It occurs to me that, despite the time and effort I have expended over the years of writing this column ranting against monotheistic religion, I have never actually published anything summarizing in a single column my objections to monotheism, and why monotheistic religion is fundamentally incompatible with any classically liberal, constitutional, Enlightenment-founded, latitudinarian, pluralistic, rights-centric socio-political order.
Now, by the term “monotheistic religion” I understand any system of religious belief which (a) envisions the world as the product of the creative activity of a single Deity Who is (b) possessed of a strong moral bias in favor of certain kinds of conduct and against certain other kinds, and Who (c) is willing to intervene in human history to enforce those preferences on the conduct of individuals and nations. (See also my definition of monotheistic religion at the beginning of the 3rd paragraph of last week's "Skeptic's" column on prayer.) Note that, in my definition of “monotheistic religion,” the operative word is “single”. Polytheistic religions, e.g., the religions of classical Greece and Rome, and of Egypt, obviously do not qualify. Nor do henotheistic religions: religions where there are several gods, but only one chief god. (Technically, the gods of classical Greece and Rome were not only polytheistic, but also henotheistic, given that Zeus and Jupiter, respectively, ruled the theological roost. All henotheistic faiths are polytheistic, but not vice versa. Polytheistic religions are rather rare in which the various gods enjoy strict equality: there is almost always a celestial pecking order. ) Also, I do not count as monotheistic religions those whose gods evince no moral preferences, at least none they are willing or able to enforce, e.g., the "Force" of Star Wars or the god of classical English deism. Such religions enforce no theocentric morality, and so may be ignored for my purposes, being monotheistic only in a purely formal sense. I.e., I am only concerned with what historians of religion refer to as "ethical monotheisms". A brief consideration of the characteristics of human relations of political power will make it obvious why monotheism is so antipodally hostile to any kind of democratic or republican socio-political order.
o At the center of any monotheism is the Deity: a celestial Generalissimo Whose most transient, casual, "throw-away," oh-by-the-way, incidental-afterthought utterance or action is the subject of instant respect, reverence, deference, and acceptance, usually manifest as slavishly obsequious, fawning obedience
-- One thinks in this regard of that incident in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where some people are evidently listening to Jesus preach the Sermon on the Mount, misunderstand Jesus to say “Blessed are the cheesemakers,” and who engage in a serious extended debate about whether Jesus is referring just to cheese or to, as one exceptionally broad-minded listener says, “makers of dairy products generally”.
-- Also in Life of Brian, think of the worshipful prostrations accorded to a single sandal that Jesus allegedly dropped
-- Or think of the holy document in Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz which in the end turns out – spoiler alert – to be the Blessed Leibowitz’s grocery list
The Deity at the center of any monotheism may be believed to be omnipotent, but one thing such a Deity can never make is a damn joke, and probably least of all a pun. Monotheistic deities are, without exception, “triviality challenged”. (Contrast this unrelieved anal-retentiveness with the exuberant, usually X-rated, sexual escapades of Hindu deities shown in, e.g., temple facades and frescoes. And while doing so, remember that Hinduism is radically, lavishly polytheistic.) Monotheistic religions usually ... always? ... forbid the making of any image of the deity, but if such were permitted, a faithful representation of the god's visage would depict a face with an expression that says to worshippers "I am dying of terminal hemorrhoids". (I will sit on my impulse to elaborate, and make no more cracks about this issue, other than to say I have written in greater detail about the sheer humorlessness of monotheistic gods here.) No wonder there are no Gospel pericopes in which Jesus laughs!
o The Cosmic Generalissimo often acts with unpredictable caprice: His -- subordinate gods are often female, but the Generalissimo Himself is always male -- actions and words are alike beyond rational understanding, let alone prediction. Examples: God's attempt to kill Moses (Ex. 4:24), whom God had appointed a few moments previously to serve as His representative to Israel, and the conclusion of the book of Job, in which Job simply shuts up, the reason arguably being that Job realizes that he is attempting to remonstrate rationally with a Being Who is, above all, utterly and bombastically, not just non-rational, but militantly anti-rational. There are technical linguistic reasons for this interpretation that I do not have time or space to elaborate, other than to say "Ain' no way to fix stupid."
o The Maximum Leader always expects others to adhere to a rigid set of rules, but Himself is entirely unrestrained, e.g., the god of the Hebrew Bible considers jealousy a serious sin, but specifically says of Himself that He is a "jealous god".
o The Dear Leader gathers around himself a multi-layered hierarchy of sycophants and courtiers. Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite even obligingly writes of the hierarchical structure of the Choirs of Angels in De Coelesti Hierarchia (The Celestial Hierarchy), and the cherubim of Isaiah's vision apparently while away Eternity attempting to out-do one another about who can be the most obsequious in singing paeans to YHVH's power and glory ... basically a celestial version of a Trump Cabinet meeting -- but now I am getting ahead of myself.
-- The raison d'etre of all this retinue is to constantly and in the most fulsome terms to affirm, among themselves, to the Dear Leader himself, and to the public at large, the utterly comprehensive correctness of all the Dear Leader's statements and actions, without exception, even when -- in fact, especially when -- the Dear Leader's statements are at diametric variance with obvious empirical observations and all canons of moral conduct. So Sean Spicer would be the terrestrial equivalent of the Archangel Gabriel, the Messenger of God ... dammit! ... there I go again, giving away the ending! Or maybe Sarah Huckabee Sanders, which power struggle could presage another war in Heaven, a la the book of Jude. And Melissa McCarthy would make a splendid Satan! But I gotta stop this right now ...
-- No criticism of the Dear Leader's conduct or statements, and no disagreement whatsoever, are ever permitted, in public or in private: the Dear Leader is always right, even when he is demonstrably wrong
o El Jefe may routinely request the most catastrophic sacrifices from any of his subordinates at any time, and they are expected to comply instantly and without remonstrance
(Herewith the obligatory disclaimer: I fully realize that all the events and personages previously described almost certainly did not exist or occur in actual, space-time-historical fact, and so I regard those characters and narratives as in the nature of theological parables about the character of God, not as "details-at-10-on-KONG-TV" literal news, much like stories of the young George Washington chopping down his father's cherry tree. People have objected to such references in the past as evidence of incipient fundamentalist literalism on my part, apparently believing that the only way to take a story seriously is to take it literally. One can only speculate on how such folks interpret, say, Moby Dick or 'Salem's Lot or Lord of the Rings.)
If you think I am talking about Donald Trump, a.k.a. DARK (Der Amerikanische Reichs-Kanzler) ... well ... you are right. But in the beginning, I genuinely did want this column to comprise a thumbnail critique of all monotheistic religion. I did not intend to start out writing about Donald Trump, but instead -- I swear, seriously, I was being sincere in my initial statement of intent -- an enumeration of the reasons why, as I have said before and will continue to say, any monotheism, without exception -- Judaism, Islam, Christianity ... you name it -- is deeply and radically inimical to the most critical and fundamental principles on which this Nation, and ultimately any Nation in the tradition of the European Enlightenment, is founded. Of course, under the "free exercise" clause of the First Amendment, you do have a fully protected constitutional right to be a monotheist. You also have a fully protected constitutional right to clog your arteries with Big Macs and to decline to exercise. The European Enlightenment valorized Reason and rationality, but that is not to say that it forced anyone to be either reasonable or rational. Equality necessarily entails the right of everyone to go to Hell in their own idiosyncratic way, provided only that they do not coerce anyone else to go with them. The previous bullet points merely result from the by-no-means-accidental confluence of DARK's personality, on the one hand, and the personality of any monotheistic deity, on the other. Both tend toward hard-core authoritarianism. One cannot discuss one without discussing the other, any more than one can discuss "2 + 2" without discussing "4": the two personalities, that of DARK and that of any monotheistic god, are in all essentials identical, differing only in scale.
Hence my lack of amazement that conservative evangelical / fundamentalist Christians so slavishly followed DARK -- not all, but enough to dismay anyone who values this Nation as an instantiation of European Enlightenment socio-cultural values and practices. (I say "not all," because many people, even many of the most devout conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists, do have a kind of residuum of rationality sufficient to prevent them from following the goose-stepping irrationality of monotheism over the cliff, like human lemmings. The human race owes a huge debt to the pervasive capacity of people to act in a manner inconsistent with their own professed ideology: "Go in peace, thy doubt hath made thee whole!") People like the late Francis Schaeffer, the late Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham, in short, the entire conservative-Christian ecosystem -- all have never ceased braying about the alleged importance of returning America to "biblical principles". (Of course, 16th- and 17th-century Europe bathed itself in blood for, optimistically, 200+ years in an effort to settle the issue of which sect venerating the Prince of Peace has the right take on what those "biblical principles" are -- hence the First Amendment -- but please pardon this tasteless allusion to actual, documented historical fact.) No wonder so many of them support DARK! In fact, if you are surprised, it's only because you haven't been listening. They have always wanted the Christian God to be President. (I suspect they would have been content with any monotheistic god, though they would never admit that.) On 20 January 2017, that is exactly what happened: they got what they wanted. Or a reasonable approximation. And if their President and god-simulacrum has a habit of grabbing women by the genitals ... well ... we can always sing another propitiatory chorus of O Felix Culpa.
So in an eerie kind of way, we have seen the literal, space-time-historical fulfillment of the conservative evangelical / fundamentalist take on Rev. 21:3 -- "Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men ... " The Election in November even went us one better. Now we know the name of the New Jerusalem: it is called Mar-A-Lago. Next order of business: build the stone altars, and let the sacrifices begin!
James R. Cowles