For Polytheism

The NYTimes "Bloggingheads" has a little exchange this morning titled "Against Monotheism," but the conversation doesn't go anywhere, mainly because the "head" on the left seems a little impatient with the question, is defensive about his own book (he believes he's being accused of mistreating polytheists in his book), and so the idea doesn't go very far.


But it's a very good question.

When I was in elementary school, I was taught that long ago, people were silly stupid polytheists, and that then there was this wonderful transformation in the ancient world where people saw the light, became monotheistic, and all civilization grew up from that point.

You tend to internalize things you are taught very young, so it took me many years to come back to the question -- it actually took, believe it or not, the Battlestar Gallactica miniseries (predating the series). I watched this ultra-modern cast o' characters with their many gods and I wondered why some small part of my brain rebelled at the very idea. Then I remembered what I'd been taught: many gods are for primitives! Only monotheists can build computers and battlestars!

But that's moronic. And I started thinking in the abstract about the merits of the two systems: a system in which people believe in multiple forces, often at odds with one another, or a system in which there is only one force, and whatever it does is "good," and whatever works against it must be "evil." And of course it struck me right away that monotheism isn't a leap forward, it's a plummeting dive back.

With one possible exception, which I'll get to in a minute.*

Imagine a literary tradition in which there can be only one consciousness in a story, and it is taken that every story is from that singular consciousness' point of view. Every children's book, every romance novel, every thriller, every meditation is really another version of the same all-good all-right mind. Anything that impedes this singular protagonist in his or her all-good goals is all-bad, evil, and must be destroyed. The climax of the story comes when the impediment is removed and the protagonist gets what he/she wanted, and there is much rejoicing.

Insomuch as we learn to be human through story, humans would not be what we know them as, if they lived within that tradition. They would be rigid binary thinkers, always on the lookout for the right-aligned authority -- they would have no sense of empathy, compromise, or humility, because they wouldn't need these. Who is aligned with the protagonist is right, all others are evil and must be eliminated.

I would suggest that there actually ARE millions of people living within that tradition, and whose humanity is compromised by their monotheism.

Now most people are not really monotheistic: most Christians (for example -- and I'm limiting this to Christians only out of convenience) love both Jesus AND God, and trinitarians love the holy ghost too. There's also a lot of Mary-worship in this world, John the Baptist worship, all kinds of saint-worship, including Judas-worship. Your more new-age types go in for nature worship, and you could argue that popular culture offers us a whole pantheon of low gods with lives as tumultuous and ribald as the Greek gods'.

And I would suggest that as a result, most people are pretty good at understanding that there are multiple points of view in any situation, that other people have their own goals and perspectives and that when two objectives are at odds, neither need be good nor evil, and that empathy is necessary to navigate, compromise is often moral, and that in a world of many minds, we must be humble and respectful of others. There is not one, all-right protagonist. There are many, many protagonists, all trying to get along.

But there are those whose alignment with, say, Jesus is so complete, that they believe they have a personal relationship with him and talk to the dude on a regular basis -- from such a person's point of view, the world is very much a one-god-show: there is Jesus's agenda, and there are those who further it, and those who hinder it.

So if you're looking for a world in which people have their own individual lives with their own individual goals, yet still get along and live in peace, monotheism is a huge step backwards.

*But there is an exception, or, should I say, an alternate goal: peace love and understanding are nice, but humans are a chaotic rabble who must be organized and coordinated into a single body with a seeming-single mind to get anything done. I speak of pyramids, armies, churches, and so on. It is conceivable that you can organize a large group of people to work hard through empathy, compromise, and humility, but it's a lot more efficient to teach people that there is one god with one mind and this is what he wants them to do -- and you're either moving that block of stone into place, or you're an evil to be eliminated.

It's like Mussolini and time-tables: do you want freedom and dignity, or do you want that train to pull into the station at 07:12 on the dot?

And maybe, from that point of view, monotheism is responsible for creating the modern world -- not because it has any moral advantages (it has moral disadvantages, clearly), but because it whips people out of their state of individualism and turns them into useful cogs in a vast machine. The same machine might be built of volunteers, but who can depend on that? The builders of empires couldn't wait for every Titus, Diccus, and Hector to decide of his own free will how his personal narrative interacted with all these others, or whether his story lie elsewhere, out on the seas, or within a cabin on the Hibernian frontier, or within a library.

But despite a titularly monotheistic culture, we do, as I've mentioned, persist in carrying on the tradition of multiple points of view. And human cultures, all over the world, seem to be a balance of these things. We believe in kings, and we believe in kings of kings, probably because those who didn't, we wiped out millennia ago. But reality is not monotheistic; few of us have minds that will accept a universe in which only one consciousness "matters." And the rest of use find that few terrifying, because they are your Apocalypse-prayers, your suicide-bombers.

We would be more moral if we dropped the idea of one, all-powerful, all-good god, and that has always been true. But for most of history it would have meant losing the ability to get things done. Today we have new technologies that allow individual action to move faster and have more of an effect: maybe these will make the need for that organizing principle obsolete. One can hope. But in the meantime it's worth re-thinking the relative standing of monotheism and polytheism, and the different moral behaviors they inspire.



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