The Violence of Monotheism
In this blog, Jaque Parisien reviews an important new book La violence monothéiste (Monotheistic Violence) by Jean Soler. Although currently available only in French, it is to be hoped that translations into English and other languages will become available soon. Soler’s knowledge of scripture is deep and impressive, and his analysis is of pivotal importance to our understanding of monotheism and the dangers it presents.
The French scholar Jean Soler recently published a brief essay entitled Qui est Dieu? (Who is God?), which caused a great stir in France after the well known atheist philosopher Michel Onfray (see his Atheist Manifesto) praised the work for its relevance in unveiling the deceit behind all religions. That being said, La violence monothéiste, published in 2008, is a brick of book and lays out in full the author’s thesis that in all monotheistic religions is inscribed, “genealogically” one might say, an inherent call for violence, as opposed to polytheistic religions which favour tolerance and flexibility in regard to other beliefs. The structure of the book evolves around a historically based comparison between different aspects of different civilizations, such as Chinese, Greek and Hebrew, and between different concepts of religion, mainly polytheistic versus monotheistic. For those of you that do read French, let me add that the language is crystal clear but that the book must be read slowly mainly because of the abundant references to various scriptures. But first, what has Chinese philosophy got to do with a book about monotheism?
Soler recognized that studying Chinese philosophy was a bit much to handle by himself so he consulted a renowned sinologist, Jean-François Billeter. This chapter of the book concentrates on the fact that Chinese philosophy is based on the confrontation of opposites, yin and yang for instance, the first being the feminine principle and the latter masculine, and relies mostly on a relationship of complementarity, although the feminine principle predominates. The author delivers many examples of such a relationship but for the purposes of this article, one example should suffice: the transition between day and night and vice-versa. Twilight is absolutely essential for both elements to attain the perfection of their nature; in other words, nighttime could not exist without daytime and vice-versa. Thus it is from this combination that perfection is derived. “The coexistence of opposites is not static but dynamic.”1 If the reader agrees with this thesis, this coming and going or rather this back and forth motion, another concept becomes even more evident: the middle. Consequently, “Perfection is in the middle.”2 It is important for the reader to grasp the importance of this concept since we find the same in Greek civilization. To illustrate fully the implications of this, I will consider three Greek philosophers that apparently share the same idea: Heraclitus, Aristotle and Protagoras.
Heraclitus subscribes fully to the concept of movement, “All entities move and nothing remains still,” and to the complementarity of opposites, “Good and bad are one.”3 This similarity between the Chinese and Greek principles should come as no surprise since the cross-pollination of ideas was common, mostly due to the fact that philosophers roamed the world in search of knowledge. Furthermore, one of Aristotle’s key concepts can easily be tied to the Chinese principle of the middle since man must never overstep a certain balance, an equilibrium, as the risk of excess or hubris would be too great. The middle for Aristotle is the mean between extremes. For example, the middle way between temerity and cowardice would of course be courage, hence the blending or movement between extremes, “never too much,”4 the refusal of excessiveness leading to fanaticism, symbolizing harmony or virtue. Protagoras, as you may know, taught the art of debate and supported the idea that absolute truth does not exist but that truth as such is nothing more then the best according to one’s perspective. This capacity to pass from one perspective to another resembles again the Chinese principle of movement. Many claimed that Protagoras promoted a kind of untenable relativism which precluded certainty on any subject, but on the contrary he was merely trying to avoid rigidity and the dangers inherent in dogmatically claiming to have attained absolute truth. Protagoras, like other materialist philosophers of his time, also rejected any divine intervention in the affairs of humanity, foreshadowing atheists to come: “There is no supernatural reality; the only reality is appearance.”5 To summarize, we must understand the fundamental commonality between Chinese and Greek principles of movement and the middle way and, as Jean Soler points out, their role in seeking harmony or equilibrium, as well as the open-mindedness inherent in polytheistic civilizations.
To make his point, Soler then compares Athens and Jerusalem. Of course I cannot go into detail in this short article, but a couple of examples should suffice to give the reader a general idea. For instance, who among us today knows that Yahwe, the one god, had a wife, Asherah, all mention of whom was quickly erased from all scriptures, that Yahwe was a jealous god, full of anger and spite for the impure, the stranger, and that he had chosen his people and not they? Athena, the goddess whose name inspired a whole city, Athens, was but one of many Greek divinities. In fact, she was even venerated by the Trojans while they were at war with the Greeks. The Greeks could choose to pray to any of their gods or goddesses depending on individual preferences or goals. On the subject of language comes another surprise. The Hebrew language was conceived to express concrete and tangible objects, but with no way to express conceptual fields of thought. Their vocabulary consisted of about eight thousand words. At about the same period, the Greeks benefited from a vocabulary of one hundred and twenty thousand words, a ratio of 15 to 1 in favour of the Greeks and we all know how language is important to conceptualize our world, to explain the nuances pertaining to politics or everyday life. A rich vocabulary facilitates communication and a better understanding of the subtleties of the world in which we live. On the other hand, a language with a poor vocabulary imprisons the individual in a binary perspective of good and evil.
Soler then moves on to a full-fledged dismantling of Judaic monotheism, so much so that he was accused of antisemitism. The notion of a unique God was forged on the anvil of necessity and adversity. The Hebrews needed a reason to explain their numerous losses in battle as much as they needed to give meaning to their suffering. We might have expected such a god to be magnanimous and altruistic, to be tolerant of the goyim, but unfortunately, that was not the case. When the scriptures ordered that all infidels be put to death, including women and children, in the pursuit of the ultimate unity of the people, the Judaic tribes could do nothing else but obey, for was this not the wish of the all powerful and one true God? Were they not the chosen ones? The classic example of this god’s wrath can be clearly seen in the story of Moses coming down from Mount Sinai to find his people venerating a golden idol and their demise as the earth opens up and swallows those who dared disavow him. Soler proposes a key concept for his theory, which he calls “monobinarisme.” The “mono” refers to the obsession for the one and only god while “binarisme” could translate into dualism, the crude opposition between good and evil, right or wrong, black and white and so forth. Thus, we have a single divinity who divides the world into two opposing factions. The concept of a middle way simply does not exist under these conditions, and neither do tolerance or open-mindedness. Furthermore, Soler’s analysis of Judaism can be similarly applied to Christianity and Islam.
Both Christianity and Islamism would be variants of Soler’s “monobinarisme.” “You’re either with us or against us.” This single sentence could sum it all up. Apply it to all the god-crazed fanatics of this world who blow themselves up or blow up non-believers and you get a clear picture of what Soler is talking about. It begins with the conversion of Constantine to Christianity for personal and political reasons, and the reign of both Theodosius I and II who established Christianity as the state religion of the Roman empire, decreeing the persecution of all others. Then we have the Inquisition. Later, state “religions” such as communism and fascism both indulge in the cult of the unique saviour or make false promises of a radiant future. More recently, Bush’s Christian based neoconservative government reveals its true colours after the tragedy of the twin towers and finally we have theocracies in Iran and Afghanistan. All these fanaticisms threaten global peace. For Soler, the Holy Scriptures contain the germ of violence that would sooner or later spread its disease throughout the world and plunge humanity into monotheistic darkness. To conclude, Soler calls for all sceptics to unite, including atheists, agnostics and even sceptical believers against fundamentalism but without extremism or fanaticism, “never too much” as the Greeks would have said, because those who think they are the sole possessors of truth are always in danger of succumbing to hubris.
- Jean Soler, La violence monothéiste, Éditions du Fallois, Paris, 2008, p. 34
- Ibid. p. 37
- Ibid. p. 55
- Ibid. p. 89
- Ibid. p. 111