MONOTHEISM AND THE ORIGINS
OF RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM
A REAPPRAISAL OF THE MEANING AND CONSEQUENCES OF MONOTHEISM
BY GEORGE BORTEN
First, let’s examine what “monotheism” really means. It should
mean there is one and only god. However, for the “big three”, the so-
called great monotheistic religions, there are a lot of “divine creatures”
surrounding the Supreme God. Some are divinized human beings,
other created creatures like all sort of angels, of various kinds and
attitudes, and some with a lot of power, let’s say, equivalent to minor
gods. Not only that, but considering the evil spirits, with their special
realms, and great powers, we do have a big crowd (an evil minor god,
is some kind of god nevertheless, albeit an evil one).
Secondly, let’s consider the so-called “polytheistic” religions.
There are lots of ethereal beings here too, obviously. However, what is
striking is that in almost all cases, there is a concept of a Supreme
God, who rules over all the others. Most of the “gods” so described
are, in fact, lesser gods with powers that are close to that of angels or
saints of the “BIG 3”. Now perplexity sets in, because what seemed to
be a straightforward distinction does not really seems to work that well.
The renowned theologian Paul Tillich declared: “The difference
between polytheism and monotheism is not a quantitative one, but a
qualitative one”. What is into question is the “operative mode” of the
divine being(s), their relationship to the material world, the limits
between being god and being human.
To be more accurate, the dispute between “monotheism” and
“polytheism” was a dispute between two concepts: On one hand, an
absolutist god, who creates everything, knows everything, all-powerful,
eternal, whose lesser gods (angels and other helpers) were under very
tight control. On the other hand, the concept, erroneously called
“polytheism”, also has a supreme god in command but operating like a
super king, extremely powerful, but who may not have created
everything, and may at times be bested by his subordinates deities.
Shades of this second alternative appear in the Bible when the revolt
of the angel Lucifer is presented. He tries to topple God and loses.
This narrative presents god more as a super king, than the “total ruler”
concept developed later.
Therefore, we have a “TOTAL GOD” in all the three great
abrahamic faiths (“AF”, for short) versus a “TOP GOD”, for the NON-
AF, which is simplified way to show what the dispute of “monotheism”
versus “polytheism” was really about. The development of the
“monotheist” formulation (THE TOTAL GOD) has been hailed by AF
supporters as a “great leap forward” in terms of religious beliefs, while
the so called “polytheistic beliefs” (TOP GOD & COMPANY), present
in the NON-AF, were left behind, as unworthy remnants.
We will argue that monotheism belief was a step backward,
bringing about an unparalleled religious radicalism, an unbelievable
widespread cultural destruction, the waging of the cruelest wars the
world has ever seen, and devastating psychic pain to millions of
Leaving aside the “one-god” versus “many-gods” issue (since it is
not really a very clear issue), what is so special with the AF god, and
how did it come to affect history that much? Most of the ancient
religions in the mediterranean region had the concept of a supreme
god. The israelites named the supreme god as YHWH, so what? Would
that cause even an eyebrow raised among the people living in the
The real singularities were of another kind:
1) YHWH could NOT be represented by an image. He could not
be worshipped as a statue, offerings could not be set at the
feet of a statue, since there couldn’t be one. This seems a
very small matter today. However, at that time it meant that
YHWH was kept off limits to widespread cultic practice,
jealously removed from foreign unwanted attention.
2) YHWH could only be worshipped at the temple in Jerusalem.
This means his contact with humankind was restricted TO
ONE PLACE ONLY. This “locality” meant that one place, and
only one, had a special link to god. Notice the potential for
3) YHWH has a permanent “chosen people”, yet he is the only
god, the god of the “whole humanity”. Notice the potential for
ethical and ethnic conflicts here.
4) YHWH forbids the israelites to worship any other God. Notice
the perils of this exclusiveness. In the ancient, ethnically and
culturally very mixed mediterranean world, this sounded rude
and arrogant, setting the seeds of religious radicalism
Note that the some ”radical” aspects above named simply spilled
over, in somewhat changed modes, into the offsprings of the original
abrahamic faith, the christian and islamic beliefs.
We are now able to consider the problem of monotheism in a
new light, particularly the problem of the elaboration of the “God of the
Abrahamic Faiths”. Was the monotheism development a leap forward
for humanity? Did it lead to war or peace? Did it promote the living
together in happiness of different cultures or did it increase religious
We consider that ancient polytheistic religious cultures in the
Mediterranean world may have been more able to promote cultural
understanding and interchange, and to facilitate the interaction of
different ethnicities, allowing for adaptive social behavior under
stressful war and civil unrest conditions.
The Roman Empire used religious tolerance as an empire-
building tool, tolerating all religions and cults, requiring only that,
ADDITIONAL homage be paid to the Roman official gods. However,
this was unacceptable to YHWH followers, who finally revolted, and
were crushed and dispersed. Rome was a tyrannical empire, in a
political and military understanding, but who was the religious radical
in this case?
The old creeds had presented gods that mingled with the
material world and, though superior, where not clearly separated from
the nature humans lived in, and often had desires and attitudes
common to them. The YHWH concept had a more intellectual appeal,
as it proposed a more abstract God. Gone were the gods fighting each
other, having sex with humans and their own kind, begetting children,
drinking wine, and engaging in revenge schemes. This new god was
more alike an absolute force of nature that encompassed everything
and everyone. Adding to that, this new God does not have family ties
and no history of himself, He simply is.
He is not identified by having some special powers, for he has
all the powers. No wife, no second in command. Curiously enough, he
seems to be considered male. He is also authoritarian and demanding,
and has fits of temper. Some anthropomorphism found its way
This god, as proposed, is also significantly less human, and
much more terrifying, because now the realm of earthly matters and
the divine world, are set apart, and presented as an absolute
dichotomy, of essentially different natures.
This has unintended consequences. For it points out to a being
completely outside the human experience, gigantic, with no face,
invisible, all powerful, eternal, with total foresight, which might impact
the human mind as too alien. No wonder christianity has had such
success by presenting a humanized alter ego (or should we say altar
ego) of the divinity, that could be related to much more easily.
In a second, related, monotheist induced dichotomy, “the people
of god” (in whatever way that is understood) is set apart from “the
others”. Moreover, that creates the groundwork that sometimes ends
up nurturing many forms of religious extremism.
Even if agreed that monotheism may be at the origin of a lot of
the religious intolerance today, does it means that we should favor a
return to polytheistic cults? Not that far, but we should at least
understand how important it is to promote religious tolerance, and
multiculturalism acceptance. Christians, muslims and jews need to
recognize that, at the core of their beliefs, lies dormant a tendency to
radicalism, to the exclusion of the “religiously different”, which may be
exacerbated by historical conditions.
Christianity has, since its inception, painted their one time
“polytheistic” rivals as barbarian, human sacrifice practitioners, and
orgy promoters in a dishonest, negative and abusive campaign.
We cannot forget that by the time christianity did enter the
scene, the major NON-AF cults, had already evolved, presenting a
similar high moral standards. That is specially the case with Stoicism,
from which christianity borrowed a lot, and the Cult of Mithras, which
had many similarities to it. The proposed Neo-Platonism form of
religion, defended by the roman emperor Julian, with its high moral
code, would have been a serious contender of Christianism, had Julian
not been conveniently murdered in strange circumstances.
In the AF cultural influence region, the NON-AF religions and
cults were practically wiped out and not so gently at that. Christian
authors, for instance, through the centuries, rewrote NON-AF history,
demonizing their former rivals, and as part of this process, making
them to be known collectively as “those ancient polytheistic cults”.
Considering that most religions do have a supreme god concept,
does it means that all religions have the same supreme god? That
should be obvious, but it does not happens that way, because religions
fastens the Supreme God to its description, its rituals, laws, sacred
books, in essence to their own religion itself.
Therefore, “your” supreme god is not “my” supreme god and,
strangely, in that situation, religions themselves precede in importance
the Supreme God. Therefore polytheism could well be described as
the acceptance that each culture, each people, has the right to define
its own way of defining and worshipping the Supreme deity, who does
not seems to be bothered by this multi religion world, since IT
considers ITSELF to be above the fray.
The disturbing aspect of monotheism, as pertaining the AF
religions is that, besides proposing a Supreme deity, which most
religions had already done, it established a single religion, a single
church. One god which is said to be the only one leads to one religion
only, and from there to despising all other religions, mainly when that
one god is said to be profoundly angry with the worship of other gods.
This is the subject that most enthusiasts of monotheism fail to give
proper attention. In that sense, all other religions and faiths are deeply
disturbing, a severe problem that has to be dealt with strong actions.
The existence of other religions is regarded as hurting the harmony of
the world, of something barely tolerable.
The concept of the only church finds itself inextricable linked to
monotheism in the AF mode, which set the stage for waves of religious