Food for Thought: Prager on Ethical Monotheism

Longtime readers know I’m a huge Dennis Prager fan.  Years ago, he wrote a thought-provoking essay called “Ethical Monotheism.”  Here’s a snippet:

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.

If all people subscribed to this simple belief—which does not entail leaving, or joining, any specific religion, or giving up any national identity—the world would experience far less evil.

Let me explain the components of ethical monotheism.

God

Monotheism means belief in “one God.” Before discussing the importance of the “mono,” or God’s oneness, we need a basic understanding of the nature of God.

The God of ethical monotheism is the God first revealed to the world in the Hebrew Bible. Through it, we can establish God’s four primary characteristics:

  • 1. God is supranatural.
  • 2. God is personal.
  • 3. God is good.
  • 4. God is holy.

Dropping any one of the first three attributes invalidates ethical monotheism (it is possible, though difficult, to ignore holiness and still lead an ethical life).

God is supranatural, meaning “above nature” (I do not use the more common term “supernatural” because it is less precise and conjures up irrationality). This is why Genesis, the Bible’s first book, opens with, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” in a world in which nearly all people worshipped nature, the Bible’s intention was to emphasize that nature is utterly subservient to God who made it. Obviously, therefore, God is not a part of nature, and nature is not God.

It is not possible for God to be part of nature for two reasons.

First, nature is finite and God is infinite. If God were within nature, He would be limited, and God, who is not physical, has no limits (I use the pronoun “He”” not because I believe God is a male, but because the neuter pronoun “It” depersonalizes God. You cannot talk to, relate to, love, or obey an “It.”).

Second, and more important, nature is amoral. Nature knows nothing of good and evil. In nature there is one rule—survival of the fittest. There is no right, only might. If a creature is weak, kill it. Only human beings could have moral rules such as, “If it is weak, protect it.” Only human beings can feel themselves ethically obligated to strangers.

Read the rest here when you have the chance.

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9 thoughts on “Food for Thought: Prager on Ethical Monotheism

  1. It’s utterly futile trying to debate most people on religion since the topic is so sensitive and many don’t have an open mind, but I’ll still comment on it briefly.

    #1 says there is one God who emanates one morality for all humanity. Also, I checked out the link you provided and saw “Once God told Abraham that human sacrifice is wrong, it was wrong,” which brought to my mind a relatively common counterargument. Perhaps you may have heard of it.

    If when “God told Abraham that human sacrifice is wrong, it was wrong” it follows that if God instead told Abraham that human sacrifice is right, human sacrifice would now be right.

    Of course, believers would now usually reply that “But God would never do that! God is holy, loving, gracious, and would never condone murder because murder is wrong.” However, this presupposes a morality before God. Why would people suspect God would never allow murder? It’s because they inherently know murder of an innocent child is wrong before there has to be a God to tell them that. Their own moral law has superior epistemic credentials than any morality emanating from a divine being. I for one believe morality comes from our nature and humanity, not from a supernatural being which we don’t even know truly came from the divine’s command anyway.

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  2. But if it was God himself that was the source of that innate moral sense, then why was Abraham still about to follow God’s orders to kill his innocent child if he knew inherently (from God) that murder was already wrong? Wouldn’t he have just refused God on the spot immediately when God asked him to commit the sacrifice? Apparently Abraham thought that the morality of God speaking to him to kill Isaac was greater than his own (also God’s?) innate morality, which ultimately means that one’s innate morality is inferior to God’s explicit morality in this particular story. Why would God give us an innate morality if he were able to change it at his whim anytime, and we would accept it without question?

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    • Abraham probably knew that human judgment was deeply infallible, and was willing to defer to God.

      Whatever the literal truth of any given Bible story might be, the point of God giving us written morality is that, while we may know the right thing to do, human nature is such that we’re often tempted to do the wrong thing, and we generally need further reinforcement.

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  3. Hmmm…this is getting interesting my friend. I suppose I would revert back to the initial argument that there is one God who emanates one, and only one, morality.

    If one’s innate morality finds murder wrong, but yet at the same time we find God telling Abraham that murder is right, henceforth murder would be right. So we have a clear conflict in morality systems between the two. But since there can only be one morality and that is God’s, God could have only been the origin of one of those moralities. In this particular example that was our second morality.

    Ultimately, I suppose I would find it a contradiction of statement #1 of ethical monotheism if it were possible God could be behind both moralities.

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    • But when God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, does that necessarily rise to the level of proposing/establishing a brand new morality system? Or is God is merely establishing that Abraham’s trust in Him is great enough that he *would* do for God all that the other religions of the day would ask of him, for the purpose of succeeding those religions?

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      • Maybe I wasn’t clear above, but I’d agree with you that if God simply told Abraham to sacrifice his son then that wouldn’t constitute a new morality system…it would be merely an order.

        However, if (for argument’s sake) “Once God told Abraham that human sacrifice is right, it was right” I think at that point it constitutes a different morality system, clearly different from a human’s innate moral sense which abhors murder. So I’m talking about specifically that sentence above, not the order. The way I see it in this example is there are two distinct morality systems, and I don’t believe it would be possible for God to also be behind the innate one if he only has one morality for all of humanity. In plain terms my argument is there exists morality outside of God.

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    • No, because God only has one morality. As I said above “Ultimately, I suppose I would find it a contradiction of statement #1 of ethical monotheism if it were possible God could be behind both moralities.” God has one, and only one, morality and I’m still awaiting for an attempt to dismiss the theory I’m proposing.

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