[Marxism] The price of monotheism

DCQ davecq at yahoo.com
Mon Apr 15 12:07:14 MDT 2013

I find this kind of stuff fascinating (ancient religions are an intermittent hobby of mine...I haven't studied it extensively, probably just enough to say something stupid enough to piss off an actual scholar). So--not surprisingly--I find Assmann's (*giggle-snort*) thesis unconvincing. As Wollin points out, if others engaged in the same tactics of conquest (what we call ethnic cleansing today), then it makes no sense to ascribe the original sin to the beliefs of the ancient Hebrews. (The parallels with the islamophobia of the "new atheists" should be obvious.)

Another big problem seems to be his definition of monotheism, which the ancient Hebrews were not--at least not in the sense we understand it today. They were henotheistic: they worshipped one god, but accepted the existence of other gods as fact. They were just forbidden from worshipping them (given the frequency with which the ancient Hebrews *do* worship other gods, this was probably far from a universally accepted proposition anyway). 

I've seen the argument floating around that polytheistic religions were "more accepting" than monotheistic ones. I even dropped the line a few times with my students during our mythology units (though always with the modifiers "often" or "sometimes"). Certainly we have examples from the ancient world in which people calmly accept the beliefs of others and even offer to worship or make a sacrifice to newly discovered gods. And this is certainly a stark contrast with Christian practices (though there is an interesting story to tell in how Christianity managed to incorporate so many cultures--not everyone was forcibly converted, and the early church was much more deft and subtle at absorbing other belief systems than the church of the Inquisition). But I think this contrast is so stark to us only due to our particular perspective.

It's one thing to see a few examples of polytheistic tolerance in the ancient world and contrast them with more modern examples of monotheistic intolerance. It's another to extrapolate those to universal attitudes. If history is any guide, then armies generally need more than a promise of a sack of coins to fight, die, kill, and slaughter other people. Did their priests or shaman or wizards *never* claim the gods willed the wholesale destruction of their enemies? 

Evidence is actually right in front of us. While it's hardly concrete proof (but statements in the Torah aren't either), the number of religions/mythologies that feature wars between groups of gods at least allows us to speculate about these being echoes to a greater or lesser degree of actual clashes of actual people who then merge, more or less. The Titans and the Olympians in Greece. The Aesir and Vanir among the Norse. In Egypt, while the eternal conflict of Horus and Seth is most obviously a symbolic reference to the environmental struggle against the ever-encroaching desert, Seth--as an "outsider" god--indicates that Egypt's wars could easily take on a religious dimension.

If anything--and here I'm treading on thin ice given the paucity of my studies--I would speculate that the "no gods before me" idea was aimed far more at disciplining the semi-nomadic internal population than external rivals (probably a combination, most likely). And all of this must be understood in the context of how incredibly limited in scope and time the independent Hebrew state(s) actually was. (If monotheism was a justification for Jewish conquest in the ancient world, it wasn't very effective.)

Finally, I think there is a big problem with some of the objections to Assmann as well. It's obvious he's trying to invert the problematic traditional "Judeo-Christianity invented morality" idea with its opposite ("Judeo-Christianity invented intolerance and genocide"). But both are problematic. Flipping it back to the "we invented morality with the 10 commandments" meme is not a solution, obviously. The Torah drew on a vast and diverse tradition of wisdom literature. To say that no other religion had ever offered anyone the hope of a moral life is pathetically ignorant. 


On Apr 15, 2013, at 8:48 AM, Louis Proyect <lnp3 at panix.com> wrote:

> ======================================================================
> Rule #1: YOU MUST clip all extraneous text when replying to a message.
> ======================================================================
> http://chronicle.com/article/Biblical-Blame-Shift/138457/
> April 15, 2013
> Biblical Blame Shift
> Is the Egyptologist Jan Assmann Fueling Anti-Semitism?
> By Richard Wolin
> Biblical Blame Shift

More information about the Marxism mailing list