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Ethics can't be based on belief in God

Most religious systems encompass some sort of belief in one or more deities, possibly with a subsidiary pantheon of demigods. Also, religions almost always include some sort of received wisdom which translates in every day life into an ethical system.

Since this ethics comes from God (or from several such Gods) then it has particular meaning it is literally sacred and must be followed by all believers in that faith. And often these ethical systems are backed by threats of punishment for those who violate them, and promises of reward for those who do not violate them.

Certainly this is true of Christianity, the predominant religion of the United States. The received wisdom is encompassed in the teachings of the Bible, particularly the New Testament, and in its current incarnation most Christians believe that those following the teachings will end up in Heaven and those who seriously violate them will end up in Hell.

But long before Jesus walked the earth, the Greek philosophers had already demonstrated logically that an ethical system could not be based on received wisdom from a deity.

They asked an interesting question: Does an act have an inherent ethical value?

Is an act right because God says it is right, or does God say it is right because it is right? In other words, either (1) the act has no inherent ethical value, but is assigned a value of "right" or "wrong" solely based on an arbitrary edict from God, or (2) God recognizes the inherent value of the act and then passes this on to us as received wisdom.

Whichever of these a Christian (or any other believer in a religion based on deities) chooses leaves him in a bind. If "wrong" acts are not inherently wrong, but only wrong because of God's arbitrary edicts, then the Christian must face the possibility that God could change His mind. God could appear tomorrow, ten miles high, astride Jerusalem and announce in a booming voice that henceforth only murderers and torturers would be permitted into heaven, that slavery was a good thing, that genocide was noble and that anyone who helped a neighbor in need would burn in Hell for all eternity.

It does no good to argue that God would not actually do this; who are you to say what God will do? If acts have no inherent ethical value, God could do this, and instantly turn every concept of right and wrong upside down.

Most Christians reject this possibility prima facie. But that leaves them with the other alternative, which is that the ethical value of the act exists independently of God's declaration of it. God is not the source of the ethical value of the act, but only a convenient conduit by which we learn of that ethical value.

This gives us the ethical permanence we desire, but at the expense of removing God's role in it. For since the ethical value of the act exists independent of God's declaration, then it would exist even if there were no God at all.

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