Why are billions of people monotheists?
Polytheism was the norm in large societies in the Bronze and Iron Ages, and animism, shamanism and totemism were prevalent in clans and tribes stretching back to the Stone Age. According to monotheists, the one and only God revealed himself through prophets such as Isaiah, Jesus, and Muhammad, and through scriptures and miracles.
But history deflates the myths, so let’s take a subversive walk down memory lane.
Morality and Zoroastrianism
Monotheism began with Zoroaster’s simplification of the Persian pantheon in the seventh century BCE. Zoroaster reduced the many Persian gods to two forces, to constructive and destructive ones, and maintained that good is stronger than evil and that good will vanquish evil in a final cataclysmic battle, leaving the one true God, Ahura Mazda, the light of wisdom to rule until the end of time. Instead of God creating the world, the world creates God through a process in which we participate by performing good deeds.
There are three key points of Zoroastrianism to understand. First is the plausibility of this form of monotheism, in which God isn’t a preexistent, eternal creator of everything except himself, but evolves as the culmination of certain processes. I’ll return to this plausibility in the final section.
Second is that the oneness of Zoroastrian divinity is based on the moral supremacy of good over evil. God is made singular by faith in the eventual victory of good over evil. So there’s only one real deity because eventually there will be only one moral value and that value will one day be upheld by supreme power and wisdom. Zoroastrian religion dramatizes moral philosophy with an apocalyptic conspiracy theory that encourages us to pick sides in a cosmic struggle between good and evil.
Third, this religion redefines time as linear, since the drama takes the form of a lead-up to that apocalyptic battle. The process of God’s formation from the triumph of goodness makes God singular, then, not only because of the moral imperative for goodness to triumph, but because of this new structure of time. Linear time has a singular endpoint, whereas hitherto time had been conceived of as cyclical, reflecting natural and social rhythms, as everything from the seasons to civilizations would come and go and return in different guises.
More generally, the moral character of Zoroastrian monotheism sprang from the revolution in existential or meta-thinking that characterized the Axial Age and that was accelerated by the invention of alphabetic literacy. What we think of as “modern” thought, the anxious, existential questioning and philosophical sophistication of the Age of Reason, giving rise to scientific objectivity, modern democracies and capitalist economies, and to technological and social progress actually began in several places around the world through much of the first millennium BCE. So-called modernity is a reawakening to or a second reckoning with the radical ancient insights from sources such as Plato, Zoroaster, Ecclesiastes, Lao-Tse, the Upanishads, and the Buddha.
The Jewish God of Alienation
In any case, Judaism emerges as a consolidation of the Canaanite pantheon, the catalyst being an infusion of Zoroastrian monotheism at the end of the Babylonian captivity, when Cyrus the Great freed the Jews in the sixth century BCE and when the Jewish scriptures were compiled.
The bits of history that account for the character of Jewish monotheism are at least twofold. First, there’s that direct contact with Persian monotheism. Second and more importantly is the fact that that contact came after periods in which the peoples of Judah and Israel were conquered and scattered by empires, from the Neo-Assyrians to the Babylonians to the Persians. The pattern continued after the establishment of Jewish monotheism, with the rule of Jews by the Seleucids and then by the Romans and so on. The ancient Jewish experience was thus of wandering the desert and of being conquered by foreign empires that came and went.
The Jewish innovation, then, was the imagining of a negative, “transcendent” deity that reflected the Jews’ outsider status and that accounted for their historical endurance. The Jews’ deity was found nowhere in nature, since he was the preexistent source of the apparent universe, just as the Jewish tribes were alienated from the prevailing civilizations but upheld the high moral standards or the religious emphasis on moral purity they inherited especially from the Persians.
The oneness or ultimate highness of Yahweh reflected his standing apart from anything that could be perceived or comprehended and idolized. Thus, the God of Judaism gave voice to Jewish nomadism. That God was unfathomable and immaterial because Jews were forced to think of themselves as outsiders, as wandering observers, as a negative presence that persisted and seemed to inherit the world left by the rise and fall of warring empires. God’s invisibility could easily be mistaken for his nonexistence just as the Jews’ professed status as God’s chosen people looked like a rationalization of their perennial victimhood.
Christian Sleight of Hand
After the Jews had been conquered several times and they’d survived those centuries with their culture of alienation, pragmatism, and existential wisdom intact, Judaism struck back against one of those empires, as it were, conquering it in turn. Judaism did so through what came to be known as Christianity.
Christian monotheism was caused by syncretism between Judaism and Roman polytheism. The main idea of Christianity is that the transcendent God of the Jews had a plan to end his alienation from the world he created, and thus to redeem the world that had suffered in the Creator’s absence. That plan was for God to live as a mortal man and to die as a sacrifice to free the world from the devil’s grasp or at least to provide a model of how to live as though God mattered, by loving everyone unconditionally.
Christianity is necessarily the trickiest of the great religions, because its key claims are historical rather than poetic; thus, they’re the most audacious and falsifiable. The religion protected itself and excused its saga of betrayals of the initial spiritual vision, by perfecting the rhetorical art of having it both ways. To wit, Christianity is monotheistic but also obviously polytheistic, since there are supposed to be the divine persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Moreover, Jesus was God and he came to save the world, but he was also obviously a man and he obviously failed, since the imperfect, largely unbelieving and unsaved world has persisted to this day. Thus, the resurrected Jesus is expected to return to finish what he started, but he obviously never did return after two millennia and counting.
The Christian self-contradictions go on and on and on, encompassing, for example, the American Evangelical’s embrace of the odious President Trump. But just to dwell for a moment on a central one, I said that Jesus failed to save the world. The reason that’s evident is that in Christianity we’re not all automatically saved, despite the Western theology that says Jesus died as a sacrifice to pay for sin. We weren’t all made Christians at the moment of Jesus’s resurrection and we still need to confess our sins and make the effort of accepting Jesus as our saviour to be fully saved.
Why, we might ask, wasn’t Jesus powerful enough to have destroyed the devil’s hold over us, just by shedding his precious blood on the cross, as the Western Christian would put it? Why the additional need for faith in that sacrifice, to avoid the divine punishment of everlasting hellfire?
The reason is made clearest in the Gnostic versions of Christianity: God could come only part way to us, because his distance from us is too great. God is only the indirect creator of the natural universe. Our more direct creator is a blundering or evil demigod, that is, a fallen angel or demon. The ultimate God of the Jews, the alienated and transcendent deity who is metaphysically equivalent to nothing (to no particular thing whatsoever), and who gives us hope that our moral principles aren’t tragically misplaced is ontologically removed from nature because he’s too noble to set foot in this cesspool of a material world.
God had to be kept apart from the world, to honour the Jews’ need for a lonely, alienated God who matched their condition as frustrated nomads. But God also had to be made one with the world, to honour the pagan’s positive tribalism and more naked idolatry. That irreconcilable conflict is the reason for the duplicity in Christian theology. Jesus ascended to Heaven without finishing what he started, because God was never really here. God is unnatural, nature is ruled by godless forces, and our world persists in all its sin and indifference to spiritual matters.
But Roman polytheism posits a multitude of potentially-embodied gods. For example, the gods could be identified with the planets. The polytheistic subtext of Christianity therefore says God became a man who tried to bring about the Zoroastrian end of time. The apocalypse hasn’t yet happened, which is accounted for by returning to the root idea in Judaism that God’s oneness implies God’s separation from everything that happens in nature. You’ll recall that that idea in turn is needed to honour the Jewish historical experience of being abused by a series of vain empires.
In any event, what distinguishes Christian monotheism is the Christian’s specious, implicit affirmation of Greco-Roman polytheism, which was forced upon the early Christians as their Jewish sect was embraced by the declining Roman Empire in the fourth century CE. The Christian’s crucial historical claims about Jesus’s divine identity and accomplishments are permitted by the polytheistic principles, but by tacking their New Testament onto the Jewish scriptures, Christians got to indulge in classic monotheistic pronouncements too, as the circumstances warranted.
Allah the Alpha Male
Islam marks a return to the authenticity of Jewish monotheism, although Muhammad and his early followers were enthusiastic proselytizers, like Saint Paul, rather than alienated and often humiliated outsiders like the formative Jews. As with the Canaanite religion, pre-Islamic Arabia was polytheistic. Although there were pre-Muhammad monotheists in the region, known as the hunafa, Arabs at that time were consumed with folklore that was spooked by all manner of supernatural creatures, including ghouls, demons, goblins, and gods, as well as by various superstitions such as demon possession and the evil eye. Muslims would call that period jahiliyya, the Age of Ignorance, meaning the time before God decided to guide the Arabs.
Just as Jews subscribed to ethical or quasi-Zoroastrian monotheism, teaching that practice is more important than tribal loyalty based on worship of false gods, Muslims preached that petty tribal allegiances are dwarfed by the imperative to submit to God’s will. Islam began as a sort of Jewish fundamentalism which hearkened back to Abraham’s ultimate act of submission, to his obedience to God’s command to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. Instead of fearing monsters that hid in the shadows, Arabs should spend all their religious efforts on worshipping the one true God, Allah. God is great, declared the Muslims, and Islam is the systematic submission to God in acknowledgement of that ultimate truth. In place of the Deuteronomic code, Muslims codified sharia, a system of legislation based on the Koran and on the life of Muhammad.
Islamic monotheism derives from the historical connection to Judaism, of course, but the main historical fact that accounts for the non-Jewish character of Islam is that rather than being conquered by empires, Muslims conquered and created an Islamic empire. Muhammad was a warrior prophet, meaning he protected the integrity of his message by military force.
At first, Muhammad attacked the Quraysh monopoly by expressing his monotheism as a moral objection to the Meccan economy that required the veneration of a pantheon of gods, because of the trade that occurred there due to the pilgrimages to the Kaaba. Eventually, Muhammad defended his base of support in Medina against the Meccans and went on to conquer Mecca and the Bedouins of Arabia. By 651 CE, only 19 years after Muhammad’s death, the Rashidun Caliphates took over all of Persia and parts of northern Africa. By the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1683, Muslims controlled what are now Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and Hungary.
Prior to modernity, at least, Muslims were motivated to spread their way of life even at the cost of bloodshed, because they interpreted Islam as ideal for human nature, not just for a special class of persons as in the case of Judaism. But the oneness of Allah is explained ultimately by the biological structure of the social dominance hierarchy, which the military experience of Muslims imported to Islam.
Soldiers submit to those who are higher in rank, because the struggle to survive in war demands that dehumanizing code of conduct. Likewise, the struggle to survive in the wild has led to the evolution of social species that close ranks around what ethologists call the “dominance hierarchy” or the “pecking order.” Power in a social group of animals is concentrated in the strength of a dominant leader (usually, the “alpha male”) that compels his subordinates to submit and even to make a show of submitting by periodically offering their necks or bellies to their superior.
Islam is all about submitting to Allah, such as by praying and bowing to Allah five times every day, by fasting during Ramadan, and by making a pilgrimage to Mecca. The formative Muslim experience is one of Islamic warfare, going right back to its founder who was a conqueror. Submission in a military context is analogous to the universal submission to dominators in social species of animals. Allah’s oneness, therefore, is due to the Muslim’s cultural treatment of Allah as the highest of alpha males.
From God to Posthumanity
The history of monotheism ends so far with Islam, but there’s a modern, secular equivalent. Recall the plausibility of monotheism’s initial form, which was Zoroastrian process theology. Now replace morality as the chief means of creating God, with amoral technology, and substitute God with us or with some posthuman species that will merge with technology to acquire godlike power over the solar system and perhaps the galaxy and beyond.
The liberal’s faith in historical progress with the might of science and technology which protects personal liberties and a free society (democracy and capitalism) is thus comparable to the Zoroastrian faith. What they have in common are a linear view of history and the assumption that social progress is at least conceivable. Transhumanism, the worship of power over nature thanks to the potential for technological supremacy is perhaps the most religious modern version of quasi-Zoroastrianism. This atheistic religion needn’t be monistic, though, since the transhumanist believes intelligent species would have to evolve naturally and thus may compete for godlike dominance. Another religious echo of Zoroastrianism is the scientistic prejudice against the humanities you often encounter in positivistic, scientific circles.
Regardless, atheistic liberalism strips monotheism to its only halfway plausible kernel that’s left once you recognize the greater simplicity of the foregoing reductive explanation of monotheism. This explanation reduces the theological conceit that only one deity actually exists, to the uncontestable historical situations and characteristics of the cultures in question. Once you see how the gods of monotheistic religions historically emerge, Occam’s razor does away with the theistic part of monotheism and leaves us with the hope for the supremacy of some worthy natural substitute for God.