God Against the Gods: Still a Great Intro Read

I’ve made a new tag called “you are new!” that will collect a series of posts that are of special interest to new polytheists. The first thing I would like to highlight is the book God Against the Gods (Jonathan Kirsch, 2004). Most of this post is drawn from a review I put on Old KALLISTI nearly a decade ago.

I thought this in 2009, and I still think it: God Against the Gods is a great, low-BS introduction to polytheistic mindsets and the types of behavior, positive and negative, happening between polytheism and Christianity in Late Antiquity. One of the challenges of moving into Hellenic Polytheism (or Religio Romana, as this book could be good for that, too) is the media and historical propaganda surrounding polytheism. Most of it isn’t intentional propaganda, but works off of the assumption that polytheism gave way to monotheism and that the only elements of polytheistic religions which matter are those that show a narrative of movement towards monotheism.

I began to read God Against the Gods in the basement of the Smith College library during thirty-minute breaks as a reward for making progress on my term papers. I consumed much of it in the B-level room while the snack machines and heating system whirred around me. Most Smithies were focused on papers, and they came in and out. I read a chapter at a time. I never checked it out because I needed to barricade my dorm room against those distractions. I haunted the BL 200 section, and I realized that I needed to own this book.

The copy I secured afterward came from an Amazon.com used books associate. It contains a lot of notes for the first two chapters before the original owner fell silent (or stopped reading). I actually prefer purchasing used books that have handwritten notes in their margins.

This is a sampling of what le underlined:

  • “[M]onotheism insists that the other gods to whom worship is offered are not merely inferior in power or stature … they are false … even demonic …. there is but one God” (10).
  • “To worship the wrong god … is punishable by death” (10).

— only the portions that describe the Christian world view, a summary of everything many polytheists find objectionable or even downright rude about intolerant monotheism.

The original reader elaborated on ler writings in the margins: “monotheistic approach to faith is cruel,” le says and — one of the most perplexing statements I think I have found in a used book — “This snobbism, this SUPERIORITY ATTITUDE → Repulsive!” Perhaps a fellow polytheist decided to vent at the naked portrayal of monotheism’s flaws, but the individual could have been an irate (and sarcastic) monotheist.

Some Internet reactions state that Kirsch’s arguments in God Against the Gods are anti-Christian; perhaps this reader, too, expected something that glorified monotheism at the expense of what came before. “Anti-Christian” can sometimes be a synonym for “balanced and BS-free”; the arguments and ratings given by those inflamed people do not provide effective arguments against the book. Rather, the book makes people angry because it challenges monotheistic mythologies about why so much of the world is monotheistic and brings to light the dirty laundry of monotheistic persecution of other religions.

One of the book’s goals is to highlight the struggles of the past with an aim to speak out against present-day extremist monotheism. “[T]he roots of religious terrorism are not found originally or exclusively in Islamic tradition,” Kirsch writes. “Quite the contrary, it begins in the pages of the Bible, and the very first examples of holy war and martyrdom are found in Jewish and Christian history” (3). As Kirsch develops his argument, he pits the intolerant monotheism against an open, tolerant polytheism, reflecting many opinions of many polytheistic and pagan bloggers about the value of spiritual inclusiveness in our various pagan and polytheistic faiths. One-True-God and One-True-Way exclusivity has no place in polytheism, even for mystery sects such as Orphism, because all gods deserve some consideration.

The section of this book I found most enjoyable was “Chapter Two: What Did Pagans Do?” In fact, I recommend that any individuals interested in understanding the polytheistic world view check out these pages. Kirsch argues that most opinions about classical paganism are wrong. Then, he debunks them. Here’s one passage that I really liked in 2009:

The awkward and ironic truth is that the rituals against which the biblical authors rant and rave bear a striking resemblance to some of the approved beliefs and practices of monotheism as they are depicted in the Bible. What pagans did, as it turns out, was not so very different from what the pious worshippers of the Only True God did. (59)

And then the rest of the book happens. I love reading about religion in Late Antiquity, but hate it at the same time. It brings up a lot of emotions related to just how shitty religious persecution became after Christianity took over the Roman Empire. I don’t dispute what happened to Christians before they rose to power. The scale, though, is totally different. Polytheists persecuted Christians because Christian fantasies about martyrdom drove them to do things that were punishable offenses, and that soured the public opinion of Christians. Christians persecuted people for not abandoning their gods and went on to convert rulers of various peoples. Christians massacred entire villages of people who refused to convert. The disrespect shown to Augustus Julian by monotheists (who call him “Julian the Apostate”) is deplorable. Monotheists must feel uneasy and even angry when they read God Against the Gods because Kirsch does not give them the glory they find in the state-mandated history texts and Sunday sermons.

We still live in a world dominated by monotheism. Now, though, the monotheists funnel money into charities in Africa, Asia, and South America that claim to provide aid, but that also evangelize and tear traditional communities apart. As far as relief organizations go, I only support Doctors Without Borders (MSF) because the French value of laïcité (secularism, loosely translated) puts a check on what monotheistic MSF volunteers and employees can get away with. On bad days, we see Christian religious extremists take over American government institutions or commit terrorist acts in abortion clinics or lobby the government to impose their religious laws on all of us. Muslim religious extremists commit terror attacks. It’s the same process of radicalization in both religions, but many Americans respect Christian extremists — and will vote them into office.

In sum, God Against the Gods is a great book that deserves a read from new(er) Hellenists. It’s especially good at challenging internalized assumptions and the things that we are taught in history books. 4.5/5 stars. 😄


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