The Violent Legacy of Monotheism? Truths, Half-Truths, and Downright Lies about Religion and Culture

It is often claimed nowadays that monotheism, and specifically biblical monotheism, is intrinsically violent.

See Also: Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says, and Why It Matters (Baylor Univ Pr, 2014)

By Iain Provan
Marshall Sheppard Professor of Biblical Studies
Regent College, Vancouver, Canada
March 2014

“To control a society, you don’t need to control its courts, you don’t need to control its armies, all you need to do is control its stories. And it’s television and Madison Avenue that is telling us most of the stories, most of the time, to most of the people.”

                                                                                   - Duane Elgin1

I think Elgin is right, but too narrowly focused. He underestimates the power of academics, who do not typically spend a lot of their time on television, and for the most part not much time in advertising. For the most part they simply write books, and maybe give public lectures. Their stories can be powerful, however, even when they are untrue, and especially powerful when they are picked up by TV producers and advertisers.

The Power of Stories

Three particular stories have grabbed my attention in the last several years. The first I call the story of the Axial Age, and it is one of the stories that underlies a popular modern conception about religion—that all religions are essentially the same at the core, and are all about compassion or some other central virtue. The storytellers here look to the past for their inspiration, and particularly to the late centuries B.C., which they regard as a turning point in human history. An array of new religions and philosophies emerged in this time period, spanning the ancient world, and they are alleged in this story to have had a considerable amount in common. So we can look back to this Axial Age for our inspiration in the present, as we remind ourselves about what we have in common. This story originates in its most recent form with the German existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers, and its popularizers include the religious historian Karen Armstrong. Jaspers was not a successful self-publicist, but Armstrong certainly is, and in recent times she has scaled the dizzy heights with an appearance even on Oprah.2

The story of the Dark Green Golden Age (as I call it) looks even further back into history, to the time of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. It claims that we all lived much simpler, happier lives back then, in Palaeolithic time—more equal and less violent lives, and far more ecologically sensitive lives. We even ate a much better (Paleo-)diet. Then came the rise of civilization, and it all went terribly wrong. The storytellers in this case want us to look back to this golden age so that we can put things right. This is the story that underlies much of our modern discourse about the ecological wisdom of aboriginal peoples, about getting in touch with our pre-civilizational selves, and generally about looking to the very distant past for insight into how to live more effectively and peacefully in the present. This story of an ancient “golden age” originates in the form under consideration here in the Romanticism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and its recent popularizers include (in North America anyway) authors like Derrick Jensen and David Suzuki.3 The purists among these storytellers do not advertise much, because advertising is part of the problem with the world; but the story itself has gone viral in recent years, not least because of the popularity of movies like Avatar.

The third story I have in mind is the story told by “the new atheists”—people like Richard Dawkins.4 I call this the story of the Scientific New Age. These storytellers differ from the other two groups in that they does not look to the past for models that might help us in the present, and they certainly are not interested in recovering religious perspectives from the past. They look fundamentally to the present, and they are profoundly hostile to religion (both past and present). The world (they claim) would be a much better place if we could get over our childish infatuation with God (or the gods) and if we could embrace modern, empirical science as the only (or at least the best) basis for true knowledge of the world. Convinced of their case, the new atheists have set out in a conscious, dedicated, and public manner to convince as many people as possible about it. Their efforts have included such publicity stunts as “atheist bus campaigns.”5

A Common Thread

Each of these three stories sells in our contemporary context, even though each is quite different from the other—on the whole. They are bound together by a common thread, however. They are all quite hostile to the biblical story, and sometimes profoundly so. They are particularly antagonistic to the Old Testament. The best thing one can say about the Old Testament is that it is a poor rendition of the timeless truths of authentic spirituality, the common beliefs at the core of the world’s major religions and philosophies. The worst thing one can say about it is that it is not only quite untrue but also bad for us—and bad even for its original recipients. It alienated them from each other, from other peoples, and especially from their fellow creatures and our common home, the earth. The telling of its story has continued to do damage down through the ages, precipitating violence, war, and ecological disaster. Religion in itself may not be dangerous—our various modern storytellers disagree on that point—but monotheistic religion certainly is dangerous, and biblical monotheism, particularly of the Old Testament kind, is seriously dangerous.

I do not agree at all with this kind of assessment of the biblical story, and I have just written a long book to explain why. It is entitled Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says, and Why It Matters.6 In this essay I am going to consider briefly just one aspect of the assessment, and explain why I think it is wrong-headed.

The Violent Legacy of Monotheism?

It is often claimed nowadays that monotheism, and specifically biblical monotheism, is intrinsically violent. For Marc Ellis, for example, all “monotheistic religions … are born in a cycle of violence” and that violence inevitably continues within them and between them.7 Regina Schwartz writes about “the violent legacy of monotheism.”8 Monotheism, it is alleged, leads inevitably from narrowness of thought and dogmatism, via violence, to war. Karl Jaspers invented the Axial Age precisely to counter this perceived threat, in the aftermath of the barbarism and dark passions of his own period of history in mid-twentieth-century Germany. The proponents of dark green religion tend to associate monotheism, and especially biblical monotheism, with imperial agriculture, authoritarian nationalism, violence, bigotry, and anthropocentrism (and thus the rape of the planet). They favor instead a “pre-Axial” spirituality that is local and pluralistic. Richard Dawkins is rather famous for his negative characterization of God in the Old Testament, which he sees as lying at the heart of the problem:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.9

A similar negativity about the biblical God is found in dark green religion—an oppressive, chauvinistic sky god, it is claimed, deeply implicated in the calamity that has befallen Mother Earth.

These are serious charges. Is there much to be said for any of them? I do not think so. My response has two aspects, but there is no space here to do more than simply mention the second.

The Character of God

In the first place, it is difficult to see why we should believe that it is faith in one God, in itself, that is “the problem,” rather than a particular understanding about who God is, and what his will is. For example, if the one God is not “for” all creatures, but only “for” human beings, and he wills that I should live in a manner consistent with this “truth,” then it might well be that nonhuman creation would suffer. Again, if the one God is not “for” all human beings, but only “for” me and my tribe or my state, and he wills that I should live in a manner consistent with this “truth,” then bigotry and violence toward other human beings might well follow. One can see immediately how these things might follow. The question is, however, is the God who is described in the Bible this kind of God? Does he in fact resemble, in any way, the kind of god that Richard Dawkins and others have in mind? And here we come to interesting point about Dawkins’ description of God in the Old Testament: that Dawkins does in fact claim to be reading the Old Testament in generating this description. And yet it is perfectly obvious that the authors of these texts did not themselves at all believe what Dawkins believes about this God.

What did they believe? They believed, fundamentally, that God is utterly good. In Genesis 1 this goodness is bound up with his intention to “bless” his creatures, which is picked up again in Genesis 12, where God commits himself to Abraham’s descendants as an aspect of his greater commitment to all the peoples of the earth. God’s goodness is also expressed in his steadfast love, which is often celebrated (e.g. Psalms 33, 36, 86). It is, in fact, one of the constant refrains of the Old Testament (26 times) that people ought to “give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.” Closely related to God’s love is his compassion, which exceeds even the deepest compassion known to humans (Isaiah 49:15). Steadfast love and a commitment to bless implies faithfulness, which is another important aspect of God’s goodness (e.g. Exodus 34:6; Psalm 36:5). God also rescues creatures from trouble. The Exodus is the foundational story, and individual Israelites locate themselves consciously within this story when they pray “save me” (Psalm 6:4). Isaiah 49:6 indicates God’s intention also of rescuing the entire world from its distress. “Holiness” is another way of speaking about God’s goodness—it is goodness by another name, and one day it will envelop the entire world (Zechariah 14:20; Habakkuk 2:14). In the meantime, God cares enough about the world to be really angry when things go wrong. It is the anger of a good person, outraged by the corruption of the world (Genesis 6:5), and especially by the oppression of the weak (Exodus 22:22-24). It is a good thing, this anger, because it means that even if human beings fail to deliver it, justice will be done (Isaiah 11:4). God will not “leave the guilty unpunished” (Exodus 34:6-7). There is hope, however, in this anger, even for those who suffer it (Lamentations 3:32-33), for God is incomparably merciful: “Who is a God like you,” the prophet Micah asks, “who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever, but delight to show mercy” (Micah 7:18).

This is, in a nutshell, what the biblical authors believed about God. Dawkins’ caricature really has nothing to do with what they believed—the people whose texts he is misusing to further his own ends. And it follows that if the one God is indeed this kind of God, then the bad consequences that might follow from monotheism do not follow at all. For in this case, the believer finds herself obliged to imitate a God who is generous to all his image-bearers, and who cares for all his creatures, human or not—obliged to “keep” both neighbor and garden (Genesis 2). In this case, belief in the one God is the very thing that will forbid the believer from living as an authoritarian nationalist, a violent bigot, or a planetary rapist. Historically, it is belief in this one God that has, in fact, prevented many believers from taking such perverse paths. These believers have not, in fact, read their Bibles in the way that Regina Schwartz reads hers. They have read it, fundamentally, in the way that I have just done. If anyone doubts that this is so, I fear that they have not made it their business to become acquainted with the facts of history; they have opted instead for hearing about them only secondhand. Indeed, one of the tiresome routines that often accompanies the condemnation of biblical faith nowadays is the rehearsal of various carefully selected, and often not well understood, “facts” of history that are said to “prove” its dangerous nature. It is not difficult, of course, to find instances in the past where people claiming to possess biblical faith have indeed erred, sometimes grievously and with terrible consequences. The contemporary enthusiasm for identifying such abuses is unfortunately not typically accompanied by any evident desire to publicize the various ways in which biblical faith, conversely, has shaped the world very much for the better.

The Character of the “Gods”

Just as belief in the one God of biblical faith is not the “problem” at the heart of what is wrong with the world, so too (secondly) the abandonment of this belief is far from being the solution. As Walter Moberly says of Regina Schwartz’s perspective in particular,

One can readily understand—even sympathize—with Schwartz’s dislike of aspects of our world. But whether the remedy is to see them as rooted in the Bible, and escapable if only one could truly break free from the Bible’s lingering influence, raises basic issues about one’s worldview and how one forms it . . . Getting rid of talk of the Bible and talk of God will not solve the problems.10

By way of example, people inflicted violence on their neighbors long before the rise of monotheistic religion, and while they still believed in “gods” in the plural.

Likewise, we should dismiss the romantic and false idea that, before there was monotheism, there was ecological sensitivity and care. There is no reason at all to believe in such myths. I would like to develop this point further, especially in relation to the character of the “gods,” but unfortunately space forbids. I must simply refer the interested reader not only my new book, but also to my almost-new book: Convenient Myths: The Axial Age, Dark Green Religion, and the World That Never Was.11


1 Interview in Consume This Movie, director Gene Brockhoff (Well Crafted Films, 2008).

2 Karl Jaspers, The Origin and the Goal of History, trans. M. Bullock (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953); Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (New York: Knopf, 2006).

3 Derrick Jensen, Endgame, vol. 1, The Problem of Civilization (New York: Seven Stories, 2006); David Suzuki, The Legacy: An Elder’s Vision for Our Sustainable Future (Vancouver: Greystone, 2010).

4 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006).

5 See, e.g., “Bus and Launch Photos Now Available,” Atheist Bus Campaign, accessed October 26, 2012,

6 Iain Provan, Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says, and Why It Matters (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2014).

7 Marc H. Ellis, Israel and Palestine—Out of the Ashes: The Search for Jewish Identity in the Twenty-First Century (London: Pluto Press, 2002), 75.

8 Regina M. Schwartz, The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

9 Dawkins, Delusion, 51.

10 Walter L. Moberly, The Theology of the Book of Genesis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 100.

11 Iain Provan, Convenient Myths: The Axial Age, Dark Green Religion, and the World That Never Was (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2013).

Comments (8)


How do you read the conquest narratives (Josh), Yahweh’s slaughter of 99.99% of terrestrial life in a flood (Gen 6-8), Yahweh’s callous disregard for human life and well-being in an attempt to win a petty wager with a member of his court (Job 1-2), or Yahweh’s willingness to destroy 70,000 Israelites by plague because their king (at Yahweh’s prompting!) took a census (II Sam 24)? How might these – and so many other narratives from the HB where, according to any reasonably humane moral standard today, Yahweh behaves atrociously – proclaim God’s goodness and justice? Finally, in the few passages you cite by way of illustration, it’s clear that Yahweh generally has positive feelings toward his “chosen ones,” but what about the other peoples on this planet? How, generally, does he feel about them?

#1 - J. Metzger - 03/06/2014 - 18:55

"This is, in a nutshell, what the biblical authors believed about God".

It does not not say that God is what people say. It is what biblical authors imagined.

#2 - Niels Peter Lemche - 03/06/2014 - 19:32

Richar Dawkins' description of Yahweh as: 'the most disgusting the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully' does not quite hit the mark for the disgusting in ancient narrative. However, it is, still, very close to the persepctive which the Pentaeuch, itself, wishes to engage for the purpose of its allegory. It is in Genesis 9:2's explanatory introduction to the role which Yahweh plays from the end of the flood story through Joshua. The most disgusting figure of ancient mythology, in Greek opinion, was their god of war, with his two sons: "Fear" and "Trembling." While mankind, in Genesis 9:2, is destined to play the role of the sons, Yahweh is to take up that of the really grim, ugly and evil in a considerable central chain of narratives, where he in his new fury--moderating that which brought on the flood--is thouroughly murderous and discusting (not least Gen 22; the golden calf story and the stories of the quail and scouts). Neglecting this central exegetical key to Genesis, Provan's dismissal of the quite reflective 1997 book of Regina Schwartz is hardly acceptable.

On the level of ancient literature, there is great difference between the narratives of early Middle Eastern monotheism and their polytheistic predecessors--except in regard to the kinds of themes which developed in relation to to this disgusting god of war.
The god Ptah, wishing to destroy all mankind, finds his "fury" such that he regrets that he created mankind. Unlike, Yahweh, however, he, in his polytheistic world, can pass his terror to Hathor and take on the saving role (the man who mixes the ochre with the beer).

The neglect of narratology in Provan's reading of the Bible is a great part of the problem and this is what Schwartz book draws our attention to.

So, if you have a limited budget, buy Schwartz's book.

Thomas L. Thompson
Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen

#3 - Thomas L. Thompson - 03/07/2014 - 13:32

I would agree with Prof. Thompson that the brevity of interaction with the argument defended in Schwartz’s fine book -- which forcefully demonstrates the conflict/violence resulting from identity formation, ownership, etc. – is a poor response. All the fine sounding citations that Provan brings to his article to demonstrate the ‘nice’ god of the OT lose their force when one asks the same question that Schwartz was asked: what about the Canaanites. Furthermore, his caricature of Dawkins (his representative ‘new’ atheist) strikes me as evidence of someone who is quite unfamiliar with the broader literature of secular criticism of religion as a social force in society.

#4 - Timothy Bagley - 03/07/2014 - 19:09

Dawkins appears to be surprised at the pent up animosity toward God that he has unleashed.

#5 - Susan Burns - 03/11/2014 - 15:02

The idea of 'the violent legacy of mono (rather than of all forms of religion/ideology)' is not an expression, but a contradiction, of the idea that all religions are 'the same at core'.
The idea that there is a specific feature of mono that favours intolerance and even violence is plausible, in that mono, if firmly linked to a particular religious practice, must regard all other religious practices as in some sense misdirected and illegitimate. However, that link is not essential to mono, it being possible to take the view that God is One, but also so far above and beyond that no particular religious practice, myth or cult, can provide exclusive access, even that many forms of myth and cult provide access of spiritual worth.
I would like to put in a word for Hellenistic/Stoic mono, as in Cleanthes' hymn, though I'm aware that are different readings of it. Something the same is found in some forms of modern Christianity. The interfaith committee of the Oxford Diocsse of the Church of England, to which I have the honour to belong, is recognisably Cleanthean in spirit.
First century Judaism was one of the forms of Hellenistic mono, with some of its strengths and weaknesses.

#6 - Martin - 03/15/2014 - 18:24

It is a wonderful irony that the Christian communities to whom Paul writes in the 50's -- tiny little communities of people -- consign the entire rest of the Roman Empire to judgment in the soon coming parousia of Jesus. The New Testament does not miss out on the wrath of the deity either.

#7 - Edward Mills - 03/21/2014 - 22:10

I was curious about Provan's view of the Axial Age. I've been thinking about buying his book, but I think I've decided against it. His analysis, from what I read here, feels simplistic and superficial. I don't get the sense that he is actually taking seriously that which he seeks to dismiss.

#8 - Benjamin David Steele - 01/04/2015 - 20:59

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