Scholars know of no culture, past or present, that does not have a system of morality. Even though moral standards may vary from one culture to another, or even within a particular culture, every culture distinguishes “what is” from “what ought to be.” It is impossible for a culture either to rise above morality or to get out from under it.

Second, the moral diversity we have all heard so much about is in fact vastly exaggerated. In particular, the major religions of the world, which represent the vast majority of humans on the planet, disagree quite a bit about God but agree quite a bit about morality. All the major religions have some form of the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them to do unto you. In 1993 theologian Hans Ming assembled a “parliament” of leading representatives of the world’s religions, including Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. The group issued a declaration of common beliefs, including a wide range of moral values that are held across religious boundaries.

This moral unanimity is not confined to monotheistic or even religious cultures. The Greeks and Romans shared many of the moral teachings of Judaism and Christianity, even though Athens and Rome were once polytheistic empires. Confucius in his Analects articulates precepts of the same kind, even though his was a moral code devoid of any substantial theology. Anthropologists have discovered many of the same moral principles even among cultures that are animistic or have no formal religious beliefs at all. In the early twentieth century, scholars like Margaret Mead and others went to faraway places and breathlessly reported, “Gee, they don’t do things the same way over here.” But this scholarship has been substantially revised in the light of later, more careful studies.