OK, the title of this post isn't literally correct. Bonobos can't talk, at least not in a human language.
But Frans de Waal is an expert on bonobos and other primates, who are our closest evolutionary relatives. At the end of his book, "The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates, " de Waal imagines what a bonobo would tell an atheist.
This amounts to a good summary of the entire book, which I finished reading recently.
Frans de Waal doesn't believe in God. He does, however, recognize that while religions are a human invention, they are a natural outgrowth of human capacities -- such as imagination and a strong social inclination.
As you can read below, de Waal understands from his primate research, plus his knowledge of other animals, that what we'd call "morality" is very much in evidence among non-human animals. (We are animals also, of course, mammalian variety.)
In the first 222 pages of his book, de Waal provides a lot of evidence about this. Then, in his final "Bottom-Up Morality" chapter, he draws conclusions from that evidence -- which is encapsulated in his bonobo-talking-to-an-atheist final section.
What would a bonobo tell an atheist?
...The bonobo would first of all urge the atheist to stop "sleeping furiously." There is no point in getting all worked up about the absence of something, especially something as open to interpretation as God. True, if being a self-declared atheist carries a stigma, as it unfortunately does in this nation, frustration is understandable.
...I am 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. Nowadays, humanism is often viewed as antireligious, but this is certainly not how it started.
...I should be careful here, though, because calling any values "religious" is problematic. It rather seems that universal human values have been appropriated by various religions, each supporting them with their own narratives and making them their own.
...Tolerance of religion, even if religion is not always tolerant in return, allows humanism to focus on what is most important, which is to build a better society based on natural human abilities. The outcome is the ongoing experiment in the West of an increasingly secular society.
Like that of tectonic plates, the shifting is extremely gradual.
Humanity cannot and will not change on a dime, and it's also not as if religion is an alien influence. It is very much our creation, part of who we are, fully intertwined with our respective cultures. We had better get along with it and learn from it, even if our goal is ultimately to set out on a new course.
The bonobo would urge the atheist to take a similar long-term perspective.
The good news is that the main ingredients of a moral society don't require religion, since they come from within. Despite its emphasis on reason, humanism considers our species a creature as much of passion as of intellect. This is where the bonobo has no trouble connecting. We have the emotions of a social animal, and not just any animal, but a mammal.
...We are driven by inborn values and emotions, which guide rather than dictate behavior. They nudge us in a given direction, but leave plenty of leeway.
As a result, we have the capacity to care for those unable to return the favor, adopt unrelated young, cooperate with strangers, and empathize with members of a different species.
And we're not the only ones; the latest example was the assistance humpback whales gave to a mother gray whale defending her calf against a killer whale assault. Mammals are affected by the distress of others, leading to levels of altruism far in excess of what gene-centric theories predict.
This is why the bonobo disagrees with anyone who pits evolution against morality, such as the well-known American neurosurgeon Benjamin Carson, who has claimed, "Ultimately , if you accept the evolutionary theory, you dismiss ethics, you don't have to abide by a set of moral codes, you determine your own conscience based on your own desires."
The problem with such statements is that if humans everywhere develop a sense of right and wrong, one of our deepest desires must be to live in a moral world. Carson assumes that morality goes against our nature, and that our desires are all bad, whereas the whole point of this book is to argue the opposite.
Thank God, if I may, we share with other primates a background as group animals, which makes us value social connections. Absent this background, religion could be preaching about virtue and vice until it became blue in the face, we'd never get its point.
We are receptive only because of our evolved grasp of the value of relationships, the benefits of cooperation, the need for trust and honesty, and so on. Even our sense of fairness derives from this background,
Here the bonobo would side with the atheist and argue that whatever the role of religion in morality, it's a Johnny-come-lately role. Morality arose first, and modern religion latched onto it. Instead of giving us the moral law, the large religions were invented to bolster it.
We are only just beginning to explore how religion does so by binding people together and enforcing good behavior. It is far from my intention to minimize this role, which was vital in the past and may remain so in the foreseeable future, but the wellspring of morality it is not.
Finally, the bonobo laughs at the intellectual torture of trying to separate "is" from "ought," which vexes any debate about moral evolution. It is widely accepted within philosophy that we cannot move from the way humans or animals are to moral ideals.
The first is descriptive, they say, the second prescriptive. This is a serious consideration that is not easily resolved, but a good start would be to get our premises straight.
If the thought is that animals are mere "wantons," lacking control over the impulses that nature has given them, we are on the wrong track. Like us, animals favor certain outcomes, and react with fear or violence to any deviation. Who says the bonobo can do whatever he wants?
Even with regard to sex, where he faces fewer constraints than we do, he still needs a willing partner as well as the absence of dominant males. He faces many expectations about his conduct, which others won't hesitate to remind him of as soon as he scares an infant or tries to steal a female's food.
Even if he lacks notions of right and wrong that transcend his personal situation, his values are not altogether different from those underlying human morality. He, too, strives to fit in, obeys social rules, empathizes with others, amends broken relationships, and objects to unfair arrangements.
We may not wish to call it morality, but his behavior isn't free of prescriptions either.
With this observation, the bonobo concludes his advice to the atheist, whom he sees as a protester rather than an advocate. The big challenge is to move forward, beyond religion, and especially beyond top-down morality. Our best-known "moral laws" offer nice post hoc summaries of what we consider moral, but are limited in scope and full of holes.
Morality has much more humble beginnings, which are recognizable in the behavior of other animals. 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.
On the contrary, our evolutionary background lends a massive helping hand without which we would never have gotten this far.