The Mirage of Monotheism

For thousands of years people lived in a world they experienced as populated by a multitude of spiritual forces. Apparently they did not think of them as being subordinate to some central divine king, if for no other reason than because they were acquainted with no such concept.  Today many scholars see this primordial awareness of spiritual multiplicity as a first step towards more sophisticated spiritual understandings, a spiritual journey culminating in monotheism.  To them, we contemporary Pagans seem a kind of romantic throwback or perhaps even a evolutionary degeneration.

This dismissive attitude towards polytheism affects more than Fundamentalists and other conservative monotheists, although among other critics smug superiority often substitutes for venom.  Liberal Christians and Jews, and tolerant secular scholars of religion are often friendly to non-European Pagans, such as practicing Hindus or traditional Native Americans, but very often have a hard time taking Western NeoPagans seriously. They cannot understand how an atavistic polytheism could flourish among Euro-Americans.

But the vision of spiritual, intellectual, and cultural “progress” towards monotheism is a fable.

Monotheism never evolved from polytheistic roots, nor did it triumph because of its persuasive power.  In nearly every instance, a form of monotheism became a culture’s dominant religion through forcible imposition, with adherents to other Gods and faiths imprisoned or killed.  I think it fair to say early monotheisms marked the first totalitarian effort to impose a way of thought on people who had other ideas.

This was true in ancient Egypt, where the Pharaoh Akhenaten sought to force monotheism onto his subjects.  It was also true in ancient Israel, where Moses and his allies slaughtered Pagan Israelites who did not focus their attention only on Yahweh, and if the reports are to be believed, went on to slaughter many of their Pagan neighbors as well. Here are some examples, proudly recorded in scripture:

  • Twenty four thousand Israelites were killed because they cohabited with Moabite women. “Take all the heads of the people, and hang them up before the Lord in the sun.” (Numbers 25:1-9)
  • The tribe of Levi killed 3000 Hebrews of other tribes after the golden calf episode. (Exodus 32:27-28)
  • “Now go and smite Amalek and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” (1 Samuel 15:3)
  • “And I will dash them one against another, even the fathers and the sons together, saith the Lord: I will not pity, nor spare, nor have mercy, but destroy them.” (Jer.13:14)

Later Christians often repeated this behavior within the Roman Empire; in Central, Eastern, and Western Europe; in South America; in Australia; in North America; and on any islands where people happened to live. In China, the Tai Ping Rebellion repeated this logic, and 20-30 million people died in the resulting violence and social breakdown.  Old Testament precedent was often cited to justify these murders. In 1637, the Pequot Indians were massacred by the Puritans one of whom wrote, “God laughed his Enemies and the Enemies of his People to Scorn, making them as a fiery Oven… Thus did the Lord judge among the Heathen, filling the Place with dead Bodies.”

To be sure, small Christian communities managed to live peacefully in China and India for over a thousand years. But they did so in the absence of having the power to destroy their opponents, and so never transformed their host cultures.  In China, they eventually died out through tolerant assimilation.

Once they think their way is the only rightful way, even small peaceful communities have the potential to turn to violence over theological issues once some of their members think they can get away with it, as when some Amish broke into others’ homes and physically attacked other Amish for having the wrong beliefs.

And not just Christians.

Historian Will Durant wrote that the Muslim

“conquest of India is probably the bloodiest story in history. The Islamic historians and scholars have recorded with great glee and pride the slaughters of Hindus, forced conversions, abduction of Hindu women and children to slave markets and the destruction of temples carried out by the warriors of Islam during 800 AD to 1700 AD. Millions of Hindus were converted to Islam by sword during this period.”

However, for a while early Islam did tolerate Pagan Neoplatonists who were thought to be “Sabians,” a now mysterious group Mohammed said should be tolerated.  This limited toleration was considerably more generous than what the Christians offered.  It is why much of the literature and philosophy of the Classical Age that came down to us did so va NeoPlatonic scholars in the Islamic world.  Like Christianity, Islam has the capacity for toleration.  But when combined with adequate power, some who take its exclusivist message seriously quickly lose their taste for living peacefully with other faiths.

Depending on where monotheism was imposed, hundreds to thousands of years of religious oppression backed up by enormous political violence have given the false impression that monotheism was a natural development in human society.  Its followers killed off their opponents, burned their books, smashed their temples, and then wrote new books explaining their view of what happened.  Dead men and burned books make it hard to learn anything but the victors’ stories.

But no sooner did monotheism triumph than it began to dissolve.  The force of arms imposed a unity that sacred books could never come close to achieving.  When that imposed unity ended, the result was war, as passions once directed against Pagans became fratricidal, targeting fellow Christians.

War Among Monotheists

Anyone knowledgeable about Western history knows hundreds of years of religious war and more than a thousand years of religious persecution characterized Europe after it became dominated by Biblical monotheism.  Most of the killing was Christian killing Christian after they had exterminated older faiths.  Here is a puzzle.  Why so much killing of fellow Christians when after the Bible was formulated everyone initially started out agreeing on a single text as authoritative? (Since then even parts of the initial text have been rejected by some, such as Martin Luther’s rejection of the Epistle of James.)

When observed from a Pagan perspective this puzzle is solved. When considered as a whole, Christianity is a kind of polytheistic religion.  But unlike most others, in Christianity the followers of different Gods all make universal monopolistic claims for their varied deities.  Each believes their deity is the only deity, rather than simply the deity to which they are devoted.  Believing this, it follows that those believing in other deities are deluded by the power of evil. My statement might seem extreme, but consider the evidence, often in their own words.

Beyond a claim to universal domination, the Catholic God shares little in common with the Southern Baptist God. More then one Baptist has argued the Catholics are serving the Devil and the Church is the Whore of Babylon described in Revelations. And more than one Catholic has replied the Baptists are going to Hell because they have rejected  God’s true church.

Many Pentecostals agree with Baptists that the Catholic Church is the “Whore of Babylon,” and sometimes go much farther.  Pentecostalist Pat Robertson said, “You say you’re supposed to be nice to the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians and the Methodists and this, that, and the other thing. Nonsense, I don’t have to be nice to the spirit of the Antichrist.”

In return, many non-Pentecostals say Pentecostals channel demons from Hell when speaking in tongues. All these people have sincerely different conceptions of their God and what He desires from them.  Often they explicitly believe they do not worship the same God, even as they use the same name, as Robertson indicates with respect to demonic Presbyterians and Methodists.

Yet this only scratches the surface of Christian polytheism.

The God worshipped by some Missouri Synod Lutherans does not want His devotees praying with non Christians, not even in Jesus’ name. Many such sincere Lutherans filed charges  against Dr. David Benke, a Lutheran pastor who prayed at an interfaith event held in Yankee Stadium following 9-11. They objected that his act could be interpreted as granting legitimacy to other beliefs. Wallace Schulz, the national second vice president of the Missouri Synod argued  “to participate with pagans in an interfaith service and, additionally, to give the impression that there might be more than one god, is an extremely serious offense against the God of the Bible.” More recently another Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, Rob Morris, apologized to his denomination for participating in an interfaith prayer service for people killed in the Sandy Hook massacre. One of his parishioners had been a victim.

The Gods of other Christian denominations, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox alike, were not so bothered.  They were more accommodating, more secure, and probably a great deal more loving. In important respects, the Lutheran God seems different from the God or Gods these other denominations acknowledge.  What constitutes a serious offense for one is not at all objectionable to the other(s).

Bill Keller is leader of the largest interactive Christian website, with over 2.4 million subscribers. Keller has a dim view of Glenn Beck’s Mormon faith.

“Beck likes to call out people for their lies and deceptions, yet he portrays himself daily as a Christian.  The fact is, the beliefs of the satanic Mormon cult are totally inconsistent with Biblical Christianity.  He uses the words “god” and “jesus,” yet the god and jesus of the Mormon cult are NOT the God and Jesus of the Bible . . .”

Robertson and Keller apply to other self-described Christian monotheists the same judgment that Christians generally apply to Muslims.

For some Christians, their God is

“the God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.”

Such were the theological views of Jonathan Edwards, America’s most famous Calvinist theologian.

On the other hand, in a Hymn also endorsed by Unitarians, a Episcopal Hymnal tells us

God is Love; and love enfolds us,
all the world in one embrace:
with unfailing grasp God holds us,
every child of every race.
And when human hearts are breaking
under sorrow’s iron rod,
then we find that self-same aching
deep within the heart of God.

“The Family” is a powerful Christian organization cultivating its presence in the highest halls of political power. It was the source for Washington’s annual “Prayer Breakfast,” attended even by the President.  Among its public members are Senators Tom Coburn,  Jim DeMint, Lindsey Graham, Chuck Grassley, Jim Inhofe, Mark Pryor and John Thune, a sizeable minority of Republican Senators. Pryor is a Democrat. Through its public and secret members the Family extends throughout the government.

In Salon Jeff Sharlet, who has done more to expose the Family than anyone else, wrote that the group’s “spiritual” leader, Doug Coe

“offered Pol Pot and Osama bin Laden as men whose commitment to their causes is to be emulated. Building on the meaning of Christ’s words, he says, ‘You know Jesus said You got to put Him before father-mother-brother-sister? Hitler, Lenin, Mao, that’s what they taught the kids.  Mao even had the kids killing their own mother and father.  But it wasn’t murder. It was building the new nation.  The new kingdom.’”

It is difficult to see how “The Family” and Jonathan Edwards can be said to worship the same deity as is described in this Episcopal hymn, unless this God is the God of Multiple Personality Disorder.

The United Churches of Christ make a point of welcoming practicing gays and lesbians, people whom some other denominations declare are abominations in the eyes of their God. Ms Beverly Hills argues her God commands that practicing gays and lesbians be put to death. She is not alone. One group of Christians welcomes gays and lesbians, another wants them killed. Both groups claim they are acting in accord with the wishes of their deity.

The situation is analogous to both Socrates and the Aztecs being Pagans.  But Pagans would say that Socrates and the Aztecs pretty clearly are attuned to different Gods.  Christian monotheists argue that somehow all Christians worship the same God, but they do so at the cost of any moral, intellectual, and spiritual coherence.  To preserve the myth of monotheism, they have to claim the Gods honored by practices they believe their God abhors are in fact their God, but they get it wrong or are deceived.

But this claim makes no sense because even when we separate ourselves from scriptural interpretation, these entities differ fundamentally.

Quakers believe God dwells in every soul.  Quakers do not depend on specific beliefs from outside authorities but rather upon each person’s direct experience of God. and Quaker meetings give people time to slow down and listen. And even have Him speak through them. For Quakers the Holy Spirit speaking through people today trumps a literal interpretation of Scripture written yesterday.

Orthodox Christians also believe that God is everywhere, and have developed effective means of meditation and contemplation by which they might come into greater harmony with Him.  But they also say that scripture is not to be set aside in favor of community illumination, as the Quakers sometimes do. The Quaker’s God speaks primarily to people in the context of their lives whereas, for  the Orthodox, God requires us to believe what He supposedly told other people thousands of years ago, regardless of the evidence now before us.  The Orthodox God no longer speaks to people in the way He did back then.  Apparently the Quaker deity has no such difficulties with communication. These are very different conceptions of deity. But these differences pale compared to another in Christian ‘monotheism.’

Whereas Quakers and the Orthodox believe God is in the world as well as transcendent to it, other monotheists disagree.  Many Western Christians consider the world as intrinsically fallen and all of us are so tainted by original sin that we cannot find God except through His grace.  He reaches out to us, but he is not in us.  These Christians’ Gods are purely transcendent. Deities such as these are different Gods from the God of the Quakers and the God of the Orthodox, since they are in the world and the others find the world alien to Their nature. Theologians even have different terms: the Orthodox describe their view as “panentheistic.”  Most Western Christians reject panentheism and say their God is “transcendent.”

There is still more.

For some Christians, nothing we choose to do can win salvation.  We are predestined for heaven or hell because it was God who chooses who makes it to heaven, and who goes to hell. From a purely human standpoint all are equally unworthy. Technically this is called ‘double predestination’ because God chooses whom to save and also whom to damn.  We all deserve damnation, and there is no injustice in His choosing a few for salvation just because He can.  It is difficult to apply the term “loving” or “just” in any human sense to such a being, because in human terms it appears completely demonic.  This is just the point say some Calvinists, who argue we cannot grasp God’s goodness because we are so fallen.

For many other Christians there is no pre-destination, either double or single.  God has given us the freedom to choose.  These are not only radically different conceptions of our relationship to God, they are also radically different understandings of what kind of being God is.  Think of a human being with the character of the first and another more like the second.  We would describe them as very different people. The same holds for these deities no matter what their adherents claim.

But the divisions among Christians who emphasize our freedom are also very deep.  Catholic Christians hold that good works and sincere repentance will ultimately win salvation, through the Holy Mother Church.  But many Protestants argue we are saved because of acquiring a personal relationship with God or Jesus, unmediated by the Holy Mother Church. Still other Christians proclaim that faith alone is all that is necessary. Works do not play a role.

Many early Christians, including a majority in the East and many important church fathers such as Gregory of Nyssa, Clement of Alexandria,  and Origen, were “universalists” who believed that ultimately everyone would be saved.  So also did Nestorian Christianity.  Other early Church fathers, such as Augustine and Iranaeus, argued instead that some would be damned forever.  The latter view ultimately prevailed as official doctrine, apparently because it was enforced by the Christianized Roman Empire. Today, with religious freedom, a great many Christian laity believe in the ultimate salvation of all.  In 2007 a Christian Universalist Association was founded drawing members from many denominations. Surely a God who saves everyone is different in kind from a God who sends many, perhaps most, to Hell for eternity. Some Christians even believe this being sends aborted babies to Hell.

The differences continue.  Original sin is a key element in most Western Christianity, accepted by Catholics and Protestants alike.  We are radically separated from God because of sins committed earlier by other people in Eden.  However, the Eastern Orthodox churches do not believe in original sin.   They argue it is a fabrication of the Western Church.  We are not so radically separate.  In one case we are guilty of sin at birth, if not before, in the other we are born innocent.  Our relationship with God  could not get much more different than that while still focusing on salvation.

Differences between Catholic and Orthodox religious views led to the Byzantine “Massacre of the Latins” where Catholics were killed or sold as slaves to Muslim Turks  Special nasty and lethal attention was paid to clergymen.

The later Catholic capture and sack of Constantinople during a Fourth Crusade supposedly waged to fight Muslims led to the desecration of Orthodox sacred sites.  The subsequent Catholic domination of Constantinople led many Orthodox Christians to prefer Muslim rulers to rule by Catholic Christians.  The Muslim God was more tolerant of their faith than the Catholic one.

Within Western Christianity differences between Catholics and Protestants led to hundreds of years of religious violence.  During the Thirty Years’ War  about 1/3 of all inhabitants of what is now Germany and the Czech Republic were killed.  It took Germany 100 years for its population to recover.  Poland entered that war Protestant and ended it Catholic, and the switch had nothing to do with peaceful persuasion or the quiet work of the Holy Spirit.  Religion was its initial cause and remained an important element throughout.

Will the real monotheist please stand up?

Protestants often criticize Catholics as insufficiently monotheistic because of the church’s emphasis on the intercessionary role of Mary and the Saints.  The Orthodox often describe Protestants as not really monotheistic because of their major emphasis upon Jesus rather than God the Father.  But Muslims and Jews often regard all Christians as insufficiently monotheistic because of their belief in the Trinity.

The similarities between Muslims and Jews stop there.  Muslims and Jews worship Gods making different demands, different enough that they kill each other on a regular basis.  Each of these other monotheistic faiths have their own internal divisions.  The mutual killing that divides Sunnis and Shiites is well known.  Even within these broad divisions others emerge, and often treat other Muslims violently.  Al Qaeda has killed far more Muslims than Christians, and arguably shares more with The Family than with most Muslims. Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi Muslim sect is Sunni, sort of, but not in a way most Sunnis would like, some of whom, along with Shiites, are called “infidels.”

Less well-known, at least outside Jewish circles, are the divisions in Judaism that even led some to urge Christian authorities to persecute Jews with whom they disagreed.   The Biblical Samaritans claim common descent from the original twelve tribes of Israel, they also claim to worship the one true God, and they are rejected by Jews. Yet all these people claim to be monotheists worshiping the One True God.

Often Jews, Christians, and Muslims will argue that despite their differences, they all worship the “God of Abraham.”  But this simply repeats the attempt to hide a vast gulf of difference by a verbal term.  The deities these Abrahamic religions worship are different deities.  Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, put the point far more bluntly than I would. In 2001, Graham argued“We’re not attacking Islam, but Islam has attacked us. The God of Islam is not the same God. He’s not the son of God of the Christian or Judeo-Christian faith. It’s a different God and I believe it is a very evil and wicked religion.”

All this variety in the name of monotheism is perplexing, to say the least. In 1828 Red Jacket of the Iroquois succinctly commented on denominational divisions in Christianity: “You say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit. If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it? Why do you not all agree, as you can all read the book? …”

A weak response

Upon hearing early versions of this argument some Christians have told me this diversity is not polytheism because their God is too complex for a single human description.  For example, their God is a God of justice as well as a God of love.

If this argument is true then why all the religious wars and killings and intolerance between Christians? I would guess that all or nearly all on all sides would say it is their God who perfectly balances justice and love.  The disputes go back around 2000 years, and the fratricidal violence nearly as long.  A great many people have shifted from one Christian perspective to another, but only after great personal introspection and prayer.  However they have shifted back and forth, in a kind of “serial monotheism.” Sincerity and prayer have not led seekers to a common understanding, nor has God made it clear who has it right, yet the traditional doctrines of monotheism continue to say there is ONE way that is right. Serial monotheism is no more monotheism than serial monogamy is monogamy.  In both cases a partner makes a vow for life, and then changes it to make a similar vow to another partner for life.

As a Pagan, I have no problem with people finding different partners or different Gods, but I do not pretend to be a believer in the necessity of eternal unalterable commitments to either a partner or a deity. Good for you if you find one who makes you glad you did, as I did with my Goddess, but if not, there is nothing wrong with looking elsewhere.  Just be honest about it.

In truth this “explanation” is no explanation at all.  It is simply waving words in the air while ignoring their meaning in order to make an embarrassing problem disappear.  What constitutes justice and what is its relation to love?  There is no agreement, and yet with the lack of agreement we simply shift the conflicting terms from different conceptions of God to different conceptions of love and justice which are supposedly basic traits of their Gods.  This is not a question that is solved by verbal sleights of hand.

One would think a single God supreme above all others, interested in human history, demanding we all worship Him and Him alone, and concerned with people’s salvation would intervene to bring His sincere followers clarity.  Such intervention has never happened.  He remains silent.  Or worse, Christians with different perspectives assure us He has told them they are correct.  The Christian world is more fragmented today than ever before.

A Polytheistic View of Christianity

From a Pagan point of view what today calls itself monotheism is a diverse polytheism, but one where each deity, or more often the devotees of each deity, usually claim sole dominion over everything and everybody. As with nations making conflicting claims to dominion over peoples and territory, the result is often war and killing because there is no way to determine who is right.  There is plenty of sincerity on all sides.

Because they worship different Gods under the same name, in over 2000 years sincere Christians (let alone monotheists in general) have never been able to agree on central matters of doctrine.  Christians worship a God who loathes us, and a God who loves us; a God who wants all to be saved and a God who sends aborted babies to Hell; a God who surrounds us with intricate rules that we violate at the cost of our souls and a God who only requires us to take Jesus as savior; a God who holds us guilty of Original Sin, and a God who holds us guilty only of sins we personally commit; God who predestined us to salvation or damnation long before we existed and a God who gives us freedom; a God who will save us all because He loves us, a God who will save most and also a God who will save few because his anger towards those who reject Him is eternal.  The variety of sincere interpretations arising from a single text is remarkable, and to the degree unity in understanding has ever existed, it has always come from political force.  Monotheistic unity has always proceeded from the edge of a sword and the barrel of a gun, not from the persuasive power of argument and faith.  When freedom of belief is established, the swords sheathed, the guns stilled, diversity emerges.  Always.

One might even guess that this is what God wants since as soon as people stop killing one another, it happens.

Monism is not Monotheism

Mystical reports across centuries and from every culture, Christian, Jewsih, Muslim, and Pagan, when they are not NonDual, say there is an ultimate Source.  (Dealing with NonDual mysticism is another essay.) This Source is described as loving, good, or in some other compatible term.  It is not a finite personality, as with monotheism.  It is in some sense connected to everything, yet not itself a thing, it knows everyone personally, yet it itself is not a person.  This almost universal spiritual insight provides us a standard by which we can evaluate the Christian pantheon. How loving and good is the particular entity we are encountering?  The more so, the closer to the Source as experienced by human beings.

Significantly, the more the Christian God is seen as love the more easily Christians appear able to see the value of other traditions both within Christianity and outside of it. Powers manifesting perfect love are closer to the Source that unites them all than are those where love is weaker, or as in Jonathan Edwards’ demonic deity, not present at all.

The more God’s love is emphasized, the less blood covers the hands of the devotees.  If Jesus’ injunction “by their fruits you shall know them” is true, and it seems a pretty reasonable observation to me, here are some pretty contrasting harvests depending on the God they worship.

Perhaps this is why Quakers have had such a disproportionate influence for good in the world. This is about as far from Jonathan Edwards’ demonic God who regards us as loathsome insects as one can get. The deity honored by Calvin is farther from its Source than is the deity honored by the Quakers

In this diverse pattern Christianity has a similar record to the Pagan traditions.  Some Pagan ‘deities’ or spirits seem to me equally demonic.  They are more concerned with power and its exercise than with qualities of kindness, love, care, compassion, and the like.  The Aztecs at the height of their power appear to have been an example of a culture connected to demonic energies masquerading as divine. To the extent stories about Moloch and child sacrifice are true, there too was a demonic entity.  Gods and Goddesses who delight in battle and slaughter seem to me little different in their essential nature from some Old Testament versions of Yahweh, with the exception that so far as I know they did not command killing and slaughtering people because they worshipped other deities.

This issue is important for more than Pagan theology.  Pagans religions have proven their ability to live peacefully with spiritual diversity.  So have religions that focus on the NonDual character of what is most basic.  Only the monotheists have serious problems in this regard. Today monotheists, the best of them, are seeking friendly relations with other faith traditions. They sincerely reach out to people across the world.  And yet, at the core of their theology is this doctrine that there is but one deity, ultimately, and that deity is theirs.

How might they both celebrate the truths in their traditions and respect, truly respect other traditions as well? Once they grasp that not even monotheists can coherently develop a monotheistic religion I think the way is open to a more mystical perspective.  There is a Source, and this source manifests in as many ways as Spirit can be conceived, like the ever opening petals of an eternal flower. They are not the flower, they are a petal, a beautiful one, as is every other spiritual tradition.  And the beauty increases the more compatible they are with its most fundamental character: which in human terms we describes as love, goodness, compassion, and beauty.

Like Patheos Pagan on Facebook!


A response to Niki Whiting's review of my book, Faultlines
Don Frew on saving Pagan lives, 'Wiccan privilege' and interfaith
Looking to the future: Pagan religions in 50 Years
Polytheism, Emergence and the One
About Gus diZerega