There are no Monotheistic Religions:
Educating Monotheists to Their Polytheist Beliefs
By Darrel W. Ray, Ed.D. ©2010
In everyday life, we non-theists may find ourselves in discussions with theists. Have you noticed that these discussions often go around in circles and achieve nothing? Why is that? Let me suggest that one reason is because we are using their framework in which to discuss and argue. In this article, I will explore some practical ways to stay out of their framework. Who says they have the sole right to define the terms of engagement? For this discussion, we will focus on monotheism, but other areas might be just as interesting.
Many modern-day theists seem to consider the so-called monotheistic nature of their religions as a sign of legitimacy, at least when compared to other openly polytheistic religions. The gods of ancient Greece and Rome were many, each with their own unique powers and niches in the nether world. It is no problem to see these as polytheistic religions but interestingly it is almost as easy to identify so-called monotheistic religions as polytheistic. If we expose the propaganda of these religions by challenging this key concept, we shift the frame, and open the door for a different kind of discussion. We don’t have to acquiesce to their definitions of their invisible friends.
Let’s explore. To be a monotheistic religion, a religion must have only one god in its lexicon. Zeus may have been the highest and most powerful god in the Greek pantheon, but he was certainly joined by many other lesser gods. In Christian mythology, the gods are no less than four, sometimes more. The Father, Son, Holy Ghost and Satan are certainly gods. For whatever the Christian apologist wants to say, these four certainly function as much like individual gods as any Greek gods. The Yahweh figure may be more powerful than the Son, Satan or Holy Ghost, but so too was Zeus or Thor. All move in mysterious ways and while three are allied against one, so too were there alliances among Greek and Norse gods. In addition, Catholics have Mary, who seems to have special powers and access to the other gods in remarkable ways. Then we have all the saints of both Catholic and Orthodox traditions. How convenient that each of them seems to have special powers, not unlike the demigods and lesser gods of other polytheistic religions.
In Christianity, the Gospel of John 1:1 shows a clear duality: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The author takes great pains to convince us that his two gods are really one, but the argument falls short. Two gods are just that, two gods. No amount of hocus-pocus can make them one, yet that has been the party line in Christianity for 1,700 years. Why 1,700 years? Because the issue was quite controversial in the church for the first 200-300 years. Perfectly legitimate Christian writers had strongly differing views on the nature of their Christ. Was he a god or not? Was he made a god after he was first human? Was he always a god? These concerns had real consequences for how one went about understanding the crazy ideas being perpetrated at the time. If Jesus was a god all along, then he really could not suffer and die in the way of a true human. If he was truly human, then he was made a god upon his death. He suffered like a human and because he became a god, his followers can become gods when they die. We may scoff at these ideas now, but while that particular idea was slapped down in the third century, it has been resurrected many times in history, most recently in Mormonism.
Islam and Judaism
What about Islam and its claims to be monotheistic? Mohammed strongly criticized Christianity because he claimed it had three gods. But he only improved by a small margin. Islam has no less than two gods, Allah and Satan. Both are quite powerful and vie for the souls of humans. How much more godlike can you get? In Shiia Islam, there is an additional pantheon of gods or demigods in the form of fallen martyrs or saints. Believers flock to the various shrines of Fatima, and Imam Hussein, in hopes of getting a blessing or protection. The 12th Imam’s predicted Messianic return sure makes him look like a god or demigod.
Finally, we come to Judaism. This may seem to be a monotheistic religion, but only if there is no acknowledgment of a Satan or the Evil One, and what do we do with the coming Messiah? Jewish scholars like to say that Satan is really just a representation of the evil side of humanity, but in the book of Job, he seems to have a lot of power independent of Yahweh. In Genesis, the Tempter seems to do things a Greek god might do when he tempts Eve. As for the Messiah, the Jews believe this godlike creature is yet to come. Whoever the Messiah is, he will be godlike or have godlike powers. The Jewish scriptures’ claims about the Messiah certainly sound godlike and therefore make Judaism a religion of two or three gods. Simply because a religion says it is monotheistic, does not make it so.
Whether Christian, Islamic or Judaic, the pantheon of gods looks remarkably similar to that of the Greeks, imaginary beings who have relationships with one another and with man. Over time, these imaginary beings take on more or less power in the pantheon. The Jesus god is in ascendance right now among Protestant fundamentalists. The Holy Ghost god is most influential in the Pentecostal movement. The Yahweh god is top of the Jehovah Witnesses pantheon and Mary is high on the food chain for Catholics. Satan has a lot of sway in some Islamic sects and Christian fundamentalists.
Just because a religion has a well oiled propaganda machine claiming their invisible beings have certain relationships and power doesn’t mean we have to buy into it. In fact, I think it is imperative that we non-theists openly redefine god definitions. After all, Christians couldn’t decide for a couple hundred years on the nature of their gods and some are still debating the nature of various invisible friends and enemies.
Use the Language of Polytheism
To avoid stepping into the theist’s paradigm, here are some practical ways to use language. When talking with a Christian religionist, refer to the god Jesus or the god Satan. As you talk, do not use their hocus pocus, sleight of hand language. They believe and act as if they have multiple gods, so talk to them in that way. It has the wonderful effect of getting you out of their paradigm and challenging them in theirs. Language is powerful; use it to forge a new reality, one that is independent of monotheistic mythology. Why should they be allowed to set the terms of religious discussion?
For example, you might ask, “How does your god Jesus talk to you? How does your god Satan talk to you? How do you tell the difference?” If your god Holy Spirit moves someone to dance and talk in tongues, why don’t the Presbyterians and Episcopalians enjoy that benefit? What makes the Pentecostals the main ones to enjoy tongue talking? If your god commands women to keep quiet in church (1 Corinthians 14:33-35), how is it that there are so many women preaching in the evangelical movement? What if the god Holy Spirit commands a woman to speak in church? Could it really be the god Satan talking to her to get her to violate the silence commandment? When does the god Holy Spirit talk to you or how does he act in the world? Where does he do his thing? How is the god Holy Spirit different than the god Jesus? They seem to do different things, but how do you know if it is your god Jesus talking to you or the god Holy Spirit or maybe the god Satan? If you can’t tell the difference, then why have two or three? If you can tell the difference, then can you explain how?
The believer may often respond that you are uneducated in the doctrine of the church. They would be wrong. You are well acquainted with church dogma and doctrine, but since you are not captive to that tradition, you don’t need to use that language. You are free to call a spade a spade. The believer may try and educate you with their double speak and church propaganda. Keep to the new language, even as they try to bring you back to their frame. The polytheistic frame is a powerful tool for challenging their mythology in entirely new ways. Most religionists are quite unsophisticated in the ancient arguments and struggles that resulted in today’s dogma. What they know is what the church taught them. They have no idea that today’s dogma is based on a fantasy framework concocted by four centuries of argument, infighting and political intrigue.
Keep Your Cool
Do not argue or get into a heated debate. Just ask them to explain. Highly charged emotional arguments do two things: they close off true discussion and create defensiveness in the other person. The result is a discussion that goes nowhere. Their religion has conditioned them to get defensive when questioned. The defensive response keeps them safely inside their linguistic framework. The less defensive and confrontational you are, the greater the chance of some interesting discussion and potential influence. Approach the subject as if you were talking to an ancient Greek about their pantheon. As they try to explain from their frame, respond with your frame. For example,
Them: “You don’t understand, God sent his only begotten son to earth to show us how to live.”
You: “So your father god has a son god, just like Heracles was the son of Zeus? And the son god lived on earth like Heracles?
Them: “No, Jesus is not like any Greek god. He is god but became a human.”
You: “You can’t have your cake and eat it too. If he is a son, then he is not your father god any more than you are the same as your father. And how does your Holy Spirit god figure in to all this? He is never mentioned in your Old Testament but suddenly shows up in the pantheon about the time your Jesus god appears; looks like Jesus just made up another god for you Christians to deal with.”
If you define the terms and stick with them, it makes the discussion much more interesting and difficult for them to hide behind doctrine. It slows the process down in a way that may bring about more considered and thoughtful argument. They may not change their view, but they will know that you don’t play the game on their turf. They also learn that you are not bound by their doctrines, which can be very difficult to explain in the light of simple reason. A side benefit comes when they hear questions they have never considered. They may be inclined to think about their own gods in a slightly different way.
Because most religionists live comfortably within a common framework, they rarely have it challenged. Even when Muslims, Jews and Christians engage in discussion, they do not challenge one another’s basic paradigms. Only someone totally outside of the religious framework can effectively illuminate the linguistic prison all religionists inhabit. The next time you are in a discussion with a theist, try using language that keeps you out of their paradigm and encourages consideration of the pantheon of gods that inhabit their make believe world. The result may challenge them and will give you new freedom of movement around their mythological world.
Darrel Ray is author of The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture (IPC Press, 2009) and founder of Recovering from Religion™. More information is at www.recoveringfromreligion.org and www.thegodvirus.net.