Why did the Middle East select for monotheism? – Guest post by Lorenzo

By skepticlawyer

[SL: On September 18, I published a piece on the religious transformation currently going on in Europe, pointing out in passing that monotheism — if one examines its geographic origins — is almost as foreign to Europe as it is to India or China. In the post below, regular commenter Lorenzo has attempted to explain why: not why monotheism is foreign to Europe (that much is known), but why it arose in the Middle East in the first place.

I have not, in the past, had a great deal of time for ‘geography is destiny’ arguments, although I always find them impressive while I’m in the process of reading them (I’m thinking here of Jared Diamond, I’m afraid). It’s only later that I begin to have my doubts.

In this piece, Lorenzo goes beyond the ‘geography is destiny’ arguments that often seem so simplistic, looking instead at the way people interact with the terrain where they live, and what that interaction produces in terms of belief. It is an intriguing argument, one that I’m inclined to accept (subject, of course, to all the usual reservations about new evidence, etc etc). 

One thing that does interest me is how Europe’s growing paganism will interact with Islam. Often, European (secular) elites — as Lorenzo points out — do not understand religious motivations of any sort (pagan, monotheist, animist, whatever). However, paganism — in at least some of its forms — has sharp teeth, especially when its growth is both organic and rapid. This sharpness does not manifest as religious intolerance (that’s not a pagan habit), but rather as a willingness to categorize groups quite bluntly based on the behaviour of individuals from that group. It’s an argument that goes something like this: ‘I can’t tell the difference between you and a tube-bombing nutter, so therefore I’m going to treat you and your confreres as tube-bombing nutters by default. This means I am relieved of any duties of hospitality or kindness towards you. If you get run over by a bus, I’ll cross the street before I help you.’

Lorenzo’s piece is over the fold.]


A variation on the Whig interpretation of history that still has surprising sway is that human religious history has a “natural” progression from animism through polytheism to monotheism. It has led to such nonsense as the psychotic tyrant Akhenaton being written up positively solely because he was monotheist (or, at least practised monolatry: Kerry Greenwood’s Out of the Black Land provides a revealing fictional treatment). This animism-polytheism-monotheism “progression” is an interpretation that has nothing to recommend it, apart from monotheist self-satisfaction.

If one doubts that polytheism is perfectly compatible with highly sophisticated societies, I refer you to classical Rome and Greece; to India, China and Japan. If you doubt it is perfectly compatible with thoroughly modern societies, I refer you to Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. If you think monotheism is necessary for a highly compassionate morality, I refer you to Jainism and Buddhism.

Not only does the animism-to-polytheism-to-monotheism progression fail as a moral and intellectual claim, it fails as history in the quite basic sense that monotheism is purely a product of the Middle East. It spread from there around the globe (indeed, it is still doing so), but it evolved nowhere else.

The Middle East itself produced not one but several forms of monotheism: the proto-monotheism of Zoroastrianism; the monolatry-turned-monotheism of Judaism; the universalising monotheism of Christianity; the universal dominion monotheism of Islam; plus various offshoots of the above. Monotheism in its various forms now thoroughly dominates the religious landscape of the Middle East. So, what is it about the Middle East that it has repeatedly selected for monotheism?

Social geography

When looking to a recurring pattern in a particular region, it is a good idea to start with social geography; the patterns of interactions of people with the terrain.

By the time monotheism first arose, the enduring patterns of Middle Eastern social geography were already in place. River-valley civilisations dominated by major urban centres interacted with herding pastoralists living in the surrounding deserts, mountains, plateaus and plains. Their interactions were those of trade, raid and conquest: interspersed with retaliation and protection payoffs. The fear of the settled (and thus vulnerable) farmers had for the mobile (and thus dangerous) pastoralists is well expressed in the Biblical story of Cain and Abel.

The great conquering peoples of the Middle East after the demise of the last Mesopotamia-originating empire (also subject of a famous Biblical story)—the Iranians, Arabs, Turks and Mongols—were all pastoralist peoples. Pastoralist conquest became so much a pattern of the region that Abd-ar-Rahman Abu Zayd ibn Muhammed ibn Muhammed ibn Khaldun, statesman, jurist, historian and scholar, in his The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, written in 779 AH (1377 AD), famously developed his cycles of history based on it.

His analysis is that rule is based on the rise of group feeling (asabiyyah) that leads to rulership over others (pp 107-8). Having conquered urban lands, the ruling group becomes distracted by the luxuries available that weakens group-feeling and courage. This proceeds until it is swallowed up by other nations or dynasties (p.109).

Ibn Khaldun’s theory is based on internal dynamics and external response. Expenses grow (p.134), the ruling group become complacent and lose their edge (p.135), rulers become more isolated seeking people directly beholden to them (p.137) leading finally to dynastic senility and wastefulness, making them ripe for eventual replacement (p.142). Decay in authority usually starts at the edges of the dynasty’s territory (p.250). He repeats the theory in different words at various places (e.g. p.246ff), usually providing historical examples of the various processes. Russian demographer Peter Turchin has developed the theory further.

A review essay on a book on tribalism in the Middle East puts ibn Khaldun’s model well:

… outlying tribes tied together by traditional kinship solidarities conquer, settle, and rule a state. In time kinship loyalties loosen, the rulers urbanize and grow effete, their state loses control over distant tribes, and the cycle begins again.

Precisely because herding life is mobile, kinship and lineage provide protective and support services. This provides a strong, but constrained, source of social solidarity. As the Arab proverb goes “me against my brother, my brother and I against our cousin, my brother and cousin against the stranger”.

What began as a response to the demands of pastoralism can also deal with other sources of social insecurity. In the words of an enlightening review essay on Pakistan:

At the heart of Lieven’s account of Pakistan is kinship, pervasive networks of clans and biradiris (groups of extended kin) that he identifies as “the most important force in society,” usually far stronger than any competing religious, ethnic, or political cause. Several millennia of invasions, occupations, colonizations, and rule by self-interested states resulted in a “collective solidarity for interest and defense” based on kinship becoming paramount in the area that is Pakistan.

Monotheism’s advantages

The aforementioned great conquering pastoralist peoples—Iranians, Arab, Turks and Mongols—were all, with the exception of the Mongols (who came from furthest away and were profoundly affected by the long history of interaction with China), in their conquering phase, monotheist. Monotheism offers a motivating identity and framework of expectations able to operate across lineages. The common identity of believer is, in the right circumstances, able to unite people across otherwise competing lineages—Muhammad’s success in being the first person to unify most of Arabia is a striking example of this.

The common identity of believer can also unite across the pastoralist-farmer divide and do so in a way which gives an identity to cling to in adversity: both clearly important in early Hebrew history. Given that the pastoralist-farmer barrier in the Middle East can be particularly porous, depending on circumstances, an identity that can be persisted with across it has clear selection advantages.

As for the Mongols, they tapped into the longstanding notion of a central “manager” of the silk trade with China: a “Great Khan” who extracted the best return of horses-for-silk and was then able to hand out the goodies; that was their alternative overarching authority.

The other great advantage of monotheism is that it entrenches and extends masculine authority and control of fertility.

Pastoralism tends to be strongly patrilineal and patrilocal (so brothers stay together to protect their herds). It is a society where the key assets are bred—sons as well as horses and other herd animals. It is preferable for daughters to marry cousins, so they do not breed sons for other lineages: the stronger the threatening pressures, the stronger that impulse will be. A particularly ugly manifestation of this is “dishonour” killings, which are all about controlling female fertility, policing its subordination to the family and lineage by killing daughters and sisters who are seen as failing to so conform.

But monotheism also strips women of control over fertility: this is particularly obvious in traditional Christian sex-and-gender morality—no abortion, no contraception, no divorce, no recognition of rape in marriage—but is hardly less so in Sharia (pdf). In all the monotheisms, control over fertility is taken from the gender who runs all the risks of pregnancy and child-birth and given to the gender to whom more sons are more assets. This increases fertility (selecting in favour of believers in straight Darwinian terms) and provides divine sanction for the masculine authority that pastoralism already selects for. So monotheism both strengthens the effectiveness of pastoralist society and resonates with its inherent tendencies.

In particular, in a society where assets are bred, monotheism’s concept of sex as only justified by procreation—as creation is sex’s only connection to the divine; in stark contrast with animism and polytheism, where sex is not only part of the divine, it can connect us to the divine—is both resonant and encourages selection for breeding.

One thing all the monotheisms agree on—whether Zoroastrian purity laws, Hebrew scriptures, Patristic preaching or Islamic law (pdf: section, o.12)—is kill the queers!. Kill the men who fail to conform to masculine status and breeding role, to sex-and-gender as procreation. In Sharia, homosexual acts are twinned with adultery, to make the enforcement of procreative conformity clear. (And the Sharia death penalty still operates.)

Strict conception of sex-and-gender is a key way that monotheism differentiates itself from animism and polytheism. Thus the Hebrew scriptures are very clear in their absolute rejection of all shamanistic practices and sacred prostitution. With the rise of monotheism, the shamanistic role (often performed by queer folk, as those “between” male and female) of managing of interaction with a complex and diverse Otherworld is replaced by text-based revelation from a single source of divine wisdom and authority.

As religions of people who choose God, rather than of the people God chose, Christianity and Islam both offered a more accessible identity than Judaism or Zorastrianism. Arising in the very law-bound and ordered Roman Empire, Christianity, alone among the major monotheisms, failed to adopt any notion of divinely ordained law.

Not quite as the others

But Christianity has always been “the odd monotheism out”. Perhaps the most striking thing about the Gospels is how little they are concerned with the sex-and-gender patterns of monotheism. St Paul and the early Fathers, however, pushed the Christian message more towards conventional sex-and-gender patterns of monotheism, notably through their common adoption of Philo of Alexandria’s natural law take on the Judaic tradition of scriptural revelation.

Also alone among the monotheisms, the notion of sex as separating us from the divine was taken to the extent of endorsing celibacy, at times undermining the fertility advantage of monotheism. Though other features of monotheism—severe intolerance of other religious perspectives, the capacity to provide binding belief—were very much in play in using the power of the Roman state to become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire.

The triumph of Islam

Christianity then comprehensively lost out to Islam within the Middle East when, like Zoroastrianism, its shielding state was overthrown (though the full process took a lot longer in the case of the Eastern Roman than the Sassanid Empire). Indeed, with the exception of the Reconquista, Christianity was in long term retreat before the advance of Islam until the Battle of Vienna in 1683.

Given these selection pressures for monotheism in the social geography of the Middle East, Islam—with laws that operate across (or even without) rulerships–includes management of retaliation, an explicit structure of males dominating women and believers dominating unbelievers, endorsement of holy war against unbelievers and regulation of the spoils thereof, death penalty for apostasy (i.e. those who leave the common identity and framework of expectations and which also still operates)—becomes the “ideal” Middle Eastern monotheism. A region of perennial pastoralist conquest selected for a religion of conquest for pastoralists.

A fading resonance

As Skepticlawyer’s recent post intimated, a very reasonable question is: in the absence of strong institutional support, what resonances does monotheism, this Middle Eastern import, have to modern European life? Less and less, it appears. (Even in the notoriously religious US, there is some weakening.)

Europe contains strong formal institutions: kinship as a competing mechanism “gets in the way”. The empowering of women has profoundly undermined the traditional monotheist sex-and-gender morality. Indeed, that is clearly what most offends the jihadis about the modern West and its “seductive” example. Science has taken over much of the explanatory role of religion while therapy and its dealing-with-the-psyche cognates provide reborn versions of shamanistic roles.

So monotheism fades among Europeans while the importing of strongly monotheistic migrants in significant numbers provides a whole set of conflicts and difficulties.

Tension between European modernity and Islam is not a made-up conflict. The monotheism that won out in the Middle East, for reasons that make sense given its social geography, has all sorts of features that sit very uneasily in modern, urbanised, industrialised, strong-state Europe.

A belief that commitment, time and demography (both fertility and migration) are on the ummah’s side encourages insisting the more strongly on Islam’s universal truth and taking refuge in Islamic identity. The fading of Christian belief does not make Islam an easier import but a more starkly different one as the presumptions of monotheism have less and less hold over European public belief and public policy.

If that fading also encourages the delusion that religion does not matter, if it increases the lack of understanding of a monotheism that is far from identical with a receding Christianity, then public policy is going to continue to fail to deal with the challenge of profoundly different worldviews. (Though one way it can do so is treating all Muslim migrants as if a particular conception of Islam is their primary identity: which is a betrayal of those who genuinely appreciate the freedoms of the West.)

The fading of European Christianity does not make religious tension and conflict less likely, it makes the distance between the growing Islamic minority and wider European presumptions more salient and more likely to be badly managed by political elites who “don’t get” religious perspectives. Especially given—unlike the settler societies of North America and the Antipodes—European states are not set up to manage large-scale migration and, unlike the United States, religious faith is no longer a normal part of politics and political rhetoric. The uncomfortable fact is that large-scale Muslim migration into increasingly “pagan” Europe is far from unproblematic because the monotheism the Middle East ended up selecting for—particularly with the “purifying” and politicising revivalism of Islamism (al-?isl?miyyah or Isl?m siy?s?)—is an uncomfortable import to an increasingly post-Christian Europe.


  1. Adrien
    Posted October 19, 2011 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    This animism-polytheism-monotheism “progression” is an interpretation that has nothing to recommend it, apart from monotheist self-satisfaction.

    The criticism is excessive. In the first place there is a progression from animism to polytheism (I don’t like these isms). That is as people settle they begin to look to the sky for their gods more and more. They see the animals and plants around them as resources not gods.

    And in the West this was followed by two monotheisms (I’ll leave the Parsis out of this) that grew out of the national cult of a people who were considered very odd indeed. The Middle-East was pagan for ages.

    Perhaps monotheism is the wrong word. But there seems to me a progression of some kind. Buddhism is simply a different style.

  2. Adrien
    Posted October 19, 2011 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    The connection between queer people and shamanism and the tendency of organized religion particularly Abrahamic monotheism to repress this in favour of a literate elite is a very interesting one.

    But I think this process of at least marginalizing Shaman must’ve been ongoing for millennia beforehand. Organized religion and complex society mean the division of labour. So the functions of poet, minstrel, painter, sculptor, priest and stargazer would have well been partitioned aeons before Joshua from the Sticks came to town,

    I believe Shamanism probably a natural disposition so the submerged history of this brand of humanity is mostly for us to speculate about. Concomitant with the return of paganism however is a surge of organic creativity which thanks to mass media, digital technology, historical resources and international travel appears to be reasserting phenomenon we associate with Shamanism and artisanal era cultural production.

    As for the progression argument. I think the idea of inherent progress has been challenged enough for us to all accept a cyclical view of history. This doesn’t exclude the linear view either. There is a line, things begin and nothing endures.

    And there is a general tendency for people to get better in general. How ‘religion’; fits in to to this is a Mandelbrot inquiry but I suspect that theological metaphysics among people comes from one’s worldview in particular one’s knowledge and ignorance of the world as it is.

    I saw a computer generated image the other day. It was of a large group of bubbles inside a void. Each bubble represented a cosmos as you could see by the galaxies rendered inside. The image was an illustration of the multi-universe notion.

    This is impossible to reconcile with a God v Satan cosmology in which human life is the battlefield. Our cosmos is much larger but it resembles that possible of the early Bronze Age. A small light amidst an unknown abyss.

    What is different is that humanity can more easily imagine itself as a unity these days, one world. What the religious imagination will lend itself to in the face of this is not yet known but I’d hesitate to put a label on it. It lies beyond what is dream of in philosophy.

  3. Posted October 20, 2011 at 4:16 am | Permalink

    [email protected]

    In the first place there is a progression from animism to polytheism (I don’t like these isms). That is as people settle they begin to look to the sky for their gods more and more. They see the animals and plants around them as resources not gods

    One of the problems is that animism and polytheism do not neatly separate. This is particularly obvious in Shinto, with its kami, but is hardly less so with Classical spirits of place.

    Perhaps monotheism is the wrong word. But there seems to me a progression of some kind. Buddhism is simply a different style.

    During and after what Karl Jaspers called the “Axial Age” there was a leap up in intellectual sophistication, including in (some) religion. But that is a different matter: Hinduism, for example, includes considerable intellectual sophistication.

  4. Posted October 20, 2011 at 4:47 am | Permalink

    Lorenzo, I had very real problems with this post. In this comment, I want to address one.

    Is it correct to say that pastoral societies have a natural tendency to monotheism? This is an information question, but one that is important to the thread of your argument.

    I ask because I hadn’t actually formed that impression.

  5. Adrien
    Posted October 20, 2011 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Hinduism, for example, includes considerable intellectual sophistication.

    This is true, and what is also true is that Hinduism tends to display aspects of all the ‘theisms’ there’s no true separation as there would not be between animism and polytheism.

    The shift from one style to another would be gradual. And Buddhists did not generally speaking go around demolishing the artefacts or rituals of older religions as Christians and Muslims do.

    A feind of mine from China, who hasn’t read Guns germs and Steel, had his own theory about geographical determinism. He points out that China is unified by two rivers that run roughly along lateral lines joining a huge territory. The West is broken up by a criss-cross of rivers, seas and mountain ranges which tends to promote wars of various kinds.

    The link between monotheism and the butch aspect of religion, the exhalation of war gods and king gods etc is probably related to this. The ground for monotheism was paved by Mars and Vulcan, Jupiter, Odin and Thor. Those who brought these gods in Western territory usually did so at first by making war.

    At some point these very macho gods merged with a notion of ‘one god’ and the strange religion of the Hebrews (who worshipped their own volcano god) came in handy.

  6. Adrien
    Posted October 20, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Given Skeptic’s recent post on pagan rituals maybe you might want write another post viz such rituals associated with Queer culture. Pretty evident to anyone who’s been in Sydney during Mardis Gras.

  7. Posted October 20, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Pastoralism has no general tendency to monotheism. Monotheism has a strong connection to Middle Eastern pastoralism.

    Does that help?

  8. Posted October 20, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]

    But I think this process of at least marginalizing Shaman must’ve been ongoing for millennia beforehand. Organized religion and complex society mean the division of labour. So the functions of poet, minstrel, painter, sculptor, priest and stargazer would have well been partitioned aeons before Joshua from the Sticks came to town,

    Yes, up to a point. Many polytheisms incorporated shamanistic priests (most clearly, in “third gender” priests). Monotheists really hate such.

    And there is a general tendency for people to get better in general.

    Steven Pinker has some thoughts on the decline of violence.

    [email protected]

    A feind of mine from China, who hasn’t read Guns germs and Steel, had his own theory about geographical determinism. He points out that China is unified by two rivers that run roughly along lateral lines joining a huge territory. The West is broken up by a criss-cross of rivers, seas and mountain ranges which tends to promote wars of various kinds.

    The key phrase here is: competitive jurisdictions. Tokugawa Japan had them, Qing China did not, post-Roman Europe always did. Made a big difference.

    I have come to the conclusion the key thing was competitive jurisdictions of sufficient sustained intensity and no concept of divine law. Sharia and Brahminic law cruelled Islam and Hindu India. SE Asia did not have enough intensity in competitive jurisdictions. China did not have sustained competitive jurisdictions. NW Europe and Japan had both, but NW Europe had more cultural and institutional variety for the selection processes of history to work upon.

  9. Mel
    Posted October 20, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Here’s a geography is destiny argument that sets the cat amongst the pigeons:

    “Arthur Jensen explains in The g Factor how evolutionary factors could have potentially contributed to racial IQ gaps. Jensen points out that larger and more complex brains are very metabolically expensive, so they evolve only when they provide a strong selective advantage. According to Jensen, as early humans migrated out of Africa, the need to adapt to colder climates created a stronger selective pressure for intelligence in Europe and Asia than existed in Africa”

    Sounds like a good reason for moving to Tasmania. And ceding Queensland to PNG.

  10. John H.
    Posted October 20, 2011 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like a good reason for moving to Tasmania. And ceding Queensland to PNG.

    The other factor is heat. Average temperature alone has a linear relationship to brain size. It would not surprise me if the effect is epigenetic rather than genetic. That is, it is the rate of gene reading and protein production that is the variable, not the genes(though as a recent analysis claimed, the so called junk DNA is actually vast codings for genes that regulate the expression of other genes Not genes as we know them, but still genes). That suggests that over a few generations people whose ancestors were in warmer climes may also experience increased brain size when they move to cooler more complex climes. So I think of all those successful African Americans and wonderif over time they, on average, will demonstrate the same level of success as the rest.

    It wasn’t just about adapting to colder climates but NEW niche. All the time exploring new lands. It is akin to the improvement seen when animals are placed in enriched environments. Not only does it make them smarter but it increases neuroprotection when insult occurs. It also promotes neurogenesis. In fact exploring new lands may represent a huge neurological challenge because we “map” the world and as the famous London cabbie experiment demonstrated even one month of holidays from the cab job and the hippocampus, intimately involved in this mapping process, begins to shrink. This is one reason it is a good thing to keep learning NEW things. Another issue here is that hunter gatherers tend to have exceptional eyesight, and in one study on Aus aborigines the visual cortices were x2 of Caucasians(but lots of problems here because cortical variability in general is surprisingly diverse). So you see, from some at present very poorly understood(at least by me!) processes adaptation is not so much about chancey natural selection finding the right mutation but rather that through epigenetic processes and the epigenome there is a information rich two way communication process between organism and environment that allows rapidity and versatility of adaptation that until the last few years we could only observe but not really understand from the old neo-Darwinian “bottom up” model. It’s a beautiful thing.

    I’ll stop now … Blame Mel, he started it.

  11. Posted October 20, 2011 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] was critical of Lorenzo’s

    This animism-polytheism-monotheism “progression” is an interpretation that has nothing to recommend it, apart from monotheist self-satisfaction.

    If there /is/ a progression, it’s in my view numeric – the innumerable (a dryad in every tree), to the countable (polytheism), to one or two principles (monotheism and its close cousin dualism), to none.

    There are two forms of single-principle worldviews, that with a principle that extends throughout the cosmos but not separate not with a psychology (the Greek Logos or the Chinese Dhao/Tao), and that with the principle being distinct from the cosmos and with a psychology – such as the Abrahamic viewpoints (both monotheist and dualist)

    If one looks at the /number/ of principles of the “woo”, whether distinct from the cosmos or simply rules, then I’d be interested to see how Lorenzo would recast his geographic arguments, if indeed he thinks it a valid way of looking at a number of principles, rather than number of psychologies (or psychoses!) in the worldview.

    I’d also be interested in Lorenzo’s take, given arguments about procreation, of the likes of the Abrahamic dualists, the Bogomils, the apparent source of our word “buggery”.

    The other thing is that the Abrahamic tradition, as far as I know, is not originally monotheistic, but merely a requirement of loyalty to /one/ of the gods that happened to be the patron of one particular tribe … not so much “my god is true, yours don’t exist”, but “my god is better than your god”.

    Besides, the major/minor deity thing is pretty much full on in the monotheisms – be it angels, saints, demons … if there is more than one individual psychology, more than one motivation ascribed to different beings, then you have a polytheism

  12. Posted October 21, 2011 at 2:35 am | Permalink

    [email protected] It is really not a “numbers game” so much as an authority-and-differentiation game. The One God has a level of (absolute) authority that Many Gods do not. (The existence of a supporting cast does not really affect that.) The One God is also more removed, more differentiated, from the ordinary world than Many Gods: this particularly affects sex-and-gender dynamics.

    Cases such as the Bogomils take this differentiation as step further by deeming the material world of itself evil. So even the procreative operation of sex loses its connection to the divine.

    This differentiation point is affected by whether it is a form of monotheism which view the One God primarily as Immanent or primarily as Transcendent. The former tends to make one more conducive to “supporting cast” notions (see Catholic, Orthodox Christianity and Sufi or Shia Islam), the latter more likely to see such as idolatry and latent paganism (see Protestant Christianity and more intense forms of Sunni Islam).

  13. kvd
    Posted October 21, 2011 at 5:37 am | Permalink

    This has been referred to earlier, but I wanted to add my own agreement to the thought that if you are to have a religion within a society, then having one god is politically easier for the earthly ruler to control and bend to his/her purposes than having a gaggle of them, complete with their competing earthly representatives. So a progression from many- to mono- is politically understandable.

    I agree with Lorenzo’s thought that an overarcing belief system is handy to bind together otherwise competing families/clans. But I can’t particularly see the geographic connection between monotheism and the Middle East – other than that it exists; was this a ‘selection inevitability’, or just one possible outcome?

    And also, I wish John [email protected] hadn’t stopped 😉

  14. Posted October 21, 2011 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    [email protected] To a degree. But it now leaves open the question of why certain pastoral groups adopted monotheism, others did not. On the surface, that’s kind of important to your argument.

  15. Posted October 21, 2011 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    [email protected] My argument is a selection argument: chance factors may lead to any particular adoption of monotheism. But, once you did, it provided certain advantages that the social geography of the region selected for.

    There were also contagion effects: social selection works somewhat differently from pure biological selection.

  16. Posted October 21, 2011 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    [email protected] I would hesitate to say inevitable: highly likely, certainly. As for the connection to the Middle East, there are two elements: the gains from militant unity were considerable; second, once the idea was around, a contagion effect could set in.

    Not sure about the singularity argument. A ruler can “divide and conquer” competing priesthoods somewhat more than a unified one.

  17. Adrien
    Posted October 21, 2011 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    The One God has a level of (absolute) authority that Many Gods do not.

    Yes. I wonder if the adoption of monotheism had something to do with the fact that that part of the civilized world that first converted had liver under the Emperor of Rome for centuries?

    It’s not my habit to speak of theological conviction but if you allow for the possibility there may actually be some divine realm (realm?) that transmits to the receiver and ideas of God may simply be distorted, expanded, refined and reviewed by material experience and knowledge.

    Of course what divine being is behind a Creation that consists of billions of galaxies must be infinitely greater than any volcano god or wielder of thunderbolts.

  18. Adrien
    Posted October 21, 2011 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    Lorenzo #8 – According to my friend’s theory the competitive jurisdictions may have resulted from the geographical arrangements of the West which were conductive to war. We may have a look at the historical context of Japan perhaps to see if some similar impediment to political unity existed.

    That said we should remind ourselves that China is exceptional. The exception that proves the rule as Russell wrote.

  19. Posted October 21, 2011 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    [email protected] That sort of notion has occurred to lots of people: it is a way around “religious experience is culturally specific in framing, so clearly entirely human creation” argument.

    [email protected] The geography of Japan encourages political decentralisation in the age of walk or ride a horse: it is somewhat similar to that of NW Europe.

    China’s history seems to have been somewhat driven by the interaction with the nomads: particularly the benefits of the silk-for-horses trade and the risks of nomad incursions.

  20. Adrien
    Posted October 21, 2011 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    China’s history seems to have been somewhat driven by the interaction with the nomads

    The central Asian people tend to drive civilization by howling out from the Steppes and laying waste to it on a regular basis. China, however does maintain its territory and its basic culture throughout all its upheavals.

    I can’t be that religious experience is entirely something of human design. I think the history of religion is of certain people receiving some kind of cosmic beam and making the dumb arse’d mistake of talking about it in front of someone else who realizes that this is a great way to acrue money and power. 🙂

  21. Posted October 21, 2011 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    [email protected]

    The central Asian people tend to drive civilization by howling out from the Steppes and laying waste to it on a regular basis. China, however does maintain its territory and its basic culture throughout all its upheavals.

    But the nomad threat increases the return to unification: as does the horses-for-silk trade. The point is to explain why China has been unified far more than other centres of civilisation: its most salient single difference.

    I can’t be that religious experience is entirely something of human design.

    There has been some quite interesting work done examining human religious experience. Why people have religious experiences and religion is such human universal are both matters worthy of study.

  22. kvd
    Posted October 21, 2011 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Why ….. religion is such human universal are both matters worthy of study.

    I almost asked that question earlier in different terms: has there been any significant human group which managed to persist without developing some sort of religion/spiritualism? Happy to be corrected for my ignorance, but I cannot think of one.

  23. Posted October 22, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    [email protected] That does help. So we have a serendipity factor shoes subsequent affect is moulded by geography. Have I got that right?

    [email protected] I know of no such. Linking to Lorenzo’s theme, our interpretation of sprituality is influenced by the views we hold. A monotheistic Christian would and did have very particular views about other forms of expression.

  24. Posted October 22, 2011 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Yep. The mechanism is very much Darwinian, with the addition of contagion effects.

    As for beginnings, there is the perennial question of how early Zoroaster lived and how much influence he had on Judaism.

    But, by the time of Muhammad, the two great regional Superpower were the Christian Romans, the Zoroastrian Sassanids, with Jewish tribes, a Jewish Yemeni king and invading Christian Ethiopians. Monotheism had to look a better bet than squabbling polytheism.

  25. Micha
    Posted October 23, 2011 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    I don’t understand the relations between the different components of the argument here.

    We have the Persians, who were pastoralist and monotheist at some point when they started their empire. But after that, I don’t know.

    Then you have the Hebrews/Jews, who may have been pastoralist at a certain very distant stage, but weren’t pastoralist or very successful empire builders at later stages.

    Then you have Christianity emerging among non-pastoralist Jews and spreading among mostly non-pastoralists and sometimes empire builders for many centuries before we reach our own more secular Europe.

    And then we have Islam, that emerges and spreads among pastoralists, but seeem to have more to do with the fact that everyone in the neighborhood was embracing monotheism. Islam then spreads from not so pastoralist later Muslims to pastoralist but not monotheist Turks.

    Meanwhile, both in the middle east and in the rest of the world you have pastoralists who are not monotheist, who sometimes become empire builders (if they live near China).

    So I’m not exactly clear what is the relation between pastoralism, monotheism and the Middle East beyond maybe that Islam helped pastoralists be better conquerors at times or maybe (I say hesitantly) motivated them to become conquerors.

    I’m also not clear whether you’re suggesting monotheistic hostility toward monotheism somehow stems from a pastoralist attitude.

  26. Adrien
    Posted October 24, 2011 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    The point is to explain why China has been unified far more than other centres of civilisation: its most salient single difference.

    I think the rivers have a lot to do with it. The fecundity of the Han people, the political idiosyncraticities of Chinese politics; there’s more than one cause.

    The same nomads, or similar went a howlin’ West too.

  27. Posted October 24, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Why was India not more consistently unified then?

    The point is not merely nomad threat (which was much more omnipresent for Northern China in particular than elsewhere) nor even the gains from expanding agrarian land but the horses-for-silk trade, which was so central to both nomad and Chinese political economy, given the lack of selenium in Chinese soils meant they had to keep importing horses.

  28. Posted October 24, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] The idea of monotheism has to arise in the first place. It is like a mutation: if it never occurs it cannot be selected for. So, that pastoralists elsewhere were not monotheist is hardly surprising if the “mutation” never arose in their region.

    The Middle East has several specific factors that encouraged the spread of monotheism once the idea “turned up”.

    First, monotheism’s sex-and-gender dynamics resonates with certain general aspects of pastoralism.

    Second, it providing a binding identity that could work not merely across lineages but also across the pastoralist-farming divide, which is particularly porous in the Middle East.

    This strikes me as being particularly important in Hebrew history, particularly early Hebrew history, but clearly was also a factor in Iranian and Arabian history. The dynamics of lineage (originally a pastoralist thing) well and truly spread to agrarians across the Middle East.

    Third, the Middle East provided periodic and recurring gains from conquest-by-pastoralists which the role of monotheism as a binding belief system accentuated.

    Once the idea of monotheism was around, then it could also spread in other contexts–both in the sense of binding beliefs/common expectations and the sense of an absolutely trumping authority.

  29. Boreas
    Posted February 5, 2012 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    To say that monotheism is strictly related to geography (and therefore to a specific region, like the Middle-East) doesn’t seem to be too convincing, as there was also a sort of a monotheistic trend among many ancient and hellenistic greek philosophers. Was this the influence of Judaism, or the inquisitive mind discovering the “Truth” independently?

  30. Posted February 6, 2012 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    [email protected]: the monotheistic thread in Greek philosophers was greatly exaggerated by later (monotheist) commentators. It also had no social resonance. Monotheism as a serious religious movement is a creation of the Middle East: this is an historical fact which needs explaining.

  31. Boreas
    Posted February 7, 2012 at 4:19 am | Permalink

    I do agree that the so called “monotheism” of the Greek philosophers cannot be generally regarded as Religion (that is, a set of beliefs embodied by rituals and traditions) and that Greek philosophers were “Christianised” in the late middle-ages, but the depart from polytheism and the notion of anthropomorphic deities towards a singular truth is a logical conclusion in the pattern of thinking present in many Greek philosophers. If Greek polytheism and Abrahamic monotheism were to be put on opposite ends of a scale, then a large number of Ancient greek philosophers would stand around the midpoint with some leaning even more towards the monotheistic end (considering that they developed Ethics alongside their Metaphysics)

  32. Posted February 7, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Some Hindu religious thought also went in a monotheist direction (the many face of God line) but, again, without social resonance.

    To reiterate, monotheism as a serious religious movement arose only in the Middle East: something which needs explaining.

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