One God’ Works
Whether you consider it a discovery, an invention or a divine revelation, the development of monotheism out of the worldwide polytheistic tradition is one of the most important revolutions in human history. Abraham, the idol-breaker, fought against his pagan forefathers, proclaiming One True God (OTG); that there is no god but God.
With currently over 4 billion adherents, we tend to take Abraham’s stance for granted. But in the pre-monotheistic world, the gods were not just idle statues; they were everywhere, in everything, demonstrating their power in the natural forces, and made real by people’s belief — meaning there were real-life consequences and placebo-like effects to both good and bad omens.
When I say that the gods were everywhere, this is not an exaggeration. The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, Thales of Miletus, is known to have ‘declared the exhaustion of the mythical mode of thought with his obscure saying that “everything is full of gods”’. There was a god of seafaring, a god of war, a god of childbirth etc. — and in order for you to succeed in each of these domains, you were expected to pay tribute to the corresponding god. The trouble is that pantheons were full of gods in conflict with one another. To gain favour with one god often meant gaining the ire of another.
With these internecine deities we can begin to see the benefit of Abraham’s OTG. Arguably, within every polytheistic tradition there is a tendency towards monotheism, and it is embodied in the pantheon’s king. In Greek mythology it is Zeus, in Norse mythology it is Odin, Egyptian = Amun-Ra, Hindu = Indra, etc.
The god-king is monotheism-lite. It was by substituting the god-king that many pagans were later converted to Abraham’s OTG. But why would there be a tendency toward monotheism within the pantheon? I believe that it is to mitigate the cacophony of gods, to bring unity to an otherwise incomprehensible variegation.
In order for us to appreciate the importance of the monotheistic turn, we must keep in mind two things: the aforementioned prevalence of polytheism and the centrality of war in previous epochs. Unlike today, in previous epochs peace was the exception. The threat of invasion was constant, and most men were (at least part-time) warriors.
No domain benefited more from monotheism than that of war. United under the OTG, vast armies could be mobilised for a common and “commendable” cause (such as the crusades). Religion — and particularly rewards in the afterlife — have always been used to motivate soldiers into martyrdom and acts of valour (think Vikings and Valhalla), but with monotheism, there is not only reduced factionalism, there is also unprecedented unity. As Thomas Asbridge writes in his history of the Crusades, ‘the First Crusaders proved time and again that their most powerful weapon was a shared sense of purpose and indestructible spiritual resolution’.
Arguably, there is no greater demonstration of this than the Islamic expansion (from Central Asia to the European Pyrenees) within just a hundred years of its inception. Remember, Islam was intended as a ‘reminder’ of Abraham’s tradition; a reminder of the potency of the OTG. Throughout the Quran, there are references to the ‘People of the Book’ (i.e. Jews and Christians) who share the same message — the same ‘path’ — but have gradually been ‘led astray’. Islam is a centripetal force; a return to the centre. Its ‘single most important concept’ is tawhid, meaning ‘unification or oneness of God’; a concept that affirms the ‘radical monotheism of Islam’ (Jackson).
In the same way polytheism tends towards monotheism through the god-king, monotheism tends toward polytheism (e.g. the Trinity in Christianity). This is likely a natural response to the irreducible complexity of life on earth. This is why the Quran puts so much emphasis on God’s oneness — epitomized by the Shahada (the obligatory ‘Testimony’), and the constant refrain; ‘there is no god but god’. It is a mantra; a reconsolidation of the tawhid: ‘Tawhid is not only a metaphysical assertion about the nature of the Absolute; it is also a method of integrating the seemingly disparate parts of creation into a wholeness’ (Jackson).
Readers of the holy texts — and especially atheist readers of the holy texts — are often shocked by the emphasis put on God’s ‘jealousy’. In the Book of Exodus, the very first commandment is that ‘you shall have no other gods before me’:
You shall not make for yourselves an idol, nor any image of anything that is in the heavens above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: you shall not bow yourself down to them, nor serve them, for I, YHWH your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and on the fourth generation of those who hate me, and showing loving kindness to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments (Exodus 20:2–6)
Similarly, in the Quran there are innumerable references to the tawhid. In chapter 39, there is even an interesting analogy that speaks to the impracticality of pagan worship:
God puts forward this illustration: can a man who has for his masters several partners at odds with each other be considered equal to a man devoted wholly to one master? All praise belongs to God, though most of them do not know (39: Az-Zumar)
The Iranian philosopher, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, calls Islam, ‘the ultimate unitive vision of reality’ — and it is this vision, this silencing of the noise that has been drawing more and more people back to Abraham’s OTG.
There is a meme on TikTok that I believe captures this well. (The cacophony is polyphonic pantheon, the moment of synchronization is the tawhid; i.e. the declarative voice of the OTG):