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The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism
Copyright © 2005 Jonathan Kirsch
All right reserved.
The Everlasting Fire
The Dark Side of Monotheism,
the Bright Side of Polytheism
Religious intolerance was inevitably born
with the belief in one God. -Sigmund Freud,
Moses and Monotheism
Something deep in human nature prompts us to imagine the existence of a power greater than ourselves, whether we call it "Yahweh" or "Christ" or "Allah," "Mother Nature" or "the Higher Power" or "the Universe." Religious belief and practice begins with the origin of the human species-the Neanderthals invented rituals for the burial of the dead-and modern medical science proposes that the idea of "god" is literally hard-wired into the anatomy of the brain. Human beings, in fact, can be distinguished from lower orders of animal life not because we use language or make tools or fight wars, but because we are the only creatures who conceive of a higher power and who are inspired to offer worship and sacrifice to that power.
"Indeed, there is a case for arguing that Homo sapiens ['Rational man'] is also Homo religiosus ['Religious man']," writes Karen Armstrong in A History of God. "Men and women started to worship gods as soon as they became recognizably human; they created religions at the same time as they created works of art."
Nothingin human nature, however, suggests the inevitability of the notion that there is only one god. On the contrary, men and women in every age and throughout the world have offered worship to literally thousands of gods, goddesses and godlings, male and female alike, and they still do. Only very late in the development of Homo religiosus did monotheism-"one-god-ism"-first emerge, and whenever some visionary king or prophet sought to impose the worship of one deity to the exclusion of all others, he would discover that ordinary people so cherished their many beguiling gods and goddesses that the very idea of monotheism was appalling. That is why the very first recorded experiment in monotheism was an abject failure, and polytheism has survived every effort to destroy it.
But, fatefully, monotheism turned out to inspire a ferocity and even a fanaticism that are mostly absent from polytheism. At the heart of polytheism is an open-minded and easygoing approach to religious belief and practice, a willingness to entertain the idea that there are many gods and many ways to worship them. At the heart of monotheism, by contrast, is the sure conviction that only a single god exists, a tendency to regard one's own rituals and practices as the only proper way to worship the one true god. The conflict between these two fundamental values is what I call the war of God against the gods-it is a war that has been fought with heart-shaking cruelty over the last thirty centuries, and it is a war that is still being fought today.
The Roots of Religious Terrorism
On September 11, 2001, we were reminded once again of the real meaning of the 3000-year-old conflict between monotheism and polytheism. The men who hijacked and crashed four civilian airliners were inspired to sacrifice their own lives, and to take the lives of several thousand "infidels," because they had embraced the simple but terrifying logic that lies at the heart of monotheism: if there is only one god, if there is only one right way to worship that god, then there is only one fitting punishment for failing to do so-death. At that moment, we were shown, yet again, the power and the consequences of true belief in monotheism.
Nowadays, the bloodiest acts of violence in the name of God seem to come from the Islamic world, and the hijackers who piloted airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are only the most horrific examples. Other recent incidents include the dynamiting of ancient Buddhist statuary in Afghanistan by the Taliban, who condemned the 1600-year-old artifacts as "false idols" and "gods of the infidels," the sentencing of Nigerian women to stoning for the sin of adultery and Iranian journalists to death for the sin of blasphemy, and suicide bombings by Palestinian adolescents who seek martyrdom in a jihad ("holy war") against nonbelievers by blowing themselves up in the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
But the roots of religious terrorism are not found originally or exclusively in Islamic tradition. Quite the contrary, it begins in the pages of the Bible, and the very first examples of holy war and martyrdom are found in Jewish and Christian history. The opening skirmishes in the war of God against the gods took place in distant biblical antiquity, when Yahweh is shown to decree a holy war against anyone who refuses to acknowledge him as the one and only god worthy of worship. Holy war passes from biblical myth into recorded history during the wars of national liberation fought by the Maccabees against the pagan king of Syria and later by the Zealots against the pagan emperor of Rome, which provide us with the first accounts of men and women who are willing to martyr themselves in the name of God. The banner is taken up by the early Christians in the first century of the Common Era, when they bring the "good news" of Jesus Christ to imperial Rome, where the decisive battle in the war between monotheism and polytheism is fought.
The crucial encounter takes place in Rome during the fourth century, when the Roman emperor Constantine worked a revolution in the name of monotheism and then his nephew, the emperor Julian, sought to work a counterrevolution in the name of polytheism. The years in which these two men reigned, one in living memory of the other, would literally change the history of the world. "For better or worse," remarks Gore Vidal in a novel based on the life of Julian, "we are today very much the result of what they were then." And yet the final victory of God against the gods was not inevitable, and we can see with our own eyes how the Western world teetered between two possible fates during the lifetimes of these two willful, ruthless and charismatic men. Above all, we will glimpse something that is rarely considered in our churches, synagogues and mosques-the dark side of monotheism, and the bright side of polytheism.
Monotheism is classically understood to be a "gift of the Jews," according to Thomas Cahill's felicitous phrase, but the fact is that an eccentric young pharaoh of ancient Egypt was apparently inspired to worship a single god even before "one-god-ism" was embraced by the ancient Israelites. The first recorded experiment in monotheism took place in ancient Egypt in the fourteenth century b.c.e. under the reign of a pharaoh called Akhenaton, and it is likely that the Israelites borrowed the idea from the Egyptians. Unlike other inventors of new religions, including Moses, Jesus and Mohammed, Akhenaton was not a prophet who preached his gospel to skeptical crowds; rather, he was the absolute ruler of the single most powerful empire in the ancient world. Still, just like those more famous monotheists, Akhenaton discovered that the idea of monotheism is not especially appealing to men and women who are accustomed to worshipping many gods and goddesses. But popularity does not matter when the prophet is also a king-the fiery young pharaoh possessed the power to impose monotheism on an unwilling populace by royal decree.
Akhenaton may have been the first monarch to order his subjects to worship a single god, but he was hardly the last one to do so. Monotheism eventually reached and rooted itself in the land of Israel, but it was rejected by the majority of Israelites as something strange and unappealing. Starting with Moses, all the prophets who scold the Israelites in the pages of the Bible are wholly unsuccessful in persuading them to confine their worship to the God of Israel. Not until the reign of King Josiah in the seventh century b.c.e.-another monarch who was also a fiery religious reformer-was the religion of ancient Israel fully purged of its pagan taint, and only then because Josiah, like Akhenaton, enjoyed the power to make it so.
But Josiah's war on the gods, like Akhenaton's, did not result in a lasting victory. When Josiah died in battle against an Egyptian pharaoh, many of the Jews drifted back to their old and easygoing ways of worship, and the prophets resumed their bitter but fruitless complaints. Later, the land of the Jews came under the seductive but corrosive influence of the pagan culture called Hellenism-to be an educated and civilized man or woman, according to the Hellenistic ideal, required a familiarity with pagan arts and letters and participation in pagan rituals and celebrations. Now and then, the most pious and zealous of the Jews struggled against the temptations of Hellenism, seeking to enforce the worship of the God of Israel at the point of a sword, but monotheism seemed at risk of remaining only an historical curiosity, the tribal practice of a tiny and powerless people who lived in a backwater of the Near East.
Indeed, the final victory in the war of God against the gods was not achieved until a new superpower emerged in the ancient world-the empire of Rome-and the men who ruled it acquired the apparatus of autocracy. The Roman empire of late antiquity has been characterized as the first totalitarian state in history, and the Roman emperors were able to call on the expert services of an imperial bureaucracy that included spies, informers, inquisitors, torturers and executioners. The king who perfected the Roman autocracy was Constantine, a pagan general who intrigued, conspired and battled his way to the imperial throne in the opening years of the fourth century-and then, fatefully, found God.
To Rome came all the faiths of the ancient world, not only the familiar gods and goddesses of Hellenism but a fantastic assortment of weird, raucous and highly exotic deities from all over the empire. Among the many competitors for the hearts and minds of the Roman citizenry, in fact, the oddest of all were those who confined their worship to only a single all-powerful god-the Jews, of course, and an obscure sect of Judaism that came to be called Christianity. By then, the Jews had made a separate peace with paganism, and they found a way to carry on the worship of the God of Israel throughout the Diaspora without disturbing (or being disturbed by) their pagan neighbors. But the Christians had taken up the old traditions of zealotry that were written large and plain in the pages of the Bible. They called themselves "Soldiers of Christ," and they were eager to fight and die in the name of God.
Constantine favored Christianity, but he refrained from bringing the full weight of imperial authority to bear in the war that the Soldiers of Christ were fighting against all manner of paganism. And so, after the long reigns of Constantine himself and his three Christian sons, the emperor who next took the throne was able to entertain the remarkable idea of restoring the worship of the old gods and goddesses whom he found so enthralling. His name was Julian, and he is recalled in pious Christian history as "the Apostate"-a term that was coined to condemn anyone who has repudiated the teachings of true belief. But Julian also represented the last, best hope for the preservation of everything that was elevating and ennobling about paganism. Between Constantine and Julian, the world faced a choice between two futures, and so the lives and reigns of these two men present us with one of the great "what ifs" of human history.
A Parade of Horribles
Over the last thirty centuries of religious propaganda, starting in the Bible and continuing through the TV evangelists of our own era, paganism has been painted as a parade of horribles. We are instructed to regard paganism as an "abomination," as the biblical authors so insistently put it, a dark and demonic force compounded of harlotry, idolatry, sorcery and human sacrifice. "The error of polytheism," argues historian Hans Lietzmann, "led the peoples into darkness and moral chaos." The classical paganism of late antiquity-which was, after all, the faith of the high civilization of ancient Greece and Rome-is flatly condemned by one nineteenth-century Christian historian as "the moral disease of the Roman world." Even today, a celebrity cleric like Jerry Falwell insists that the horrors of September 11 can be attributed to the lingering evil of paganism.
The pagan world, to be sure, was hardly a benign place. Common criminals were routinely tortured before they were put to death, and prisoners of wars were sold off as slaves when they were not crucified en masse. Women and children in conquered lands were placed in the same category as cattle and chattel-spoils of war that belonged to the victor. But the religious practices and beliefs of paganism were kinder and gentler than we have been taught to believe by our rabbis, priests, ministers and imams. The core value of paganism was religious tolerance-a man or woman in ancient Rome was at liberty to offer worship to whatever god or goddess seemed most likely to grant a prayerful request, with or without the assistance of priests and priestesses, as long as he or she didn't do it in the streets, as a Victorian-era wit once said of women preachers, and scare the horses.
"What does it matter by which wisdom each of us arrives at truth?" muses Symmachus, a pagan prefect of the fourth century. "It is not possible that only one road leads to so sublime a mystery."
By the first century of the Common Era, paganism offered a fabulous array of beliefs and practices from which to choose, ranging from the sedate and stately rituals of worship offered to the gods and goddesses of the traditional Greco-Roman pantheon to the eerie and exotic rites that roused the devotees of such imported deities as Isis, Mithra and the Great Goddess. A few of the pagan cults still engaged in celebrations so spirited that we might characterize them as orgies, but the most common ceremonies of classical paganism-ranging from animal sacrifice to the offering of cakes and libations-were strikingly similar to the rituals that the Hebrew Bible prescribes for the worship of the God of Israel.
Indeed, many of the commonplaces of paganism will strike the modern reader as both familiar and inoffensive. Tossing a coin in a fountain, for example, is a distant echo of the offerings of jewelry or coins that were made to the gods who were thought to reside in lakes, streams and pools. The horoscope in the morning newspaper recalls the daily astrological readings that a cautious pagan would consult before taking a bath or getting a haircut. Tying a ribbon around a tree is our way of honoring a missing child, but the same gesture was used by the ancients to honor an unseen god. And the essential feature of the shrines where oracles were thought to channel the voices of the gods-"the conjunction of an uncanny place and a canny person," as historian J. L.
Excerpted from God Against the Gods by Jonathan Kirsch Copyright © 2005 by Jonathan Kirsch. Excerpted by permission.
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|Prologue: The Everlasting Fire: The Dark Side of Monotheism, the Bright Side of Polytheism||1|
|Book 1||The God That Failed|
|Chapter 1||Against All the Gods of Egypt: A Young Pharaoh's Experiment in Monotheism and Why It Failed||21|
|Chapter 2||What Did Pagans Do? The Case Against Classical Paganism-and Why It Was Wrong||39|
|Chapter 3||Terror and True Belief: The Jewish King Who Reinvented the Faith of Ancient Israel||65|
|Chapter 4||Confessors and Traitors: Pagans and Christians Go to War in Ancient Rome||93|
|Book 2||The War of God Against the Gods|
|Chapter 5||"In This Sign, Conquer" The Curious Encounter of Christ and Constantine in the Struggle for the Roman Crown||119|
|Chapter 6||The Harlot in the Bishop's Bed: The War Within the Christian Church over the Divinity of Christ||147|
|Chapter 7||The Ruler of the Whole World: The Invention of the Totalitarian State by the First Christian Emperor of Rome||169|
|Chapter 8||The Orphans of Macellum: The Christian Prince Who Survived a Blood Purge and Struggled for the Restoration of Paganism||193|
|Chapter 9||The Secret Pagan: Gods, Empresses, and Julian's Unlikely Rise to the Imperial Throne||213|
|Chapter 10||"Behold, the Rivers Are Running Backwards": The Pagan Counterrevolution of the Emperor Julian||237|
|Epilogue: The Handless Scribe: The Price of Victory of the Only True God||269|
|Major Historical Figures||289|
Posted January 21, 2013
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Posted December 28, 2010
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