Intro: Monotheism v. polytheism
Rather recently, I heard a young rabbi, a friend of mine, discussing monotheism with one of his Talmud students. She had been troubled by the line of religious reasoning that he’d espoused to the class; and she challenged him on the supposedly unique righteousness of monotheism.
His responses to her, I believe, were fairly reasonable.
Monotheism & me
The only concept of a supernatural being that I can wrap my mind or heart around is a single, omnipotent, and unknowable one. The existence of a creator of the universe is more plausible to me than a ‘Big Bang’, but I also put a very heavy emphasis on this being’s unknowable nature, far, far, far beyond possible human comprehension and our senses.
To be fair, I was born and raised a Jew, and my monotheistic beliefs (which are not entirely mainstream within the traditional Jewish community because I don’t much believe in a God who cares about anyone or involves himself in the lives of human beings) are clearly a product of my heritage and upbringing. If I had been born and raised elsewhere (India, for example), I very likely would have come to believe in polytheism. Still, this is where I stand.
Incidentally, this happens to be one challenge I have come to for those of any Abrahamic faith – why would God only be motivated to share Ultimate Truth (and therefore: Salvation) with a limited number of human beings in only one corner of the world? No answer to this question that I have come across has satisfied me.
Two arguments for pure monotheism
The young rabbi made several arguments for monotheism over polytheism, two of which especially resonate with me:
- Monotheism encourages personal responsibility because there is only one Divine address to which one can address one’s grievances and desires. If prayer and penitence do not bring the desired results, one can then only find solutions on one’s own;
- Pure monotheism rejects all images of God, whereas the majority of gods of polytheistic faiths have bodies that resemble those of human beings. In this way, polytheistic faiths encourage, albeit perhaps unintentionally, the worship of humankind itself.
These arguments, as I noted, work for me… but only intellectually and theoretically.
Monotheism in the real world
All of this theory utterly falls apart when I consider the behavior of human beings around the globe throughout all of history. Are polytheists more or less moral because of their beliefs? Are monotheists? Are atheists? Simply – no. No, not at all.
In fact, that’s not even to mention those people of all faiths who act horribly and evilly towards others. Anyone of any faith can perpetrate evil.
These have been my observations over the course of my four decades, and I consider myself a fairly well informed and well read person. Human beings have been arguing over and killing one another over faith for thousands of years, but ~ ultimately? What’s the point? What difference does it make in the real world? Who can truly claim that their chosen faith produces kinder, better people or a kinder, better world?
Thus, while I view existence through a strictly monotheistic lens, and while I can make some logical and reasonable arguments to support my faith perspective, none of that is to say that my beliefs are better than anybody else’s – neither I nor any other person who shares my religious views is inherently better than any other human being; and I wouldn’t necessarily assume that anyone who shares my monotheistic views is moral, kind, or just. Some are; others, unfortunately, are not.
And… then there’s professional monotheism
Disappointingly, I have found that I must always take everything that any religious leader espouses with several grains of salt.
This particular young rabbi, before he joined the clergy, was simply my friend; and he used to speak with others about his own deep doubts in his faith convictions (which he had been raised into, for his extended family is all Orthodox, and his father too is an Orthodox rabbi). He used to struggle with whether Judaism was indeed the Truest faith. He used to be forthcoming about doubting his connection to God and wonder about whether God was listening to him at all. This struggle of his over his religious views was profoundly compelling to me – it was relatable – it drew me… and I felt that it fed our friendship.
Then my friend became a rabbi and decided, it seems, that it was incumbent upon him to promote traditional Jewish monotheism as the most moral faith, regardless of the evidence…
And, ever since then, I have been finding it increasingly difficult to speak with him about matters of faith at all 😞