December 28, 2005

"Last Week I Cud Knot Spel 'Historian,' Now I Are One."

SWIFTLY REPLACING THE WEEKLY WORLD NEWS as the most hallucinatory magazine on the planet is the New York Times Magazine. Exhibit A is this exchange sans a shred of intellect from What's the Big Idea? wherein the clueless editors of the Times Magazine interview an even less clued Peter Watson, author of the unfortunately titled "Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, From Fire to Freud."

On the other hand, not all big ideas are good ideas. In fact, most big ideas are probably terrible ideas. What do you think is the single worst idea in history?

WATSON: Without question, ethical monotheism. The idea of one true god. The idea that our life and ethical conduct on earth determines how we will go in the next world. This has been responsible for most of the wars and bigotry in history.

But religion has also been responsible for investing countless lives with meaning and inner richness.

I lead a perfectly healthy, satisfactory life without being religious. And I think more people should try it.

Really? Let's review the ancient world of, say, Mesopotamian cosmology before the advent of the concept of monotheism.

In this first known stab at civilization a rapacious slate of rulers hosted, for their own benefit, a whole raft of cheap tin gods coming at you from every direction. A god of the fire, a god of the mud, a god of the liars, a god of the crud. For all we know, a god of the excreta of the nose. Each one was as shiny and worthless as a commemorative quarter from the U.S. Mint. Over and over for all your days these paltry gods hectored you/ each one demanding their little altar, their little ritual, and their little donation, without let up and without number.

The streamlined and stylin' modern version of this sort of theocracy was known, until quite recently, as Tibet, and no matter how colorful the Potala might seem after a serious bong hit in Katmandu, the realities of the modern era have not exactly treated Tibet kindly. In general it is better to have one God and an army on your side than a thousand gods and no army.

Omnitheism was the model for much of the world from prehistoric times until just an inch of time ago. You had to put up with a god running every little aspect of human existence. You had to accept that every single one of those niggling and irritating gods was ready, at any moment and for no real reason other than malice, to destroy

your own personal existence. No real code of behavior. No real easily grasped set of rules for living a good and purposeful life. Omnitheism cannot author the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Indpendence, or The Rights of Man. Omnitheism grants no Constitution of the Spirit and no liberty to the soul, which is why we expunge the 10 Commandments from our institutions at our peril. Sin and error to one god are the keys to the kingdom for another.

All in all, any theology before monotheism was the chump change of God; a theology of chaos for chaos' sake. Men who would keep men enslaved eternally loved this sort of fractal theology. With omnitheism no inner-directed system of morals and power could arise to challenge the murderous power of the godless state. Because, make no mistake about it, when a state holds up a man as a god it has no check on its power. I give you, in passing, pharaonic Egypt, Nazi Germany and the realms of Lenin, Stalin, and Pol Pot. None of these and none of thousands of other regimes from prehistory until today that either concentrated god in one man or dispersed it to a thousand idols added anything but misery to the vast mass of people who have ever lived. Monotheism also has had its horrors and yet more lurk in the near future. But in the world we need to look not for perfection, but for which direction is better than the other. In this, monotheism trumps omnitheism every time.

Only the concentration of a thousand impulses towards godhead, as revealed in the natural world as one God who was within and yet without the world as it is given, enabled man with his shabby moral and intellectual abilities to find and to nurture the God that dwells as the divine spark within each soul. Should you wish to see His work in action contemplate either the lives of the Saints, the emblem and meaning of the Christ, the unfolding of evolution, or the ever ascending and never repeating double helix of DNA. If that is too demanding, talk seriously with a six year old child for an hour. See what is within their mind and heart. Mark their eyes and their still unstunted ability to wonder; their undiminished capacity to see that it all is, from alpha to omega, a miracle raised up from a mystery we are not yet equipped to solve.

Put very simply, so simply that even Mr. Watson might understand it, monotheism was an idea which, conceived or revealed, makes the world we live in today -- a world in which otherwise useless, unskilled souls such as Watson live an affluent life -- possible. Monotheism raises the tribe into the state and the state into the nation. It enables, over the long hard slog up from the mud, things such as redemption, charity, and global supply chains. In the long run monotheism even enables blighted souls such as those of Watson and his ilk to smarm and BS their way through life to the faint applause of moral midgets without vision or imagination. It even enables him, through the effort of thousands of years of souls whose lives and morals and works were built around and by monotheism, to kick back in his recliner and advise others to try his life without religion.

Monotheism brings us, over oceans of time, mountains of effort and selfless sacrifice, a life lived apart from the grunts and toil of the peasant. Monotheism enables our entire system of laws and freedom and democracy; it is the foundation beneath the entire edifice of Judeo-Christian civilization. Without monotheism, ignorant and unquestioned statements such as Watson's would be quite literally 'unthinkable.' Without monotheism, Watson himself would not exist. His strain of DNA would have long since perished childless building yet another brick ziggurat to Mardukor Zababa in some dust choked suburb of Babylon; unwept, unburied, unremembered. Like so many other charlatans who style themselves as "historians" in this age of stunted intellectuals and scholars ignorant of their subject, Watson simply does not know what he is talking about. And he is more than willing to share the nothing that he knows.

Without the towering and profound impact of monotheism in the history of the world, a statement such as Watson's "I lead a perfectly healthy, satisfactory life without being religious. And I think more people should try it" would simply cause the impish god of Hubris to impale him on a very sharp stake. On second thought, that god wouldn't have to work that hard. There'd be plenty of priests around to give Watson a leg up.

Posted by Vanderleun at December 28, 2005 10:00 PM
Bookmark and Share



"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

You know, Gerard, when I read your essays, I usually have two consecutive thoughts. The first is, "He's done it again." The second is, "With him on the job, why do I bother?"

Congratulations on a brilliant piece.

Posted by: Francis W. Porretto at December 29, 2005 3:02 AM

Christianity (Monotheism) as Mr. Chesterton said has never been tried. Frankly, for all of us it is to hard. This man in a New York Times article talking about religion is a laugh. Human nature flawed. He believes his values come from nothing. Nothing, now that is the place to visit.

Posted by: jeffersonranch at December 29, 2005 8:13 AM

Yeah. What Francis said! I linked, but trackback's ain't working. I feel so dumb next to you.

Posted by: theanchoress at December 29, 2005 11:05 AM

I suggest you take the log of hubris out of your own eye before you talk about logs in other peoples' eyes, son. You seem to think of God as your personal tribal totem who will keep you safe. That's primitive, even for a monotheist. I don't agree with the fellow in the Times interview, either, but you don't strike me as any more advanced than he is.

Posted by: maha at December 29, 2005 11:17 AM


I just dont see where Gerard ever says anything about God keeping him safe like some tribal totem. He is talking about the contributions of monotheism as an idea which far outweigh any of its imperfections. We have monotheism, particularly Christian monotheism to thank for the world as we know it where people like Watson have the luxury to spit on the shoulders of the giants on whose shoulders he stands.

Posted by: peggy at December 29, 2005 12:10 PM

Watson, like all atheists, has simply developed a parisitic and essentially negative belief system in the sense that it is based on a foundation of rejection and theivery as opposed to affirmation and creativity. Anyone can coopt a monotheistic value system particularly if they are trying desparately to prove that they dont really need to believe in God. They reject religion which has created the world we live in in favor of a value system which has created nothing and never will. Religion is a thing that has life and is overwhelmingly positive in that it does create while the naysayers can only co-opt and their whole lives are based on proving that they dont need whatever they think it is that they dont need.

These folks are just as dependent on religion as any believer. They have just willfully blinded themselves to the fact.

Short anecdote. I once heard on the radio of an atheist who was working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta. When asked by the reporter why he was there, he said he was there to prove that a person doesnt have to be religious to be a good person and do good works. What the guy was clueless about is that without religion there would not be a single atheist working in the slums of Calcutta and not a single atheist would have created what Mother Teresa created. There would be no atheist charities created to prove that religion isnt necessary charity etc. Why because every good thing that an atheist does is inspired by a need to imitate religion in order to prove it wrong. Imitation can never be as fruitful as creation. Atheists lose. Without something to imitate and reject, they would have absolutely nothing. Nothing to offer. They have no idea that is really different or new. But in the long history of the world, it is religion that has always produced progress and new ideas.

Posted by: peggy at December 29, 2005 12:19 PM

Thank you Peggy. You have saved me many keystrokes.

Maha, you know that it really isn't about me.

Posted by: Gerard Van Der Leun at December 29, 2005 12:33 PM


As for Watson's claims that he lives a happy and satisfied life without God or religion, I say that while anyone can imitate goodness if they try hard enough it takes an especially blind person to convince themselves that the pleasure that they get from proving their independence from the masses is what a happy and satisfied life is all about.

But what they have discovered is the barest minimum, the very dregs of happiness if you will. They mistake what they feel as being the sum of all possible happiness. But the happiness they feel is, like their ideas, based on rejection, condemnation and nullification. Heroin addicts also feel happy and fulfilled if they have a steady supply of heroin. Pedophiles also feel happy and fulfilled. The list goes on. A feeling of happiness and satisfaction proves nothing, least of all that some people dont need to believe in God to be happy. These people manage to eek out some measure of happiness by deluding themselves that their negative belief system is better than the creative force within and behind religion. They get a taste of happiness and think that they have all that they need. But for the person who lives a live of affirmation and gratitude as a believer in One God, the cup of happiness runneth over.

Posted by: peggy at December 29, 2005 1:15 PM

Thank you for an insightful essay, Mr. Vanderleun.

May I add that the term "ethical monotheism" is, I think, usually associated in the actual "history of ideas" with the philosophy of Hermann Cohen, and is most often understood as an attempt to characterize the Jewish contribution to the development of the West. If you google "ethical monotheism," or look it up in the Wikipedia, almost all the hits point to sites with Jewish content. In fact, the "Virtual Jewish Library" ends its entry on Hermann Cohen with the statement that, "The term "ethical monotheism" has become a Jewish household word synonymous with Judaism. The systematizing of that concept was Hermann Cohen."

Mr. Watson cannot plausibly claim that as an historian of ideas he is ignorant of these associations. And I think therefore that we should acknowledge that the underlying ugliness he manifests in the New York Times Magazine is the ugliness of anti-Semitism.

The worst idea in the world he says is precisely that of which the Jews are most proud. He would blame all of the wars and tyrannies of the past two millenia on the Jews -- including the wars and tyrannies which were dedicated to their destruction.

Mr. Watson thereby also damns the philosophical foundations of the United States. Rather than reverting to the Hobbesian state of nature, the Declaration of Independence is based on faith in a Creator who has endowed equal-by-creation individual human souls with inalienable rights, and acknowledges that any human government exists only to confirm and defend those God-given rights.

The United States thus acknowledges a Higher Power to Whom it is subject, and to Whose (natural) law it must defer. This is the critical limitation of governmental power absent in the leftist secular totalitarianisms of the 20th century, such as communism, fascism, and naziism.

Without the ethical standards provided by contact with the Deity of an "ethical monotheism," there is only power, and no check on power. Then truly "nothing is true" and "everything is permissible."

The bitter, miserable outcome of untrammeled human agency, free from any ethical constraint, should be familiar enough by now. There is no excuse for Mr. Watson's blithe nihilism.

Posted by: Gandalin at December 29, 2005 2:27 PM

Peggy, I have no idea who you are, but I as regards the place of religion in the history of human happiness, we are of one mind. And as you say, not only does secular humanism not create real charities, but also their ersatz ones (Planned Parenthood et al) invariably radicalize and soon begin to do more damage than good. In our free society unbelievers have the right to scoff, but no honest scholar can deny who minted the coins that bought his freedom.

Posted by: AskMom at December 29, 2005 2:38 PM

I would respectfully add to this discussion that happiness and joy are not, in fact, the same thing. Happiness is fleeting, impermanent, and based in emotional responses to external stimuli. Joy is transcendent, eternal, and based on faith that no matter what my physical state in this world, there is a power beyond it that cares for me and about me. Even when I am most unhappy, I have joy. Put that in your nihilistic pipe and smoke it.

Posted by: Chris at December 29, 2005 2:39 PM

Many thanks for a learned and informative response. One of the pleasures of doing a page such as this is comes from comments that expand my own knowledge.

Posted by: Gerard Van Der Leun at December 29, 2005 6:03 PM

I feel very humble, and thank you for your gracious response. Your site is one of the marvels of the blogosphere, and I have learned much and enjoyed much as a result of absorbing what you post. May you continue to bring us more and more light for many years to come.

Posted by: Gandalin at December 29, 2005 6:15 PM

I believe that there is no God. I'm beyond atheism. Atheism is not believing in God. Not believing in God is easy -- you can't prove a negative, so there's no work to do. You can't prove that there isn't an elephant inside the trunk of my car. You sure? How about now? Maybe he was just hiding before. Check again. Did I mention that my personal heartfelt definition of the word "elephant" includes mystery, order, goodness, love and a spare tire?

So, anyone with a love for truth outside of herself has to start with no belief in God and then look for evidence of God. She needs to search for some objective evidence of a supernatural power. All the people I write e-mails to often are still stuck at this searching stage. The atheism part is easy.

But, this "This I Believe" thing seems to demand something more personal, some leap of faith that helps one see life's big picture, some rules to live by. So, I'm saying, "This I believe: I believe there is no God."

Having taken that step, it informs every moment of my life. I'm not greedy. I have love, blue skies, rainbows and Hallmark cards, and that has to be enough. It has to be enough, but it's everything in the world and everything in the world is plenty for me. It seems just rude to beg the invisible for more. Just the love of my family that raised me and the family I'm raising now is enough that I don't need heaven. I won the huge genetic lottery and I get joy every day.

Believing there's no God means I can't really be forgiven except by kindness and faulty memories. That's good; it makes me want to be more thoughtful. I have to try to treat people right the first time around.

Believing there's no God stops me from being solipsistic. I can read ideas from all different people from all different cultures. Without God, we can agree on reality, and I can keep learning where I'm wrong. We can all keep adjusting, so we can really communicate. I don't travel in circles where people say, "I have faith, I believe this in my heart and nothing you can say or do can shake my faith." That's just a long-winded religious way to say, "shut up," or another two words that the FCC likes less. But all obscenity is less insulting than, "How I was brought up and my imaginary friend means more to me than anything you can ever say or do." So, believing there is no God lets me be proven wrong and that's always fun. It means I'm learning something.

Believing there is no God means the suffering I've seen in my family, and indeed all the suffering in the world, isn't caused by an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent force that isn't bothered to help or is just testing us, but rather something we all may be able to help others with in the future. No God means the possibility of less suffering in the future.

Believing there is no God gives me more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-O and all the other things I can prove, and that make this life the best life I will ever have.

--Penn Jillette

Posted by: Anonymous at December 30, 2005 11:47 AM

Penn's treatise on the beauties of having to live for this world could have been a wonderful argument for believing in no God. Except. The rational lapse, of course, is the assumption that belief in God prevents us from doing any of the wonderful things Penn does, or having any of the positive habits and mindsets that Penn claims to have.

And in fact, I do not know of any commonly practiced religion that lets people off the hook for their earthly behavior as Penn would seem to posit; indeed, most religions INCREASE the sense of worldly responsibility over that promulgated by the surrounding secular culture.

So this argument fails to rise even to the level of flawed reason and is shortstopped at "foul, out of play, illegal straw man offense."

Considering the flip side of Penn's case, it is naive and historically unsupported to assume that, freed of or never feeling the constraints of God - or religion - mankind seeks the higher ground in any meaningful area of human endeavor. Brutal, repressive and constrained though God seems to have made life in the past, "God-free" cultures were even worse.

Penn deserves credit for seeking to live a good life, and even more for apparently succeeding, but the ad hominem argument simply can't carry here.

Posted by: AskMom at December 30, 2005 12:29 PM

A beautiful article, thanks.

Re: Penn Jillette's little essay. In my experience, those who take real joy in life and love usually begin to draw close to God in some way, as these things are from God. Even the few atheists in this group seem to be at peace with God and religion.

But to maintain an outward appearance of peace, love and joy, while at the same time scorning God and despising His children... Wow - that must take some effort!

Posted by: Kip Watson at January 1, 2006 7:37 PM

The flawed premise in Jillette's essay, and he is a clever sophist, is in asserting that no evidence of God can be seen. Perhaps Jillette is the one who is lacking here and not those who believe. To those that do, the evidence of God is manifest in all of creation from the farthest star to the least subatomic particle and through all the stations of being in between. It may well be that even the faithful can only get a glimpse of this, as Gerard Manly Hopkins put it, inscape. Perhaps we are not yet fully finished. But still many do see it in the most mundane elements of existence. Faith seems to me to be a thing that is more felt than seen, not because the manifestations of God are not visible but because humans as presently constituted "cannot bear very much reality."

To look for God outside the universe in a realm of "supernatural beings" is to look in the wrong place. Instead we need to look deeper into all that which is.

Posted by: Gerard Van der Leun at January 1, 2006 9:30 PM

And perhaps our glimpse into this reality is getting clearer as this article on Spooky Action At A Distance would suggest.

New tests of Einstein's 'spooky' reality

Posted by: Gerard Van der Leun at January 1, 2006 9:35 PM

Occam's razor applies here too. One need go no further, nor cogitate on anything more complicated, than Gerard's previously referenced chart of the NY Times' stock values across 2005. Solid and irrefutable evidence that there is a God, and printable on a postcard.

Posted by: AskMom at January 2, 2006 11:35 PM

I am glad that you did not make the common mistake of conflating Omnitheism (all religions lead to a core truth) with Pandeism (God became the Universe, and all religions are an attempt to express the latent spirituality of that God suffusing everything).

Posted by: K. Mapson at August 19, 2007 9:29 PM