Monotheism

Blake‘Monotheism’ is not an easy word to define. It means belief in a single god, that much is easy, but now we must define ‘god’. The term ‘monotheism’ predates the modern use of the term ‘theism’ by at least a century, so there is little point looking to the self-proclaimed Theists of the eighteenth century and later for answers. However, a precise definition is not actually necessary for communication.

Consider a heap of sand. Now remove one grain of sand at a time from that heap until only a single grain is left. At which point did the heap cease to be a heap? Alternatively, place one grain of sand in the palm of your hand. Add a single grain at a time until you have a small pile of sand in your hand. What was the precise moment at which it became a pile? Which grain was it that transformed the few scattered grains into a pile? Of course, that question can not be answered. There is no precise definition of ‘heap’ or ‘pile’ in this context. However, we must understand what those words mean because we can use them in conversation and be understood. If we were scientists and we wished to use ‘heap’ as a scientific unit then we would have to be precise. Just as we have a precise definition of ‘metre’ (it is now defined as the distance travelled by light in absolute vacuum in 1/299,792,458 of a second) we would have to define ‘heap’ precisely for use in our calculations. However, such a unit would not correspond with what is generally meant by the word.

Similarly, a term such as ‘monotheism’ ought to be understood without reference to a precise dictionary definition. Indeed, any precise definition we might propose could only serve a very limited purpose, similar to a scientifically defined heap. We must come to an understanding of the term in a round about manner.

Monotheism is not a hypothesis to be tested so much as it is a particular way of looking at the world. A word that I often use in the same context as ‘monotheism’ is ‘universalism’. By universalism, I mean a belief in — most importantly a propensity to act as if — the world were homogeneous. In a shallow way, this could be thought of as similar to the saying, “What is good for one is good for all.” I like the word ‘universalism’ because it is more obviously opposed to the value of the particular and the subjective. It is also perhaps less contentious than ‘monotheism’ as it is not so readily associated with particular religious practices or dogma. However, it is still liable to misinterpretation. For instance, when I attack universalism I do not mean to deny that there may be universal truths — that is another question entirely — but I can see how one might get confused between the way of thinking that I intend to designate by the term and particular thoughts (assertions or hypotheses) that I do not.

And so, even though some people that I might call ‘monotheist’ would deny my claim because they do not believe in a personal god, I still think it is the best word to use. If you are capable of seeing beyond particular manifestations of monotheism — if rather than contrasting the burkha and the cassock you look instead at the minds of the people wearing them — then you should be able to discern an underlying attitude that really is best described as a belief in ‘one god’.

Accordingly, I think there are three great monotheisms in the world today. The first is the heretical Jewish sect, Christianity. Although the seeds of Christianity are clearly present in Judaism, I hesitate to call the Jewish creed a monotheism itself. I’d rather designate it a proto-monotheism, along the lines of Amenhotep IV’s cult of Aten in Ancient Egypt. The second is Islam. The third is Modernism (for a brief description of which, see my last post.) All of them stem in some way from the figure of Abraham but I don’t think I’ll get away with calling Modernism an Abrahamic religion…

Modernism, in the form of the Enlightenment, has given us a lot. Although it is a natural extension of Protestantism, it is the progress of science that has freed us from many superstitions and religious oppression. The Enlightenment created a context in which science could flourish, which has brought us satisfaction of many of our material desires. It is easy today, in our safe and secure homes, to take for granted the benefits that scientific progress has given us. There are many trite examples – for instance, the fact that you can read this article – but there are also many much more important ones: consider the amazing advances in medical science that have allowed us to eradicate or manage so many lethal diseases. However, today the Enlightenment is stagnating. Modernism is taking on the universalising role of the religion from which it attempted to free us. Furthermore, with the possible exception of some schools in the Bible Belt, Modernism is not required for scientific progress. The rebellion against religious oppression has already succeeded – no modern astronomer would suffer the fate of Galileo – and just as teenage rebellion is a necessary stage in the development of an adult but debilitating if it is not later transcended, so intelligent scientists can only be held back by a hypocritical devotion to Modernism.

Christianity serves, to some extent, as a tempering influence. In its fundamentalist forms it represents a deplorable regression but in its softer forms it helps to slow down the desacralisation of the world for which Modernism strives. Christianity, particularly the Protestant churches in Northern Europe, now reflects the original culture of the indigenous people almost as much as it is does the catholic creed. The Archbishop of Canterbury would surely have been executed as a heretic if he had lived a few hundred years ago. Christianity spread by adapting itself to local cultures; this allowed for a rapid expansion but it did so by diluting or polluting the original church. Thus Christianity is weak and in some respects it is more a product of Europeans than we are of it. So, when faced by threats from the more powerful monotheisms of our age, it is tempting to turn to Christianity for our defence. But we must always remember that, however it has adapted its appearance, at heart it is still a monotheism. We need only to look at the fundamentalists in America or to remember the Inquisition in Europe to see the behaviour that Christianity would inspire if it still could.

Islam has none of the redeeming features of Modernism or Christianity. It has not and would not free us from religious oppression – quite the opposite. Although in the past Islam has proved more tolerant than Christianity (for example, we owe much of our knowledge of classical European philosophy to the efforts of Muslim scholars) this can hardly be employed as evidence in its favour today. Islam is entirely foreign to Europe. It has not been Germanicised in the way that Christianity in Northern Europe has been: it remains an entirely Middle Eastern creed. Indeed, many disturbing parallels can be drawn between Islam today and pre-Reformation Christianity. In a number of ways, modern Islam epitomises monotheism. While Modernism and Christianity have been tempered by each other and the cultural contexts in which they exist, which both weakens them and makes their influence more insidious, Islam remains pure and unadulterated.

It is my hope that, if you know something about the philosophies I have mentioned and so can place my comments in context, by reading the above you will have gained a better idea of what I mean by the term ‘monotheism’.

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Published in: on October 31, 2006 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  

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  1. Bera, A very clear, precise definition, and one that you know I completely agree with.I would further define that the natural and ideal state of Monotheism is Theocracy, while Modernism creates a ‘soft’ Totalitarianism. Both are varied forms of the same theme, establishing prisons of differing substance. If you look to the Nazi regime or Stalin’s Russia (though neither could be classified as ‘soft’) you see an amalgamation of old-style Theocracy and modernist Totalitarianism in forms that highlight the very worst of each.

  2. I’ve written something similar, but ‘the other way around’. I’d call almost any faith monotheistic, but indeed the term raises anthropomorphic images in the minds of many people. In the end it actually doesn’t really matter of people think that their ideas are either mono- or polytheistic as long as they have an awareness of Divinity.


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