Background. In his book God Against the Gods, the popular religion writer Jonathan Kirsch makes the controversial argument that the history of religious exclusivism and intolerance can be linked directly to the rise of monotheism. Contrary to the traditional depiction of “paganism” as a morally and theologically corrupt body of superstitions (a depiction, after all, developed by and for monotheists), he suggests that polytheistic traditions were not only tolerant but welcoming of other faiths (excerpts from his first chapter—entitled “The Everlasting Fire”—can be found in this module).
Question. In an essay of approximately 500-750 words, critically evaluate Kirsch’s argument, especially as it applies to the texts we have considered thus far in class. Do you see evidence of a “simple but terrifying logic that lies at the heart of monotheism” by which exclusive reliance on a single God inevitably leads to intolerance, culminating in the persecution and murder of those who disagree with us? In contrast, does polytheism lead to religious toleration? Are our readings from monotheistic sources really more exclusive and intolerant than our readings from polytheistic sources? Are there no exceptions? If so, how do we account for them?
Issues. A few points to keep in mind as you ponder your argument (these are presented merely to suggest some possible lines of inquiry—you need not address them explicitly in your essay, and you simply don’t have the space to address them all):
- Are monotheists really the only ones who reject the legitimacy of other gods? Consider the use of terms like “atheism” or “sorcery.”
- The Hebrew Bible is clearly (and violently) intolerant of Israelites worshipping other gods. To what extent does this intolerance (and violence) apply to non-Israelites?
- Intolerance is often described as a matter of “demonizing” others, but we have seen that the word “demon” originated in the (polytheistic) Greek term for “spirit.” What role does demonology play in the rhetoric of religious intolerance? Does it function differently for monotheists and polytheists?
- We have seen uncanny parallels in moral panic rhetoric over the centuries. How do these similarities between pagan and Christian moral panics bear on Kirsch’s claims? Is theology (particularly the number of gods one accepts) the main driver of persecution? Or is something else at play?
- We have seen that monotheists once suffered persecution at the hands of polytheists. How do our readings about the experience of Hebrews under Pharaoh or Christians in the early Roman empire relate to Kirsch’s claims? Were these persecutions delivered in the name of the (polytheist) gods?
- Remember to consult the “Guidelines for Papers” in your syllabus for detailed instructions on format and content, and do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or would like to discuss your argument.
- Remember that this essay is not about whether you find Kirsch’s argument to be personally appealing or offensive. The question is not about whether your own particular monotheistic beliefis essentially intolerant, nor is it sufficient to argue that the history of monotheism is rife with intolerance. The issue is whether intolerance is more or less prevalent in the examples of monotheism and polytheism we have considered in this class.
- It is not enough to demonstrate that some monotheists have been intolerant; you must consider – on the basis of our readings in this class – whether monotheists are inherently less tolerant than polytheists.
- You should of course take a moment to consider the question at hand before you begin writing, but it is even more important to reconsider the question as you revise.
- Your essay should not simply collect facts together but should instead selectively use the facts with which you have become acquainted as evidence in support of a specific argument. Be sure to use proper citation for every piece of evidence you employ.
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