May 2005

Gena Anderson


God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism by Jonathan Kirsch

Imagine going into work or school every day and being required to walk by the statue of Apollo and throw a pinch on incense into the fire. According to Jonathan Kirsch, author of God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism, that might not be such a stretch. Our civilization could have taken another path back in 360 C.E. when polytheism made one last grasp at being dominant under the short-lived Emperor Julian. If not for misfortune in battle about two years after he took power, Kirsch contends that Julian could have made the Empire of Rome a true pagan society, overriding the onslaught of Christianity brought to favor by Constantine and his sons.

This intriguing what-if is only part of God Against the Gods, which looks at the religious culture of Rome before and after the time of Constantine and puts a positive spin on the paganism that was Roman worship. The book does not in any means bash Christianity; rather it realistically looks at the history of both religions and points out the several similarities. For instance, many pagan sects preached celibacy and abstinence, and many Christian sects held their religious holidays on dates held by important pagan events. God Against the Gods does however put a more positive spin on paganism than Christianity -- Kirsch rightly points out that many more Christians died at the hands of other Christians than at the hands of any pagan persecutors.

The origins of any religion are very interesting, but even someone who was raised as a Christian may find some things in God Against the Gods that they didn’t know, such as the inception of the term “atheist”:

Still, the most pious pagans were outraged by the theological rationale of Christianity, and they roused themselves to a certain rigorism of their own in defense of the Pax Decorum. Like true believers in monotheism, the persecutors of the Christians coined a new word to describe those who denied the very existence of the old gods and goddesses -- the Christians were condemned as "atheists."

Christianity was tolerated in Rome, but the fact that the Christians would not even acknowledge the other gods made the Romans see them as unpatriotic more than anything else.

Another interesting story is about an Egyptian Pharaoh named Amenhotep who was the first to ever enforce upon his subjects an edict trying to get them to worship only one god, the sun god Aton. His experiment in getting his subjects to worship only one rather than the previous many gods did not last long -- upon his death the anxious Egyptians eagerly went back to polytheism.

God Against the Gods is very simply written -- if you are not a scholar of Roman or Biblical history, you won’t be totally lost. The book has an overall tone that urges the reader to understand and accept the history of worshipping more than one god, and puts forth the idea that maybe our culture could be more accepting of others if we embraced our past tolerance for all forms of worship.

God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism by Jonathan Kirsch
Penguin Compass
ISBN: 0142196339
352 Pages