Recently I read Plato's Euthyphro. It was really interesting as it involved a discussion of piety from a "pagan" perspective. Plato and Socrates had a rather different view of the gods than most of their contemporaries, and it shows in this dialogue, as well as in others such as the Republic. His main complaint tends to be that the gods as represented in Homer and other popular works seem too human, and too petty, to be an accurate portrayal of those who are in charge of the world. They never seem to agree on anything, they fight all the time, and the heavens tend to play out like a big soap opera between very powerful individuals.
This view of the gods provides the fodder for Socrates in his sparring match with Euthyphro, and from this dialogue we end up getting one of the most enduring questions in the philosophy of religion... usually called the Euthyphro dilemma. There are many interesting aspects of this dialogue alongside that dilemma, however, and I want to dwell on some of them because this really is a very cool piece of literature.
In talking about piety, Socrates and Euthyphro cover a lot of ground on the nature of gods, and our relationship to them. Many of those things continued to be questions, even into the age of monotheism. The main question that the characters are trying to answer here is "What is Piety?" We will keep coming back to this, because this question allows Plato to tease out a lot of the stranger implications of the popular view of the gods, and in looking at it, we can ask some similar questions about our view of God today.
One of the things they talk about relates to what we can give to the gods.
After Euthyphro describes piety as a kind of business between the gods and men, with gods bestowing good fortune and men giving sacrifices and other pious acts. Socrates presses the issue, asking if the gods need anything that men can provide them. It is admitted that they do not, where-by it is remarked that men certainly get the better end of that deal!
This is an issue that underlies many questions about our relationship with the god(s) even today. Most religions hold god or gods to be perfect, lacking in nothing. Yet they also maintain that certain acts (piety) somehow enhance the God(s) or please them. These 2 ideas have a tension between them, usually resolved by saying something like "God doesn't gain anything by our worship, but he likes it anyways."
A similar problem comes up when we think about prayer. If God is unchanging and knows everything, including our thoughts, what can petitionary prayer do for us? God already knows what we are going to say, and he knows how he is going to answer it. Our petitionary prayers should be totally irrelevant to the equation, yet petitionary prayer is an integral part of almost every religion. It must serve some other purpose, but what could that be? This particular issue wasn't really as big of a problem for the Greeks, because the gods were capricious, and changed their minds often. Plato felt that wasn't a properly respectful view of the Gods, as it led to believing some very odd things.
One thing, and we are leading towards the heart of the matter now, is that this capriciousness made piety so hard to pin down. If it involves being pleasing to the gods, which ones are you to please? They all have different opinions on what they want you to do for them. In this light, an act can be both pious and impious, depending on which god is watching. This won't do at all. In trying to nail down piety, it keeps slipping away. How are we to please the gods if we don't know what they want from us?
Socrates and Euthyphro want to move forward, so they decide to just look at the areas where all Gods agree, that way the previous problem seems to go away. Unfortunately, they are faced with an even bigger problem, and this is the dilemma I alluded to earlier.
For the sake of continuing the conversation, they agree that piety is doing the things that please all the gods. Here they run into some trouble. Pious acts have to please the gods for some reason. So the fact that the act is pleasing to the gods can't in and of itself be what makes the act pious. It runs things right into a chicken and egg sort of problem. Is an act pious because it pleases the gods, or does it please the gods because it is pious? If an act is pious because it is pleasing to the gods, it's just talking in circles. It's pleasing because they're pleased by it! Unfortunately, we can't derive the cause out of the effect like that, so we have to look for some different reason that the gods are pleased by pious acts.
Plato felt that abstract concepts had existence in and of themselves (he called them the "forms"). Ths is a huge part of his philosophy, and too complicated to cover in this one blog post. Needless to say, it was in the forms that he found the answer to the dilemma. An act was pious because of its intrinsic value that the gods recognized, not just because it was recognized by the gods as pious. Euthyphro's problem was simply that he couldn't give a good definition of piety, so he had to rely on the god pleasing aspect of the act instead of seeking out the source of its value. The dilemma is solved, though we never do get to the heart of what piety is by the end of the dialogue. Euthyphro runs off so he won't have to answer any more questions.
Once the montheistic viewpoint comes in, this dilemma takes on new significance in a slightly different form. It involves the basis of morality,as it pertains to God. The reworded dilemma is as follows: Is something considered good because God wills it, or does God will it because it is good? This shows up because God, in most traditional monotheistic religions, is said to be all powerful, the creator of everything, and omnibenevolent (perfectly "good"). Whichever option you choose seems to put one or more of those attributes into question.
If you say that God wills something because it is good, this is somewhat problematic. It seems like it puts a limit of God's freedom, in that he is limited in what morally significant acts he can perform by some external standard of good. God cannot perform an immoral act, because he is all good. But then he is constrained to act a certain way in any given situation, and cannot choose between all the options available to him.
In this scenario, God is also no longer the creator of everything. It is clear that if God calls something good based on an objective standard of goodness, he did not create that standard. There is something else that exists eternally and necessarily alongside God.
Thirdly, it limits his omnipotence. By being something that is true and completely outside of God, it creates a whole set of actions that God is unable to accomplish. If God wants to make something morally obligatory (good) for us, and that something is objectively bad, God cannot change that. He is powerless to alter what is good, if there is an independent standard of goodness, as this path suggests.
For many theists, it also creates a difficulty in that morality isn't dependent on God to be binding. This undercuts the "Moral Argument for God". This is the argument of the form "Without God there can be no moral standards. There are moral standards. Therefore, God exists." Personally, I find this argument to be problematic for a number of reasons. With this horn of the dilemma, however, the argument can't even be made at all, for it asserts that the first premise is false.
Now, to avoid all this, let us suppose that something is good on the basis that God calls it good. We run into some big problems here as well. Firstly, it means that morality is completely arbitrary. If God's will is the ultimate source of morality, there isn't any further reason that something is defined as moral. We tend to view God as inherently reasonable, and this viewpoint says that in this instance, he is simply acting on a whim, for as soon as we say he has reasons for declaring something moral, it is those reasons that ground morality, and not God's will.
This leads to a rather unfortunate conclusion. God's "omnibenevolence" thus becomes a tautology, vacuous of meaning. "God is good" reduces to "God decides what good means" and we can gain no comfort from the omnibenevolence of God. No matter what God does, he can't be considered "bad" under these circumstances.
The practical implications of this are troubling, and unfortunately carried out far too regularly. If God's will is the sole determination of what is good, as this path suggests, then anything is allowable in the name of following God. The murder of abortion doctors, suicide bombings, and the genocide of the Canaanites have all been justified by an appeal to the will of God. The only thing you have to be sure of is that you are doing it for the "right" God, and then it becomes acceptable to do what would otherwise be deplorable.
There is also a logical issue with this path. It rests in the fact that God's will can determine how we should act only if it is morally obligatory to follow God's will. This obligation can't be based in God's command, because if it is, then we are going in a circle. To put it explicitly, "We have to do what God tells us to because God tells us to!" God's authority has to be based in something other than itself in order to be universally morally binding.
There have been quite a few responses to the dilemma, but I think it is still one of the toughest questions in the philosophy of religion. Theologians can be found who support one or the other of the two options, and others try to determine a way to avoid it completely. I think it's pretty cool to see how something written 2400 years ago can still be surprisingly relevant today.