Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Stark Lunacy - Part 5 - Monotheism

After surveying the religious marketplace that was Rome, Stark devotes chapter 5 to an overview of monotheism in history.

The first known monotheist in recorded history was the 14th century B.C.E. Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep IV. For reasons not entirely clear, Amenhotep decided to proclaim that the sun god Aten was the one true god and changed his name to Akhenaten. A number of changes resulted from Akhenaten's pursuit of monotheism. One interesting development was in how Akhenaten allowed himself to be portrayed in bas-reliefs. Whereas his predecessors were depicted as remote and idealized figures, Akhenaten insisted that he be shown as an actual human being. A number of reliefs depict Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiri at play with their children. Why Akhenaten's monotheism went hand in hand with more naturalistic artistic representations and changes in architectural styles is a matter of speculation.

Alas, Akhenaten's new religion did not outlast his reign. Stark notes the reasons why. Akhenaten did not attempt to proselytize the common people of Egypt. His religion, in practice, was restricted to his inner circle, and even their level of commitment was highly in doubt. As Stark points out, "archaeologists have found many figurines in ruins of private homes at Amarna [Akhenaten's capital], revealing that during the time when all the old Gods and their images were banned, many of Akhenaten's officals continued to worship them in secret." Added to that, Akhenaten does not seem to have been a particularly effective ruler, and his neglect of foreign affairs resulted in the waning of Egyptian influence in Palestine.

There are some who have speculated that the Israelites got the idea for their monotheistic religion from Akhenaten, but Stark discounts that possibility. While not a Biblical literalist, Stark appears to believe that the Exodus did happen, but that "for many centuries after the Exodus... the religion that prevailed among the Israelites involved a number of Gods, and it is silly to compare the Jewish faith that took many centuries slowly to develop into a brilliant monotheism with the monotheism that had appeared so many centuries before and so briefly in Egypt, and then vanished." Or to borrow from one of the parables of Jesus, the monotheism of Akhenaten was like a seed that fell on stony ground and failed to take root.

Next, Stark looks at Zoroastrianism. Here, Stark introduces the reader to an important term that will reappear at various times later on in Discovering God, and that term is what he calls "religious capital", which he defines as "the degree of mastery and attachment to a particular body of religious culture." One's religious capital is a crucial factor in determining whether a person will convert from one religion to another. For example, Stark writes, "consider Christians deciding whether to become Mormons or Hindus. To become Mormons, Christians retain all (or nearly all) of their religious capital, needing merely to add to it: they already possess two of the three scriptures, needing only to add the Book of Mormon... [b]ut to become Hindus, Christians must discard their Bible and all their religious a copy of the Bhagavad-gita, and invest the time and energy needed to build a whole new cultural stake."

After providing the reader with the Cliff Notes version of the history of Zoroastrianism, Stark moves on to Judaism, which is described as a "religion of the book." The Jewish Bible, or Tanakh, is distinguished "from other scriptures of its time [in] that it includes a great deal of history." Having said that, Stark has set the stage for challenging those who would question the historical accuracy of the Old Testament. But rather than examining the findings of Biblical archaeologists such as Israel Finkelstein, Stark disparages "militant extremists from several minor universities [who] claim that none of it ever happened... that the whole Torah was made up sometime about 200 BCE as 'pious propaganda' by Hellenized Jews in the Diaspora wishing to impress their Greek and Roman neighbors." Stark goes on to lament that "these so-called minimalists are much quoted in the media." Personally, I do not recall being familiar with anyone claiming that the Jewish scriptures were all invented around 200 BCE, and I doubt hardly anyone believes such claims, including most atheists. This is an example that is characteristic of Stark throughout the book, in that he brings up and tears down the more absurd claims while completely dodging the more serious and realistic challenges to his viewpoint.

Though Stark does acknowledge some discrepancies in the Bible, he mostly chalks it up to, yep, you guessed it, divine accomodation. It is a theme he brings up repeatedly throughout the book. So, with respect to the Bible, Stark argues that any "discrepancies with earlier scriptures could reflect that by the sixth century, human recipients were better able to understand God's words. Keep in mind that all revelations are limited by the capacity of humans to comprehend... in order to penetrate the ignorance of Israel."

By the way Stark describes it, you would think that God's attempts to communicate his will to the Israelites must have went something like this:

Stark sets out what he believes happened regarding the story of Exodus and the Israelite settlement of Canaan. Again, not being a Biblical literalist, Stark concedes that the "best of the archaeologically informed historians now believe that the Jews did not conquer Israel...but settled peacefully. For example, Jericho... was destroyed in about 1500 BCE by the Egyptians and lay abandoned in ruins at the time Joshua was said to have brought down its walls."

Stark is inclined to believe that there was a real Moses. Among his reasons are that the name Moses is Egyptian rather than Semitic, and he quotes William Dever positing that it is possible that a charismatic Egyptian sheikh named Moses might have indeed guided the Israelites through the desert. Besides, Stark insists, "someone had revelations and founded the Israelite religion." Stark refers to his earlier description in the book about religious innovators and how quite often their families become their first converts and supporters. In Exodus, it "tells that the first to accept Moses's revelations were his immediate family, which has, from the standpoint of social science, the profound ring of truth."

In tracing the development of monotheism in Israel, Stark contrasts the relative weakness of Israelite kings with those of its neighbors which had god-king monarchs and state subsidized religious monopolies. This meant that "Israel enjoyed a relatively unregulated religious economy. There lay the key to unique contours of Jewish history: unregulated religious economies always abound in sect movements, and when they enjoy sufficient freedom, sects sometimes achieve dramatic religious changes." Stark defines sects in his book as religious groups that maintain high levels of religious commitment, which brings them into tension with their cultural environment. Stark notes that the Yahweh-Only or Deuteronomist sect existed throughout most of the history of the Israelite kingdom, and that contrary to what is generally assumed, this sect would have been drawn from the ranks of the privileged. This also clashes with the criticism that is popularly levelled at the authors of the Old Testament, particularly by many atheists, that they were ignorant goat herders.

The Deuteronomists seem to have had their first success during the reign of King Josiah of Judah, when the "Book of Law" was found hidden in the Temple. In addressing whether or not the Torah was a forgery whipped up by the Deuteronomists ("Hey guys! Guess what we found!"), Stark again errs on the side of religion. "Is is equally clear that [the Deuteronomists] began with far earlier documents. Where would such documents have been kept other than in the Temple? And in an age of oral culture, is it surprising that scrolls may have lain forgotten and unread for generations?" B-b-b-but Rodney! This is supposed to have been their religious law! By way of analogy, imagine after the United States Constitution was drafted, someone hid the only copy of it in Ben Franklin's attic. The drafters of the Constitution would tell people what they put into the document that formed the basis of the nation's government, but since no one could actually get their hands on the document itself, the framework of the government would not be established according to constitutional principles. That hardly seems likely.

Ironically, it appears that the Babylonian Conquest was the best thing to ever happen to the strict monotheist sect among the Israelites. For decades they had been warning the people of Israel what would happen if they did not obey the one true god, and now they were vindicated. Furthermore, Stark quotes one Morton Smith, who wrote that "Most of the leaders of the Yahweh-alone party were probably among the upper classes of Jerusalem whom Nebuchadnezzar carried off to Babylon." Stark believes that "the temptations to assimilate served as a very efficient selection mechanism that, over several generations, would have filtered out the less committed, with the result that the self-conscious Israelite exile community came to consist almost entirely of sect members with unwavering faith that Yahweh was the Only God."

Stark also examines what influence, if any, Zoroastrianism had on Judaism at this stage. He observes that "the Babylonian captivity provided a circumstance for long and very close contact between Israel and Zoroastrianism, during a very formative period of the former, and a very vigorous, early period in the history of the latter." The notions of heaven and hell in post-exilic Judaism bear a resemblance to that of Zoroastrianism. The Zorastrians did not bury their dead, but left them exposed in the air to become bare bones. The book of Ezekiel mentions a field of dry bones. Furthermore, Stark refers to an agreement among scholars that there are Zoroastrian influences in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

So, the next time you get upset over the latest escapades by the Religious Right, just remember that if you go back far enough, it is all Zoroaster's fault. Zoroaster, you're a goddamned Persian bastard!

Next up, here come the Christians!


Brian said...

It's a fascinating topic all right. There are deep connections between Yahweh and the Canaanite gods and it's obvious that one religion evolved from the other. El was the chief god and the Elohim were his seventy sons; both names are used interchangeably with Yahweh in the Old Testament.

gordo said...

Frankly, I don't think that Judaism and Christianity are monotheistic faiths. Other religions have beings that fill the roles of Satan, demons, and angels, but they're called gods.

The problem for the Jews was that they couldn't get around the 10 Commandments, which had been written into their theological dna. So they simply invented a new class of beings, and packed all of their gods but Yahweh into it.

Things got more complicated for the Christians, who had to reconcile 3 points of doctrine: 1)Jesus is divine 2) Jesus speaks directly to a separate being whom he calls 'father' and 'God' 3) There is only one God.

When you look at the concept of the Trinity, it's completely nonsensical, and it doesn't have its roots in the Bible. It's just another way for polytheists to claim that they're really monotheists, because that concept is central to their faith and to their sense of self-worth.

Tommy said...

I agree that the concept of the trinity is nonsensical Gordo, but the Christians manage to make it sensible to them.

I quote the mid-18th century Puritan firebrand Jonathan Edwards, "It has made me have exalting thoughts of God, that he subsists in three persons; Father. Son, and Holy Ghost."

I would say that they are monotheists in that they believe there is one god that is responsible for creation, with lesser beings acting as intercessories.

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