Under God: The People of Ancient Israel –

Episode 5: Life in Mono


These days, monotheism is everywhere.

Most people in the world profess a belief “in God,” rather than a belief in gods, or in spirits. 

But as Richard Elliott Friedman points out in his book Exodus, polytheistic religions dominated human cultures for most of our history, by far.

So what exactly does monotheism offer to the people who practice it? 

We just covered the evolution of Jewish culture from polytheism to staunch monotheism, but was there a purpose, or a function, behind such a shift? Is a polytheistic society different from a monotheistic one? 

In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins names a litany of ancient pagan deities, and then smugly observes:

“We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Atheists just go one god further.” 

Is he right that it’s just a matter of arithmetic in the number of “delusions” we choose to believe in? Or does belief in One God offer something that belief in many gods does not?

Friedman argues that monotheism was important for the cultivation of community tolerance and respect for aliens, for outsiders, for people who were different. In essence, “love your neighbor as yourself” is at the heart of monotheism, at least Jewish monotheism.

The Torah states “the same law applies both to the native-born and to the foreigner who lives among you.” (Exodus 12:49.) Such a sentiment was certainly relevant for the tribe of Levi, who themselves had a past as resident aliens.

Among the Levite sources of the Torah, the command to treat aliens fairly shows up a total of 52 times!

Among the one non-Levite source? Not once

Given that Ezra himself was a descendant of Aaron, and thus a Levite, it’s not surprising that the final Torah that he assembled and presented to the people made this theme of acceptance a priority.

Yes, most of us will immediately think of all of the biblical passages and historical events that show violence and intolerance rather than such professed love.

Yet Friedman concedes as much. There will always be strife and tribal dynamics when humans are around. But everything is relative, not just to different points in history but to different cultures of the time.

Also, let’s not forget that democracies and republics began in pagan, polytheistic Greece.

And our collective understanding of ethics and morality was enriched by Hindu, Confucian, and Shinto sages, among others.

Friedman also concedes these points. He’s careful to state that the relationship between monotheism and moral tolerance is not absolute.

But in general, the shift from an anthropomorphic god or gods to a cosmic entity had important social consequences.

Early pagan gods had something like a physical form, they had human moods and emotions, and they were limited to one element of power, or to one geographic region. Compare that to a transcendent all-knowing God who created the entire universe.

Such a God enabled humans to transcend petty divisions of locality, color, and even creed, as this was a God that ruled over everyone, every person on the planet.

Common origin,

higher ideals,

… a universal sense of order.

At the very least, such notions stemming from a cosmic, ever-present God offered an increased possibility of making peace among diverse factions.

As long as those factions behave exactly as we say, that is.

[zing! …. okay, okay, yes… there are limits…]

to be continued…

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Phylum of Alexandria

Committed music junkie. Recovering academic. Nerd for life.

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Famed Member
June 7, 2023 11:33 am

Here we go. Sorry to have jumped ahead earlier.

Famed Member
June 7, 2023 12:55 pm

I took a graduate course on Environmental History, and a funny fact was pointed out to the class:

Before a culture achieves farming, they tend to be polytheistic, with a strong sense of animism. Anthropologists think that’s because of those cultures’ reliance on nature around them to support them.

Once sedentary farming takes hold, it is the sun/sky that enables that culture to survive…and so begins the worship of a sun god/monotheistic religion.

JJ Live At Leeds
Famed Member
June 7, 2023 1:16 pm

Ah Dawkins. The God Delusion is the only book of his I’ve read. Some good points I thought but wrapped up in such a smug, self satisfied, prescriptive package that made it a slog to get through. I also learnt that I’m the wrong sort of atheist as I’m happy to accept that I’m not better than those who do follow a religion and we’re all welcome to our own beliefs.

I definitely didn’t get a sense of love your neighbour from him.

Famed Member
June 7, 2023 2:02 pm

Maybe monotheism evolved as some people and societies gained a more solid understanding behind the why’s of things happening the way they did?

Famed Member
June 7, 2023 2:11 pm

I could look this up on Google, but it’s more fun to ask a guy with a PhD.

I have a question about Shintoism. Many years ago, I read Iris Chang’s magnum opus. Her explanation for the actions of the Japanese Imperial Army was their religious beliefs. Chang wrote that practitioners of Shinto prioritize the individual over community. So Chang is arguing for Christianity. I’m writing from memory, so excuse me if I’m misremembering horribly.

Did you see Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering with You?

A girl wants to save Japan from going underwater. She offers herself up as a sacrifice to stop an unending rainstorm. This is my analysis, and it might be a wrongheaded one if I don’t have the tenets of Shinto down pat. In a western film, you let the woman be the hero; she dies so other people can live. But in Weathering with You, the male decides that her life is more important than the lives of the community. And I remember sitting in the audience, thinking oh, wait, what did I read ten years ago?

He saves the girl, the girl who could fix the fallout from global warming. But that means Japan will eventually be swallowed up by water.

Movies usually have an open or a closed ending.

Weathering with You seems to have both.

Famed Member
June 18, 2023 4:27 pm

You were gone for so long. Forgot to check. Thank you for answering my post.

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