Monday, December 28, 2009

Maybe polytheism is a better idea?

A former student sent this round to me. Interesting stuff.

October 23, 2007
Mary Lefkowitz,

[Mary Lefkowitz is professor emerita at Wellesley College and the author of "Greek Gods, Human Lives" and the forthcoming "History Lesson."]

Gods, or God?

Prominent secular and atheist commentators have argued lately that religion "poisons" human life and causes endless violence and suffering. But the poison isn't religion; it's monotheism. The polytheistic Greeks didn't advocate killing those who worshiped different gods, and they did not pretend that their religion provided the right answers. Their religion made the ancient Greeks aware of their ignorance and weakness, letting them recognize multiple points of view.



Anonymous said...

It's interesting to say that monotheism and religion is the cause of the violence, tackling the topic as though all forms of religion are man-created.

Ordinary Jill said...

So why do radical Hindu activists burn mosques in their neighborhood, harrass local Christians and enforce medieval gender and class distinctions? I'm afraid I don't buy the premise that religion is only problematic if its monotheistic. Any religion whose adherents feel the need to force their beliefs on others is problematic. It is not true that polytheistic faiths are always tolerant of other faiths.

Kevin Scheunemann said...


What happens when your monotheism is the theory of global warming?

Doesn't the monotheistic religion of global warming want to constantly interfere with my, happily, pro-carbon lifestyle?

So will the global warming cult become polytheistic with pro carbon enthusiasts like myself?

Just curious.

Mpeterson said...

The author was being provocative, I thought. My observation has been that monotheists have an easier path to fundamentalism and that seems to be the real foundation for most religious extremism.

Non-Censor said...

I agree that polytheisms are generally more civil than monotheisms. They are more tolerant of religious differences and, as you said, less likely to move in fundamentalist directions.

That being said, never underestimate plain old politics as a source of violence. The Hindu-Moslem violence mentioned above is more about which groups have access to wealth and political power than about religion. Similarly, the so-called "sectarian" strife of Northern Ireland's recent past is about political power and oppression entirely. In that struggle, religion is, at most, a symbol identifying two ethnic groups (British and Irish) in an unequal system of power.

Grant said...

See also.

Mpeterson said...

Grant: Perfect. ;^)

Kevin: I guess the really interesting question is whether you believe empirical experience can provide "knowledge" or only "belief."

Christianity, like the pro-carbon lobby, is opposed to the idea of religious "knowledge." Most of the rest of the world's religions, and the scientists who noticed the human involvement in climate change, believe that experience actually does produce knowledge.

Grant said...

William James also has a pretty good riff on this theme in The Varieties of Religious Experience:

If an Emerson were forced to be a Wesley, or a Moody forced to be a Whitman, the total human consciousness of the divine would suffer. The divine can mean no single quality, it must mean a group of qualities, by being champions of which in alternation, different men may all find worthy missions.

Each attitude being a syllable in human nature's total message, it takes the whole of us to spell the meaning out completely. So a "god of battles" must be allowed to be the god for one kind of person, a god of peace and heaven and home, the god for another.

Mpeterson said...

Brilliant. I've always thought American philosophy has been completely underappreciated.

Nanette said...

Interesting view. Actor/author Stephen Fry told something similar, when he explained why he considers himself a humanist.