I had originally planned to observe a moratorium in "Skeptics Collection" posts until after the conclusion of the current e-course The Great Divide on religion and the US Constitution. What prompted me to change my mind was the President's speech at the National Prayer Breakfast on international terrorism. Critics of the President's speech have never, to this day, pointed out any factual errors of history the President committed in his address. Instead, and perhaps not surprisingly, they all seem to have missed the point entirely -- which is what conservative Republicans seem to specialize in these days. The following is my mouse-squeak of a voice in its attempt to fill the void left by people whose ignorance of both history and religion can only be described as breathtaking -- and would be Marx-Brothers comical, were the stakes not so high. But there is such a thing as culpable ignorance.
I would agree that, in his recent National Prayer Breakfast address, the President was perhaps a little too coy and overly scrupulous in largely omitting explicit reference to Islamic terrorism. It may well be that the President did not want to apply the “I-word” to terrorists for fear of throwing a piece of red meat to the Islamophobes of the junkyard-dog right, for fear of provoking a 21st-century Kristallnacht. Besides, in another and deeper sense, President Obama -- it may well be inadvertently -- described the etiology of violent religious extremism more accurately by tiptoeing around explicit references to Islam, and by emphasizing corresponding violence perpetrated by other religious groups, specifically Christians. For religious extremism and violence are nurtured and abetted, not by Islam in particular, not by Christianity in particular, not by Judaism in particular, but by pure monotheism in general.
Now, by "pure monotheism", I mean monotheism – once more: any monotheism -- isolated from any admixture of rationality and secularism. Conservatives never tire of spittle-spraying about the supposed antagonism between monotheism, usually Christianity in the US, and what they customarily refer to as "secular humanism", often tacking the additional adjective "godless" in front of the two quoted words: “godless secular humanism”. But as even a cursory reading of history makes clear, pure monotheism actually needs an alloy – an impurity, if you will -- of "secular humanism", even godless secular humanism, if monotheism is to avoid self-destruction. Historically, monotheism has suffered much more from the absence of "godless secular humanism" than from its presence. "Godless secular humanism" saves monotheism from itself.
All of which immediately begs two questions: (1) what, specifically, are the pathologies induced by pure monotheism from which an alloy of “godless secular humanism” saves it; and (2) what is the efficient cause – the means, the instrument, the vehicle – of that saving? To (1) the late Gore Vidal provided at least the précis of an answer in his 1992 Lowell Lecture at Harvard on “Monotheism and its Discontents”. Vidal’s talk, in fact, can serve as a kind of Michelin guidebook to the pure monotheist pathology. To (2) I propose the answers corresponding to each symptom in (1). The subject is vast, but I cite two of the more salient symptoms. (Quotations from Vidal’s text are in cited in italics.)
o The sky-god [of monotheism] is a jealous god, of course. He requires total obedience from everyone on earth … Those who reject him must be converted or killed for their own good.
As if we needed examples … in the Old Testament, the slaughter of the Amalekites (I Samuel 30:1-20), the conquest of Canaan in the Book of Joshua, the Christ-led Christian jihad of Revelation (Rev. 19:11ff), the 1300-years-and-counting sectarian war between Sunni and Shi’a, the religious wars of the 1500s and 1600s, etc., etc. All because one God implies one Truth, implies one morality, implies one interpretation of the relevant sacred texts, implies one orthodoxy, implies one law … etc., etc., etc. One God, one King, one Pope, one master in the factory, one father-leader in the family home.
At least in the Western world, the antibody to this virus of goose-stepping one-ness was the European Enlightenment of the late 17th through early 19th centuries, which – over time and in a two-steps-forward-one-step-back way – gradually drew the fangs of pure monotheism by separating religion from political power, confining religious passion to the individual conscience, and teaching both nations and individuals the crucial skill of agreeing to disagree. (Science was a sine qua non part of the Enlightenment mixture, too, in that science afforded an alternative outlet for human energy and passion that had nothing to do with burning people and hacking them to pieces over obscure points of millennia-plus-old theology.) The Enlightenment broke the choke-hold of one-ness and permitted diversity to grow.
(It is often alleged by apologists for the religious right in the US that the American tradition of ordered liberty derives, not from the European Enlightenment, but from the Bible, specifically the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt. There is not enough space to critique this view thoroughly. Suffice to say that the definition of liberty in the Bible is a close cousin of the definition of liberty in, say, North Korea. In the latter, one has utterly unrestrained liberty to expatiate on how wonderful Kim Jong Eun is in, say, condemning his uncle to be devoured by hungry dogs; in the former, on how wonderful Yahweh is for, say, slaughtering the rebels at the foot of Mt. Sinai. So in both cases -- the Bible and North Korea -- liberty specifically means the unlimited freedom to tell The Boss how wonderful He is. We can all be grateful that the definition of liberty that emerged from the Enlightenment and that was encoded into the Constitution is much more comprehensive than that.)
Hence the essential difference between the historical experience of the Muslim and Christian worlds: the latter learned this lesson … and we can only hope that the former is in the process of learning it. Had the reverse been true, as it easily could have been, European civilization might well have self-destructed in the 1600s, in which case the 9/11 planes that hit the Towers and the Pentagon could just as well have been flown by Christian terrorists: literal “Christian soldiers” like Timothy McVeigh. Ditto the London and Madrid bombings. That nightmare apocalypse was (narrowly) avoided only because Christian civilization – “Christian” in a purely cultural sense – was tamed, domesticated, collared, and leashed by the Enlightenment. The world awaits, and hopes that there someday will be, a Muslim counterpart. And judging by the Netanyahu government’s policies toward Gaza and West Bank Palestinians, we may dare entertain the same hope for Israel. But in any case – as the President’s Prayer Breakfast rhetoric implied -- the problem is not Christianity, the problem is not Islam, the problem is not Judaism. The problem is pure monotheism.
o [Monotheists] have always exerted great pressure in our secular republic [to ensure that] the numerous religious taboos in the New and Old Testaments would be enforced, if necessary, by civil law.
To whatever extent a distinction even exists today in European civilization between civil and religious law – and that distinction is not everywhere equally sharp – that difference exists because of the separation the Enlightenment eventually effected between Church and State – which also separated Church from Church, a separation expressed in the US by the two “religion” clause of the First Amendment. But even that is always under attack, as witness recent religious objections to even civil marriage of LGBTQ people. (Think “Alabama” here.) And you will notice I said all this without so much as alluding to the identification in much of the Muslim world of civil and religious law in, e.g., Saudi Arabia, Iran, and among non-state actors like ISIS, AQAP, and al-Shabaab. Again, the difference has nothing to do with any intrinsic distinctions among religious traditions, but with the common tendency toward regimentation characteristic of pure monotheism. On this one crucial point, at least, conservatives are dead-bang right: be the context pro football, cable TV, or religion, monopolies are bad. Period. (The sweet irony, of course, is that conservatives are often among the first to ridicule the value of "diversity".) And when the ideological monopoly of pure monotheism prevails with no tempering competition from “godless secular humanism,” it is always to the detriment of the society as a whole, no matter which monotheism one references.
Still, all that said, I would demur from Vidal’s critique to the extent of arguing that, while pure monotheism – which, far from being a "straw man," certainly did exist prior to the Enlightenment – does entail all the dangers his Lowell address cites, monotheism, when tamed and domesticated and rendered impure by the "godless secularism" of the Enlightenment, has done much good and is capable of doing more. In that regard, I recur to my previous analogy comparing monotheism to a nuclear reactor. With no control rods, a nuclear reactor will melt down and destroy a city, but with control rods, a nuclear reactor can light and warm a city. With no moderation from Enlightenment values of secularism and rationalism, any monotheism will likewise melt down and destroy the ambient society. But with the disciplines instilled by the "godless secular humanism" of the Enlightenment, such monotheisms can be, as they have in the past, sources of creativity, insight, and wisdom.
A feral dog will bite its erstwhile owner no less than passers-by. The particular breed of dog is irrelevant. But cure the dog, discipline it, domesticate it, leash it, collar it, and train it, and it can be eyes for the blind. The secret is to not allow the dog to kill its blind owner in the process.
James R. Cowles