Tuesday, October 11, 2011

More on Monotheism Ethical and Otherwise I: for Dennis Prager

I | II | III | IV

When I referenced Dennis Prager's essay on "Ethical Monotheism," I didn't expect so much interest in the topic. While I disagree with Mr. Prager (who, contrary to my original assertion, appears to be a scholar of Russian and Jewish history but not an ordained Rabbi) on theology, politics and just about everything else, I think he has done a great service with this essay.  He has laid bare many of the preconceptions and prejudices of Monotheism in a clear and concise manner.

From the opening of that essay:
Ethical monotheism means two things:
1. There is one God from whom emanates one morality for all humanity.
2. God's primary demand of people is that they act decently toward one another.
From the start we see that Prager believes morality emanates from one God. Compare and contrast this with the definition given by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The term “morality” can be used either 
1.   descriptively to refer to some codes of conduct put forward by a society or,
      a.  some other group, such as a religion, or
      b.  accepted by an individual for her own behavior or
2.   normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.
According to these G-dless philosophers, morality is a code of conduct which may be social or religious in nature but which should also be subject to rational scrutiny. Prager's first definition fits 1a and most people would say that his second fits 2, with the usual quibbling about what constitutes decent behavior.

But is "decent behavior" the primary demand of Prager's God? More from that essay:
A third characteristic of God is goodness. If God weren't moral, ethical monotheism would be an oxymoron: A God who is not good cannot demand goodness. Unlike all other gods believed in prior to monotheism, the biblical God rules by moral standards. 
From 1 Samuel 15:2-3
2 This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. 
3 Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’
From Deuteronomy 22:13-21
13 If any man take a wife, and go in unto her, and hate her, 
14 And give occasions of speech against her, and bring up an evil name upon her, and say, I took this woman, and when I came to her, I found her not a maid: 
15 Then shall the father of the damsel, and her mother, take and bring forth the tokens of the damsel's virginity unto the elders of the city in the gate: 
16 And the damsel's father shall say unto the elders, I gave my daughter unto this man to wife, and he hateth her; 
17 And, lo, he hath given occasions of speech against her, saying, I found not thy daughter a maid; and yet these are the tokens of my daughter's virginity. And they shall spread the cloth before the elders of the city. 
18 And the elders of that city shall take that man and chastise him; 
19 And they shall amerce him in an hundred shekels of silver, and give them unto the father of the damsel, because he hath brought up an evil name upon a virgin of Israel: and she shall be his wife; he may not put her away all his days. 
20 But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel: 
21 Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father's house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you.
The Roman destruction of Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War was as bloody - and successful - as the Hebrew campaign against the Amalekites.  A 7,000 year-old grave recently excavated in Talheim, Germany revealed the massacred skeletons of 18 adult males and six children: archaeologists speculate the women were carried away as booty.  A Vestal Virgin who violated her oath of chastity could be buried alive in the Campus Sceleratus.  I do not wish to single out the God of the Hebrews for particular scorn. But neither do I see any evidence that His primary concern is that people "act decently" toward each other - at least not according to any useful definition of "decent behavior."