A few years ago Dr. Carol Copp (retired professor of sociology, CSUF) presented an overview of a book Rodney Stark entitled One True God: The Historical Consequences of Monotheism to an audience of humanists.
Stark’s book and Dr. Copp’s lecture raise a number of questions regarding the sociological and historical effects of monotheism, which many of her secular audience tended to see in a negative light. But, of course, a definitive statement on this issue is not easy and maybe not even possible, given that most answers are posed in terms of a religious or a secular bias. Nonetheless, maybe a few things can be said which are not just partisan statements that belief in one god is good for you or the opposite.
Many of us with an interest in the role that religions have played in history often raise the question: Has monotheism resulted in more evil than good for humanity, or on the contrary, more good than evil? This is not an easy question, and reasonable arguments and evidence can be advanced for either answer: more good or more evil. Dr. Coop brought out a number of reasons for saying that belief in one true God has resulted in much evil (war, death, destruction, suffering, etc.). Certainly most secular humanists are inclined to emphasize this negative aspect of monotheism. But in religious history the move from the polytheism of tribal gods to monotheism has often been presented as moral progress, especially when the “one true God” is given moral qualities. Moreover, it is not obvious that the move from polytheism to monotheism has always been accompanied by an increase in religious war and persecution. In some cases it has; but in other cases it has not.
With regard to moral consequences of theism, knowing that a nation or tribe is monotheistic does not tell us much. We also would need to know more specifically about the character of the monotheistic belief(s) and something about the character (or tendencies) of the believers. What kind of god do they hold as their one, true god? Is he a war god, a vengeful god or a morally developed, god of wisdom? What kinds of demands or commandments do they imagine their god to impose on them? Are these people aggressive and war-like, who fashion their one, true god along these lines? Do they see their religious devotion to their god as requiring that all outsiders (all non-believers) be eliminated? Do they have the belief in exclusive salvation (referred to as “particularism” by sociologists) that implies only those who worship their god can be saved, and others are fair targets for their cleansing, military action?
On the other hand, is it possible the nation or tribe in question holds to a different form of monotheism, a benevolent, universal theism that sees all members of the human race as brothers and sisters, children of the one true God? Can we allow that sometimes a nation or tribe can consist of benevolent, progressive-minded believers who fashion a “one, true God” who commands that all people respect and benefit each other, and work to bring about justice for all his “children”? (Here think of the “good works” type of Christianity, in which working to help those in need is seen as showing devotion to God, and which the idea that “Jesus loves you” is emphasized; and the notion that you must “believe as God commands lest you suffer eternal torment in hell” is downplayed or ignored altogether.)
Historically, we would be hard pressed to find a clear case of this form of pure, benevolent monotheism. A peoples’ image of the deity generally reflects that peoples’ moral and intellectual evolution; this has always been a “mixed bag,” with malevolent, destructive tendencies dominating sometimes, and the progressive, morally enlightened tendencies becoming more apparent at other times. In short, the type of monotheism that develops reflects the type of human culture that has evolved. That monotheism will sometimes be “not too bad,” even encouraging for those who look for signs of moral progress. But as the bloody history of Europe and the Americas has shown, too often monotheism has been “bad news” for humanity.