Thursday, September 15, 2011

Monotheism Is Inherently Intolerant And Breeds Discord

I was listening to this song while driving to work a couple of days ago and one line from the song stuck out a lot more than it usually does for some reason: "No more war for your god...". It struck me because a line further along in that song says "live and let live, true freedom". Is it really possible to live and let live while people believe in god(s)? No man is an island; every single thing that you do - that you are - affects a multitude of people. Do you have a job? That means that someone else does not. Are you in an exclusive relationship with someone? That means that everyone else who is interested in your significant other is excluded from their intimacy. And so on and so forth for every finite thing.

The concept of live and let live is an impossibility due to scarce resources. But were we always fighting about the wrong gods? Is "god" a resource?

In an earlier post I quoted something from Hector Avalos that he argues at further length in one of his books:

Is religion inherently violent? If not, what provokes violence in the name of religion? Do we mischaracterize religion by focusing too much on its violent side? In this intriguing, original study of religious violence, Professor Hector Avalos offers a new theory for the role of religion in violent conflicts. Starting with the premise that most violence is the result of real or perceived scarce resources, Avalos persuasively argues that religion creates new scarcities on the basis of unverifiable or illusory criteria. Through a careful analysis of the fundamental texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Dr Avalos explains how four 'scarce' resources have figured repeatedly in creating religious violence: sacred space (churches, temples, holy cities); the creation of holy scriptures (exclusive revelations); group privilege (chosen people, the predestined select few); and salvation (only some are saved). Thus, Avalos shows, religious violence is often the most unnecessary violence of all since the scarce resources over which religious conflicts ensue are not actually scarce or need not be scarce. Comparing violence in religious and non-religious contexts, Avalos makes the compelling argument that if we condemn violence caused by scarce resources as morally objectionable, then we must consider even more objectionable violence provoked by alleged scarcities that cannot be proven to exist. Moreover, he shows how many modern academic biblical scholars and scholars of religion maintain the value of sacred texts despite their violence. This serious philosophical examination of the roots of religious violence adds much to our understanding of a perennial source of widespread human suffering.

(Amazon.com product review)

The four things that he lists - sacred space, sacred scriptures, group privilege, and salvation - actually are not inherent to all religion all at once. These four things are specifically related to, and are the logical result of, monotheism (which is what he actually argues in the book). Furthermore, these four things might be present in one form or another in polytheistic religions, but due to the "poly" in polytheism, there is no sense of scarcity. That scarcity is a necessary precursor to division and strife, and ultimately, violence.

Before the fall of Judah and the elites' exile c. 597 BCE, the "Judaism" of the common person (not the literate elite) was a polytheistic religion. When the Judahite elites returned from the exile, they brought with them a more concrete, idealized version of their history which included an inflated version of henotheism (the precursor to monotheism); probably borrowed from their Persian Zoroastrian benefactors who allowed them to return. This inflated henotheism is the backbone of all of the conquest narratives in the "Primary History" of Israel/Judah (Genesis - 2 Kings) created and edited by the literate elite c. 500 BCE. This began the Jews' elitism and intolerance for other religions: The first true religious holy war was the Maccabean revolt of c. 160 BCE*. This only came about due to a "scarcity" of sacred space and group privilege. This same intolerance is also what lead to the destruction of their temple in 70 CE, one of the reasons being the refusal to worship Roman emperors as gods.

Modern Christianity, of course, inherited Jewish monotheism (there were multitude of early Christianities that were not monotheistic). Even going so far as to declare not only that they were not going to worship the gods of their pagan neighbors, but to actively declare that those gods were malevolent spirits. How's that for acceptance and tolerance? The first biggest turning point in the history of religious violence was when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The second biggest turning point in the history of religious violence was when Islam became the official religion of the (now unified) Arab tribes. Prior to the advent of Christianity, no entire empire the span of the Roman Empire would have declared war on another empire just because they had the wrong religion. That would be absurd in a polytheistic framework.

Prior to Christendom, the pagan Roman Empire simply practiced syncretism on conquered peoples. When the Romans conquered the Greeks, they did not kill anyone who believed in the "wrong god" or force everyone to follow the Roman pantheon. No, they just said "Oh, the chief god of the Greeks is Zeus? Well, that's just Jupiter." or "The Greek god of wine is Dionysus? I guess that's what they call Bacchus." or "The Greeks named their main city after their goddess Athena? But that's just Minerva" and so on and so forth. However, when Christians conquered other peoples, they actively said that the local gods were really demons and needed to be vanquished, or in later centuries (to their credit) they changed local pagan gods to human saints and angels.

But when Islam came around - a second monotheistic religion - then planes hit the towers, so to say. Instead of just one continent-spanning empire being monotheistic, you had two. Syncretism would be impossible. Something the scale of the Crusades, for the reasons that started them, would probably be unthinkable in a pre-Christian or pre-Muslim pagan world.

Similarly, something like this entire post would be almost impossible in pre-Christian Roman society. If the guy in that post's favorite god that he preferred to make sacrifices to was Ares, but his girlfriend called him Mars, there would be no relationship-ending type of conflict between them over their theology. It seems as though that post really is a microcosm of the inherent intolerance of monotheism; the Crusades being a large scale manifestation of that same intolerance.

Monotheism, due to its nature in the big three monotheistic religions, precludes syncretism. This preclusion of syncretism is also a preclusion to open-mindedness. This preclusion to open-mindedness is what creates tension, strife, division, and finally... violence and hatred.

"Monotheism leads to fear. Fear leads to hatred. Hatred is the path to the dark side..."

[*] (mainly because the Levant was sort of out of the way of most inter-empire conflict. After the split of Alexander the Great's empire into two c. 280 BCE, more and more skirmishes between the Seleucids and the Ptolemies started occurring closer and closer to Judea, and Judea became more Hellenized)

2 comments:

beowulf2k8 said...

"Monotheism Is Inherently Intolerant And Breeds Discord"

I've toyed with that idea before, but it just doesn't hold up. Its not monotheism, its the idea that God is a narcissistic tyrant that is the problem. There have been plenty of monotheists who simply believed that God created us and wants us to live good lives. They didn't push their beliefs on everyone else or go around persecuting people. Its the idea that God is some sort of nut who needs us to kiss his butt all day long every day and who will broil us in hell if we don't kiss it right that is the problem, not monotheism itself. Of course you could catch me on a technicality here and say that what I am arguing in favor of is monoDeism not monoTHeism.

beowulf2k8 said...

"Monotheism, due to its nature in the big three monotheistic religions, precludes syncretism."

It precludes adding more God's, yes. But monotheism by its very nature, I think, is more syncretistic than polytheism. The one God ends up taking on all the traits of the gods he displaces. Jesus takes on Bacchus' god-of-wine, status, for example in the story of the Cana wedding. In any case, I don't see syncretism as a sort of salvation from violence: sycretism is just the proliferation of superstition.