Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Is Monotheism Obsolete?

If we are created in God’s image, and we believe that God is a self-sufficient individual, then so are we. That is how the myth of radical human individualism arose. Monotheism prompts us to see ourselves not merely as “the chosen people” (party to the covenant), but as individuals, self-contained, self-motivated, self-determining monads, just like God, in whose image we are created.

This myth of the individual has flourished and persisted to this day. It dominates Western philosophy, science, and psychology, especially cognitive psychology, which tries to explain the human psyche in terms of each person’s individual brain. But that’s not who we are.

The glorification of the individual psyche has been a mistake derived from monotheism. Put away the myth and look at the facts. The defining feature of the human psyche is that it is social. We are intensely social animals. We live with, for, and through each other. We cannot live without each other.

Language is a social invention, and to the extent that thought depends on language and linguistically based logic and conceptualization, thought is social. Even our most private and personal introspections and prayers, are social because we have internalized the image of the community and the thought processes given to us by the community.

It is not possible for a human being to live outside of human society. Sure, we can point to the lone monk on a mountaintop or the isolated recluse living in a forest. And what about Robinson Crusoe? But these are not true loners.

Through the decades-long process of socialization, one internalizes the language, values, assumptions, and concepts of one’s culture. The hermit on a mountaintop still has his language, memories, internal dialogs, and maybe books. He is still intensely social. The Unabomber was a recluse who shunned all society and lived alone in the forest. Except that he sent bombs to people, which is a social act. And when captured, his greatest wish was to publish a “manifesto” of his belief system. He was a nut, but an intensely social nut.

Robinson Crusoe? It’s a good thing his man Friday showed up or Crusoe would have eventually lost his mind. The internalized social community gradually fades away if it is not reinforced with new social interaction. After a time, Crusoe wouldn’t have had a thought in his head. He would have been reduced to a foraging animal, a human in outer form only. Perhaps De Foe knew that.

Children who are abandoned at an early age do not experience the years of socialization that create an internal representation of their social community. When such feral children are recovered by society, they are human in name and form only. They typically have no language, show no human emotion or understanding, and of course, know nothing of the ways of human society.

We are, above all other traits, social beings, intersubjectively linked to each other’s minds from our birth into a community. If we are created in God’s image, it follows that God must be similarly social in nature. Which implies a community of gods, not just one. Given the evidence, polytheism looks like a more reasonable idea than monotheism.

What are the implications of this conclusion? They remain to be worked out. I don’t think we should automatically assume a Greek or Hindu pantheon. We should develop our understanding of polytheism based on our peculiarly modern, Western ways of thinking.

But at least we can say that the doctrine of the cognitive monad can be set aside in favor of a more realistic psychology of intersubjectivity. And on the moral front, we can dispense with the absolutist thinking that derives from monotheism and which causes so much human grief. The implications for structured religion and Western society, are, of course, profound.

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