David Plotz: Is Monotheism for Jerks?

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David Plotz is guest-blogging for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

There are the writers who succeed by arguing evolution exists and God doesn’t, and there are the writers who succeed by arguing God exists and evolution doesn’t. And then there’s Robert Wright, whose new book is The Evolution of God.

jewish book council my jewish learning authors blogAnyone who’s had the pleasure of reading Wright’s earlier books—the monster bestseller The Moral Animal and Nonzero — won’t be surprised by the ambition of The Evolution of God. The book aims to do nothing less than reframe the entire history of God in terms of game theory: Wright argues that ideas about god changed and evolved based on how much a society perceived it needed to cooperate with rival groups.

This is a blog post, so I don’t have time to do justice to his very rich, sophisticated, and witty elaboration of this theory. Instead, I just want to linger on his Jewish chapters, which I found both satisfying and deeply disconcerting.

I’ve just written a book about reading the Bible (Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible, since you asked), and while I was doing it, I had to wrestle with a series of soul-disturbing questions. Why is God so awful most of the time? Why are the Israelites so stupid? Perhaps the most perplexing one was: Why are so many of the Bible’s heroes so unpleasant?

There was one kind of hero in particular who bugged me: The rabid monotheist. I realize that this is a peculiar thing to admit, given that Judaism did, after all, invent monotheism. Still, the nastiest Jews in the whole Bible—and I’m looking at you Joshua, Isaiah, Ezra, and Josiah—are the most enthusiastic warriors for Yahweh. Make no mistake: These guys are insanely devoted to God. They topple the altars of idolators, banish david plotz the good bookBaal-worshiping wives from Jerusalem, put to the sword every single man, woman, and baby in a Molech-loving enemy town, etc. The Bible clearly admires these zealots for their savagery in God’s name. I found them horrifying, and shameful. Why should I be expected to cheer while Joshua commits genocide?

Until I read Wright’s book, I never understood why the Bible is so keen on the monotheist jerks. And I couldn’t adequately explain my own discomfort with them.

Wright’s argument goes something like this: When societies are confident, and open to commercial and social relationships with neighboring tribes or kingdoms, they’re flexible about god. evolution of godWright describes this openness as a “nonzero” relationship: If we gain more than we lose by interacting with another society, then we’re likely to tolerate their religious beliefs. Even if they worship the “wrong” gods, we’ll overlook it, or maybe even find some way to fold their gods into our religion. Case in point: Solomon, who marries 700 foreign wives, and erects altars to their gods throughout Israel. The Bible views this heresy as a disaster; Wright sees the reverse: Solomon is a successful king who expands the borders of Israel and engages in profitable trading with his neighbors exactly because he welcomes their gods. In fact, Wright posits, our very own single God is in fact an amalgam of several gods — Yahweh, El — fused together to unite disparate groups.

Monotheism, in this reading, doesn’t represent progress, but rather an intolerant defensive response to an interconnected world. Josiah, Ezra, Isaiah, and Joshua, by contrast, are zero-sum thinkers, who choose a rabid, monotheistic nationalism rather than cooperation with mightier foreign empires.

You can understand why this would confuse me. As a citizen of such an interconnected world, I cherish the kind of nonzero sum tolerance Wright endorses: Ethnic mixing, permeable borders, less nationalism, more multiculturalism. Gods everywhere, and all good friends! Then again, as a Jew, I’m perturbed by the notion that Yahweh only gained power because Israelites cut themselves off from the world around them. Is it time to start worshiping idols?

David Plotz is the editor of Slate magazine. His new book Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible, is available now.

Posted on July 15, 2009

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