I have always been grateful to Hebrew School for making me the atheist I am today. I mean that in the nicest way possible. I’m pretty sure I dropped from the womb a total non-believer, but whatever lingering doubts I had about atheism being “the truth faith” were swept aside by eight years of religious education. The story that iced it for me — made following my tribe’s faith a total non-starter — was the “Abraham and Isaac” story. The three Abrahamic religions all hold up Abraham as “the first monotheist”. In actual historical fact, whoever “Abraham” actually was, while he may have been an early convert from polytheism to monotheism, he was by no means the first human to toss all the other gods in favor of just one, in Abraham’s case, Yahweh. The “innovation” in the Hebrews’ monotheistic creation was their deity’s relationship with people. Yahweh wanted one, having personally created us.
None of the characters in the Abraham-Isaac story made sense to me — even when I was a kid. Yahweh the god is petulant and petty. He’s powerful enough to create literally everything in existence, yet out-of-his-mind-neurotic because humans keep screwing up. Are there any other worlds out there this Yahweh character feels compelled to keep flooding and destroying because he got one of the pieces wrong? How many generations of human — after Adam and Eve — did it take for people to forget Yahweh created them? Why would Yahweh — creator of everything — let a single human get that wrong to begin with? If Yahweh created everything, why would he countenance the creation of other gods — even if only inside peoples’ minds? And, what kind of father is Abraham? He’s a couple hundred years old (per the text) and wants, more than anything, a son with his wife Sarah (whose baby-making machinery was equally old, but never mind!) He has a son with Sarah’s maid Hagar (Ishmael — the foundational character in Islam’s story) but it’s not the same. Finally Sarah bears Abraham the son he’s always wanted.
And, what does this loving, doting, adoring father do one day — with the son that he loves more than life itself — when the voice in his head says, “Hey, Abe — grab your kid and a sharp knife: we’ve got some business to transact”, what does Abe do? He takes that child he loves more than life itself to the place the imaginary voice in his head told him to. If the voice says “sacrifice your son”, that’s what Abe’s doing, no second thoughts. If not for the intercession of an angel — who offers up a goat as a sacrifice to replace Isaac (and what did the poor goat do to get hauled into this bloodbath?) — Abraham murders his own child, end of story.
I remember thinking back then “And the point of this story is…?” I grasped but couldn’t then articulate the perversity of monotheism and its strange “asks”. To accept monotheism, you have to accept Yahweh. And, to accept Yahweh, you have to accept a deeply flawed human creation. Only a human would think Yahweh, as written, is much of a deity. I bet among actual deities, Yahweh couldn’t get hired to bus tables at the Deity Café. He certainly wouldn’t get invited to sit down with them and play in any of their reindeer games. Yahweh’s too puny.
Or, is Yahweh too clearly what he is — a human creation? That’s an important distinction if we’re discussing the Creator Of Everything. Who created who first? Considering as Yahweh wasn’t the first god a human ever invented and wasn’t even the first god that the Hebrews followed (they also followed El, Baal, Asherah, and Astarte before the cult of Yahweh over-rode all the other gods and the Hebrews settled on Yahwh as their “Hear, Oh, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”.
Here in the west, we tell ourselves that monotheism was an evolutionary step above polytheism. It was in the sense that monotheism emerged after polytheism as a new way to see the world. But is monotheism an “improvement” the way evolving webbing between our fingers would make us better swimmers? Did monotheism’s creation in the human mind produce improvements to human life for having been created? One could argue yes. In praise of monotheism, great buildings rose. Great art was made. Much thinking has been directed towards it. But, one could also argue that monotheism has been a curse.
It all comes down to Yahweh. As written, Yahweh has it in for his human creations. He tried once already to wipe us all out via flood (if you accept the stories as reality — a dubious thing to do). Apparently the new humans that rose after Noah were no better than the rotten humans that preceded Noah. Yahweh felt they were so rotten that he’d have to create a mechanism to “absorb” all that human rottenness, dispose of it somehow and then permanently redeem these creatures who constantly disappoint him. Yahweh created a “son”. But, not just a son — a way (if you believe in that son just the right way) to beat the thing that scares humans most: death.
The Jews ultimately evolved Yahweh into a creature who commanded them to make the world a better place for them having been it. The Christian world evolved Yahweh into a bully who insists you believe in his son — and his son’s ability to conquer death — or he’ll kill you.
Jesus taught you don’t need a temple or its priests (or a church and ITS priests) to have a relationship with God. And, by the way? Do unto others. But that’s not how the Paul heard it or sold it. He downplayed the “Do unto others” part and cranked up the dogmatic rules involved in beating death by believing in Jesus. To Paul’s credit, his invention was sheer genius. It’s longevity speaks to that. Christianity isn’t a religion you embrace if you want to “Do unto others” (you can do that without it), it’s one you embrace if you want to “live forever”. That’s the “good news” inside every Christian’s “testimony” — a dubious path to eternal life.
Once taken up by a believer, monotheism can morph into authoritarianism faster than any other belief system. How can it not? Where’s the check on Yahweh’s voice? It’s not like Yahweh walks in the door a rational character. His only real innovation is the ability to reproduce with humans. And what does Yahweh have in mind for his child? Death. If the mythology is going to work — if Jesus is going to be proven the actual “messiah” — then a bunch of things have to line up (at least in the telling). To begin with, Jesus has to die because Eve disobeyed Yahweh when she ate from the tree of knowledge thus committing the “original sin”. On top of that, Jesus also has to come from the priestly line and then from King David’s line to boot. Plenty of gymnastics to pull off there.
Plenty of dogma, too. Spirituality demands zero dogma. Religion relies on it exclusively to suck you in and keep you in. Monotheism relies upon the most rigid dogma of all — because it’s deity is so rigid (even at his most “forgiving”). “I am the Lord, your God and thou shalt have no other gods except me!” Gosh, Yahweh, when ya put it that way…
What if the monotheist’s core assertion is wrong? What if there is a deity of sorts out there, but it’s not named Yahweh and the deity’s on a completely different mission than the knowledge-challenged Yahweh? What if Yahweh was as real as Harry Potter or Voldemort? Here’s the problem — if I base everything I think on a false premise — if Yahweh isn’t “the guy” despite what Yahweh cultists insist (what if Buddha cultists are right instead?) then literally everything that I do because I believe in Yahweh rests upon a flawed foundation. My core reason for doing anything is based on nonsense.
Or the wrong god maybe… .
The bottom line is this: religion itself is inert until a human being picks it up and puts it on. The “armor of Christ” that the Apostle Paul urged Christians to wear only becomes real and fully active inside a believer’s head. Even a “loving God” needs to be defended to the death.
I take it back. It’s not monotheism that’s made a mess of the world, it’s monotheists.