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

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God Against the Gods

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

Today the dominant religions in the world are monotheistic: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. At one time, though, the dominant religions in the world were polytheistic and only Hinduism remains to carry on any sort of explicitly polytheistic tradition. How did this dramatic shift occur and what has it meant for western culture?

Summary

Title: God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism
Author: Jonathan Kirsch
Publisher: Viking Compass
ISBN: 0670032867

Pro:
•  Engaging book that tells history from the perspective of those who lived it
•  Shows how the fate of the world can be altered by the life of a single person
•  Argues that monotheism has been a hinderance to religious liberty and freedom of conscience

Con:
•  None

Description:
•  History of the triumph of monotheism over polytheism in the West
•  Focuses on the success of Constantine the Great and failure of Julian the Apostate
•  Argues that had Julian lived, polytheism would have returned as well as greater religious tolerance

 

Book Review

The social evolution from polytheism to monotheism in the West is explored by Jonathan Kirsch in his book God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism. The author of several other best-selling books on Christian and Jewish history, Kirsch tells the story of this shift by focusing on the actions of Emperor Constantine and several of his successors, all of whom played important roles in extinguishing Roman religious traditions and making Christianity the state religion for the Roman empire.

That isn't all there is to this story, though. The development of monotheism can be traced to the EgyptIan pharaoh Akhenaton whose efforts to suppress polytheism and replace it with monotheism met with far less success than occurred later in Rome. There is also the fact that philosophical and religious elites in Rome and Greece were growing less and less polytheistic themselves, inclining instead towards the idea of a single unifying principle behind all of reality.

p]Kirsch addresses all of these issues and more as they relate to the development of monotheism in the West, but they receive far less attention because his real emphasis is the life and times of Constantine, Roman emperor. This isn't a book about philosophy and theology, it's a book about political intrigue, religious cynicism, and real people who had very real lives, passions, and sometimes very messy deaths.

It is because of this that Kirsch's book should do well and will probably be read somewhat widely. There is little market for esoteric philosophical tracts about theological debates over the numbers of gods held by Greek and Roman philosophers thousands of years ago, but there is a market for stories of epic battles and family betrayals — whether they occur today or in the ancient world.

God Against the Gods

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

What's really interesting about the ascendency of monotheism in the West, though, is just how important particular individuals and their actions really were. Comparing the relative qualities of polytheism and monotheism may be the proper subject for philosophy, but such considerations don't appear to have carried much weight in terms of how events actually proceeded.

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