Analytic Theology

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The Origins of Monotheistic Culture

September 4th, 2006 by David Kronemyer · 1 Comment

DAVID KRONEMYER: I always have been intrigued by arguments for the existence of God. Maybe it’s because they tend to put you in a contemplative frame of mind. Lately I’ve become interested in a sub-set of these issues, which is, why don’t we all start believing in the indigenous God that is native to our ancestral territories. In my case, for example, I could take a genetic test isolating my DNA to some portion of the world back in the year 500 CE, or whenever. These are my peeps, my heredity, my ancestors, and there are a half-dozen or so compelling reasons for believing in their version of God, as opposed to somebody else’s. I’m not exactly sure who the God of Friesenland was (yes, that’s where we’re from), but maybe this is something I should get on, like right away!

The Bible’s Old Testament is the historical record of the Hebrew people. It is entirely fitting and appropriate for their descendants to believe in the God of Moses. But, properly understood – say, from the perspective of Thor, Quezecoatal, or whomever – the God of Moses was nothing more than a dijn, a little dust-devil, whose greatest display of power was to manifest himself as a burning bush, Exodus 3:2. He was a “local” God – a tribal God, if you will, belonging to the Israelites, and resident in Judah, a region south of the land of Canaan. He even had a home mountain, Mount Sinai, although today we don’t know exactly where that is. Despite this provincialism, over time, this God of the Hebrews acquired such persistence and durability, that it became the core belief of the Abrahamic religions.

This really must have been confusing for the early Christians. “Even Gentiles who converted to Christianity shared many of the Jewish traditions, as witnessed by Christian doctrinal debates of the time. Although exempt from circumcision and dietary restrictions, they were required to immerse themselves in the Jewish Scriptures. It must have seemed strange for a Gentile Christian from Ephesus, for example, whose mother tongue was Greek, and whose psychic landscape was dominated by the temple and giant statue of the great mother-goddess that drew pilgrims from all over the Hellenistic world, to be studying the history of an alien people whose own divinity was never depicted,” Allen, C., The Human Christ 47 (1998).

The fact of the matter is there were a number of other god-candidates vying for contention back there in the mid- to late-tenth century BCE. Not only was there Yahweh, but also Elohim, who came from the northern kingdom. Chemosh was the god of Moab; Baal, the god of a neighboring tribe of heathens. Baal was so popular that Saul, the first Israeli king, named his first son after him. Over time, these amalgamated into a single entity. “The God whom ancient Israel worshiped arose as the fusion of a number of the gods whom a nomadic nation had met in its wanderings,” Miles, J., God – A Biography 20 (1995). That being so, “Faith in one god, or monotheism, is such a famous fact about the Jews’ religion that we might easily assume that it was present from the start. It is, however, an exceptional belief, not shared by any other peoples known in antiquity, and wherever we are most familiar with it worldwide, it is a Jewish legacy” (emphasis added), Fox, R., The Unauthorized Version 54 (1992).

So, how did this happen? We need to devise an explanation for cultural phenomena (such as “religion”) in non-cultural terms. The reason why is because anything else either would be circular, or unenlightening. For example, if we were to say the Israelites came to believe in God because “they knew how to write,” then we would have to explain where language (itself a cultural phenomenon) came from, and so forth.

One of the interesting things about Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) by Jered Diamond is, he manages to explain the inception and growth of culture, in non-cultural terms. Instead, he attributes it solely to natural phenomena, e.g., societies evolving in trade-wind zones along an east-west axis found it easier to cultivate nutritious grains, than ones aligned on a north-south axis. Compare, e.g., the Americas (oriented north-south) and Africa (also oriented north-south) with the Mediterranean (oriented east-west). This is why the Aztecs were mystified to the point of non-comprehension by Cortez, and why Europe wasn’t conquered by hordes of Zulu’s riding rhinoceroses (rhinoceri?).

Daniel C. Dennett recently took up Diamond’s provocative but open-ended explanation in his book, Breaking the Spell (2006). Dennett contends the transition from polytheism to monotheism resulted not only from belief in a single God, but also something he calls “belief in belief in God,” 205. Unfortunately, Dennett doesn’t actually come right out and say what he means by “belief in belief.” He meanders through a lot of different illustrations, which, frankly, I don’t get; I mean, I can’t discern a common thread in what he’s saying.

I think what he’s talking about is belief in a “concept of” God, or a “thing that can be believed in.” He characterizes this as a kind of “intentional object” that “somebody can think about” (211), as opposed to God per se. God per se is too elusive and incomprehensible actually to “believe” in; among other things, claims about God per se are hard to understand, and cannot be rationally investigated.

I have two problems with this, as follows. First, I highly doubt anybody “believes” in a “belief.” Rather, either you have a belief, or you don’t. “Belief in belief” is a weird kind of “second order” belief, that nobody actually has. And, if they do, it’s trivial; of course I believe there exists a set of individuals, one of the ascriptive predicates of which is, “They believe in God.” But this strikes me as being more of an anthropological fact than a useful heuristic device, particularly from the stance of the believer.

It’s also trivial, because there seem to be no instances when it doesn’t pertain, thereby drastically reducing its explanatory power. Dennett himself admits, “It is entirely possible to be an atheist and believe in belief in God,” 221. Further, “the very behaviors that would be clear evidence of belief in God are also behaviors that would be clear evidence of (only) belief in belief in God,” 223. The whole concept of “belief in belief,” then, seems to pertain whether or not the underlying premise (that is, “that God exists”) is true. In other words, you don’t have to believe in God’s real existence, in order to have belief in belief in God.

But there are precisely zero atheists out there who go around proselytizing for “belief in belief” in God, while at the same time denouncing the first-order belief, “God exists.” Dennett’s misusing the concept of “belief.” The difference between “belief” and “belief in belief” isn’t just a matter of perspective. Rather, the essence of first-person belief is belief in the propositional content of the belief, itself.

Second, “belief in belief” doesn’t do what Dennett wants for it to do, that is, explain the transition from polytheism to monotheism. Dennett promised us that “belief in belief in God” will help explain “the migration of the concept of God in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) away from concrete anthropomorphism to ever more abstract and depersonalized concepts,” 205. But he doesn’t pursue this further, instead venturing off on a discursion about how fundamental concepts change over time.

Even from Dennett’s perspective, there are two and only two ways that such a transition is explainable. [Since I’ve already used the headings “first” and “second,” I’ll shift into “(a)” and “(b).”] (a) is as follows: over time, for whatever reason, monotheists procreated more successfully than polytheists. Thus, monotheism came to eradicate polytheism (in much the same way there are no more Neanderthals, today).

(b) is as follows: over time, for whatever reason, what Dennett calls “folk religion” (but which really should be called “tribal religion” or “primitive religion”) metamorphosized from polytheism into monotheism as a result of “differential replication.” That is, as time passed on and religious traditions evolved, only those with “better” features were successively iterated. In this way, “as people became more and more reflective about their practices and their reactions, they could then become more and more inventive in their explorations of the space of possibilities,” 153.

Alternative (a) seems highly unlikely. Certainly there is nothing unique about the neuro-chemical or molecular structure of the human brain predisposing us towards religion, much less monotheism; the existence of pluralistic societies is sufficient evidence of that. But, it’s not clear Dennett recognizes this. He says, “Folk religion may well have played an important role in the propagation of Homo sapiens, but we don’t know that yet,” 157. But, he also says “Our brains … may also have evolved to become more effective implementers of the culturally transmitted habits of folk religions,” 158. Until somebody can show me genetic evidence, like DNA or something, I’ll stick with my predisposition that this kind of talk is nonsensical. Religion is a cultural artifact, not a genetic one.

This leaves us with alternative (b). Much like Curious George the Monkey, the hunter-gatherers of the world gradually came to contemplate their circumstances, a process Dennett calls “creeping reflection,” 162. This trend or tendency was “made both possible and necessary” by “the emergence of agriculture and the larger settlements,” 167. As people found themselves compressed into a market economy, “the prospect of a few like-minded people forming a coalition that is quite different from an extended family must almost always present itself,” 168. In this way, “the wild (self-sustaining) memes of folk religion became thoroughly domesticated,” 170, which resulted in typical features such as “Secrecy, deception, and systematic invulnerability to disconfirmation,” 174.

With its emphasis on what Dennett calls the “evolution of stewardship,” I think this account puts the cart before the horse. People don’t sit around debating the characteristics of memes and evaluating their various traits and attributes. Rather, they make decisions in the real world depending upon their utility, either to themselves personally, or to the tribe of which they comprise a part.

Consider, for example, two situations that surely must have confronted a primitive tribe, which are, food and security. If a crop fails, or a hunt is unsuccessful, it is considerably less likely that whatever God within whose realm responsibility for the event lies, will be culturally transmitted. It simply isn’t efficacious; the people either will get a new “God of the crops,” or “God of the hunt,” or expand the scope of responsibilities of an existing God, who has proven to be more sympathetic to their needs and requirements. Or, consider inter-tribal conflict. If your tribe prevails in battle, then you have every reason for retaining your “God of war.” On the other hand, if you are defeated, and the other tribe is victorious, then it’s as likely as not you’ll start worshipping their “God of war,” because it proved to be more successful.

Because he’s committed to a theory of the gradual evolution of social memes, Dennett ignores this type of basic, self-interested, economic decision-making. In fact, you can’t find this concept anywhere in his book, even though it’s crucial. I get what he’s trying to do with evolution, and I don’t doubt for a minute there’s a Jered Diamond-like evolutionary account of religious belief with significant explanatory power. While Dennett flirts with the edges of such a theory, he hasn’t quite captured it.

For example, I would like an evolutionary theory of religion to deal with issues like whether societies living outside of temperate zones, or along a north-south axis, were more prone to develop polytheistic cultures, than those originating in the Mediterranean area. And, I’d like to see some kind of an explanation about how religion is affected, if it is, by the transition from a hunter-gatherer culture, to an agricultural one (which is one of Diamond’s main themes). Historically, cultures that primarily were agriculturally-based, e.g., the ancient Egyptians, worshipped a plethora of Gods and forces, which primarily were derived from nature, or otherwise dependent upon natural phenomenon. For example, the God of wind, the God of sun, the God of the Nile, etc. Many of these Gods were highly anthropomorphic, e.g., those of the ancient Greeks, all of whom embodied various aspects of the human personality.

But – all of these Gods were antagonistic to the developing monotheism of the early Hebrews, who then were (and for centuries, continued to remain) peregrenetic. E.g., they wandered around the Sinai for 40 years. They underwent the Diaspora, and scattered across the globe. Cain was a farmer while his younger brother Abel was a shepherd, and it was Abel’s gift that was more acceptable to God (later resulting in his unfortunate murder by Cain).

For me, at least, this evidence supports an hypothesis that peregrenetic cultures are more likely to evolve a monotheistic concept of God, than stationary ones. Whereas, societies that predominantly were agricultural, in turn were more disposed towards polytheism.

One explanatory benefit of this theory (and it may be the only one!) is, it synchs up with the Israeli’s ancient status as a nomadic desert tribe, i.e., a hunter-gatherer culture. Reciprocally, some of that God’s ascriptive predicates also suit them. First and foremost, God’s primary concern was self-preservation; the number one commandment is “Thou shalt have no god but me.” Even this wasn’t enough, though. If you meet somebody from another tribe, no matter how docile they might be, you have to “destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves,” Exodus 34:13. These mandates were more than mere suggestions; in fact, they were elevated to the status of a “covenant” (that is, a contract) between God and the Israeli people.

Injunctions like these seem particularly apt for a nomadic society. Such a culture would place a premium on being lithe, mobile, and agile. Its military tactic would be marauding, plundering, and other acts of depredation. Survival of the tribe in a hostile environment was their paramount concern; how appropriate, then, to worship a God sharing this predilection. They were mutually engaged, not by a few laissez-faire beliefs, but rather by a pact, a covenant, guaranteeing their security. God would protect them, but in exchange, they had to love only him. This strong form of unconditionality would have been a source of succor and encouragement, even for the most dubious members of the tribe.

Abraham and Isaac notwithstanding, this God did not demand the sacrifice of humans, as did, say, certain Gods in neighboring Phoenicia. It is easy to see how this has tremendous social utility, as human sacrifice necessarily diminishes the population of available humans to undertake tasks furthering the welfare of the tribe. He wasn’t particularly artistic, and (even though he created man in his own likeness) especially disliked images purporting to depict him. In other words, much of the iconography and religious paraphernalia of a stationary culture could be abandoned. In fact, his most sacred production – the tablets upon which the 10 commandments were inscribed – was to be carried around in an ark, with precisely-defined dimensions. Until the Israelis settled down and built the first temple in Jerusalem, he could be worshipped, “not only in his Temple, but at any altar which a worshipper might choose to build for him,” Fox, op. cit. 59. This kind of “portability” would present many advantages to a wandering people. It would be particularly difficult to lug around a heavy Golden Calf, like the one fabricated by Aaron at Exodus 32:4, or other similar varieties of statuary.*

So matters remained until the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom circa 722 BCE. Those survivors who weren’t deported, migrated south to Judah and Jerusalem. The Assyrians could care less about Yahweh: “From recently translated texts, we know what Israelites meant to them: not prophets but drivers,” that is, drivers for their chariots, Fox op. cit. 63. The stage was set for Isaiah; the Torah; the centralization of the God-cult in a single place, which became the only venue at which sacrifice could be performed; and the growth of a priestly caste.

In 587 CE, Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians, resulting in the Exile. What happens next is the key to the story: “When faced with fire and destruction, for the first time in history someone had preferred books to basins and precious metals, and saved the contents of a library. * * * They survived because the Babylonians wanted silver, not bits of parchment which they could not even read,” Fox, op. cit. 70. The Jews thus were the only culture with a tradition they bothered to write down (or, at least, managed to write down in a form we later found intelligible). Unlike the polytheists, they tenaciously preserved their belief in Yahweh, and evidence of it, despite incredible adversity. And this is why it’s still with us, today.

* Having said this, I’m still working on an explanation for God’s interest in diet and men’s private parts.