The peculiar interest of god(s) in human morality

Thor May
Adelaide, 2015



Preface: This is a discussion paper, not a researched academic document. The reading list at the end is mostly a collection of contemporary links from the Internet and pretty accidental, not edited for quality. Where a topic is of broad general interest comes up with friends, I have adopted the practice of posting discussion starters like the present one on in the hope that others might also find them worth thinking about.





“It is not necessary to believe in God to be a good person. In a way the traditional notion of God is outdated. One can be spiritual but not religious. It is not necessary to go to Church and give money – for many, nature can be a church. Some of the best people in history did not believe in God, while some of the worst deed were done in his name.”  

[Pope Francis (?) – supposedly misattributed to Francis in 2014. Hedged in 2015 to say there is no proof that he didn’t say it [ref. Wikiquote]. Many of his public statements can be interpreted to carry the sense of the disputed quotation]



1. Some European aperitifs


The gods helps those who help themselves

by Aesop (c. 620-564 BC)

A wagon became bogged on a very muddy road.
When the bullocks pulled hard, the wheels sank in even further.
The wagon driver decided his situation was hopeless, so he knelt and prayed to Hercules.
Hercules was the strongest of the immortals.
Hercules did indeed come to help, but he scolded the wagon driver. 
“Put your shoulder to the wheel man, and push!
Don’t expect me to do everything”, demanded Hercules.

The pantheon of gods in ancient Greece (peaking around the 5th to 4th Centuries BC) were a likeable bunch. They were so human in their passions, their failings and their occasional generosity. As a mirror for the wavering characters of mortal men and women, they offered moral choices for those who cared to reflect, and a reminder of consequences peculiargod4.jpgfor those who were more rash. Living at Olympian heights and blessed (or cursed) with immortality, the gods could impress the many who always wish to be impressed. Yet the sceptical were also accommodated since the wise and quizzical eyes of philosophers like Socrates and dramatists like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Aristophanes, also showed a penetrating grasp of psychology, together with, through satyrs (comedies), a very sane capacity to laugh at the gods themselves.

Alas, some time later, in the Roman era there was a kind of Middle peculiargod1.jpgEastern takeover of the European spirit by the much darker and less humorous monotheistic Abrahamic religions, principally Christianity (which had been anticipated on its home territory by a slew of rather similar Middle Eastern religions, but most immediately by Judaism, and followed a half millennium later by Islam). The vengeful god of Abraham claimed not only a monopoly of divinity (his competition, Lucifer, was badmouthed and thrown into a fiery pit), but demanded submission, not laughter, from the fallen race of humans, who could only hope to reclaim some grace in an afterlife by following strict instructions back on earth. Maybe this was all a bit too heavy because eventually god’s prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, was able to scrape together a following by talking about love, compassion and forgiveness. After delaying for a spot of persecution to please the crowds, the Christian brand was taken on by Roman politicians and marketed with the face of Jesus, yet more often than not practiced over the next twenty centuries with the vengeful hand of Abraham’s Jehovah.  


2. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world


When I first moved to South Korea in 2000, my apartment was dug into KrSotdae1.jpgthe side of a forested mountain in Bansong-dong. Not long after my arrival, one afternoon I heard a kind of low chanting below the window. Later, I clambered through the bushes, trying to avoid nettles, and found that a small stream plunged down the rocky slope, sometimes over cliffs. At the foot of one such cliff was a kind of grotto of overhung stone, and on its earthen floor I found some oranges and a pitcher of clear water.

My Korean hosts were a bit evasive about my questions, as if I had stumbled upon something not meant for outsiders. Much later I came to understand that the steep hills and valleys of Korea were still populated with mudang spirits (무당). Outside of (now vanishing) traditional villages it was not uncommon to see clusters of sotdae (솟대) on long poles, wooden birds of warning against evil spirits and harbingers of good luck. The sotdae were usually ducks, wondrous creatures that survived floods, brought good harvests and flew off beyond the lands of men with the cycle of the seasons.  This was all a bit strange in one of the world’s most urbanized countries where most people now live in forests of 19 story apartment blocks, and every town is festooned with the large pink neon-lit Christian crosses of churches in fierce competition for converts.

In South and East Asia, asking questions about religious belief, and what such belief might imply, always throws up a mass of contradictions for Western minds accustomed to hearing neat classifications of believer (in one god) or non-believer. (Poke a little and the Western storyline actually becomes pretty blurred too, but we’ll look at that later). Reflecting the confusion, statistics for religion in the region vary wildly, depending upon the sources. There are of course stark differences among South and East Asian religious attitudes, but also some commonalities.

In South Korean (with which I have some familiarity) the standard response to an enquiry about beliefs is that the country is 30% Buddhist, 30% Christian, and 30% non-believers, with 10% fuzz for very new religions and very old shamanistic beliefs. The reality for individuals is vastly more complicated than that, with many overlapping circles of ceremony, practice and obligation drawn from any or all of the preceding mentions, and maybe more.

Just as Europeans say that a Christian ethic underlies their societies regardless of religious practice, in South Korea (and probably North Korea) the dominant ethic is neo-Confucian, which scholars may say is non-religious but folk practice treats exactly as a religion. This is true for all East Asian regions of prior Chinese influence, from Japan to Vietnam, and west to the borderlands of Central Asia. There are many layers to Confucian belief, but for a visitor certain behaviours mark it off sharply from Western Christian influence, even for those East Asians who profess Christianity:

1. Hierarchy is the default order of things, and understood as a moral dimension. (Communism with Asian characteristics performs all kinds of social somersaults to waffle about this, but hierarchy triumphs every time as the expected normal). On the ancient Temple of Apollo in Delphi, Greece, was inscribed “Know Thyself”. The equivalent East Asian inscription would probably have to be “Know Thy Place”.

2. The first duty in social relationships is to preserve everyone’s public status. This is a moral imperative, and may override, for example, truth-telling where truth-telling would cause a loss of face. Those seeking advantage may manipulate relationships by “giving face” to the other party (e.g. by flattery) or “taking face” from the other party (e.g. by shaming), although taking face will cause outrage, even to the point of violence.

3. One of the innovations of the Middle Eastern prophet, Jesus Christ, was to preach the values of a universal love and compassion, probably best expressed by the commandment “Love Thy Neighbour”. Practical adherence to this idea anywhere on the planet has been patchy at best. However, at least in my Australian culture there has been a default norm to think about the convenience of others in our daily actions, and offer some assistance to strangers without expecting reward (e.g. to someone with a broken down vehicle). Some people are thoughtless about this and criticized accordingly.

The neo-Confucian norm in daily experience gives little space to “Love They Neighbour”, in spite of the Confucian idealized concept of ren ()benevolence or loving-kindness, explained as the source of all other virtues, with the power to prevent ritual becoming a sterile formality (Berling 1996).  The lived reality is more about “Do Thy Duty”, which basically covers family and extends more weakly to acquaintances. Strangers don’t get a look-in. For an Australian like me coming to East Asia, this was one of the more shocking and discouraging facts of daily life.

I’ve seen a young woman collapse on the floor of a South Korean subway carriage without anyone moving a muscle to help her. Twice I’ve seen men dying with heart attacks outside of Chinese hospitals with not a soul pausing to help them. More prosaically, it is a daily experience to have people shoving in queues totally indifferent to everyone around them, and parking across exit driveways … the list is endless. There are exceptions to this dismal experience, both in non-Confucian Eastern philosophies and the actions of naturally kind individuals. The manager of a yogwan (cheap hotel) in Seoul insisted on giving me his own umbrella when I left during a rainstorm. A stall holder in Chonqing led me across the city for 15 minutes to a destination, then modestly excused herself … and so on.


3. Narcissistic humans versus narcissistic gods


We know about people. Well, we assume that we know about people, somewhat.  As for gods, they are unknown unknowns, even if they are there to be known. Nevertheless, for the entire recorded history of human affairs, there has been status and lots of social and/or monetary profit for those who have the chutzpah to claim they know about gods and have a franchise on running the human shop on behalf of these said gods.

Clearly there is a widely held wish a) to know about gods, whether or not they are actually there, and b) to solicit instructions from these gods on the proper way for humans to behave.  It is reasonable to put a) down to natural curiosity. The reason for b) is likely to take us down twisty paths of human psychology. We could ask, for example, whether other animals, if they were sentient, would wish to solicit instructions for their personal behaviour from gods also.

Regardless of animal psychology, or the psychologies of intergalactic creatures, it is perfectly clear that when enough humans want something, whether it is white socks or instructions from gods, then some other human entrepreneurs will always step in to supply the demand.

Therefore there is a rich literature and story telling traditions in every human culture on how gods purportedly wish and expect humans to behave. For the largest proportion of humans these claimed godly wishes have the complexion of truths which must be obeyed, or at least mollified. For anyone living on planet earth, purported godly wishes assume practical importance since they affect many things, from the structure and function of institutions to the behaviour of populations.

For the ungodly, even as they dodge being stoned to death for apostasy or atheism, it is a perpetual puzzle why any god, mere mountain spirit or kitchen god, or a thundering master of the universe, would give a damn what humans do. And given the misfortunes of virtuous humans, and the prosperity of countless scoundrels, the ungodly search in vain for actual, non-magical evidence that god, gods, spirits or leprechauns do actually play moral favourites in any credible way with humans. For the godly of course, this kind of evidence has never mattered.



4. How necessary is religion to morality?

Belief in God Essential to Morality?



Wealth and Attitudes Toward Morality


5. Just supposing



What we purport to know about god(s) comes from the hands and mouths of humans. In many cases these humans have named themselves as witch doctors, mediums, shamans, prophets, priests and so on, putting out messages from the supernatural, sincerely or opportunistically. In any case, they have been widely believed, which is what counts. More ancient cultural traditions have passed on such notions orally, organized into song and story cycles with the original author-mediums lost in the mists of time. In the case of major belief systems, whole moral philosophies have been accumulated, written down and attributed to a god or gods. It is the tenor and content of these documents which leads us, using whatever insights we have from human psychology, to project and reflect on the character of whatever god(s) the philosophies are supposed to have emanated from. There are libraries full of this stuff, stretching back centuries, and more libraries filled with tomes debating the original belief systems, their embellishments, and how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. For a summary of the Western tradition in this dusty theological pastime, see Hare (2006, 2014 in the reading list).

Personally I suspect the whole god-obsession is the outcome of complex systems configurations in the human brain (May 2014), but that is not an idea within fashionable understanding or discussion at the moment since it requires some insight into the relatively recent general science of complexity systems (e.g. see the e-book by Holland, 2014, in the reading list). Therefore, I will mostly maintain more traditional speculation in this essay.

As a mere human exercising the tools of my human mind, and as the product of a particular cultural experience, the best I can do when trying to make sense of the godly beliefs and actions of others (which I don’t share) is to let these folk go their way when they do me no harm, and perhaps speculate without malice, but a little playful humour, on the possible ways a (fictitious) god might behave when touched with the gift or curse of immortality. Given my limitations I am bound of course to draw analogies with what humans might do, if given the gift or curse of immortality.

Is immortality itself such a big deal? In terms of psychological effect I think it is. Old gods never die, they simply fade away. It is true that in the story scripts there is often an end-time, an Armageddon, usually for the human creatures, though sometimes for the gods themselves, as in the Norse Ragnarök. The general tendency for the human spectators though is to talk of a supernatural eternity where stuff never actually ends, and where agents operating within such a sphere are therefore gifted with particular power, especially over humans whom they can snuff out on a whim like ants. In short, gods are “peculiar” in an old version of that word which means something like “exceptional” used with the sense of, for example, “American exceptionalism”.

We know that when humans are persuaded that they are exceptional as a group, they tend to behave badly given half a chance, and decline to subject themselves to the same checks as less fortunate beings. The current American empire is forever in our face, so it becomes a candidate for negative examples. Thus in the context of exceptionalism the United States refuses to be subject to the International Court of Justice, and refuses to ratify the Law of the Sea conventions. (Empires past and future, whatever their core ethnicities, tend to high-handedness in the same way).

Humans mostly require their gods to be peculiar, to show the properties of exceptionalism. If power corrupts, powers of omniscience and omnipotence are surely a test of the will of god(s). The Abrahamic religions took up on this idea by having the boss god’s number one archangel, Lucifer, corrupted by just such power and cast into Hell from where, however he/she/it continues to make mischief. For my puny human imagination, this simply looks like a case of poor personnel management by the boss god, but who am I to judge?


6. Asking for favours


Human religions have a myriad of social and political uses. When it comes to deep down and personal though, if it is hoped that a god has something which we don’t then folk have never been shy about asking the god for a favour. What gods are supposed to have available for dispensation could roughly be summed up as luck, meaning good fortune for the supplicant. The good fortune hoped for may range from the trivial to being saved from a life-threatening situation. The manner of asking for such divine intervention varies with the religion. It may be a prayer which involves promises or flattery (“adoration”). It may be an offering of some kind. The offering might be a plate of food, or smoke from incense, or some kind of sacrifice. Sacrifices usually involve the death of animals, but in some times, cultures have been known to offer up captured enemies, or even the supplicant’s own children.

An advanced social version of supplication has been a kind of human-to-supernatural contract where one particular group of humans, say a tribe, offers absolute loyalty to a particular god in return, supposedly, for special long term care and attention. Students of anthropology know that covenants of this kind have been found in a variety of cultures, and are generally rather ethnocentric or racist, marking one group off as exceptional/peculiar from other humans. In other words, the human holders of the covenant claim to take on some of the long term privileges attributed to a god themselves. In the Middle East, a Semitic tribe long ago favoured this kind of deal, claiming a first covenant struck by Abraham for his descendants, and later an updated version overseen by Moses. Covenants of this kind impose certain conditions on the followers, conditions which are interpreted as moral, lend a kind of group focus, and become part of the fabric of that culture. Being exclusive, a source of division from other people, they have also been fault lines for discrimination, persecution and conflict down the ages.

If we can empathise for a moment with the viewpoint of a hypothetical god or gods, presuming with our dull human senses that their motivations bear some analogy with our own, it is hard not to wonder what any god would find attractive or even noticeable about human prayers, sacrifices or covenants. It is possible perhaps to imagine some eminence sitting on a thunder cloud, playing the whole human circus as a kind of elaborate computer game. If we look at what 21st Century humans put their own hapless electronic avatars through in computer games, second-guessing godly behaviour in this sphere doesn’t look promising.

If we look at the lumpy historical fates of good people and bad, families, tribes and nations, it also doesn’t seem that any god has played favourites with consistency or anything we could recognize as reason. Such arguments have never mattered to believers of course. Regardless of whatever biological reality or supernatural influence plays beyond their own personas, systematized belief itself proves enough of an organizing scaffold and energizer to be of value to them.


7. We are all pantheists now


This essay has run with the metaphor that a god or gods display at least some characteristics which humans can identify with. Most of the history of human interaction with gods indicates that such an overlap of common properties was presupposed. If not, how could any human signal the need or wish for divine intervention, and how could the divinity respond in a way  meaningful to the human? I have implied that such a human-divine interdependence soon seems incoherent in terms of the actual fates of men, or any argument from reason, but has some value for the faithful as an energizing and organizing concept.

Most people have a preference for simple questions and simple answers. Magic meets that need wonderfully, and some version of magic may be all that is required as explanation for many, whether it is a question of how a mobile phone actually works, or where the universe came from, or who is managing the big cosmic shop.

There are other folk with somewhat more subtle minds who find magical answers dissatisfying, but who nevertheless still have little idea of how a mobile phone actually works, where the universe comes from, or what is making the big cosmic shop work the way it seems to.  On the magic/god angle, they may profess to be atheists, or more cautiously agnostics. Or to diffuse the issue culturally (since believers in gods are apt to be a bit aggressive when challenged) they may simply agree that pantheism makes more sense.

Pantheism is the idea that god is present in everything. The immanence of god concedes an argument for deity, yet concedes nothing. It is hard to think of an immanent god, of which you and I are a part, of which friends and enemies and cane toads a part, somehow twisting into a bit of independent consciousness which saves Little Red Riding Hood from the wolf at the door because of her earnest prayers.

The idea of a pantheistic god seems to have been around at least as long as the idea of particularistic gods, perhaps because different kinds of human personalities have different kinds of needs and are able to live or not live with different kinds of answers.

Now, on an abused and polluted planet earth, environmentalism for many has acquired quasi-religious overtones. Perhaps there is some value in challenging the concept that mankind is the centre of all things, and work with a more pantheistic approach which sees the whole of nature as interdependent. As voyagers in such a cosmos, our consciousness could be a tool to render us carers and wardens for a small planet.



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Professional bio: Thor May has a core professional interest in cognitive linguistics, at which he has rarely succeeded in making a living. He has also, perhaps fatally in a career sense, cultivated an interest in how things work people, brains, systems, countries, machines, whatever… In the world of daily employment he has mostly taught English as a foreign language, a stimulating activity though rarely regarded as a profession by the world at large. His PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of finding his way out of working class origins, through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia to England in 1972).

The peculiar interest of god(s) in human morality ©Thor May 2015