Most religious people claim that morality, or the group ethic is based in a religious origin. This is a common claim, made often and repeatedly by most people of religious faith. I don't see any obvious correlation between god belief and morality. Neither god belief nor the lack of it, guarantees moral or ethical human behaviour.
I think that people cooperate because it is mutually advantageous. We are capable of natural feelings such as empathy, sympathy, remorse etc. Our natural abilities to empathize with other humans forms the basis of what we consider to be moral or ethical. There are rare people who are termed sociopathic, who apparently are incapable of these emotions, but for the vast majority of us these human emotions allow us, by understanding our own needs, to understand the needs of others. So, I think that morality has as much to do with our genetic origins than it has with any hierarchial supernatural construct that we have devised in an attempt to keep people in line. (By hierarchial supernatural construct, I mean god belief.)
Primatologists like Frans de Waal have long argued that the roots of human morality are evident in social animals like apes and monkeys. The animals’ feelings of empathy and expectations of reciprocity are essential behaviors for mammalian group living and can be regarded as a counterpart of human morality. Marc D. Hauser, a Harvard biologist, has built on this idea to propose that people are born with a moral grammar wired into their neural circuits by evolution. In a new book, “Moral Minds” (HarperCollins 2006), he argues that the grammar generates instant moral judgments which, in part because of the quick decisions that must be made in life-or-death situations, are inaccessible to the conscious mind. It implies that parents and teachers are not teaching children the rules of correct behavior from scratch but are, at best, giving shape to an innate behavior. And it suggests that religions are not the source of moral codes but, rather, social enforcers of instinctive moral behavior. (From Atheist Girl)
I would also draw your attention to a recent study concerning bees and behaviour. Just recently scientists mapped the bee genome. They were interested to try and explain why it was evolutionary advantageous for worker bees to be sterile and to invest all their time and life caring for the eggs of a single queen bee. What they observed was that in some hives, a small percentage of bees which were usually worker bees and sterile, were actually laying eggs in the hive given the opportunity.
They called these bees "anarchist bees" because their behaviour conflicted with the usual reproductive and social pattern exhibited within the hive. By mapping the genome of a "normal worker bee" and that of one of these "anarchist bees", they were able to compare the differences in their genomes. What they found was that the "anarchist bees" did not have the reproductive indicators turned off which would have made them sterile. Instead they were fertile, just as the queens were. The scientists wondered why a small % of bees exhibited with genomes which expressed this physical behaviour.
They conducted an experiment whereby they seeded a hive with a queen and a much larger collection of "anarchist bees" than would normally be present in a hive. The result was inevitably disasterous for the hive. When nearly all the bees were trying to lay eggs, there were not enough sterile bees to do the work, and the social structure of the hive collapsed. It was always wondered what evolutionary advantage sterility might have considering that fertility is the key to passing on genes. And why would such a large population of bees bar one, the queen, invest all their energies and life into the rearing of another bee's young?
Essentially, sterility IS an evolutionary advantage for bee hives. Scientists refer to this sterility as "genetic altruism." "Altruistic" in the sense that the majority of bees have, through natural selection, waived their "rights" to breed, in favour of the continuation of the hive and the continuation of the species. This suggests that what we may consider as a moral behaviour or ethical behaviour, namely altruism, has been natural selected in bees and is expressed genetically.
I also think that natural selection in human beings has resulted in the genetic expression of moral traits and ethical traits. Many religions preach the code of selflessness, non-ego, putting others first etc (and however slse it can be expressed); however, the majority of people, even when they say they adher to such a code, find that it is extremely difficult to put this code into practice. Personally, I think it is an unrealistic code for a number of reasons.
Although I believe that conscious acts of “altruism” may be considered worthy and perhaps even noble, I doubt that it is possible to physically survive for extended periods of time if altruism didn't have a payoff for either the individual or the group to which the individual belongs. I think it is in contradition to our “genetic instructions” (yes, whatever that means - gene expression, perhaps) - to behaviourally demonstrate altruism which doesn't have a payoff.
Where does this concept of self sacrifice, or putting the needs of others first originate? Well, as an atheist, I think that these human attributes and predispositions are to be found in gene expression. For example, it is demonstrated in nature that many animal mothers will place themselves in considerable harm in order to preserve their family. It is also demonstrated in nature that male animals will fight off the attentions of other males in order to preserve the pride, pack, group. In both instances they are examples of what we may consider to be "altruistic behaviours." These supposed "altruistic behaviours" though, do include a payoff to the individual and also to the group. So, even though we may incorrectly label them as "acts of altruism," they are essentially acts of self interest.
So, animals and humans both has a sense of what it is preserve a group. But essentially, their interest to preserve the group through self sacrifice might merely be that of self interest. In other words, they are prepared to put self last only as an act of self interest. (Sounds contradictory, I know.) They have a vested interest in the preservation of the particular group to which they belong which may exclude their act of self sacrifice as being an act of altruism.
We define an altruistic act as an act or behaviour where we put the needs of others above the needs of self. But, as I have suggested, acts of altruism can just as easily be seen as acts of self interest. For example: Politicians regularly “fall on their swords” in order to preserve that which they consider to be the integrity, or worth of the party to which they belong. Religious fanatics regularly sacrifice their very lives in order to preserve (as they see it), the belief system of the religious group to which they belong. And of course soldiers of every nation have sacrificed their lives for the same ideal; the preservation of the group/nation/political ideology to which they identify.
In the example of the politician, the religious fanatic, or the soldier, the act of self sacrifice emulates the instinctual act in the animal kingdom. The political party has become the family/pride/flock. The religious group has become the family etc and the nation for which the soldier fights for has become the family etc. In other words, these groups have become for all intents and purposes, the families that we would like to preserve. If these groups (religious, political, cultural etc) become synonmous psychologically with the concept of the family or pack, are these acts ones of self sacrifice or are they an instinct to preserve self by preserving the group?
When the group that one identifies with becomes synonymous with the self, the case could be made that self sacrifice isn’t putting oneself last, it may just be putting oneself first. Preserving the group might become preserving self when personal identification with the group is so psychologically compelling. Perhaps the groups and the ideologies which human beings are capable of identifying with, tap into our naturally occurring, naturally selected predisposition to preserve self by preserving the group. Like the honey bee, the lion, and animals of other species, we may only be acting upon a naturally selected predisposition to enhance survival.
"BEE" Gees - "Stayin' Alive"