What if Rome's Pagan Religion Had Prevailed? An persuasive book explores the repercussions of Christianity's ascendency in ancient times By Tara Katir, Kapaa, Hawaii Return to Hinduism Today Home Page
God against the gods: the history of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism is the latest from the pen of Jonathan Kirsch, author, journalist and attorney. In this book, Kirsch details the earliest historical conflicts of monotheism and polytheism as they occurred in ancient Europe, North Africa and the Middle East up to the death of Emperor Julian on June 26, 362 ce. His contention is that from its first historical appearance in ancient Egypt, monotheism has been an intolerant belief system. Monotheism's intolerance created conflicts then, and it continues to create conflicts that plague us today. Westerners who take pride in their monotheistic belief's bringing "civilization " to those of polytheistic customs may find Kirsch's analysis sobering and disconcerting.
Over thousands of years, recounts Kirsch, human cultures have worshiped a host of diverse Gods and Goddesses. This polytheistic worship of the Divine, while not totally benign, historically did not create conflict between neighboring peoples. As Symmachus, a pagan governor of the fourth century ce declared, "What does it matter by which wisdom each of us arrives at truth?" (See his entire speech in defense of paganism at http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/NPNF2-10/Npnf2-10-46.htm.) With this flexible posture toward worship of the Divine, little conflict would arise between worshipers of different Gods and Goddesses. Kirsch asserts, "The core value of paganism was religious tolerance--a man or woman 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." However, in a small geographical area of the Western world an event occurred which presaged a change in humans' personal relationship to the Divine. This development would set in motion what was to become a devastating polarization of enormous proportions--all in the name of divine worship.
In the fourteenth century bce, a young Egyptian pharaoh, Amenhotep IV, through the power of his absolute rule, commanded the Egyptians to worship but one God. This revolutionary move to restrict worship of the Divine to one God would set the stage for what was to become a 3,000 year bloody and acrimonious conflict over how human beings worshiped. "Like Moses [who lived a century later], who is shown in the Christian Bible to condemn the worship of a golden bull and other graven images, Amenhotep rejected all the traditional icons of paganism and chose a simple geometric shape to symbolize the God Aton." Amenhotep repudiated all the Gods and Goddesses in favor of a single God. No idols were fashioned in Aton's image because his was a form that could not be imagined; rather Aton was symbolized by a circle of gold. Amenhotep closed all temples to other deities and had their ritual worship suppressed. Statues were shattered and their names and images literally chiseled off existing monuments. While his radical religious practices were short-lived, the ultraist paradigm shift he initiated would be practiced in the extreme by a legion of believers in this new monotheistic worship.
Monotheism, in its exclusive devotion to the worship of one God, has inspired a ferocity and fanaticism that are mostly absent from polytheism, says Kirsch. He explains, "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 is a war that is still being fought today."
In our world today, Islamic tradition is easily targeted as the origin of religious terrorism or religious fanaticism. Kirsch points out, that, to 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." Biblical myth turned to recorded history with the Maccabeean warfare waged against the pagan Syrian king and later, when the Zealots fought against the pagan emperor of Rome.