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God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism Hardcover – March 8, 2004

4.2 out of 5 stars 47 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

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
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult (March 8, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670032867
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670032860
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,211,678 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This book was as enjoyable to read as it was eye-opening. Because of 9-11, we are well familiar with the faction in Islam that believes in killing the so-called infidels. What I did not know was how deeply entrenched in killing non-believers that the original Jews and Christians were, as well; often under the supposed encouragement and blessing of The One and Only True God.

The point of God against the Gods is not to condemn either Christianity or Judaism. Far from it. Rather, it makes the compelling point that the victory of monotheism over paganism in many respects may not have been a good thing; largely because of the tendency toward intolerance and persecution that the belief--my God is the One and Only True God--tends to breed in the minds of believers. This is a novel, provocative point to ears that have grown so used to hearing that monotheism is superior to paganism, and that paganism is nothing more than a superstitious hodgepodge whose defeat was a blessing to the world. But the author makes his point in a calm, reasoned, and balanced manner. In many respects, I found myself persauded. However, he certainly does not claim that paganism is totally innocent in world history either. It has its share of dark moments, too.

This book is written in an easy, almost conversational manner, which allows it to provide a lot of fascinating history in a very interesting manner. I thoroughly enjoyed every page. At the same time, I also acquired insights and facts about the history of the three major monotheistic religions and paganism that I was not aware of before. The chapters on the Roman Empire and its Caesars, especially Julian, were fascinating. God against the Gods is highly recommended.
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Format: Hardcover
I had to write after reading the negative reviews below. It always amazes me how people can claim to have read a book, and then describe something that bears only a passing resemblence to the actual text.
Seth, for example, contends GAtG only covers the period of Constantnie to Julian. Since Constantine doesn't show up until page 119, I'm assuming he skipped ahead to the parts he wanted to complain about.
The book actually begins in ancient Egypt, when a Pharoh tried to remove the polythestic gods of his culture and set up the first monotheistic religion. It then moves on to Moses and the other Jewish prophets and their attempts to keep the sometimes straying Jews (golden calf, anyone), in line with the monothestic faith they wanted all their tribe to follow. It then discusses the waxing and waning fortunes of the Jewish faithful (and not so faithful) as their interactions with Romans (and polytheism), shift and move back and forth between rigorist monotheism and comprimise with the pagan, polythesitic culture of the classical age.
While all this is happening, Christianity is introduced, and we get the first case of a monotheistic faith battling a monotheistic faith -- Jews following Jesus against Jews who don't.
And so on, as Christianity spreds into Rome, but refuses to obey the laws of respecting ALL Gods -- which was considered a civic obligation of the Roman citizen. Constanine shows up after all this is clearly laid out.
Seth claim that this is a book "against" Christianity reflect his bias -- Kirsch clearly has it in for Monotheism in general, and that includes Judaism, and Islam. He admits up front that if there's going to be religion, he admires the accepting polytheism of classical Roma and Greece.
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Format: Hardcover
Paganism, Kirsch reminds us, has been far distorted beyond its original meaning. Even our common dictionaries use only pejorative words to describe it - "heathen", "hedonist", "non-religious". Kirsch wants us to understand that "no self-respecting pagan" would apply such definitions to his own forms of worship. "Paganism" has been the subject of harsh propaganda by the monotheistic "faithful". These agents of repression viewed worship of deities other than the "One True God" as just cause for the vilest forms of curtailment, cruelty and murder. Although we've suffered many centuries of Christian propaganda against the "pagans", Kirsch is able to sift through the evidence to provide a more reasonable picture. The pagan world had its blemishes, but in his view, there's no match for the destructive record of Christianity.

Kirsch's opening subject may surprise most readers. He examines the effort of Egyptian pharaoh Akehnaton to establish a monotheistic faith. Akhenaton's project was to replace the pantheon of Egyptian deities with a "One True God" in the figure of Aton, the sun god. Given Egypt's environment, it was a logical choice. In true monotheistic style, one that would be followed by other monotheists, Akhenaton destroyed the images, references and temples of the previous corps of deities. Naturally, there was resentment among the populace, but a pharaoh's power was too absolute for a successful counterrevolution. Although unsuccessful in establishing a lasting monotheistic empire, Akehnaton is recorded as the first ruler to make the attempt.

The next attempt was the half-hearted endeavour by the Roman Emperor Constantine. Kirsch closely examines the myth of Constantine's "vision" at the battle of Milvian bridge and the emperor's actions after the victory.
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