The One Against the Many

Dec 28 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

“An error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation,
nor does truth become error because nobody sees it.
Truth stands, even if there be no public support. It is self sustained.”
– Gandhi

A long time ago, in what was not a galaxy far, far away, but certainly not Iowa, there were many gods and goddesses, and we mortals were free to worship them, to honor them, in whatever fashion our customs dictated. There was nothing wrong with this belief in many deities or in seeing in some of these deities the same deity – Zeus as Jupiter, Asherah as Ishtar, Apollo as Helios. The despised earth itself could be numinous, a host for and a thing of surpassing divinity and the gods participants within and not observers from without our mundane world.

Once upon a time, “worldly” was not a dirty word.

It was seen as both logical and natural that the universe – both above and below and all around us – was filled with the divine. There was nothing wrong with one person worshipping Thor, another Jupiter or Zeus, or yet another Isis or her Demeter or Ra or Baal or one in the morning and a different god in the afternoon. There was no one to tell us we were wrong, because the idea that there was one capital “T” Truth and one capital “G” God and the concomitant intolerance based on religion had not yet been born.

If it did not matter if you went to one temple in the morning and another in the afternoon, it did not matter if your neighbor, or even your brother, sister, wife or husband or child went to another. All gods by definition existed; all demanded our respect. And that was what religion was: paying proper respect to the gods, nothing more, and nothing less. The gods did not tell you how to live; no one had invented “revealed” religion and while atheists, inured to centuries of repressive monotheism, say religion makes us slaves, you cannot be a slave without a master, and the gods of polytheism, speaking occasionally through oracles or dreams, gave humankind no ordinances to follow. The occasional cryptic utterance of the Pythia in Delphi cannot be compared to the detailed prohibitions of Mosaic or Sharia law.

This changed of course, with the coming of monotheism. Monotheism could not – and cannot now – abide competition. Polytheism can accommodate monotheism – it merely requires the introduction of an additional god after all. That is easily done. But if polytheism can coexist with monotheism, monotheism cannot abide or coexist with polytheism because by its very definition, there can be only one god and one truth.

Monotheists are and always have been very serious about this particular point, as has their God. Why it should matter that others accept more than this one god may seem a bit puzzling to polytheists, agnostics, atheists, pantheists and others today – it certainly surprised the polytheists of yesteryear. They were baffled, puzzled, and downright frustrated by this insistence that all the divine was contained within this one God, who was too jealous to share the credit. Even then, simple disdain would not be so hard, but monotheism mixes disdain with blood. If it claims to eschew sacrifice, it embraces slaughter of another sort, the destruction of those it marks as “the Other,” of those who refuse for one reason or another to embrace the idea of that single god.

We might say that such jealousy, whether from god or man must be generated by an equally fierce inferiority complex and sense of inadequacy, but such knowledge does little to shield us from the harsh verdict of religious courts and the implements of torture and death, or even from the more minor punishments of confiscation of property, loss of rights and alienation and verbal and physical abuse – the elements our modern society now groups together under the label of marginalization and discrimination. Something more is needed to protect us from the wrath of this insecure and jealous deity and his zealous followers. That thing is knowledge, not the carefully fabricated capital “T” Truth of monotheism but the myriad truths of polytheism, a truth that is as numerous as the gods and goddesses we were once free to honor and to worship and as vast as the universe itself.

A quote often misattributed to Sinclair Lewis in his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here:  “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross,” still captures the essence of the truth we face today. That day has arrived, and the Enlightenment itself has come under attack by the Christian Right,[1] as has the idea of Separation of Church and State, enshrined in the Constitution. Pat Robertson, for example, says “There is no such thing as … separation of state and church … in the Constitution. It’s a lie of the left.” Bryan Fischer claims that the First Amendment, which forbids establishment of a state religion establishes Christianity as a state religion. The very thing the Constitution forbids – a religious test for candidates – is now a fact, whether official or not. Even President Obama, rather than reminding the country that it’s none of their business, hastens to reassure America that he is indeed a Christian.

Regina Schwartz notes the tenacity of monotheism and observes that it’s tenet – “one God establishes one people under God – has been translated from the sphere of the sacred to nationalism”[2] and we find ourselves in a nation in which patriotism is equated with God, that one-of-a-kind monotheistic God. Since God has created our Nation (so the logic goes) he has also chosen our “rulers” and if we despise them we are despising God also – a very dangerous thing to do when dealing with a self-proclaimed jealous God and his (to say the least) rabidly devoted followers.

We have arrived at a point where not only is the possibility of the many denigrated but also the myriad of possibilities surrounding the one. With the loss of power suffered by orthodox Christianity by way of first the Reformation and then the European Enlightenment, it came to be rediscovered that there were many possible Christianities, many possible interpretations and modes of belief and worship. People were freer than at any time since the destruction of polytheism to have their religions (or no religion), and the U.S. Constitution guaranteed this right.

But now the idea that we can have our religions – even if our religion is no religion – is under attack. Barack Obama, Keith Ellison, Mitt Romney – are all victims of the same monotheistic prejudice. If religious fundamentalists have their way, Christians will have no more right to their beliefs than does a Pagan and an atheist and the fanatical minority – as they have done before – will direct and guide our thoughts and punish us when we stray. We have seen it already: Islam is a cult, “pagan culture” has destroyed America, atheists aren’t really citizens, only Christians are real Americans and if you don’t believe in God you’re not patriotic.

The fevered pandering to religious extremists in Iowa has made this clear: A Republican victory in 2012 means more than a continued war on women or a war on marriage equality. It would mean the defeat of the very pluralism that America was founded upon, the freedom to think and to decide for yourself; the right to worship twenty gods or no god. America has held religion against a candidate before – John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism was an issue long before Obama’s progressive Christianity or Mitt Romney Mormonism – but that is no reason it should be so again. And Americans will either support or not support the U.S. Constitution in 2012, with a vote for a GOP candidate being a vote against the very essence of America.


[1] A fact noted by Gerd Lüdemann in his recent work, The Resurrection of Christ (2004) in which he notes  (p. 202) “Recently we have witnessed a resurgence of fundamentalism; dogmatic thinking seems to be gaining adherents not only in the world at large but also within the church. Credulous acceptance of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection goes hand in hand with attacks on rationalism’s alleged narrowing of the notion of reality – a scurrilous subterfuge, according to doctrinaire believers, that excludes the very investigation of the possibility of the resurrection.”

[2] Regina Schwartz, The Curse of Cain: The Violent History of Monotheism (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 15-16.

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