Gods and war: Monotheism triumphs ...

March 14, 2004|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff

God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism, by Jonathan Kirsch. Viking. 352 pages. $25.95

Had pagans and their multitude of gods won the battle 1,600 years ago for the soul of the Roman Empire -- instead of Christians and monotheism -- would the world's religious landscape be a more peaceful one today? This is the intriguing question at the beginning of Jonathan Kirsch's God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism.

Kirsch argues that whatever paganism's excesses -- human sacrifice and orgies come to mind -- it was more tolerant than the monotheistic faiths that succeeded it: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Unlike the Crusaders or the terrorists of Sept. 11, he argues, pagans were more willing to accept or even embrace the gods of other faiths than to brutally enforce worship of their own. Had the Roman Emperor Julian turned back the tide of Christianity and monotheism in the fourth century, it is "tantalizing to consider how different our benighted world might have been," writes Kirsch.

As we know, the monotheists won. Jesus and Mohammed now count half of the world's 6 billion people among their followers. In a breezy narrative geared toward readers interested in religious history, Kirsch recounts the pitched battles that preceded their rise.

At the heart of the conflict between pagans and those who worshipped the God of Abraham were different beliefs in the nature of deities. The God of the Old Testament forbid his followers from worshipping others. "I the LORD thy God am a jealous God," reads Exodus 20:5. Roman and Greek gods were more forgiving and recognized the desire of pagans to cover their bets by making offerings to other deities.

Kirsch, a book columnist for the Los Angeles Times, describes the polytheists' mix-and-match approach. In Rome, pagans added Yahweh to their pantheon, worshipping him alongside Apollo and Zeus. Alexander the Great adopted deities as he conquered territory, claiming the Egyptian god, Amon, as one of his heavenly fathers.

Kirsch acknowledges paganism's downside, including drunken orgies and the slaying of virgins. But he says historians, such as Herodotus, may have exaggerated pagan excess. And the Roman senate brought things under control, halting the Bacchanalia -- the festival honoring the god of wine, which included occasional acts of public sex -- and enforcing a shift from human to animal sacrifice.

While providing an accessible history lesson, Kirsch overreaches on occasion when he tries to link current events to their ancient forerunners without examining the complex forces behind today's battles. On page 2, he invokes Sept. 11, as a reminder, "once again of the real meaning of the 3,000-year-old conflict between monotheism and polytheism." Many, though, argue that Sept. 11 represents at least as much a struggle for the soul of Islam as a clash between faiths.

Nor does the book answer the question it poses in the early pages. The turning point of the war between God and the gods comes on a Persian battlefield where the Emperor Julian, who has led a brief counterrevolution against Christianity, takes a spear in the ribs.

Counterfactuals are by their nature impossible to prove, but what might the world look like if Julian had lived? Would paganism rule, and if so, what other problems might we face? Unfortunately, Kirsch never tells us.

Frank Langfitt covers religion for The Sun. He was a 2003 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and served from 1997 to 2002 as The Sun's bureau chief in Beijing, where he covered China and Asia.

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