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Monotheism - how did it start? Is it really here yet?


Robittybob1
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Ha! Well, I think that it would be contradictory by definition to say that an atheist believes, for example, that angels can reveal the existence of God to humans.

 

Webster defines a theist as "someone who believes in the existence of a god or gods; specifically : belief in the existence of one God viewed as the creative source of the human race and the world who transcends yet is immanent in the world"

 

More broadly, a god is defined as "a superhuman being or spirit worshiped as having power over nature or human fortunes."

 

However, it is of course possible that an atheist can believe in supernatural entities/spirits that

  • didn't create humans and the universe
  • he or she doesn't worship
  • don't have power over nature or human fortune

So, it follows then, that an atheist can believe in angels if they

  • don't imply the existence of God or even gods
  • don't worship them
  • don't have power over nature
  • don't have power over human fortune

which, I guess, would not be angels that are found in the scriptures of most monotheistic religions.

 

And of course, I see no reason that an atheist couldn't believe in nonhuman or even supernatural beings such as

  • sprites
  • goblins
  • fairies
  • ghosts
  • field, mountain, swamp, river, forest spirits
  • night spirits
  • vampire etc.

in terms of the narrow definition of a God who created humans and the world, which is the definition relevant to monotheism in general, and Christianity in particular.

Edited by disarray
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I have been questioning myself as to what category I'd actually fit. Do you know yourself?

It was interesting to read "I think that it would be contradictory by definition to say that an atheist believes, for example, that angels can reveal the existence of God to humans", for something like that could have happened at some stage in human development.

In the Genesis it mentions a situation where mankind was originally atheist and then "began calling on the name of the Lord", as if religion develops from atheism.

Edited by Robittybob1
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Robbity: I was speaking from a purely linguistic viewpoint (aka speaking of definitions) when I said an atheist couldn't logically believe in angels who conveyed messages from God. Whether such things happened, on the other hand, is, pure speculation, I would suggest, and one that is faith-based at that, so I don't see that I would get involved in discussing such a possibility.

 

Can you be more specific about the situation from Genesis of which you speak.. Genesis is not that long and you might do a little research and pin down the exact quote...otherwise it is hard for me to respond to such a claim. I would acknowledge that many people today are converted by things that happen that seem to defy any other explanation besides a spiritual or religious one, and no doubt, religion to a large extent can be traced back to human's efforts to explain natural phenomena such as lightning. I think a study of African religions is particularly interesting in this regard, with its strong emphasis upon magic, dark spirits, etc.

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@disarray - Genesis 4:26 ....

 

Seth also had a son, and he named him Enosh. At that time people began to call on the name of the LORD.

Which makes me think as we evolved, humans would have been by nature atheistic, so what starts them off calling on the name of the Lord?

Edited by Robittybob1
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@disarray - Genesis 4:26 ....

Which makes me think as we evolved, humans would have been by nature atheistic

 

What do you base that on? (I am crossing my fingers and hoping you have a rational reason, not that it is based on the bible.)

 

There is some evidence that primates (and maybe other animals) engage in ritualistic behaviours, i.e. with no obvious external function.

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mysterious-chimpanzee-behavior-may-be-evidence-of-sacred-rituals/

 

It seems almost certain to me that humans have always had a need/desire to believe in "higher powers", gods, spirits, etc.

What would humans know about God if it wasn't for the angels? The Bible and the Koran in parts seem to be revealed through the action of angels.

 

As these books are written by humans (who claim, in some cases, that they have had messages from angels) I assume that people would know exactly the same amount about god, even if they hadn't invented the idea of angels.

Robbity: I was speaking from a purely linguistic viewpoint (aka speaking of definitions) when I said an atheist couldn't logically believe in angels who conveyed messages from God.

 

Although an atheist could believe in angels in some other sense (messengers from "nature", some higher power or aliens).

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There is some evidence that primates (and maybe other animals) engage in ritualistic behaviours, i.e. with no obvious external function.

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mysterious-chimpanzee-behavior-may-be-evidence-of-sacred-rituals/

 

'Superstitious' behaviour has also been observed in pigeons. I can imagine this being a precursor to more complex ritualistic behaviour.

 

In the same way we are programmed to see a tiger face amongst the leaves, we could be programmed to seek god(s) (or some other supernatural thing) in the gaps of our understanding.

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What do you base that on? (I am crossing my fingers and hoping you have a rational reason, not that it is based on the bible.)

 

There is some evidence that primates (and maybe other animals) engage in ritualistic behaviours, i.e. with no obvious external function.

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mysterious-chimpanzee-behavior-may-be-evidence-of-sacred-rituals/

 

It seems almost certain to me that humans have always had a need/desire to believe in "higher powers", gods, spirits, etc.

 

As these books are written by humans (who claim, in some cases, that they have had messages from angels) I assume that people would know exactly the same amount about god, even if they hadn't invented the idea of angels.

 

Although an atheist could believe in angels in some other sense (messengers from "nature", some higher power or aliens).

So what does that mean, ancient communities had a desire to believe in higher powers?

Are you implying that although they were at the time atheistic they came to believe in angels, the messengers from these higher powers?

I think I can see how the concept began but it requires these higher powers to be there, and laws of nature (the seasons, the equinoxes, the eclipses, comets .....) must have suggested the existence of higher powers to them.

Edited by Robittybob1
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So what does that mean, ancient communities had a desire to believe in higher powers?

 

 

I think it is fairly obvious that people (not communities) have always had a tendency to believe in something mysterious and "above us".

 

 

 

Are you implying that although they were at the time atheistic they came to believe in angels, the messengers from these higher powers?

 

I don't think there was a time when people (in general) were atheistic. Although, given the variety of human nature, there have probably always been atheists alongside the mystics.

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I think it is fairly obvious that people (not communities) have always had a tendency to believe in something mysterious and "above us".

 

 

I don't think there was a time when people (in general) were atheistic. Although, given the variety of human nature, there have probably always been atheists alongside the mystics.

I'm trying to analyse what you have just said. There seems to be the need to believe, but also some are atheistic. So do the atheists also feel they need to believe but resist this? I could see this happening. Some ancient saying within himself, "No. I will not assign this event to a God. I will find out the scientific reason for this".

This exploration has resulted into what we have today where the things to explain just seem to keep getting pushed back. Will we ever get to understand how the Universe started off in a highly ordered state? If there ever became just the one unanswered question, will this be the ultimate monotheism? No more need for tree gods, sun gods, rain gods, Moon gods, Mother goddesses etc but just one god that answers the final question.

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Robbity:

Scientists themselves will tell you that the origins of science are found in ancient magic and superstition, so there is no clear cut line between them. Early religion/science just refers to primitive efforts to make sense of natural phenomena such as thunder and lightning, to appease higher powers that might control the growth of crops (often the sun or rain god), to give a tribe a sense of identity, to give people (especially royalty) a means to live after life, to use divine favor and punishment to control the behavior of tribal members, to deal with mysterious events and emotions, to psyche people up for warfare, etc. But yes, many philosophers, psychologists, etc. have argued that religion performs a necessary function in society, and that perhaps individuals even have an instinctual need to believe, e.g., Voltaire's famous statement that "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him."

 

The origins of monotheism go back according to some scholars, to ancient Egypt, e.g., Akhenaton. Many reasons can be adduced for societies to choose monotheism over pantheism. Owing to the abundance/plethora or good and bad things in the world that needed to be explained and controlled, early belief systems tended to be polytheistic/pantheistic, though I see no particular reason to assume that monotheism is more advanced or more accurate than polytheism.

 

If scientists ever become generally convinced that the origin of the universe can be expressed in a single equation or single effect (e.g., perturbation of the Higgs-Boson field by virtue of some variant of indeterminacy), I fail to see that such a theory could logically be labelled as a form of monotheism. Indeed, a key distinction between modern religion and modern science is the issue of whether or not a creative being(s) or power/force is conscious of its own existence, e.g., is like a person. Indeed, it is the tendency for religions to anthropomorphize/project human characteristics (such as consciousness of ones own existence, emotions, plans, etc.) onto divine beings that encourage many scientists to become skeptical about literal religious explanations about the origins of the universe.

Edited by disarray
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Robbity:

....

If scientists ever become generally convinced that the origin of the universe can be expressed in a single equation or single effect (e.g., perturbation of the Higgs-Boson field by virtue of some variant of indeterminacy), I fail to see that such a theory could logically be labelled as a form of monotheism. Indeed, a key distinction between modern religion and modern science is the issue of whether or not a creative being(s) or power/force is conscious of its own existence, e.g., is like a person. Indeed, it is the tendency for religions to anthropomorphize/project human characteristics (such as consciousness of ones own existence, emotions, plans, etc.) onto divine beings that encourage many scientists to become skeptical about literal religious explanations about the origins of the universe.

 

You nearly understood me. If the final discovery was "perturbation of the Higgs-Boson field by virtue of some variant of indeterminacy" that caused the universe to come into existence we would be left with the God of "variant indeterminacy" whatever that means, for it was just an example that you came up with.

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@robbity:

 

I understood your suggestion about a scientific God (e.g., of "variant indeterminacy") being like the monotheism of major religions in the first place. But the only significant similarity is in the spelling of the word “God.” The distinction can clearly be found from Webster’s definition of theism: “a belief in the existence of one[?] God viewed as the creative source of the human race and the world who transcends yet is immanent in the world.”

 

(By the way, indeterminacy is a concept that pervades quantum theory, and it is sometimes seen by physicists as being a principle that is likely to explain how the universe came into existence without resorting to mention of a creator (aka God). I say, "variant" as the principle of indeterminacy is applied in various slightly different ways depending on the physics topic one is discussing.)

 

A scientific, metaphorical God is neither a creator of the world and humans, nor transcends nature, nor is immanent in the affairs of people, so I am not sure why you think it reasonable to say that a scientific God would represent a form of monotheism.

 

Admittedly, Einstein (as well as his mentor Spinoza in this regard) famously referred to God fairly often, as in "God does not play dice with the universe" and, “I want to know how God created the world.”

 

But Einstein was quite adamant that he was using the word "God" in a metaphorical sense about the impersonal laws of the universe, and that he should in no way be misconstrued as suggesting that he believed in the God that is associated with major religions, as some Christians apparently had suggested at the time and do so to this day.

Einstein's mentor in this regard was Spinoza, who said, "“I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings...the idea of a personal God is an anthropological concept which I cannot take seriously”.

 

Hawking said he agreed with Einstein in this regard, referred to the "mind of God," himself in his writings. Hawking popularized the concept that the universe was its own creator, so to speak, said, when he was also not poeticizing, said that, ""Because there are laws such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going."

 

I suggest that Einstein and Hawking's use of the word God is misleading, and I think that it was a little naive of them to assume that others would automatically realize that they were speaking metaphorically.....

 

Indeed, Pope John II was at first under the impression that Hawking cosmology was compatible with Catholicism, perhaps because Hawking stated in a2008 event with the Pope that "The laws may have been decreed by God, but God does not intervene to break the laws." When Hawking later clarified his position, the Pope recanted, so to speak, and publicly declared that Hawking's views were not compatible with Catholicism.

 

The moral of all this is, I would suggest, is that scientists, when speaking metaphorically, should not use the word God at all. The scientific, non-conscious, impersonal God of scientists like Hawking and Spinoza is categorically not monotheistic and is definitively different from, and indeed, at odds with the God of major, if not all, monotheistic religions.

Edited by disarray
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I'm trying to analyse what you have just said. There seems to be the need to believe, but also some are atheistic. So do the atheists also feel they need to believe but resist this?

 

 

People are very different. Some atheists believe in other irrational things and some don't.

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@robbity:

 

I understood your suggestion about a scientific God (e.g., of "variant indeterminacy") being like the monotheism of major religions in the first place. But the only significant similarity is in the spelling of the word “God.” The distinction can clearly be found from Webster’s definition of theism: “a belief in the existence of one[?] God viewed as the creative source of the human race and the world who transcends yet is immanent in the world.”

 

....

 

I'll come back to your other points later, but from this definition what do you think world means? Does it go as far as being the universe or the multiverse? Forget about piddly things like the human race or the Earth go the whole hog - the universe.

 

Could you help me out understanding the phrase "transcends yet is immanent in the world"?

Immanent - "being within the limits of possible experience or knowledge"

transcends - "c : to be prior to, beyond, and above (the universe or material existence)"

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If there ever became just the one unanswered question, will this be the ultimate monotheism?

 

I don't see why. Some people would believe their one god was the answer. Otherwise would believe that their many gods were the explanation. Others would say it is just an unanswered question with no need for gods.

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People are very different. Some atheists believe in other irrational things and some don't.

So do you think everything can be explained rationally right back the very beginning?

 

I don't see why. Some people would believe their one god was the answer. Otherwise would believe that their many gods were the explanation. Others would say it is just an unanswered question with no need for gods.

That is the human quest for many years, we personally may never know the answer to it. But it feels like we are getting close to some sort of limit (I think that sort of sentiment has been expressed before too, only to be proven wrong later).

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Robbity:
Well, I haven't had any conversations with Webster lately, and he doesn't reply to my emails, but I am guessing that this is some sort of traditional definition and explanation constructed from the way that perhaps Christianity views the term. Let's suppose that is the case. If so, I would suppose that the emphasis is upon what one might find in the Bible:

 

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." John 3:16

" In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." (First verse of the Bible)

Point being that the conception of the universe at that time was but a limited version of what we now view as our own solar system. Am not what everyone at the time thought the stars were, but, again, the point is that the only thing of any importance was the earth and surrounding sky (heavens, perhaps where angels and God resided). I doubt anyone in ancient times considered the possibility that God would create an Adam and Eve on another inhabitable planet somewhere else in the universe.

 

So its really a matter of emphasis and point of view. I am not a scholar of ancient languages, but I am guessing that even if people of Biblical times referred to the universe, there was little or no difference between this term and the term for "world."

 

Indeed, Hebrews 11:3 uses the word "world" with reference to the creation: "Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear", though other versions use alternative terms such as "worlds," "time," "ages" and "universe." http://biblehub.com/hebrews/11-3.htm

 

As for the phrase “immanent yet transcendental,” I take this to refer to the idea that God is everywhere, is always maintaining it from within, is involved in the unfolding of human history (as indeed the portrays him as being). He is transcendental in that he is “supernatural” and thus can do such things as create the world/universe and can operate outside natural laws (aka perform miracles), can stand outside of time and indeed was around before time began, etc.

 

@Strange: I couldn’t agree more with your last comment. There is no need to assume that we need some extraneous, transcendental god or gods to pull the trigger on the gun that gets the cosmos spinning and starts the human race, so to speak.

Edited by disarray
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So do you think everything can be explained rationally right back the very beginning?

 

 

I have no idea. But a rational approach is the only way to attempt an answer.

 

Believing that "god(s) did it" is a non-answer and prevents further enquiry.

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I am tempted to suggest that the conversation is getting to be about religion vs. science, since we are now talking about gods as well as God

 

But I think that it is relevant to ask why anyone should assume , as, I think is often the case in the Western world, that we speak in the singular when discussing religion.

 

So I don't think the issue is really whether science or rationalism offers a better or more accurate "world"-view than monotheism does, but rather, why some cultures come up with a single God and some with many, or even various hybrids, such as a single God with different aspects (e.g., the Trinity of Christianity) and several supernatural entities (e.g., angels and demons).

 

And of course, a good place to answer such questions is to ask when and why one or more gods appeared in various cultures/societies.

 

I am not so sure what robbitybob1 means when he asks if monotheism is here yet. I think that one needs to be aware of assumptions that might be ensconced in the question of this discussion thread:

 

For example,

  1. Why do we assume that the so-called monotheistic religions really are monotheistic (e.g, Islam tends to deny that Christianity is).
  2. Do we assume that world history is leading inevitably towards some sort of end-game monotheistic spiritual apex (as Hegel declared, with Germany and himself being at the top of the apex)?
  3. Why do we not ask in the same breath how polytheism, for example, started, and whether it is here yet?
  4. Is monotheism in the mind of the beholder (i.e., is there a human tendency to be reductive about transcendental things, to the point where we are left with one God)?
Edited by disarray
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@Disarray - the conversation is way beyond my normal activity. Monotheism was just a question as to whether the three major Abrahamic religions were really monotheistic. I'm asking the question because I don't know, not that I have a particular view on the topic. It was spin off from the thread on Abraham.

Maybe I have had thoughts on the topic but they were very raw thoughts.

But I am definitely appreciating the discussion and every point is being cross checked by my own investigation, but truly I can't match Disarray on the knowledge around the topic.

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robbitybob1: well, I see the discussion as something that motivates me to clarify my own ideas and to do some research, so I kind of learn as I go, but I try to respect everyone's opinion, even if I don't agree.

 

Anyway, I find the topic interesting. I am also interested in the issue of what freedom of religion means. I have had people tell me in all seriousness that freedom of religion means that anyone is free to believe in the God of their choice here in America. When I say, "But what about those who believe that there are more than one god," they reply that they don't know anyone nowadays who believes in that, and then tell me that polytheism is not a "real religion," but rather just the primitive mythology of the Greeks and the Romans and a few hippyish Eastern religions!

 

But I do think that, even if one believes in a particular religion, when one has a discussion about religion with others, one needs to start with the assumption that all religious beliefs are wrong, or at least not facts (e.g., God speaks to people, God performs miracles, etc.)....quite often this does mean that one adopts a rather scientific approach, though it is more accurate I think, to say one takes the approach of an objective and impartial anthropologist, historian, psychologist or whomever. Many if not most people were raised to believe things consistent with a particular church, at least from my generation, and therefore I think the best way to be impartial and objective is to try to wipe or bracket all that out, and just look at the facts that all agree upon.

 

So yes, I think that one can make a list of the reasons that a society ends up adopting monotheism or polytheism. I am trying to keep down the length of my posts, so will just leave it at that for the time being.

Edited by disarray
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But I do think that, even if one believes in a particular religion, when one has a discussion about religion with others, one needs to start with the assumption that all religious beliefs are wrong, or at least not facts (e.g., God speaks to people, God performs miracles, etc.)....quite often this does mean that one adopts a rather scientific approach, though it is more accurate I think, to say one takes the approach of an objective and impartial anthropologist, historian, psychologist or whomever.

 

 

When I did religious studies, that is almost exactly the opposite of the approach we took.

 

 

 

I am also interested in the issue of what freedom of religion means. I have had people tell me in all seriousness that freedom of religion means that anyone is free to believe in the God of their choice here in America.

 

Are you saying this is not the case (or have I misunderstood)?

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Robbity You ask, "@Disarray - some part of that post sounded personal. Are you saying you believe in more than one God?"

No, I was not saying or implying that at all.

 

Strange: You say, "When I did religious studies, that is almost exactly the opposite of the approach we took."

 

I did a comparative religion course, at a nonreligious school. We were a small group of 10 and we certainly did not spend any time talking from the standpoint of anyone's personal faith.

 

The first day we just tried to come up with a definition of religion..with result that we described it as transcendance (higher power sort of thing.... belief in)

 

If you attended a religious school, that would explain the difference.

........

 

Did I not state that I noted that they assumed that people would worship one God, as I stated....not that they weren't free to worship. It was the assumption that adherents to polytheism were so deranged as to not be worth mentioning, as if America, was, by definition, monotheistic.

 

 

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The first day we just tried to come up with a definition of religion..with result that we described it as transcendance (higher power sort of thing.... belief in)

 

 

Our conclusion was that it was pretty much impossible to come up with a definition!

 

 

If you attended a religious school, that would explain the difference.

 

It was a university course.

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