When I was in grade school we were taught that monotheism was a historical advance, comparable to agriculture or other notable inventions. For example, we learned that Akenhaten was a significant figure because he was the first historical figure to advocate monotheism, although it was later repudiated by his successor Tutankhaten aka Tutankhamun aka King Tut. (Akenhaten lived about two centuries before the first historical evidence of Judaism; Freud suggested that Moses was actually a monotheistic priest during the reign of Akenhaten). Even in grade school this argument seemed vaguely suspect to me. The advantages of agriculture seem clear, the advantages of monotheism less so.

These days I do see monotheism as something of an advance. The earliest cultures we know of believed in gods who were much like people, albeit people who were both powerful and sometimes unpredictable. In some cases the gods were simply ancestors. I think this is a natural consequence of our tendency to attribute events to causes. When we want to understand the weather, our impulse is to give it a personality and motivations. It’s only a small step to think that there is a powerful person–a god–who controls the weather.

This then becomes an obstacle to actually understanding what is happening. If you already have an explanation for the weather, and your explanation inherently incorporates unpredictability, there is little purpose to looking for a deeper explanation. Since I do think that scientific thought is an advance in human culture, it follows that these early religions prevented advances.

Monotheism reduces the mass of gods to just one. This god still controls the weather, but now there is just one entity that you have to understand. It becomes possible to seriously think about god’s will and hope to reach some conclusions about it. As thinking progresses, the god becomes more abstract—created the whole world, pays attention to everything—and it becomes easier to think in terms of fixed laws rather than whims. It’s still a big step to get to science, but it’s more feasible, and monotheism may be a necessary stopping point.

I was reminded of this line of thought while reading about the Gospel of Judas. Today I don’t see how it’s possible to see Judas as anything but a patsy—hence his lyric from Jesus Christ Superstar “I only did what you wanted me to.” The Gospel of Judas doesn’t really present him that way, but it does suggest that Judas was himself a human sacrifice to Christ. This was, after all, a time when animal sacrifices to the gods were routine, though not a practice of the Christians. The Gospel of Judas was an alternate view of the Christ story, one that was suppressed by the early church as they coalesced on a single view of the religion. Ditching the Gospel of Judas was a good move, since it seems pretty complicated. Anyhow, reading about it reminded me that there is a lot of contingency in the religions that we have today. Monotheism may have been an advance in retrospect, but, unlike agriculture, it wasn’t an advance at the time. I don’t see any reason to think that things could not have gone otherwise.


  1. ncm said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 1:05 am

    A reduction from N to one, on the way to zero, is progress, presuming you don’t stop before you get there.

    At the time the advantage was that you needed only to assuage one deity, and did not risk offending each by acknowledging jurisdiction of another, or a dozen others. There were direct financial consequences, too: how many priesthoods must you support? (Arguably these are two restatements of the same problem.) Polytheism makes for a very complicated life. Arguably that’s a big part of the appeal of occultism among the idle rich — life seems too predictable without it.

    It’s amusing how many centuries it took to settle on the “died for our sins” line. It seems to me that any of the other early contenders could easily have won out, but for unspecifiable fluctuations of the ectoplasmic ether.

  2. Manu said,

    May 20, 2008 @ 3:18 pm

    Honestly speaking, people talk about polytheistic vs. monotheistic religions all the time but that is a theological concept. And, as most theology, it is just philosophical rubbish such as the discussion of the substance of god, the concept of the limbo, the mistery of the trinity, etc. The truth is that even in the so-called polytheistic religions, there was typically a superior being, the god of gods, (Zeus for example) less powerful but still quite powerful beings (the “other gods” such as Mars) and minor characters with some particular miraculous power or feature (like hercules).

    The so-called monotheistic religions just change the balance of power a tiny bit. Now you have a all-powerful god (although many christians have the trinity), a respectable amount of incredibly powerful beings (all kinds of angels and demons), and thousands of miracle-makers minor characters (the faithfully worshipped and independent-acting virgins and saints). I don’t see such a big difference from the typical polytheist religion.

    Is the angel Gabriel a god? Not by today standards you may say (if you say anything else, you just agree with my point anyway). But then, can we honestly say that Hermes is a god by today standards? I am willing to bet that “our lady of fatima” can kick the ass of Hera any time. After all, the former modified the trajectory of a bullet to save the pope. I don’t think that Hera (or even Thor!), despite being called gods, could do such thing.

    On the other hand, what really has happened is an abstraction of religion. Religions of early civilizations are strongly attached to reality: gods look like animals and humans, everything is explained through the supernatural (in fact there is no such difference). As civilizations evolve, religions become more abstract, gods are less dehumanized, they are moved out of the real world into abstract heavens and hells, there is a differentiation between supernatural and natural things. As a civilization advances, anything that can be shown false by strong evidence has to be abandoned.

    (Of course, this is not all that there is about the evolution of religions. Some religions are more successful because they are more appealing, they connect more deeply with the fears and emotions of humans. They don’t need to be more “reasonable”, but that helps.)

  3. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    May 20, 2008 @ 8:38 pm

    Thanks for the note. I think that the abstraction of religion that you are talking about follows monotheism. You’re right that most pantheons have a head god. But there is really a big difference. Zeus was born from a father, whom he killed, and split the world up with his brothers, and had children with mortal women. That’s very different from the Christian god who created the world and is omnipresent and omniscient.

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