First, what I’m writing is about western history only. China, India, and the other east Asian nations have a very different way of thinking to be dealt at another time.

What we call religion does not always deal primarily with ethics (morality). That may seem a surprise to you since we are so used to being told how to behave by reference to Jesus.

There are other ways of arriving at an ethical code of conduct. For example the Romans made duty to the state (nation) the most important thing. I just said that I wouldn’t write about the Chinese but I must say that family relations have been the basis of ethics in that country.

When I studied religion we were taught that religion was about people’s relationship with God. In Judaism God instructs people to prove their love for Him by showing love for each other. But that is not the case in all religions and that is why the three religions based upon the bible are collectively called the ethical religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.)

Consider some other religions. Like Christianity, many religions that are found among the Native Americans, Africans, and others speak of the duty to be hospitable to strangers. What their advocates don’t say is that such duty only applies when the person is your guest or a visitor to your village. Outside the village limits you can kill him. This may be the earliest form of diplomacy but it has nothing to do with love; it is about honor. It is also self-serving. There is nothing much more primitive in either ethics or diplomacy than to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” After all, that has nothing to do with love which is defined as desiring another person’s best good for its own sake. How then did such an injunction originate. It is primitive diplomacy. It is an exchange. Everyone feels more comfortable knowing that if his child is lost and alone he can find a welcome at the nearest village or house, even if it is the home of an enemy. All men are brothers against threats to everyone, like illness, storms, and wild animals.

But in the parable of the Good Samaritan the Samaritan has nothing to gain from his good behavior so that is a great advance. But it was not entirely new with Jesus, you can find occasional similar references in the Hebrew scriptures. Jesus also indicated that you didn’t have to like the person to obey God’s law to love others and desire their best good. One of the stories not very often told about Jesus is of when a pagan woman asked him to cure her daughter (cast out an evil spirit.) Jews of Jesus’ time hated foreigners and thought themselves superior to them. Jesus refers to her as a dog just as other Jews of his time would have. Yet he cured the child. That act would probably have scandalized him among many Jews of that time (though not of today.)

 “Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.’ Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, ‘Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.’
He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.’
The woman came and knelt before him. ‘Lord, help me!’ she said.
He replied, ‘It is not right to take the children’s (Jews) bread and toss it to the dogs.’
‘Yes it is, Lord,’ she said. ‘Even the little dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.’
Then Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.’ And her daughter was healed at that moment.”
A Roman would not have sympathized either. To them foreigners were only good as slaves and they felt no need, for example, to send help to the starving of other lands. So, if Roman, and Greek, and Native American religion was not primarily interested in ethics what did their priests do. You must remember that science as we understand the term did not exist in these worlds. People lived in a world that was also shared by spirits both good and bad. Most people carried amulets with them to keep evil spirits (like diseases) away. These spirits could be bribed however. A person might seek out a witch to cast a spell on an enemy by the power of some spirit, or go to a temple to ask the priest for a counterspell. The gods themselves did not regularly interfere in human affairs but the ghosts of ancestors and angel-like (or devil-like) spirits did. That is how things like storms and drought and disease were explained. Some more educated people had more “scientific” explanations like the theory of humors in the body causing disease by being out of balance. Yet such doctors probably had a worse record of curing disease than did old women who gathered herbs in the moonlight and chanted incarnations over them. If the sun came up in the morning it was because a god was driving it in a chariot across the sky. Later some more educated people might say that their god was a spiritual sun but my point is that while it was important to keep the gods on your side that was done by right ritual, not by loving your neighbor.
Pagan priests did not give regular homilies. They offered sacrifices for the nation that it would win in war, that the crops would ripen well, that there would be no earthquakes or volcanic eruptions, etc. This was the business of the priests and the king. It did not require that the people participate except at occasional festivals. (One of the titles of the Roman emperors was pontifex maximus meaning greatest bridge (between the gods and the Roman state.)
People did go to temples and offer sacrifices and pray. But that was an individual thing. They might offer a lamb so that a relative would regain his health for example, or that a woman might bear a healthy male child. But still, most often prayer was done at home with the household gods (like angels) and the ancestors’ spirits. In Rome people would offer prayers at home and a little wine to Vesta the goddess of the hearth fire to ask her protection, and would go every year to the cemetery and picnic with the spirits of the ancestors in hopes that they would not haunt them. They would put a coin on the eyes of a dead relative to pay the boatman at the river Styx for they certainly wanted the guy to get across and not haunt them.
None of these things have anything to do with ethics. Likewise when an American Indian would kill a deer he offered a prayer that the deer would accept it’s being killed as necessary and in the proper order of nature. For the same reason he would not waste any part of the animal. He would praise the Great Spirit but then raid the village of the tribe down the coast who praised the same god. He would torture the men and enslave the women and children. What he did was ritual to keep the natural spirit world on his side, not ethics. He did not want to offend against nature and he felt obligated to be generous to visitors, but love of neighbors was not in the equation.

Now Jesus had nothing against ritual in its place but he insisted that moral behavior was far more important.
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” (Mathew: 5 23-24)
I do not mean to say that the pagans did not have codes of ethics. They did. But these codes were not religious. To the Greeks what was good for their city was most important and therefore civil behavior by the citizens was important. To the Romans service to the country was the highest form of good behavior and an orderly empire under law was the result. To the Chinese ritual and gentlemanly behavior was the glue which held society together. I have often said that even in our society, at one time there were three pillars that supported society: religion, culture, and law. Religion is now much weaker than it was when people looked to God to solve their problems instead of to technology. Shared cultural norms are of little importance in cities where people often hardly know their neighbors, though they remain more important in rural and semi rural areas. Once upon a time one had to rely on neighbors and people had to work together, but that is much less true in our industrialized and specialized society. Law remains but it was always the weakest pillar to be used only when the first two failed to control behavior.
Now the Romans persecuted Christians for not worshiping the emperor and their other gods but did not persecute the Jews for the same thing (until after a Jewish revolt.) To the Romans and other ancient peoples every nation had its own special god. They did not deny other gods and sometimes thought that foreigners recognized the same chief gods as they themselves, but under different names. Still each nation or city had its own god. Athens had Athena and Rome had Roma and Vesta (They’d taken the hearth goddess and promoted her into the pantheon of important gods and thought of her as much as their chief goddess as they did Roma [actually more]). They accepted that different races of people had different customs, rites, and beliefs. They allowed them to maintain these things when they were absorbed into the empire so long as they also accepted the emperor as a god. But the Jews would not worship their gods or the emperor. That had always been so; it was part of being an Israelite. Therefore so long as the Jews did not try to get the other people in the empire to agree with them about there being only one god, the Romans allowed them to maintain their religion and culture They alone were allowed to pray to their God “For” the emperor instead of to him. The Jews were not particularly interested in teaching the Romans and other peoples of the empire about monotheism so this worked. They just kept their belief to themselves. (Remember too, that even paganism was monotheistic at the philosophical level. They had a temple to Eternal Time which they recognized as the creative force in the universe. No one went to its temple because Eternal Time was so removed from everyday affairs that there was no reason to. The gods to be worshiped were more like superheroes who could help or hurt them. Only Judaism taught that the Creative force of the universe wanted a personal relationship with people.)
Christians were another matter however. First, they were individuals who refused to offer sacrifice and thereby threatened the relationship between the state and the gods who might get angry if they weren’t punished; and second, they were converting other people to their belief which further showed lack of respect by the empire for its gods. The Romans were not killing Christians just to be mean. To them the Christians were traitors as well as sacrilegious. The Roman authorities did not much care what the Christians might believe and do at home just so long as they also practiced the official state rituals whether they believed in them or not. After all, many Romans no longer believed either but they still offered sacrifices. Christians, on the other hand, believed that they must preach the Gospel to all people and must never deny Christ who was God or acknowledge any other gods. In fact many Christians thought that the pagan gods did exist but were actually devils. (The Christians had no better explanation of earthquakes and disease than anyone else.) It was impossible for the two sides to live together. One had to defeat the other. Christianity won.
I think I should briefly note how the ancients’ idea of virtue differs from the Judaic-Christian. First let’s divide these old societies into two parts. On the one hand there are the really old societies where just staying alive was of primary importance. These would include the Greeks of the poet Homer’s time, the Vikings, the other north German tribes who invaded the Roman empire, and our own Native Americans.
In these more primitive cultures survival was the highest virtue for men. To die well in battle was a fine thing but not to be rushed. In fact, to die in a foolhardy effort for some unattainable or abstract object was not valued, whereas to obtain it by cunning was. These societies were constantly fighting their neighbors so military virtues were important but success even more so. That is why Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s Odyssey, was honored for being so sneaky. The same was true of the Native Americans. Unfortunately for their reputation, the European settlers did not share their values. They held to Christian ideals and were developing ethics which demanded a code of gentlemanly behavior. They saw the Indians’ lack of good faith as ignoble. You may have heard the expression “Indian summer,” or the slander “Indian giver,” both of which imply falsity.
Then there were the more advanced societies in which daily survival could take a second place to art and science. By the time of the Golden Age of Greece and Rome manly virtue consisted of supporting the state. The city or state was all important and worthy to die for. Since Christians believed in a vivid afterlife (of which the pagans were unsure), and because they expected the world to soon end, they did not share this dedication. To them personal virtues were more important. (I do not mean to say that the pagans did not honor personal virtue but it was a personal thing and not to be equated with public virtue. One of the personal things that one did to be a good Roman was to honor the gods and your ancestors.) Public virtue meant serving the government in some capacity.
Generally it was sufficient of women to be modest. Not much more was expected of these inferior creatures. There were exceptions. Women sometimes hold high place in the Norse legends but when they do it is because they are acting forcefully like men. To the Greeks and Romans a good woman was simply one who honored her husband and had lots of male children.

Below is a list from the internet of private (personal) virtues to which a Roman should aspire, and of public virtues to which the state itself should hold. They remind me of the Enlightenment ideal which came from them. There is no appeal to the afterlife, or to charity (love) as the primary human duty.

Below that is part of an article by a well known Jewish philosopher which explains the most fundamental thing about the ethical religions, what is called ethical monotheism.

Roman Personal virtues
These are the qualities of life to which every citizen (and, ideally, everyone else) should aspire. They are the heart of the Via Romana — the Roman Way — and are thought to be those qualities which gave the Roman Republic the moral strength to conquer and civilize the world. Today, they are the rods against which we can measure our own behavior and character, and we can strive to better understand and practice them in our everyday lives.

Auctoritas “Spiritual Authority” The sense of one’s social standing, built up through experience, Pietas, and Industria.
Comitas “Humour” Ease of manner, courtesy, openness, and friendliness.
Clementia “Mercy” Mildness and gentleness.
Dignitas “Dignity” A sense of self-worth, personal pride.
Firmitas “Tenacity” Strength of mind, the ability to stick to one’s purpose.
Frugalitas “Frugalness” Economy and simplicity of style, without being miserly.
Gravitas “Gravity” A sense of the importance of the matter at hand, responsibility and earnestness.
Honestas “Respectability” The image that one presents as a respectable member of society.
Humanitas “Humanity” Refinement, civilization, learning, and being cultured.
Industria “Industriousness” Hard work.
Pietas “Dutifulness” More than religious piety; a respect for the natural order socially, politically, and religiously. Includes the ideas of patriotism and devotion to others.
Prudentia “Prudence” Foresight, wisdom, and personal discretion.
Salubritas “Wholesomeness” Health and cleanliness.
Severitas “Sternness” Gravity, self-control.
Veritas “Truthfulness” Honesty in dealing with others.

Public virtues (of the Roman state)
In addition to the private virtues which were aspired to by individuals, Roman culture also strove to uphold virtues which were shared by all of society in common. Note that some of the virtues to which individuals were expected to aspire are also public virtues to be sought by society as a whole. These virtues were often expressed by minting them on coinage; in this way, their message would be shared by all the classical world. In many cases, these virtues were personified as deities.

Abundantia “Abundance, Plenty” The ideal of there being enough food and prosperity for all segments of society.
Aequitas “Equity” Fair dealing both within government and among the people.
Bonus Eventus “Good fortune” Remembrance of important positive events.
Clementia “Clemency” Mercy, shown to other nations.
Concordia “Concord” Harmony among the Roman people, and also between Rome and other nations.
Felicitas “Happiness, prosperity” A celebration of the best aspects of Roman society.
Fides “Confidence” Good faith in all commercial and governmental dealings.
Fortuna “Fortune” An acknowledgment of positive events.
Genius “Spirit of Rome” Acknowledgment of the combined spirit of Rome, and its people.
Hilaritas “Mirth, rejoicing” An expression of happy times.
Iustitia “Justice” As expressed by sensible laws and governance.
Laetitia “Joy, Gladness” The celebration of thanksgiving, often of the resolution of crisis.
Liberalitas “Liberality” Generous giving.
Libertas “Freedom” A virtue which has been subsequently aspired to by all cultures.
Nobilitas “Nobility” Noble action within the public sphere.
Ops “Wealth” Acknowledgment of the prosperity of the Roman world.
Patientia “Endurance, Patience” The ability to weather storms and crisis.
Pax “Peace” A celebration of peace among society and between nations.
Pietas “Piety, Dutifulness” People paying honor to the gods.
Providentia “Providence, Forethought” The ability of Roman society to survive trials and manifest a greater destiny.
Pudicita “Modesty, Chastity.” A public expression which belies the accusation of “moral corruptness” in ancient Rome.
Salus “Safety” Concern for public health and welfare.
Securitas “Confidence, Security” Brought by peace and efficient governance.
Spes “Hope” Especially during times of difficulty.
Uberitas “Fertility” Particularly concerning agriculture.
Virtus “Courage” Especially of leaders within society and government.


( I have omitted specific criticisms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam since the purpose of my essay is to explain ethical monotheism, not to dwell on how in practice men and religions have too often failed it.)

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.


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 worshiped 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.

Thus, nature worship is very dangerous. When people idolize nature, they can easily arrive at the ethics of Nazism. It was the law of nature that Adolf Hitler sought to emulate—the strong shall conquer the weak. Nazism and other ideologies that are hostile to ethical monotheism and venerate nature are very tempting. Nature allows you to act naturally, i.e., do only what you want you to do, without moral restraints; God does not. Nature lets you act naturally – and it is as natural to kill, rape, and enslave as it is to love.

In light of all this, it is alarming that many people today virtually venerate nature. It can only have terrible moral ramifications.

One of the vital elements in the ethical monotheist revolution was its repudiation of nature as god. The evolution of civilization and morality have depended in large part on desanctifying nature.

Civilizations that equated gods with nature—a characteristic of all primitive societies—or that worshiped nature did not evolve.

If nature is divine, and has a will of its own the only way for human beings to conquer disease or obtain sustenance is to placate it – through witchcraft, magic, voodoo, and/or human sacrifice.

One of ethical monotheism’s greatest battles today is against the increasing deification of nature, movements that are generally led (as were most radical ideologies) by well educated, secularized individuals.


The second essential characteristic is that God is personal.

The God of ethical monotheism is not some depersonalized force: God cares about His creations. As University of Chicago historian William A. Irwin wrote in a 1947 essay on ethical monotheism: “The world was to be understood in terms of personality. Its center and essence was not blind force or some sort of cold, inert reality but a personal God.” God is not an Unmoved Mover, not a watchmaker who abandoned His watch after making it, as the Enlightenment Deists would have it. God knows each of us. We are, after all, “created in His image.” This is not merely wishful thinking why would God create a being capable of knowing Him, yet choose not to know that being?

This does not mean that God necessarily answers prayers or even that God intervenes in all or even any of our lives. It means that He knows us and cares about us. Caring beings are not created by an uncaring being.

The whole point of ethical monotheism is that God’s greatest desire is that we act toward one another with justice and mercy. An Unmoved Mover who didn’t know His human creatures couldn’t care less how they treat one another.


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. Thus, in the Babylonian version of the flood story, the gods, led by Enlil, sent a flood to destroy mankind, saving only Utnapishtim and his wife – because Enlil personally liked Utnapishtim. It is an act of caprice, not morality. In the biblical story, God also sends a flood, saving only Noah and his wife and family. The stories are almost identical except for one overwhelming difference: The entire Hebrew story is animated by ethical/moral concerns. God brings the flood solely because people treat one another, not God, badly, and God saves Noah solely because he was “the most righteous person in his generation.”

Words cannot convey the magnitude of the change wrought by the Hebrew Bible’s introduction into the world of a God who rules the universe morally.

One ramification is that despite the victories of evil people and the sufferings of good people, a moral God rules the world, and ultimately the good and the evil will receive their just deserts. I have never understood how a good secular individual can avoid debilitating despair. To care about goodness, yet to witness the unbearable torments of the good and the innocent, and to see many of the evil go unpunished—all the while believing that this life is all there is, that we are alone in a universe that hears no child’s cry and sees no person’s tears—has to be a recipe for despair. I would be overwhelmed with sadness if I did not believe that there is a good God who somehow—in this life or an afterlife—ensures that justice prevails.


As primary as ethics are, man cannot live by morality alone. We are also instructed to lead holy lives: “You shall be holy because I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). God is more than the source of morality, He is the source of holiness.

Ethics enables life; holiness ennobles it. Holiness is the elevation of the human being from his animal nature to his being created in the image of God. To cite a simple example, we can eat like an animal—with our fingers, belching, from the floor, while relieving ourselves or elevate ourselves to eat from a table, with utensils and napkins, keeping our digestive sounds quiet. It is, however, very important to note that a person who eats like an animal is doing something unholy, not immoral. The distinction, lost upon many religious people, is an important one.

One God and One Morality

The oneness of God is an indispensable component of ethical monotheism. Only if there is one God is there one morality. Two or more gods mean two or more divine wills, and therefore two or more moral codes. That is why ethical polytheism is unlikely. Once God told Abraham that human sacrifice is wrong, it was wrong. There was no competing god to teach otherwise.

One morality also means one moral code for all humanity. “Thou shall not murder” means that murder is wrong for everyone, not just for one culture. It means that suttee, the now rare but once widespread Hindu practice of burning widows with their husband’s body, is wrong. It means the killing of a daughter or sister who lost her virginity prior to marriage, practiced to this day in parts of the Arab world, is immoral. One Humanity

One God who created human beings of all races means that all of humanity are related. Only if there is one Father are all of us brothers and sisters.

Human Life is Sacred

Another critical moral ramification of ethical monotheism is the sanctity of human life. Only if there is a God in whose image human beings are created is human life sacred. If human beings do not contain an element of the divine, they are merely intelligent animals.

For many years, I have been warning that a totally secular world view will erode the distinction between humans and animals. The popular contemporary expression “All life is sacred” is an example of what secularism leads to. It means that all life is equally sacred, that people and chickens are equally valuable. That is why the head of a leading animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), has likened the barbecuing of six billion chickens a year to the slaughter of six million Jews in the Holocaust; and that is how PETA could take out a full page ad in the Des Moines Register equating the slaughter of animals with the murder of people.

Such views don’t so much enhance the value of animal life as they reduce the value of human life.

God’s Primary Demand Is Goodness

Of course, the clearest teaching of ethical monotheism is that God demands ethical behavior. As Ernest van den Haag described it: “[The Jews’] invisible God not only insisted on being the only and all powerful God . . . He also developed into a moral God.”

But ethical monotheism suggests more than that God demands ethical behavior; it means that Gods primary demand is ethical behavior. It means that God cares about how we treat one another more than He cares about anything else.

Thus, ethical monotheism’s message remains as. radical today as when it was first promulgated. The secular world has looked elsewhere for its values, while even many religious Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that Gods primary demand is something other than ethics.

Jews and Ethical Monotheism

Since Judaism gave the world ethical monotheism, one would expect that Jews would come closest to holding its values. In some important ways, this is true. Jews do hold that God judges everyone, Jew or Gentile, by his or her behavior. This is a major reason that Jews do not proselytize (though it is not an argument against Jews proselytizing; indeed, they ought to): Judaism has never believed that non Jews have to embrace Judaism to attain salvation or any other reward in the afterlife.

But within Jewish religious life, the picture changes. The more observant a Jew is, the more he or she is likely to assume that God considers ritual observances to be at least as important as God’s ethical demands.

This erroneous belief is as old as the Jewish people, and one against which the prophets passionately railed: “Do I [God] need your many sacrifices?” cried out Isaiah (Isaiah 1:11). The question is rhetorical. What God does demand is justice and goodness based on faith in God: “Oh, man,” taught the prophet Micah, “God has told you what is good and what God requires of you only that you act justly, love goodness and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8, emphasis added).

Christians and Ethical Monotheism

First, it is Christianity, more than any other religion, including Judaism, that has carried the message of the Jewish prophets, the clearest voices of ethical monotheism, to the world.

Second, Christianity, though not theologically pure in its ethical monotheism, can and does lead millions of people to more ethical lives. People do not live by theology alone. Theological teachings aside, the kindness and selflessness often associated with religious Christians and with charitable Christian institutions are rarely paralleled anywhere in the secular world—and infrequently in the religious world, either.

I yearn for the day when Christians will emphasize ethical monotheism as the most important part of their commitment to Christianity. I know from years of work and friendship with Christians of all persuasions that ethical monotheism is a value that many of them can easily and passionately affirm.