What's So Great About Monotheism?

My latest FindLaw column (updated link here) unpacks and critiques a speech this past Sunday by Justice Scalia to an Orthodox Jewish group, in which he argued that the First Amendment's Establishment Clause should not be interpreted to prevent government from favoring religion over nonreligion. The full version of the argument, which is set forth at length in Justice Scalia's dissent in McCreary Count v. ACLU of Kentucky, asserts that government cannot favor one monotheistic religion over another but can favor monotheism over non-monotheistic religions and nonreligion---at least in some contexts. As I explain in the column, Justice Scalia's argument is principally based on what he takes to be an historical and ongoing tradition. He does not offer a normative defense of this view, and for good reason: It would be completely inappropriate for a Supreme Court doctrine to be based on the Justices' evaluation of which religious views are "better."

Nevertheless, I strongly suspect that anybody who finds Justice Scalia's argument persuasive on grounds of tradition will also think that monotheism is "better" than its alternatives. Mostly that's because of the statistics that Justice Scalia cites: a strong majority of Americans are in fact monotheists (although I problematize the term "monotheism" in my column). But that's a causal account rather than a normative account. Is there a normative account as well?

Let's put aside nonreligion. In what sense is monotheism better than polytheism? One answer might be the greater likelihood of universality. Polytheistic faiths are often local and so the associated gods are local. If tribe 1 wars with tribe 2, they may imagine themselves fighting a proxy battle between god 1 and god 2. But if there is just one true God, who created all the tribes and everything else in the world, then universal brotherhood and sisterhood might result.

That's possible in theory but in fact ahistorical. One key factor in the success of the Roman Empire was the fact that the Romans permitted conquered peoples to maintain allegiance to their local gods. The Gauls could become Roman citizens and their gods would not pose a challenge to Jupiter and the other Roman gods. By contrast, if there is only one true God, and your people thinks He goes by one name with one set of commandments, while my people think He goes by a different name with a different set of commandments, then we have the potential for holy war. And the history of fratricidal killing among the Mosaic faiths bears this out.

In any event, if someone thought monotheism were "better" than polytheism, it would likely be because she thought monotheism to be true and polytheism false, rather than because of the social consequences of following monotheism or polytheism. Are there reasons to think that?

As a boy attending Hebrew School I was taught that Abraham smashed the idols because they were false gods. The falseness of the idols was presented to us as a self-evident fact, and much of the story got its power from the portrayal of idol worship: How could a clay statue be animate, much less a god? I imagine that an actual polytheist would give an answer having to do with the spirit of the various gods entering the idols or some such transcendental claim, but because I was being instructed in a monotheistic faith, the point of the instruction wasn't to consider how one might render polytheism plausible.

Still, there is a certain psychological or aesthetic quality to monotheism that polytheism lacks. I suspect that over the years people have found monotheism attractive for the same sorts of reasons that physicists have been inspired to search for a unified field theory. A single God who created everything appears to provide a plausible answer to the ultimate metaphysical question: why does the world exist? Whatever the merits of Aristotle's argument for a Prime Mover, a single omnipotent God seems like more of an answer than the idea that there is a god of war, a god of the sea, a goddess of wisdom, etc. Polytheism supplies answers that pre-scientific people might accept to what we now would regard as scientific questions. E.g., why does the sun give light and heat? Because of the sun god. Polytheism has the wrong shape for answering the question of why there is something rather than nothing.

I offer this causal account of the seeming explanatory superiority of monotheism over polytheism only tentatively, however, because the great monotheistic faiths all arose among pre-scientific peoples, for whom answers to questions like "why are there seasons" could plausibly take the form "because the god of wind makes them." Still, at least by the time of recorded antiquity, human beings had begun asking the great metaphysical questions, and the ancient monotheistic faiths---Judaism, on one rendering, Zoroastrianism, and later, Christianity and Islam---provided answers that appeared more plausible than the ones polytheism provided.

But the very ways of thinking of Western-raised and educated people like myself and most of my readers have been profoundly shaped by our culture, with its many centuries of monotheism. Is it possible that the psychological or aesthetic preference for unifying explanations is itself a product of monotheism rather than a reason why rational beings were first attracted to monotheism? I'm inclined to think so. As skeptics have repeatedly observed, Aristotle's Prime Mover is not an answer to ultimate metaphysical questions because we can ask the same questions about Him. And that would seem to be no more nor less true of Prime Movers rather than a single Prime Mover.

Posted by Mike Dorf