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Not all gods are equal: How monotheism changed the world

“Belief in Judaism, Christianity or Islam is as absurd as believing in Thor, Zeus or Anubis. There’s nothing to choose between them – it’s all the same sort of archaic, superstitious hogwash.”

If you’ve publicly discussed religion at all in the last twenty or so years, this argument will probably sound very familiar to you. It is the typical refrain of the modern secularist, and a talking point which has largely been popularised by today’s class of professional atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.

But while this argument is wildly popular, clearly those who repeat it haven’t really thought deeply about it (and it shows). In reality, not only are modern monotheistic faiths vastly more sophisticated than old pagan ones, but they are a far greater foundation for science, the justice system, ethics, and pretty much everything else.

There is, in fact, no comparison whatsoever between monotheism and polytheism – the former has contributed more to human advancement than the latter ever could.

But how, exactly? What is the major difference between, for example, the God of the Bible, and, say, mighty Thor? They’re both just bearded guys in the sky who lord over us – therefore, they’re the same, right?

Well, the first misunderstanding here is that polytheistic pagan “gods” are not really gods at all – at least not in the sense that you and I think of. Take Zeus and the Greek gods as an example.

In Greek and Roman mythology, the gods are not the first beings to inhabit the universe. In fact, they’re not even the second beings – they’re the third wave of inhabitants in the cosmos.

As the belief goes, first there was “Chaos” – a mindless, loosely-defined, turbulent force of nature blanketed over reality. And out of this Chaos came “The Primordials” – beings like Uranus, the sky god, and Gaia, the earth goddess, and so on.

These Primordials gave birth to the Titans – figures like Cronos and Rhea. And eventually the Titans gave birth to the Olympians, who we know today – Zeus, Apollo, etcetera. And in fact, in the myth, even the Olympians have children – the Giants – who attempt to overthrow them and dominate the universe (and almost succeeded). There are many generations of cosmic beings, according to Greco-Roman belief.

Now, why is this relevant?

Well, for one simple reason: these gods are largely in the same position as you and I within the universe. They were born into this world one day, and came into existence suddenly with no say in the matter, finding themselves within a ready-made pecking order.

This is important, because Zeus doesn’t claim to be eternal. He has a mother and a father who created him. He has grandparents, and even they aren’t eternal – they emerged from Chaos by chance.

None of these beings claim to create the universe – it was all here already when they arrived. They simply inhabit it like the rest of us.

The reason Zeus is the King of the Universe, therefore, is not because he made it, or because he’s more morally righteous, or because he’s been here longer than anyone else. He’s simply more powerful than the rest of us – that’s his sole claim to ownership.

He has a birthday, and he can die (as seen by other gods who were killed, like Metis). He lives in a universe he didn’t create. He feels the same lust, rage, jealousy, pride, and all other human emotions the rest of us experience. He’s not omniscient either – there are limits to his knowledge. Other gods can trick him, as seen in the story of Prometheus. You could potentially sneak up on him and “get the drop” on him. He’s not omnipresent, and has to travel from place to place like us.

In effect, he’s less of a “god,” and more like a guy with superpowers. He’s like an evil superman or Homelander in “The Boys.” He’s essentially a cosmic warlord with a bigger club than the next guy. His only claim to kingship is “might makes right.” And if some god ever comes along and overpowers him, then that being will become the new king, and the rule of Zeus will end.

The same is true, in fact, of all major pagan pantheons.

Thor, for example, is the son of Odin, who is the son of Bestla and Borr. And in the stories, prophecies state that the Norse Gods will be killed during Ragnarök.

In other words, their fate is sealed like us. From the moment a human being is born, the clock starts ticking until their inevitable death. And as surely as you and I will die one day, so too will Loki, and Heimdall, and all the other Viking gods.

Now think of the extremely stark contrast between that, and the monotheistic concept of an eternal, immortal, uncreated and all-knowing being beyond space and time.

For example, in the Old Testament Moses asks God his name, and receives the answer “I Am” – or, to put it another way, “I am existence itself. I am what it means to be.”

This God is claiming, in other words, to be transcendent. It knows everything. It predates everything. It created everything, as seen in Genesis. And that is where his authority comes from.

This distinction is hugely important, because this is the foundation of so much of Western civilisation.

For example, the belief in an objective thing called “The Truth,” “Goodness,” “Justice,” and so on.

Of course we can all believe in these things subjectively. But if you’re a polytheist, and one god holds one view, and another god holds a different view, which of them is correct? If two gods have a dispute, who is morally right? Who is there to play referee?

The gods often found themselves on opposite sides of conflicts, such as during the Trojan War in the Iliad, where each one had their favoured champion and was vying for control. Who is right in such a situation, when half of heaven says go left, and the other half says go right? All of a sudden, morality becomes meaningless and totally subjective.

Ultimately, whatever is “right” or “just” comes down to which God is most powerful and can enforce his will on those around him. These words have no actual definition beyond what the divine head honcho at the time wants it to be. And therefore, if a king on earth seems to be on the right side of the gods, he more or less has carte blanche to do whatever he pleases with impunity, no matter how immoral or unfair it seems.

By contrast, for cultures that embrace the idea of a single, infinitely-knowledgeable being living in eternity, we now have a framework for transcendent values. We can say “No, actually – there is such a thing as Truth, regardless of what you or I think. There is such a thing as an actual, eternal Right and Wrong.”

It’s hardly surprising, then, that the overwhelming majority of humanitarian, judicial and scientific advancements over the millenia have come from monotheistic cultures like our own. This is not a coincidence or an accident.

One can deny monotheism, but they can’t deny that monotheistic ideas of a single, transcendent creator being who exists outside of space and time would answer some of life’s most fundamental questions.

By contrast, polytheism does not answer anything. It simply adds a new layer of powerful beings above humans to the universe – but a belief in aliens would do the same. It’s philosophically impotent.

Ultimately, one doesn’t have to believe in God. But let’s acknowledge that there is simply no comparison between the pagan religions of old and the monotheistic world religions of today. Monotheism provided a huge benefit to mankind, and only the most superficial reading of religion could put the two ideas in the same league.


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