Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Tolerance of Polytheism

Over at Evangel, Hunter Baker puts up the following quote in order to put out the author's interesting association between secularism and polytheism:
Fortunately, in some parts of this troubled planet, the polytheistic tendency, with its signal notion encouraging inclusion, seems to be gaining ground and legitimacy — after its long nightmare — in the guise of secularism.

What I find equally troubling is the notion that polytheism has a tendency toward inclusion. I commented:
What is equally silly is the notion that polytheism is some how more tolerant. Polytheism in the ancient near east led to just as many wars. In Greek and Roman times “polytheists” were hardly bastions of tolerance. The minute somebody denied the gods, or argued for monotheism, the were generally introduced to a lambasting that could culminate with the edge of a sword or a playful jaunt with some lions.

Over hear on my blog, I thought I elaborate just a little bit. One does not have to read very far in ancient history to discover that tolerance was hardly an attribute of the ancient world. To argue that more gods makes you more tolerant of more people is just imposing silly postmodern categories back onto the ancient world. Let's consider a few examples:

In the ANE, going to war was often motivated by theological reasons. In fact, if one one in battle one had conquered the enemies and defeated the god of the kingdom. So for example, consider when Sennacherib's armies surround Jerusalem. There minster of toleration read an edict something like this:
"Dear people of Jerusalem, we have come to usher you into the wonderful loving expanse of the Assyrian empire. You worship a mean repressive god and since you believe he is the only one you have been rather war like. We have come to enlighten you, freeing you from your oppressed state and show the glories of a loving society that accepts everyone's beliefs. Please open the gates so that we can shower you wreaths, warm food and fine wines. Your god is just one of many and we accept them all."
Oh wait, it was actually something like this.
Isaiah 36:18 Beware lest Hezekiah mislead you by saying, “The Lord will deliver us.” Has any of the gods of the nations delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? 19 Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? 20 Who among all the gods of these lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?’”
Yes they were tolerant of the other gods. The reality is that making peace with the Assyrians, as they demanded, entailed submitting to the supremacy of the Assyrian gods.

In the ANE, just because one had a pantheon did not make one less susceptible to violence and somehow more tolerant. In fact, often time creation myths involved the slaughter of a particular god or gods. The gods often established cosmic order and it became a justification for warfare and divine worship of the local regents. Even in later Graeco-Roman religion, the conduct of the gods often became justification for harsh treatment of people. For example, the Greek and Roman gods were hardly examples of egalitarianism towards women, and women in society of the ancient cultures often reaped such abuse at the hands of their own men.

The Greeks and the Roman were hardly more tolerant either of particular people groups or of particular religions. While the philosopher and those who worshipped the gods had their far share of disputes, the general population was hardly tolerant of alternate beliefs, particularly if they contradicted popular opinion. Socrates was put to death for his impiety and making the gods look foolish.

During the Maccabean period, Jews were persecuted because of their religious beliefs. Erecting a gymnasium in Jerusalem and sacrificing a pig to Zeus in the temple, were hardly marks of toleration. They were carefully designed to humiliate and attack another religion.

So while it may seem tolerant that more varying views about which god was supreme or it allowed different temples to serve different places of prominence, they were hardly accepting and tolerant of all. It is true that in Acts 17, in Athens their was an altar to the unknown god--but they sneered at an idea of a god who could raise the dead. In the early years of Christianity, Judaism was considered a legal religion, a number of religion were not legal. Furthermore, an Acts a riot is started in Ephesus when Artemis, and the livelihood of idol makers, is threatened.

In the early centuries of Christianity, Christians were punished and martyred. But is was not just Christians. Diocletian declared of Manichaeism that "We order that their organizers and leaders be subject to the final penalties and condemned to the fire with their abominable scriptures." For a while the cult of Dionysus cult was suppressed because of the wild partying associated with it.

It is certainly true that polytheism leads to an easier assimilation of beliefs. If one is a polytheist, it is much easier to go whichever way the wind is blowing. However, if there is one thing that polytheists consistently showed little toleration of in the ancient world it was the monotheism of Judaism and Christianity. Ironically, in this fashion (much like the modern world) this is its own form of in-toleration: anyone not willing to assimilate to the cultural norms established is persecuted. Suppression is not too tough a label. Even more, polytheism did not make culture's less repressive or somehow more open to rights and compassion for the repressed, sick and innocent--often it was quite the opposite. While the history of Christianity is not without its own failures, it was the rise of Christianity in the empire that lead to a greater compassion, tolerance, and care for the downcast in society, indeed recent sociological studies of the early church have demonstrated this.

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