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Violence, religion, and the Tragedy in Orlando Part II: polytheistic monotheism


Part I. ended with the observation monotheism seems to have an innate proclivity to violence and it has inspired some of the most noble people in history. It asked “Why?”

We cannot answer this question without making a critical distinction between monotheism and monism.

Monism and monotheism

Monism is the belief that ultimately everything has one source, a source prior to individuality, and from which all personality emerges.  Indeed the standard criticism many Western Christians have of monism and its cousins deism, pantheism and panentheism, is that this ‘deity’ is not “personal.” It is everything and so some monotheists even call it atheistic.  We Gardnerians call it the Dryghtyn.

By contrast the monotheistic God is supposedly an individual personality. He is characterized by gender when He could be another gender.  He has some desires when He could have other desires. He makes plans when He could have made other plans. 

The claim an ultimate divine personality exists is incoherent, and when combined with claims to subordinating all other beliefs to this personality, this incoherence has led to the deaths of millions - while also inspiring some of the best of us.

Personalities are limited

If a personality has one characteristic, it cannot have its opposite, at least at that time.  If I am jealous I am not simultaneously tolerant and secure.  If I seek vengeance on the children of those who displeased me, I am not simultaneously just. When I demand obedience I do not value others’ freedom. In some way every personality is limited.

The Bible and the Koran describe various traits of a perfect deity.  For example, among many other qualities, the Quran describes Allah as “ever forgiving” and “the ultimate source of peace” and also as the “utterly just” and “the avenger.”   It is difficult to be ever  forgiving and an avenger at the same time.  We who were raised in a Christian culture know the Biblical God is love and seeks vengeance, forgives and holds future generations liable for the failing of their ancestors, is jealous and wrathful but also patient and merciful. These qualities also cannot be exercised at the same time.   How are all these qualities, which on occasion can apparently conflict with one another, be understood as comprising a perfect personality?

How can we know we are encountering a ‘perfect personality’ such that any alternative variation of traits would be less perfect?  One could say “it is a being who always reacts perfectly.”  But that is like saying opium puts you to sleep because of its soporific qualities. Different words are used to say the same thng and no new insight is made. 

How do we distinguish perfection from imperfection? When does patience shift from perfection to imperfection?  When does vengeance cease to be perfect and become imperfect?  How does one be both “utterly forgiving” and an avenger? And when is one preferable to the other?

A common response is that God demonstrates this perfect balance and our job is to recognize it.  But there are two problems here.  First, every demonstration is within some context, and since every context is different there is no clear way to tell from one context what is perfect in another. Second, because of this many monotheists fall back on “Perfection is whatever God does.” But not only does this not tell us what God would do in situations not recorded in their holy books, it ultimately says what makes God perfect is power.  Such religious reasoning elevates power to the ultimate spiritual principle- but without any guidance as to how power is to be used.  Most normal people would call this demonic if they thought about it.

At its root the idea of monotheism combines universal insights derived from monism with the limiting qualities of personality derived from human experience and perhaps polytheism, and claims them to be inextricably and perfectly combined. 

Monotheism’s theological history demonstrates endless attempts to combine what is truly universal with what is unavoidably partial. Because there is no rational, objective or agreed upon faith based way to determine which combination of personality traits among others is most compatible with universality, they never agree. 

And yet, from a monopolistic monotheistic point of view, and despite this irreducible variety of different kinds of deity all claim to be the perfect One.  All the great monotheistic religions make monopolistic claims that no other religion is pleasing to the one they worship. They just cannot agree on what it is.

A weak monotheist response

Some Christians have told me their God is too complex for a single human description.  For example, they claim their God is a God of justice as well as a God of love.  I would agree there is no necessary contradiction between justice and love and that our capacity to describe the super-human is limited by our humanness.  But this insight does not solve their problem.

In fact this Christian “explanation” about a “complex personality” is no explanation at all. What constitutes justice and what is its relation to love?  Among monotheists there is no agreement, and yet without agreement we simply shift the conflicting terms from different conceptions of God to different conceptions of love and justice which are supposedly God’s basic traits.  We are back to where we began. 

These disputes are often sincere, but sincerity fortified by prayer has not led seekers to a common understanding nor have they led to tolerance for significantly different interpretations of how love and justice manifest. Despite their reply to me, advocates of traditional monotheistic doctrines continue to say there is ONE way that is most right. Theirs. Among the many examples of monotheists killing one another for religious reasons, all sides would say it is their God who perfectly balances justice and love.

Religious freedom and ‘serial monotheism’

In places where religious freedom exists this conceptual chaos has led many monotheists to shift from one perspective to another, but often only after great personal introspection and prayer. Particularly among Christians, where the price of getting it wrong is believed to be so high, they have shifted back and forth in a kind of “serial monotheism.” I am reminded of people with many divorces who at each marriage make the same vows. There is no common direction in these shifts of monotheistic allegiance.  Protestants become Catholics. Catholics become Protestants.  Protestants become Orthodox. Baptists become Unitarians. And so on.

If religious freedom ever comes to the Islamic world the same pattern will happen.  Indeed, even without religious freedom Sunnis and Shiites disagree vehemently, and within these broad traditions additional disagreements arise,. Many are sincere and some are lethal.  ISIL kills far more Muslims than anyone else.  What unity Islam has is enforced by the sword and different groups struggle for control of it. Much Western history illustrates Christian versions of the same.

Serial monotheism is no more monotheism than serial monogamy is monogamy.  In both cases a partner makes a vow for life, and then changes it to make a similar vow to another partner for life.  Was their first vow to a nonexistent deity?  Or was it to another deity? Secular atheists claim the first is true. I suggest the second.

Polytheistic monotheism?

I will focus on Christianity for three reasons. First, I know more about it. Second, religious liberty has lasted long enough in many Christian societies for monotheisms’ internal incoherence to become especially clear. Third, all of us need to be reminded the root of the violence we are experiencing today is monopolistic monotheism, not Islam.

Differences in the Gods major Christian religions worship go to their very nature. Quakers and the Orthodox believe God is in the world as well as transcendent to it, and so we can have direct experience of Him.   Most Western Christians consider the world as fallen and all of us so tainted by original sin that we cannot find God except through His grace.  He reaches out to us, but he is not in us or the world.  These Christians’ deities find the world alien to Their nature, and so are fundamentally different Gods from the God of the Quakers and the God of the Orthodox, who are in the world as well as transcendent to it. It is difficult to describe a greater difference in conceiving monotheism than this.

Beyond a claim to universal dominion, the Catholic God shares little in common with the Southern Baptist God. More then one Baptist has argued the Catholics are serving the Devil and the Church is the Whore of Babylon described in the Book of Revelations. More than one Catholic has replied the Baptists are going to Hell because they have rejected  God’s true church.

Many Pentecostals agree with Baptists that the Catholic Church is the “Whore of Babylon.”  Sometimes they are more inclusive.  Pentecostal Pat Robertson said  "You say you're supposed to be nice to the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians and the Methodists and this, that, and the other thing. Nonsense, I don't have to be nice to the spirit of the Antichrist."  In return, many non-Pentecostals say Pentecostals channel demons from Hell when speaking in tongues.

Bill Keller leads perhaps the largest interactive Christian website, with over 2.4 million subscribers.  Keller has a dim view of Glenn Beck’s Mormon faith. 

“the beliefs of the satanic Mormon cult are totally inconsistent with Biblical Christianity.  He [Beck] uses the words “god” and “jesus,” yet the god and jesus of the Mormon cult are NOT the God and Jesus of the Bible . . .”

All these people explicitly believe many Christian denominations and sects do not worship the same God, even as they use the same name. 

The God worshiped by some Missouri Synod Lutherans does not want His devotees praying with non-Christians, not even in Jesus’ name. Many such Lutherans filed charges   against Dr. David Benke, a Lutheran pastor who prayed at an interfaith event held in Yankee Stadium following 9-11. They claimed his act could be interpreted as granting legitimacy to other beliefs.

Three years ago another Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, Rob Morris, apologizedto his denomination for participating in an interfaith prayer service for people killed in the Sandy Hook massacre. One of his parishioners had been a victim. 

The Gods of other Christian denominations, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox alike, were not so bothered.What constitutes a serious offense for one deity is not at all objectionable to the others.

Gods of slaughter

A complete list of the killings claimed by the Gods some monotheists worship is chilling: numbering over 1000 separate Biblical incidents.    Just counting the numbers explicitly given in their Bible, the Biblical God(s) killed 2,821,364 people.   These are  figures the Bible actually counted  The real number the Bible reports is vastly higher. For example, the population of the earth at the time of the flood is not given, however excepting only Noah and his family, these Gods claimed to have killed “every living substance” on earth. This presumably means many millions of men, women, and children, plus the unborn.  Plus plants and animals entirely innocent of whatever displeased them. Those who have been patient enough to do the counting report by comparison Satan killed 10 people:  Job’s sons and daughters, and God was at the very least a co-conspirator. Satan could not have killed them without his permission. 

Gods of love

But the Bible is not just descriptions of a deity who delights in slaughter.  It also described a deity who is loving, caring, and forgiving. Twice John says God is love (1 John 4:8 and 1 John 4:16). Some Biblical teachings are unsurpassed as messages of love and forgiving kindness.  As with the Koran, there is room for people to worship many different deities all claiming to be the monotheistic one.

Quakers believe God dwells in every soul.   Quakers do not depend on specific beliefs from outside authorities but rather upon each person’s direct experience of God. and Quaker meetings give people time to slow down and listen. He even speaks through them occasionally. For Quakers the Holy Spirit speaking today trumps a literal interpretation of Scripture written long ago. This is why Quakers held firm to their condemnation of slavery while Christians worshiping other deities quoted the Bible in rebuttal. 

Orthodox Christians also believe that God is everywhere, and have developed meditative and contemplative practices by which they might come into greater harmony with Him.  But unlike the Qualkers they say scripture is not to be set aside in favor of community illumination. The Quaker’s God speaks primarily to people in the context of their present lives whereas the Orthodox, God requires us to believe what He told other people thousands of years ago.  The Orthodox God no longer speaks to people in the way He did back then.  The Quakers’ deity has no such difficulties with communication.

Taken as a whole monotheism is a polytheistic practice where each deity’s devotees claim theirs is the supreme one to which everyone should give worship. But in fact they worship different Gods.   Underneath common labels we find markedly different deities, all claiming the same name, as if everyone named” John Smith” were the same. Were we to find such divergent conceptions of deities within a polytheistic context, we would simply say these are different deities.

Conclusion to part II.

I believe I have made the case that monotheists worship different deities with mutually exclusive traits and even when they share the same traits they do so in different ways such that we have no way of determining which conception is superior to all the others from within the monotheistic world view. You can’t get there from here.

But amidst all this polytheistic variety why have some monotheisms been so inspiring and widely admired while others are so demonic? A Pagan perspective also sheds light on this vital issue.





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Gus diZerega DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing. He is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca, studied closely with Timothy White who later founded Shaman’s Drum magazine, and also studied Brazilian Umbanda  for six years under Antonio Costa e Silva.

DiZerega holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from UC Berkeley, has taught and lectured in the US and internationally, and has organized international academic meetings.

His newest book is "Faultlines: the Sixties, the Culture Wars, and the Return of the Divine Feminine (Quest, 2013) received a 'silver' award by the Association of Independent Publishers for 2014. It puts both modern Pagan religion and the current cultural and political crisis in the US into historical context, and shows how they are connected.

His first book on Pagan subjects, "Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience," won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources. 

His second,"Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue" is what it sounds like. He coauthored it with Philip Johnson. DiZerega particularly like his discussion of polytheism in Burning Times, which in his view is an advance over the discussion in Pagans and Christians.

His third volume, "Faultlines: The Sixties, the Culture War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine," was published in 2013 and won a Silver award from the Association of Independent Publishers in 2014. The subject is obvious, and places it, and the rise of goddess oriented spiritual movements and our "cold civil war" in historical context.

His pen and ink artwork supported his academic research in graduate school and frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter. It now occasionally appears in this blog.


  • Jamie
    Jamie Thursday, 16 June 2016

    Mr. DiZerega,

    I have to say that I agree with everything you've written. Many times it has occurred to me that Allah, Yahweh, and the Christ-God are at least three separate entities, not one. Three different sets of holy scripture cannot all be correct, while each sometimes advocate violent conflict with adherents of the others.

    Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Platonists will each say that their God is actually the One (in Platonist terms). However, the One is beyond binary opposites and human frailty. The One does not say that you must love what Allah loves and hate what Allah hates. The One would not drown the human race save for one family, as Yahweh claimed to do, and force the survivors to commit incest. The One would not hold up a bandit warlord and child rapist like Mohammed as the perfect man, and a shining example of good.

    Monotheistic Platonists try to force Platonic philosophy to fit the mold of their choice, distorting some of its key concepts along the way. A true God, as the warrior-philosopher Sallustius might say, is incapable of hatred and cannot be bribed or flattered.

    It is true, the myths of the Hellenic deities describe a bunch of lustful, vengeful, whackadoodle Gods. However, as Platonists we usually treat these as allegories. The over-the-top stories always provided the simple folk with the bare minimum of what they needed to know about the Immortals. The mystics, and more philosophically-minded, learned the deeper symbolism behind the stories.

    Thanks for sharing!

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