Why God needs the government: multiculturalism vs monotheism
FHN looks at the worship of Aton, the first monotheistic religion over 3,350 years ago, and how changes to European attitudes to Christianity today may make Islam more rigid in the future. Multiculturalism and strict monotheism are incompatible.
Most people will have heard of Tutankhamon, the young Egyptian Pharaoh whose tomb was rediscovered, intact, in 1922. He was not always called Tutankhamon, however. His original name was Tutankhaton and he succeeded his less famous, but significantly more important, father-in-law Akhenaton, who died 3,349 years ago, in 1336 BCE. Both Pharaohs had part of their name in common – Aton.
Akhenaton (“Splendour of Aton”) had been born Amonhotep (“Beloved of Amon”) and at some point in his life he stopped being a polytheist and started to exclusively worship Aton, a new god. Curiously for the time, Aton was a god that had no physical form at all. He was just to be imagined and no depictions of Aton were allowed – except for a “sun disk”, which is what Aton means.
Akhenaton – who was married to the beautiful Nefertiti – forcibly converted the entire country of Egypt into becoming worshipers of Aton, at the expense of all of the other traditional gods. As Pharaoh, and in charge of all of the wealth of the state, Akhenaton had the power and authority to close rival shrines and temples and to chisel off the names of other gods from monuments. He abandoned the ancient Egyptian capital of Thebes and built a new capital on the banks of the Nile. What was unique about Akhenaton was that he did not just believe that there was one chief god, like Amon, but also believed that there was only one god and all other gods were false. Aton was thus the world’s first monotheistic god, long before the Jews dedicated themselves to their one god, Yahweh.
Permanently getting rid of all of the other gods, however, was no easy task. After he died in 1336 BCE the capital moved back to Thebes. Aton was rejected by Egypt and Akhenaton’s name was chiseled out of stone inscriptions on monuments that he had erected and his name was removed from most of the official records of Egyptian Pharaohs. It is amazing that we know anything about him at all. Freed from his father-in-law’s influence, Tutankhaton changed his name to the more familiar Tutankhamon.
Strict monotheism required the backing of the state to thrive. Without that support it died. The natural religious order for ancient Egypt was polytheism.
The fundamental difference between monotheism and polytheism is that polytheists can happily co-exist with other religious groups. In fact they thrive on picking and choosing the best elements of other gods, no matter where they come from. The Romans and Greeks were masters at this and frequently used double barrelled names to describe their gods, connecting a more familiar god with a more foreign god. This encourages multiculturalism and the exchange of goods and ideas.
Monotheism, however, requires the denial of the existence of other gods. If your god is the one and only true god, that means that all other gods must be false. For others to believe in those false gods is an affront to your one and only god. This must be excised and to do this effectively you must dominate completely.
Once monotheism, in the form of Judaism, and then Christianity got underway, however, there came to be a realisation that it was not enough to have one true god. It was necessary to have one way of worshipping and interpreting that one true god. All other ways threatened your existence. This explains the external conflicts between the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and the internal conflicts between Christian sects and Shia and Sunni Islam. It also explains the suppression of science in the medieval world as new ideas came into conflict with long held religious belief. New scientific ideas, like Galileo’s helio-centric solar system, were a threat to monotheistic dominance.
This also partially explains the simultaneous rise in multiculturalism in Europe and the fall in the number of regular Christian church goers in the modern era. As fewer Europeans are Christian in general, and specific Christian sect members in particular, there is less of a need for Europeans to demand that all other people follow their faith and sect. Not only do they accept that people might be agnostic or atheist (which was originally a derogatory term for Christians who denied the existence of the traditional pantheon of Roman gods) but they can accept that people can worship other gods as well.
This is one of the reasons that modern Europe is so effective from a multicultural perspective. Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Britain, Romania, Sweden etc all have different languages, cultures and religions – albeit variations on Christianity. Within their borders they accept other Europeans and other non-Europeans. Freedom of religion is enshrined in European law. A requirement for all people living in Europe to be faithful to one Christian God of one Christian sect would make pan-European co-operation significantly harder.
This is in sharp contrast to many Muslim countries which forbid open worship of religions other than Islam and frequently have Muslims killing Muslims due to doctrinal differences. Conversion away from Islam (apostasy) is a capital offence, while becoming a Muslim is automatic at birth. Multi-culturalism is effectively impossible in those countries.
As more non-Europeans of Islamic heritage live in the European Union it could have the effect of making Islam more tolerant in Islamic countries. They will have seen that it is possible to worship their own religion alongside non-believers and live in harmony.
Equally, it it could be seen as a cautionary tale: once you allow people to stop believing in your particular religion and allow them to abandon their faith for another faith, or even drop religion entirely, they will. To stop the loss of this monopoly on God a logical reaction is to fight harder to make your religion more permanent.
Monotheism is hard to maintain without the firm backing of the state.