Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Monotheism

I would like to say, for the record, that I am not a religious person. I do not believe in ‘God’. When I am asked if I respect the beliefs of others, I am unable to discern any difference between those who might believe in a divine being and those who might believe they should wait 30 minutes after eating before entering the pool. I don’t respect beliefs based on stupidity. So if you read this, and wish to interject with an argument based upon any existing monotheistic religion, expect a nasty answer from me.

That said, I was raised Lutheran, and given a considerable religious education as a young man, which I followed up through university by a minor in religious studies. While I don’t respect belief systems, I have in the past enjoyed tearing people’s arguments apart from inside their belief structure – particularly in terms of Christian religion, with which I have the most experience. I have a Bible on my shelf. That is because it is a necessary source document to understanding this culture’s history and perception.

Why is that? Upon what is the success of Christianity based? Why did it, among all the pagan religions that infused Rome during the first four centuries AD, successfully superimpose itself upon the Roman and Greek mind? Was it chance, or luck, or the action of particularly brilliant thinkers? And why did it, along with Judaism and eventually Islam, inculcate itself so prominently into the world at large? More than two thirds of the world operates according to a monotheistic religious principal. Even Hinduism, which is extensively polytheistic, has had its greatest unifying success through the incorporation of a single principal entity, Krishna, introduced in the Upanishads at the time of the European Dark Ages (when monotheism in Europe was fully establishing itself). And Buddhism, which has no deity per se, speaks of a ‘oneness’. What is the appeal?

There are of course a great many reasons, and you are welcome to pursue a degree in the subject if you are so inclined. It would be ridiculous for me to attempt a complete account of the rise of the Christian Church here, and thoroughly useless if you were not prepared to take up a reading list beginning with Augustine’s City of God, along with works from Origen, Tertullian and a whole whack of contemporary writers from Plutarch through Suetonius to Tacitus describing the development of Roman life and its eventual collapse. Let us assume, therefore, that anything I say is going to be seriously ‘dumbed down’, simply because I’m not interested in writing a 90,000 word thesis on just this one topic. Besides, I only wish to address one particular angle on the subject, and that is the treatment of monotheism as a technology, which is after all the focus of this series.

You can accept it from me or you can accept it from L. Sprague de Camp, who wrote extensively upon this subject (that source is for you, Jeff), that the ancient Greeks and Romans produced hundreds of intricate and sophisticated technological improvements ... the knowledge of which, for mysterious reasons, fell out of favour. We know that Archimedes produced various clever devices which enabled the defence of Syracuse. None of those devices were ever used again, to our knowledge. Greek Fire was a thoroughly useful and effective weapon, particularly at sea. We don’t know for sure what it was. Woad was used to produce a blue dyestuff which was popular among the Celts. We have no clear idea what woad was, nor can any natural British plant produce a blue dye. We have Roman devices which were run by steam and evidence of Byzantium robots. Why were these innovations lost?

Hero of Alexandria's Steam Engine


From our perspective, where every innovation is immediately seized upon and spread throughout the population, and ultimately improved upon, it is hard to believe that this was not done. Therefore, it has previously been supposed (up to the early 20th century) that such things were fabrications in the minds of historians, and that they never existed. But it is now believed that yes, they did exist, but for cultural reasons, there was no compelling need among the population to implement them. This is upheld by Chinese examples, such as iron founding in the 11th century which was put to an end by a disinterested bureaucracy, and vast shipbuilding skills from the 15th century that did not exist when the British occupied the country hundreds of years later.

Some people, it seems, just don’t care.

Allow me to suggest the workings of the pagan mind, for which there was no afterlife. You will find authors (none of them reputable, mind) today who will argue vigorously that there was an afterlife for the Romans, but I will point out that there are no sources for any supposition beyond vague suggestions of a ‘destination’ such as the Egyptian City of the Dead, or the Greek Hades. No philosophical treatment is given to these places ... they merely ARE. What one does there, or what purpose they serve, has no description which has survived to this era. This may be due to a successful Christian campaign to destroy such documents, but given what has survived (lengthy accounts of other pagan practices, sexual and otherwise), this seems unlikely. Consider also that we have little in the way of knowledge regarding actual Roman practices for burial. Beyond fragments and bits of law, we have nothing.

Consider the pagan’s mindset: when he is dead, he is truly dead. He is not a ghost, he does not haunt or drift around his family members, there is no heaven, there is no hell. At best, he might imagine a sort of eternal waiting room where he waits for nothing. In our culture, it is far easier to let go the concept of God than it is to let go the concept of an afterlife. The most sincere atheists I have known continue to concoct personal belief systems regarding what they might be privileged to do once they have died. They will catch themselves falling into ruts of afterlife assumptions, which they must habitually quash, reminding themselves that such things do not exist.

They don’t for our pagan. They haven’t been invented yet. For him, what good does it do to improve the world around him? What good does it do to amass knowledge? He is not part of a social heritage ... he is still fundamentally just another animal. There is no grand purpose in the universe for which he is a part. For him, it is eating and feeding his needs until the day he dies, and there is no reason to feel guilty about that. Excess is good, for no other reason than because it is excess, and there is only so long. Bereft of every guilt-concept that will be invented over the next five centuries – by Christianity – he is free to indulge to the best degree in which he is able. And the entire culture thinks that way. This helps explain the never-ending slaughter that is Greek and Roman history.

Meditation began to lift the pagan out of his hedonism by suggesting that there is a greater truth. Hinduism, the most successful polytheistic religion, instituted the concept of karma, which would compel believers to resist hedonism in the recognition that a well-lived life would begat a better life the next time around. Zoroastrianism and Judaism, the first early monotheistic religions, superimposed elaborate ritual and social order so as to create cultural stability.

Christianity bettered them all – by creating an afterlife, it allowed for the belief that once you passed on, you would join your ancestors, and continue to take part in the history of the world following your death. Suddenly there was a reason to see the world not in terms of what it offered you, but in terms of what services you could render as a devout believer. Yes, there exists the reward/punishment system ... but that is more an aspect of the evangelistic reform beginning in the early 19th century than it was a part of Christianity seventeen centuries ago. The principal philosophy, proposed by Augustine and others, was that the world mattered less as a trial than as a place where one worked and lived in order to make it as close to heavenly as possible. To begin to live in the now as one would expect to live in heaven afterwards. Contrition wasn’t enough. You had to prove that you had a mind CAPABLE of contrition, otherwise God would know at once that you were not truly repentant. This is a distinction our modern born-agains fail to consider.

My favorite joke by the comedian Emo Phillips: “When I was a little boy, I prayed and prayed for a bicycle. Then I realized that God didn’t work that way. So I stole a bicycle and prayed for forgiveness.”

Modern Theologian


It would not have amused Augustine.

It is a strange thing, but by creating a sensibility that the world existed as an ongoing process, by which things were improved and on which a soul could look upon for eternity, Christianity invented a social climate which would allow for the rise of Science. Through teaching that the world existed by virtue of the purpose of God, the investigation of God developed the investigation of the world. Christianity may be bunk, but without it we could not now exist in a culture that bridges the generations between the venerable Bede and myself, the stones laid carefully by every thinking human who has lived during the interim.

And so, D&D. Where monotheism is a hated conception, presumably because it is so rife with moralisms that were clearly anathema to the Gygaxian ideal. It is the nature of little children to hate with considerable passion that which they do not understand, and to suppose that because they do not understand it can therefore have nothing of value. But clearly D&D is absolutely a monotheistic society, made more so when pagan deities are reduced to the status of monstrous additions to the bestiary compendia. For what else is the DM but a singular, unparalleled supreme being, who can bring forth any number of creatures he fancies, who can rule upon the roll of dice, who can zot every living thing with lightning by merely speaking the words, who can redirect the courses of rivers with an eraser and pen, who divines the very laws of physics by gauging how far and how fast a crossbow may fire, without need to appeal to any power save that of the DM’s own peculiar predilections. Whatever your DM may say, whatever I as DM may say, we are forced in the creation of the game to make ad hoc decisions continuously, whether we choose to adhere to a ‘rule book’ or not ... since obviously the rule book’s justice demands our approval. A rules lawyer may prate and scream precedents (and obscenities), but he or she is still subject to the final dictate of the judge, in whose court they argue.

You are God. And being God, it behooves you to retain as much an aspect of every religion’s god that has so far come down the pike ... that is, blessed disinterest. No god should be too heavy handed in their involvement, lest they should stab too hard with a finger and eradicate ten thousand useful cannon fodder for the player’s next venture forth. You may take glee in bringing down towns with earthquakes or washing away islands with tropical storms, but too much of this sort of blasting nonsense and you will find yourself a God over a world with few intelligible inhabitants. God you may be, but your players are your prophets and you need them. They need to feel a degree of security, a sense of greater purpose, else they will tire and take the unholy option – call it suicide, because their characters will be dead to you.

I cannot conjecture the presence of a God over this world, but if there is one, he does very little to disrupt the interests of the greater number of his menagerie. We may slaughter one another, or create institutions to torture one another, but God is well out of most everything. You as DM should take note. Set the stage, bring forth the extras, herd in the set designers and sell tickets if you’re able – but let the actors alone. Left that way, they will bring your heavenly concept to fruition, they will create your campaign for you and you will need do very little beyond providing a few obstacles and a few conditions on their behavior.

Poetic? Perhaps. Sometimes philosophy needs a little poetry.

16 comments:

JB said...

Very nice post. Forced to note, though, that the Egyptians as a pagan people had a very strong sense of the afterlife and it was well described in their writings, being a mirror of the earth. The accumulation of goods in one world carried over to to the next, and the deeds of a soul were weighed and balanced by the gods to find their worth.

The analogy of the D&D system to a monotheistic religion is quite apt.

Alexis said...

Oh yes? Can you point to the source? Specifically the source that describes, in detail, the afterlife from the Egyptian point of view. Not as it was interpreted by later scholars.

Sadly, we don't know what the Egyptians thought. We only have pictures. The artwork, of course, and the language itself, which is only pictures. And we don't have much of the language. There was much ritual for the burial, but virtually nothing about what was actually waiting.

Sorry, JB, I know you mean well. But what you know of Egyptians and their "very strong sense of the afterlife" was mostly invented by creative western writers in the 19th century. Once you remove the modern influence on what Egyptians thought (ie., restrict your opinion on extant archeological finds), there isn't much. It is a common error when it comes to ancient perception.

Chgowiz said...

Two notes:

1) God, then, is the ultimate referee - but we don't know his/her rules of the game. Interesting.

2) That's a really interesting thought about Egyptians, that we don't know - but we do know they apparently had a great deal of ceremony around death - the basic trappings of their burials and the amount of resources it took to perform/support that part of Egyptian life is significant. If they weren't focused on afterlife, then what could we speculate they were focused on?

Ragnorakk said...

@Chgowiz: that's Ceremonial Burial you're talking about, earlier on the tech tree ;)

I'm dubious about the overwhelming knee-jerk tendency of Egyptologists to ascribe afterworldly meanings to texts and passages that resist easy translation.

Really awesome post again. The subtlety of D&D's inherent monotheism is still sinking in while having been apparent all along - (always prefered D&D gods at around 5 HD...)

Adam Thornton said...

No pagan afterlife?

I point to Book VI of the Aeneid. Clearly Vergil expected his audience to understand what the hell he was doing with the underworld; it wasn't a de novo idea. There are a couple other haunts in the Aeneid as well, and I think that's probably traceable to Homer.

JB said...

@ Alexis:

Um...the Egyptian Book of the Dead? Chapters 1-192?

I suppose, it has been interpreted by modern scholars as opposed to ancient Egyptians, but since ancient Egyptians aren't living anymore, I don't know how we can interpret their view point except through their writings.

Alexis said...

Adam,

There are numerous references to the afterlife among the Greeks ... and other cultures. But no earthly behavior was subscribed as part of the responsibility of achieving the afterlife, which is perhaps something I did not think was necessary to mention. I did state that an afterlife was presumed to have existed. The knowledge thereof, however, did not mesh with the process of living as did the Christian ideal.

JB,

The so-called 'book of the dead' was never a compendium for the Egyptians. It was collected from a large number of documents found in Egyptian tombs ... scrolls placed with the dead, pertaining to custom of the time. The tombs in question were those created from the Old Kingdom to the New ... a period of 21 centuries. At no time during this period were these scrolls ever part of one Egyptian conception of the afterlife. It is as though someone were to collect all the fairy tales of Europe from the 1st to the 20th century and call it a religious perception of women. Oh wait, I'm sure a master's student has done that.

Point in fact, JB, since there were far more than 192 'chapters' found, and were selected in order to give a picture which would suit Christian sensibilities of the 19th century, does that tell us more about the Egyptians or about us?

My professors in university hammered it into our heads that just because we have no living mind to give us an accurate interpretation does not give us the right to concoct one. That was the weakness of scholars during the 19th century and it was scholars of the 20th, like Toynbee, who properly asserted that Romanticism is no substitute for knowledge.

Gentlemen,

I know you ache for some reason to discount Christianity as a positive human development, ascribing its insights to other cultures and so on, but the contemporary data just doesn't support you. 'The Egyptians' actually consisted of multiple cultures who only happened to occupy the same geographical location ... as is true with paganism in general, which was not a homogenous precept. Free your minds, good readers, from the suffocating influences of poor scholars, and from poor scholarship.

JB said...

@ Alexis:

Um...I don't seek to "discount Christianity as a positive human development." But in point of fact, the doctrines and teachings of Christianity is the result of many cultures and belief systems mingling, merging, compromising, and in some cases discounting some of its own.

This belief system which is called "Christianity" came about as conglomeration of many non-pagan (i.e. "non-judeo-christian") beliefs put together and codified by the original Church. The doctrines of the Catholic church (the church from which non-demoninational and Protestant churches get the bulk of their doctrine) were not set forth by Jesus. The most influential creators of Church doctrine were (in order) Paul and Thomas Aquinas.

Now, I readily admit that my scholarship of Church lore is a bit rusty as it's been 15 years since I lasted had a theology class at the Jesuit university that is my alma mater.

But if you're going to take the stance that we cannot concoct an interpretation on a non-living mind, then I'm afraid the door must swing both ways, and you have no ground to say the ancients had no concept of an afterlife, or reason to go about their day-to-day life aside from hedonistic impulse.

The Recursion King said...

The egyptian book of the dead is a way to cheat yourself into the afterlife, the egyptians believed that they would be tested on their journey and eventually judged. This judgement would lead to them either going to a heavenly place or be eaten; the spells help with the outcome.

The romans believed in Elysium.

The norse believed in the halls of Valhalla.

The greeks believed in Hades.

And so on.

padraig.j.griffin said...

Sorry man, but the idea that pre-christian pagans had no concept of an afterlife is just so patently ridiculas. Just look at the Plato's Myth of Er...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myth_of_Er

Lookee here, we got a fully realised vision of the next world complete with hellish torment for the wicked and heavenly rewards for the virtuous, all a good four centuries before the birth of Christ.

I suppose one could argue that Plato didn't literally believe in an afterlife and was just using metaphor to make a philosophical point. Nevertheless he was clearly familiar with the concept and expected his readers to be as well.

Alexis said...

padraig,

I have no idea if you will see my answer, but consider something (which has been addressed in the article).

YOU are the product of two millenia of monotheistic ethical philosophy, which has been incoporated into every framework of intellectual reference you have. You find the concept ridiculous because everything that is part of your framework says that is must be. The success of that framework in creating a more hopeful perspective on death is exactly the achievement of the technological development that IS monotheism.

Have you read your Plato in its original Greek, and are you familiar with the Greek dialect enough to be certain that what you are reading has not been reinterpreted by either A) a translator or B) centuries of interpreting words to mean what you believe they mean. Seriously. Question your precepts. This is what I was taught to do.

The Recursion King said...

That seems a little defensive in response to the previous poster. Perhaps your questioning is not what you should be looking at, but your answers.

Didn't Odin, for instance, offer an afterlife in Valhalla to warriors in the old Norse religions? He did... and so did Freya. As the Egyptians were offered an afterlife by their gods, too and were also judged similar to the Christian concept, but far earlier in time.

padraig.j.griffin said...

Alexis> I'm afraid I have not read The Republic in it's original Greek, sadly I don't have much aptitude for any language other then English. What I do have is a is a Masters in Philosophy both ancient and modern and I have never heard or read of any accredited Anthropologist, Historian, Philosopher or religious scholar make the claim that pre-Christian pagans had no concept of an afterlife. If you're going to persist in that claim it would help your case to cite some peer-reviewed academic sources, otherwise your just another guy with a blog.

Alexis said...

Recursion,

Yes, I am only another guy with a blog. Why the fuck are you reading me?

If you feel that my advice to question your precepts is 'defensive', I wonder how you perceive the entire dialectic process.

padraig, that makes me weep for the philosophy department of your university; but I didn't have much respect for the philosophy department of mine. Frankly, it's really nothing more important than Army disliking Navy.

Here's what I recommend - tell me to fuck off. Tell me I don't know anything, that I have my head up my ass, and that you've decided to stop reading the shite on this blog.

I am not going to be goaded into a festival of comparing sources, since I've never seen a source settle an argument in all the years since my education began. If you care, you'll go looking. If you don't care, you'll continue to believe what you believe.

The Recursion King said...

Alexis, I'm unsure why you have said that to me, as I did not make those comments to you. I did, however, say that your reply was defensive and then state two pagan religions that had an afterlife that you seem to be ignoring in your analysis. Go look.

Alexis said...

Sigh.

All right, yes Recursion, that somehow got thrown onto you when it should have been aimed at padraig. I apologize for that.

It would seem that when you read the first sentence where it says, "... there was no afterlife," you failed to read where I myself gave two pagan examples of a place where the dead go. And then I went on to describe them. But, naturally, not enough.

There are many, many more than two, Recursion.

The one padraig mentions, that from Plato, is the description of Er, where a judgment takes place between good and bad which sounds subjectively like the Christian version, three centuries later. But there's nothing in the text to suggest that Plato is describing the religion of the Greek people. There's nothing in it to suggest it is anything more than a story, which is how Plato describes it at the outset. What's more, where are the other sources that describe Er, or suggest moral behavior in order to obtain it? Can this story be shown to have effected Greek culture, or is there demonstrative causality for individual Greek behavior? No, there aren't.

The point of this post was not that Christians invented an afterlife, it is that they invented an afterlife that had specific and distinct effects upon the existing, living culture. If I am impatient, it goes back to my not wanting to write and write and write about this subject. Take it for what it is worth. If you disagree with it, that's no skin off my nose.

But I am sorry about the misdirected vitriol.