The ‘Sickness’ of Monotheism

Prompted to write on “Muslim-Christian relations” for the Washington Post’s “On Faith” section, Jason Pitzl-Waters changed the terms of the usual interfaith conversation and “spoke truth to power,” thus:

These events are the sad fruits of mixing raw social and political power with religions that operate on a exclusionary, one-true-path, basis. What you see in Iraq or Egypt is just the extreme and violent form of a sickness that has haunted history since the now-dominant monotheisms rose to prominence and power [emphasis added].

He then linked to his piece on Facebook and at his Wild Hunt blog.

Right away some concern troll pops up asking, “Of course, you don’t address why a fair number of Pagans, who belong to a supposedly tolerant and diverse community of non-monotheists, are also in the anti-Muslim camp.”

It’s all about [nasty Western] imperialism, you see.

Sure. Take Persia (Iran) for example, the center of a major empire for centuries. Then conquered by the Muslim Arabs in the eighth century, who killed off most of the native Zoroastrian priests and imposed Islam at the point of the sword. Reconquered by the Muslim Tamerlane, who piled up thousands of skulls whenever someone “questioned his authoritah.”

Seriously, I think we are in the “anti-Muslim camp” because we know well that thousands of Muslims want us either (a) converted to their One True Way or (b) dead. Those are your choices.

Look what happens when a “moderate” politician in Pakistan questions that country’s draconian anti-blasphemy laws, which make it criminal to say anything remotely bad about Islam—although you can insult Hindus, Christians, and, I suppose, even Wiccans to your heart’s content.

When he is murdered, his killer is a hero to lawyers (!) and to religious leaders. (Read the dead governor’s last Twitter here.)

I have to wonder, when you drive through Islamabad or Lahore, are there billboards?

Know a Blasphemer?

Call our confidential tip line: 1-8oo-OFF-HEAD

Allah will reward you (and so will the government)!

Is a thorough knowledge of blasphemy law a way to riches in the Pakistani legal profession, like being an expert in water law is here in Colorado?

• • •

One of my favorite scholars of new religious movements, Bob Ellwood, wrote a book late in his career called Cycles of Faith: The Development of the World’s Religions.

He set forth a sort of “lifespan development” theory of religion, in which all the biggies go through the same stages, even as humans go through infancy, childhood, adolescence, etc.

It seems too pat, but it’s appealing, at least when looking at Christianity and Islam.

Ellwood argues that Islam now is where Christianity stood in the 16th century, in the “reformation” stage. And that was the era of the witch trials and of religious wars up and down Europe with aftershocks that carried into the Americas and even followed European explorers and settlers into Africa and South Asia.

Islam, he argues “is in fact displaying many of the initial characteristics of the Reformation period in the history of a world religion. There is a response to secularizing trends, an inward fervor, the early desire to create an ideal society, the emergence of a new kind of elite.”  In this case, Islamic thinkers see decay in the Muslim world and blame it all on “the West” (and on the Jews, naturally).

So the concern troll above is just parroting that line: everything the matter in the Islamic world is the fault of “the West.”

Ultimately, Ellwood suggests, the blood-letting recedes, and we move into the era of Folk Religion, when a dominant religion becomes disconnected from the concerns of the political elites—except when convenient. That is where he places Western Christianity now.

I find the book interesting although I distrust Grand Intellectual Schemes. And I doubt that I will live long enough to see the end of the bloody Islamic “reformation,” which because I am a Western Pagan, represents a very real threat to my health and well-being if it comes too close.

Lucky for Jason Pitzl-Waters, there are no blasphemy laws in America, and the very fact that the Washington Post solicits his views shows that religion is not something we kill people over in America, usually.

13 thoughts on “The ‘Sickness’ of Monotheism

  1. A key word here is the technical term “biggies” (“all the biggies go through the same stages”).

    There is an apocryphal quote attributed to Voltaire that goes: “If there are 2 or 3 religions in a society they will be at each other’s throats, but if there are 20 or 30 they will live in peace.”

    In fact, I think there is clear connection between “monotheisms” and “biggies”. Many religions engage in various forms of proselytization and are capable of spreading and growing. But monotheisms have a penchant for forcible conversion to a degree not found elsewhere. This gives them a clear advantage and leads to the current situation in which half of humanity is either Christian or Muslim.

  2. Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that what Monotheism actually is, IS THE DEGENERATE and politicized remains of a once valid and lively monolatry.

    The desert pantheon from which Jahweh originally came, and the ‘eternal compact’ between him and the “12 tribes” (really 12 or not) was a living relationship between the spirits of the tribes and their chosen patron god. Then (near’s I can figure) the Levite priests realized that they could make things cushier for themselves if they got rid of the rest of the gods, and claimed their god declared Levites to be the supreme priestly tribe. Then it degenerated further under invasions, conquests, and politicians in priestly garb further re-writing (yes, I know, mostly oral) the ‘laws and traditions’ to suit their ambitions to power.

    I have long suspect that the old testament story about Jahweh aiding that one Jew (don’t really want to crack that dirty book open just to look up his name) to steal his brother’s inheritance by going in disguise to their dying father, might have actually been revised to hide that he was pretending to be his SISTER, thus ending the previous matrilineal descent practices of the tribes, and instituting a patrilineal pattern. Just supposition on my part.

    Unfortunately, the proportion of a population which is forcibly converted to a monotheism who are able to secretly maintain their connection to their own gods, and pass them down to the next generation, grows lesser with each succeeding generation, and within a hundred years perhaps, very few remain to remember and honor them.

  3. Apuleius: I should note that Ellwood also applies his template to non-monotheistic Hinduism and Buddhism, hence my use of the technical term “biggies.”

  4. Chas,
    While I did find Ali’s perspective in that comment to be a bit – blinkered, perhaps – I’m not sure it’s fair to characterize her as a concern troll, by the definition given at the link you provide. She has an established identity on the Web, and is a semi-regular commenter at Jason’s site; and while she does take some (IMO) fairly extreme-left political positions, and quite possibly chooses to overstate them slightly for affect, they are of a piece with what I know of her overall philosophy as discussed on her blog.

    (I sort of think of her as the anti-Apuleius… 🙂

    You would probably enjoy reading Raphael Patai’s book “The Hebrew Goddess”.

  5. I wasn’t going to name her or link to her, but she did post the same comment on Jason’s Facebook item, just to make sure it got across.

    Actually, she fits the definition close enough: appearing to agree with the writer’s post, but in fact trying to send the conversation off in a different direction and to get people squabbling over whether “the West” is responsible for all Muslim violence.

    Such an attitude is quite patronizing, for it suggests that non-Westerners are incapable of creating evil on their own without our guidance.

  6. Such an attitude is quite patronizing
    This, I absolutely agree with.

    On another note, I had seen that Reformation argument before, and saw some sense in it, but didn’t know where it came from – thanks for the link! I’ll have to see if Ellwood’s book is available via ILL.

  7. Pitch313

    If you embrace a Neo-Pagan belief system and practice–in my case, for instance, polytheistic postmodern Green Craft–it becomes clear early on that significant, even incommensurable, differences exist among religions.

    Experiences of unity with the Cosmos and/or Deities do not overcome those differences. Relentless dedication to interfaith understanding, tolerance, and amity do not overcome those differences. Incorporation of elements of other religions into a Neo-Pagan practice and outlook do not overcome those differences. Personal friendship with adherents of other religions do not overcome those differences.

    My sense of Deities is polytheist. I am not going to be a monotheist. I am not going to be an adherent of a monotheistic religion. Even though I value diversity, I am not going to support a monotheistic religion over and above the polytheistic Neo-Paganism informing my lifeway.

    The way I see it, nobody ought to be surprised–or even concerned–that Pagans actively and vigorously support their own belief systems and practices over and above any other religion. What I find interesting is the ideological and social and psychoemotional twists and turns some of us will go through–and urge others to go through–in order to accomplish just that sort of bad faith thinking.

  8. I’m not surprised that Ellwood includes Buddhism and Hinduism in the same category as Christianity and Islam. Even Jan Assmann has felt it necessary to include Buddhism in his category of “counter-religions”, which, by his own reckoning, is supposed to be a one-to-one mapping with monotheisms.

    The explanation for these category errors is all too obvious. First of all, they are obviously not based on any actual evidence, either historical or theological. Rather the issue is one of deferring to modern sensibilities, which do not allow for particular religions to be singled out for criticism. One must criticize all religions (or all “organized” religions, or all “big” religions). Or, alternatively, one must praise all religions equally, while only decrying the “extremists”, while making absolutely certain to emphasize that ALL religions are equally guilty of extremism — never mind the fact that everyone knows this is not true.

    More specifically, though, Ellwood and Assmann both get bogged down in extraneous characteristics, such as whether or not a religion is “founded”, or “revealed”, or whether or not it has a canon, or, how big it is, and so forth. Why not just focus on what everyone knows is the 800 lb gorilla: whether or not a religion leaves a bloody swathe of smoking destruction everywhere it goes.

  9. Rombald

    Apuleius: Buddhism never went through the violent-Reformation stage, so it doesn’t fit in with Ellwood’s typology. Persecution and violence within Buddhism has not been very common, and has been basically about control of land by different monasteries (in Japan and Tibet), or about ethnicity (modern Sri Lanka), or associated with fringe sects like Nichirenism.

    Having said that, I do think there is a case for classifying Buddhism with Christianity and Islam in some respects, as it is a non-ethnic and non-localised religion that starts at a particular time with a particular psychological event, makes doctrinal claims that are in principle readily communicable, and aims at individual, extra-mundane salvation.

    Inclusion of Hinduism is much more problematic.

  10. Rombald

    About Islamic persecution, a comment I made over on Wildhunt, which I’ll make again here is that persecution of Christians gets a lot of publicity in the West. Of course, I believe Christians should have the right to practise their religion in peace, but concentration on Christians may be a tactical mistake, because I have noticed Western secular liberals dismissing all concern for religious freedom in the Muslim world as a Christian plot. I have also heard Japanese intellectuals dismissing the current situation as a war between Christianity and Islam, which the man-on-the-Tokyo-subway has difficulty even distinguishing.

    I think more emphasis should be given to persecution of Muslims who convert to beliefs other than Christianity. There are a number of famous ex-Muslim atheists, and I have met several Muslim-background atheists/agnostics, in England, who say their lives would be in danger if they made their apostasy widely known. I also used to know an Iraqi Kurd who had rejected Islam, and practised some sort of Kurdish fire-worshipping Paganism. I have also seen a website by Iranian and Afghan converts to Buddhism, and I have read about Indian Muslim converts to Hinduism.

  11. Pingback: Monotheism: The Old Bugbear… « Aedicula Antinoi: A Small Shrine of Antinous

  12. Ali


    Firstly, thanks for mentioning me in your blog! Wow! Of course, apparently I don’t deserve a name or citation, but that’s all right, I forgive you. (Accusations of being patronizing aside. But I’ll just chalk that up to the pot calling the kettle black. We “Pagan Academics” have to stick together, right? ;))

    Secondly, if the definition of a “concern troll” is “a form of Internet trolling in which someone enters a discussion with claims that he or she supports the view of the discussion, but has concerns,” then clearly I do not qualify, since I stated quite overtly that I do not agree with Jason’s particular views on the role of religion in public life, and I have been open in saying so on several occasions.

    Thirdly, if the definition of a “troll” includes the notion that “he or she uses concern trolling to sow doubt and dissent in the community of commenters or posters,” then again, I’d have to say: sorry! Close, but no cigar. If my comments raise doubts or dissent, perhaps those doubts are warranted. I wouldn’t be openly disagreeing with someone’s opinion if I didn’t think doubt was warranted. As an academic yourself, I would hope you always approach statements of opinion with a similarly open mind, willing to entertain the possibility that those opinions cannot substitute for facts. If accusations of “trolling” are meant, instead, to imply that my sole goal is to “sow dissent” and ruin people’s day – again, I am sorry you had such a strong and negative emotional reaction to what I said, but that was not my intent. My intent was, as I said to Jason, to broaden the discussion and challenge some of the assumptions that he made in his article, to see if he had any new insight or reaction to share. However, your rudeness and defensiveness on Facebook (which you continued here by dismissing me as “trolling”) certainly reveal how deeply personal you take discussions of colonialism and imperialism.

    Fourthly, I posted my comment on both Facebook and Jason’s blog because the Washington Post site does not allow comments from unregistered users, and I wasn’t sure where Jason was more likely to see my response. I did not follow up on responses I received to my comment after the first few (including yours) were vitriolic enough to lead me to believe I probably couldn’t expect a civil discussion. When I addressed you directly in the comment feed on Facebook, asking for an explanation for your rudeness, you never replied. (“A commenter that leaves a single personally-insulting attack irrelevant to the conversation and then refuses to engage in civil discussion” is much closer to the definition of “troll” in my book.)

    And finally, in no place in my comment (which you failed to quote in full), did I mention anywhere that it was “the West” who was the sole imperial power in the equation, or the imperial power to blame in this particular instance. In fact, I brought up several examples of non-Western and non-monotheistic imperial powers throughout history in order to drive my main point home: any culture can turn to violence, not just monotheistic ones, and religion is often invoked to justify violence when the violent actors feel overwhelmed by more-than-human odds. This is a phenomenon discussed at length in texts such as Appleby’s The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence and Reconciliation, Juergensmyer’s Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, and Lincoln’s Discourse and the Construction of Society: Comparative Studies of Myth, Ritual and Classification.

    So before you go writing me off as some nutjob troll trying to blame the US for all the world’s woes, I suggest you take a moment to consider more carefully what I actually wrote, instead of the assumptions and biases you projected into my argument. And perhaps some soul-searching about why you have such an evident anti-Muslim chip on your shoulder is also in order – but that’s not really any of my business.

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