It is no exaggeration to say that the invention of monotheism has been the greatest misfortune of humanity. In the polytheistic world, every city had its gods, who were deemed to be its protectors against very real threats such as floods, famines, crop failure, volcanoes, military defeat, and other disasters. Even when a city was conquered by Persia or Rome, it was free to keep its gods and worship as it saw fit. It did not occur to the conquerors to impose the yoke of their religion on the defeated or to rob them of the gods of their ancestors. There was mutual tolerance and even respect where the gods of other cities were concerned.
But suddenly, there emerged on this polytheistic scene a very uncivil group of people who denounced the gods of all others as false. The Hebrews believed that theirs alone was the true God, and that all other gods were imposters. The Hebrews were an eccentric tribe, but they were harmless in comparison to the Christians who came after them. The latter upped the ante by maintaining that all other gods were not just false but contemptible and malignant demons whose worship must be outlawed and replaced by the worship of the “one true God.” Needless to say, these monotheists introduced a level of incivility and discord that did not make polytheistic communities favorably disposed to them. Contrary to Christian accounts, their persecution at the hands of the Romans pales to insignificance when compared to the Christians who were killed by the church, as Edward Gibbon has argued in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
When the emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity in 312 CE, he quickly granted religious tolerance to all, including Christians, in the Edict of Milan (313 CE). But those who believed that they worshipped the “one true God” were not satisfied with religious liberty. By its nature, Christianity requires dominance. The bishops were not content until Christianity became the only official religion of the empire, and all other religions were outlawed (380 CE).
Once in power, the bellicose Christians violently crushed every remnant of polytheistic worship. Naturally, paganism collapsed in the face of such merciless persecution. It made no sense to suffer for the sake of gods whose very worship was intended to bring good luck and allay suffering. With the sack of Rome by Alaric (410 CE) and with other barbarians besieging the empire from every frontier, some pagans naturally wondered if the demise of their empire had something to do with their having abandoned their ancestral gods in favor of a newfangled religion.
In response to these musings, the inimitable Augustine, bishop of Hippo, led a massive propaganda campaign of muckraking and Christian self-congratulation. In his City of God, Augustine set out to divest the Romans of the idea that their misfortunes had anything to do with the loss of their old gods. To accomplish this, he directed a slanderous tirade against the old gods. He denounced the pagan gods as vile and malevolent “demons who teach depravity and rejoice in degradation” (4.27). But thankfully, the blood of Christ has “set us free” from their lies as well as their “demonic power.”
In what follows, I will expose the mendacity of the Christian campaign of propaganda and muckraking directed against the pagan gods. I believe that the victory of Christianity over the classical civilization of Greece and Rome was a triumph of a malicious and menacing religion that continues to afflict humanity.
What Augustine found particularly abhorrent about Zeus (Jupiter in Roman terms) was his plethora of sexual adventures (4.26). This objection tells us more about Augustine and Christianity than about paganism. However, it must be pointed out that an account of creation that depends on generation (not creation out of nothing) needs a god with a gargantuan sexual appetite if he is to be plausibly considered the father of all gods and men. Besides, how else can heroes such as Hercules, who saved mankind from all manner of terrible things, be explained without the liaisons of mortal women with the god of heaven? In fact, the central saga of Christianity is a sexless version of the story of Hercules. Jesus, son of God, born of a mortal woman, saves humanity, not from some genuine threat but from some abstract and intangible evil.
If one were to imagine a father in heaven, then Zeus as portrayed by Homer in the Iliad surpasses the god of Abraham. It is not just Zeus’s virility that makes him a more plausible father; it is also his empathy for his children—all his children. Because he is a Greek god, we might expect him to root for the Greeks against the barbarians in the Trojan War. But he does not, for he is the father of all humanity and therefore makes every effort to end the war and allay human suffering—but he is not omnipotent.
In contrast to Zeus, the biblical god, despite his alleged omnipotence, is a small tribal god who orders the Israelites to slaughter all the inhabitants of the promised land. When they refuse, he threatens them with annihilation. When they follow orders, he joins the battle and does most of the slaughtering. Contrary to Christian propaganda, as I have argued in my book Terror and Civilization, the god of the New Testament is no improvement over that of the Old.
What worried Augustine was that the pagan gods set a bad example for humanity (4.32). It was not just Zeus’s lecherous conduct that scandalized Augustine. In defeating the Titans, Zeus defeated his own father, Cronus. And Cronus had ascended the throne of heaven by cutting his father’s genitals off with a sickle—this is not unlike the way one regime sometimes follows another in the human world. But Augustine worried that presenting the gods as engaging in anything less than exemplary conduct would lead to rampant immorality.
However, Augustine’s worry was misplaced. For pagans, piety was about honoring the gods, not imitating them. The latter was hubris—the arrogance of acting like a god. For the pagans, such extravagant conceit, which invariably leads to disaster, was the antithesis of piety. Like the pagans, the Hebrews had enough sense not to imitate God. But Christians and Muslims define piety as the imitation of God, acting on his behalf or doing his bidding. In other words, they turn hubris into piety. This is a recipe for political catastrophe.
For the pagans, morality and religion were separate. Morality was about the proper relations between human beings. Religion was about the relations of humanity with the natural world. The pagan gods were mythical personifications of natural phenomena. What is Poseidon if not the wildness of the sea? What is Aphrodite if not the power of sexual love? What is Demeter if not the bountifulness of the earth? What is Hades if not the sting of death? Far from being false, the pagan gods were an integral part of lived experience. They represented something real apart from themselves. The same cannot be said for Jesus or the god of Abraham; they represent nothing. Their reality depends exclusively on the gullibility of believers. Pagan myths could be explained in natural terms, but the extravagant otherworldliness of Christian myths tax human credulity: creation ex nihilo, virgin birth, immaculate conception, death and resurrection, transubstantiation—these have no natural equivalents. Augustine’s claim that Christianity liberated humanity from falsehood is a testimony to his characteristic combination of arrogance and illogic.
Contrary to the libelous claims of Augustine, there was a marked absence of evil in pagan religion. There were no witches or demons. If the harvest did not materialize, the pagans surmised that the goddess could not be bothered to help them. They did not assume that they were being punished for their sins or that some evil witch had colluded with the devil to bring about the drought. The same could not be said of the religion of the “one true God.”
In truth, the gods that the Romans inherited from the Greeks were not demonic at all. On the contrary, Zeus defeated the nasty Titans, Giants, and Ogres and shut them in the fiery prison of Tartarus beneath the earth. The battle made a terrible mess of the world, because the Giants waded through oceans as if they were walking through puddles and threw mountains around like pebbles. But when the war of heaven was over, there was peace, and Zeus and his fellow Olympians repaired the desolation and restored the original order and beauty of the earth, for they so loved the world.
The Olympian gods did not make the world, but they treasured it and were delighted to live in it. In contrast, the god of Abraham made the world, but he certainly did not live in it. And according to Christian and Muslim accounts, he planned to destroy it. It is an event whose occurrence Christians have always anticipated with longing. This has shaped the attitude of our civilization toward the Earth as a temporary and disposable abode. So, it is only with the greatest hypocrisy that the retired Pope Benedict could have added environmental degradation to his list of Christian sins.
Christianity borrowed the pagan motif of a war of heaven and added a sinister twist. The pagan battle was in the past, but the Christian one is yet to come. The pagan battle was among the gods, but in the Christian version humanity is deeply involved. This has the effect of ratcheting up the human propensity for war. It turns every war into a cosmic struggle. Political enemies are invariably understood as allies of the forces of evil. Every war becomes a rehearsal for the final battle, and when that comes the world will be destroyed and the overwhelming majority of humanity will suffer the eternal torment of hellfire.
The Christian ability to borrow from pagan mythology is one of the secrets of its success. But the differences are as significant as the similarities. For example, Tartarus is the inspiration for the Christian idea of hell. But unlike the latter, the former was reserved for Titans, Giants, and Ogres, not for humanity at large. After death, human beings went to Hades, a bland realm of shadows that was a stark contrast to the full-bodied existence of earthly life in which mortals and immortals reveled.
By defeating the Titans, Giants, and Ogres, the gods of Greece made the world safe for the celebration of life, light, and beauty. By winning the war of heaven, the Olympians replaced the dark chthonic gods of terror and torment. The new race of gods were beautiful and civilized, if somewhat childish and tempestuous. They did not stalk about in the night terrifying children with threats of eternal torment. They went to their homes on Mount Olympus to sleep in their beds.
Did Christianity save the world from falsehood and demonic power? Hardly. The triumph of Christianity over pagan Rome was a regression to the cruel gods of eternal torment. Augustine’s claim to the contrary is a classic illustration of the self-congratulation of the victors who distort history.