The Evolution of Ethics: As Revealed In The Great Religions by E. Hershey Sneath, Ph.D, L.L.D.

Reviewed by LJ Frank


My perspective – the 1927 hardcopy. Having physically lived in parts of the Bible Belt (southern USA) for over 20 years, (bookended by decades elsewhere around the world), my intellectual and spiritual existence by necessity lay elsewhere. I found this old tomb alone, existing like a monk in a cloister covered with dust and lodged behind a copy of Escape from Freedom, a biography of Søren Kierkegaard and Writings of Nietzsche.

 Sneath’s work was researched and written during the mid-1920’s and a couple years before the onslaught of the Great Depression. The era was filled with the cacophony of a world in turmoil and cheer, and a place where Gandhi was reaching out to fellow countrymen in India while a few preachers were sliding down church aisles on their knees preaching the Holy Spirit in America. It was a tumultuous, spirited, and complex time.

Context. Life always exists within a context and the author had a fondness for wisdom seeking, and the ultimate questions surrounding progress, morality, and the fingerprints of the previous decade – the Social Gospel seemed to be in the back of his mind. And yet…

The book is a thoughtful perusal of ethics by various religious scholars of the day as they attempted to reveal the historical architecture of ethics – its definition, characteristics, nature, and benefit to Mankind. In a manner of speaking, it is a study of the human conscience as revealed through the world’s great religions, beginning with Egyptians, Babylonian and Assyrian Religions, Hindu Ethics, the Ethics of Zoroastrianism, Early Hebrew Ethics, Hebrew Prophets, Greek Religion, Pauline Epistles, Moslem Ethics, and finally the Moral Values of Religion.

Whether a particular religion has or not, an organized system of ethics with associated rituals, there exists a focus on the values of goodness, justice, and truth as opposed to evil, falsehoods, wickedness, and injustice…these are a few examples explored.

The challenge for any discussion of religion is perhaps who is defining what? Values change over time. Adaptation to a changing culture affected by technologies and new paradigms affect lifestyles. In order to be relevant religious values are required to adapt. The authors allude to changes over time within the diverse contexts of a given religion…talking about war, violence and so forth (the realities of their day)…with an almost nostalgic look at values in transition. 

It’s an interesting historical glimpse in that it’s not about people who use their version of belief to strictly indoctrinate others…truth is found in the values that the religion fosters…ethics is viewed as philosophical and psychological.  In different words, the strength of a religion is in the values that it expresses and follows and not the dogma expounded to indoctrinate others. Ritual is a substantial part of the process. To accuse others of indoctrination while stating you are free of indoctrination while engaged in it, is disingenuous. Values of conscience don’t work that way. Neither does the succinct truth which is based on an actuality.

The scholars show the challenges the religions face as viewed through their findings. Ethics is a complicated subject and they know it and talk about the phenomena of ethics and as Sneath suggests – what would the world of values be without some form of religion as a foundation. The foundation of our value system appears to be rooted within religions (belief in God) according to him. 

Buddhism is not a religion but a philosophy and its values are not covered here.

The questions looming in Sneath’s mind is why the association between religion and values if not for the (inspired) conscience of man and the idea of God? He doesn’t ask how and why the idea originated but rather accepts that “God” exists and is a fount to the great religions’ value. (See Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will, for insights into a theologian’s quest for deeper meaning.)

This work seeks a rational look through various religious scholars’ eyes of the day, the manipulations of man and the devices he employs to get his way. That includes, his ethics or lack of ethics in dealing with his neighbors…and the flaws of mankind while showing through example the human attempt from ancient times forward to be more ‘just” while wrestling with his conscience.  Love thy neighbor has always been troubling when the values of fairness and giving with nothing expected in return are missing.

Though covering good and evil, the authors do not deal in depth the influence of magic. But this is not an anthropological text, rather it leans toward the philosophical and psychological. It’s to be read within the context in which it is written. It’s still retains a value to the reader.

The theme of ethics is relevant in an age filled with “post truth”. Falsehoods have always existed. The question is whether the individual is capable of being self-honest with the plethora of lies, injustices, and associated unfairness and evil surrounding him, without a spiritual foundation.  

 Sneath reverts back to Christianity for his values and speaks to the evolution of ethics rooted in religion/God and the ethics that are paramount to the progress of the human species – do unto others what you would have them do unto you.