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3rd Essay Religious Studies Term 2

Nurulkamilah Matkamil
Micheal Agnew
March 6th 2012
1078 words

Question: With reference to the section “Ethics” in the textbook, discuss the meaning of the phrase “ethical monotheism.” Can there be unethical monotheism? Can there be ethics independent of religion?

            Morality is one of the many facets of human nature that sets human beings apart from other creatures on earth. Is morality innate, or must it be nurtured from imposing a set of ethics on a society? According to the teachings of the three Abrahamic traditions, ethics is essential to the foundation of morality.

            Islam, Judaism and Christianity are three religious traditions of ethical monotheism.  Monotheism is the belief in one God who has the attributes of being omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient and omnibenevolent (Carter). The aspect of God being omnibenevolent implicates that all things good come from God, including ethics, which leads to the belief that humans are dependent on these ethics set forth by God to be moral. The attributes of God being omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient also implicate that God “watches over” his creations which lead to the belief that humans are subjected to judgment, punishment or salvation from God (Knox). As a guideline for judgment, a set of rules or ethics needed to be laid out to determine who is obedient to God’s will or not. Thus, it shows the interconnectedness between monotheism and ethics. For example, other than ritual and worship, Jewish people also rely on ethics as a means to honour their covenant with God. Jews are required to follow 248 prescriptions and 365 proscriptions whereas gentiles are required to abide to Seven Commandments (Corrigan, 210). Failure to abide to these ethics will result in punishment. Similar to the Jewish, both Islam and Christianity also require their devotees to follow certain ethics for a certain purpose. However, unlike Judaism, the purpose is more concerned with judgment in the afterlife. Properly conducted ethics will reward the person with heaven whereas poor conduct will result in punishment. In all three traditions, estrangement from the community is also a by-product of going against the ethics, but is even more so emphasized in Judaism. This is because in order to be God’s people, the community as a whole has to be ethical, so those who are not compliant to the ethics are excommunicated.

            It is only natural that monotheism is ethical in nature as opposed to being mere emotional devotion. Across three traditions, it is not enough to simply believe, but faith must be acted on and manifested in actions, either in worship or in good deeds. Ethical monotheism is practical as it brings people together as a community of a common faith as all members of the community are prescribed to the same set ethics (Fisher, 4).  Ethics also become the basis of community identity construction as communities are identified by those who follow a certain set of ethics. It is easier to practise faith as a group rather as an individual as there is community support as there exists regulatory and standardization measures. However an excess of that may also result in extreme repression and limited room for self-expression and a community that abides to a singular strict interpretation of ethics. The way each Abrahamic tradition views human nature is also another reason why they are ethically monotheistic in nature. Christianity views human beings being born in a condition of sin. Therefore, they require God’s salvation and rely on God for guidance and “correcting” their innately depraved nature (John 3:19-21). Judaism on the other hand believe in a concept of Yetzer Hatov and Yetzer Hara, in which human beings are in constant internal conflict of good and evil and are in need of God-revealed ethics to maintain control over their evil side (Kohelet 7:29). In Islam, all human beings are born pure, or in a state of “fitrah” but the surroundings and nurturing will transform the human being into a different, perhaps sinful state. In order to maintain the fitrah, muslims need religious ethics to guide them (Quran, 30:30). In short, due to the functionality of ethics in structuring society and fulfilling the human need for morality and guidance, ethics is given heavy emphasis in all three religions.
            Can ethics exist outside a religious context? Contemporary scientific studies show a new insight into a field of research of mirror neurons to explain how human beings empathise with each other and develop commonly accepted values through interaction with other human beings (“Society”). Mirror neurons enable you to almost feel the same emotion that the subject of your observation feels. For example, if you see a person crying, you know he or she is sad. Dues to this mechanism, a human being is able to tell right from wrong based on differentiating actions that cause harm For people who believe that there can be ethics without religion would usually use mirror neurons as one of the many justifications for ethics without a need for a religious context, apart from using common sense to deduce right from wrong based on universally accepted values, for example, non-violence (Meeuwisse). Although there are ethics in which people can give a non-religious reason for the basis, but there are also ethics that are based on specifically religious reasons, for example, the prohibition of eating pork in Islam and Judaism as well as the covering of the hair for muslim women.  However, it can also be argued that these values based on common sense could also be derived from ethics that are typically practiced by people cross-religion. Ethics such as the prohibition of murder and stealing can be found in teachings of if not most, all religions, for example, in the Five Buddhist Precepts, the Ten Commandments, and many others (Twiss). It can also be argued that due to mirror neurons, living in a heterogenous community which also includes religious people who practice their ethics, these ethics eventually become a societal norm or accepted behaviour due to mirror neurons which enable other interacting members of the society, be it religious or irreligious to empathize the rationale behind actions and perceive it as being ethical or otherwise. Thus, although people may say that they follow certain ethics without a need for a religious reason, in a way; religious teachings do encompass common ethics and may even be the foundation for all general ethics that is widely accepted in the community.

            In conclusion, ethics is an important component in societal structure as well as personal moral and spiritual development. Islam, Judaism and Christianity have similarities and differences in how they construct their religious ethics. However, as a whole, ethics serve to reach a common end as being one of the main components in ethical monotheism.

Works Cited

Carter, Philippa. “Monotheism”. Religious Studies 1B06  class. McMaster University.   MDCL 1309, Feb 6 2012.

Corrigan, John, et al. “Jews, Christians, and Muslims: A Comparative Introduction to         Monotheistic Religions.” 2nd Edition.  United States: Pearson Education Inc, 2012.          Print.

Fisher, Mary Pat. “Living Religions.” 8th Edition.  United States: Pearson Learning Solutions, 2011. Print.

Knox, George Wm. “Religion and Ethics”. International Journal of Ethics, Vol. 12, No. 3:     Apr. 1902, pg 300-316. JSTOR. Web.  Mar 27 2012.

Meeuwisse, Micheal. “Imitation and Copying Behavior as Different Levels of Resonance
            Within The Mirror Neuron System” Department of Cognitive Psychology. Vrije             Universiteit. Amsterdam, Netherlands. Oct 27 2010. Print.

"Society for Neuroscience - Mirror Neurons." Society for Neuroscience. Web. 24 Mar. 2012.

Twiss, Sumner B. “Comparison in Religious Ethics”. The Blackwell Companion to Religious Ethics. Blackwell Publishing. 2005. Print.

The Hebrew-English Bible, Mechon Mamre. Oct 11 2009. Web. Mar 5 2012.

The Noble Quran in The English Language: A Summarized Version of At-Tabari, Al-Qurtubi        and Ibn Kathir with Comments from Sahih Al-Bukhari. Trans. Dr. Muhammad         Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali and Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan.                                       Saudi Arabia: Maktaba Dar-us-Salam, 1996. Print.
The Oxford Annotated Bible with The Apocrypha, Revised Standard Version. Herbert G. May         and Bruce M. Metzger, editor. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965. Print.


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