God against the Gods: Monotheism versus Polytheism

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God against the Gods: Monotheism versus Polytheism

Dr. M. Lal Goel

Professor Emeritus of Political Science

The University of West Florida

“God against the Gods” refers to the war between Monotheism and Polytheism through history. Described briefly here is the rise of intolerant monotheistic ideology in the West and the consequent blood-letting against heretics and pagans in Europe. The West has changed dramatically and is now pluralistic in religious ethos. The second half of the essay describes radical Islam and its challenge to civilization. I conclude with the positive vision of Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950): humanity will move forward despite present negativity.
The topic of “God against the Gods” originated with Jonathan Kirsch’s book of the same title.1 Ram Swarup’s Hindu View of Christianity and Islam (1992) also contributed to the topic.


Man is a worshipping animal. From the earliest times, man has turned to a higher power for salvation, support and to explain the cause of human suffering. Something deep in human psyche impels us to offer reverence to a power greater than ourselves. The idea of God is literally hard-wired into human anatomy. Homo sapiens are also Homo religious (Karen Armstrong, A History of God).
Only a few of the religions survive the long stretches of time. Among the major world religions today are Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Smaller religions include several earth-based native traditions, Shintoism, Jainism, Sikhism, Baha’ism, Mormonism and numerous tribal religions. India and the Near East are two centers or cradles of religion: (a) India is the home to Hinduism, Buddhism and the smaller religions of Jainism and Sikhism; (b) Israel and the Middle East is the home to the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Nothing in human nature impels us to offer worship to only a single god. Throughout history, human beings have worshipped a variety of gods, goddesses, angels and divine beings. The worship of a single supreme deity is a later development. Monotheism is said to originate with the Jews. Jews in fact may have borrowed the idea during their captivity in Egypt. In the 14th Century BCE, the Pharaoh named Akhenaton ordained the worship of one god to the exclusion of all others. History shows that Akhenaton did not succeed in his efforts. Common people loved their many gods.
Monotheism took root in the land of Israel. Jews however were not fanatic about monotheism. Jews worshipped one god, but they did not deny that other people had their own gods. Jewish monotheism did not lead to persecutions, Jihads or Crusades. The Jewish prophets repeatedly spoke against idolatry and polytheism, suggesting that Jews continued to worship a plurality of gods.
Aggressive Monotheism begins with Christian zealots. The zealots called themselves “the soldiers of Christ.” They were willing to die for their beliefs. The Church history gives many accounts of the martyrdom of Christian believers. Monotheistic Christianity became the state religion under Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. The monotheistic experiment almost ended with the death of Constantine. We are told that Constantine’s nephew, Emperor Julian restored the old order and brought back the worship of many gods. But he died only two years after taking office. In Christian history books, Julian is commonly identified as “an Apostate,” a term of abuse.

Much has changed in the Christian world over the centuries. Julian may not be dead after all. Many people in Europe are de-Christianized. A plurality of viewpoints prevails; a plurality of gods is worshipped. A Time Magazine article reports that more people in France say they are Buddhist than Protestant or Jewish (March 31, 2008, article by Pico Iyer). Today the flag of Monotheism is carried high only by Islamists.

Monotheism and Violence

Monotheism insists that only a single God exists, known variously as Yahweh, the Lord or Allah. Other gods are “false” or even demonic. The Monotheistic God is jealous and wrathful. There is one God, and one correct method of worship. Those who deviate are heretics and may be punished, tortured or killed. In its exclusive devotion to the worship of one God, monotheism has inspired much ferocity and fanaticism.

Polytheism in contrast is open-ended and easy going. Many roads lead to the mountain top. A person may choose any path. Violence among polytheists is not unknown, but it pales in comparison. Jonathan Kirsch writes:

At the heart of polytheism is an open-minded and easygoing approach to religious belief and practice, a willingness to entertain the idea that there are many gods and many ways to worship them. At the heart of monotheism, by contrast, is the sure conviction that only a single god exists, a tendency to regard one’s own rituals and practices as the only proper way to worship the one true god. See God Against the Gods: The History of the War between Monotheism and Polytheism, P 2.

History bears this out. The infamous Inquisition lasted 400 years, 1200s—1600s and engulfed all of Europe. The Spanish and the Portuguese inquisitions in the 16th century were especially gruesome. The Church appointed Control Boards to root out heresy got carried away. Many were tortured, flogged and burned. Inquisition was used against Protestants, former Jews and pagans. Galileo was imprisoned in a Florence cathedral for asserting that the earth revolved around the sun. For merely talking with animals or for being alone in the woods, women could be charged for the crime of witchcraft. Several million women were tortured and burned at the stake. Many converted Jews also were tortured and burned for failing to completely abandon their cultural practices.
Then there was the Thirty-Year War, 1618 to 1648. Protestant and catholic countries fought each other with much brutality and bloodshed. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 brought an end to the religious wars. It also brought forth the modern state system. Religion and state were separated. Gradually religion became a private affair. Secularism took birth as a practical necessity. Europe could not otherwise survive as a civilization. The Islamic world faces a similar civilizational dilemma today—to reform or to commit suicide in constant warfare.

Reformed Christianity

Christianity has been reformed. It is now pluralistic and multifaceted. Instead of one Church headed by the Pope, there are at least three: Catholics, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox. In addition, there are smaller sects: Coptic Christians, Armenian Christians, Syrian Christians, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Moonies, and others. Protestants are divided among some 20 separate denominations, such as Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Evangelicals, Amish and so on. Some Fundamentalist Christians wish to turn the clock back on pluralism. They have achieved only a limited success. Other Christians believe in their God with total devotion and intensity, and yet reject violence. Jesus’ loving death on the cross offers to them a model of supreme sacrifice, not hegemony.
America continues to be a Mecca of religious pluralism. The popularity of liberal New Thought churches such as Unity and Unitarian Universalist in the US is a testimony to this fact. My lectures on Hinduism and Buddhism before church audiences in the United States are a further testimony to the pluralistic character of religious dialogue in the West.
Radical Islam

ALL HOWEVER IS NOT WELL WITH THE WORLD. Once again on 9/11/2001 we are reminded about the ferocity unleashed by monotheism. Writes Jonathan Kirsch (p 2):

“The men who hijacked and crashed four civilian airliners were inspired to sacrifice their own lives, and to take the lives of several thousand ‘infidels,’ because they had embraced the simple but terrifying logic that lies at the heart of monotheism: if there is only one god, if there is only one right way to worship that god, then there is only one fitting punishment for failing to do so—death.”
The ancient hatreds born of religion have been picked up with renewed ferocity by Muslims. The Islamic world is torn apart by religious violence. Sunnis and Shias kill and maim each other. The Sunni-Shia conflict is s predominant feature in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Gulf States, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Shias are a minority in most countries and they fear persecution. It is the Sunnis however who fear persecution in Iran (90% Shia) and Iraq (65% Shia).
Several years ago, Prof Samuel Huntington popularized the thesis of “the clash of civilizations.” Muslims are divided not only against other fellow Muslims but radical Islam is at war with every other religion and civilization. Militant Islamic anger is directed against Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Slavs, and animists. Militant Islam is in ferment everywhere. The Islamic world has “bloody borders”—Huntington. Why is this so? The explanation may lie in Islamic monotheistic theology and Islamic history.

Islamic Monotheistic Theology

La ilaha il Allah. There is no other God but Allah. Islamic God is a jealous male. He brooks no rivals. He claims sole sovereignty. He proclaims Jihad or Holy War on unbelievers or kafirs. Prophet Mohammad is the seal of prophets (wanna Muhammad rasul Allah). Lesser prophets such as Isaiah, Moses and Jesus are recognized as partial precursors but Mohammad is the most perfect. He is “the final.” Muslims believe in a single life and a single judgment leading to pleasures of heaven or torments in hell.
Islamic History

Islam may be dated to 610 AD, when Moharnmad began having conversations with Archangel Gabriel. Mohammad preached the divinity of one true God named Allah to the exclusion of others. But the leaders of Mecca where he preached rejected his new teaching. Conflict ensued. In 622, Mohammad was forced to flee to Medina, some 240 miles to the North. The year of the flight, 622 AD, is significant as it marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar. Mohammad won the leadership of Medina and within a few years felt emboldened to raid Meccan caravans. Mohammad's actions were brilliant and bold. Mecca signed a treaty of friendship and allowed Muslims to enter the city for pilgrimage. Two years later the Prophet captured Mecca in a courageous move. He was now an unchallenged leader. By the time Mohammad died in 632 AD at age 62, he had become the supreme figure in all of Arabia.

Muslim conquest did not stop with the death of Mohammad. Within two years, the holy warriors attacked and conquered Byzantium and Persia, the two powerful empires of the period. Dreams of acquiring fabulous wealth as well as religious zeal produced marvelous results. It seemed that, armed with faith in Allah, nothing could stop the soldiers of Islam. In 712, Arabs captured Sindh on the frontiers of India. In 715 they reached Spain after conquering North Africa.
In less than 100 years since Mohammad's death, the Islamic rule stretched from the frontiers of India all the way to Spain. Victories resumed after a hiatus of three centuries. Believers captured Anatolia (Turkey) in 1071, the throne of Delhi in 1201, and Constantinople in 1453. Islam's rapid rise from insignificance to dominion had a touch of the miraculous for Muslims. The fabulous military victories demonstrated to the faithful God's pleasure with Islam and punishment for the infidel.
THE NATURE OF ISLAMIC CONQUEST. A great deal of destruction of life and property occurred during Islamic expansion, and women and children were enslaved. I give below the account of one such encounter in India. In the year 1,000, Mahmud Ghazni (also known as Gaznavi), a devout Muslim, descended on the plains of North India like a typhoon, pillaging and massacring on his way. Alberuni, the Islamic scholar who accompanied Mahmud to India, writes.
Mathura, the holy city of Krishna, was the next victim. 'In the middle of the city there was a temple larger and finer than the rest, which can neither be described nor painted.' The Sultan was of the opinion that 200 years would have been required to build it. The idols included 'five of red gold, each five yards high,' with eyes formed of priceless jewels.
'The Sultan gave orders that all the temples should be burnt with naphtha and fire, and leveled with the ground.' Thus perished works of art which must have been among the noblest monuments of ancient India.
At the destruction of another famous temple, Somnath, it is said that 50,000 were massacred. Mahmud accumulated vast amounts of plunder from the destruction of dozens of Hindu temples. The Sultan acquired a fabulous booty of gold, women and children, divided among soldiers according to Muslim war tradition: the Sultan claiming the royal fifth, the cavalry man getting twice as much as the foot soldier.
The Conquest of the Near East and Eastern Europe

The Near Eastern countries of Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, etc were predominantly either Jewish, Christian or pagan before their Islamic conquest. Similarly, the Eastern European provinces such as Bosnia, Kosovo, and Albania were largely Christian. The conversion to Islam was not a peaceful affair. Bat Ye’or, an Egyptian-born scholar, documents in great detail the massive destruction of life and property that occurred in these lands under Islamic conquest.2

The damage done to life, property and the sense of well being is immense. The Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul observes:
Islam is in its origins an Arab religion. Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert. Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands. A convert’s world view alters. His holy places are in Arab lands; his sacred language is Arabic. His idea of history alters. He rejects his own; he becomes, whether he likes it or not, a part of the Arab story. The convert has to turn away from everything that is his. The disturbance for societies is immense, and even after a thousand years can remain unresolved; the turning away has to be done again and again. People develop fantasies about who and what they are; and in the Islam of converted countries, there is an element of neurosis and nihilism. These countries can be easily set on the boil. See his, Beyond Belief, Random House, 1998, p xi.

Jihad could mean internal struggle in the cause of Allah (fi sabil allah). For many devout Muslims, it does mean that. But throughout much of Islamic history, Jihad has meant holy war against the infidels (Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians and Pagans). Citing Islamic Hadiths (traditions and sayings of the Prophet), M. J. Akbar, an Indian Muslim with modernistic views, says that Jihad is permitted against the infidel; it is compulsory against the apostate. The following is summarized from his book, Under the Shade of Swords: Jihad and the conflict between Islam and Christianity, Routledge, 2002.

Umar, the second Khalifa, asked Muhammad “Is it true Muslims who died for the cause would go to Heaven and the pagans to Hell?” Yes, replied the Messenger of Allah, adding: “Know that paradise lies under the shade of swords (al Jannat-a tahata silal es sayoof).” The best portion of Heaven is reserved for those who die fighting for Islam. The angels claim the body of a martyr before even a single drop of his blood touches the ground. The blood of the wounded would smell like musk. Death becomes a trifle on the way to martyrdom. It is a belief passed on from mother to son. Numbers do not matter in Jihad. The righteous cause does. The joys of paradise are strewn across the Holy Book. Islam is a soldier’s religion.

Modern day apologists seek to interpret the doctrine of Jihad with modern sensibilities as internal struggle in the way of God (jihad fi sabil Allah). Islamic history unhappily complicates stubbornly their efforts. Jihad is not a modern corruption. It is a central tenet of Islam. It began in the 7th century. Islam’s early history is a history of constant warfare to expand dominion. Islam divides the world into two hostile spheres: dar al Islam (the zone of Islam) and the dar al harb, the zone of war.

The Founding Fathers of Jihadist Ideology

Some in the American academy explain radical Islamic violence by the use of social and political reasons. It is said that poverty, illiteracy and hopelessness breed militancy. Economic development is good and should be pursued for its own end. However, building factories will not reduce the appeal of religion. Poor societies are not the hotbed of extremism. Bangladesh is not the fountain head of Jihadist ideology, even though it is not immune to its appeal. Fareed Zakaria, the international editor of Newsweek, calls militant Islam “an armed doctrine.” Like other armed doctrines before it such as Fascism and Nazism, says Zakaria, it can be defeated only by first defeating it militarily.

America’s support for the existence of Israel is often cited also as a reason for Islamic militancy. But Islamic ideology that justifies violence against infidels predates the statehood of Israel.
The founding fathers of contemporary Jihadist ideology predate Israel-Palestinian wars. Note the works of the following five.3
Ibn Taymiyya, 1263-1328, Turkey

Abdal Wahab, 1703-1792, Arabia

Hasan al Banna, 1906-1949, Egypt

Sayyid Mawdudi, 1903-1979, Pakistan

Sayyid Qutb, 1903-1966, Egypt
Here is a gist of what these Islamic scholars have said.

  1. God is one; his religion in turn must be one (the doctrine of tawhid). Islam is not only the correct religion, but that other religions are positively, unequivocally evil.

  2. Islam is the “natural” religion for humanity; those who do not accept Islam live in Ignorance called Jahilya.

  3. Muslims are those who submit to God, and the Muslim community ummah was divinely appointed to lead mankind.

  4. Once Muslims were revealed the Truth by the Prophet and the Koran, it is their duty to spread the message of Islam.

  5. If prevented to do so by unrighteous rulers, Jews, Christians or Infidels, they must wage Jihad or holy war.

  6. Islam ruled the world for 1,000 years, roughly from 700 to 1,700. Then something went terribly wrong. Christians and Jews became the overlords. Hindus and Buddhists overthrew Islamic hegemony. How did this come about?

  7. The radical explanation runs thus: Muslim rulers abrogated Sharia and instituted their own laws, under Western instigation. This lead to the Muslim’s downfall. Islam must be restored to Sharia and to its original principles. Present reigning rulers such as Egypt’s Mubarak, the Saudi royal family, and Jordan’s Abdallah deviated from pure Islam and therefore they must be overthrown.

  8. Every trace of modern Western liberalism is “flawed, wrong and evil.” The basis of liberalism which separates religion from state is inherently misguided. Radicals want nothing to do with man-made laws. Sayyid Qutb argued that Islam is the very antithesis of Western democracy.

Three Caveats

  1. The mystical Sufi branch of Islam does not subscribe to many of the dictums listed in this essay. Sufism is a smaller branch of Islam. It has similarity with Hindu Vedanta and Greek Gnostic thought. The record of Sufis in India is mixed. Some Sufi saints were loved by the people, Hindu and Muslim. Other Sufi saints marched with the invading Muslim armies and engaged in the killing of Kafirs.

  2. Ordinary Muslims, millions of them, are not radical and wish to live in harmony with their neighbors. They are not consumed by religious passions. Millions of ordinary Muslims suffer because of the passions let lose by clerics and mullahs.

  3. Religious fundamentalism to a lesser or greater degree affects all major religions today, including Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism. Islamic fundamentalism is a breed apart and is proportionately much greater than other manifestations of this disease.

A Bright Future

Sri Aurobindo, 1872-1950, a philosopher, poet, yogi and mystic declares that a bright future awaits mankind. We are on an upward march. We are reaching higher and higher.
Creedal religions based on dogma are on the decline. There is evidence that more and more people are becoming seekers rather than believers. The West leads the way, as in many other things. Spirituality that first took root in India, and spread to Japan and China is finding a new home in the West. Lisa Miller (Newsweek, 31 August, 2009) reports that “we are slowly becoming more like Hindus and less like traditional Christians in the ways we think about God, our selves, each other, and eternity.” She cites the following US poll data: 67 percent believe that many religions, not only Christianity can lead to eternal life; 30 percent of American call themselves “spiritual, not religious;” 24 percent say they believe in reincarnation; and more than a third choose cremation rather than burial. http://www.newsweek .com/id/212155 New York City has 40 Tibetan Buddhist centers, up from 2 in 1968. It is the growth in spirituality rather than any Eastern religion that is important.
From 10 to 20 percent of the American public subscribe to spiritual teachings, according to Robert Fuller: Spiritual but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America, Oxford University Press 2001. The medium size city of Pensacola, Florida, where I reside has over a dozen yoga, meditation, chanting and devotional groups, including Theosophy and Sri Aurobindo center.
Who would imagine that Oprah Winfrey would bring the message of spirituality to millions in America and around the globe? In early 2008, Oprah interviewed over several weeks the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, the shy author of A New Earth: Awakening to your Life’s Purpose, 2005. Some 9 to 11 million people watched these webcasts. See http://www.oprah.com/obc_classic/webcast/archive/archive_watchnow.jsp. Tolle’s teachings are derived from Zen Buddhism and Hindu Vedanta: we are not the body, or the mind or the emotions; we are the ever present awareness within, the ever-present Consciousness. To the extent we live in the ever-present Consciousness, to that extent we are free. As the Consciousness is one, we all are united, members of a single family. Differences are unreal, driven more by religious ideology than spirituality.
A spiritual transformation is happening all around us. The attempts at human unification through the Internet, the telephone and the Jet travel are the initial signs of something new. Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), the Indian poet, philosopher and mystic, says that man will exceed himself. A new consciousness will dawn upon humanity. Unity amid diversity will take hold of man’s mind. He labored spiritually for this to happen. Change is coming upon us in society, politics and religion. Evidence is not lacking.
The 20th century combated and succeeded in defeating a number of totalitarian ideologies: slavery, imperialism, Fascism, Nazism and Communism. Freedom lovers were at the forefront of these battles. The rise of radical and extremist Islam in the last few decades is a new challenge. It too shall be met and transcended.
The first thing necessary is to open up extremist ideology and doctrine to examination. This is the task of intelligentsia, especially those in the Islamic world. Once this is done, the rest will be easy. Closed ideologies masquerading as religion will fall of their own weight once the light is shone on them.
--Revised September 2009.

1 God Against the Gods: The History of the War between Monotheism and Polytheism, Viking Compass, 2006

2 Bat Ye'or, The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam: from Jihad to Dhimmitude, Fairleigh Dickinson University, 1996. A particularly gruesome practice under the Ottoman Empire was the Devshirme system. Christian children as young as 8 to 12 from the Balkan countries were forcibly conscripted into the elite Turkish guards, the Janissaries. Taken away from their families by force, converted to Islam and often brutalized, they were ruthless fighters. Some served in the Sultan’s harem as eunuchs.

3 See here Mary Habeck, Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror, Yale University Press, 2006.

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