a primatologist, de Waal concludes that
“the moral law is not imposed from above or derived from well-reasoned principles: rather, it arises from ingrained values that have been there since the beginning of time.”
He goes further to say that he is
“all for a reduced role of religion, with less emphasis on the almighty God and more on human potentials. This is nothing new, of course: it is the humanist agenda.”
While I trust his observations as a seasoned primatologist and it certainly makes sense that morals and rules evolved through animal societies up through humans, he goes too far in concluding that there is not a God.
First, the conclusion that something could have occurred without a mover does not actually speak to the existence of a mover. In de Waal’s own words, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” A physical explanation does not exclude a concurrent spiritual explanation necessarily. To conclude that there is no God based on his observations is a leap of faith, not a logical next step.
It is no surprise that there’s a perceived absence of evidence given my second point, which is that de Waal does not approach the question of the existence of God objectively. Granted, he approaches this question in a far more fair and even way than Dawkins’ neo-atheist movement. I appreciate his strong, well-reasoned arguments. But de Waal decided that God does not exist when he was still a youth, according to his own telling of his story. He brings that belief into his science and reasoning, and categorically ignores any possibility of there being a God or spiritual realm. For example, he notes that “religion seems to promote well-being in body and mind. Let me hasten to add, though, that there is little agreement about how it does so.” In his opinion, the reason for this promotion of well-being must be purely physical, and he does not even consider the possibility of a spiritual answer. Ironically, he is willing to approach his primates with a far more objective view than he does God, shown when he says of primate thoughts, “it’s hard to know, yet impossible to rule out.”
Sadly, de Waal’s leap to atheism is also based on misunderstandings of religious motivation and Christian theology in particular. Though he grew up in the church, he clearly didn’t learn much. For him to present himself as knowledgeable about Christianity is as dishonest as it would be for me to say that I’m a primate expert because I once saw some monkeys in a zoo. As a Christian, I found it difficult to read because, while it mentions other religions, it specifically targets Christianity with a lack of grace or understanding. I was particularly offended when he said “it is obvious that believers are not looking for evidence,” even as I was open-mindedly reading through his book! He reduces religion to a moral reinforcement business when he says that “it’s easy to see why religions try to recruit believers. They are large organizations with monetary interests that do better, the more people join them.” As a campus minister who fundraises my salary, my desire to see people come to faith has nothing to do with money, but rather is rooted in a desire for them to have the best thing out there – a relationship with God. Again, de Waal doesn’t even entertain the possibility that religion actually revolves around a living God.
He also misunderstands Christian morality and sinful nature. Based on his observations of primitive altruism in other primates, he says that “everything science has learned in the last few decades argues against the pessimistic view that morality is a thin veneer over a nasty human nature.” de Waal doesn’t understand that in Christian theology, humans are fundamentally evil because of our rejection of God, not because of individual sins that morality holds at bay. Denying God is an infinitely selfish, prideful, wrong action. If there is no God, then I would agree with de Waal. Ironically, though, if God does exist, de Waal’s humanism is an attempt to put a “thin veneer” of human morality “over a nasty human nature” that rejects God. In fact, de Waal even seeks to trump the crucifixion of Jesus when he says that humanism’s “…success will require far more than God’s death certificate.”