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.
… 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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