The Road to Monotheism

Here’s the approximate script for a talk I did recently. Unfortunately, for one reason and another, the videoing did not happen, so my YouTube channel will have to languish that little bit longer.


Good evening, everyone. I’d just like to take the opportunity, at the outset, to thank the organisers for giving me the opportunity to speak with you all, tonight.

Speaking of the organisers, I’d like to quote the description of this talk, as it appears on Meet-Up, because it’s what Ed wrote (with some minor changes by me), as a paraphrase of the overly verbose description I originally sent him, and because I want to try and keep to it as closely as possible:

“Belief in the divine is widespread across many cultures and this may be because the belief reflects reality. An atheist thus needs to explain why, from their perspective, belief in the divine has arisen erroneously.”

The description goes on to say that I “will illustrate how one very important social-cognitive skill gives rise to empathy (and thus morality?). From this [I] will then seek to explain the experience of the divine as an attempt to grapple with the moral problems of an increasingly large social environment, and the non-moral problems of the general environment.”

In keeping with this description, I will briefly describe the social-cognitive skill mentioned, along with some related psychology that helps put it in perspective. I will then detail how this primary skill relates to both morality and belief in gods. After a few closing comments, we’ll launch into the question and answer session.


Social-Cognitive Ability:

First off, let’s get to grips with this social-cognitive ability that is the lynchpin for this discussion. It was originally called Theory of Mind, back in 1978, when it was first discussed (with regard to chimpanzees). Since 1978 it has been called many other things: Mentalizing, Mind-Reading (the non-magical kind), Folk Psychology, and The Intentional Stance. These different names are all quite descriptive of what this ability entails…


Theory of Mind – Precursors

Reading facial expression/body posture:

Many of us habitually adopt the same facial expression and/or body posture as the person we’re talking to, so as to better understand their meaning, or to empathize with them. Notice that people who do this in an unaffected way often make us feel more comfortable speaking with them. The almost unavoidable feeling is that they’re ‘our kind of people’ (of course this may depend on what your threshold for ‘unaffected’ is).

Now, consider the fact that people who hold a pen clenched between their teeth, thereby adopting many of the facial characteristics of a smile will rate cartoons that they then read as funnier than if not doing so, and much more so than if holding a pen between pursed lips, and thus adopting a frown. This is an application of the facial feedback-hypothesis, which suggests that some of what we know about the status of our bodies is through noticing the body itself. This is merely reinforcing the feeling rather than the initiating cause.

However, notice that once we understand our own facial expressions and what they mean, we can better notice and understand them in others. By a series of steps, one can abstract from a particular facial expression or bodily posture what a person is likely to be thinking, especially if you are in the same context as them. From here one can begin to anticipate an individual’s behaviour. One can augment this ability using knowledge you have about the person based on:

  • how well you know them/how similar they are to you, or;
  • whether they conform to a stereotype you have for them.


Theory of Mind – Peculiarities

Reading actions in the environment:

As a species, we are embedded in a highly social environment. In many respects understanding each other has become more important than understanding the general environment in which the social environment itself is embedded. Other people are a more immediate danger to us – they might steal our food, or aggress against us. In the general environment seasons are more predictable, and earthquakes and thunderstorms are less frequent, in the modern general environment bear attacks are fewer and further between.

As such, once this skill was developed, it made pragmatic sense for it to lead to assumptions about people we know, or know of. So when something unexpected but positive occurs in our environment we ascribe benign intent, i.e. something done by someone we know, someone who is good; but when something unexpected but negative occurs in our environment we ascribe malign intent, i.e. something done by someone we don’t know, someone who is bad. You will recognise the Us vs. Them mentality in this, and more.

Notice, here, that a physical body is no longer the basis for our theorizing, we have climbed a few rungs on the ladder of abstraction. Now disembodied “behaviour” is the basis for our guesses about intent in our environment. Indeed actual theory of mind is triggered by surprising or unexpected occurrences (behaviour in our environment), not explicitly human occurrences. This is predicated on the simple expedient that a false positive is less dangerous than a false negative: thinking the shadow in the bushes is a potential assassin or burglar, is a lot safer than thinking that the actual assassin or burglar in the bushes is just a shadow.

To give two quick examples about how quickly we engage theory of mind and how quickly this leads to anthropomorphization of non-human entities consider computers and cars:

If your computer is working fine, it’s just a computer. However, if it glitches or crashes it’s a “stupid” computer. “Stupid”? Really?

If you’ve ever had the unabashed joy of owning an old car, how likely is it that you referred to how it runs as “temperamental”? Indeed, I’d be prepared to bet that the cars that have been given names are the ones that don’t work that well, or are owned by people who don’t really understand cars (making almost all “behaviour” unexpected). Even the lads on Top Gear predictably finish their reviews of cars that are “mad” or “bonkers” with, “…but you know what? I absolutely love it!”

Some might complain that these are things of human design, so of course they are the focus of Theory of Mind. OK, fair enough. What about the weather? The weather, like the second-hand car can be temperamental, too. Storms can be violent. Weather can be sultry (admittedly I’m cheating there… sultry is a description of weather applied to people, illustrating that the anthropomorphization has come full circle).

Just so we move away from any idea that empathy is all things good and pure and perfect, by default, let’s not ignore the fact that understanding someone else’s pain leads to the ability to take pleasure in someone else’s pain BECAUSE it is not your own pain.


Theory of Mind – Factors

Other aspects of human psychology:

System 1/System 2:

We have a skill that started off as the ability to read physical, which is to say facial and bodily, cues in the environment, but over time this skill became more abstract, able to read symbols in the environment detached from human bodies… and requiring of more cognitive effort. If you’ve read Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ you probably know where I’m going with this – some of the skill is of ‘System 1’ which is to say intuitive, unreasoned, fast, effortless, but prone to errors. ‘System 2’ is more cognitive, reasoned, slow, effortful, and less prone to errors (and indeed seeks to correct System 1), but sometimes relies on the output of System 1, and thus can perpetuate errors.


Executive Functions:

One of those errors is, as I mentioned, being triggered by surprising stimuli, rather than actual human stimuli. This is not a failure of Theory of Mind, per se, but a failure of Executive Functions. According to a classic paper on the topic, Executive Functions are “general-purpose control mechanisms that modulate the operation of various cognitive subprocesses and thereby regulate the dynamics of human cognition” (Miyake, et al. 2000, pp. 501). These include the abilities to:

  1. shift between sets and domains of data;
  2. update and monitor information in multiple domains, and;
  3. inhibit inappropriate responses within and across domains

So, you can see, that when Theory of Mind is triggered by events in the general environment, rather than in the social environment, it is a failure of all three. It should come as no surprise that Executive Functions, being complex and new in the scheme of things, is amongst the first to be negatively impacted by primal responses such as fear or anxiety. One of the benefits of being a social species is the greater protection from sources of fear, and thus anxiety, by being in a tribe… but this leads to other sources of fear and anxiety.


Dunbar’s number:

How well you know someone comes down to how much time you spend with them, in the social environment – thus, in general, you know your family and close friends, your “tribe”, best of all. There is a limit to how many people you can know well – and there are several different ways to tackle this issue. And it IS an issue, because how well you know someone defines, at least to some extent, how you deploy your Theory of Mind. With people you know well (to whom you have more than 10,000 hours of exposure, say) you are an expert in their likely response to situations. This knowledge has become mostly intuitive.

According to Robin Dunbar, the maximum number of people you can know well is around 150. This is predicated on the amount of frontal cortex humans have as a ratio to the rest of their brain, as compared to other primates. What Dunbar found was that the smaller the ratio, the smaller the “tribe” that the primate is naturally found in. The brain size related to how many tribe members it is feasible to groom in order to maintain social closeness, and the brain-space required to maintain the information gained from grooming. Note, here, that we’re back to the physical precursor to Theory of Mind, whereas humans use symbolic language (a cognitive skill) to maintain social relationships, sometimes over great distance.

Some people disagree with Dunbar’s Number, and alternatives have been proposed, such as the Bernard-Kilworth number, which is 1.5-2 times Dunbar’s. I’m not especially concerned about which number we agree is correct, or even if these numbers have any meaning at all, as I will explain in a moment. The difference between the numbers may just be down to the strength of the social ties represented (and this may be one means of managing larger tribes). Indeed, Dunbar’s work looked at groupings in Modern Western culture (such as military corps), but also historical anthropological work on Amazonian, New Guinean, and African tribes. It is interesting to note that tribes that were larger than 150 were so because of the number of children living amongst them – these tribes often split as the children reached adulthood.


Psychological Distancing:

Whether or not either of these numbers is relevant, one additional thing to note is that we can derive something very similar, though less specific, by noticing three aspects of our relationships with people in our tribe/social group:

  • how physically and psychologically similar to us someone is;
  • how physically close to someone we are;
  • how well we know someone.

The phrase ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is disturbingly true. Daniel Kahneman also presents the idea of ‘What You See Is All There Is’. Physical distance has a very real effect on our relationships with people. We have to work harder to maintain long distance relationships with people we ostensibly care about, and we are less likely to strike up relationships with people that we might otherwise care about, if only they were closer. In other words distance can, passively or actively, affect the way we engage with people. We can, actively or passively, replicate the impact of physical distance with psychological distance. If you don’t consider the person right next to you to be important, they could as easily be 1000 miles away. And if your partner or lover is 1000 miles away, they could as easily be by your side. Things like similarity to yourself, whether physically or mentally, impacts on the effort you will make to make someone psychologically closer.



Stereotypes are a means by which we depict a group of people, usually people that are at some physical distance, and thus with whom our inter-actions are only fleeting, and stereotypes tend to focus on difference, not similarity. Stereotypes are incredibly useful cognitive tools and, despite the bad press they get, are often highly accurate depictions of groups (I will add the caveat that this does depend upon whether the source of the stereotype is ideologically driven).

The primary problem with stereotypes is where an interaction moves from being at the group level to being at the individual level, and the degree to which the stereotype assumptions are held, despite contrary evidence from the individual. The continued holding of a stereotype about a person with whom you are directly interacting is a form of psychological distancing.

Despite, or maybe, in some cases, because of, their utility in creating distance, stereotypes are also used as a means to classify oneself to oneself. Notice that people who rely on too few self-stereotypes are able to distance themselves from their own pretty abominable behaviour (for example, people who define themselves by their gender, their race, their country of birth, and so forth, but little else).


So this brings us to morality. But first let me briefly recap what I’ve said about Theory of Mind…


Recap on Theory of Mind:

  1. Theory of Mind is predicated on the ability to read facial expressions and body posture.
  1. Adopting other people’s facial expressions and body posture will often make what they’re saying easier to understand…. and impact our own thoughts and feelings. This is the basis for empathy, and by extension, morality (or at least moral discourse).
  1. With any ability, as we become more practiced (as an individual, as a culture, as a species), the skill relies on less explicit content and becomes more abstract.
  1. In the case of Theory of Mind, this includes being able to discern motive from an action that is disembodied in space and time.
  1. Theory of Mind can be triggered by unexpected events in the general environment, not just the social environment, and can be applied to non-people, such as stereotypes, and non-assassins, such as shadows in the bushes.



So to head off (or possibly create) discussion on my use of the word morality, just then, here’s a definition from the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy:

The term “morality” can be used either

  1. descriptively to refer to some codes of conduct put forward by a society or,
    1. some other group, such as a religion, or
    2. accepted by an individual for her own behavior or
  2. normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.

I think it would be uncontroversial to say that codes of conduct put forward by a society, or a religion, as accepted by an individual, are JUST that society’s, or that religion’s documented code for a given specified condition, or, more often, a command that is supposed to be relevant across all conditions (e.g. Thou Shalt/Shalt Not). The individual, on the other hand, may be swayed by their society or religion, and/or they may be a rational person who normatively adopts a code of conduct under specified conditions (such as those not contemplated by a religion’s or society’s code).

So, what I would like to do now is discuss, in very general terms, the types of societies that humans have been part of, and the gods that those societies gave rise to, and the impact on moral discourse.


The Evolution of Monotheism:

Humans evolved the skill of Theory of Mind in an environment of small tribes, in which everybody knew everybody they interacted with regularly. So much so, that they generally interacted with people they were related to. Their tribe was like them, in every plausible way. By contrast, they could only have folk knowledge about their general environment. So what phenomena are going to be both extremely important to understand, and almost constantly surprising to such people?

The animals, the trees, indeed the very earth.

If you use your Theory of Mind – your abstracted self – to try to understand these things, you will necessarily imbue them with your ‘self’, your “spirit”. If in a state of fear, your Executive Functions will fail to remove the social aspect of that cognitive process, so the information will still “feel” social. So I’ve just described animism: animals and trees and the like with individual spirits, as well as the spirit of the forest, and maybe an overarching sky god or world spirit.

Notice that animist societies are never agricultural. When they become agrarian it signals that they’ve come to understand enough about their environment that aspects of it are less surprising. Successful agriculture and domestication of animals comes with a population explosion and specialization within that population – farmers, shepherds, hunters, and so on. Specialization leads to power structures, and thus politics and hierarchy. Gods, then, become more overtly anthropomorphized, with links to distinct animals and natural phenomena, and most importantly, they start to have their own hierarchy.

Note, here, that highly successful agricultural civilizations got large enough, quickly enough, that social inertia stopped some of the gods they worshipped, as a society, from progressing beyond being part animal and part human. Examples of this, not surprisingly, being fertile river deltas, such as the Nile and the Indus valley, giving rise to the Egyptian and Hindu pantheons.

Civilisations that were a little slower to flourish, or whose geography was less conducive to large, more homogeneous populations, instead have humanoid pantheons (though many of these gods have animal forms), foremost examples in the West being Greece and Rome, but also Scandinavian, Slavic, Sami, and Celtic pantheons. It seems that flood-plains, being broad, flat expanses lend themselves to greater inter-personal connection, more frequent (and less violent) interaction, and thus greater tolerance of difference, and gods to reflect the scope of human experience.

Clearly, the fertile region (if not a floodplain itself) that bucks this trend, is the Levant. Here civilizations rose and fell with various iterations of humanoid gods, but monotheism has been a recurring theme, from Zoroastrianism to the Abrahamic faiths. So the question is: Why?

The answer is probably going to sound very familiar to modern woes, particularly after I mentioned self-stereotypes based on race and country of birth: Immigration and Trade.

The Levant is, very approximately, the crossroads between Africa, Europe, and Asia, and there is evidence that this has been the case for millennia (in fact, almost constant for the last 1.8 million years, with evolutionarily relevant migrations as recent as 40,000 years ago). So the indigenous people of that region were constantly assailed by people from Africa, Asia, and Europe; all with their different epistemic commitments, and their desert gods, hill gods… and iron chariots.


From pantheism to monotheism:

So how do we get from the expansive and inclusive ideas of pantheism, and its subtypes, henotheism and monolatrism, to monotheism?

Pantheism is the belief in multiple gods. Some are gods of certain human activities, with their related moral codes. Others are gods of things in the environment (usually ones that humans rely on happening, or rely on not happening – from harvests to hurricanes – as such they are gods of human interaction with the general environment).

  • Henotheism is where each individual worships one particular god, of the multitude available, whilst accepting that there is a multitude, and adopting the moral code relevant to that god.
  • Monolatrism takes this idea, and has all people worshiping a high god, whilst still worshiping their preferred lesser deity, thereby bringing moral discourse into some kind of unity, whilst still having moral preferences, as exemplified by other gods, in the dicussion.

Monotheism, of course, is the doing away with all of the other gods, and worshipping a single god, and ascribing all morality to that god.


Now let’s draw a comparison with stereotypes (please excuse the dreadful coinages, which I use only to make the comparison explicit):

If Pantypism is the idea that there are humans that engage in the multiple activities available to them in society.

  • Then Henotypism is the idea that you engage in one of those activities, whilst accepting that there is a multitude.
  • And Monolatypism is the idea that you engage in one activity, but are, simultaneously, part of some unifying group, or society.

Thus, Monotypism is the idea that your unifying group is more important than anything else.

Recall that I said that stereotypes are predicated on Theory of Mind and the recognition of difference.

So, does Monotheism bear comparison to a monotypism like nationalism?

The Biblical God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and then killed the sons of Egypt, he condoned and/or aided in the destruction of the Canaanites, the Amalekites and the Moabites (sometimes to the point of directing the killing of women, children, and livestock). Egypt, Canaan, Amalek, and Moab, were nations apart from Israel.



The conclusion that I want you to draw from this is that stereotypes are, generally, explicit constructs used to describe other people by virtue of their difference from you (or your theory of your mind), and that gods are generally implicit constructs used to describe your people by virtue of their similarities to you (or your theory of minds). The construct under which people unite and differentiate themselves from others most readily is race and/or nation.

What I am saying is that any god is a metaphorical construct used to describe a group of people in shorthand. After all, if you wanted to describe your tribe/race/nation you would want to highlight their gifts, such as the goodness, wisdom and strength of its people. Monotheism is explicitly just such a national grouping; what has happened, however, is that the Abrahamic God has come detached from Israel – because Omni-benevolence, omniscience, and omnipotence were such generic descriptions on their own – it can be ported into a Christian American landscape, or an Islamic caliphate.

To illustrate that one’s religion is just an abstraction from one’s country (itself an abstraction from tribe), at least conceptually, consider the sedition, rebellion, and treason (or insurrection), and notice the relationship to heresy, blasphemy, and apostasy.

  • Sedition – Acts intended to promote disorder
  • Rebellion – Resisting authority
  • Treason – Betraying or attempting to overthrow one’s government
  • Insurrection – An uprising or revolt.


  • Heresy – Opinion contrary to orthodox doctrine.
  • Blasphemy – Speaking sacrilegiously about God.
  • Apostasy – The renunciation of a religious belief.


In this light consider the Christian martyrs. Were they spreading the good news to other countries, or were they encouraging the residents of those countries to adopt the cultural norms of an enemy state?

If you accept my postulate, then significant arguments between the Christian and the Skeptic dissolve, foremost of which is the argument on the source of human morality… if God is a metaphor for some given group of people, then god and humanity are BOTH the source of a morality, because they are one and the same thing considered in different ways.

Christianity, as a step on from Judaism, takes the non-human thing-ness of God and fleshes out the stereotype, creating an idealized person. As such many denominations aspire to be Christ-like. The deficiency of reliance on a stereotype is evident in the bigotry of certain denominations; a stereotype can’t be both male and female, for example.

As such, and in this light, consider Galatians 3:28

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.


About COEXISTential

I'm a psychology graduate, about to undertake a Masters. I did my first degree at 36 for various reasons, and am contunuing in my education for better reasons. The focus of my research is the psychology of morality, and thus also religion and politics. The focus of this blog is to apply my learnings from this research to the tricky problem of fixing the world. I am a progressive liberal, humanist, and agnostic-atheist, but the individuality of my principles is more important than the labels under which they broadly fall. So let's talk about life, the universe, and everything, and how best for us humans to exist within it.
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