Last month, a commenter dropped this interesting nugget:
God’s existence implies accountability’s existence…
More broadly, our discussion was about whether morality can be grounded in a non-theistic framework. I thought yes; he thought no. For him, God is what makes the “moral code” real, objective, absolute and authoritative. Fair enough, and his position has been the position of most people throughout recorded history.
But let’s look at recorded history. I will argue that my commenter hit the nail on the head when he said, “God’s existence implies accountability’s existence,” but accountability is not the same thing as morality — at least not what most of us mean by morality.
Here in the West, most of us think of God as the one in the Bible, but there have been many gods from whom people have taken their cues on morality.
Often, the gods have been beings to be appeased, with the stereotypical example being a volcano god who demands periodic sacrifices of virgins. People in those societies thought that such sacrifices were the “right” thing to do. We would say that “right” in this case has more to do with accountability than morality.
The ancient Greeks had their gods, too, but these scheming, rapacious immortals with their highly dysfunctional families were not the source of the refined Greek morality of Plato or the Stoics. Mortals’ interaction with these beings was through pious ritual and worship, not through trying to imitate the behavior of the gods. Again, we have mortals being held accountable, in this case to fulfill the prescribed worship, but thank goodness the Greeks found their best moral ideas through more or less secular philosophy.
In our culture, we think of the Judeo-Christian God as the perfection of Good, so it makes more sense to think of him as the source of morality. However, the great moral precepts from the Judeo-Christian tradition are found in other cultures, too, including secular ones. For example, the Golden Rule (“Do to others as you want them to do to you.”) is ubiquitous, being found in everything from those Greek secular philosophers to today’s fundamentalist Christians.
I maintain that these other traditions, including the secular ones, make just as strong a case for the Golden Rule as the religious tradition of my commenter. How they do this is beyond the scope of this post, but you would be correct to assume that it goes well beyond the “Because God says so!” that the advocates of God-grounded morality seem to think is the apex of moral reasoning.
What makes Christianity unique is not its morality, but its system of atoning for moral failures*. The Bible says, “….without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin.” That certainly kept the Hebrews accountable to a centuries-long program of blood sacrifices, culminating in the God-ordained crucifixion of an entirely innocent man, but an impartial observer would hardly call forgiveness-through-bloodletting an exalted moral idea.
Finally, a moral system that is revealed in a God-given, sacred text also has a serious weakness that a secularly argued one does not have: it cannot change as our moral understanding advances. For example, many Christians today are stuck defending the slavery that was commanded in the Bible because they are not free to admit that the Bible was quite simply wrong on this subject. See my series on biblical slavery for details.
The best moral ideas have an appeal that transcends any one religion. The Golden Rule makes sense to almost everyone. My commenter was certainly correct to argue that a god can add a layer of accountability, up to and including eternal reward or punishment, but that’s not the same as morality itself.
*- Of course, there are other unique aspects of Christianity, but here I’m focusing on morality.