Here's a thought-provoking passage from Plato's "Euthyphro" that you can throw into your next coffeehouse conversation about the meaning of life (you do have them, don't you?). Socrates says:
The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.
This is the Euthyphro dilemma. I ran across it for the first time while reading "The Top 10 Myths About Evolution." The authors, Cameron M. Smith and Charles Sullivan, were making the point that morality is a natural inclination of humans, not something imposed by divine command.
It's sort of difficult for me to fathom which side of the Euthyphro dilemma Plato comes down on. Guess that's why it's called a dialogue rather than a monologue.
But wiser minds than mine (namely, the collective wisdom of Wikipedia) say that Socrates demonstrates the absurdity of holding that something is good because it is beloved by God (or all the gods, if you're a polytheist). As Smith and Sullivan say:
The problem with this view is that whether an action is wrong (or right) becomes completely arbitrary. God could have said that killing and stealing are morally right, and then those actions would be morally right.
Of course, this whole question of whether God loves what is already holy, or makes it holy by loving it, presumes that a God exists. To my mind that resolves the Euthyphro dilemma right off the bat, since there's no evidence of God. Case closed by virtue of irrelevancy.
However, supposed God substitutes do exist. Gurus, priests, clergy, imams, and other religious authorities claim that they know what God wants us to do. Holy books, the same.
So it's worth considering whether Socrates gets the better of the argument. I think he does. The notion that whatever God (or his stand in) wants is okay to do makes morality a matter of divine whim. It leads to crazed fundamentalists flying planes into buildings and devotees drinking poison-laced Kool-Aid.
In my case, it led me to not drink even a drop of alcohol (aside from a single lapse at a high school reunion) for more than thirty years. The guru who initiated me back in 1971 prohibited the imbibing of alcoholic beverages. So I took the non-Socratic route, viewing this command as worthy of being obeyed not because it made moral sense, but because it had been commanded.
With more than a little chagrin, I remember going to an artsy function during my fully devoted days and running into a fellow Radha Soami Satsang Beas initiate. He was holding a wine glass in his hand. I looked at him as if he were wearing the Devil's horns.
Not outwardly—I understood the need to maintain an air of detached "Hi, nice to see you." But inwardly I thought, "Oh my, another fallen soul."
And now I am one, having just taken a sip of my nearly-nightly glass of red wine, which I've concluded confers enough antioxidant and coronary benefits to warrant breaking my 1971 vow of abstinence (along with my first wife, I've also broken our 1970 vow of "till death do us part"; moral conceptions change, along with marriage partners).
Looking back, what surprises me is how fully I bought into Euthyphro's flawed view of piety:
Piety, then, is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them.
Socrates points out this would mean that the gods get some benefit from certain actions or beliefs. They are made more "dear" by piety and seemingly disturbed by impiety. But if a god (or guru) is perfect, how could this being be affected by what someone does or doesn't do?
I used to believe that I'd let my guru down if I had a sip of wine, or failed to put in every minute of the time that I was supposed to devote to meditation every day. I should have read "Euthyphro" earlier (though it wouldn't have made an impression on me during my fundamentalist period).
Now I resonate with the scientifically-minded Smith and Sullivan. Morality isn't imposed from outside. It springs from within.
We're left with morality being independent of God in the same way that arithmetic and logic are independent of God…But notice that, because morality is independent of God, we can recognize the same reasons for not killing and not stealing that God recognizes [again, assuming that God exists], although our thinking is certainly slower.
We recognize the irreversible harm caused by killing as a reason not to kill, and we recognize the unfairness of stealing as a reason not to steal.
Because morality is independent of God, both the believer and the nonbeliever are in the same boat when it comes to making moral choices. So we can see that one does not have to believe in God in order to be a genuinely moral person.