The relation between monotheism and polytheism is a curious one. Polytheism has often been an animistic sort of pantheism in which, due to ignorance and overconfidence in the utility of the religious imagination, the folk identify natural forces with spirits or other magical beings. Average folks tended to be superstitious polytheists, whereas monotheists sought a premodern Theory of Everything which required a reduction of the culture’s folkloric pantheon. The more absolute and solitary the deity, the more removed God became from the natural world and so the more polytheists had a right to think of monotheists as virtual atheists. For their part, monotheists called polytheists idolaters, worshippers of false gods, but at least those gods were tangible. Meanwhile, the monotheistic God’s transcendence, supremacy, and indeed its inherent impersonality entailed an egalitarian vision of human interrelations, since we’re all made equally insignificant by comparison with that unknowable God. Tribal superstition and warfare ought to end, concludes the monotheist.
But however laudable the social role of monotheistic religions may be, we modernists have nothing to distract us from perceiving that their Gods are fictitious, which is to say that they’re symbols that united certain groups by laying out a mission that’s authentic to the people’s cultural identity. By looking at the cultural context of the rise of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, including the syncretic relations between those religions and others, we can appreciate how those religions worked in their day and why today they’re obsolete.
The Negative Tribalism of the Israelites
Judaism is ethically monotheistic, meaning that Jews think ethical deeds are more important than theology and they think this because they believe God transcends the created world. We can’t understand God and so we should follow the moral guidelines that are nevertheless revealed, without trying to outsmart God by identifying him with something we can control. Judaism is thus strongly opposed to idolatry, since the idolater takes God to be something limited and natural, such as an animal or a force of nature, which makes God subject to our manipulation through magic. Jews are most interested in the personal relationship between God and his created people. God is a subject rather than an object and so he isn’t found within any statue or other image. God is supernatural and thus his greatness isn’t affected by the shifting tides of our politics.
This ethical monotheism has a sociological origin in the fact that during the formative Babylonian exile, after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 587 BCE, the Israelites were desert nomads and thus social outsiders. In the Second Temple period, influenced by Hellenistic religion and Zoroastrianism, Jews came to worship a God who was likewise an outsider, a solitary, immaterial and absolute deity who could interact with his created world but who also stood apart from it. Just as the Jews wandered between empires, as dramatized in the Exodus myth, Yahweh slipped between nature and his heavenly realm; as Jews longed for a God that could understand the plight of lonely wanderers or of oppressed but righteous people, Yahweh seemed to have created a world so he could have someone to talk to. Jews felt they could cast righteous judgment on the idolatrous cultures that put theology before ethics and thus that got caught up in religious bigotry and tribal warfare. If God stands apart from everything in the world and thus from anything we can manipulate, no nation is especially empowered by God; we’re all equal since God transcends us all. God is above our earthly concerns and so we can’t enlist him to fight our battles for us—just as the Jews were alienated from or conquered by the great civilizations of the ancient world (Babylon, Macedonia, Rome). Such, at any rate, is the logic of ethical monotheism.
But Jews weren’t content with having an outsider God that merely reminded them of their afflictions and that spoke to the existential basis of the theistic imagination. As social outsiders, Jews suffered only from an acute form of the angst that afflicts us all as sentient beings who feel alienated from all of nature, having been liberated from the robotic routines of animal life. The great sin of Judaism is that Jews turned their existential religion into an inverted sort of tribalism. Whereas idolaters identified God with some positive, concrete entity, such as an animal or a human king, and used that symbol to unite the culture, Jews identified God with nothing and used that negative symbol to empower them as the “chosen ones.”
We have, then, two equally absurd spectacles: there are the idolaters who foolishly hold as sacred something that’s manifestly not so, going as far as to destroy those who desecrate their holy statue, and then there are the Jews who hold no (mere) thing as sacred, but who nevertheless fail to follow through on that atheistic existentialism and who instead devise a negative form of tribalism. Instead of glorifying themselves as worshippers of some fleeting bit of nature, Jews boosted their self-esteem by maintaining that they were on the best personal terms with the deity who is as good as nothing, as far as our cognitive powers are concerned. Idolaters used the power of their concrete religious symbols to whip up the ignorant masses and create empires that lasted centuries, while Jews conquered lands mainly in their imagination and in their scriptural fantasies; the earthly triumphs of the Israelites are as immaterial as their deity.
No, monotheistic Jews have usually been outsiders and that status drove them to conceive of the outsider God, but because the early Jews envied the power players in the empires of their day, they turned that one, tenuous bond between them and their God into a Jewish idol that could comfort them in their years of isolation or captivity. Their covenant with God, as laid out in their scriptures, became their idol, and Jews could take pride in the fact that God burdened them the most because he was most interested in them. Of course, Jews couldn’t bring themselves to outright boasting. The biblical heroes are always the lowliest of men, which illustrates the Jewish assumption that Jews are unworthy of God’s attention. Indeed, the existential, virtually atheistic side of Judaism prevents Jews from the gauche sort of tribalism of the flagrant idolater who pretends to have power over God due to his complete understanding of the source of divine power. Instead, Jews have it both ways, combining the sobering existential lessons of what is effectively atheism with a twisted, negative tribalism. Jews were intrinsically unworthy of God’s favour, just as all lowly humans are, but in their telling, Jews nevertheless have been favoured historically by God Almighty for millennia, which is at least part of what any idolatrous people would say about itself.
Christian Incoherence and the Emptiness of Jesus’s Sacrifice
By blurring the line between the Jewish God and messiah, Christians brought to fruition that negative tribalism, making possible a quasi-Jewish empire about which the Jews had hitherto only fantasized. The first Christians were likewise social outsiders, having been Jews conquered by mighty, polytheistic Rome. Their resentment drove them to deify their favourite rabbis and rebels, just as Jews had often been tempted by their neighbours’ idols and by the worldly success and comfort that went along with such crass symbols. One such Jewish idol, the divine Jesus Christ, caught on and conquered Rome—or at least was used by certain Roman emperors to revivify their failing domestic religion. And so many quasi-Jews had their earthly empire after all—indeed, one empire after the next, right up to the present, effectively-Christian and thus semi-Jewish American one.
To their credit, the authentic Jews resisted the temptation to succumb to that crude, positive idolatry, preferring their negative variety which again allowed them to have it both ways. Just as the pre-Christian Jews could only look on as the positive idolaters enjoyed the benefits of their religious naivety, worshipping their sacred objects which inspired their masses to conquer rival clans, post-Christian Jews could only admire the chutzpah of Christians for stealing their God’s thunder. So near yet so far to an end to their wandering in the spiritual desert, Jews must have thought as Christianity became the official Roman religion in the 4th century CE and Christians bastardized the Jewish scriptures, claiming to have superseded the Jews’ ethical monotheism. Here were world conquers quoting from the Hebrew Bible, claiming that Jesus fulfilled all of the Jewish prophecies and that God had finally intervened in the world to such an extent that he became one with part of it, in the person of Jesus. Even as corrupted Judaism finally triumphed on the global stage, Jews remained ever the outsiders, alone with their reclusive God.
Sir Walter Scott spoke of the tangled web we weave when we practice to deceive. There have likely never been religionists with more effrontery than Christians and so their ironies and duplicities are especially rich and convoluted. Armies of comedians ought to be investigating Christian history and theology on a full-time basis, mining these endless deposits of absurdity. Christianity is simply the most aesthetically appalling of the major religions, which means that this religion is the most hideous to look upon. If you don’t feel dirty speaking about Christianity, you need to do more research.
According to Christians, God took pity on all of us and decided to save us once and for all, by incarnating himself. God became a mortal person and tried to relate to us on such equal terms, but the jealous Jewish leaders and Roman authorities, representing all of us in our ignorance, crucified Jesus, thus demonstrating the extent of our anti-spirituality. We are so lost, according to this religion, that we killed the one true God in our midst. We set ourselves apart from God by literally failing to recognize divinity, having been distracted by worldly matters such as greed, power, and envy. Based largely on Plato’s cave analogy, the Gnostics made this explicit by speaking of nature as a realm controlled by demons, imprisoning us even though we carry within us spiritual fragments of the transcendent realm where the true God rules. That God sent an emanation of himself into this evil domain to remind us of our true home, because we’ve been blinded by the profane things of this world. Garbled versions of this narrative found their way into the New Testament, in Paul’s letters and the Gospel of John.
The point is that we’re utterly lost because of the separation between the true, transcendent God, the one Christians call the Father, and the created, material realm. In Christian terms, we suffer from original sin and so are incapable of saving ourselves from death. We’re meant to be immortal, but we’ve been corrupted by the demons that are associated with natural forces. We have immortal spirits, but if we confuse the illusions of the material world with the ultimate prize, God will be forced to punish us for eternity, because we won’t have proven ourselves worthy by remembering our true spiritual identity. We’ll have failed to live up to God’s expectations and have debased ourselves. Again, God’s solution was to send us the ultimate messenger, to give us one last reminder of the spiritual stakes. For love of us, God even used our blindness against us, making the best of the crucifixion by counting Jesus’s death as sufficient payment for all of our sins, thus leaving nothing to stand between God and us—except the pittance of our need to acknowledge what God has thusly done for us.
It’s that last point that gives the game away. We’re supposed to be lost to original sin and at the mercy of God or of demons, and God defeated the demonic forces on our behalf by conquering death through the resurrection of Jesus. That first century event should have been the apocalyptic end of the demonic reign in God’s creation. So why are we still here and why do we still face the threat of hell? Why are we still fettered by original sin? Because God’s incarnation evidently didn’t suffice to rescue even a single person from the devil’s clutches. Something else is needed, namely our recognition of God’s efforts, our confession that Jesus is Lord, or some other trivial addendum to God’s supernatural victory over Satan. Here is another indication of the secret Gnostic basis of the Christian synthesis of Judaism and paganism. God could only come part way to us, because his distance from us is too great. Again, the Gnostics make this explicit by saying that God is only the indirect creator of the natural universe. Our more direct creator is only a blundering or evil demigod, that is, a fallen angel or demon. Our ultimate God, 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.
Against all odds, God gritted his teeth, steeled himself, and entered the fallen realm, after all. But he underestimated the depth of our corruption and was crucified for his troubles. Miraculously, God won in the end, conquering death in the resurrection and revealing Jesus’s “spiritual body,” his immortal core which we all share. Having delivered his message, reminding us of the otherworldly realm, Jesus “ascended to heaven”—which again shows that Jesus’s victory over natural death could only have been another natural illusion. Why did Jesus flee nature? Why didn’t he personally spread the Word rather than let the Word speak for itself, as it were, through the Holy Spirit, that is, through the zeal of fallible Christians? Because the demonic powers of nature are evidently still in place, despite Jesus’s alleged heroism. Jesus fled because he conquered nothing, due to the dualistic logic of Jewish monotheism.
The monotheistic God is transcendent, which means “he” stands apart from the world (and thus God isn’t at all male, for example). Christians borrow monotheism from Judaism, but they combine that with pagan polytheism, giving us the demigod Jesus who battles the rival, demonic demigods that rule nature in the highest God’s inevitable absence. This is why it took God so long to save us, and it’s also why he didn’t really save us at all and why Jesus couldn’t remain on earth in his resurrected body: because Judaism doesn’t sit well with the plain idolatry of pantheism. God waited so long to enter our world, because he’s supposed to be the transcendent, immaterial and thus forever-absent God of the Jews. And as soon as his spiritual war with the demons was won, thanks to Jesus’s resurrection, Jesus had to return to the spiritual realm from whence he came, because the two realms are like oil and water. The spiritual realm should have overwhelmed and fully redeemed the fallen, natural one as soon as the spiritual messiah had defeated his enemies, but alas the fact that Jesus had to ascend to heaven shows that no such ultimate vindication had been accomplished.
That is, in aesthetic terms, the coherence of the Christian narrative demands a metaphysical unification to support Jesus’s moral victory over the forces of evil. God personally entered the fallen world and proved that death no longer has any hold over us, since Jesus died and then rose again, showing us all that death isn’t the end, that there’s a spiritual world out there which is our true home. Alas, that home remains a distant figment of our imagination—according to the Christian narrative itself! Where is Jesus now, according to Christians? Oh, to be sure he “lives in their hearts,” but that’s just Hallmark card sentimentality. The risen Jesus in all his glory is nowhere to be found in nature, because Jesus defeated nothing on the cross. He conquered nothing. Natural forces still control the universe, ensuring the transience of all material things. If he lived at all, the spiritual radical Jesus was defeated by the earthly powers of his time. This is why Christians look forward to “the Second Coming” when Jesus will hopefully finish what he started. Sure, Jesus lived on in some people’s memories and in the lower class’s resentments, but supernatural forces had nothing to do with the origin of Christianity.
Jesus had to ascend to heaven after he rose again, because his death was metaphysically insignificant. Fallen nature plainly endures. And that’s why faith is so important in Christianity. Through Jesus’s “finished work on the cross,” God supposedly won this battle against the forces of original sin, and yet God still counts on us to meet him halfway, to have faith in Jesus, to confess our sins and so on. Only Jesus’s work plus our meager complementary efforts suffice to save us from the tragic fate of being mired in nature. We are fallen creatures, but supposedly we can overcome our limitations and appreciate what God did through Jesus, now that Jesus freed us. Thus, prior to becoming Christian, we’re free and yet not free. Jesus broke the chains that bound us to Plato’s cave, but we still stumble around in that cave until we begin to speak of the bright world beyond the cave’s entrance. Of course, we’re no less corrupt than we’ve ever been; so-called original sin, which is to say our animalistic heritage, remains exactly as it was before the first century CE. The difference between being chained to the cave and stumbling in the cave without being chained is precisely nil; witness the fact that there were spiritual radicals before Jesus’s arrival. Again, no ancient roman crucifixion has had any metaphysical impact on nature whatsoever.
What’s happened instead is that a crypto-Gnostic myth gained hold of the West, which spread semi-Jewish monotheism. That monotheism is only for social outsiders, however, and so it had to be combined with nature-friendly polytheism. Thus, 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. This syncretism is the reason for the wishy-washiness of Christian theology. God enters nature but doesn’t triumph over it; the realms remain as separate as they’ve always been and the end of history when God will finally reign is always just over the horizon, like a rainbow, but we can still worship something concrete here and now, namely Jesus. God is alien and beyond our comprehension, which is why Jesus couldn’t tarry after his supposed victory over Death, but the idolater can thrill to Jesus’ behind-the-scenes adventure, as he battled the forces of evil on the cross, travelled to the underworld in the three days before his resurrection and freed the spirits trapped there, and performed more miracles after he rose from the dead. We can have no control over God the Father, but we can claim God’s supernatural victory just by uttering a few magic words, becoming a Christian through faith rather than just deeds.
Again, the deep waters of Christian absurdity flow from this syncretistic origin of the religion. Jewish monotheism plus Roman polytheism equal incoherence at every turn. Of course, because the myths are fictional, the incoherence can be overcome by adding twists to the narrative. But Christians thereby weave a web that traps them. Indeed, all religions are syncretistic. For example, the central Jewish myths are modifications of Babylonian ones. Jewish monotheism assimilated the predominant polytheism. But the ancient Jews were thereby only critiquing their neighbouring cultures. Jews didn’t steal those myths and pass them off as theirs, because Jews hardly ever reigned and they didn’t literalize those myths or confuse the midrashic art of myth-making with the factual telling of history. By contrast, Christians took over the entire Hebrew Bible without even bothering to prove their artistic merits by reworking the stories, even as they violated the essence of Jewish monotheism by concretizing and trivializing the myths, mistaking historical interpretations for ultimate truths. Moreover, Christians sold out the existential, outsider aspect of Judaism, not to mention Jesus’s radical critique of social norms, to accommodate Roman imperialism. The audacity of Christian syncretism—which is to say compromise—is thus boundless.
Allah the Alpha Male
Islam performed much the same role as Judaism except that Muhammad and his early followers were enthusiastic proselytizers, like Saint Paul, rather than alienated and often humiliated outsiders like the Jews. Like the Canaanite and Babylonian religions, pre-Islamic Arabia was polytheistic. Although there were pre-Muhammad monotheists in the region, known as the hunafa, the Arabs at that time were consumed with folklore that posited all manner of supernatural creatures, including ghouls, demons, goblins, and gods, as well as 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 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 of their religious energy 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 axiom. In place of the Deuteronomic code, Muslims codified sharia, a system of legislation based on the Koran and on the life of Muhammad.
But Islam was no Judaism. Muslims were much more ambitious and less humiliated than the persecuted and conquered Jews. Whereas Jews conceived of a God fit for contented nomads, a solitary, intangible, restless deity at home neither in heaven nor on earth, Muslims projected their urge to dominate, conceiving of God’s greatness mostly in terms of omnipotence, not benevolence or even wisdom. To be sure, Allah is considered great in all respects, but there’s a categorical imperative to submit to Allah only when Allah is thought of as being infinitely more powerful than us, in which case submission is driven by fear and awe. In so far as God is great, meaning transcendent, with respect to his love of all creatures, there’s no reason to submit to God. You don’t submit to someone who loves you. Even in so far as God knows everything, you don’t necessarily want to follow whatever God says, because a truly wise being should understand that less intelligent creatures may need to find their own way. Becoming dependent on revealed wisdom is a sure path to infantilization. Moreover, a wise God would understand that such submission is impossible, at any rate, because divine revelation would have to be interpreted so that the lesser creatures would inevitably guide themselves, which of course is what happened to Islam as soon as Muhammad died: the religion broke into quarrelling sects, as all religions do.
No, Muslims submit to God because Islam replaces the Jewish emphasis on the personal, ethical relationship between divine and mortal beings, with a supernatural version of the mammalian dominance hierarchy. In most social species, the weaker members submit to the stronger ones. This is simply a strategy of channeling power to the most useful hands, which belong to the ablest hosts of the species’ genes. It goes without saying that this biological master-slave dynamic makes no sense at all when interpreted as the fitting relationship between a transcendent deity and its creatures. Any positive characterization of that deity is anthropomorphic and thus metaphorical, which is to say that monotheism is logically equivalent to atheism. Again, Judaism implied as much, and Jewish anxiety led the Israelites to imagine a nomadic God who is so absent and immaterial he might as well be nonexistent. But Jews didn’t follow through on their existential revelations and resentments in the wilderness, and so they made a tribal religion out of virtual atheism. In so far as God is inconceivable, it makes as much sense to submit to God as it does to run around with your pants on your head and raspberries stuffed in your ears, and chanting your favourite pop song backwards. As Samuel Beckett understood, those who dwell on the Absolute have an excruciating sense of the absurd and so they’re left waiting for “Godot.” In fact, it makes no difference at all what we do in relation to a truly transcendent God, because there’s necessarily no interaction between us. Again, monotheists with intellectual integrity ought to live as if they were atheists.
In any case, Muslims miss the point about Abraham’s submission to God: the relationship is two-way rather than one-way. Even in nature, alpha mammals depend on betas and gammas, because the genes are best protected by a cohesive group, and so the submission is largely ritualistic and superficial. The weaker members expose their neck or their belly and the leader symbolically damages those delicate areas, to establish the habits that make up the dominance hierarchy. Similarly, God tested Abraham’s dedication to him and when Abraham passed the test, God stopped him from slaying his son and blessed him with abundant progeny. Why, then, does Yahweh care about human submission? Because Yahweh needs us as much as we need him—and perhaps even more so. The monotheistic God learns how to be a person only by interacting with other people and that’s why he creates us, according to the myth’s inner logic. God’s purpose isn’t to terrorize Abraham and demonstrate his superior strength, like a mere predator; rather, it’s to confirm that God has a friend in Abraham, because the monotheistic God is a pathetic figure, as explained in Jack Miles’s God: A Biography. Indeed, it was left to Philipp Mainlander to draw the logical conclusion from the Abrahamic religions, that the isolated, transcendent God would be suicidal.
Zoroastrianism and Postmodern Depravity
All of these monotheistic religions are echoes of Zoroastrianism, which religion in turn was the result of Zoroaster’s explicit simplification of the Persian pantheon in the 7th 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. Instead of God creating the world, the world creates God through a process in which we participate by performing good deeds. This process theology influenced all of the subsequent monotheistic religions, including Gnosticism, and it resurfaced in modern Western philosophy, in Hegelian metaphysics, and in the contemporary deification of technology, called transhumanism.
Note that Zoroastrianism is consistent with Richard Dawkins’s Darwinian dictum that being begins with simplicity and becomes more complex through evolution. The prospect of building God by some mechanism or process is at least conceivable, whereas the notion that God is prior to all means of doing anything is flagrantly irrational, since the question remains as to what caused God. Note also that Zoroastrianism reverses Mainlander’s pessimistic theology, according to which God nevertheless is ontologically prior to everything else and creates the world by becoming it through a process of supernatural decay. There are, then, pessimistic and optimistic process theologies, depending on whether the monotheist says God is just the alpha or just the omega. In either case, God isn’t eternal, but comes either at the beginning or the end of a process.
In any case, the conclusion to draw from these considerations is that monotheists inevitably put their mark on their imagined God, thusly signing their fiction. As ideological art, theology serves several purposes, the primary one being the cultural unification of a populace. This unification couldn’t happen if everyone consciously treated theology as the art that it plainly is, so theological speculation is supposed to be about ultimate truth, not just entertainment or the domestication of the masses. In the same way, the monotheist assumes that the transcendent God isn’t any particular thing, but is in fact the ultimate Thing which is identical with nothing, as far as we can think or say. These are the unconscious suspensions of disbelief that are required for theistic religions to work. In the same way, the beta wolf that exposes its neck to the alpha has to fear that the pack leader will tear into it instead of just growling and threatening to do so, which is all that usually happens. That fear is the mortar that holds together the underlying social structure, the pecking order.
Cultures express their vitality with myths that speak to the people’s deepest concerns. Cultural differences, then, naturally show up in different ideas about God. The very idea of the one, ultimate God is a fiction told differently by Jews, Christians, and Muslims to suit their cultural preoccupations. Judaism expresses the weary nomad’s sensibilities, Christianity mainly cynical Roman pluralism at the expense of a creative vision, and Islam the Muslims’ ruthless ambition and machismo. Their Gods are just symbols that embody those cultural identities. But a culture is healthy to the extent that the symbol, which is just an artwork made of ideas, is mistaken for reality so that the believers don’t hesitate to preserve their traditions. Without the traditions the culture declines and the collective way of life is extinguished, more or less as Oswald Spengler theorized.
Monotheistic religions had their day. They made some sense in their time, but now they’re anachronistic. Only empty shells of Judaism and Christianity remain (although institutional Christianity began as little more than such a shell), while Islam still awaits its inevitable reckoning with modernity. New myths are needed to inspire the masses, to make our mark on reality. Alas, the prevailing postmodern myths are those of popular culture that celebrate avarice, sex, and infamy; that proliferate any number of Hollywood stereotypes and urban legends; and that infantilize the masses and apologize for natural plutocracies and for the elites’ decadence and dereliction of duty. Our reigning Western myths may be authentic to our cultural identity, but they portray us as cretins who will certainly be derided in the coming centuries just as we naturalists and humanists mock the blinkered monotheists of the premodern age.