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Um, Which God?

December 22, 2008
Baal and Asherah

Baal and Asherah

One thing that absolutely drives me crazy is the fact that monotheism gets a free ride in most American discourses. If you say something about a god–especially in political speeches, at graduations, and other public ceremonies–it is taken for granted as obvious which one you’re referring to, because apparently there is only one.

This normalization of a bland, universal monotheism is reinforced by the popular claim that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all worship the same god. However, even if one supposed that gods existed, there is no good evidence that worshipers in all three traditions worship the same one. And, in fact, there have been many people throughout the ages who’ve suggested that they don’t worship the same god–“we worship God, they worship idols!” Or, even more dramatically, “we worship God, they worship demons!” But despite the fact that there’s absolutely no way to adjudicate between these claims and the claim that “we all worship the same god,” the latter is hegemonic these days.

It is understandable why: if Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same god, then there’s an opening for religious tolerance. People take this position because these days it’s the one they want to be true. Given the sort of cooperation required to keep capitalism going in a diverse society, the denunciation of the everyone outside one’s own tradition isn’t exactly good for business. (I could say something here about how the demand for “civility” tends to reproduce existing social hierarchies, but I’ll save that for another day.)

In addition, this “we all worship the same god” gets expanded beyond the “big three” and used to build a sort of rhetorical coalition of all “religions.” There’s nothing natural to the opposition between atheism on the one side and Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, New Age, etc. on the other, but this is what happens.

Again, it is in part understandable why this happens: it lends the “fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong” type of credibility to theism. If they all believe the same god, then he/she/it must exist.

However, it turns out that not everyone who identifies as a part of one of these “religions” believes the same thing, and, in addition, there are atheist Christians, atheist Jews, atheists Buddhists, and so on. This “atheists v. everyone else” opposition is rhetorically persuasive but logically crap.

It might make more sense, practically speaking, to oppose those with progressive social views to those who have conservative social views. As a progressive atheist I would rather stand next to liberation theologians than be grouped with followers of Ayn Rand.

In order to denaturalize this taken-for-granted universal monotheism, I use a simple rhetorical technique: when someone says something about “God,” I try to ask, “which one?”

This quick question denaturalizes the idea that there is only one god (something that is hotly contested) and that all who believe in gods worship the same one (something that is also hotly contested), and it undermines the assumption that all “religions” should by nature be grouped together as allies against the ominous threat of atheism.

So, the next time you hear a chaplain give a watered down prayer to “the mysterious divine,” lean over to your neighbor and say, “Which one? There are lots!”

Although I wouldn’t do it at funerals.

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