Adherents of Christianity, Judaism and Islam habitually declare that their God is essential for the practice of ethics, but this belief is entirely without justification. To the contrary, I would argue the Abrahamic God does not, indeed cannot, function as a coherent source for the understanding of ethical thought and behavior. God’s words and actions in the Bible (not to mention the Koran) make it abundantly clear why this should be the case. While in one instance (Ex. 20:13, 15) he tells us not to kill or steal, in others (e.g. Josh 5-13, Deut. 7 et al) he urges a genocidal war in which murder and theft (and presumably rape) are all well and fine. Once he gets down to lawmaking his “ethical” character is further muddled in sections of Deuteronomy and Leviticus where stoning (Lev. 24:16, Deut. 17:2-7, Deut. 22:23-24 et al), slaughtering and burning animals (Lev. 1:1 ff et al) to “make a pleasing odor” (Lev. 4:31), and slavery (Ex.21:1-4, Deut. 15:12-18, Lev. 25:44-46 et al) are all deemed acceptable—even virtuous—practices. He himself is the author of global devastation (the Flood), the destruction of cities (Sodom, Gomorrah, Jericho etc), the whimsical killing of people for the most trivial offenses (Onan’s death because he refused to impregnate his sister-in-law, Gen. 38:9-10), and the cruel manipulation of innocent bystanders (the Abraham-Isaac incident and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart).
And it does not get better in the New Testament. If Jesus claimed to be Yahweh, then he claimed responsibility for His atrocities. Moreover, Jesus’ behavior is at times a little less than saintly. He indulges in fits of rage (the scene with the money changers), needlessly blasts harmless vegetation (the fig tree in Matt. 21:18-19 and Mk. 11:13-14, 20), and speaks anathema against anyone who doesn’t believe in him (Matt. 10:33, 13:40-42, John 15:6 et al). Also, though Jesus himself does not speak directly to this issue, the position of the epistles on slavery is clear: it is a perfectly fine institution, so long as it is not accompanied by indiscriminate abuse (Eph. 6:5-9, Col. 4:1, I Tim. 6:1-3 et al). Yet by the seventeenth century many in Europe at least were beginning to recognize slavery for the abomination it is, and by the eighteenth century nations began outlawing it—Russia in 1723, Scotland in 1778, Massachusetts in 1783, Spain in 1811, etc etc. The United States—the so-called “land of the free”—was a real laggard in this regard. (The supreme irony is that in any argument between abolitionists and supporters of slavery, the supporters always cited the Bible in their defense.) Thus in clear defiance of the Biblical deity’s mandates, men and women made the rational, moral choice to abolish this odious institution. Finally, if we take Christianity at its face value, we are forced to conclude that the majority of human beings who have lived in the past 2000 years will suffer eternity in hell—all because they didn’t believe a first century Galilean carpenter was actually the creator of the universe in disguise. This monstrous act, perpetrated on account of such triviality, is the grossest evil of the Biblical god, easily surpassing the accumulated horrors of the Old Testament. I could go on ad nauseam, but it would be a waste of my time and yours.
(Of course, Christians are fond of saying that God does not condemn anyone; they condemn themselves by choosing to reject Jesus—a disingenuous and coldhearted retort if ever there was one. The fact is, there cannot be any such thing as “choice” as ordinarily understood when you are dealing with an omniscient and omnipotent being. If God knows the future—and if he does not he is not omniscient and ipso facto not omnipotent—then nothing I do is a matter of choice for it has already “happened” in his foreknowledge. An action perfectly foreseen does not admit of choice, however it might seem to me. Thus God knew, the moment he conceived the idea of Creation, that he would be condemning countless beings to endless, not to mention pointless, suffering. He chose to create a world he knew would be filled with misery, and he chose to compound this misfortune with an arbitrary system of justice where everyone comes out losing and the only option for any of us is a “choice” (the outcome of which he knew in advance, à la predestination) that is really no choice at all. In other words, the assumption of God’s omniscience and omnipotence is entirely incompatible not only with any notion of human freedom, but also with the supposition that He is good. If we take for granted the Christian characterization of his powers, God must be held responsible for everything that happens to everyone.)
What I hope to have indicated above is that if you take the Biblical/Koranic God as your ethical model, then sometimes you will behave virtuously and sometimes not. Sometimes you will refrain from raping, pillaging, and murdering and sometimes you won’t. Sometimes suffering and injustice will horrify you, and sometimes you will rejoice over the most appalling circumstances—as our Pilgrim Fathers did when they gave thanks to God for having sent plagues to wipe out the Indians, thereby allowing them to colonize the land unhindered by troublesome aborigines. (The plague was smallpox, brought to the New World by European settlers.) This extraordinarily arbitrary and self-interested approach to ethics is inevitable if someone appeals to the whimsies of a personal god for their notions of right and wrong.
(A contemporary example of this self-righteous, amoral groupthink is the widespread support by evangelicals for Israeli West Bank settlers and Israel in general. Among the many moral crises this world faces, the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is one of the clearest cut. A census in 1890 indicated there were fewer than 10,000 Jews living in what was then called Palestine. Now there are five million plus. How is this possible? Simple: colonization—by European Zionists in the early 20th century—and ethnic cleansing—as a systematic state policy by Israel. Palestinians, who had been living there for thousands of years, were forcibly evicted from their homes and deprived of their livelihoods. Thousands still live in refugee camps. And why has this happened? Because a magical holy book says that 3,200 years ago the Supreme Creator of the Universe, in his capacity as galactic real estate broker, decided a semi-arid sliver of land should be the divine right of a bunch of pastoralist nomads and their descendants until the end of time. Millions have died and suffered and continue to do so—all on account of this folly. On a moral level, this is not far removed from what the Europeans and the United States did to Native Americans, minus the genocide.)
But what if God tells a person to love their neighbor, to give to the poor, and to turn the other cheek? And what if he or she does it? Certainly they will be considered moral, perhaps even saintly. And that is all well and good; it would be wonderful if more people followed such advice. But I wonder: does such a person understand the purpose of ethics any better than, say, a puppy understands why its master wants it to sit, fetch or play dead? I think not. Ultimately, “doing God’s will” is a substitute for thinking and comprehension; it is simple obedience. The person of faith may enthusiastically fulfill the commandments or do so grudgingly. Either way, they will be fulfilled, but not because the person comprehends the purpose of ethical behavior. As a final point in this regard, I would strongly urge readers to view a talk by Sam Harris at the 2010 TED conference. Twenty-three minutes of your time could hardly be better spent.
What then is the purpose of ethical behavior? The Buddha discusses this specific question innumerable times throughout the suttas. In brief, one adopts sila (ethical precepts) specifically for the purpose of eliminating mental, verbal and physical actions that give rise to negative mental states, relationships and consequences that hinder mental culture (bhavana). Also, we try to behave generously, graciously, and compassionately because such modes of deportment foster good mental states both within ourselves and others. In other words, depending on what we think, say and do we have the power to increase or decrease suffering in ourselves and others. Since the Buddha’s teaching is concerned entirely with the elimination of suffering (i.e. existential angst), ethical behavior is the bedrock upon which everything else must be built. Without it, the attainment of higher states leading to nibbana is out of the question.