An uneven but often provocative assessment of the significance of monotheism as a force in the history of religion.
Stark (Sociology and Comparative Religion/Univ. of Washington) sets himself an intimidating task, beginning with his sweeping claims that religions in advanced societies typically evolve in the direction of monotheism, and that “belief in a God of infinite scope . . . maximizes the capacity to mobilize human actions on behalf of religion.” Such grand claims, discussed in the first two chapters, can be supported only in the most general terms. Begging the question of how to differentiate between “simple societies” and “advanced civilizations,” the second chapter, which attempts to recount the origins of monotheism, is simplistic, giving any religion that might challenge its thesis—Hinduism, for example, or the polytheism of the Roman Empire—short shrift. In contrast, examinations of early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are incisive. Monotheistic religions, argues Stark, are inevitably more sectarian than more flexible polytheistic religions: “From the start,” he observes, “all of the major monotheisms have been prone to splinter into many True Religions that sometimes acknowledge one another’s right to coexist and sometimes don’t.” He is both authoritative and entertaining when reporting the squabbles among the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes, and the catalogues of heresies that Christianity produced within its first 200 years. Following a rambling, shallow discussion of the Jewish diaspora, the remarkable final chapter argues that greater sectarianism and factionalism is the strength, not the weakness, of monotheistic religions, inspiring more zeal and intellectual energy than either nonexclusive faiths or monolithic state religions: “The key to high levels of local religious commitment and of religious civility is not fewer religions, but more.”
Unconvincing as an all-encompassing theory of monotheism, but refreshing and moving as a plea for pluralism. (24 halftones)