CESNUR - center for studies on new religions


organized by CESNUR, Center for Religious Studies and Research at Vilnius University, and New Religions Research and Information Center
Vilnius, Lithuania, April 9-12 2003  

Possible Reasons for Monotheistic Religious Intolerance

by Frederic Lamond, MA (Independent student of Comparative Religion)
A paper presented at the CESNUR 2003 Conference, Vilnius, Lithuania. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.

Until 3500 years ago, all religions were pantheistic and polytheistic as Hinduism, Taoism, Shinto and most African traditional religions still are. They respected the religions of other tribes and cultures, recognising in their worship the same divine energies as their own, albeit under different names.

Why then did patriarchal monotheistic religions arise in Central Asia 3500 years ago, and then spread first in the Middle East and then in their Christian forms throughout Europe and then the European colonised overseas territories during the last 1500 years, culminating in the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago, which swept away the last remnants of virtual polytheism: the Virgin Mary and the saints from its worship?

Why did these monotheistic religions fight so fiercely to eradicate Nature worship in the lands they controlled? Why did Christianity promote a dualist antagonism between the Spirit and the Flesh, with only the former conceived as in the “image of God”? Why was it so fanatical in its hatred of sexual pleasure, and the degradation of the social status of women?

I was pondering these questions shortly after my initiation in February 1957 into what is now called Wicca: a pantheist mystery cult that revives the worship of the Neolithic Earth Mother Goddess and Her consort the Horned God of fertility. Shortly afterwards the answer came to me in a sudden flash of insight, much like many a scientific theory first appeared to its discoverer. I treated it as a theory to be tested against human history.  

Dialectical Pantheism: a theory

The evolution of the Universe and especially of life on Earth has been the product of a dialectical antagonism between two cosmic forces:

  • the highly conservative power of Love, which seeks to maintain all living species and ecological equilibria just as they are at any given point in time, and is immanent in the genetically inherited instincts of all living species, including humanity. This power is generally represented by one or more goddesses and fertility gods in those religions that anthropomorphise cosmic and earthly energies. Its concept of time is circular, based on the annual cycle of the seasons and a generally believed in cycle of reincarnations, and stone circles in the countryside its oldest form of ritual site.
  • A force of Destructive Creation, which seeks forever to upset existing equilibria in order to force at least some of the existing species to become more highly evolved in order to survive. In a universe in which the total amount of energy is constant and can neither be added to nor reduced – although it can be converted to matter and back again, - neither god nor man can create anything without destroying something else. This is the power the Jews call JHVH, the Christians God the Father, Muslims Allah and Hindus Shiva. Its concept of time is linear pointing upwards, and tall temples or cathedrals surmounted by an upward pointing spire its places of worship.

Both forces are aspects of the all-inclusive Ultimate Reality (a principle known as “monism”, which must not be confused with exclusive “monotheism”): neither is evil nor undesirable. If only the force of Love existed, the Universe would never have moved from its original state of undifferentiated Nothingness. It would be like the unchanging surface of the Moon where nothing ever happens. Significantly Moon goddesses preside over human love in many polytheistic pantheons.

But if only the force of Destructive Creation existed, the whole Universe would be like the Sun: an endless series of thermonuclear explosions creating new elements, but which last only a few microseconds before dissolving again in the fiery furnace. The sun plays an important role in many religions that worship the power of Creation, which are therefore often referred to as solar religions.

On Earth, on the other hand, there is an ongoing delicate balance between these two antagonistic cosmic forces. The result has been the slow process of Evolution on Earth in which continents, mountains, plants and animals have slowly appeared and individual plants and animals live actively long enough to experience their own life, but in which species can also slowly evolve over succeeding generations.

Until some 100 000 to 500 000 years ago the Destructive Creative force acted mainly from outside the Earth through sunspots and sunstorms that altered climates on Earth or asteroid impacts, which destroyed those species unable to adapt and gave an opportunity to others. This justifies to some extent the Christian theological view that the Creator is a transcendent power separate from His creation. But these were crude methods of which the Destructive Creative force grew tired So it entered the left hand side of the human brain and sought to use humanity as its instrument of creation and transformation on Earth, an event described in the Old Testament as the moment when Eve and Adam ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and which occurred in history when mankind learned to handle fire – the great destructive and transformative element – instead of just fearing it like all other animals.

But human beings, like all species, are still bound to existing equilibria by our powerful instincts: the power of Creation thus had to fight every inch to broaden its power over the human mind, and to alienate humanity from its essentially conservative instinctual drives. The cosmic dialectical struggle thus entered the human mind, which thereby became a microcosm of the Universe, expressed in this old wisdom saying: “If you want to understand the human soul, study the Universe; if you want to understand the Universe, study the human soul.”

The priesthoods of the ancient neolithic civilisations were aware of these two forces within the human mind and sought to preserve human freedom of action by keeping them in balance within polytheistic pantheons, in which engineering and warrior gods were balanced by fertility goddesses and gods. The former would be invoked in times of war or to tame the society’s environment, the latter in peacetime to ensure the fertility of the crops and animals.

However, some 3500 years ago climate changes made it more difficult for nomadic tribes to pursue their pastoral lives on the plains of Central Asia. Some of their priests and shamen proposed an exclusive worship of their male wargods to make themselves more proficient at war than the agricultural civilisations that worshipped war gods only intermittently. Then the Aryans descended and conquered fertile India, the Medes present day Iran, the Achaens and later Dorians present day Greece and Asia Minor, the Aesir worshippers led by Odin Germany and Scandinavia, and the Israelite tribes Palestine.

In order to make their rule acceptable to their conquered subject people, on whom they depended to feed them, the conquerors allowed the latter to retain their worship of fertility deities which made them proficient in agriculture. In due course syncretistic mythologies arose in India, Mesopotamia, Greece and Northern Europe, in which the male gods of the conquerors married or became the fathers or brothers of their subjects’ fertility goddesses.

Only the Medes and Persians remained true patriarchal monotheists under Zarathustra’s influence, and they in turn influenced the Jewish priests after Cyrus’ conquest of Babylon. When these returned to Judaea they attributed the monotheistic commandements to Moses, the leader who had led the 12 tribes out of Egypt. 600 years previously. Maybe he had first promulgated the Ten Commandments – historians are divided on whether he was a real or mythical figure – but if so there was a lot of backsliding into polytheism by the Jews after their conquest of Canaan, and at the time of Jeremiah JHVH had a bride: Asherah. She survives in the esoteric Zohar and in the Shekinah whose Sacred Marriage with JHVH orthodox Jews celebrate every night at the onset of the Shabbat.

When monotheistic Christianity became the Roman Empire’s official religion and then spread northwards to Germany and Scandinavia Christian bishops and missionaries made another attempt to eradicate the worship of Nature and other gods and goddesses than JHVH, declaring them to be false gods or even demons. In Germany the missionary Boniface made a point of cutting down all the trees that symbolised the Germans’ sacred world tree Yggdrasil whereever he went. But in the face of popular resistance the Church was once again forced to compromise and syncretise. The Goddess Isis, who had absorbed all the Roman Empire’s goddesses into Herself, was originally called a demon by the Church and her temples closed down; but in the face of popular need for a feminine object of worship the Catholic Church promoted the Virgin Mary “Mother of God and Queen of Heaven”, while the Orthodox churches had Santa Sophia, the Spirit of Wisdom, who corresponds to the Jewish Shekinah and the Hindu Sarasvati. Lower down the hierarchy the genii loci guarding sacred wells where people could be healed became Catholic and Orthodox saints.

So another monotheistic “purification” of worship had to take place, and this was Mohammed’s message to the Arabs, who then spread it to all the countries that they conquered in the 7th and 8th centuries. The Quran enjoyed them to respect the monotheistic worship of Christians and Jews, but not polytheistic Nature worshippers.

500 years ago the Protestant Christian Reformation evicted Mary and all the saints from its worship, which thus became wholly patriarchal and monotheistic. It came to dominate Northern Europe, Britain and the English speaking overseas territories of North America and Australasia. Finally, during the 18th century Enlightenment philosophers cast doubt even on the one remaining personal Father God, and affirmed instead the impersonal force of Reason, as atheist philosophers like Richard Dawkins do to this very day.

The Creator God’s Reasons for Intolerance

Why would a cosmic force of Creation seek to become humanity’s only god and enjoin its worshippers to destroy all forms of Nature worship whereever they had the power to do so? Because this force wanted to use men as its instruments of self-awareness and creativity to transform their living environments according to the plans this force helped them to formulate in their minds. But Nature worship acts as a powerful brake on human willingness to change its natural environments.

You cannot build houses, temples or bridges from wood without cutting down a large number of living trees: this is more difficult when human beings recognise them as living beings, fellow children of the Great Earth Mother inhabited by elemental spirits. You cannot build offices, bridges or railways of iron or steel without spoiling many a landscape to mine the coal and iron ore underneath it. So alienating human beings from their living environment, making them look at all other living beings as “things” and raw materials rather than as brothers and sisters, was an essential prerequisite to making them the industrious servants of the force of Creation.

Human beings can become alienated from their living environment through a strong sense of individual and tribal identity centred in their brains behind their eyes. Nothing fosters and strengthens this sense of separate identity more than warfare, when you must kill before you are killed yourself, and you can only do so by being strongly centred in your own body, time and place. So the God of Creation was also the Eternal Lord of Hosts, and the more monotheistic peoples have also been the most successfully militarily aggressive. Warfare fosters also in all cultures a greater willingness to adapt and to accept new inventions in order to survive, thus contributing to a speeding up of the human evolution that the force of Destructive Creation promotes.

Tribes and nations can only be successful in warfare if their men are prepared to die for their tribe or nation, and can thus be trained to obey their kings and commanders without question. And the same goes for the greatest human works – like pyramids, temples, cathedrals – which require a lot of menial hard work by large numbers of labourers. Creative monotheistic societies are thus strongly hierarchical and authoritarian.

It is much more difficult to alienate women from their instinctual feelings since they carry children in their womb for nine months and then nurture them for years until they are strong enough to fend for themselves; nor would it be desirable since offspring do require their mother’s love to grow up healthy and strong. But men, whose role in the reproductive process is so much briefer, can be alienated more easily, the more effectively if they are made to look down on women and their subjective feelings. Hence the monotheistic worshippers of the force of Creation are strongly patriarchal and reserve all political activity to men. And since Nature has programmed all living beings to be strongly attracted to the opposite sex to reproduce the species and has made sexual unions highly pleasurable, men had to be taught to regard such pleasure as sinful and shameful. Hence the strong anti-erotic bias of Christianity, and the practice of female clitoridal mutilation in many African Muslim countries to prevent women from finding any pleasure in sexual intercourse.

Among our primate ancestors the strongest male of the tribe reserved all the nubile females to himself. The resulting sexual frustration of the tribe’s other males built up feelings of aggression within them until they were prepared to challenge and kill the alpha male to take his place. In human societies the aggression resulting from male sexual frustration can be sublimated into collective aggression against foreign countries, or the more refined aggression of business enterprise against the environment and competitors.

Testing the Theory

That then is the theory of Dialectical Pantheism. Let us test it against human history and contemporary social observation. We cannot put human beings into test-tubes or bottles, but if we look at human cultures as a whole, we screen out the individual differences in upbringing and temperament and are left with what all the members of that culture have in common, which depending on our sample may be their nationality, their language or their religion.

We do not know of any pure matriarchal Goddess worshipping societies in history, but there are more or less balanced polytheistic religions with both male gods and female goddesses or protective spirits (in which I would include Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity), and then there are the pure patriarchal monotheistic religions, foremost among them Judaism, Islam and Protestant Christianity in its various forms. Now if the theory of Dialectical Pantheism is correct, then patriarchal monotheistic societies should be more successfully militarily aggressive, but also more scientifically curious and technologically inventive than the more balanced polytheistic societies. Has this in fact been the case?

Aggression. 3000 to 3500 years ago the patriarchal Aryans successfully conquered polytheistic Dravidian India, the patriarchal Medes Persia and later Mesopotamia, the patriarchal Achaeans and Dorians Greece and Asia Minor, the patriarchal Aesir worshippers Germany and Scandinavia. So they were militarily more aggressive and successful than the balanced polytheistic agricultural civilisations which they conquered.

According to the Jewish Torah, which is the Christian Old Testament, the 12 Israelite tribes successfully conquered fertile polytheistic Canaan and all other hostile nomadic tribes as long as they remained monotheistically faithful to JHVH, but were themselves conquered by the Assyrians and later by the Babylonians when they began to adopt Canaanite polytheistic mores. In the 7th and 8th centuries CE the monotheistic Arabs conquered the whole Middle East, North Africa and even Spain from the more balanced Orthodox and Catholic Christians, whose syncretistic worship included many residual Pagan elements.

In the 15th and early 16th centuries the Catholic Portugese and Spaniards conquered the Americas, large parts of Africa and Indonesia, all inhabited by polytheistic worshippers. But later the more exclusively monotheistic Protestant English wrested North America from the Catholic French and Spaniards and conquered polytheistic India, and the Protestant Dutch wrested Indonesia from the Portuguese. And Protestant colonialism was far more ruthless. Whereas the Catholic and Portuguese conquerors of Central and South America forcibly converted their conquered peoples to Catholic Christianity, the Protestant settlers of North America and Australia killed most of the original inhabitants to make room for settlers of their own race.

In the contemporary USA the Christian Right, chief among them the Baptist Church, is prominent in its campaigns against abortion and in favour of sexual abstinence before marriage and faithful monogamy within it. Its members are also the foremost advocates of an aggressive militaristic foreign policy. In recent decades the American Pentecostal Church has sent missionaries to Catholic Central America and Brazil, and has made many converts among the poor of the favelas. These converts then start to work harder and become economically and socially more upwardly mobile than their neighbours who have remained Catholic and Umbanda practitioners.

The only contrary examples are the Reconquista of Spain from the monotheistic Muslim rulers by the Catholic Christian Visigoth nobility; and the 19th century wars of liberation by the Orthodox Christian Greeks, Serbs and Bulgarians from the Muslim Ottoman Turks.

So much for successful aggression. What about scientific curiosity and technological invention. The Muslim Arab conquest of the Middle East, North Africa and Spain was followed by a great flowering of scientific knowledge and literature, as was the Mughal conquest of India. It is only in the last two centuries that Islam has become fossilised in scriptural dogmatism. But the greatest flowering of scientific discovery, technological inventiveness and capitalist finance to invest in industries to exploit them has taken place in the last three centuries in the Protestant dominated countries of Northern Europe and North America, with important contributions from the Jewish diaspora in their midst.

One can never prove any scientific theory, one can only disprove it in the light of contrary facts. The religious history of the last 3500 years has not disproved the theory of Dialectical Pantheism so far.

The Retreat from Patriarchal Monotheism

If patriarchal monotheism has been militarily, technologically and economically so successful, why has there been such a retreat from its values in the last 50 years, especially in Western Europe, where only some 11% of the population go to Christian Church services?

The effect of this decline in Christian worship must not be exaggerated. We all know that the force of Destructive Creation doesn’t mind whether it is called Shiva, JHVH, God the Father or Allah; but neither does it mind being called Reason (with a big R as many Enlightenment theologians and atheist philosophers did or do), History (with a big H as the Marxists did) or the Market. Few if any cathedrals are built in contemporary Western Europe and North America but plenty of commercial skyscrapers, which like the mediaeval cathedrals reach out to the sky and away from the despised Earth. And when men and women work five days a week and up to 10 hours a day in research laboratories, oil drilling platforms, factories, marketing or management, the Destructive-Creative force which they thereby serve doesn’t mind if they don’t go to synagogue on Saturday or church on Sunday.

The last 50 years have seen, however, a growing counter-cultural movement throughout the West to resacralise the human body and sexual passion, and to raise the social status of women. Bathing costumes have covered less and less of the human body during the 20th century and complete nudity has become more widespread especially in German speaking countries. The sexual expression of mutual love is now accepted both before, in and outside marriage, and there are any number of manuals to help couples give each other as much pleasure as possible.

Why? Because Europe has suffered two devastating world wars in the 20th century, which Europeans do not wish to repeat, and we feel consciously or unconsciously that these were the irrational products of the aggression fostered by the sexually repressive morality of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

But wars are no longer the chief threat to human survival on Earth: far more dangerous is the destruction of the tropical rain forests and of countless animal species and the growing pollution of the Earth produced by industry. Yet scientific curiosity and technological inventiveness are running out of control in our laboratories, with genetically modified crops whose effects on the environment and human health are unknown, schemes to genetically breed superhumans, and to design heuristic self-replicating computers whose knowledge and versatility might in due course exceed those of their human creators, and make the latter superfluous for the Destructive-Creative force. More and more Europeans and Americans thus feel it is time to call a halt: hence the growth of the Ecology movement and of Green political parties and – among a growing minority - a revival of balanced Pagan values and an interest in Hindu polytheism and the Neolithic religions of the Great Earth Mother, Moon and Love Goddess of antiquity.

But the Market (the current form of the Creative Destructive force) is fighting back. It seeks to coopt the Feminist movement and direct it to fighting for the equal right of women to become as alienated from Nature as men, to work with them in research laboratories and to chase them up executive ladders, instead of fighting for the equal dignity of raising families. It is also seeking to revive traditional monotheistic shame and disgust at sexual passion by promoting the publication of ever more degraded forms of sexually deviant pornography.

This Market reaction is strongest in the United States where the Christian Right defends patriarchal monotheist values in an uncompromising fashion. Significantly 70% of Americans still go to church on Sundays, films and TV shows are much more reticent than in Europe at showing naked scenes, but much more willing to glorify violence. The born again Methodist President Bush supports religious charities that preach sexual abstinence, opposes any statutary limits on American consumption of scarce mineral resources and on pollution of the environment, and is pursuing the most aggressive foreign policy of any American President. The more extreme Millenial sects of the Christian Right even look forward to the end of human physical life on Earth, which would clear the decks for the Destructive Creative force to start a new cycle of Evolution in a different direction.

Implications for the Study of New Religious Movements

Religious studies in universities should move from mere description to become more analytical, and study statistical correlations between different concepts of deity, social and sexual morality, patterns of social behaviour, aggression versus peaceful coexistence with other nations and religions, and achievements in the fields of scientific discoveries, technological inventions, their exploitation, as well as art and music. The results of such studies could help seekers choose the pattern of religious worship most conducive to their own ultimate values, which would mostly include the survival of humanity on Earth.

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