Enough With the 'One God' Stuff


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.

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