Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Aug/10

22

Monotheism & Religious Tolerance

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In the course of Razib/Mr. Hume’s fine post on the history of the emirate of Cordoba, he had this to say:

We know as an empirical fact that the partisans of the Abrahamic faiths are not very tolerant of dissent from their religious monopolies when they are in a position of power.

Subject to the caveat (which Razib included) that such partisans took a more pragmatic approach when, although in power, they were not in a position to enforce a religious monopoly, there is certainly a lot to that, which raises the question why. If we look at the history of other empires, the Roman, say, or even (an unlikely paragon to be sure) that of Genghis Khan (Genghis was an animist), little attempt was made to enforce strict religious orthodoxy.

Does the reason for this difference of approach, I wonder, stem from the very idea of monotheism itself? While I’m certainly no fan of paganism (a lot of what is today being written about pagan societies is nonsense, motivated by ignorance, sentimentality and the childish desire to embrace a ‘non-western’ Other), could it be that the idea of all those, fractious, often competing, gods and spirits made it almost impossible to enforce a religious monopoly. If the gods could not agree, how could man? Monotheism, by contrast, must, by definition, ultimately mean that there is only one truth, and from that it is not too much of a stretch (particularly in those eras when ‘toleration’ had not become a positive ideology) to insist that all should subscribe to it.

Ovoo (animist shrine), Mongolia, May 2005

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10 comments

  • Rolf · August 22, 2010 at 5:46 pm

    This makes sense, but we should also realize that religion was simply a bigger deal in some societies than others (c.f. imperial China where political dissent was NOT tolerated but religion was just not considered important enough to be a sensitive topic). Then again, maybe monotheism has a tendency to be all-encompassing and all-important?

  • Author comment by David Hume · August 22, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    Monotheism, by contrast, must, by definition, ultimately mean that there is only one truth, and from that it is not too much of a stretch (particularly in those eras when ‘toleration’ had not become a positive ideology) to insist that all should subscribe to it.

    re: “one truth.” one must distinguish between monism and monotheism, here. all higher superstitions when they intersect with philosophy seem to veer toward monism, that there is one ultimate truth, and all phenomena, including gods, being manifestations of that. in contrast, abrahamic monotheism personalizes the principle into a specific individual, who seems to have a bad attitude. it might be that monists who don’t personalize have a more chill attitude because it’s hard to get offended on behalf of a principle. in contrast, monotheists are angered on behalf of a person.

  • Pangloss · August 23, 2010 at 12:38 am

    “Monotheism, by contrast, must, by definition, ultimately mean that there is only one truth…”

    Can there be otherwise?

  • Rich Rostrom · August 23, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    “empirical fact”?

    It seems to me that we know a lot more about Abrahamic intolerance than about other religions. It is _our_ history, and Western secularists have devoted great effort to publicizing and decrying these tendencies. Comparatively little effort has been given to similar examination of religious organizational practice in other cultures. when those societies were autonomous and not in contact with the West, i.e. when their religions were “in power”.

    We know very little about religious practice in medieval Persia, for instance. It does not appear to have been pluralist.

    We do know that the Romans exterminated Druidism, and enforced Caesar-worship on their subjects, provoking the Judaean rebellions.

    Also, the Tokugawa Shoguns suppressed Christianity quite ruthlessly.

    On the other side, Islam has historically tolerated Christianity and Judaism in its domains; and Islamic zealotry died out in India by the 1400s. The later Mogul regime was noted for pluralism and even syncretism (in the case of Akbar the Great).

    Christianity has shown little interest in suppressing rivals in the last three centuries, despite a supreme “position of power”.

  • Author comment by David Hume · August 23, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    rich, i know a lot more about religious history and persecution than you. you’re wrong. the tang suppression of foreign cults was fundamentally different from the christian or islamic program for example. you don’t have the background i suspect to understand what i might say, so i might post on it if i have time.

    We know very little about religious practice in medieval Persia, for instance. It does not appear to have been pluralist.

    We do know that the Romans exterminated Druidism, and enforced Caesar-worship on their subjects, provoking the Judaean rebellions.

    also, for readers, these assertions are either false, or childishly unsubtle. for the more well read and informed readers i point to a distinction between *politically motivated* suppressions of cults, which are not evidence of systematic trends over time, and *ideologically motivated* motivated suppression. the latter are far more pervasive in the abrahamic religions, while the former are relatively common in all societies. the latter produce a long term systematic bias and a convergence on religious uniformity in orthodoxy, the former in general does not.

  • rob sama · August 23, 2010 at 7:42 pm

    I’ve long suspected this. I can’t think of or name a religious war in which one of the parties wasn’t monotheist, or one in which both were polytheist. Religious war emerged with the emergence of monotheism. I think you’re on to something here.

  • Author comment by David Hume · August 23, 2010 at 8:33 pm

    rob,

    here are some examples:

    jains vs. hindus in south india
    indigenous vs. buddhists in tibet & japan (during initial phases of acceptance of buddhism)
    the periodic persecutions of buddhists by confucians in both korea and china
    attempts by burmese buddhists to convert the hindu kingdom of assam to theravada buddhism

    i wasn’t joking with rich. i really know a lot more than him. but these examples are different in quality and quantity from what we saw in dar-ul-islam and christianity, though someone well versed in the religious history can disagree on some grounds with this position (i have some moderate self-skepticism of my own position here, as as a methodological matter i’m skeptical of religion-as-platonic-ideology).

    as for the idea of religious war coming with monotheism, this is false. in the ancient near east wars often had a religious dimension, and the defeat of one tribe/nation by another often was capped off by the bondage in chains of the idol of the primary god of the conquered. this is what the assyrians did to marduk after a conquest of babylon. when religions are an extension of the people, ransacking temples and sacred sites would naturally be a consequence of conquest.

    so how did this differ from what went on with the abrahamists? the jewish innovation was rejection of the reality of other gods besides their tribal ones as a matter of principle (there are other examples one can find of this, but they are relatively marginal in their causal influence on world history). the christian innovation was to synthesize of jewish religious tribalism with a potential universalism of belief common among other mystery religions (buddhism preceded christianity in its universalism as a world religion, but it did not have a strong south asian tribalism grafted onto it). over the long term this synthesis, most evident in islam and christianity, of narrow tribalism and philosophical atheism of gods not of their own, combined with universalism, has resulted in a systematic shift toward monopolies of specific belief integrated with political orders in a manner which is simply not found in primitive societies, or in chinese and south asian societies. ergo, chinese and korean persecutions of buddhism resulted in its relative marginalization, but not extinction, in the plural order.

  • Narr · August 23, 2010 at 9:00 pm

    The mention of Akbar reminds me of something I read a while back IIRC. For some special anniversary or commemoration, he invited all the learned divines and the best -atheist- philosophers to gather and discuss their beliefs. Imagine one of Europe’s defenders of the faith or most catholic majesties doing any such thing. Heck, imagine it in modern America.

  • Author comment by David Hume · August 23, 2010 at 10:35 pm

    he invited all the learned divines and the best -atheist- philosophers to gather and discuss their beliefs. Imagine one of Europe’s defenders of the faith or most catholic majesties doing any such thing.

    the atheists were carvaka. a indian materialist philosophical tradition (though they may have been misidentified; ‘carvaka’ seems similar to the term ‘secular humanist’ today, used promiscuously for a large class). debates of this kind were also common in the mongol empire, and in china. though in many cases there was a bias by the potentate (kublai khan decreed that daoists stop slandering buddha and buddhism after a debate, but his own leanings were toward tibetan buddhism beforehand).

    these sorts of debates were also had in the early islamic empire, though from what i can gather the tone was more stacked. christians, zoroastrians, and jews, have to be careful how they characterized islam to the notional head of the islamic community. and finally there are examples of debates set up in spain and i believe other european states between jews and christians, and in these cases the jews had to tread even more lightly, and the “debate” was often framed by a hostile pro-christian audience.

  • Matt · August 29, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    Societies where religion is made the basis of law and political legitimacy, rather than custom or rationality (reason without religious axioms) might to be the standouts in terms of intolerance, rather than monotheism per se as distinguished from monism. I’d expect that once you are used to people defending the religion to defend law and order (and so prosperity), it’s probably less of a stretch to other intolerance, even forms of intolerance that don’t explicitly affect the law.

    The truthmaker on whether monotheism as distinct from monism is less tolerant (and whether the above theory is stronger) would be seem to me to be how tolerant and religiously fractious South East Asian and Tibetan Buddhists were contra Western Abrahmic societies (I’m working from an assumption that the Buddhist tradition provided law and political legitimacy to these groups).

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