Having a sudden rash of deaths in my social circle and family over the past few days has got me thinking. In our western tradition, religions teach that a deity acts as a moral judge. The Christian myth of the Judgment Day after the Apocalypse is probably best-known to most Readers, but God serves as a moral judge in Jewish and Muslim traditions as well. Those who have behaved in a moral fashion during life are rewarded by God with eternal life in paradise and proximity to God; those who have not are punished eternally either by separation from God, denial of an afterlife, or worst of all, an afterlife of torture and suffering.

But this is not universally the case, particularly in religious traditions that are not monotheistic. In pre-Christian polytheistic mythologies, the Gods were not necessarily moral judges or even particularly morally admirable. Rather, the Gods were repositories of power, who used their power, or not, for purposes of their own. Man’s relationship with the Gods was to appease them and seek their favor, much as a supplicant seeks the favor of a king. I’ve read descriptions of the relationship of worshiper to God in classical polytheistic traditions as being essentially contractual in nature — “I will sacrifice to you or worship you, O God, and in exchange you will bring me good fortune within your sphere of influence.” The walls of Pompeii and other classical ruins are littered with graffiti of worshippers asking for favors from the Gods — good fortune, a happy love life, wealth, success in war, safety for a traveler, a curse against an enemy — and promises to the Gods for the same. There are also messages left for posterity of those who did not receive the favor they requested, and cursing the God for withholding the benefit.

And the concept of reward in the afterlife is also something that does not seem to be universal in the history of theological thought on these subjects. The original conept of the afterlife that archeaologists report from ancient Mesopotamia is a dark, dry space underground, where the departed remain forever in what seem like fairly miserable circumstances. One’s moral behavior in life was irrelevant to the grim fate of death. This more or less carries over to the Egyptian and Greek traditions, although those cosmologies suggested that there was a minute chance one might ascend to the heavens and be with the Gods rather than engage in the eternal suffering most people would endure after death. But this was, at most, only partially tied to one’s moral behavior during life and seemed to have much more to do with obtaining the favor of the Gods using the Gods’ calculus of value rather than that of good behavior.

From what I understand, non-European traditions similarly divorce morality from the role of the supernatural. Some traditions, like Confucianism or Buddhism, are generally silent about the existence of a supernatural entity at all. Eastern traditions seem to rely on the concept of karma, which we Westerners equate to the moral behavior of a person affecting the fate of their souls upon reincarnation. I suspect, though, that there are elements other than morality that weigh in to the proper understanding of karma in this tradition — particularly since the reward for good karmic behavior is not an eternity of paradise but rather nirvana, which is more akin to nothingness.

Pre-Columbian religion in the new world I know of even less, but what I have learned seems to resemble the polytheistic traditions of the ancient European world in this respect — the Gods do as they will and the individual who dies faces a grim eternity governed by the whims of the divines rather than the moral worth of one’s deeds while alive.

This isn’t to say that in these other traditions, bad moral behavior was excused — it’s just that morality was not directly relevant to the issue of religion. The Greeks, in particular, devoted a ot of time and thought into understanding and explaining why good moral behavior was inherently important, and beneficial to society, and beneficial to the individual. And we should not forget that what has been considered “moral” behavior has not always been the same over time and across cultures, either. And good moral behavior is, I think, part of the reward-punishment schemes of eastern traditions.

The Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — do make this link, which is powerfully interwoven into our culture. We want bad moral behavior to be punished and good moral behavior to be rewarded, and instinctively seek to mimic that cosmological norm in our material relations to one another. And that is, I have to think, ultimately a good thing because good moral behavior is good. It would be interesting to learn whether other monotheistic traditions — Zoroastrianism, Akhenatanism, Mithraism — similarly link moral behavior during life with an eternal reward/punishment scheme.

As a secular person, I suggest that moral behavior is an inherent good and an inherent reward; to an adult, morality need not be enforced with a carrot-stick approach. I wonder at the linkages that religious people see and why they are necessary from a utilitarian perspective.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.