The Problem With Monotheism

When an author argues that there is no God, that’s his personal business—something between him and the Creator. But when an author, in addition to denying God, asserts that monotheism is a net negative for the human race, a rebuttal is in order.

In recent years, atheistic authors have claimed that monotheism is a blight, because such faith engenders war. While it is true that the histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam include many episodes of intrafaith and interfaith violence, only someone with an unbalanced knowledge of history could fall prey to the error that monotheism has made the world a meaner, more violent place.

War has been part of human history, both before and after the emergence of monotheism, and both where monotheism prevails and where it does not. Wars are generally fought over territory and wealth, even where differing religious beliefs are involved.

Is religion a major cause of war? Not for the United States. Not one American war—Revolutionary, 1812, Mexican, Civil, Spanish, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq—was fought over religion. Furthermore, blaming monotheism for the world’s violence at this juncture in history is willful blindness. In the 20th century, brutal, tyrannical regimes inflicted more than six times as many fatalities as did wars. (Google “R.J. Rummel democide” and click on the “20th century democide” link.) 20th century aggressors and tyrants—the three most murderous being Mao, Stalin, and Hitler—were predominantly atheistic.

Authors who condemn monotheism seem oblivious to how much their own comfortable, free lives owe to the historical impact of monotheism. The pre-monotheistic worldview was pagan. Paganism exalted nature above all, and taught human subjection to nature. Paganism was fatalistic; it inculcated resignation to a static social order. To the pagans, individual lives were unimportant, cheap. The welfare of the collective, which in practice was the welfare of the ruling elite, was supreme. There was no theory of individual rights opposed to this arrangement. If you were born a drone, you lived the life of a drone, and if the rulers decided that your life should be forfeited to the sun god or in some military campaign to obtain booty for the rulers, then your fate was sealed.

The Judeo-Christian tradition’s greatest contribution to the human race has been to liberate the human race from the stifling and deadly paganism that preceded it—and that is trying to defeat it today. Monotheism impelled the search for scientific knowledge to tame the natural world. Judeo-Christian teachings gradually imbued human thought with ethical values that spawned the doctrines that all men are created equal, that they have inalienable rights, and that rulers are not above the law. The free market—based on that premise of God-given rights—has lifted masses of people out of poverty for the first time in human history. All three monotheistic faiths teach their followers to be charitable to those in need. In fact, the widespread calls we hear today about helping the less fortunate, even when made by unbelievers, are cultural echoes of our monotheistic traditions. It is hard to imagine how much poorer and less free we would be today if not for the leavening influence of monotheistic teachings.

That having been said, there is a problem with monotheism: monotheists. We who profess monotheism and know that we shouldn’t sin, sometimes give in to sin and do things to our fellow man that our faith teaches us are wrong. In the case of a minority of fanatics, the sin of self-righteousness drives them to aggression against those who don’t share their religious sense. This is because the limited human mind is incapable of fully comprehending the Deity. We each grasp small portions of this one infinite, Supreme Being, and then make the mistake of concluding that we are qualified to impose that imperfect view on others.

It is worth noting, however, that the antidote for such self-righteous aggression is found in the very Bible that atheists find so unbelievable. The Lord Jesus directs us to get the beam out of our own eyes. The apostle Paul tells us to work out our own (not the other guy’s) salvation.

Those who bash monotheism are justified in exhorting monotheists to do a better job of practicing what we preach. In turn, I urge them, too, to practice what we preach (again, not in terms of how to relate to the Deity—because that is each person’s private business—but in terms of how we relate to each other, since that is public business). After all, wouldn’t everybody prefer to live under rules like, “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not steal,” etc., that help to protect individual lives? Can atheists think of a better formula for peace that the Lord’s Golden Rule given in the Bible: “do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12)?

If these guidelines for social interaction hadn’t been given to us by divine commandment, human beings would need to invent them. But which approach would be more likely to instill obedience—obey these rules because you are accountable to God, Who will judge you, or do these things because Andy Atheist says that is what nice people do? Personally, I’d rather trust the peace and prosperity of future generations to monotheists, who recognize a higher authority than human will, than to atheists, who do not.