There is only one God, and He is good, right? Say it in a crowded cafe, a crosswalk, a voting booth and someone is going to nod their head. At least sixty four percent of Americans are Christian and seventy percent of the U.S. population believes in monotheism, a singular god. Most of these people will tell you how great He is.
God created the universe, our planet, the air, the animals, women, and men. He carved our destinies according to His divine plan, which is both great and mysterious, and gave us free will, and hoped we wouldn’t notice the inherent contradiction between those two ideas.
Where am I getting all this? Thirty years of Catholicism, a childhood spent in two different homes, mass this week, church with the Lutherans the next, and youth group with the Baptists every Thursday night. I’m not going to tell you I’m a religious scholar or a holy man. But I’m a pH strip dipped into American Christianity for thirty years, so you’ll forgive me if I indulge my perspective for a bit.
As a Christian, the world always seemed increasingly secular, devoid of God’s influence or interest. Once I left religion, I could see the nation still dripped Christianity like a bloodsoaked rag in an angry grip. For me, religion was tightly woven into many of my childhood traumas. Releasing one meant letting go of the other. But as I discovered how those traumas shaped me, I was realized the burden of having to live with a singular concept of “perfection”.
Monotheism’s “Black Hole of Good Intentions”
“No one’s perfect,” is something you’ve heard ad nauseum. But a common variation is, “Only God is perfect.” Or, “You’re not God, you don’t have to be perfect.”
You’re probably thinking, “Dude, that’s just meant to help people let go of the idea of having to perfect.” Yes, dude, you’re totally right. But our culture advances the idea we should always be seeking perfection, driving ourselves towards something we inherently cannot be.
We are born apart from God, and to be closer to His perfection, we have to change who we are, resist our very nature, in order be “godly”. Conversely, anything that moves you away from God and his religion is sinful. People who worship a loving a forgiving God will kick family members to the curb if that person is deemed to be moving away from their God.
First, if God gives people free will, why does anyone else worry about what they do? Isn’t that between the individual and the all-knowing, all-powerful God who knows what that individual is doing because they also crafted their very fate, and the fate of all others?
The problem monotheism creates here is “unipolar virtue”, a sense that goodness can only be achieved by moving towards a singular point, like a blackhole of good intentions.
Monotheism’s tightrope of “Unipolar Virtue”
Our culture is very focused on rules. We use them to police others, what they should and shouldn’t be doing. The consequence is, privately, we fear people with catch us in some wrongdoing, whether it’s speeding, or some slight breach of social etiquette. We spend our lives on a high wire, afraid to take the wrong step, lest we fall to our injury and humiliation in front of everyone we know.
When you’re on a high wire, there’s really only one direction you go, forward. Failure to do so will cost you your balance. Once you set out upon that rope, that’s what you’re going to be doing until it’s finished. Religion, specifically “monotheism”, is very much like being on that tight rope. Astoundingly, we don’t even realize we’re on this tight rope until we’re five or six years old. There’s already an audience watching you, your parents, your family, the minister, the congregation.
No one feels sympathy for you. They’ve all had to do it, too. Everyone expects some divine consequence for this building insecurity we have, and we take pleasure when we perceive those consequences befall someone other than ourselves.
It’s a lot of pressure to be perfect like that.
Religion orients our lives towards judgement.
It’s tempting to say that monotheism has a binary moral spectrum in our culture, with one state being “good” and the other being “not good”. But that’s far from true since there is not a state of “good enough”. There is no resting state, no crossing the finish line. People die, and then we hope they meet some famous person in the sky who gives them a thumb’s up and lets them finally let go of the stress and anxiety that comes from spending your whole trying to be “good enough”.
Now, I have no reason to believe or data to support the idea that polytheistic religions produce people who are inherently less stressed, or less judgmental, or statistically different in any of the variables that I’ve identified regarding monotheism. And any variance there might be, I’d turn to social influences a lot more quickly, like multi-generational families living under one roof, greater reliance on local goods and resources, and any other litanty of explanations rooted in dialy social interactions.
But many polytheistic religions still frequently have a hierarchy of power with a central God holding things together, anyway. In fact, it’s arguably not much different than Catholicism’s assortment of saints and the host of angels. This is only meant to restate, polytheism isn’t the answer either.
But polytheism does provide a greater reflection of the diverse human experience, replete with different representations of ways of life, interests, personality traits. What if you didn’t have to change your very nature simply to feel connected to the divine, to the greater movement of the universe?
Who says you’re insignificant?
Why must we kneel to pray? Why are fealty or subserviance associated with “bending a knee”? Ministers tell you how small you are. Politicians make you feel powerless. Cultural and commuitiy leaders know when you feel small, you’re more easily led. You want to feel in control of your life, and that’s what they give you, a narrative where you have relevance, but no ability to get where you want to go alone. Believe the world is what they tell you, and you’ll never be alone again.
Monotheism is an opiate for a mind overwhelmed with the many ways in which it could die, the many things that could easily kill it, than to believe there is one simple solution for all those stressful variables.
The truth is, the world, the universe, it’s a very busy, overstimulating, dangerous place. We have limitations of what we can percieve not because we were made that way, but because there miracle of evolution has brought us out of blindness, out of deafness. The world doesn’t always make sense because we started as tiny cells and we’re working our way up to understanding.
Religion doesn’t want you to understand it anymore than Apple wants you to be able to replace your battery.
Religion is an industry and a career. I don’t know what you do for a living, but have you ever taught your customer or your client how to do it so well they didn’t need you anymore and went out and provided your service to others without paying you?
Instead of working together to explore the mysteries of existence, we’ve been told what the answers are already. God did it. You can ask, “Well, why did God do it that way?” The answer is, “Only He can say.” And if you counter with, “Well, maybe there’s another explanation that doesn’t involve God being a narcissist or dreadfully shortsighted?”
Well, it doesn’t go well from there. After all, how could you possibly understand God’s plan?
In religion, this mystery is not because we’re lucky to understand what we do, but because we’re so insignficant, we couldn’t possibly get it if we tired. Feeling insignifcant is essential to staying in the cognitive schism, “if God has a plan, why don’t I see it?”
After all, God, will let you buy a plane ticket destined to crash into the world Trade Center, because he’s just a little mysterious. He’ll watch your children walk into a classroom thirty minutes before it’s shot up but will do nothing to protect your baby because he’s just kind of funny that way. He put you on a planet that’s overheating, but gave you no ability to stop it in order to save your grandchildren because He’s really kind of just zeroed in on who’s going to win the Super Bowl this year.
Religion needs you to be small.
The consequence of our leaders always telling us how small we are, how powerless we are, is that when you ask yourself why the world doesn’t make any sense, you accept that you simply don’t understand it because you’re just too insignificant. It’s beyond you. And since your suffering is meaningless then to God and the universe, you too, must be meaningless.
The cognitive schism we’re left with is, “If I’m to seek God’s perfection, what does that even mean?” If God is good, and he let my mother be raped, how do I emulate that in my own life? If God is all knowing, and he lets people fly into buildings, who gives a shit if I know this town has lead leaking into a town’s water supply and say nothing?
It’s what God would do.
That schism is a record scratch, the embodification of why we can never be good. God “Himself” does not meet our standards of good, and yet He is the perfection we’re told to seek. Maybe explains the manifestation of so many different religions, with their own origin story and pantheon of characters. Even within Christianity this division exists. Growing up, whether I was with the Catholics, the Lutherans, the Baptists, they all said the same thing of each other.
“They mean well, but they’re not really Christian.”
These people said it with such conviction, I thought maybe I misunderstood what it meant to be Christian. But maybe that’s why there’s more than 200 Christian denominations in the US, and over 45,000 in the world.
If monotheism is right and there is only one God, and He is all-knowing, why doesn’t he know how to get his message across so that everyone understands it? If He’s all-seeing, why didn’t he take better actions to make sure his message was clear to all? If He’s all-powerful, why does He watch us kill each other over our misunderstandings?
Monotheism and religion don’t actually deliver us from conflict or strife, it simply enables our human tendencies to create groups. We also know the presence of a unipolar virtue system creates unachievable standards, which leaves little room for actually accepting ourselves and loving others.
But what’s the alternative?
No matter your religion, you’re already perfect.
So imagine you’re ten years old. You’ve never been told that only God is perfect. In fact, your parents, your minister, the lady who hands out donuts on Sundays, they’ve all told you that you are perfect. Then you step outside and realize that everyone else has been raised the same way.
Our puritanical origins make us fear this would lead to unbridled narcissism, but ironically, we’re more at threat from narcissism than we’ve ever been and it’s largely because most people approach their world perspetive from a place of low self-worth. It’s easy to follow a narcissist when you don’t know what healthy self-love looks like.
In a culture that allows everyone to be perfect as they are, individuals can seek to resolve their traumas, spend less time fearing judgment, being preoccuppied by what others are doing, and live their lives after progressing what really ought to be an early developmental stage in human psychology “the development of self-worth”.
Okay, so now what?
Now, many people fear this state, not for themselves but for others. They fear the empowerment of others as inherently invalidating them in some manner. If society moved away from monotheism and the concept of a singular “perfect”, other problems would emerge. But that’s the nature of progress, to improve where we can and identify new opportunities to do so in the future.
Many people likely also believe it’s hubris to assume God’s perfection. But if we’re all made from God, to return to God, are we not already inherently one with Him, and thus perfect?
The truth is you are a God. You just need to learn to change your perspective enough to see that.