Class Warfare Blog

June 26, 2019

Evolution of the Gods—Why Monotheism?

The Hebrews invented monotheism by all accounts. Prior to the invention of monotheism, everyone was in some form a polytheist. (I know this is not strictly accurate but I am not chopping details at the moment.) Now, it wasn’t exactly the case that polytheism did not work. It worked very, very well for what religions do. All of the positive benefits of, say, Christianity, can just as easily be attributed to polytheism, but polytheism actually offers more. The “more” in this case is religious tolerance. If one traveled in the ancient world, one ran into batshit crazy beliefs of all stripes. People believed the world was created by a god vomiting, or a god masturbating, etc. But people were used to different beliefs because they themselves “believed” in multiple gods. (The word belief is maybe a bit loaded for this situation. Gods were part of the fabric of society. Not believing in them was similar to not believing in goats or streets or armies. Not believing was not much of an option. )

The Romans made a great deal of hay out of this as they were a typical smash and grab civilization (their continued existence was based upon looting), different from others only with regard to the sheer size of the effort, and the first thing they would do when they conquered a people was to define a correspondence between the gods of the conquered people and the Roman gods. The Romans felt, rightly I think, that if people were forced to worship strange gods they would resist Roman rule more than if they were allowed to keep their own, comfortable, well broken in gods. So, the Greeks had a messenger god (Hermes) that was equated to the Roman messenger god, Mercury. Any conquered people who had a messenger god would be told that the Romans also worshiped “their god” but they just called him Mercury. Since they worshiped the same gods, they were less alien to one another and the assimilation could begin. The Romans invested a great deal of effort in doing this, keeping extensive records on these correspondences (in the Office of Cults, or some such bureaucratic group).

So, polytheism was perking along quite nicely, and the Hebrews were not different in this. The conversion of their religion from polytheism to monotheism shows up quite clearly, even if all you have to study is the Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament). So, I know this is quite a long set up, but my question is simple: why monotheism?

It is now clear that this transition to “pure” monotheism began in the late seventh century BCE (thousands of years after the supposed times on the earlier OT). The effort lead to the first written Hebrew Bibles a couple of hundred years later, written by the same kinds of people. So who were these people? My guess is that I don’t think you will be surprised to find out that it wasn’t the common people. They couldn’t read or write and weren’t interesting in much more than the survival of themselves and their families. The only people capable of such a campaign were the elites. As the story is told (in Kings, if memory serves) the “priests” “discovered” an “old” document that clarified their religion for them. The King, being a representative of God on Earth (an anointed king, that’s what that means), had this document read from the ramparts of his city, and ordered all of the people to come, hear, and pay heed. If the Bible is to be believed, the message didn’t get out into the hustings at all quickly, nor was it enforced well, as polytheistic practices continued for centuries after this event.

So, this “found” document. What was it? It was a declaration of pure monotheism and the rites need to follow it.

So, one answer to the “why?” question is simply to say that God revealed His true desires this way . . . but that is a specious response. Why did he wait so long? Why wasn’t it clear from the beginning? Why was the worshiping of “false gods” tolerated for so long? And so on. Even the fundamentalists who believe that the Earth is only a bit over 6000 years old would be hard pressed to explain why Yahweh waited until about 2600 years ago to explain the rules of the game.

So, why monotheism, really?

Polytheism has religious tolerance built into it. Monotheism has religious intolerance built into it. When you worship the One True God™ all other gods are false gods. Worshiping them becomes abominable (literally). Your worship is right and correct, theirs is wrong headed and it undermines the worship of the One True God™. Recall that the Christians did not get in trouble with the Romans because they worshiped the OTG™. They got into trouble because they wouldn’t add the emperor to the list of gods to receive worship. What was a simple thing for polytheists was an immensely troubling thing for the Christians. The Christians, in addition, found themselves tying themselves into knots to preserve the illusion of being monotheistic, creating bizarre concepts such as the Trinity. All of the “other” gods and demigods got makeovers or erased. (If Satan isn’t a god, a being powerful enough to oppose Yahweh and still exist, then what is a god?)

Monotheism does cause problems but it also increases team member commitment to the team.

So, why? Why did the elites care to make this change? The obvious answer is power. Later when Christianity became a state religion of Rome, a whole bunch of pagan temples, pagan land, pagan wealth flowed into the hands of the elites. The more lands you got, the more money, the more power you had. (Consider the display of wealth that is the Vatican, all considered “necessary” for the Pope who is a head of state.) Prior to this Roman adoption, Christians didn’t have churches. Afterward they did. The Romans insisted they have “temples” just like all of the other cults.

So, the Hebrew elites (all were religious because you could not be an elite and not be a religious figure) pushed this change and the more power they gathered to themselves, the more they pushed it. (You don’t go faster hitting the brake pedal.) That power was really just in the central halls of government (palaces and temple) but most everybody prefers to be a big fish in a small pond rather than a small one in a big pond.

There really is no other reason. To make it a theological decision, instead of a political decision for example, there is much more to explain, as indicated by some of the above with little in the way of ready explanations. Granted this monotheism brought down criticisms of fanaticism and worse, but Jews tended to be fairly highly regarded because of their consistency. Of course, the Roman elites rarely encountered “ordinary” Hebrews outside of battles and then Roman soldiers were the only ones allowed to touch them. The Roman elites interacted with priests, rulers, merchants and the like. They didn’t even collect their own taxes, they sold the tax receipts to entrepreneurial Hebrews (as tax farmers), which is why “tax collectors” were widely despised. So, the regard for Jews by “the Roman elites” was of the “Jewish elites.” Those rich/powerful people, they sure stick together. This seems to be rooted in their common pursuit of ever more political power.

31 Comments »

  1. May I suggest an excellent book. “The Darkening Age” The Christian Destruction of the Classical World” by Catherine Nixey.
    It fits right into this excellent post. The moment I saw your title, I thought a more controlled power of the masses.
    And we can see where it has led to in the mess of the modern world today.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by maryplumbago — June 26, 2019 @ 8:47 am | Reply

    • Thanks, I will check it out!

      On Wed, Jun 26, 2019 at 8:47 AM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Steve Ruis — June 26, 2019 @ 9:15 am | Reply

  2. The were the first to say they were the last—the final word. It has done quite nicely in closing off the mind. They don’t need to collaborate or consider any other ideas but their own. It is the Bible, and condemns one to hell for adding or subtracting from it

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by jim- — June 26, 2019 @ 8:51 am | Reply

  3. Why monotheism? Once the dream (delusion) of the supernatural became established in the minds of early humans, gods were born. Monotheism gave everyone the opportunity to have their own personal savior that could usher them into heaven and eternal “life”! GROG

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by grogalot — June 26, 2019 @ 11:18 am | Reply

    • Yeah, but it raised the specter of worshiping “The Wrong God(tm)” that we atheists use to such great effect. In the old pagan days you could cover your bets and worship them all. All you had to do was go into a temple every so often and make an offering. Think about how much the Trump Republicans would like this. Basically salvation for sale!

      On Wed, Jun 26, 2019 at 11:19 AM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Steve Ruis — June 26, 2019 @ 12:33 pm | Reply

      • Human belief in the supernatural was our brain trying to make sense of a world it didn’t understand. That is the brains purpose, to survive. It is a mental construct and we humans have not yet figured out that it is a delusion. btw You seem to be physicist. It is a bit beyond me these days. GROG

        Liked by 1 person

        Comment by grogalot — June 26, 2019 @ 2:45 pm | Reply

        • Actually a chemist, but I had almost a minor in physics and have kept reading for oh, 50 years now.

          I am with you. GROG indeed!

          On Wed, Jun 26, 2019 at 2:45 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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          Liked by 1 person

          Comment by Steve Ruis — June 26, 2019 @ 9:18 pm | Reply

          • Thanks Steve. Science always interested me. I started out in engineering, did electronics in the air force, them almost went into chemistry. Ended up in architecture. Retired for 19 years now. GROG

            Like

            Comment by grogalot — July 1, 2019 @ 2:38 pm | Reply

            • You are way ahead of me. I have only been retired for 13 years! GROG Indeed!

              On Mon, Jul 1, 2019 at 2:38 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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              Liked by 1 person

              Comment by Steve Ruis — July 3, 2019 @ 12:59 pm | Reply

  4. I agree that polytheism is way kinder than the mono versions. Your god of the water is Bill, mine is George. Big deal, same water, different name for the god of the water. We all get along half way at least.
    As to monotheism, well this can apply to other things as well; It is all mind over matter; if you don’t mind, it don’t matter.

    Just for shits and giggles>>> They told me I could be anything I wanted to be, so I became sarcastic.

    Like

    Comment by Walter Kronkat — June 26, 2019 @ 12:04 pm | Reply

    • I like your comment about becoming “all you can be.” I am going to use that! My goal was to reach the state of “Curmudgeon” before I kick the bucket.

      On Wed, Jun 26, 2019 at 12:04 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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      Comment by Steve Ruis — June 26, 2019 @ 12:35 pm | Reply

  5. Zoroastrians were onto monotheism (ahura mazda) looooooong before the Jews.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by john zande — June 26, 2019 @ 1:27 pm | Reply

  6. Actually, the Egyptains also dabbled in it for a while.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by john zande — June 26, 2019 @ 1:27 pm | Reply

    • Yeah and it got the king of Egypt assassinated for his trouble. It never pays to piss off powerful priests. (Glad they have all been defanged at this point, not to the point they can do no evil but they at least are no longer allowed to execute us with impunity.)

      And Zoroastrianism … did it survive (except as a very minor sect?)? You can probably make a fairly good case that monotheism was picked up by the Jews while they were whiling away their time in Babylon, specifically from the Zoroastrians, no? Typically, like with Bill Gates, the inventor is screwed and the marketer gets richly rewarded.

      On Wed, Jun 26, 2019 at 1:28 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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      Liked by 3 people

      Comment by Steve Ruis — June 26, 2019 @ 2:33 pm | Reply

      • Cyrus the Great was a Zoroastrian.

        Liked by 1 person

        Comment by john zande — June 26, 2019 @ 3:40 pm | Reply

        • And wasn’t Cyrus the Not So Great also? Since most Babylonians were for centuries, there should be a long list of them. Zoroastrianism actually makes much more sense than the Abrahamic delusions.

          On Wed, Jun 26, 2019 at 3:40 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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          Liked by 1 person

          Comment by Steve Ruis — June 26, 2019 @ 9:19 pm | Reply

          • LOL. Cyrus is responsible for ther first human rights charter. His ‘cylinder’ is in the UN. And you’re right, it is a not-so-unreasonable belief. Ahura Mazda is, first of all, aloof, which at least doesn’t contradict the world around.

            Like

            Comment by john zande — June 27, 2019 @ 4:12 am | Reply

    • There is some evidence, though I am no expert on the matter so cannot really examine in how probably this is, that the jewish high priests (you know the kohanim) were descendants from fled Aten priests. Of course, this presupposes the validity of the controversial thesis that the yahwehist influence on Judaism, is essentially the result of Aten worshippers moving to Palestine after the restoration of the old gods of Egypt.

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      Comment by Mordanicus — August 9, 2020 @ 11:20 am | Reply

      • Yahweh worship was more prevalent in Israel than Judah, apparently, and only when Israel got wiped out and refugees streamed down to Judah did Yahweh worship gain steam. I am working on another post on this right now.

        On Sun, Aug 9, 2020 at 11:20 AM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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        Liked by 1 person

        Comment by Steve Ruis — August 9, 2020 @ 12:33 pm | Reply

  7. I suspect the reason for monotheism is similar to the reason why people tend to carry a smartphone rather than a photo camera, calculator, telephone, voice recorder, GPS, and camcorder.

    Like

    Comment by List of X — June 26, 2019 @ 10:08 pm | Reply

    • Combine all of the god things into one god? Brilliant! All of the good and all of the evil? All of the creation and all of the destruction? And, like all “multi-function tools” none of those included works as well as a standalone tool. (Better than no tool at all, but …) You may be right.

      On Wed, Jun 26, 2019 at 10:08 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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      Comment by Steve Ruis — June 27, 2019 @ 8:11 am | Reply

      • Yeah, but if you can actually show that a stand-alone GPS device or an SLR camera is superior to the similar function in a smartphone, a prayer or a sacrifice to a specialized god of rain is exactly as useful as a prayer or a sacrifice to a unified god.

        Like

        Comment by List of X — June 27, 2019 @ 8:27 am | Reply

        • Egad, you are right! So, the religious were better off with Swiss Army Knife gods. They just didn’t know it until the priests convinced them of their need. And who said modern marketing didn’t start until the 20th century?

          On Thu, Jun 27, 2019 at 8:27 AM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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          Comment by Steve Ruis — June 27, 2019 @ 9:10 am | Reply

  8. “The Hebrews invented monotheism by all accounts.”
    Incorrect.
    Earliest human tribes were monotheists. Polytheism evolved as civilizations matured.

    Like

    Comment by John Branyan — June 27, 2019 @ 3:20 pm | Reply

    • The earliest humans were animists and had literally dozens of gods to interact with. None of them were monotheists. When people started living with those not of their tribe/family (Civilization!) the “shamans” realized that they were better off with recognizing all of the strange gods they encountered, rather than creating opposition, which would have led to violence and winners and losers. Polytheists through and through. Why do you thing the Egyptians were so shocked when King Akhenaten, a god himself, declare monotheism the law of the land? Everyone affected thought he was crazy.

      On Thu, Jun 27, 2019 at 3:20 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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      Comment by Steve Ruis — June 30, 2019 @ 12:56 pm | Reply

      • The Egyptians are not earliest humans. You’ve stated that monotheism was derived from polytheism before. You were wrong then too.

        I referred you to some scholarly research on the subject which you ignored. That’s okay. It’s all meaningless anyway under atheism anyway.

        Carry on.

        Like

        Comment by John Branyan — June 30, 2019 @ 1:08 pm | Reply

        • And you didn’t read my response. I didn’t claim that Egyptians were the earliest human beings. I mentioned the Egyptians because they had a king impose monotheism upon them and they were shocked, because all throughout their *history*, they had been polytheists, not animists.

          On Sun, Jun 30, 2019 at 1:08 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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          Comment by Steve Ruis — June 30, 2019 @ 9:32 pm | Reply

          • I read your response. It is condescending to assume that my disagreement is because I’m ignorant of your position.

            The earliest human cultures, according to experts who dedicated their lives to studying it, were monotheistic. Polytheism evolved later. But, since this is your blog, we’ll just repeat your narrative.

            Monotheism was an invention of religious leaders seeking to exert power over the gullible masses.

            There you go.

            Like

            Comment by John Branyan — June 30, 2019 @ 9:48 pm | Reply

            • Re “The earliest human cultures, according to experts who dedicated their lives to studying it, were monotheistic.” That’s interesting because all of the experts I have read claim that all of those primitive cultures were animistic, which makes them not polytheists straight away, because they probably weren’t worshiping all of those gods, but were certainly not monotheists. What pathway is there from monotheism to polytheism so we could go “back” to monotheism? Was it that when people started living in larger groups (cites) they rubbed elbows with worshipers of other gods and decided to hedge their bets? If so, that would date polytheism back about 5500 years and by most accounts, polytheism is much older than that.

              Also, what could be the source of a “one god concept” when these primitive people were faced with so many unknowns? If they were monotheists, how did they get to animism?

              On Sun, Jun 30, 2019 at 9:48 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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              Like

              Comment by Steve Ruis — July 1, 2019 @ 11:16 am | Reply


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