One good thing about the Koran burning/mosque hating meme that is so dominating conversation is that it is generating additional conversation about organized religion, in general.

I recently started thinking about the transition from polytheism to monotheism. Actually, I was thinking about the society and culture of 60-100 CE and consciously realized, for the first time, the uphill battle facing early Christians (a sub-group of a minority: Jews) as they sought converts. No wonder “evangelizing” was an integral part of the writings of the apostles:

Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ. Acts 5:42

Christianity was an offshoot of Judaism. However, when Jerusalem was conquered by the Romans in 70 CE, most people did not worship a single god. Rather, society was polytheistic: 

Only very late in “homo religiosus” did monotheism — “one-god-ism” — first emerge …

At the heart of polytheism is an open-minded and easygoing approach to religious belief and practice, a willingness to entertain the idea that there are many gods and many ways to worship them. At the heart of monotheism, by contrast, is the sure conviction that only a single god exists, a tendency to regard one’s own rituals and practices as the only proper way to worship the one true god. The conflict between these fundamental values … is a war that has been fought with heart-shaking cruelty over the last thirty centuries, and it is a war that is still being fought today.

From God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism by Jonathan Kirsch

You may have been taught that the case for “one true god” was first made by the Jews. I certainly was. But we are wrong. 

According to Kirsch, that distinction belongs to an ancient Egyptian pharaoh, Akhenaton, who tried to fashion a one-true-god in the 14th century BCE. At the time, Egypt was the reigning world power. Akhenaton also fought an uphill battle; his efforts fell apart with his death.

Flash forward a few centuries. By the 7th century BCE, King Josiah “fully purged Israel of its pagan taint” (p 5) not because he was a prophet but because he was a king with the power to make it so. However, the effort died with his death, as it also had in Egypt. In the 1st century BCE, Persia was the land of Zoroastrianism, which spread to India and China. 

Monotheism would not become the way of the world until after the Roman emperor Constantine, in the 4th century, paved the way. After the First Council of Nicea (325 CE), which “resulted in the first uniform Christian doctrine,” Constantine the Great “had all alternative versions of the Bible junked in order to consolidate his power.” In turn, the 4th century Roman ruler Julian rejected monotheism and revitalized paganism, but his objection was merely a speed bump on the Roman (and Catholic Church) road to monotheism. 

Even at the time of Mohammed, in the 7th century CE, the Arabian Peninsula remained unsettled in terms of religion. Not only was there traditional war, there was a war for hearts and minds because of the religious mix: Christianity, Judaism, mysticism and polytheism.  

And yet the push for a central true god, a world dominated by monotheism, prevailed in the West.

Today, approximately 3 billion people worship a variant of the god who “revealed himself to Abraham in the second millennium BCE” (The Evolution of God, p 101). Monotheism is a relative youngster when compared with polytheism, and many (most?) Christians, Jews or Muslims deny that their brothers and sisters are worshiping the same god. As a result, too many people voluntarily engage in conflict over the “one true god,” with too many of the major wars of western civilization having been fought in the name of religion. Sigmund Freud identified this conflict in his book Moses and Monotheism, noting that “religious intolerance, which was foreign to antiquity … was inevitably born with the belief in one God” (p 21). 

Why might a king prefer one god to many gods?

Wright argues that consolidation of the power spread across many gods was a form of social cement. It was also a means of nullifying opposition power (by removing organized opposition). In addition, this consolidation elevated the position of high priests in both social and political structures. 

As Bernard Lewis, “a go-to guy during the Bush administration,” reminds us, the notion of a separate church and state “was not only non-existent but would have been meaningless” during the first millennium. 

Monotheism simplifies things for the ruler (be that priest or king). But it removes choice for the ruled. What makes a rational person voluntarily accept that trade-off? The early history suggests that the common man rejected the change, the imposition of a new order (one god). However, as kings and priests aligned their interests and shared the power that resulted, the social norm — often imposed at the point of a spear — became one god. It became the norm and polytheism (or atheism) the social aberration.

However after the Enlightenment — the age of reason — we learned that famines, bountiful harvests, infections or luck aren’t the result of superstition. What, then, is the relationship between politics and religion in modern society?

If politics is both “a system used to allocate those things which are important to society” and “the authoritative allocation of value,” then religion plays an incredibly large role in politics because religion is the basis, the foundation, of most people’s value judgments. And the differences between political parties in the United States are reflected in values: this is good, that is bad (distribution of charity – church, state or other means); this is right, that is wrong (abortion, death penalty, who is taxed and how).

When investigating murder or other nefarious deeds, the first question is this: who benefits? So what is the role of monotheism in our modern society? Who benefits?

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KATHY GILL, Technology Policy Analyst
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