This will be a short riff–a mere sketch, really–sparked by a comment that was part of an interview in the NY Times Magazine, drawn to my attention by this post of Gerard Van der Leun’s at American Digest.
A historian named Peter Watson, author of the recent Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, From Fire to Freud, is being interviewed by the Times:
Q: What do you think is the single worst idea in history?
WATSON: Without question, ethical monotheism. The idea of one true god. The idea that our life and ethical conduct on earth determines how we will go in the next world. This has been responsible for most of the wars and bigotry in history.
Q: But religion has also been responsible for investing countless lives with meaning and inner richness.
WATSON: I lead a perfectly healthy, satisfactory life without being religious. And I think more people should try it.
I suggest you read Van der Leun’s post, which skewers Watson so effectively and thoroughly that there’s no need for me to even attempt to add anything to that endeavor (although Watson proves himself to be an enticing target by managing to be exceptionally condescending to both taxi drivers and the institution of the novel, which he says offers truths that “don’t stay with you very long or help you do much”–speak for yourself, Watson!)
Although Watson is billed as a historian, his background is not as a historian per se, it’s as a journalist and, of all things, a psychiatrist (he left the field way back in the 60s).
As Van der Leun points out, Watson is somehow ignoring the vast good that ethical monotheism has done in setting up our entire “inner-directed system of morals.” It is indeed extraordinary that Watson can call it “the single worst idea in history,” whatever suffering has been inflicted, at times, in its name.
What is going on here, besides the fact that Watson considers himself to be both an atheist and a fine fellow, and conveniently ignores the underpinnings of the society of which he is a member, and the fruits of which he enjoys? Well, although Watson shows himself in the short but decidedly unsweet Times interview to be both elitist and arrogant, my guess is that he’s not quite as dumb as he sounds.
What I believe is actually lurking somewhere in the background of Watson’s murky thoughts is a different but tangentially related idea, once that is worth discussing. That thought is the following: religions which teach that (1) they are not just the answer, but the only answer, and (2) this answer is the only one for everyone on earth, and (3) this answer must be spread not just by proselytizing but also by violence, if necessary, and (4) great rewards in the afterlife will be bestowed on those who spread that religion through violence–such religions are indeed responsible for a great deal of suffering on earth, past and present.
Right now, however, the list of religions that fit that description is rather short. In fact, the only one I know of happens to be Islam–in fact, only certain subgroups of Islam. But ’tis enough, ’twill serve.