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Concept of 'One True God' Is Both Cohesive, Divisive, Sociologist Writes

ONE TRUE GOD: Historical Consequences of Monotheism; By Rodney Stark; Princeton University Press $24.95, 320 pages

November 03, 2001|JONATHAN KIRSCH | Jonathan Kirsch is a contributing writer to the Book Review and the author of, most recently, "The Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold History of the Jewish People" and "King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel."

One of the cherished assumptions of the Judeo-Christian tradition is that the advent of monotheism represented a great leap forward in human civilization.

But it can also be seen as a leap into the abyss of true belief and holy war that led to the Crusades and the Inquisition, even the Holocaust.

"Granted, germs, geography, printing, sailing ships, steel and climate have mattered, but probably none of them so much as human ideas about the Gods," writes Rodney Stark in "One True God," pointedly using the plural noun with a capital letter. "[A] great deal of history--triumphs as well as disasters--has been made on behalf of One True God."

Stark reminds us that monotheism is neither universal nor inevitable among human religions. Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, for example, can be understood as "Godless religions." The "Temple of Five Hundred Gods" in China is described as a "Divine Cafeteria" where supplicants were invited to pick and choose the gods to which they offered their prayers. Even within the so-called monotheistic faiths--Judaism, Christianity and Islam--God is "surrounded with 'a cloud of beings' " whom we are taught to call angels rather than demigods.

Still, the fact remains that Judaism, Christianity and Islam regard themselves as purely monotheistic, and the strictest practitioners of each faith claim for themselves a monopoly on spiritual truth. "No longer are humans able to go 'God shopping' or to pit one God against another," Stark explains. "[I]mplicit in conceptions of One God is the concept of One True God--which provides a potent basis for intense solidarity and for equally intense conflict."

Thus, for example, Stark points out that the easygoing attitude of the ancient polytheists toward religious diversity was replaced in ancient Rome by what he bluntly calls "Christian terrorism" and, later, the "official religious coercion" of the Roman state authorities. Significantly, the punishment of "heretics" included not only pagans but fellow Christians who strayed from the articles of faith as they were defined by the dominant religious leadership, including "anyone who celebrated Easter on the wrong day of the year."

The same phenomenon, according to Stark, can be detected in the history of Islam.

"Except for those whose religion was also 'of the Book' [Jews and Christians], non-Muslims were usually classed as 'idolaters' and forced to convert on pain of death, although sometimes with the option of banishment," he writes. "But even Jews and Christians were often exposed to intense pressures to convert."

Only much later--and only after much horror and terror--did the "religious pluralism" and "religious competition" of distant antiquity reemerge in the surprising setting of the New World, where the very notion of an established church had been rejected by the Founding Fathers. Today, America has embraced an attitude of tolerance--"religious civility," as Stark puts it--that has resulted in a lush flowering of spirituality in what is often regarded as a secular, materialistic and even godless culture.

"The key to high levels of local religious commitment and of religious civility," he concludes, "is not fewer religions, but more."

Stark recognizes that we live in a world in which true belief has never burned brighter and hotter, and he turns his attention to the puzzle of what he calls "religious persistence": "Why do some religions survive for millennia," he asks, "while others come and go?" Using the near-miraculous survival of Judaism as a case study, he points out that the faithful are able to resist the temptations of the secular world only so long as they are "encapsulated by their own religious and social exclusiveness."

The emancipated Jew, he points out, is at the greatest risk of assimilation, and that's why he offers the provocative observation that "today American Jews are not very 'Jewish.' "

Stark is not a theologian or even a historian of religion. Rather, he is a sociologist with a specialty in comparative religion, and he styles his book "One True God" as the first in a two-volume series on "the social consequences of monotheism." Out of academic rather than religious convictions, Stark insists on using the capitalized plural noun "Gods," rather than endorsing any single deity as the one and only God, and he sidesteps the question of his own spiritual beliefs and practices.

"As to the true nature of God," he writes, "I plead ignorance."

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