Previous posts in this discussion:
PostMonotheism and Polytheism in History (Luciano Dondero, Italy, 01/24/15 4:40 am)
Based on recent WAIS postings, let me ask a couple of questions: is God white or black, or some other colour? is God a He or a She, or something else entirely?
These are real issues, insofar as contemporary theologians are concerned, and some of them do debate these topics.
From my atheistic viewpoint, however, they are simply another expression of a rather obvious fact: man creates god in his own image--and therefore He (it's always a He) is made to speak Hebrew, Latin, Arabic or English, and always has one particular "chosen people" to further His aims.
At least that's how it goes for monotheistic religions. But most religions in the world, historically speaking, have been polyhteistic (or animist) ones.
Most notably, for the influence they had (still have?) on the West, one has to take into account the Greek, Roman and Scandinavian systems of deities. The Egyptian system, while polytheistic, worked differently.
Insofar as religious tolerance goes, but more in general if we want to identify an ability to show tolerance toward the beliefs of other people, it's self-evident that whatever secularism stands for, it takes a leaf from the book of our polytheistic ancestors.
The Romans, in particular, started getting a lot worse only when the Empire set in, and with it the notion that the Emperor himself was a divine figure (a bit like a Pharaoh). Therefore this introduced religious persecutions for those, like the Jews and the Christians, who worshiped their own God, and were not prepared to treat the Emperor as a God. But it also paved the way for the future insertion of Christianity into the Imperial system, making it into a state-enforced religion, with all that followed (Crusades, Inquisitions, and so on and so forth).
This virulent and violent Christianity probably also played a role in crystalizing Islam, as the johnny-come-lately of monotheisms, as a particularly bloodthirsty religion. Most accounts of pre-Crusade Middle East (or of El Andaluz in Spain) paint in actual fact a rather tolerant practice by Muslim rulers, most notably in the treatment of the Jews. To the point where there is an entire branch of them, the Sephardic Jews, who used to live in Northern Africa and in the Middle East, after being expelled from Spain in 1492. They were expelled from Arab countries in the late 1940s and 1950s, after the birth of the state of Israel.
The Islamic world did even play a crucially positive role, all its "blood and sword" rhetoric notwithstanding, in passing on to the modern world some of the knowledge of the ancients--as many Greek and Latin authors only reached Western Europe by way of Arabic translations. The Humanistic revolution that put an end to the obscurantism of the Middle Ages was nurtured with all that. The big problem is that not very much moved in the opposite direction later on: and thus, no Enlightenment in the Muslim world, or its equivalent thereof (and no "bourgeois democratic revolution," in Marxist parlance).
It would be interesting to discuss why that was.
JE comments: Could we say that polytheism by nature permits greater tolerance? At least it tolerates greater ambiguity--the possibility of conflicting truths.
Why was there not "enlightenment" or "bourgeois democratic revolution" in the Muslim world? This question has come up before on WAIS, but it might be time to revisit it. Our first question should be whether we are applying too strict a definition of "Enlightenment." In the West, it equates with modernity and prosperity. And both of these things (modernity and prosperity) exist in Muslim societies, too. The third pillar of Enlightenment is a separation of the divine and the secular. This separation is precisely what Sharia law attempts to eliminate.
Monotheism and Polytheism in History; on a "Chosen People"
(Eugenio Battaglia, Italy
01/24/15 3:11 PM)
I am a fan of Luciano Dondero, whose thinking and writing always intrigued me, especially since we start from a markedly different worldview. For instance, I am a believer and Luciano is an atheist. He is also a wonderful person, which contradicts the idea that only religion can make people better.
His WAIS post of 24 January is fascinating, especially where he states that we may have inherited religious tolerance from the polytheistic religions of the Greeks and Romans.
However, I would like to add some personal perspectives. I strongly believe that God cannot have a "chosen people," because this fact is inconceivable with a God Father of all Humanity.
When history has seen a "chosen people," such as ancient (and present-day?) Israel or, for some, the US now, it is only nationalist propaganda from preachers and politicians.
About the Crusades, I have an almost Marxist (!) point of view. They were a religious movement only on the surface. In the larger sense, the Crusades were the normal expansion of an expanding mercantile society which needed to control the markets of the Eastern Mediterranean through which expensive merchandise from the Far East was arriving. It was the attempt to recover and dominate territories that were once part of the Eastern Roman Empire which had fallen under the dominance of the Arabs, who themselves were motivated by a thirst of dominance and not out of a desire to peacefully spread the Word of God.
Luciano stated: "For sure a virulent and violent Christianity probably also played a role in crystalizing Islam." I fully agree, but I will add that even worse were the colonial and the silly wars "to bring democracy."
Frankly I would not stress too much the Islamic contribution to preserving and transmitting classical works to the Europeans. The monks of Saint Benedict of Nursia (and others) as far back as 543 were saving and copying the manuscripts of the classical Greeks and Romans. By the way, in 883 the Abbey of Montecassino with all its cultural treasures was sacked and burned by the Muslim Saracens. Were they motivated by a thirst for loot or by the word of God?
Of course, there were also many episodes of killing of Christians because they did not want to change their religion, but this can be also considered a way to insure loyalty to the the ruler.
For instance, on 14 July 1480, during the conquest of Otranto (Italy) by the conqueror of Constantinople, Mehmed II, 800 men were decapitated because they refused to become Muslim. Here the ruler wanted to create a loyal town as part of his unrealized goal of conquering Italy.
In the end we need an ecumenical agreement of all religions, by which anyone should be free to worship God as he or she wishes, but always respecting all other believers and their way of worshiping. Let God be the final judge.
By the way if God exists, I may have the chance to meet Luciano and tell him I was right, but if He does not exist, how can Luciano tell me that he was right?
JE comments: Eugenio's final paragraph sums up millennia of religious debate. Of course, the WAISly ideal is to admit to the other person that s/he is right.