The Battle For Unity Is As Old As The Mountains

The diversity or plurality of religions in the world has been a fact throughout history. Nevertheless, this diversity has been made, and is still being made, the basis for contention rather than building community, and although it is true that the monotheistic religions have often been among some of the worst offenders on this score, Pagans are not immune to xenophobia and ethnocentrism.

One of the main reasons for this bone of contention is based on perceived value or the feeling that a specific religion is superior to others, and the belief that this kind of  religious prejudice is a necessary component of religious commitment, or, at times,  even a virtue to be cultivated among the faithful.

In the past most religions have dealt with religious pluralism only in a most cursory fashion – in fact some religions have encouraged mutual hostility by teaching that foreign religions are not only different, but demonic or inferior. It is easy to understand why certain religions would follow such a path, after all it must be  tempting for one who believes that one universal deity created and controls the entire cosmos to assume that his deity wants only one religion to be practiced by all.

True, followers of monotheistic systems could, with equal logic and with “Pagan  logic”, assume that the Divine gave humans many religious paths, just as She/He gave them many cultures, skin colours, and languages, but this has not been the dominant position historically. This position is now becoming more prevalent among segments of leadership of monotheistic religions, however, and it has long been the position of nominally polytheistic, but essentially monistic, Hinduism.

Students of religion have long recognised that the world’s religions can be divided into two groups in terms of their attitudes toward other religions. Some religions, often called “universalising” religions, are said to have a religious message and set of practices that could be universally relevant, true for all people regardless of culture, for all time. These religions, often Western-based, at times develop strong missionary movements which attempt both to undermine other religions ideologically and to convert members of other cultures to the supposedly universally relevant and true set of religious beliefs. Often such conversion attempts are motivated by the conviction that those who lack the proper religious perspective are in serious danger of damnation – and this is what, for example, happened to many of the ancient pagan religions worldwide.

However, for most of human history most other religions have not presumed to hold the secrets to universal significance,  mainly because of the recognition and respect that a religion has, at most, only a claim on those who belong to the culture in which that religion is found, and early religious leaders did not presume that members of any other culture were inherently deficient; they were merely different.

Although there was a clearly developed system of belief, myth and ritual system, membership to this kind of “nonuniversalising” religion was more often measured by conformity to cultural mores. Because these religions  present obvious and intimate connections between religion and culture they are known as “ethnoreligions”.

Religion in ancient Rome encompassed the religious beliefs and cult practices regarded by the Romans as indigenous and central to their identity as a people, as well as the various and many cults imported from other peoples brought under Roman rule. Romans thus offered cult to innumerable deities who influenced every aspect of both the natural world and human affairs. Their temples were the visible, sacred and enduring manifestations of Rome’s history and institutions. Romans could offer respect to any deity or combination of deities, as long as it did not offend the “mos maiorum” (the “custom of the ancestors” or Roman tradition).

Some of Rome’s practices were explained or justified by myths, while others remained obscure in origin and purpose. Even the most skeptical among Rome’s intellectual elite such as Cicero, acknowledged the necessity of religion as a form of social order. Religious law offered curbs to personal and factional ambition, and political and social changes had to be justified in religious terms.

But as Rome had extended its dominance throughout the Mediterranean world, its religious mode was to absorb the deities and religions of other people rather than to eradicate and replace them. Both fascinated by, and deeply suspicious of religious novelty, Romans looked for ways to understand and reinterpret the divinities of others by means of their own and acknowledged religion in the provinces or foreign territories as an expression of local identity and traditions.

But attempts, at times brutal, were made periodically to suppress religionists who seemed to threaten traditional morality and unity. In the eyes of conservative Romans for example, the Dionysian mysteries encouraged illicit behaviour and subversion; Christianity was superstition, or atheism, or both; Druidism employed human sacrifice, etc. By the height of the Roman Empire, however, numerous foreign cults were practiced at Rome and throughout even the most remote provinces, among them the mystery cult of the syncretised Egyptian goddess Isis and deities of solar monism such as Mithras and Sol Invictus, found as far north as Roman Britain.

From the 2nd century onward, the early Christian church leaders began to condemn the diverse religions practiced throughout the Empire collectively as “pagan”.

When the Roman Emperor Constantine I converted to Christianity in the 4th century, he launched the era of Christian hegemony. Despite a short-lived attempt by the Emperor Julian to revive and preserve traditional and Hellenistic religion, in 391 under Theodosius I Christianity became the official state religion of Rome, to the exclusion of all others. Pleas for religious tolerance were rejected, and Christian monotheism became a feature of imperial domination. Other religions were gradually transformed, absorbed or even strictly suppressed.

After Constantine’s death in 337, two of his sons, Constantius II and Constans, took over the leadership of the empire and re-divided their Imperial inheritance. Constantine’s nephew Julian, however, rejected the “Galilean madness” of his upbringing for an idiosyncratic synthesis of neo-Platonism, Stoic asceticism and universal solar cult. Julian became Augustus in 361 and actively, but vainly, fostered a religious and cultural pluralism, attempting a restitution of non-Christian practices and rights. He proposed the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s temple as an imperial project and argued against the “irrational impieties”  of Christian doctrine.  After his death in 363 in Persia his reforms were reversed or abandoned, and the Roman empire once again fell under Christian control, this time permanently.

When the Roman Republic conquered Greece in 146 BCE, it took much of Greek religion (along with many other aspects of Greek culture such as literary and architectural styles) and incorporated it into its own. The Greek gods were equated with the ancient Roman deities; Zeus with Jupiter, Hera with Juno, Poseidon with Neptune, Aphrodite with Venus, Ares with Mars, Artemis with Diana, Athena with Minerva, Hermes with Mercury, Hephaestus with Vulcan, Hestia with Vesta, Demeter with Ceres, Hades with Pluto, Tyche with Fortuna, and Pan with Faunus. Some of the gods, such as Apollo and Bacchus, had earlier been adopted by the Romans. There were also many deities that existed in the Roman religion before its interaction with Greece that were not associated with a Greek deity, including Janus and Quirinus.

However, classical monotheism in its stereotypical form assumed a universalising stance, but earliest “monotheism” in the form of “ancient Israelite religion” actually had originally most of the characteristics of an ethnoreligion.

In early Israelite history, only Israelites were expected to observe Israelite beliefs and practices, and there was no major effort to spread these practices and beliefs to non-Israelite people as monotheism, for early Israelite religion, probably meant that Israelites should worship only the Israelite deity, rather than a claim that this deity alone existed.   A major change in attitude important to the transition from ancient Israelite religion to early Judaism is a tendency towards a universalising perspective, away from the ethnic stance. Israelites, militarily defeated by a stronger force and taken into captivity in 586 BCE, did not follow the typical ethnic response of assimilating religiously and assuming that their god had been defeated by a stronger deity. Rather, they retained their allegiance to their own conceptualisation and naming of deity, even in exile. This experience fostered the transition from ancient Israelite religion to early Judaism and was probably the single most important event in the development of classical monotheism as a universalising religion.

The next transformation as far as monotheism is concerned took place when Judaism’s conversion practices were outlawed by its newly dominant offshoot – Christianity. Christianity saw itself as the new covenant between the monotheistic god and the created world; it saw no reason to allow another version of monotheism to compete to gain converts to monotheism. Consequently, in most parts of the Greco-Roman world, and later Europe, Judaism survived as a tribal remnant – at least as defined by history’s “victors”, the Christians.

Christianity battled the “pagan” religions of the Greco-Roman and Northern European peoples, thus adding another important term to the rhetoric of monotheism’s denigration of other religions By the time Islam emerged into history, the attitude that there is a universal deity to be worshipped and obeyed by all people of all cultures was, for many, unquestioned and unquestionable. Muslims claimed only that Christian messages from that one universal deity had been superseded and made obsolete by the revelations given to Mohammed. Now, the only real question was who spoke for the universal deity. That question has  remained the fundamental dividing issue among the three main monotheistic faiths, the Abrahamic religions, to this date, as each asserts the genuineness and supremacy of its own scripture and claims that the others’ scriptures are not relevant messages from the one universal deity.

However, and in all fairness, the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire continued intermittently over a period of about three centuries until the time of Constantine when Christianity was legalised. Although Christianity became the state religion of the empire in 380 persecution of Christians did not come to a complete halt, instead it switched to those deemed to be heretics, this time by the church itself. Pliny the Younger, a Roman governor writing circa 110 CE, called Christianity a “superstition taken to extravagant lengths”.  Similarly, the Roman historian Tacitus called it “a deadly superstition”,  and the historian Suetonius called Christians “a class of persons given to a new and mischievous superstition.” – here the word superstition has a slightly different connotation than it has today: for the Romans, it designated something foreign and different – in a negative sense. A religious belief was valid only insofar as it could be shown to be old and in line with ancient customs; new teachings were regarded with distrust.

The Roman disdain for Christianity, then, arose in large part from its sense that it was bad for society. In the 3rd century, the Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry wrote:

“How can people not be in every way impious and atheistic who have apostatised from the customs of our ancestors through which every nation and city is sustained? … What else are they than fighters against God?”

Of the world’s major religions, only one nonmonotheistic religion, Buddhism, has spread far beyond the culture of its origin. But the great cultures of Asia produced not only monotheism but two other major families of religions, at least potentially “universalisable”, that sprang from the ethnoreligious base. South Asia has given us Hinduism and Buddhism, in addition to a number of smaller religions, and the mainstream position for both Hinduism and Buddhism is that religious diversity is inevitable, beneficial, and necessary because of human diversity. Hinduism has taken this position perhaps more seriously than any other religion. East Asia produced an equally complex and quite different family of religions – Confucianism, Taoism, Shinto. Here the solution to religious diversity is interesting, for everyone, except for religious specialists such as priests, “belongs” to all the religions, calling upon each one for different needs. In fact, the idea of exclusive loyalty to one religion is rather foreign and incomprehensible to most people in that part of the world.

Unlike the patriarchal religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, within most of contemporary Paganism the divine is expressed in female as well as in the male. But it is perhaps the importance of the female within Paganism that causes much unease, perhaps fear, within Abrahamic religions. The Pagan idea threatens the basic power structure that came out of the patriarchal hegemony. When it comes to contemporary Paganism and the issue of plurality, the problem is that, for example, too many Pagans seem not to realise that Christianity is not monolithic – there are any number of shades of Christian and Christianity, ranging from spiritualists to Quakers to Presbyterians to Baptists to Catholics, and all the shades of grey in between. I also think that some people on both sides, Christianity and Paganism, simply seem to “feed” on the mistrust and each new generation allows it to continue, almost as if each generation needs it.

However, part of the problem does rest at the door of contemporary Paganism and contemporary Pagan identity – or should I say perhaps the lack of a “unified” Pagan identity?  For some what it means to be Pagan seems to be found in opposition, which is not surprising considering the general and contemporary use of the term to denote people outside the mainstream religious spectrum. Many continue to use just that definition, as many other attempts to develop a more focused meaning tend to fall apart on closer inspection – either that or the “self-defined” meaning tends to permeate among those who identify as belonging to the Pagan community, and in fact leaves them without a religious/spiritual identity.

But hanging on to the concept of being “outsiders” is not what contemporary Paganism is about. To the modern Pagan, everyone is unique and each person’s spirituality comes from an equally unique experience and each person should find their spirituality according to the dictates of their own spirit – a reason why Pagans do not proselytise or seek converts, from other faiths and from society in general. The philosophy of religious pluralism needed today is in many ways daring. It goes far beyond the attempt to include “the others” or “them” and it also goes far beyond mere tolerance of differences. Genuine pluralism should be fully aware of genuine differences among the worlds religions without elevating one religious viewpoint above others nor to reduce them all to the same thing.

Perhaps the most critical step in this process is the transition from tolerance to curiosity. Rather than merely tolerating other points of view, we all should perhaps become curious about them and begin to explore and to investigate them empathetically. This will lead to a deep and thoroughgoing appreciation of the different systems, and their infinite variety could then become a source of fascination and enrichment rather than a problem.








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