Is something pious because it is loved by the gods -- or do the gods love all that is pious? This is the central question asked in Plato's dialogue the Euthyphro (Ross 2012). The dialogue revolves around a young man who has elected to bring charges against his father for killing a slave. To complicate matters still further, the slave was accused of murder himself before he was killed. The question is never answered in the dialogue, but this raises the question: if something is only moral because the gods approve of it, what if there is no God? Is there then no morality?
Socrates seems to suggest that morality is intrinsic to actions themselves, given his largely deflationary view of traditional myths of the Greek gods. This is one of the reasons that he was charged with impiety under Athenian law. Socrates also points out that what he sees as Euthyphro's excessive loyalty to objective codes of ethics is itself against Athenian codes of law, because sons and fathers are not obligated to bring charges against one another. He sees Euthyphro as excessively pious, to the point of absurdity, and further tries to demonstrate to the young man that Euthyphro does not really know what piety means. "It is more disturbing to Socrates, [that Euthyphro bring charges] because the basic unit of Greek religion is the home and the household...The father of the family is thus the family priest" (Ross 2012).
Socrates' view that what is loved by the gods is not necessarily moral is supported by his analysis of the often fractious behavior of the Greek Olympians, particularly the philandering Zeus, and Zeus' father Kronos, who tried to kill his own children. Clearly, if the gods behaved in such a manner they must 'love' things which no reasonable person would consider pious and which are prohibited by Athenian law. Imitating the gods does not make one moral. The polytheism of Socrates' society supports his argument to some degree, because he can point out that the gods often disagree amongst themselves as to what is right. The fact that the gods act immorally suggests that it is not necessary for someone to have a belief in them to be a moral being.
A modern reader might note the fact that slavery is considered acceptable in ancient Greece, and the fact that Socrates and most Athenians are unconcerned that Euthyphro's father treats a slave like a piece of property underlines how the existence of the belief in gods does not necessarily result in what we would consider moral behavior and compassion in a universal, trans-historical fashion. The discrepancy between even Socrates' views and our own as to what is moral and what constitutes a human person, and whether one's primary obligations are due to humanity or the family also shows the mutable nature of belief in deities. Even if belief in gods and/or Gods is maintained throughout the ages, the schema of morality that the divine is supposed to endorse varies widely from nation to nation and age to age. This suggests that a belief in God is not necessary for people to be moral because what is thought of as godlike is constantly changing.
Within our own Judeo-Christian schema of morality, many people have pointed out with anger at the fact that God has apparently 'allowed' immoral things to happen like the Holocaust, while we would not consider standing by as an innocent bystander while atrocities occur to be 'correct.' In other words, if God is omnipotent, why does not he act with the same goodness that we would expect of ourselves? This again suggests that a belief in God is not necessary for someone to behave according to a secular, moral code of justice.
Considering whether actions are moral in and of themselves without mandating that people adhere to a uniform religious code would seem to be the only way to create a system of morality that is applicable to all persons within a society where there may be profound disagreements about what is godly. This is the attitude that the United States has taken in its creation of a society in which there is freedom of religion and no state religion, implicitly endorsing the view that what is godly is not necessarily good -- partially because there are…