One has to look at a great deal more than simple doctrine, especially when it’s been filtered through centuries of development. One also has to look at historical origins and the effects of ideas—both positive and negative—on surrounding cultures. We’re all familiar with the negative effects of the three monotheisms. What’s harder is understanding their positive effects. With regard to my claims of their being traditionally more materialist, individualist and multi-cultural than their rivals, and of polytheism being elitist, here is my reasoning.
The belief that Christianity was spread primarily through state power is something of a misconception. It may be true in Europe, and Christianity is so closely associated with “Western” civilization that it’s easy to forget that the faith existed for centuries in north Africa, the Middle East and Asia, in most cases predating the introduction of the religion to northern Europe. In the first centuries after the alleged Christ, Christianity spread most quickly from Mesopotamia into the Persian Empire, on into India and then into China and Korea by the 7th Century . It spread from north Africa into the Nuba regions of what is now the Sudan and from there into Ethiopia; here, it predated Islam by 500 years. Christianity had planted deep roots – free from government sponsorship – in Africa, India and China long before it became the dominant faith of Europe.
In other words, it was a faith that exhibited a broad appeal across many cultures, and was not geographically or culturally isolated like previous Western faiths, such as Greek or Norse polytheism.
Islam is a bit different, since it was spread in its early years chiefly through conquest. But during this same period of time (from the 7th to the 12th Centuries), it also showed a great assimilationist streak and a spirit of innovation. Islam has little regard for a person’s “race” or national origin, focusing instead on devotion. As such, it created a multi-cultural community and produced interpretations of Islam that were often unique to local cultures yet still considered part of the larger umma. Malachite Islam in central Africa is quite distinct from the Sunni Islam of Arabia, which is itself very different from Shi’a in Iran and the Sufi rites heavily influenced by the culture of India and ancient Persia. As with any empire in its golden years, Islam sparked a scientific and technological revolution in the lands where it took hold, and for several centuries, Dar al-Islam was the most advanced culture in the world. Sitting as it did on the chief trade routes between East and West, early Islam was by necessity a cosmopolitan faith.
Even early Judaism began as a revolt against local polytheism and tribalism, attempting to institute a more universalist belief system among bitterly divided bands of Hebrew nomads. It is this universalist creed of the monotheisms that overturned older, entrenched hierarchies of power, themselves justified by polytheisms that primarily flattered the local potentates. This universalism was, it’s true, spread as often as not by bloodshed (especially in early Judaism and Islam), and once they became the rulers, the monotheists themselves were often as brutal as we’d expect any group of arbitrary rulers to to be. But just because that’s true, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the previous belief systems were more compassionate or more populist.
It isn’t an accident that science arose in the West. Its success here is a direct result of the fact that these monotheisms placed a higher value on the material world and the individual soul than other, equally (or more) widespread faiths.
As for the issue of the elitism of polytheism, particularly in the West, I think sci-fi writer David Brin summed it up best
In “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” Joseph Campbell showed how a particular, rhythmic storytelling technique was used in almost every ancient and pre-modern culture, depicting protagonists and antagonists with certain consistent motives and character traits, a pattern that transcended boundaries of language and culture. In these classic tales, the hero begins reluctant, yet signs and portents foretell his pre-ordained greatness. He receives dire warnings and sage wisdom from a mentor, acquires quirky-but-faithful companions, faces a series of steepening crises, explores the pit of his own fears and emerges triumphant to bring some boon/talisman/victory home to his admiring tribe/people/nation.
By offering valuable insights into this revered storytelling tradition, Joseph Campbell did indeed shed light on common spiritual traits that seem shared by all human beings. And I’ll be the first to admit it’s a superb formula—one that I’ve used at times in my own stories and novels.
Alas, Campbell only highlighted positive traits, completely ignoring a much darker side—such as how easily this standard fable-template was co-opted by kings, priests and tyrants, extolling the all-importance of elites who tower over common women and men. Or the implication that we must always adhere to variations on a single story, a single theme, repeating the same prescribed plot outline over and over again. Those who praise Joseph Campbell seem to perceive this uniformity as cause for rejoicing—but it isn’t. Playing a large part in the tragic miring of our spirit, demigod myths helped reinforce sameness and changelessness for millennia, transfixing people in nearly every culture, from Gilgamesh all the way to comic book super heroes.
In short, mythmakers in polytheistic cultures had to sing for their supper, and the myths of such cultures thus tended to flatter the presumptions of those in power. Of course, this became true of the great monotheisms, as well, after they became the “official” faiths. But Jewish, Christian and Muslim monotheism began as outsider faiths not endorsed by any ruling elite, and fought their way to the top. Indeed, in many ways, all three were rebellions against earlier, elitist polytheism. The road to power – and the holding of it once achieved – is certainly a legacy of bloodshed and oppression that none of us can honestly ignore. Nonetheless, in the context of their times and origins, all three of these religions were progressive, anti-elitist and materialist; monotheism of this sort was considered the atheism of the day, and looked upon with scorn by the ruling polytheist elites.
The problem, as with most religious dogmas, is that they became stuck in time, clinging to memories of their golden years and always seeking a return to them. History has passed them by, but that does not mean that they were always obstacles to progress. I’d argue that the development of personal monotheism was a historically necessary pre-condition for the rise of modern science and human rights theory. If it weren’t, then those phenomenon would have arisen and flourished in other, older, less monotheist cultures.