Too Many Pagan Gods

Catholic Sense 11

Too Many Pagan Gods

By David Mills

The problem with God, some people think, is that there’s only one of Him. Belief in just one God makes the people who claim him as their own impose a one-size-fits-all religion on everyone, whether or not it fits them.

That was the basic idea of the quote from Dan Brown we looked at last time. He thought it would just be so sweet if believers of every sort could hold hands and declare their belief in a god, and which god doesn’t matter.

You may hear that from critics of Christianity, but you might also hear a more sophisticated version, claiming to offer historical evidence that believing in the one true God of Christianity hurts people. This is the idea that the ancient pagans didn’t fight over religion because everyone had his own god to worship, and that Christianity brought religious discord into the world by banishing the gods and establishing its own God as the only one allowed.

About five years ago, for example, a book called God Against the Gods proposed this idea, and it became a bestseller. The writer claimed that “The core value of paganism was religious tolerance — a man or woman in ancient Rome was at liberty to offer worship to whatever god or goddess seemed most likely to grant a prayerful request.”

The pagan world was like a giant buffet, at which each person could find exactly what he wanted, and so everyone was happy and got along with everyone else. Vegans with their tofu chattered merrily to meat-eaters with their ribeyes, the people who ate only free range eggs traded recipes with the people who ate eggs from factory farms.

When Christianity took over, the world it created was like a school cafeteria run by a fanatical bully who makes everyone eat only what he likes. The vegetarians have to eat hamburgers, the diabetics have to eat ice cream, the lactose-intolerant have to drink their milk, and everyone has to eat the inedible mystery meat. And they have to pretend to like it, or else.

In this case, who wouldn’t want paganism? But life in the pagan world wasn’t really so tolerant. This sophisticated argument depends on a rosy vision of the good old pagan days, which is even less accurate than grandmother’s memories of the good old days when children always did what they were told.

The world of the pagan gods was a constant and often bitter contest for power and supremacy (scholars call it an agon). The Greeks and Trojans suffered the ten brutal bloody years of the Trojan war because three vain goddesses argued over who was better looking, and forced some poor sap from Troy to decide between them. The two he didn’t choose let his people have it, and dragged in the poor Greeks to do it.

Only the most powerful gods could keep order, and they couldn’t do it very well. In Homer’s IIiad, which tells the story of the Trojan War, Zeus keeps trying to satisfy all the contradictory demands of the different gods (some were pro-Greek, some pro-Trojan). He did, mostly, but only by causing yet more suffering for the Greeks and Trojans.

If this is the way the gods are, people naturally reasoned, this is the way the world is. The world is essentially chaotic and always just inches from breakdown. Only force applied by the strongest — brutally, without mercy — can keep it in order.

So, actually, the pagan world was like a giant buffet . . . in North Korea. You could eat what you want, but the armed guards stationed around the room have been ordered to drag you out and torture you, or just shoot you, if you even look like you might start trouble. You only have a choice because the choice doesn’t matter.

In the ancient Roman world, you could follow any god you wanted, as long as that god kept his head down and didn’t pretend to be much of a god. And you had to live under a brutal government that might do almost anything to you if it thought it needed to, because it believed in gods who couldn’t get along.

That world wasn’t really a peaceful world of religious tolerance. As the early Christians found, when they brought to that world the good news of a God who was love, and the state saw how this undermined its claims to control. That’s the reason it sent Christians to the lions.

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. This column appeared in the Pittsburgh Catholic on January 1, 2010.