[Marxism] The price of monotheism

Dan Weiner dcwein at dcwein.cnc.net
Tue Apr 16 02:55:29 MDT 2013

All I can say thinking of all these various and sundry religious variant is:
"thank god I'm an atheist--lol

But seriously, I did find your post interesting, I just had to use that
little quip--lol

Dan W.


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Sent: Monday, April 15, 2013 2:07 PM
To: Dan Weiner
Subject: Re: [Marxism] The price of monotheism

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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

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