Why Rulers Love Monotheism

How It Works
Oct. 9 2013 3:58 PM

Why Monotheism Leads to Theocracy 

71996825
Tehran, IRAN: A portrait of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali khamenei is seen next to Sam-6 missiles displayed in a square south of Tehran to mark the 'Sacred Defence Week,' commemorating Iraq's 1980 attack on Iran and the outset of the bloody eight-year war, 26 September 2006.

Photo by BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

An interesting working paper by the University of Connecticut economists Metin Cosgel and Thomas Miceli looks at a dataset of over 300 governments between 3,700 BC and the 20th century in order to “identify the factors favoring the emergence of theocracy.”

They found that “theocracy is more likely to emerge in those polities where (i) religion is able to serve a legitimizing function vis-à-vis the state, (ii) the religion market is monopolized, and (iii) the dominant religion is monotheistic.”

So what is it about monotheism that encourages religious and political authorities to merge?

An increase in the number of gods (a move toward polytheism) is like entry of religious providers in the sense that it will reduce the ability of religion to legitimize the state. Specifically, because a polytheistic religion has multiple gods, the populace will be divided in their loyalties (as they were with multiple religions), thereby diluting the power of any one god (and by extension, that god’s secular representatives) to confer legitimacy on the state. In contrast, a monotheistic religion requires worship of a single god whose power to legitimize the ruler is necessarily more concentrated.

It also seems like the benefits would go both ways. If monotheism helps political leaders gain legitimacy, these political authorities also help spread monotheistic faiths like Christianity and Islam through conversion and conquest.   

Via Branko Milanovic

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
Damned Spot
Sept. 30 2014 9:00 AM Now Stare. Don’t Stop. The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 30 2014 10:10 AM A Lovable Murderer and Heroic Villain: The Story of Australia's Most Iconic Outlaw
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal. But… What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath The Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.