God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism
by Jonathan Kirsch
p.1 “Religious intolerance was inevitably born with the belief in one God.”
Moses and Monotheism
p.2 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 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 t hat has been fought with heart-shaking cruelty over the last thirty centuries, and it is a war that is still being fought today.
p.3 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.
10-11 Monotheism, for example, cruelly punishes the sin of “heresy,” but polytheism does not recognize it as a sin at all. Significantly, “heresy” is derived from the Greek word for “choice,” and the fundamental theology of polytheism honors the worshipper’s freedom to choose among the many gods and goddesses who are believed to exist. Monotheism, by contrast, regards freedom of choice as nothing more than an opportunity for error, and the fundamental theology of monotheism as we find it in the Bible threatens divine punishment for any worshipper who makes the wrong choice. Against the open-mindedness of the pagan Symmachus, who allows that there are many roads to enlightenment and salvation, Bishop Fulgentius (468-533) insists that only a single narrow path leads to God.
“Of this you can be certain and convinced beyond all doubt,” declares Fulgentius, “not only all pagans, but also all Jews, all heretics and schismatics will go into the everlasting fire which has been prepared for the Devil and his angels.”
Here is the flash point of the war of God against the gods. The deity who is worshipped in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is described in the Bible as a “jealous” and “wrathful” god, and he is believed to regard the worship of any god other than himself as an “abomination.” The deities who populate the crowded pantheon of classical paganism, by contrast, were believed to be capable of thoroughly human emotions, including envy and anger, but they were never shown to deny one another’s existence or demand the death of someone who worshipped a different god or goddess.
“The pagan gods, even the gods of mysteries are not jealous of one another,” explains historian and anthropologist Walter Burkert. “ ‘Envy stands outside the divine chorus,’ as the famous saying of Plato’s puts it.”
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