Why Polytheism Was Replaced by Monotheism: A Very Brief History of Religion (Part 2)

Part 2: Why monotheism, and why Mesopotamia?

Regardless, the history of the creation of monotheism takes us back to those questions: Why change from many gods to one? Why Mesopotamia? And why at that particular time after millennia of polytheism? There are many possible reasons, but what I personally believe is the reason is the advent of science. Here are just a few examples:

“Archaeological research covering a 6,000 year period in the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys, shows that the classical high cultures of the ancient Near East demonstrated some of the earliest and most fundamental examples of systematic observation of phenomena and prediction, unsurpassed until the European Renaissance, and practical engineering, unsurpassed until the 19th century. Though clearly an advanced technological society, Mesopotamia (modern Iraq, with imperial influences in Syria, western Iran, and southern Turkey) left records on cuneiform tablets that indicate the society had an advanced capability in mathematics. The people … moved from the hunter-gatherer way of life, which had proved effective for hundreds of thousands of years to a more settled Neolithic village lifestyle, based on the domestication of plants and animals about 12,000 years ago.” (Blake L. White, Strategic Technology Institute 2002)

“The Assyrians depended as much upon artificial irrigation as upon the periodical rains. They were skillful in constructing machines for raising water, and their vast system of canals was as remarkable as a monument of well-directed labour, as for the knowledge of hydraulics which it displayed.” (Layard, as quoted by White)

“In addition, village life facilitated new forms of technologies, such as metalworking, pottery, stone carving, and new forms of social organization. Mesopotamia shows evidence of being the most advanced technological society of its era. Over a 6,000 year period, Mesopotamian technology included advances in carpentry, glassmaking, textile manufacture, leather-working, perfume-making, farming, food preparation, irrigation, flood control, canal-building, water storage, drainage, brewing, and their tablets also provide detail on the economics of various industries.” (Roaf, as quoted by White)

“Perhaps the most impressive engineering achievements of ancient Mesopotamia are the series of ziggurats found throughout the region as early as 2100 BC in Ur, 1900 BC in Babylon, and 900 BC in Assyria. In addition, the Assyrians of Nineveh under the leadership of Sargon II (722-670 BC) and his son Sennacherib dominated the Near East with its iron-equipped armies, battering rams, and horse-drawn chariots.” (Derry, as quoted by White)

To sum it up, research tells us that the Mesopotamians had an older and even broader knowledge of science than ancient China. It seems quite likely that, as the sciences progressed rapidly in Mesopotamia, more and more “lesser gods” fell by the wayside as the actual causes of natural phenomena were understood (to some degree). With the loss of faith in polytheism, humans still needed some higher power to believe in, so they created a single, all-powerful god that defied the answers of science–well, up until modern theories regarding the origins of the universe and mankind. While the people of China were very advanced in many ways, their science (especially technology) was not quite as all-encompassing, and culturally they leaned more towards philosophy than an increasingly conservative religion. Thus, India remained predominantly Hindu, which is a polytheism approximately 5,000 years old, while China moved towards Buddha, Confucious, et alia, which are philosophies. In the meanwhile the Western World became predominantly monotheistic.

Next: The “god-man” mythology, and the rise of Christianity and Islam

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