We are taught to think of polytheistic societies as primitive and intellectually shallow and that the introduction of the idea of monotheism, that there is only one god, was a generally good thing, a sign of increased sophistication as civilization progressed. But an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reviewing the work of Egyptologist Jan Assmann says that his view is that this may not be true, and that the shift to monotheism was actually a bad thing and the likely cause of violence spawned by religions over millennia.
Assmann argues that biblical monotheism, as codified by the Pentateuch, disrupted the political and cultural stability of the ancient world by introducing the concept of “religious exclusivity”: that is, by claiming, as no belief system had previously, that its God was the one true God, and that, correspondingly, all other gods were false. By introducing the idea of the “one true God,” Assmann suggests that monotheism upended one of the basic precepts of ancient polytheism: the principle of “divine translatability.” This notion meant that, in ancient Mesopotamia, the various competing deities and idols possessed a fundamental equivalence. This equivalence provided the basis for a constructive modus vivendi among the major empires and polities that predominated in the ancient world.
Assmann readily admits that the ancient Middle East was hardly an unending expanse of peaceable kingdoms. However, he suggests that before monotheism’s emergence, the rivalries and conflicts at issue were predominantly political rather than religious in nature. For this reason, they could be more readily contained. Monotheism raised the stakes of these skirmishes to fever pitch. According to Assmann, with monotheism’s advent, it became next to impossible to separate narrowly political disagreements from religious disputes about “ultimate ends” (Max Weber) or “comprehensive doctrines” (John Rawls). According to the new logic of “religious exclusivity,” political opponents to be conquered were turned into theological “foes” to be decimated.
By introducing the “Mosaic distinction,” Assmann argues, the Old Testament established the foundations of religious intolerance, as epitomized by the theological watchwords: “No other gods!” “No god but God!” Thereafter, the pre-monotheistic deities were denigrated as “idols.” As Assmann explains: Ancient Judaism “sharply distinguishes itself from the religions of its environment by demanding that its One God be worshiped to the exclusion of all others, by banning the production of images, and by making divine favor depend less on sacrificial offerings and rites than on the righteous conduct of the individual and the observance of god-given, scripturally fixed laws.”
These measures and techniques infused monotheistic religious practice with a new stringency—an element of fideistic absolutism—that differed qualitatively from the more diffuse cult practices of its polytheistic predecessors. Moreover, by introducing the idea of a transcendent and omnipotent deity, monotheism was guilty of estranging its adherents from the natural world—a tendency that stood in marked contrast with the world-affirming and life-enhancing orientation of pagan belief systems.
It is an interesting and plausible thesis that we may be better served by the life-affirming polytheistic beliefs of what we now refer to as ‘primitive’ or ‘pagan’ religions than by the seemingly sophisticated monotheistic ones.
But if Assmann’s argument is true, how is it that we have for so long seen monotheism as a good thing? Maybe because if you are fortunate to live in a pluralistic secular democratic society that does not allow one religion to assert its dominance over others, then we have effectively recreated a polytheistic society with all its benefits while paying lip-service to monotheism. We have Jews worshipping a Jewish god, Muslims worshipping a Muslim god, Christians worshipping a Christian god, Hindus worshipping a Hindu god, and so on. Whatever they may think in private, each set of believers is tacitly forced to at least publicly acknowledge the legitimacy of all the other gods. As a result violent religious efforts to establish supremacy are suppressed.
In such societies, the question that is never asked in mixed company is “Which of your gods is the true one?” In ecumenical gatherings one gets vague mumblings to the effect that all worship the same god. Any major religious leader who openly says that his or her religion is the one true one and all others false would be violating a social taboo. At most, they will only declare the less politically influential ones, such as Muslims and Wiccans in the US, as false.
Of course, few believers really think that they all worship the same god because the idea would be obviously preposterous to even the most naïve believer. Why would a single god reveal himself multiple times in multiple places and societies and create different rules and doctrines and holy books for people to follow? How can they all come from the same god if they are contradictory? The only logical answers are that only one is true and all the others false or that none of them are true, with the second being the only sensible choice.
The problems created by monotheism lie just below the surface in religiously pluralistic societies. Monotheism rears its ugly head when one religion acquires state power and influence that it has the ability to suppress others or when one set of believers breaks the taboo and proclaim that they alone worship the ‘one true god’. One doesn’t have to look far to find examples of the mess that this creates.