Arguing with a dead man

By Tsvi Bisk


This is a letter to the late Christopher Hitchens, disputing his take on the historical role of the concept(not the reality) of monotheism as being utterly evil. It posits that monotheism played a vital role in the development of science, constitutionalism and social justice – that Occam’s Razor (vital to the development of both science and constitutionalism) is historically dependent on theological disputes ‘proving’ the existence of one god.

I miss Christopher Hitchens. I never met the man yet I miss him. I miss his wit, his intellectual honesty, and his principled but non-dogmatic critical faculties. I miss his exquisite debating prowess; his ability to immediately find flaws in half-truths offered up by self-assured ignoramuses and shameless demagogues – a task more difficult than finding flaws in an unqualified lie. His use of the English language in unprompted debate (sometimes appearing to be semi-inebriated) was breathtaking. I miss him most for his uncompromising criticism of organized religion – what I call the religion business. Yet, I disagree with him regarding the historical role of monotheism. This is the core of my argument with the late, great Christopher Hitchens in my letter to him following.

 Dear Mr. Hitchens,

 I agree with most everything you say and write about organized religion. As far as Orthodox Jewry goes I could probably add to your repertoire of things to get indignant about. But I take issue with your ahistorical take on monotheism; especially when you compare the God of the Bible to a North Korean dictatorship. I do not deny that for millennia the huckster clergy of the religion business have endorsed such a God for their own benefit, thus spawning a malevolent historical force. But blaming monotheism per-se for this is analogous to blaming Darwinism per-se for Social Darwinism which contributed significantly to the race theories of the 19th and 20thcenturies and which eventually produced Nazism. So it surprises me that your criticisms do not take into consideration cultural evolution; a deficiency for someone so devoted to eviscerating the mindless idiots who shamelessly deny the fact of biological evolution. I recommend you read Erich Fromm’s You Shall be as Gods, in which he describes how the God of the Bible evolved from absolute monarch to constitutional monarch. Fromm avers that the Bible contains both visions of God – the evil dictator as well as the constitutional monarch. (I would add a third iteration: the sociopathic, sadomasochistic God described in the Book of Job – what a prick he was!)

 The truth of the matter is that the God of the Bible has multiple personality disorder, obligating the discriminate reader to demand “will the real God stand up”. For instance, in addition to the three personalities above we are confronted with the prissy, self-righteous, forever moralizing God of the Prophets (God as a social activist – how tiresome). There is also the pessimistic, cynical, weary of life God of Ecclesiastes(God as a French intellectual – how nauseating). My personal favorite is the libidinous God that inspired the Song of Songs; the God of King Solomon (he of one thousand wives and concubines); the God of a man whose sexual appetite was so intense he made Bill Clinton look like a nun. Now that is a God I would like to hang out with.

Fromm would not deny that the North Korean Dictator God has been responsible for terrible evil only that over the long run, the more historically significant God is the God of free agency and justice. It is this God that has been a major cultural genome in the evolution of constitutionalism – an “ism” that has evolved from its rather inconsequential birth in Holland and England in the 17th century into the global governance standard of the 21st century.

 Fromm identifies God’s covenant with Noah after the flood as the turning point. God evolved from dictating to humanity to entering into contract with humanity. True, it was still an unequal contract but the implications of any contract are that both sides have certain rights and prerogatives. It is on this basis that Abraham argues with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah (you do not get to argue with North Korean dictators). Since both cities are finally destroyed, most Bible readers miss the more important point: Abraham wins the fundamental argument – that God is also obliged to obey his own rules of justice.

 Despite Abraham’s success in divine argument, the cities were destroyed because a minimum of ten just men was not found. This is the basis for the Jewish requirement of a Minyan (10 men) to conduct communal prayer. The subtext of this requirement is that human beings are social animals with free will to choose between good and evil, but as individuals often lack the courage to do the right thing. A human being standing alone in the face of evil almost always lacks that final ounce of moral certainty, (which is why the righteous Gentiles commemorated in Yad Vashem are such extraordinary and exceptional human beings). Most of us need society and the social reinforcement provided by the “social contract” to behave properly; i.e. to respect the person and property of others. Seen in historical context, the social contract concept represents the secularization of the covenant principle and has been a vital building block in the edifice of constitutionalism and democracy.

 But Abraham being so audacious as to argue with God at all is what is most extraordinary. It might be considered the metaphysical absolute of chutzpah, yet it earns Abraham God’s ultimate blessing. Why? In the Midrash, the sages rhetorically ask why God gave the more far-reaching covenant to Abraham and not to Noah. They answered thus: God came to Noah and told him he was about to exterminate the entire human race except for his own family. Noah does not argue with God and goes and builds the Ark. God tells Abraham he is going to destroy two debauched cities and Abraham argues with God. By daring to argue with God, Abraham demonstrates he has accepted full responsibility as an autonomous human being. The argument is the first historical example of an individual challenging supreme authority. Needless to say the freedom to challenge authority is the very essence of democratic constitutionalism. In the same vein, Moses disputes with God regarding his threat to exterminate the Israelites because of the Golden Calf episode, and persuades him to give the Israelites a second chance. Passover is not for nothing known as the holiday of liberty (Hag HaHerut) – liberty from arbitrary dictate.

This principle of holding God to account regarding his own principles finds wonderful expression in the Talmudic tale of Bat Kol (a divine voice from heaven). Rabbi Eliezer disagrees with a majority of sages over a certain issue. He says “If the law is as I say, it shall be proven from heaven.” A Bat Kol is then heard: “What have you against Rabbi Eliezer? The law is always as he says.” Rabbi Jeremiah representing the majority responded: “As the Torah has been given from Mount Sinai, we take no heed of a Bat Kol – for at Mount Sinai You have already written in the Torah [that we should] follow the majority.” In other words, “you have given us reason, free will and a constitution (the Torah), now leave us alone and mind your own business.” This reply obviously found general approval because further in the Talmud Elijah the Prophet was asked: “What did God do at that moment?” Elijah replied: “He smiled and said: “My children have triumphed over Me, My children have triumphed over Me.”

 A fundamental element of constitutionalism is the democratic principle that the majority has precedence over a dictator. An even more important constitutionalist element is not to follow the majority if it is evil. The founding fathers of the United States were just as afraid of the tyranny of the majority as they were of a tyrannical king. This explains both the Bill of Rights and the undemocratic structure of the Senate (in which states with less than a million residents have the same number of senators as states with over 20 million). This American fear of the mindless herd trampling the rights of the autonomous individual or minorities was anticipated in Exodus 23:2 which states “You are not to follow the majority in doing wrong, and you are not to testify in a lawsuit so as to follow the majority and pervert justice.” When I taught constitutionalism to 11thgraders, I linked the story of Abraham to the movie Twelve Angry Men. I wanted to demonstrate how reason and the moral courage of an individual can stand up to the tyranny of a monarch on the one hand (Abraham) and the tyranny of the majority on the other hand (Henry Fonda’s character in the movie).

 John Wycliffe’s proto-Protestant translation of the Bible into English in 1382 was a significant step in the development of British constitutionalism and social justice. It enabled people to read the Bible without the mediation of the priesthood. (Wycliffe and his followers were presumptuous enough to engage in an adult education project – teaching common folk to read.) This represented a major democratization of knowledge and produced a ‘reform’ movement called the Lollards which eventually mutated into the Levelers – the first social reform movement in Europe that advocated equality of means. The numerous calls for social justice in the Bible were both the foundation and the infrastructure of the Levelers movement, not Greek concepts of social justice, which were inaccessible and thus unknown to the vast majority of people. Some examples: “Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits” (Exodus 23:6) or “Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the innocent” (Deuteronomy 16:19) or “Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge” (Deuteronomy24:17).
Just as social contract represents the evolving secularization of the covenant principle, so the various social reform movements of Europe (including socialism) represent the evolving secularization of the explicit calls for social justice in the Bible, whether their proponents were conscious of it or not. This was exemplified by the Lollard priest John Ball, a leader of the English Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. He sermonized that since all people are children of Adam and Eve (and thus brothers and sisters) none should have more rights or more means than others:

When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?  From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

Ball was arguing that since all human beings are equal before the law of God, they should be equal before the laws of man. The belief that all human beings are made in the image of God has been a vital direct and indirect influence on the entire progressive history of the West; even when the God being referenced was an abstraction of natural theology, as in the first sentences of the American Declaration of Independence. (I hope you realize I am not delusional; I am not referencing the actual existence of God but rather how the concept of the God of the Bible has impacted on the moral progress of humanity.)

 The evolution of monotheistic religion engendered the democratization of the constitutionalist principles inherent in the belief that we are all created in the image of God and we are all descended from Adam and Eve. Catholicism democratized sanctity; every human being (even Jews and Indians) had a sacred soul. This was an unprecedented assumption in the story of human civilization; neither the Greeks, nor the Chinese, nor the Hindus, nor any other culture had ever even considered such a maxim. It initially had horrific consequences. It became the moral duty of the Church to ‘save the souls’ of unbelievers from hell. This became a rationalization for the Inquisition and the colonization of non-European peoples with their assorted tortures and slaughters. It was as if the Church was saying “We will cause you terrible but temporary physical pain in this earthly world in order to save your soul from even more ghastly never-ending pain in the eternal world.”

 But the antidote for these atrocities was also implicit in their causes. For the church, unlike the Greeks, Chinese, or Hindus, was forced to recognize the humanness of the “other” by virtue of their sacred soul. For most Greeks (even Aristotle) the “other” was less than human. Thus we might say that while the Greeks “invented” certain frameworks of constitutionalism and democracy; it was the Hebrews who “invented” the content.

Continuing in the ‘made in the image of God’ principle, the Reformation democratized belief. All believers had an intrinsic right to an unmediated connection with God, with no need for the intercession of an aristocracy of Church theologians or priest practitioners. This became a major driver in the development of Western individualism and thus to constitutionalism. The individual had to find his or her way to God. This required everyone to read the Bible which marks the beginning of universal literacy which, for the first time in the history of any civilization, became a societal ideal and requirement – a fundamental prerequisite to a free society

But, by the very nature of human inquiry into the human condition, people understood the Bible in different ways. People of like mind began to form their own churches, resulting in a plethora of Protestant denominations. The immediate consequences of post-Reformation religious pluralism were also horrific. The dogmatism inherent in religious belief resulted in the Wars of Religion, which in some areas of Europe took as many lives as the Black Plague. The reaction to these horrors was the (secular) Enlightenment ideology of tolerance, as well as the objective need for Europe to develop constitutionalism in order to institutionalize tolerance and assure internal social stability. To achieve this, the process had to increasingly recognize and protect individual rights.

 The adult baptism principle of the Anabaptists democratized individual conscience and free will. This principle was exemplified in Roger Williams’s famous declaration that “forced prayer stinks in God’s nostrils”. He said this when fleeing the theocratic tyranny of Puritan Massachusetts (which had been hanging Quakers for heresy) in order to establish the separate colony of Rhode Island. In his credo A Plea For Religious Liberty he wrote “… to molest any person, Jew or Gentile, for either professing doctrine, or practicing worship merely religious or spiritual, is to persecute him, and such a person (whatever his doctrine or practice be, true or false) suffereth persecution for conscience.” This viewpoint was based on his interpretation of the Bible:

it is the will and command of God that (since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus) a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all nations and countries; and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only (in soul matters) able to conquer, to wit, the sword of God’s Spirit, the Word of God.

This mindset became the foundation of the Rhode Island Royal Charter which gave religious freedom to Quakers, Jews and Catholics (the first synagogue in the 13 colonies was subsequently established in Rhode Island).

 Monotheism was essential for the development not only of constitutionalism and democracy in the west but of equal if not greater importance – also of science. Monotheism inspired the formulation of Occam’s Razor. William of Ockham (subsequently Occam) was an English Franciscan friar engaged in dispute with various theological theories about the proofs of God. For him, the only truly necessary entity was God; everything else was superfluous. Monotheism replaced the complexity of the hierarchies of pagan religions with one simple explanation for the ‘isness’ of existence and the purpose of human existence. In other words, the motivation behind the foundational principle of modern science (the Law of Parsimony) was theological. Science’s endless search for simplicity, elegance and all inclusiveness (e.g. a theory of everything) is a derivative of the monotheistic, religious imagination. It is not clear if the doctor of canon law Nicolaus Copernicus was directly influenced by Occam, but the Law of Parsimony was so inherent to the monotheistic worldview that he was driven to question why an all powerful all-knowing God would create the complicated messy universe described by Ptolemy. If God was God then he would have been capable of making a simpler universe. His motivation, like Occam’s, was religious, and the Copernican Revolution marked the beginning of the Scientific Revolution and from thence the Enlightenment and from thence the American and French Revolutions. Monotheism was therefore a major genome of the Scientific Revolution, which gave birth to the Enlightenment and the modern age (including the Industrial Revolution).

The very Idea of Progress as being dependent on human behavior owes as much to the Prophets as it does to Francis Bacon. Prophetic ethics and scientific inquiry are two sides of the same coin – volitional, active human striving and decision-making in search of a better future. Indeed, progressive social amelioration was anticipated by the Hebrew prophets long before Francis Bacon expressed the view that the purpose of science was to improve the lot of humanity.

 Occam’s monotheisticly inspired Law of Parsimony also defines the intersection between science and constitutionalism. Occam was an important contributor to concepts of constitutional government (limited as opposed to absolutist). He might have said that “governance is not to be multiplied beyond necessity”. He advocated separation of church and state and helped develop concepts of individual property rights as a constraint on State power and Church dominion over land. His monotheistic theology led him to the following constitutionalist views:

  • that Christians are entitled to state and defend their opinions in opposition to the views of popes, church councils, etc., even if their opinions are in fact erroneous; (i.e. freedom of speech)
  • that no part of the Church (e.g. the pope or a Church council) is infallible; (i.e. nothing is above criticism)
  • that a pope who tries to impose false teachings upon the Church, or who seriously violates the rights of Church members or others, can be deposed; (i.e. the principle of impeachment)
  • that since women as well as men are members of the Church, women should sometimes take part in Church councils; (i.e. gender equality)
  • that the powers of secular governments do not depend on Church approval; (i.e. separation of church and state)
  • that the rights of unbelievers (for example, any governmental rights they may have, and their property rights) were not affected by the establishment of Christianity (though they may be changed by human law); (i.e. citizen and property rights are independent of religious belief)
  • that kings, emperors and other secular rulers are not ‘absolute’ but must respect the rights of their subjects; (i.e. constitutional limitations of power inherent in constitutional democracy)
  • that a tyrannical ruler may be deposed. (i.e. the right of every human being to be free)

I agree with you that the psychopathic proto-Nazi God you so despise dominates the biblical narratives. I loathe that God as much as you do. ‘Thank God’ I am an atheist and not constrained to worship that disgusting entity. I agree with you that the sins of monotheism, based on such a God have, throughout the ages, been horrific beyond description. But I would argue that they are no different in scope or quality from the sins of non-monotheistic religions, while the culturally genomic virtues of monotheism are of monotheism alone: constitutionalism, social justice, and science.

Warmest regards,

Tsvi Bisk