God, morality and mankind

In the last section we considered the moral objection to God, namely that of the presence of so much suffering in the world, not just among mankind but in nature generally. Now I would like to consider the question from another angle: if God is moral, why should we be? Or to put it another way: do only good children go to heaven?

A historical view of religion will show that the great and lasting religions have always believed God to be moral in some way, even if the morality in the human beliefs of the worshippers was sometimes rather benighted, as in the Aztecs' system of blood sacrifice. It is true that the gods of Greece and Rome were all too human, and that their mythology contains many stories which would be considered depraved and scandalous if written about humans, but even then the ancients expected the gods to protect the innocent, the traveller, etc, and punish the guilty. The idea of punishment in the afterlife was not a new one given by Christianity: Tarturus, where the wicked were punished, comes from the Greeks, who also believed that the good and blessed went to the Elysian fields, a place of tranquility where one was reunited with one's friends and family. C S Lewis, the Oxford professor and author of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, published a book called the Abolition of Man in which he showed that historically even such warlike people as the Vikings had a code of ethics that condemned adultery and commended protection of the weak. Elsewhere he wrote that never in the history of mankind has there been a society where cowardice, treachery and the like were considered praiseworthy, or where virtues were to be condemned.

The common objection to this historical argument is that it is in the evolutionary or common interest of the human race to act in a moral manner, since by doing so we preserve order and stability and presumably protect the long-term future of our species. But then that begs the question: why should I do it, just because it benefits everyone else? In other words you are appealing to my sense of moral obligation again, even if it is under the guise of "the good of society" rather than "because God says so". (One could also object that the future of the human race is a comfortably vague and undefined future for most people).

Some idealists might suggest that virtue should be carried out for virtue's sake, or (a slight variation of the argument) that good behaviour carries its own reward. This is a very noble idea, but the idea that it carries its own reward may not always be apparent to anybody who has tried to behave in a manner more upright than others around themselves. In fact such a person would be most likely to be given advice on the lines of "You can't be too nice in this world", "You've got to get ahead", "Don't be a fool to yourself", etc. Something I have noticed is how many people who are idealistic in youth become hardened within a few years and gradually or suddenly jettison previously cherished beliefs (and this applies as much to Christians as it does to Socialist Workers and CND members). They find that being nice and good, far from carrying its own reward, seems to leave them left behind their peers who are often laughing at them, and they change until they adapt the colours of those around them. Idealism and nobility for nobility's sake is a race that only the very few can run right to the end, and even these often cut strange figures to most people's eyes.

Coupled with the above is the experience of many people from childhood through adolescence and adulthood. At first the child is taught (hopefully) what is right and what is wrong, and believes it. At school he or she finds to their shock that other children (particularly older children) do things that they were always told were wrong. Yet this is nothing to the shock they get when they find their parents doing the things they always warned their children against: fiddling the tax, drinking to excess or having affairs. At this point in adolescence, one of two things often happens. Either the teenager determines he or she will never become like that, and adopts an aggressive, almost priggish moralism, or they get the "old head on young shoulders", adopting a tolerant but cynical view of life.

This brings me to, perhaps, the crux of the argument about human morality. We know what is good and bad, right and wrong, and most of us are taught it from birth. The problem is that we find it so difficult to do it, and it gets harder, not easier, as we get older. We know not to throw tantrums in public as we get older, but we find subtle ways of having affairs in the office or manipulating someone out of position. In fact as we become adults, things we would have considered wrong or even evil when young are now masked with words like "Machiavellian" or "shrewd", or covered up and passed off with a knowing laugh. Thus it becomes not just a matter of trying to do right, but swimming against the tide of contemporary opinion to do so - and most people would rather swim with the tide and be accepted by their peers.

This page should really be read in conjunction with the previous page to remind ourselves of the problem: God is good, God is moral, and yet it seems to be so hard for us, God's creatures, to be good and moral. If there was no explanation for this apparent contradiction between God's character and God's handiwork, then we might feel that the Creator was playing games with us, unfair games in which we are handicapped before we start. If you haven't already read it, I refer you back to the previous page to the Garden of Eden story and its use as an explanation of why there seems to be this dichotomy.

If it is any consolation, being religious has never made it much easier for mankind to do good. Certainly the Western scriptures and sacred books (I cannot speak for the Eastern ones, having insufficient knowledge) relate how God's followers usually got it wrong time and time again. Thus the Koran says that God kept sending prophets whom people ignored, while in the Old Testament the Israelites were given the Law on Mt Sinai and then straightaway went to worshipping the golden calf. In fact, the Old Testament is in one sense a story of the continuous failure of people selected by God to do what God actually asked of them. Lest this make us feel a bit smug, the story of Christianity after the New Testament likewise has many dark stains, as does that of Islam and the radical Hinduism of today. Simply being religious doesn't make a person any better: in fact it can open them to new temptations to abuse.

At this point we might be thinking in resignation, "Well, we're all only human, after all." And this is true in the sense that as humans, none of us can claim to be less of a sinner than any other, or to be above temptation. On the other hand it is somewhat risky to suggest that God might be satisfied with our behaviour on the grounds that "they're only human, and after all, I did create them." If the reading of sacred books and scriptures shows anything, it shows that mankind is aware that God demands goodness, justice, love, kindness and truth from the human race, more so than from the rest of the creatures on this earth. Nor is this command made simply to the religious, spiritual or churchgoing part of mankind, but to all people. It shows itself in the Bible in two places: "Be holy, for I am holy" in the Book of Leviticus (Old Testament), and "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand" (Christ's words in the gospels, New Testament). The latter quotation seems to imply that people know at least what they have to repent of.

What's all this leading to? Have I just been trying to make you feel bad about yourself? That was certainly not my intention. By way of balance I want to emphasise that I don't think, and no religion apart from the most depraved would assert, that mankind is simply trash, a load of biological junk cluttering the planet. On the contrary, each human being is of tremendous significance, because in the words of the first chapter of Genesis, mankind is created in the image of God. Too often moralists and religious people give the impression that they have a low opinion of the human race, but that was not God's view, if indeed God did create humanity with divine attributes and then cared enough to deal with the ensuing problems arising from the Fall (see previous page). But I think these days with the popularity of the New Age, pop psychology and other trends, we are in danger of comforting ourselves with the "feelgood factor". A little sober consideration of the general behaviour of mankind through the ages, and our own in the here and now, is a helpful corrective to this.

Next: God and mankind's moral dilemma

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