Where Did the Notion the Gods Care About Our Morals Come From?

I am of the tentative opinion the notion the gods care about our morals was invented by our ancestors precisely 15 minutes after they elevated from among themselves the world's first priest:
ANCESTORS: "Now that we have made you the highest among us, the intermediary between us and our gods, O Priest, tell us what me must do."

PRIEST: "You must sharpen your pointy sticks for we must soon war upon the nation of the Amourites, because men with men and women with women of that nation have fornicated with each other."

ANCESTORS [embarrassed]:  "Ummm...are you sure it's wrong for same sex couples to fornicate with each other?  I mean, we ourselves have been....."

PRIEST: "Of course it's wrong!"

ANCESTORS: "But why?  Why is it wrong?"

PRIEST: "Well, I don't actually...[suddenly has an idea]...Wait! It's because the gods forbid us to fornicate with the same sex.  Yes!  That's it!  Because the gods forbid it!"
From such humble beginnings, the notion the gods are keenly interested in our morals eventually spread  to all the nooks and niches of the earth so that, today, it is second nature for us to believe that every religion goes hand in hand with its own moral code.

Joking aside, though, I think there might be a relationship between priests (or a priestly class) and the notion the gods are concerned with our morals.

Based on my very limited knowledge, I cannot think of a society in which the notion is prevalent that does not have priests.  Although, I can think of at least one society in which I suspect the notion is either quite weak, or simply does not exist, and yet there are priests (Japan).

Moreover, as Jared Diamond somewhere points out, the New Guinea highlanders -- like many other tribal peoples -- do not think of their gods as beings interested in human morals. That is, the notion is not intrinsic to religion, and you can, and do, have religions without it.

So, do you think there might be a relationship of some sort between a presence of priests and the notion the gods are concerned with our morals?  Why or why not?


  1. Excellent topic, Paul! It's a challenging one for sure.

    I'm reading The History of the Devil... by another Paul, Paul Carus, right now. (Available for free at the Internet Sacred Text Archive) He is one of the scholars in the camp that most, if not all, religions spawned from worshiping/appeasing evil, be it an evil deity or evil spirit, for their own protection. Later these religions evolved into worship of a good deity with time.

    If this is the case, then, certainly there would be priests present who were not concerned with morals in the beginning.

    As you may know, your reference to Japan is probably a reference to Shinto-infused Buddhism. From my studies thus far, which is a fairly novice level, Buddhism requires you yourself to fully establish the high moral standard (though there are many written guidelines), and priests (monks) are just there to increase your good karma (that's a tiny lie, but it seems to be the principle for building temples and supporting the monks). The more you give to monks, the more you may be blessed in the life to come.

    I think the answer to your ultimate question may be very tightly connected to the establishment of a deity being "good," or at least "fair/just." When you make such an assertion, then you are tied into coming up with a definition for good or justice, and reflecting that in rules.

    I have no doubts in my mind that some of the rules in the Old Testament were born out of a priest's personal pet peeves, as opposed to deep philosophical reasoning on what is truly good behavior, similar to the scenario you describe

  2. I don't know how the Gods -> morals connection arose, but you're right that it's not universal.

    My brother (who is a historian) told me that according to the belief systems of the pre-Christian religions of Europe, the gods were concerned with sacrifices and with some other rituals, but not with people's day-to-day behavior.

  3. I'm not sure on this one, Paul. The idea of taking one's own moral values and enlarging them, attributing them to God or to some universal principle, seems to me such a natural impulse. Maybe it is tied to the emergence of a priestly caste, but I'm not sure that would be my first intuition.

    Even when I think of Plato transforming 'good' (e.g., a good toga?) into 'The Good', or beautiful into 'The Beautiful' - envisioning something that exists as a universal property, hovering above-- even there is a smattering of the tendency to enlarge things from the particular to the universal. So, enlarging personal values to universal ones - with or without theism - seems to me a natural human tendency (not to say that it's a good tendency).

  4. Interesting question. I bet there is some connection to the move to theism from polytheism. The gods of nature seemed to be quite capricious according to mythology. Having one creator God who created man and his environment for a specific purpose (as with the Jews, to be a chosen people and conduit for blessings to everyone) seems be a reasonable basis for obedience to God's will, or doing "right" according to that God. Just a thought.

  5. Interesting question. I had assumed that historically cared about morals because of humanity's tendency to project their version of fairness onto something greater.

  6. I think the answer is multifaceted. First, the belief that God approves of designated "correct" behavior could be a practical tool to maintain order in society. If people believe that God's wrath will befall them if they wantonly murder, steal, etc., the belief may act as a deterrent to socially destabilizing behavior. More cynically, however, I think the belief reinforces the power of religious authorities, and as Wise Fool speculated, outlaws behaviors that annoy the religious authorities.

  7. What self-respecting God WOULDN'T care about mortal's morals? That would be like a dentist not telling you to brush your teeth. Dentists care about mortal's molars. God cares about mortal's morals. *laughs at own joke*

  8. @The Wise Fool: Carus's idea that religion began to appease evil is intriguing. I can think of some support for it.

    But I'm not sure there were such creatures as priests much before the Sumerians. Shamans, witch doctors, and so forth, certainly. But priests?

    A priest -- as opposed to, say, a shaman, or even a monk -- claims to monopolize the role of intermediary between the people and their gods. That seems to be a role that comes about only with the rise of hereditary hierarchical societies.

    Because the Sumerians have good gods, they represent a later stage of development than the folks who are only concerned with appeasing evil.

    Are you going to blog about Carus? If so, I don't want to miss it.

  9. @ C.L. Hanson: That's good to know! It collaborates what Jared Diamond has reported.

  10. @ Jon: You could be right. We'd need to know a lot more than I myself know before we could come up with a way to test the notion.

  11. Interesting thought, Doug! On a few occasions, I've read of Greek thinkers who believed the gods were interested in human morals. But those thinkers usually -- I seem to recall, always -- spoke of god in the singular when they said the god was interested in human morals. You see, some Greeks thought the gods were merely popular ways of conceptualizing a one true god who was beyond description.

  12. Paul, what's been amazing about Carus's book is that it was written in 1900(!) with a perspective you might expect from a modern skeptic, thinking that the demise of was imminent because of the clear evidence that had been discovered showing how Judaism and Christianity had evolved from earlier religions. Ha!

    I hadn't thought about blogging about it, other than a couple of its concepts, but now that you mention it, I may have to give it some more thought.

    The thought is that it wasn't the good gods that were causing disasters, illness, etc. It was the evil ones. So if you could make the evil god happy, he wouldn't make your children die young, or locusts eat your crops, etc.

    I imagine the role of priest or super-shaman coming from coincidental observation. Say locusts came and devoured everyone's crops except this one guy (who, unbeknown to the village, had land which was protected due to naturally occurring, localized high winds in the crotch of the valley where he had settled). The villagers recognize that he was spared, and, therefore, he must know how to better appease the evil spirit than anyone else. Subsequently, in desperation, they petition him to become the evil god liaison for the entire village, and a priest is born.

    It may not have even been that drastic. Perhaps one man's crops always did better because of the fertility of his plot, or one man's livestock always survived disease better because where they grazed they had more nutrition. But with these logical causes hidden from them, superstition ruled the day.

  13. @ The Wise Fool: 1900!!! That guy was ahead of his time. One reason your remarks about Carus have my attention is because of some more or less recent developments in the evolution of religion that would seem to support what he is saying.

    There is now an hypothesis -- you might be familiar with it -- that religion is rooted in cognitive modules or processes, such as Agent Detection. We experience Agent Detection when some sudden disturbance nearby us (the rustle of some branches, etc.) causes us to assume the disturbance was caused by a malevolent Agent (such as a tiger or ghost). That would jive with Carus: The Agent is almost always assumed to be a threat to us.

  14. @ Donna Banta: Of course, I don't know whether that's the origin of the notion that the gods care about our morals, but I would swear to the deities themselves that you have hit upon one of the main reasons people accept the idea. Even a non-theist like myself sometimes wishes there were deities to make things fair and just.

  15. @ Ahab: I think that's a sharp insight that the origin of the notion might be multifaceted. When I think about it, it becomes difficult to believe otherwise - given everything we know about human nature and our tendency to have multiple motives for doing things.

  16. @ Garnet: I love your pun! :D I agree that it's hard to think of our most popular contemporary deities as indifferent to human morals. What would the god of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam be if He was not concerned with morals? I can't imagine it!

  17. I think that it is religion's tendency to say that god/s is/are concerned with human morality, but that there are exceptions to the rule, just like all others. Similarly, religion tends to be concerned with god/s, though there are certainly nontheistic religions (ie: Buddhism). Here I am referring to Durkheim again, but I think that people in general, as your "skit" displays, project their own values, whether good or bad, onto their God and justify their own biases and cultures through their religion. I think early cultures, in developing divinity to explain the unexplained, projected values onto their deities, because if there is indeed a giant powerful being in the sky with the power to create and destroy, then people wan to believe (quite desperately) that their god's values are in line with their own so that they are not destroyed. As things progress and gods become more and more moralized, their concerns become more and more trivial (don't eat shellfish or have gay sex).

  18. Jellybean, I completely agree with you that humans project their own values onto others -- very much including their deities. The ancient Greek gods, for instance, behaved much like the ancient Greeks. I am still unconvinced, however, that the most ancient cultures thought of their gods as concerned with human morals. That is, they may have given their gods human morals without at the same time believing their gods cared about the morality of human actions. But then, I know so little about it.

  19. I think you're right that in ancient cultures, they did not. Most ancient cultures tried desperately to appeal to the gods to make them care. I think somewhere along the line, though, the gods not only behaved like humans, but started to care about things that humans cared about. When appeals to the gods for [rain/sun/success in war/whatever] failed, people assumed it was because the gods were not happy with them for whatever reason and then created those reasons based on their own biases.

    That said, if I recall correctly from my studies, around the turn of the common era (the "axial age"), many world religions turned from primarily sacrificial in practice to concerned with humanity internally (Hinduism moved away from Vedic practice, Christianity was born out of Judaism, Islam began to develop, Buddhism was born). It's hard to explain that paradigm shift. Perhaps I don't know enough about world history, but it seemed a fairly universal change in religion in a (relatively) short span of time. [Insert argument for universal God here... or something.]

  20. From what little I know, I think you're are spot on about the "axial age", Jellybean. Things were happening then in Greece, India, the Levant, and China that are still vital to us today. In the roughly 500 or so year period from a bit before Buddha to Christ, you see the birth of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity, Greek tragedy and philosophy, Zoroasterism, etc, etc. An amazing age!

  21. I had long thought the less sophisticated term "superstition" served as the spark for religion, so when I had first heard the concept of Agent Detection, I was sold on the brochure!

    But sometimes I am a little slow at making connections, and now that you mention it, it all seems to come together quite well as I ponder it again...

    The "good" stuff of life is pretty common-place. The sun keeps us warm, streams and springs provide continuous water, sex is awesome, plants produce fruit with little to no influence from us, and rains normally come (at least to areas where rains do normally come. With the "good" being essentially a given, it takes considerable contemplation to detect an Agent in that.

    The "evil" stuff, on the other hand, happens for no apparent reason and at random, interrupting the given. With the detriment that can come from drought, famine, plague, disease, lightening strikes, volcanic eruptions, infant mortality, etc., follows desperation, and the natural question "why?" The minds back then, no more primitive than our own, would wrestle with this question mercilessly, as the answer was key to their survival. Any hint of a precursor or related action to the disaster would be detected as a Agent. Because none of these disasters would be "good," the Agent who caused them could not be good, but rather evil, or, at the very least, mischievous.

    So I think it becomes quite logical that evil spirits or gods were worshiped/appeased first. This would not be "evil" in the Biblical sense, but just supernatural beings who mistreat humans.

    Perhaps the moral matters of humans came into concern when traditional appeasement methods failed and there was a notable injustice which occurred prior to a disaster or a notably wicked man had disaster befall him alone?


Comments Welcome -- but no flaming. If you wish, you can email me at paul_sunstone@q.com