Critical Podium Dewanand Religion
Monotheism blamed for history's bloodshed. Polytheism
embraces pluralism, author says Toronto Star
Sacrificer IRA RIFKIN
Sacrifice code wfor0259
Sacrifice date 25 march 2009
Monotheism blamed for history's bloodshed
Polytheism embraces pluralism, author says
Politics motivated Constantine's faith
SPECIAL TO THE STAR
Religious differences fuel many of the world's violent conflicts, detractors
and supporters of organized faith often lament in unison.
Author Jonathan Kirsch would put a finer point on the charge. He blames
the leading monotheistic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam -
for much of history's bloodshed. The reason, he maintains, is monotheism's
traditional claim to exclusive possession of absolute truth.
Too bad Julian the Apostate, the Roman Empire's last pagan emperor, died
young in battle, says Kirsch, author of God Against The Gods: The History
Of The War Between Monotheism And Polytheism (Viking). Had Julian lived
longer, he might have succeeded in reinstating classical Greco-Roman polytheism,
which was marginalized when Emperor Constantine the Great institutionalized
Christianity's ascendancy - and world history might have turned out more
"Julian is one of the great `what ifs?' of history," said Kirsch,
an intellectual property lawyer. "Human history is the history of
our evolution toward greater individual liberty. I have the nagging feeling
that, at least in the West, we might have gotten there faster and in a
more direct way had Julian lived."
Polytheism, the belief that there can be more than one god, was the ancient
world's dominant religious system. Today it survives chiefly in Hinduism,
in tribal traditions, in Afro-Caribbean faiths, and in Wicca and other
neo-pagan movements that are growing in North America and Western Europe.
Greco-Roman polytheism reached its philosophical peak in Neo-Platonism,
which emphasized ethical behaviour and the existence of a unifying transcendent
Polytheism's core value, Kirsch writes, is theological pluralism, a stark
contrast to traditional monotheism's penchant for insisting that the "One
God" demands theological conformity. And religious freedom, the 54-year-old
Kirsch said in a telephone interview, paves the way for public differences
of opinion on other topics as well.
In his book, Kirsch begins the story of monotheism's rise with Akthenaton,
the 14th century B.C. Egyptian pharaoh and proto-monotheist. (Kirsch skips
the biblical prophets Abraham and Moses, whose historical reality he rejects
Not until the reign of King Josiah, the 7th century B.C. ruler of the
Jewish kingdom of Judah, did the biblical Israelites fully elevate their
chief god, Yahweh, to the status of the "One God."
"Judaism as a faith of strict monotheism can be said to begin with
King Josiah," said Kirsch.
Kirsch devotes the greater part of his book to the reigns of Constantine,
who embraced Christianity and made it Rome's official faith in the 4th
century, and Julian the Apostate, Constantine's nephew who briefly restored
polytheism to its traditional place in the Roman pantheon for one last
Christian writers emphasize Constantine's faith conversion as the root
of his Christianity. Kirsch emphasizes Constantine's political motivations.
He writes that Constantine's "preference for monotheism over polytheism
reflected his own ambition to achieve the same absolute power on earth
that the Christian god was believed to exercise in heaven."
Likewise, Kirsch continues, Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea
in 325 - out of which Christian tradition says came the faith's central
statement of doctrine, the Nicene Creed - more out of a desire to impose
control over an increasingly unwieldy church than out of concern for theological
clarity in pursuit of spiritual truths.
Julian - who came to full power in 360, following Constantine's death
and after some years of nasty internecine intrigue - was a pagan counter-revolutionary
who restored religious legitimacy to classical Greco-Roman polytheism.
However, Kirsch emphasizes, Julian did not try to eradicate monotheism
as Rome's Christian rulers had sought for polytheism. Julian instead sought
to place polytheism and Christianity on equal footing. "That's what's
most appealing about polytheism - its openness to accommodating the faiths
of others," said Kirsch.
Kirsch may have a sweet spot for polytheism, but he fully acknowledges
that polytheists, including pre-Christian Romans, can be as brutish as
fervent monotheists (his term for fanatical fundamentalists). The only
difference between violent polytheists and violent monotheists is that
the former kill to gain political control and the latter kill to assert
The difference is subtle, said Kirsch, but important. Polytheists sought
control over the public sphere alone; monotheists sought control over
private thoughts as well.
Kirsch noted that traditional monotheists generally dismiss his writing
as uninformed and anti-faith. Yet he insists that he is a "Jewish
"I recite the Sh'ma (Judaism's creedal statement of monotheistic
orthodoxy), but I also entertain the idea that there are many ways that
people perceive the one, true God. My beliefs are not threatened by dissenting
Kirsch recounted a Buddhist aphorism to sum up his religious beliefs:
"One moon, many pools. Many pools, one moon." The point, he
explained, is that light from a single source can be reflected in many
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