What makes things ethically good? That’s Plato’s classic question in his dialogue, Euthyphro: Grant that the gods love what is holy, he says, but do they love the holy because it is holy? Or is it holy because the gods love it?
Change “holy” to “good,” and you get our dilemma. Do the gods advise such things as justice and kindness because they are good? Or are these things good because the gods advise them?
Most readers cheer when Plato demonstrates the former: justice and kindness are intrinsically good — not just called good because the gods like them. Hurray for the independent good!
But Plato’s question reads more threateningly when we replace the Greek “gods” with our own God. Does the prophetic adjuration to do “what is good: do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8) mean that justice, mercy, and humility before God are good because God likes them? Or that God likes them because they are good?
What we said for the Greek gods must hold for our God as well. God must like the good because it is really good, not the other way around.
But then, who needs God? If the good exists in and of itself, doesn’t God become ethically redundant?
Not necessarily. We might say that God does indeed like the good because it is good, just as we should. But note the verbs. God does and we just should – because sometimes we do not. God necessarily does like the good because God is altogether good by nature. Not being God, we sometimes get it wrong.
So the good is the good on its own merit; God likes the good because it is good, but also because God’s nature is altogether good. Religions, we might say, preach the good both on its own merit, but also in the name of God who recognizes it.
All of which leads us to the function of religion, which, it turns out, does three things to lead us to be good.
- Religion teaches, argues, reasons, cajoles, preaches and pleads: Like philosophy, religion too reminds us cognitively of our obligation to choose the good. But unlike philosophy, religion links the good with God, using one ideal (God) to reinforce the other (the good).
- Religion uses ritual to enhance its moral message. People don’t actually respond well to purely cognitive reasoning. We require also the aesthetic, which religion supplies through ritual. It is one thing to say that God wants “justice, mercy and humility.” It is another to enact it in ritual that moves people to internalize these goods as what we should choose – as God does. Over a century ago (1912), sociologist Emile Durkheim noted how ritual enlists our emotions, not just our mind, to reinforce communities that hold people responsible for ethical behavior.
- Religion tells stories. Part of the aesthetic appeal comes also from religion’s endless rehearsing of stories about ethical dilemmas. “The artistic is very close to the ethical,” writes literary critic Terry Eagleton (How to Read Literature, pp. 75, 77), discussing George Eliot who wanted readers to “imagine and to feel” the “pains and joys” of her characters. We develop “imaginative sympathy” with the heroes and victims of our religious narratives.
As a Marxist, Eagleton suspects that such sympathy is hardly enough to guarantee the good, however, and no doubt, he is right – else serial killers and corporate polluters could be reborn by a course in reading the classics. Neither is religious ritual sufficient – regular attendees at worship are not necessarily models of morality.
So religions do all three.
- They moralize, lecture, teach, and preach (as philosophy does), but they go farther by linking what is independently good to God who is good.
- They provide rituals that create cohesive communities and move us emotionally beyond what mere argument can accomplish.
- They provide stories with which we identify.
All this makes religion a delivery system for the ethical; it does not, however, guarantee that the ethics it delivers are necessarily moral. But the same can be said of every other option: Philosophy includes Marxism gone wrong as well as Kant’s ethical imperative.
Religion’s very power to deliver explains the evil it has wrought; but that very same power explains also the good of which it is capable. The specter of religion on the side of evil should not deter us from the promise of religion on the side of good; and given the complexity of human personality and culture, I can think of nothing better than religion to advance humanity beyond our current state.