The Blight of Monotheism

Shadia B. Drury

Like other U.S. presidents before him, Donald Trump has vowed to defend Western civilization against the menace of Islam. Other presidents defined the values of the West as liberty, democracy, and the rule of law, but Trump has defined them as Christianity, culture, and tradition. So understood, the West is not all that different from the menace it seeks to keep at bay. Both Islam and Christianity are manifestations of the blight of monotheism.

In the pagan world, prior to the invention of the monotheistic creed, every city, every town, every group of people living together had its own gods. This polytheism had a politically sociable and pacific effect on humanity. The assumption was that each group was entitled to its own gods. These gods need not be worshipped by others, but they should not be disrespected. Polytheistic religion had nothing to do with morality; it was not about the relations of human beings with each other but with the world of nature, which was supposedly controlled by the gods. Consequently, religion was a primitive form of protection against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune—famines, floods, volcanoes, wars, and other disasters.

Some of the pagan gods were nasty—demanding the sacrifice of the first-born or the prettiest maiden in the village; otherwise drought, famine, and other disasters would not be averted. So, Homer invented and celebrated the triumph of Zeus and the other Olympian gods of Greece over the dark gods who relished human sacrifices and delighted in endless torment. The new breed of gods was satisfied with libations of wine, dancing, reveling, and feasting. The Homeric vision was a celebration of life in this world despite its agonies—including those of war, which Homer understood as plunder, having nothing to do with good and evil. Homer and the tragic poets who followed him represent the golden age of Western civilization. Sadly, it did not last.

The dark gods of eternal torment were back with a vengeance. Long before the torments of everlasting hellfire became the cornerstone of Christianity and Islam, Orphism, the earliest manifestation of monotheism, insisted on the rewards and punishments of the afterlife. Socrates was a convert to Orphism, which his Pythagorean companions spread throughout Greece. When in 399 BCE he was accused and convicted for being the puppet master of those who led the violent overthrow of the Athenian democracy in 404 BCE and the reign of terror that followed, he balked. He insulted the court and made a mockery of the proceedings. He declared that he had a divine mission to preach the “care of the soul,” without which immortality was unattainable. His supporters denied that he inspired the political atrocities of his students. Led by Plato, the defenders of Socrates insisted that he died a martyr for truth, persecuted for his wisdom and goodness. Their defense anticipated those who insist that Christianity and Islam are religions of love and peace, respectively, regardless of the evils they inspire.

Socrates, and the champions of monotheism who followed, believed that the alliance of religion with morality would provide the latter with invaluable support. This assumption reveals not only a stunning lack of foresight but a denial of historical facts. The political horrors of Orphism were documented well before the events that led to the trial of Socrates. When the Orphics seized political power in Croton, the Southern Italian city that was the center of their faith, their reign was insufferable. Luckily, a revolution followed, and civil order was restored in 450 BCE. Historians have compared this episode to the horrors of the Calvinist reign over Geneva.

The contemporary admirers of Socrates regard him as a freethinker and an open-minded, undogmatic, endlessly playful, anti-authoritarian maverick. In contrast, his most famous pupil, Plato, is often denounced as a totalitarian who betrayed his teacher. Scholars have attempted to rescue Socrates from the clutches of Plato. However, the claim that Socrates would have been killed in the ideal state designed by Plato in the Laws is baseless. Plato’s most famous myths are Orphic myths about the fate of the soul in the afterlife. In the Laws, Plato makes the religion of Socrates mandatory for all citizens on pain of death. Anyone who questions the rewards and punishments of the afterlife or rejects the goodness and oneness of the divine must be exterminated. In other words, Plato was the intellectual father of the Inquisition, long before it became a reality under the barbarous tyranny of the Catholic Church. It should come as no surprise that the mandatory propagation of incredible religious beliefs requires violent institutions.

From its very inception, monotheism has been a blight on humanity. It declared that there was only one true god and that all other gods were malevolent demons that teach depravity. It follows that those who do not worship the true god are allied with the forces of evil and are therefore obstacles to goodness and justice in the world. The Romans rightly recognized in Christianity a sinister innovation. Understandably, it frightened them.

Wittingly or unwittingly, monotheism divides the world into good and evil. The latter must be utterly destroyed if good is to prevail. Negotiation and compromise with evil is both a sign of weakness and a moral failing. Monotheism has global pretentions. In times of political or economic adversity, the forces of evil seem to consume the entire world, which becomes nothing more than a mass of iniquity against which believers must launch an apocalyptic war. This apocalyptic geopolitics is manifest in the rise of the “Islamic State” as well as in the zealotry of American evangelicals goaded by fanatical “news” outlets, presidential advisor Steve Bannon, and websites promoting a muscular Christianity, such as

Monotheism undermines human rationality by relegating morality to the realm of divine authority, not reason or persuasion. Since God is mute, self-appointed frauds take advantage of the situation and declare themselves the moral messengers of the deity. Socrates was one of the earliest of these swindlers. Their grotesque authoritarianism coupled with their otherworldliness is not only an assault on human freedom and rationality but a crime against the only world we know. When their dismissive attitude to the world is coupled with the lethal weapons of a nuclear age, then hitherto unimaginable carnage is inescapable. In short, the resurgence of monotheistic religions in the twenty-first century is a catastrophe for humanity.

In truth, the golden age of Western civilization has long passed, along with Homer and the tragic poets. If the West has any values worth defending, it is the secular liberal values of the Enlightenment. The latter succeeded, at least temporarily, in restraining the excesses of Christianity. Unfortunately, the Enlightenment proclivity toward colonialism has inspired in Islam a relapse into medieval brutality. The lesson from this debacle is that it is a bad idea to go around defending your values in every corner of the globe—especially when you are bereft of values worth defending.

Shadia B. Drury

Shadia B. Drury is professor emerita at the University of Regina in Canada. Her most recent book is The Bleak Political Implications of Socratic Religion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).