Monotheists? Not more moral.

Intro: Monotheism v. polytheism

Rather recently, I heard a young rabbi, a friend of mine, discussing monotheism with one of his Talmud students. She had been troubled by the line of religious reasoning that he’d espoused to the class; and she challenged him on the supposedly unique righteousness of monotheism.

His responses to her, I believe, were fairly reasonable.


Monotheism & me

The only concept of a supernatural being that I can wrap my mind or heart around is a single, omnipotent, and unknowable one. The existence of a creator of the universe is more plausible to me than a ‘Big Bang’, but I also put a very heavy emphasis on this being’s unknowable nature, far, far, far beyond possible human comprehension and our senses.

To be fair, I was born and raised a Jew, and my monotheistic beliefs (which are not entirely mainstream within the traditional Jewish community because I don’t much believe in a God who cares about anyone or involves himself in the lives of human beings) are clearly a product of my heritage and upbringing. If I had been born and raised elsewhere (India, for example), I very likely would have come to believe in polytheism. Still, this is where I stand.

Incidentally, this happens to be one challenge I have come to for those of any Abrahamic faith – why would God only be motivated to share Ultimate Truth (and therefore: Salvation) with a limited number of human beings in only one corner of the world? No answer to this question that I have come across has satisfied me.


Two arguments for pure monotheism

The young rabbi made several arguments for monotheism over polytheism, two of which especially resonate with me:

  1. Monotheism encourages personal responsibility because there is only one Divine address to which one can address one’s grievances and desires. If prayer and penitence do not bring the desired results, one can then only find solutions on one’s own;
  2. Pure monotheism rejects all images of God, whereas the majority of gods of polytheistic faiths have bodies that resemble those of human beings. In this way, polytheistic faiths encourage, albeit perhaps unintentionally, the worship of humankind itself.

These arguments, as I noted, work for me… but only intellectually and theoretically.

Why?


Monotheism in the real world

All of this theory utterly falls apart when I consider the behavior of human beings around the globe throughout all of history. Are polytheists more or less moral because of their beliefs? Are monotheists? Are atheists? Simply – no. No, not at all.

In fact, that’s not even to mention those people of all faiths who act horribly and evilly towards others. Anyone of any faith can perpetrate evil.

These have been my observations over the course of my four decades, and I consider myself a fairly well informed and well read person. Human beings have been arguing over and killing one another over faith for thousands of years, but ~ ultimately? What’s the point? What difference does it make in the real world? Who can truly claim that their chosen faith produces kinder, better people or a kinder, better world?

Thus, while I view existence through a strictly monotheistic lens, and while I can make some logical and reasonable arguments to support my faith perspective, none of that is to say that my beliefs are better than anybody else’s – neither I nor any other person who shares my religious views is inherently better than any other human being; and I wouldn’t necessarily assume that anyone who shares my monotheistic views is moral, kind, or just. Some are; others, unfortunately, are not.


And… then there’s professional monotheism

Disappointingly, I have found that I must always take everything that any religious leader espouses with several grains of salt.

This particular young rabbi, before he joined the clergy, was simply my friend; and he used to speak with others about his own deep doubts in his faith convictions (which he had been raised into, for his extended family is all Orthodox, and his father too is an Orthodox rabbi). He used to struggle with whether Judaism was indeed the Truest faith. He used to be forthcoming about doubting his connection to God and wonder about whether God was listening to him at all. This struggle of his over his religious views was profoundly compelling to me – it was relatable – it drew me… and I felt that it fed our friendship.

Then my friend became a rabbi and decided, it seems, that it was incumbent upon him to promote traditional Jewish monotheism as the most moral faith, regardless of the evidence…

And, ever since then, I have been finding it increasingly difficult to speak with him about matters of faith at all 😞

69 thoughts on “Monotheists? Not more moral.”

      1. I am always interested in people who speak of their Faith and Religion. Questions lead to growth and I fear your young Rabbi has ceased to grow. My monotheism is a bone of contention however I believe that we know nothing of G- d, except G-d exists. We really haven’t received the facts about this Almighty One – from It.It

        1. Three guesses, it is The Triune One or Trinitarianism. Muslims believe we believe in other gods beside Allah. It is an inexplicable mystery that often impedes true exchanges of Faith. And, having replied that G-d is mystery, unknowable, then the Church Fathers’ did us a grave disservice trying to nail G-d down. We might have a conversation regarding the three layers of undersyanding in the Scriptures. Fundamental, Higher and Mystery?

    1. I completely understand, Lance. I would too.

      Are you a member of a particular religious group, and/or have you come to your own theological conclusions?

      Yours,
      David

      1. My own, a kind of mix between taoism and nature. There is the great tao but also mountain gods, river gods, ex, and a great earth goddess similar to pacha mama.

    2. Yes , I also understand, wr are so sure that we are right we are wrong in trouncing other faiths. Faith is an integral part or the integral part of our humanity, a foundation of Being. We have stolen so much.

  1. feeling drained this morning for some reason, your article makes me incredibly sad. Waiting for some spark to return light, I remember in a recent zoom discussion on BLM etc, I heard an Arican American minister (a woman) say, as cool as a cucumber: Striving for supremacy came with theism. Ouch and well done for her. More to the point perhaps, I remember an ex-RC-priest telling me, he wished theologians would recognise they had branched out from philosophy (not the other way round). Does any of this speak to your condition? Maybe praying the psalms, i.e. talking to the g-o-d we don’t believe in, might help?

    1. Striving for supremacy came with theism.

      Wow. I had never thought of that… Hmn… was that true of Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan, do you think? I have to do some research on this.

      ❀
      David

      1. oh David, I had not heard it as a statement re history but it makes sense to. Christianity since the Council of Constantine (Konstatntinopel)? I had more heard it as an inherent weakness of righteousness. Have you come across (the late) Shalom ben Chorin or his son Tovia? More likely the latter as he was working more in the US, he must be in his 70s now.

        1. can’t say I know Tovia, only met him once briefly in passing, as I was offering his frail dad my arm to get to the taxi at unich Kirchentag. Loved his writing, Jewish Wisdom, you’d call it and rightly so.

  2. Not more moral…I couldn’t agree more.

    (If I had been born and raised elsewhere (India, for example), I very likely would have come to believe in polytheism.)
    I always tell people that.

    I believe in God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
    I was born into the prayer of the Our Father and it has been a blessing into my life as well as gentle Jesus meek and mild.
    I can testify to people about Our Father has done for me along these lines as well as the personal relationship I have with God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

    So while others were born into other forms of religious , God sent me into the world where God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit resides among people.

    In one corner of the world?… where many other forms of religious found their abode.
    The Messiah had to come through a line.

    1. … and came as quite a surprise to those in line listening to him. I have the other night listened to Ruben Habito talking about Christian arrogance could only be overcome once Christ was REALLY understood as Universal Love – Best wishes,

      1. Oh thank you Barbara, I haven’t listened to Ruben Habito. I must find the talk. Do you have a link. I love a good critical thought about the behaviour of the ‘saints’.

        1. you find Ruben Habito on youtube; I think this was a fairly recent talk on the subject of inter-religious something. You’ll find it if it’s for you. Best -,

  3. One of the reasons I stopped attending church was my argument with them that only those (and all those, even Hitler) who accept Jesus as their savior will be “saved” whatever that means. Also religions with a Supreme male God are not kind to women. No, we did not invent evil, and it’s not our fault if men can’t grow up and learn to control themselves. Our bodies are not shameful things that must remain hidden. (K)

    1. I’m totally with you on the issues surrounding women and their bodies in many religions, including in traditional Judaism, Kerfe.

      BTW, regarding Hitler, I believe he didn’t like the church – I think he was willing to use it for political gain, but ultimately wanted to supplant its power.

      ❀
      David

      1. most horrifyingly, most in the Churches were only too willing to be ‘gleichgeschaltet’ – apart from a few upright folk such as Bonhoeffer.

  4. Thank you David. Micha Goodman teaches that monotheism, rightly understood, teaches that we are not in control.

  5. Maybe start at the other end of the argument. Is there any logical reason, any remote speck of evidence that any god exists? When we finally agree that no, there isn’t, we might finally accept that we are responsible for the mess we make, we alone have to put it right, and no, there is no pie in the sky when we die. Then, please, could we all leave this world as clean as we found it? Just out of humanity, compassion and generosity? We don’t need any religion just to be humane.

      1. I don’t say there is no god, just that there’s no reason why there should be, and assuming his/its existence seems perverse. Religions tend to insist we focus on getting the worshiping and the ground rules right. Meanwhile, poverty, misery, injustice, warmongering are growing exponentially. Fewer heads bowed in the temples and more outside shouting for change might be more useful.

  6. Totally agree with this post, David. It’s sad that your friendship with the young rabbi is damaged. May we never stop growing!

    While religions can teach us ethics, I believe that ethical behavior is a response to conscience. I believe that every human being of every religion or of no religion is born with a conscience, and I believe that all humans can choose to suppress their consciences regardless of religion. Religions refer to this as hypocrisy; psychologists call it antisocial personality disorder or refer to that person as a psychopath or sociopath.

    All the best! ❀

    1. I believe that every human being of every religion or of no religion is born with a conscience, and I believe that all humans can choose to suppress their consciences regardless of religion.

      Amen, Cheryl.

      1. That was Micah Goodman’s view also of the pitfalls of monotheism, the other being we think we can somehow control or propitiate God . His lectures on Deuteronomy were so amazing.

  7. Growing up with Jewish relatives in a Protestant family I was very concerned with the possibility that my grandmother might not go to heaven. I was taught that G-d would gather all the righteous people to heaven. Not that one must believe a certain doctrine but that the doctrine you choose must be lived to the best of your ability… That has colored my perspective concerning religion and salvation.

    1. I still remember when a religious Christian friend of mine during our freshman year in college broke down crying in front of me because he liked me and was worried about me burning in hell. I had never encountered anything like that, and I was very deeply disturbed that somebody could/would think that.

  8. This truly created lots of food for thought David and weighing in. Nice post. I am in the mind of honoring of whatever one finds to work for them and appreciate the same respect. I j just found out that yesterday was Holi Day in India which has nothing to do with passover or Easter but is a celebration of festival of the colors. Holi heralds the arrival of spring after winter. It signifies the victory of good over evil and is celebrated as a day of spreading happiness and love. Any time we can gather together in love without trying to change or convert someone to their way but simply share is a gift to me. πŸ’– Too bad your friend doesn’t see it that way anymore. πŸ’–

    1. Any time we can gather together in love without trying to change or convert someone to their way but simply share is a gift to me.

      So simultaneously simple and true. I only wish this were the norm among human beings.

      Thanks, Cindy.

      -David

      1. It is such a lesson for me and I get to practice it with one of my daughters with her political views often. She is such an amazing young woman but I scratch my head and she bursts in tears every time we talk. Just yesterday she sent me a YouTube video she said she heard at church years ago and we were exactly on the same thread. I guess all of those years of church are imbedded in her brain and soul somewhere. I had just written a piece on the very thing. I think I’ll add it to my piece.

        I know what you mean David, I wish so too!
        πŸ’–πŸ™πŸ™πŸ™πŸ™

  9. I’m easily and quickly convinced, and I loved your monotheistic argument. To me that instantly made sense. Except, I also liked Lederman and Teresi’s idea of “The God Particle.” when I say “gods” as in “dear gods” or whatever, I personally I mean, those of us embodying “god” – i.e. the one god, in all of us, in every part and particle of creation, i.e. the essential universal creative building block. Basically, everyone/thing. And non-capitalizing is another deliberate thing for me, because “God” with a capital G has so many negative, religious, “professional”/dogmatic associations. So… yeah I think we agree at some level, maybe? :))

    1. I think we do agree, but I also think that’s not what is most important – it’s far more important to respect than to agree, as Cindy suggested above, and that may be what is most lacking among humans.

      πŸ’™
      David

      1. Well exemplified. Absolutely! Sometimes I think we’re all just trying to say the same thing, with different words. Different lingos for different herds; all from the same stardust origins.

  10. “Still, this is where I stand.”

    Jesus told his disciples, ‘Go and make disciples of me,’ and that’s exactly what Mom and Dad did with me. Some see indoctrination, I see obedience. They stood for Christ.

    Unknowable? Jeremiah teaches otherwise, ‘They shall all know me, from the least to the greatest.’ Trouble is, God doesn’t run things how we think he should and most of us turn away.

    The Christ solution makes sense to me though. Sure, I grew up under parents who acknowledged God at every meal, took me to the Baptist church and Sunday school, and each night tucked me in with a bedtime prayer. And it’s still where I stand.

    1. The problem that I have with accepting the existence of God the way you or anyone else describes him, Arnold, is that I’ve never experienced anything to suggest that such a god exists.

      Other than people like you saying so, which is not proof of anything at all, nothing makes me think that there is a god of any sort who cares about us… and your saying so, regardless of how many times you do, doesn’t change that fact for me as a thinking individual.

      All best,
      David

      1. Thanks David, for sharing yourself. I happen to think nowhere does God reveal himself to men but from within. For example, Moses’ burning bush didn’t outright speak to him. It was a sign, a revelation. God spoke to Moses’ spirit, because Moses sought God, because God drew Moses. Same way for us, ‘Will I turn aside to see God, or go on my way.’ If you don’t hear him, forget it.

  11. I saw Micah Goodman on video lectures from the Tikvah Center. Our Maine Torah group shared them when we were reading Deuteronomy this past summer. My feeling, by the way about religion, is that given the ambiguity of the human condition, we can no more abolish it than we can abolish love, or sex, both of which probably have caused more deaths and suffering than religion. Also, monotheism has no monopoly on violence. The Buddhists who run Burma engage in oppression and ethnic cleansing, and have for centuries. Bangkok exists only because the Burmese burned the prior Thai capital to the ground in the 1780’s. In contrast, Rome, Paris and even Berlin still stand.

  12. I think there are too many examples of righteous and wicked people of any and every religious or non-religious tradition that no one ideology can claim exclusive ownership of a pathway to righteousness.

    During our Zoom seder (Zeder?) the point was made that polytheism is more tolerant than monotheism, in many ways. Polytheism wouldn’t necessarily take issue with a monotheist worshipping their one god. What’s one more god in a polytheistic society? Monotheism is more demanding and intolerant in this way, demanding worship to one God to the exclusion of all others. I don’t believe that tolerance is the only moral value worth considering, but it’s an interesting thing to think about.

    I hear you that it’s really hard to have a friend you used to be able to speak with openly about struggles become someone that you can’t. 😦

    1. I don’t believe that tolerance is the only moral value worth considering, but it’s an interesting thing to think about.

      Super interesting, and of great importance to me personally!

      1. My sister raised a question similar to what you asked in this post, and my husband is the one who made the point about polytheism, monotheism, and tolerance, so I can’t take credit for original thought! But definitely food for thought!

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