From Publishers Weekly
The story of the suppression of polytheistic religions in the ancient world by the ever more powerful monotheistic religions is well known. Kirsch (The Harlot by the Side of the Road) offers his own version of this oft-told tale in a lively and engaging chronicle. Although many scholars point to Israel as the fount of monotheism, Kirsch shows that the earliest impulses toward monotheism can be found in Egypt with pharaoh Akhenaton's attempt to move the nation to the worship of one god. This Egyptian likely influenced Moses, according to Kirsch, and much of the history of early Israel is the history of the worship of one god emerging out of the worship of many gods. Monotheism gained momentum with the development of Christianity and was codified under Constantine. His son Julian strove to return polytheism to the scene by issuing edicts of toleration concerning polytheistic religious customs, but Julian's successor Theodosius I restored monotheism as the official practice of the Empire. Kirsch helpfully points out that the conflict between the worship of many gods and the worship of one true god never disappeared from the lives of Israelites, Jews, or Christians, in spite of many historians' claims to the contrary. In addition, Kirsch observes that monotheistic religions have too often used the worship of one god as a way to persecute those who do not share similar beliefs. While Kirsch breaks no new ground, he demonstrates clearly the ways in which this conflict gave rise to the tensions that exist even within monotheistic religions today.
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This book may generate heat as well as light, for it maintains that sectarian conflicts and religious wars are inevitable results of monotheism. If there is one god and one good, as monotheism claims, then differing religions must be devilish or evil. Polytheism, however, being essentially pluralistic, grants that god--or goddess--can take different forms; hence the deity worshiped by a neighbor could be as powerful as one's own. Not that polytheism has no blood on its hands; there have been persecutions led by polytheistic people. But most early Christians, Kirsch says, weren't martyred for God but were put to death for breaking laws, rather as a religiously motivated abortion-clinic bomber might be condemned for murder. Monotheism has realized jihads, crusades, and inquisitions as the results of believing that one truth overshadows all others. More than half of the book examines the point at which monotheism prevailed over polytheism in the West; namely, the end of the Roman Empire. Representing the two opposed camps were Constantine, a shrewd politician whose embrace of Christianity was calculated to advance his ambitions, and Julian the Apostate, who converted to paganism after his entire family was killed by Christian emperors. Kirsch's sympathies are clearly with Julian, whose death in battle ended the last best hope of polytheism in the West. A brilliant and controversial book. Patricia Monaghan
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