The reason behind monotheism

In The Evolution of God, Robert Wright makes the familiar modern argument that monotheism evolved from the earlier anthropomorphic gods of polytheism.

While Wright makes frequent mention of the tension between the rational and the supernatural, his Biblical scholarship does not take the step taken by Colin Wells in “How Did God Get Started?” (Arion, Fall 2010).

Wright focuses on the influence religion has had on reason, while Wells argues for a shift in paradigm, making the case that monotheism was the natural result of religion’s need to “defend itself” against the challenges posed by a new rational explanation of the universe.

Wright details how Abrahamic monotheism developed from more primitive ancestors “by a process more evolutionary than revolutionary.” In his narrative, Wright describes religion’s progression from animism (the river is a god) to anthropomorphic polytheism (one of our gods is a river god) to monolatry (there is one supreme god in the pantheon) to monotheism (there is but one god) to transcendent monotheism (there is one all-powerful god existing outside nature).

Wright spends much time describing the cultural forces – economic and political, often explained in the language of Game Theory – that shaped monotheism. While in the main he sees religion as the driving force behind intellectual and spiritual change, he acknowledges that “as understanding of the world grew–especially as it grew via science– religion evolved in reaction.”

But, in a later passage, he seems to reverse the “credit” for the force driving change:

Modern science … evolved from primordial forms that were symbiotically intertwined with religious thought. In fact, it isn’t obvious that we would have … modern institutions had it not been for early religion, which did so much to carry human social organization and culture beyond the hunter-gatherer stage.

And, in his most didactic pronouncement on the subject:

… looking for mechanistic laws of nature wouldn’t make much sense if, as the pagans of Elijah’s day believed, nature was animated by the ever changing moods of various gods. There’s more room for scientific principles to hold sway if there’s just one god, sitting somewhere above the fray — capable of intervening on special occasions, maybe, but typically presiding over a universe of lawful regularity.

In “How Did God Get Started?” Colin Wells covers much the same territory that Wright does in The Evolution of God. But Wells takes a different view of what was driving what during the evolution of  Western thought.

Like Wright, he believes that the histories of science and religion are intertwined in complex ways. Unlike Wright, he sees the rational as the font of the super-natural. Wells argues that “monotheistic religions emphasize faith in ways that other religions do not.” That is, religious practices were once focused on ritual. You didn’t have to believe in the god of your neighbours to honour him or her with the appropriate sacrifice or service. There was, he says, and Wright makes the same point, remarkably little emphasis on faith or morality in early religion. Religious practice was generally “transactional,” rather than “devotional,” as it would later become.

Wells makes the central argument that these early versions of religion changed due to the pressure of rationalism. He dates the beginning of the end for polytheism from the beginning of Greek rationalism with the writings of Thales, who took “the novel step of trying to explain the material world in secular, naturalistic terms.”

What does the birth of rationalism have to do with the evolution of mono-theism? Aren’t science and religion “separate magisteria,” to use Gould’s contentious phrase – what would make the one cause changes in the other? Wells explains:

Because we separate faith and reason psychologically, thinking of them as epistemological opposites, we tend rather uncritically to assume that they must have separate historical origins as well.

This perceived distance, Wells argues, is mistaken. If not for reason, monotheism never would have developed:

The moment that Thales even whispered the possibility of nature’s regularity, the old gods, chaotic and unruly, were living on borrowed time. … Pluriform or uniform, the gods of nature could never fit comfortably in a world that had split the natural from the supernatural.

When animistic polytheism could not survive the “attack” of rationalism, religion responded by shifting its ground, over the course of the next few hundred years leaving the realm of the physical and entering – many would say creating – the realm of the supernatural:

As we perceive order in nature, it seems, we also gravitate to the One. … For in peeling the sensible from the insensible, the seen from the unseen, Thales didn’t just invent reason. He also made it psychologically necessary for someone to invent faith as well.

This process of redefining religion as something separate from nature, as something above or behind or creating nature, is for Wells the central thrust of the history of Western religion:

We can draw a direct line from Thales through Plato, whose Demiurge shapes the seen in the image of the unseen, to St. Paul, who denounced Greek philosophy and pointedly defined faith as “the conviction of things not seen,” and to Muhammad, who dedicated the Qu’ran to “those who believe in the unseen.”

Both Wells and Wright acknowledge Thales as the first important rational thinker in Western history, and like most modern Bible scholars both cite Philo of Athens as the first important theological “correspondent” in the divorce of reason and faith. Tellingly, Wells spends far more time on Thales than on Philo, while Wright devotes a disproportionate amount of space to Philo.This contrast works as well as anything else to delineate the  differences in the focuses and conclusions of the two authors. But Wright would agree with what Wells writes about the importance of the issues themselves:

And so rather than the transmission of an essential idea from one civilization to another, the rise of Christianity should be regarded as one stage of a long tug-of-war within a single civilization over the foundations of belief. What grounds should belief about “reality” rest on—the world of the senses, as painstakingly filtered through the net of logic, or the notionally deeper unseen “reality” of a world beyond the senses and mere human logic? Much hangs on how we answer this question.

It won’t surprise regular readers of this blog to learn that I find Wells’s version of our intellectual history more convincing than Wright’s. Religion has existed for as long as we can know. But as Wells points out, the specific variety that is Western monotheism developed only once, in one place, and it makes sense that it was something about that time and place which led to its particular character.

So, Wells gets the last word:

… without reason it’s hard to see faith coming into existence at all. The tradition of exclusive monotheism, apparently, is how our religious instinct has ex-pressed itself when confronted by the tradition of free rational inquiry. You don’t get one without the other. In short, faith is religion’s answer to the challenge of reason.


4 thoughts on “The reason behind monotheism

  1. Or: I thought of Israel, Judaea, Sumaria…Places where the sun bakes men’s heads, desiccates their bodies, afflicts their souls with thirst. Places that generate a yearning for oases where water flows cool…air is balmy and fragrant…food and drink are abundant. The afterlife suddenly struck me as a counterworld invented by men exhausted and parched by their ceaseless wanderings across the dunes or up and down rocky trails baked to white heat. Monotheism was born of the sand.
    From: Michael Onfray’s “In Defense of Atheism”

    • I’ve read parts of Onfray’s book. Its intellectual quality and style (evident in the passage above) was tempered for me by his frequently splenetic tone, but he’s probably right that desert dwellers would dream of a paradise that’s oasis-like.

      • You don’t think the statement was a bit ‘tongue in cheek’?
        Just because we have monotheism, we do not have to try to prove it stems from a rational root…

  2. Actually, no, I take the statement at face value — and I do believe that religion, like all other human impulses and inventions, is (or one day will be) open to rational explanation, even if it turns out to have no basis in rationality.

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