The Problem with Monotheism

Monotheists, especially Muslims, Jews, and Christians — Christians may be the worst — is that their religious beliefs, which they claim, anyway, provide them with some sort of moral constraint, actually fail to do so completely, at least in enough cases that it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the flaw is built in.

In the United States these days, we have too many people who are eager to tell us about how violent Islam is as a religion. There are even those who claim that Islam is not a religion at all.

As is often the case with Christian “conservatives,” this would be funny, but it’s not. It’s not funny because claims about how violent is Islam usually come in the context of claims about how it is necessary for the United States to ignore its own well established principles and practice some form of official discrimination against Muslims.

It would be funny because claims about how Islam is violent almost require a studied ignorance about the huge, ugly history of Christians inflicting all manner of violence on pretty much the entire world, starting at least with the Crusades, in which Christians traveled thousands of miles on horse in the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries in order to stick their noses into a local conflict between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East. Especially coming from the United States, complaints about Islamic violence have to forget, conveniently, that this nation only exists because Christians started showing up at the end of the fifteenth century and killing off all the locals they found, a practice that the English would take up with gusto starting in 1607 and continuing more or less right up to the present. Christians also wreaked havoc in Africa, shipping large numbers of Africans to the Americas as slaves.

About the only difference between Christian violence and Islamic violence is that the Christians mostly used violence to assert political control over much of the western world and to create a culture that is so overwhelming that its violence has become the invisible norm, the sea we all swim in, and Christians got most of this done before the advent of instantaneous international communications, so we didn’t have to watch it every night on our non existent televisions.

The other thing Christians did, which has turned out, quite unpredictably, to have the effect of imposing some limitations on the rapacity of Christians, is that they invented this idea we call “natural law.” One of the chief expositors of natural law theory, John Locke, had a huge influence on the people who founded the United States. Natural law is an ambiguous concept. It describes natural laws that are laws in the strong sense of forces humans cannot defy, such as gravity and the speed of light or sound, which constrain humans no matter what. The only way to defy gravity, and then only temporarily, is to build very sophisticated machines like airplanes and rockets, and to expend huge amounts of energy.

Locke articulated as natural laws principles that are laws in a much weaker sense. According to Locke, all humans in a hypothetical state of nature — before the creation of any human government — have the right to life, liberty, and property. The problem with these natural rights, as guaranteed by natural law, is that it is really easy for humans to violate each other’s natural rights by depriving each other of life, liberty, or property. The solution, according to Locke, is for groups of humans to create governments in which they agree to pool resources for the purpose of creating and enforcing more specific rules requiring respect for others’ natural rights.

Locke was a devout Christian. He derived his theory of natural rights from his reading of the bible. Christianity, of course, posits an omnipotent deity. Violating natural rights, on this logic, should offend, not only the agents of human government — police and judges — but also this omnipotent daddy deity who, according to believers, threatens violators with terrible, eternal punishment for breaking his rules. Unlike a prison term or fine for violating human rules, this terrible, eternal punishment is always abstract for humans because it only occurs after the violator dies.

This introduces two points of slippage in the scheme of natural rights as enforced under natural law. Natural moral law, as opposed to natural physical law — gravity and the speed of light — is not self enforcing. Gravity just is. Levitating until the gravity police catch you and give you a ticket is not an option. It just operates all the time, as long as you’re on earth, and apparently on any other planet, as well. Your right to life, liberty, and property operate all the time as well, but, again, it is easy for your fellow humans to violate those rights.

Indeed, it turns out that, even as they were bruiting their belief in their natural rights to life, liberty, and property (or pursuit of happiness, as Thomas Jefferson put it) as justification for founding the United States, many of them were busy violating those rights in many other persons whom they owned as slaves.

Huh. What happened?

It is ultimately impossible to provide any definitive answer to that question, beyond appeal to some general claim about the human proclivity for hypocrisy, or failing to live up to one’s own principles, but monotheism offers a more specific explanation. Positing an omnipotent daddy god is the problem. It is theoretically possible to explain the soft, moral versions of natural laws — the ones that are not self enforcing — as being yet self enforcing but in ways humans cannot always see. This essentially is what the religions of South Asia, especially Hinduism and Buddhism, do with the concept of karma. Karma in Buddhism is just the law of cause and effect. Act immorally and you will get some retribution eventually. It may take a long time — in Buddhism, perhaps not until a subsequent lifetime. But you will get retribution because karma is a law of nature. Hinduism posits any number of gods, none of whom is omnipotent in the sense of the Christian god. Buddhism posits no god at all.

The problem with the omnipotent daddy god of Christianity is that, for Christians, he is a humanoid entity one can wheedle and whine to for exemption from the rules. The “commandment” in the bible says, “Thou shalt not kill,” which sounds pretty absolute, but Christians in groups have never had any discernible hesitation to kill anyone they wanted to kill. They just think up an excuse with which to absolve themselves in their own minds and convince themselves that their omnipotent daddy god will accept to let them escape whatever the unspecified punishment is for breaking the “commandment.”

The omnipotent daddy god thus becomes a seemingly limitless escape hatch Christians can use to excuse themselves from the offense of violating any and every moral law any time they want.

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