One day in the Middle East about four thousand years ago, an elderly but still rather astonishingly spry gentleman took his son for a walk up a hill. The young man carried on his back some wood that his father had told him they would use at the top to make an altar, upon which they would then perform the ritual sacrifice of a burnt offering. Unbeknownst to the son, however, the father had another sort of sacrifice in mind altogether. Abraham, the father, had been commanded, by the God he worshipped as supreme above all others, to sacrifice the young man himself, his beloved and only legitimate son, Isaac.
We all know how things turned out, of course. An angel appeared, together with a ram, letting Abraham know that God didn’t really want him to kill his son, that he should sacrifice the ram instead, and that the whole thing had merely been a test.
And to modern observers, at least, it’s abundantly clear what exactly was being tested. Should we pose the question to most people familiar with one of the three “Abrahamic” religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), all of which trace their origins to this misty figure, and which together claim half the world’s population, the answer would come without hesitation. God was testing Abraham’s faith.
If we could ask someone from a much earlier time, however, a time closer to that of Abraham himself, the answer might be different. The usual story we tell ourselves about faith and reason says that faith was invented by the ancient Jews, whose monotheistic tradition goes back to Abraham. In the fullness of time, or—depending on perspective—in a misguided departure, the newer faiths of Christianity and Islam split off from their Jewish roots and grew to become world religions in their own right. Meanwhile, in a completely unrelated series of events, the rationalistic paragons we know as the ancient Greeks invented reason and science. The Greek tradition of pure reason has always clashed with the monotheistic tradition of pure faith, though numerous thinkers have tried to “reconcile” them through the ages. It’s a tidy tale of two pristinely distinct entities that do fine, perhaps, when kept apart, but which hiss and bubble like fire and water when brought together.
A tidy tale, to be sure, but nearly all wrong. Historians have been struggling to correct it for more than a century. What they haven’t done, however, is work out the implications of their findings in a way that gives us a new narrative explanation to take its place. This failure of synthesis may have something to do with why the old, discredited story has hung on for so long in popular imagination. Because we separate faith and reason psychologically, thinking of them as epistemological opposites, we tend rather uncritically to assume that they must have separate historical origins as well. A moment’s reflection says “it ain’t necessarily so”—and is even unlikely to be so. It’s time for a new narrative about the origins of monotheistic faith, one that’s indebted to recent scholarship, but that puts it together in a coherent pattern consistent with both history and psychology.
Surprisingly, the pattern that fits best with the historical evidence locates the origins of faith in the rise of reason itself, and despite its novelty it does so in a way that I suspect will strike many readers as sensible and intuitive. This new synthesis in turn yields psychological insights into the issues of faith and reason that continue to bedevil us today—from public confrontations over evolution, abortion, and gay rights, to suicide bombings, West Bank settlements, and flying lessons in which students ominously disdain instruction in landing.
IT WASN’T THE JEWS
Of course, faith is notoriously hard to define, but “belief in God” presents a common-sense starting point. It’s true that we sometimes use the word “faith” to describe non-monotheistic religious traditions such as Buddhism or Hinduism. But even if we acknowledge the marginal presence of something we’d call faith in such traditions, it seems clear that monotheistic religions emphasize faith in ways that other religions do not. Any religious practice implies a basic belief in one’s own objects of worship. That sort of belief, common to all humanity, is the part of our larger religious instinct that we might call the mental faculty of faith . It permits worshippers to accept the existence and divinity of gods whom they themselves do not worship, as people did, for example, in ancient Greece and Rome. Monotheism, by contrast, at least the kind we’re familiar with, requires disbelief in the existence or divinity of other objects of worship. In saying “My God is the only God,” monotheists also say, “Your god isn’t god—unless it’s the same as my God.”
Faith, in this sense, encompasses more than mere religious belief. It also entails a negative belief about other kinds of belief, a peculiar kind of exclusivity found only in true monotheism. We might call that exclusive sort of belief the tradition of faith . Admittedly, all kinds of religion rely on tradition. But let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine for a moment that we could wave a magic wand and make everyone on the planet forget everything they know about religion. At the same time, we can erase every word of religious scripture, along with all religious representations in art and literature. The idea is to imagine a state of total religious amnesia, so that we’d all be starting from scratch. If we wiped all religion away, anthropology suggests, it would rapidly reappear in new yet familiar forms—but probably without monotheism, assuming that history is any guide.
Religion in the broad sense clearly represents a human instinct, since we find it in all human societies. But we can safely say that there’s no instinct for monotheism as such, since no society ever came up with the idea independently after it first appeared. There were no monotheists until the idea of one God was invented, and all monotheists ever since have worshipped their one God only because they got the idea from those who came before them—which may have something to do with why monotheists speak of being converted , or “turned together” toward the worship of a single, unitary God. If you worship that sort of God, you share in that single, though by now hardly unitary, tradition. Some will object that their faith is entirely a matter of their own internal attitude, but my point is that this internal attitude wouldn’t exist, and never has existed, without a tradition to guide the shaping of it. The monotheistic tradition of faith seems to focus and amplify the mental faculty of faith, concentrating the idea of the divine into a single, exclusive deity.
That the world’s monotheisms descended from a single ancestor probably also helps perpetuate the common perception that it all started with Abraham. Who else but the Jews, those famous monotheists from way back?
Yet religious scholars agree that this isn’t quite the sort of belief that Abraham would have recognized. Modern research suggests that the religion of Abraham and his fellow Hebrews was not, strictly speaking, monotheistic at all, but “monolatrous.” In other words, during Abraham’s time and for many centuries afterward, the ancient Hebrews worshipped not a God whom they held to be the sole deity in existence, but simply one god among many, a god whom they conceived of as being more powerful than the jostling plethora of lesser gods worshipped by other peoples, but who nonetheless shared the stage with them. This essentially polytheistic outlook accords with the frequent mention of other gods in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), for example. It also accords with the way that Abraham’s faith has the feel of a contractual arrangement. When religious scholars use the word “faith” at all to describe Abraham’s attitude to his God, it’s generally coupled with a word like “juridical.”
The God that Abraham worshipped went under various names— El Elion (“God Most High”); El Olam (“God Eternal”); El Shaddai (“God the Mountain”); El Ro’i (“God All-Seeing”)—and appears to have been a version of the indigenous god El whom the Canaanites worshipped before and after Abraham’s arrival. El was the Canaanite high god, but under him served other gods such as the fertility god Baal and the water god Yam. Perhaps Abraham and his kin adopted El as their own, accepting him as the same god who had urged Abraham to leave Ur and seek out the land of milk and honey in the first place.
Only some seven centuries later, it’s thought, did this God reveal to Moses that his real name was Yahweh, and that he wished to be known and worshipped under that name henceforth. Worshipped, still, it seems, as one among many: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” says the First Commandment, implying that other gods were indeed a possibility, if an odious one. Some of them may have been behind the staffs-into-serpents trick by which Pharaoh’s wise men tried to out-conjure Moses’s brother Aaron, before their serpents were eaten up by Yahweh’s. Nor, like El before him, does Yahweh appear at first to have been thought of by the Hebrews as a divine creator, at least not according to the picture we get from the last century or so of biblical scholarship. Scholars believe that not until the eighth century bc was the first biblical account of creation composed (starting at Genesis 2:4), and that only a couple of centuries later did an anonymous priestly author write down the full-blown version we get starting at Genesis 1.
By that time, the Jews were rejoicing in their return to Palestine after the Babylonian Captivity (c. 586–538 bc). The ruler responsible for freeing them, the Persian conqueror Cyrus the Great, had absorbed Babylonia into his growing empire and incurred the Jews’ eternal gratitude by sending them home. Enjoying a sense of revival and optimism, the Jews built the Second Temple in Jerusalem; Jewish priests acted as ambassadors to their Persian rulers.
Jewish life comes down to earth at this point. The days of the prophets are fading. From here on in, the Jews will be concerned less with further prophecies than with the proper interpretation of past ones.
In the coming centuries, the Jews did indeed take the final steps down the long road to true monotheism. But they didn’t travel that road alone. Neither they nor their new conception of faith evolved in a vacuum. As it turned out, the Jews weren’t the only or even the first people in this era to think about God as a single, unitary divine entity.
GETTING TO ONE
Right around the same time that the Jews were celebrating their release from the Babylonian Captivity, the ancient Greeks freed themselves from a very different sort of captivity. The crucial first step was a fully alphabetic writing system, which the Greeks invented and began using around 800 bc. Earlier alphabets had been missing vowels. The Greeks took one of them, the Phoenician alphabet, and added new letters for vowel sounds, making the whole thing a much more flexible and precise instrument. Here begins, if not the march, then at least the toddle toward string theory and space telescopes.
For writing and thinking go together, and the dawn of this new literary age was simultaneously the dawn of reason. Within a mere couple of hundred years or so, we see a Greek thinker named Thales of Miletus taking the novel step of trying to explain the material world in secular, naturalistic terms, and of publicizing his ideas so that others could critique them. In other words, Thales (whose name rhymes with “Hailey’s”) invented science, as well as the larger tradition of rationalistic inquiry to which science belongs, and which soon included other disciplines such as history.
This is not to say that no one had ever thought rationally before, of course. All humans have the capacity for rational thought; clearly there exists something we might, for consistency, call the mental faculty of reason . It comprises an innate ability for symbolic logic, which we humans use in something akin to the way dolphins use sonar. Nor is it to say that neighboring civilizations such as those of Babylonia and Egypt hadn’t developed wisdom traditions that included much information about the natural world. Thales and his immediate successors came from Ionia, the coast of what is now Turkey, where the mainland cities of Greece proper had established a number of prosperous colonies (of which Miletus was the acknowledged leader). Modern authorities believe that Ionia’s proximity to those older cultures did much to stimulate Ionian thought. But their explanations always came back to religious mythology. Thales and his successors struck off in a fundamentally new direction, that of secular explanation. Within a generation or two, they established free rational inquiry as a recognizable movement, a culturally coherent literary and intellectual tradition, in which ideas and concerns were passed from identifiable individuals in one generation to identifiable individuals in another, with each generation building on the work of those who came before. Like the tradition of faith , the tradition of reason was invented only once, although also like its religious counterpart it concentrates and amplifies a corresponding mental faculty that’s common to everyone.
And as any student of ancient philosophy can tell you, we see the first appearance of a unitary God not in Jewish scripture, but in the thought of the Greek philosopher Plato, who wrote in the early fourth century bc. Moreover, its origins go back to none other than Thales, who had proposed that nature can be explained by reference to a single unitary principle that pervades everything. Thales thought everything boiled down, so to speak, to Water, which he seems to have seen as an inherently divine material substance with no agency in nature; his immediate successors posited their own monist principles, including Air, Fire, and the Infinite. Divine but not divine agents, these ideas straddled the line between religious and secular. In his contribution to a groundbreaking book called Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity (1999), the classicist Martin West calls these monist principles “mindless gods,” which suits them admirably.1
Adding limited agency to this tradition, Plato in his dialogue Timaeus described what he called the Demiurge, a divine Craftsman who shapes the material world after ideal Forms that exist on a perfect immaterial plane. And Plato’s student Aristotle put his own twist on the concept, conceiving of God as an Unmoved Mover—a conception that would later, like Plato’s Demiurge, profoundly influence Jewish and Christian theology.
Centuries would pass before the Jews assimilated Greek thought, and scholars suspect that it was Hellenized Jewish philosophers such as Philo of Alexandria who imported the Greek idea of a single unitary God into the Jewish tradition. Philo, who was educated in Platonic philosophy and lived in the lifetime of Jesus, wrote, “God is One, but he has around him numberless potencies . . . ” Philo’s “potencies” would soon become the angels and demons (including Satan) whom early Christians would equate with the traditional gods of Greek polytheism as Christianity split off from this evolving Jewish tradition.
So one indisputable thing the last century or so of scholarly work has uncovered about faith and reason is that they are hardly the rigidly separate traditions we commonly take them for. It’s surprising for us, looking back, that reason came first. Even more surprising, perhaps, is how quickly monotheistic faith followed, starting with its first glimmering in the thought of Thales himself. As we perceive order in nature, it seems, we also gravitate to the One.