Our high-school Bible teacher once said proudly that, by begetting monotheistic faith, Judaism has, more than any other religion in history, enabled the human race to make progress. The argument struck me as peculiar. The students in the class were secular, nor was the Bible teacher religiously observant – he was secular and a socialist, a member of the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement. It followed that he didn’t believe in the existence of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – at least not in the way the deity is described in the Bible.
One student asked the teacher what it is that makes one mistaken belief – in the existence of a single God – preferable to another mistaken belief: in the existence of many gods. The teacher replied that it was self-evident that monotheism constitutes “tremendous progress,” as compared with the pagan religions, and that it was a vital stage in the development of reason and morality. He didn’t explain why.
The teacher’s approach wasn’t exceptional. The assumption that monotheism is more highly developed than polytheism is a widespread convention, which to many needs no proof. The term “idol worshipers” often evinces a supercilious or patronizing attitude, as if it refers to an organism that failed to develop. But why is this so? It’s frequently claimed that monotheism is more abstract, hence more rational. According to this approach, it is more logical to believe in one God, who sees but is not seen, than in many gods that possess passions and weaknesses, and in some cases assume the form of monkeys or elephants. Be that as it may, most of the monotheistic religions contain an element of private providence: We pray, and we hope that God will take pity on us and grant our supplications. This is just one of the forms in which the figure of the exclusive God assumes material form.
An equally widespread claim is that monotheism is more moral, because it’s universal. According to this approach, Jews, Christians and Muslims all turn to God – one God who oversees the whole world, not separate gods for every nation or group. All human beings are equal before the one God. Belief in a universal God constitutes a necessary condition for universal morality and the development of the concept of the rights of man, who was created in the image of God.
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Widespread as this viewpoint is, some nevertheless doubt its validity. Indeed, there are critics who allege that monotheism is the source of many of the world’s ills. One of the fiercest critiques of monotheism in our time was put forward by the German scholar Jan Assmann in his books “Moses the Egyptian” (1998), “The Price of Monotheism” (2009) and “The Invention of Religion: Faith and Covenant in the Book of Exodus,” published this year in English. Assmann’s ideas have generated a furor in Germany and elsewhere, raising once more the question of the moral consequences of monotheism.
Assmann is one of the world’s leading Egyptologists, and his books deal with complex aspects of ancient Egyptian religion and culture. His most influential postulate concerns monotheism’s association with fanaticism and violence. In Assmann’s view, before the birth of monotheism, every city or kingdom had its own gods, but there were no religions that repudiated other religions. When a Greek from Athens visited another city, he made a sacrifice to the local gods. Even Alexander the Great did not eradicate the rituals of the cities he took. After conquering Egypt, he made a sacrifice to the local god Amon, who was identified as the likeness of the Greek god Zeus. Although there were many wars in the ancient world, there were none over the question of religion, and there was no religious persecution. On the contrary, religions formed a bridge between peoples, cultures and languages. The gods were international and belonged to everyone.
According to Assmann, only monotheism gave rise to the distinction between a “true religion” and a “false religion,” between worship of the true God and of false gods. Every monotheistic religion or religious group maintained that members of other faiths were heretics deserving of conversion, enslavement or annihilation. Hence, the emergence of the first monotheistic faith is bound up with persecution and with the invalidation of other religions. In practice, the founding of monotheism is accompanied by the destruction of temples and massacres of the adherents of the “false religions” – the seven peoples of Canaan, for example.
The publication of Assmann’s thesis stirred even sharper criticism of the biblical heritage of monotheism, notably in “In the Shadow of Mount Sinai,” a 2013 book by Peter Sloterdijk, one of the most influential German philosophers of our time. According to Sloterdijk, along with receiving the Ten Commandments, at Mount Sinai humanity was endowed with the ruinous idea of an exclusive covenant between God and one lone people. Religious fanaticism, he argues, broke out in the form of a violent spectacle shortly after the Ten Commandments were given, in the horrific massacre that Moses and his followers perpetrated against Israelites who worshiped the Golden Calf. Indeed, Sloterdijk argues that even if that slaughter never took place, and even if the Bible is a fictitious tale, the violent code was transmitted through Judaism to the other monotheistic faiths, Christianity and Islam. For this reason we are all now living “in the shadow of Mount Sinai,” and that shadow casts a pall on humanity’s future.
The arguments that disparage the zealousness inherent in a belief in one God are quite persuasive, and are bolstered by additional claims. For example, in recent years, it has been argued that monotheism is also responsible for modern man’s destructive approach to nature – given that the pagan religions do not posit a hierarchy among humans, animals, plants and the forces of nature around them.
What is less clear, however, is whether the biblical religion is actually consistent with monotheism. Assmann himself maintained that monotheism and the violence entailed in rejecting “false religions” were in fact invented long before the period depicted in the Book of Exodus, by the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten. He fomented an unprecedented religious revolution in Egypt, in which many temples were razed. Accordingly, many scholars view Akhenaten, and not Moses, as the first monotheist.
On the other hand, throughout most of the Scriptures, it is not actually stated that there are no gods other than the God of Israel. The Israelites are enjoined not to worship other gods, but the text does not express a firm position about the existence of such deities as the Canaanite Ashtoreth, the Philistine Dagon or the Moabite Chemosh. Some even maintain that what the Bible actually recounts is the war of the God of Israel against his enemies, the other gods, with the help of his people.
Assmann, too, in his latest book, argues that a monotheism denying the existence of other gods appears only in the later Prophets. In contrast, the principal component of the religion of the ancient Israelites is an emotional connection to God, based on loyalty. Thus, the principal metaphor of belief in other gods is adultery, betrayal of the covenant with God. The central message of the Bible, then, is not monotheism, but monogamy. At least in its divine version.