The Curse of Monotheism

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by Neil Godfrey

R.J. (Bert) van der Spek

I cited a book chapter by R.J. van der Spek in my previous post relating to the historical reality behind the myth of ancient Persia’s “tolerance” of religions of its subject peoples. Here I quote some other extracts that relate directly to the problem of religious tolerance and how that question relates to monotheism:

It is not a coincidence that suppression of religion often had something to do with monotheistic religions (persecution of Jews and Christians, who refused to accept gods other than their own; persecution of pagans under Christian emperors). Persecution of religious beliefs and practices were usually related to would-be disturbances of order (as in the case of the suppression of the Bacchanalia in Rome in 186 BC or, possibly, the prohibition of the Jewish cult in the temple of Jerusalem by Antiochus IV in 168 BC).8

8 For the development in the Graeco -Roman world from a situation in which religious commitment was predicated on civic identity to “a situation of competition and potential conflict between religious groups based on voluntary commitment,” see J. North, “The Development of Religious Pluralism,” in The Jews among Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire, edited by J. Lieu, J. North and T. Rajak (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 174-93, quotation from p. 187. A similar development is present in the ancient Near East from the early Sumerian city-states to the world empires in the first millennium BC. Still fundamental for the position of Judaism and Christianity in the Ancient world is A.D. Nock, Conversion: The Old and the New in Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933). For the relation of community and religion, the process of mobility of people and their gods, concept of syncretism, and the profusion of cults in the Roman empire, see J.B. Rives, Religion in the Roman Empire (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), pp. 105 -157. I owe these references to Jaap-Jan Flinterman.

(Spek 2014, 235)


Recognition of foreign gods is, in short, completely normal in the polytheistic mind frame and missionary activity is not to be expected. Recognition could take place with the acceptance of a new god or with identification of a foreign god with a god of one’s own pantheon. Indeed, the identification of foreign gods with gods of their own pantheon (‘syncretism’) is widely attested. Herodotus calls Marduk of Babylon Zeus Bēlos and Melqart of Tyrus Heracles.

Complications mainly occurred when monotheists were involved or when religion played a role during an insurrection. . . .

. . . Lebram argued that Antiochus IV was not a religiously intolerant persecutor; on the contrary, he recognized the foreign god and the sacredness of his temple precinct. For the orthodox, monotheistic Jews – in the end the victorious party – it was, however, unacceptable that foreigners intervened with the cult, identified the God of the Covenant with Ba`al Šamêm or Zeus Olympius, and introduced their own cultic practices.

(Spek 2014, 241)

And further yet….

The potential for conflict increased when the government itself was monotheistic. Typically, it was not satisfied with the recognition of the state god’s leadership, but demanded exclusive worship of this deity. This may be observed with the Egyptian king Akhenaton, who tried to erase the name of Amûn, and with countless emperors and kings in the Christian world, who did not even accept differing opinions about the correct cult of the one state god.

(Spek 2014, 241, italics original)


Cyrus’ much-praised religious “tolerance” was not a new, but a time-honored policy pursued by many ancient Near Eastern kings, who wanted to have as many gods as possible on their side and hoped to gain the support of their worshippers. “Tolerance,” in antiquity, was almost never a matter of principle. If a conqueror deemed it useful, he could also forcefully compel a nation into submission, and Cyrus did not abstain from this policy. Such a harsh policy incidentally does not constitute evidence for religious “intolerance.” Destruction of temples, removal of cult images, and the like were not intended to prove that a particular god did not exist, or to prove the correctness of a dogma or creed. Repression of religious practices was rare in antiquity; it was, however, at issue when a monotheistic religion (of the victor or the vanquished) was involved, when religion had become the vehicle of rebellion, or was considered to be hostile toward the state.

(Spek 2014, 260)

Hold on…. there’s one two more…

The policy of polytheistic rulers is generally different from that of monotheistic kings and emperors who are inclined to impose worship of a single god and oppress deviant and foreign cults.26

26 G. J.D. Aalders H.Wzn, “The Tolerance of Polytheism in classical antiquity and its Limits” Free University Quarterly 9 (1964) 223-242; R. J. van der Spek, TvG 96 (1983) 6-10; Idem, Persica, 10 (1982) 278-283 (cf. supra n. 13); A. Kuhrt, “The Cyrus Cylinder and Achaemenid Imperial Policy”, Journal Stud. Old Test. 25 (1983) 83-97.

(Spek 1985, 546)


In the polytheistic mind every god, even the god of the most hated enemy, can exist and have power, and it is therefore better to remain on good terms with every god. Thus Sennacherib invoked Marduk in the inscription in which he described the destruction of Babylon. After the destruction of Athens in 480 B.C. Xerxes ordered that sacrifices be made to the Athenian gods according to Athenian practice (Hdt VIII,54), the Romans tried to “evoke” the gods of the cities they wished to conquer. Religious oppression is relatively exceptional. It occurs when religion plays a part in rebellion (e.g. the Jews against the Romans) or when monotheistic religion is concerned, either as the religion of subjects who cannot accept the existence of the deities of the rulers (Christians in the Roman em­pire), or as the religion of the rulers who wish to deny the right of the people to believe in more than one god or even to worship the state god in a manner not prescribed (Christian emperors and kings since Theodosius the Great).

(Spek 1982, 279f)


Spek, R.J. van der. “Cyrus the Great, Exiles and Foreign Gods.” In Extraction & Control: Studies in Honor of Matthew W. Stolper: 68, edited by Charles E. Jones, Christopher Woods, Michael Kozuh, and Wouter F. M. Henkelman, 233–64. Chicago, Illinois: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2014.

Spek, R. J. (Bert) van der. “The Babylonian Temple during the Macedonian and Parthian Domination.” Bibliotheca Orientalis 42 (1985): 541–62.

Spek, R. J. (Bert) van der. “Did Cyrus the Great Introduce a New Policy towards Subdued Nations? Cyrus in Assyrian Perspective.” Persica 10 (1982): 278–83.

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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “The Curse of Monotheism”

  1. Israel/Judea were never “persecuted” for their religion, nor were they ever prohibited from practicing their religion. They were invaded, punished, etc. for their rebellion against and refusal to pay tribute to their vassal lords. “Persecuted for our religion” was THEIR story but it was not true in most of their history before the 4th Century CE when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. There were problems with Egyptians and others but this was because of “special privileges” given to Jews by the Greeks and Romans.

  2. Of course these are all political points from the p o v of social equanimity……but from the p o v of common sense of the believer, an ethical monotheism would always seem more sensible and preferable..naturally.

  3. The central curse of monotheism is what it does to parents. Parents who believe that there is one way to heaven and all other ways lead to an eternity of pain will do anything, *including putting themselves in hell* to protect their children from that fate. No matter what commandments or moral guidance is issued by leaders about pacifism and tolerance, parents will do anything to protect their kids – torture, murder, indiscriminate bombing of refugees and civilians. They will accept their eternal punishment for these crimes as a sacrifice they “must” make.

      1. In theory, yes. But it’s hard to avoid some concept of punishment drifting in – after all you start from the point of view that there is only one correct answer to one of the Big Questions. Mix in with that the desire of certain types to want to lead and motivate the population by any means available, and you have a barrel of gunpowder and a lit fuse. Sure, the fuse *might* go out before it reaches the barrel, but generally it doesn’t.

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