Enough With the 'One God' Stuff
by James Foley
www.alternet.org, September 23,
In the world today, one ancient religious
ideology, monotheism, stands out as especially dangerous, repressive
Sam Harris's book "The End of Faith:
Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason," which won the
2005 Pen Award for nonfiction, develops a smart, knowledgeable
polemic about the growing dangers of all religious ideologies.
Although I love Harris' rant, my personal obsession has long been
with how weird monotheism is. Monotheism insists there is but
one god, a man of course, alone in the universe for all eternity.
Even as a child, I found this to be a crazy idea.
The Greeks and Romans, the Hindus, and
the Egyptians all imagined many different gods who hang out together,
the way people throughout the world do. These cultures envisioned
social gods with busy existences who like pleasure, food, sex,
art and other good things of life. As with people, the social
ties among the gods loosely constrain their destructive impulses.
Mostly these gods are so involved with each other they only sometimes
notice the lesser beings, just as people only sometimes notice
their household animals. The multiple gods of great cultural systems,
and the gods and spirits of many tribal cultures as well, are
familiar, understandable. They project the human world into the
sky, the same way science fiction does (except, of course, science
fiction understands it is offering fiction).
But monotheism posits one omnipotent,
lonely sucker all by himself -- "the sky god" as Gore
Vidal once called him. The first five books of the Hebrews' Bible
reveal, not surprisingly, that the sky god is often angry, jealous,
vengeful, and even murderous -- regularly toying with, manipulating
and punishing the puny beings he creates to worship and amuse
him. Not surprisingly, he's a self-absorbed ascetic who invents
for his "children" bizarre, impossible-to-comply-with
rules governing a multitude of tiny details of daily life. Sometimes
he goes berserk about minor infractions; frequently he ignores
major violations of his own rules. He's the original bad father,
threatening awful punishments, with no wife, lover, siblings,
friends, co-workers, neighbors or relatives to reign him in.
Early Christians and then Muslims added
to monotheism the great creative innovation of the promise of
eternal life. A person gets to live forever if, and only if, that
person closely follows the sky god's rules. This made monotheism
much easier to sell, especially when coupled with the offer of
extra credit toward salvation for converting others. It also made
monotheism fantastically effective in motivating, inspiring, controlling
and ruling people. Fueled by the monotheists' inexhaustible missionary
zeal, in nearly 2,000 years this peculiar ideology has spread
throughout much of the globe.
Here in the high-tech futuristic 21st
century, the punitive, vengeful, sky god is as strong and legitimate
as he's been in a long time. Modernity, it turns out, was no cure
for monotheism. If anything, it increases extremism, especially
-- but never only -- among the dispossessed. And now in the Middle
East we have the volatile blend of pissed-off Jews, Muslims, and
Christians, each convinced they possess an a iron-clad mandate
from their one and only angry god. Mixed in as well are many weapons,
lots of oil, and the dangerous, born-again idiocy of George W.
Bush and other prominent Republicans. All this is concentrated
on the turf that monotheists everywhere see as their origin, their
home, their "holy land."
Present-day America's most popular form
of lunatic monotheism -- fundamentalist, evangelical Protestantism
(and especially end-of-days Christianity with tens of millions
of believers convinced that Jesus is returning soon) -- is deeply
obsessed with the holy land. Crazed Christian fundamentalists
love it when crazed Jewish warriors battle it out with crazed
Islamic warriors. The Pat Robertsons regard the wars as win-win
and ordinary believers see them as signs that the saved will soon
be lifted to heaven. Unfortunately, these fundamentalist Christians
now have enormous influence over the foreign policy of the most
powerful nation in the world.
Most monotheists want governments to punish
people who fail to obey some of the sky god's ascetic rules. Even
moderate, middle-of-the-road monotheists -- like the Roman Catholic
Church -- pressure governments to criminalize and punish homosexuality,
drug use and abortion. The large and growing numbers of Christian,
Muslim and Jewish fundamentalists have far grander ambitions.
Inevitably, some prominent believers turn
out to have long been hypocrites, liars and secret sinners --
adulterers, gamblers, drug users, homosexuals. But hypocrisy poses
no threat to the monotheists who say the hidden sins demonstrate
the awful power of the evils they battle. The self-righteous condemn
the sins, of course, but they actually approve of the lies, insisting
that "hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue --
to the one heavenly lord.
Monotheists, especially in scary and desperate
times like our own, easily hate other monotheisms and often loath
variants of their own brand. And while they have often been happy
to butcher polytheists by the wagonload, monotheists do not ordinarily
hate polytheists (except when armed and dangerous). Traditionally,
monotheists have regarded pagans as primitive or backward peoples
who just don't know any better. But they, the other monotheists
and the apostates, do know better, or should.
The historic battles within monotheism
are legendary: Hebrews vs. Christians, Sunnis vs. Shiites, Catholics
vs. Protestants, Lutherans vs. Calvinists, Church of England vs.
dissenters, Puritans vs. Baptists, and so many others. Currently
some Islamic extremists have a hard time deciding who they despise
more: Is it the evil Christian and Jewish heretics, or is it the
evil Muslims heretics? So much heresy, so little time.
For monotheism, it always comes down to
heresy, to the rejection of orthodoxy. Starting perhaps with Zoroastrianism,
each monotheism itself began as a heresy, instantly generating
its own orthodoxy. Heresy -- free thought and choosing to reject
the rules -- is the primal offense against the monotheists' conception,
and love, of their solitary deity.
The chief authoritarian ideologies of
the 20th century were secular and even anti-religious. They are
not gone, but they are exhausted. Now, in our global warming,
nuclear bomb-loaded world, especially in the United States and
the Middle East, we face an older, far more popular and durable
ideology: the angry god as mandate and role model.
Like Mark Twain, Bertrand Russell and
others before him, Sam Harris insists that the basic premises
and literal texts of monotheism are so authoritarian and repressive
that people who believe them also easily and frequently support
all sorts of other repressive causes. For evidence, see the last
2,000 years of history, or tomorrow's newspaper.