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 ๐Ÿ˜ž

72 thoughts on “Monotheists? Not more moral.”

  1. I was born as a Hindu but I was more inclined towards monotheistic religions, because I felt that God is nameless and formless. And recently I came across the concept of “Nirguna Brahman” in Hinduism which actually affirms my personal conviction.

  2. 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. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

    1. I donโ€™t believe that tolerance is the only moral value worth considering, but itโ€™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!

  3. 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.

  4. “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.

  5. 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.

      ๐Ÿ’™
      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.

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