In researching religious history, one major conclusion stands out. Modern world religions are syncretic products of the worldviews and traditions that co-existed with them and preceded them; based on many millennia of cultural development and inheritance. That is seen East and West (and presumably everywhere else), in how every new successful religion that comes along incorporates the cultural practices, rituals, beliefs, imagery, symbolism, holy sites, and sometimes even objects of worship from the prior religions of the converted; even to the point of repurposing holy buildings. This is as true for the Abrahamic religions as any others, despite the denial of fundamentalists. One might argue it’s particularly true of the Abrahamic religions that grew amidst such vast religious, philosophical, and cultural diversity; and we their inheritors rarely hear the other side’s take on what happened; although interestingly some early voices on Christianity and Islam mentioned pagan origins.
There was much destruction and loss as the various world religions came to power, but a surprising amount of the so-called paganism and heathenism survived, if in hidden and altered forms. Many of the major theological arguments and defenses (i.e., apologetics) that modern monotheists make are fundamentally no different than what non-monotheists have been saying for even longer. That is because nearly everything in Abrahamic monotheism originated in paganism. Even the earliest evidence of monotheism in Egypt preceded Abraham, likely where Jews got it from. There is almost nothing original to Abrahamic religions. Strip away all the pagan and secular accretions from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Mesopotamian mythology, godmen resurrection narratives, virgin mother motif, pagan stone worship, intercessory rituals, etc); and there might be nothing left of substance. Everything has paganism in it because paganism was everywhere and, at one point, everyone was a pagan. There is no escaping the past out of which our society formed.
So, in that case, what is monotheism, what do we think it is, and why do we think that way? Consider that some ancient Jews referred to their God as Zeus-Yahweh. They perceived the Father God of the Greeks and Jews to be the same ultimate deity or rather each being symbolic of the same ultimate divine reality, the same shared Cosmos of all people. Some pagans had been talking about a singular ultimate Father God, Godhead, or Reality for longer than Abrahamic monotheists have existed. That is seen, for example, in Hinduism going back many millennia into the Bronze Age. Similar thinking is also found back in Classical Greece and carried forward. This is why some ancient Jews also joined Greco-Roman mystery schools. No contradiction or heresy was seen by these spiritual aspirants. With a bit more controversy, there is Mohammad’s Satanic verses, indicating the syncretism also of early Islam; prior to an authoritarian backlash. Higher truth and reality isn’t owned or controlled by any single religious authority, certainly not by self-proclaimed theocrats pretending to speak for God.
Take the idea of worshipping a holy statue, object, etc not as an idol but for what is behind it or else using it as a way of orienting to a higher truth or as a practice to bring the faithful together. That is an archaic pagan spiritual understanding, the notion that there are layers of truth and/or levels of religious practice; with something that transcends, if interpreted variously. Many pagans didn’t perceive their foci of worship, prayer, and contemplation as idols to be treated identical to a god or whatever. They understood these things weren’t the divine itself but a visceral way for humans to see, hear, and grasp the divine; a way to orient to and relate to the divine. Yes, there were many other pagans who did tend toward idol worship, but then again most Jews, Christians, and Muslims have also fallen into various forms of idol worship. This certainly doesn’t distinguish supposed ‘monotheistic’ religions as different from all the rest, claims to the contrary notwithstanding. Paganism can’t be scapegoated for the sins of monotheists, but paganism might offer a better understanding than ‘sin’. Since the Abrahamic religions took on so much paganism, maybe we should look to how the pagans understood what we took from them.
For example, there was the original pagan Kaaba, apparently the same as the present Islamic Kaaba. Even after being taken over by Muslims, they continued to use the exact same pagan worship practices, including ritualistically walking around it in a pagan circular procession and kissing the same pagan black stone. Along with a pagan version of Ramadan, these are all the practices that Mohammad did for most of his life as a pagan before he invented Islam, as his family were the official pagan caretakers of the pagan Kaaba. He got rid of most of the pagan statues, but kept the pagan black stone because it held too much symbolic power for his culture. That is not to dismiss Islam, any more than to dismiss all the other religions that similarly borrowed. There is no shame in cultural traditions persisting from one religion to the next. Here is the point. If the pre-Islamic pagans were idol worshippers, then so are Muslims. But if Muslims are not idol worshippers, then to the same degree neither were those pre-Islamic pagans. The same goes for Christians, Jews, Bahai, or anyone else. Acknowledging one’s own historical origins is not a point of shame. Instead, we should greet such knowledge with curiosity and see pagans as part of this ongoing civilizational project. After all, they are our ancestors, and so we should show respect. In fact, pagans are still among us and sometimes they may be the best among us.
That isn’t to say that idolatry isn’t potentially a stumbling block for the faithful, but this kind of wisdom is not limited to the Abrahamic religions. In fact, other traditions may have essential understandings that would otherwise be lacking. We need to broaden our view of what is the actual concern. Anything can be an idol (statue, picture, symbol, rock, remnant, marker, book, building, institution, authority figure, ritual, etc), when it stands between you and the divine, stands in place of relationship to and experience of what is greater; or the very same thing could be used non-idolatrously as a vehicle to carry you to the divine. Idolatry is in the intent and attitude of the individual worshipper, not inherent to any given thing. In not understanding what is an idol, what is the deeper significance of warning and wisdom, one is all the more likely to fall prey to idol worship without realizing it. Idolatry is not evil. It’s simply a spiritual mistake that, when one learns to see it, one can correct it. But it shouldn’t be used as a cudgel to beat upon others as judged inferior, or to threaten them as damned, or to mock their faith. It’s simply a common error of our shared human nature. Interestingly, at an earlier time in Asia, there was intercultural dialogue between Muslims and Buddhists about idolatry.
That attitude of understanding, compassion, and forgiveness, however, is not typically shared by most fundamentalists; and so maybe sometimes fundamentalism itself becomes an idol, in replacing direct experience with human claims. The thing about fundamentalists, in particular, is specific to their psycho-social disposition and ideological worldview; far beyond religion. The most obvious link is to right-wing authoritarianism, of which research shows fundamentalists measure the highest of any group. But it doesn’t end with that. Tellingly, though religiosity is negatively correlated to individual narcissism, it’s positively correlated to group narcissism. Fundamentalists, in particular, want to believe that they are unique, their group is unique, and maybe that their moment in time is unique. It’s chauvinism, plain and simple (i.e., narcissism). They want to believe they are special snowflakes, that their ego-bound opinions are righteous truth and that they have a divine monopoly. That is arrogance, not righteousness.
But the reality is that fundamentalists are the complete opposite of unique and special, since in being high in right-wing authoritarianism they tend toward conformity; hence they have no talent for originality and so are forced to co-opt and claim other people’s originality, as if it were their own. In the end, this is simply the same old reactionary mind that comes up in so much else. Stealing ideas, rhetoric, practices, etc from others without giving credit, without a sense of mutuality and commonality; that is simply what reactionaries do and have always done for as long as they’ve existed, going back at least to the Axial Age. Then the fundamentalists spend centuries or longer erasing the knowledge and destroying the evidence of that history, often involving book burnings and textual interpolations, with not even their own holy scriptures being safe from their zealous and censorious wrath (all of the Abrahamic holy books show evidence of having been altered early on). There is nothing wrong with the act of borrowing what is worthy from other traditions, but it should be done with mutual respect, rather than social dominance, wanton destruction, and sometimes outright terrorism and genocide.
Fundamentalists and others of a similar ilk either lack knowledge of the larger world, specifically of the longer and broader history of the world, or else they hypocritically dismiss and conveniently ignore it, then seek to obscure and hide it. There is nothing unique about any of the major fundamentalist religions, not unique now and not unique when they first formed. This historical amnesia, one might call it willful ignorance, is the same undercurrent that causes endless moral panic and culture war; as if this time everything really is different, as if this time the world really will come to an end. In study after study, social conservatism as right-wing authoritarianism ultimate comes down to fear and anxiety, and nothing else. It’s a dark worldview that closes the mind, heart, and soul. They cut out their own eyes for fear of what they might see. Their claim that others don’t understand them is projection for they don’t understand themselves. How could they? There is no humanity other than our common humanity. To deny that is the ultimate betrayal, of humanity and whatever is greater than humanity.
Fundamentalists use fear to reinforce their group narcissism and groupthink, keeping at bay any knowledge that would challenge their spin, disinfo, and lies; for light threatens to dispel the darkness. Fear-mongering is highly effective, as long as a society can be kept sickly, stressed, and traumatized; something too many of us have come to take as normal, such that we don’t even notice it. The chronic fear and anxiety is in the background, and we wonder why so many people are pulled into the reactionary mind, not realizing we too have become vulnerable to it. So, the average fundamentalist is as much a victim as anyone else, not to be scapegoated in the way they do with others. They genuinely know not what they do for they don’t have eyes to see. Some of the greatest spiritual teachers, such as Jesus, came to challenge this very soul sickness, particularly of false religiosity; came to demonstrate another way is possible. Rather than being unique and special, we all share in a common humanity and a common divinity. What if what unites us is more important, more real and true, than what divides us? What if only that is worthy of worship?