THE BLOG
12/01/2014 09:16 am ET Updated Jan 31, 2015

Moses, Jesus, Mohammed and Company: The Critical Problem with the Prophet System

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Moses is big right now. A blockbuster movie, Exodus: Gods and Kings, will shortly be released, glorifying his role in leading the ancient Hebrews to freedom-- with some not insignificant assistance from God. And just about a week ago, the Texas State Board of Education approved textbooks extolling the alleged influence of Moses on the U.S. Constitution. Pretty soon, we will be told that Moses was an early feminist and animal rights advocate.

I'm not going to address the Exodus story. It's a heroic myth not dissimilar to Greek or Roman stories about Heracles, Aeneas, or other heroes. If you're willing to believe that God would slaughter thousands of innocent children to punish a ruler for his decisions, then you're probably inclined to accept a plague of frogs.

I'm much more concerned about the purported influence of Moses on the Constitution. This is an outrageously false claim. Historians uniformly reject this notion. The Founders were influenced primarily by Locke and other political philosophers. Moreover, the ancient Israelites were subjects of a theocratic monarchy, not citizens of a democracy. There's not much discussion of the consent of the governed or the separation of powers in the Hebrew Bible.

What is especially ironic about the false claim of Moses's influence on the Constitution is that all religions which are based on revelation--and this would include Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism, among others--are inherently anti-democratic.

Those who believe in revelation believe that God transmitted critical information about human destiny and the proper conduct of humans via a few select individuals. When people say that God provides the foundation for their moral thinking, what they're really saying is that Moses or Jesus or Mohammed or Joseph Smith or some other person in whom they have placed their trust--despite in most cases never having had any contact with this long-dead person--provides the foundation for their moral thinking. God does not speak to us except through the prophets.

Sure, you can claim you talk to God in your prayers, but if you want to remain a member of one of the major religions you cannot claim that God has provided you with a revelation that contradicts the views of the accepted prophets of your religion. If you're Muslim, try to contradict Mohammed and see what happens.

If you are a faithful Jew, Christian, Muslim, or Mormon, then you must accept that God does not convey any really important information except through the medium of a few prophets. In other words, there is a rigidly hierarchical, cognitive class system inherent in revealed religion. There are a few people who have been in direct contact with God and are in the know about his plans and instructions. These are the people who tell us what to believe and do. Then there are the billions of the rest of us, who just have to follow along.

And, of course, the ultimate twist to this bizarre anti-democratic system is that the revelations are in conflict with each other. One has to choose between Moses talking to a burning bush, Mohammed getting the word from Gabriel in his dreams, and Joseph Smith finding wisdom at the bottom of his hat, among others. Later revelations may borrow from earlier ones, but they're not consistent.

There's a better way, of course, to determine how we should behave, what rules and laws we should adopt and follow. This way is democratic. If our moral norms and our laws are to serve human interests--and what would be their point otherwise?--then humans need to talk to each other and reason together. We cannot and should not rely on supposed prophets to tell us what to do; we should figure that out for ourselves.

The title of the new Moses epic, Exodus: Gods and Kings, unintentionally says something significant about the human condition. During the childhood of humanity, we did rely on gods and kings to direct us. The myths of the various religions provided the pretext for dictatorial rule by authoritarian rulers (and, sadly, in some parts of the world, they still do). It's high time we grew up and accepted our responsibility to govern ourselves, without the dubious benefit of prophets and divine revelation.