We expect monotheists, who believe themselves to be worshipping the one and only true God, to have difficulty accomodating gods or even conflicting views about God.
Although David Hume (1711-1776) has sometimes been derided as an armchair-anthropologist, he was one of the wisest observers of human behavior and of religion. When discussing monotheism in his book, The Natural History of Religion, he lucidly noted that when “one sole object of devotion is acknowledged, the worship of other deities is regarded as absurd and impious…as no one can conceive, that the same being should be pleased with different and opposite rites and principles; the several sects fall naturally into animosity, and mutually discharge on each other that sacred zeal and rancour, the most furious and implacable of all human passions.”
And what about polytheists? Are they less likely to perpetrate violence on those with other gods? By virtue of its multiple gods, polytheism can, in principle, incorporate or absorb other gods without stripping them of their attributes. In Hume’s opinion, “the intolerance of almost all religions, which have maintained the unity of God, is as remarkable as the contrary principle of polytheists.” His view matches the romantic views of contemporary Westerners who often believe that non-monotheistic faiths are, par excellence, inclusive and hence, non-violent. But are they?
History mostly supports Hume’s conclusion. Take the Hindu state of Gujarat in India, for instance. During its cosmopolitan trading history of some 5,000 years, it assimilated the religions of those who settled on its shores.
But on September 27, 2002, 58 Hindu train passengers died after Muslims set their train on fire during a stop in Gujarat. This intra-Indian violence was perpetrated by Muslim monotheists on Hindu polytheists. Given that Islam acknowledges only one object of devotion, the world might not have been surprised (except for its cruelty) at such monotheistic-polytheistic enmity.
Except that the supposedly tolerant polytheists were not to be outdone violence-wise. As the province’s Hindu chief minister intoned (quoting Newton’s third law): “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” According to Robert Kaplan, Hindu mobs quickly organized. The day after the train fire, they attacked the Muslim quarters in Ahmedabab (the city where Ghandi established his ashram) and in other cities. Hindu men “raped Muslim women, before pouring kerosene down their throats and the throats of their children, then setting them all on fire. Muslim men were forced to watch the ritualistic killings before they, too, were put to death. More than 400 women were raped; 2,000 people, overwhelmingly Muslim, [were] murdered; and 200,000 more [were] made homeless throughout the state.”
We could, of course, argue that religion has oft-times been harnessed to serve various political and nationalistic agendas. Then again, we could, just as easily, counter-argue the reverse—namely, that religion has oft-times harnessed political and nationalistic institutions to crush resistant, competing religions and assert its hegemony.
Let’s ask, instead, whether polytheism can co-exist with monotheism. By its very nature, monotheism recognizes only one God, and its God is jealous of all other gods. Clearly a my-way-or-the-highway kind of God won’t share the road with other gods. But what happens when a monotheistic God refuses to join a polytheism’s pantheon? We need only recall how it came to pass that the Jews were exiled from the land of Palestine in the 1st century CE. Their God refused to leave his bachelor pad in heaven for the gods’ group-living arrangement on Mt. Olympus.
The so-called ‘New Atheists’ would no doubt propose that India eliminate all religions whether theistic or polytheistic. Get rid of God and gods, and the Federation of no-God will surely be (finally and permanently) established on earth, bringing with it peace, justice and prosperity for all. Okay. Fine. But what should India do as it waits for the New Atheists’ armchair-proselytizing to begin bearing fruit?
A crassly utilitarian yearning for order may be key to peace in India. The threat of déjà-vu anarchy, the memory of partition’s chaos and destruction, could entice cooler heads to prevail. After all, without domestic tranquility, the blessings of prosperity remain out of reach for Hindus and Muslims alike. Let’s hope the battle of the gods finally becomes a thing of the past.
References: David Hume, The Natural History of Religion, New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1992), 39-41; Robert D. Kaplan, “India’s New Face,’ in The Atlantic, April 2009, vol. 303, no. 3, 74-81, Martin Marty, “Monotheism, Polytheism and Violence,” in Sightings, October 20, 2008, bi-weekly subscription e-newsletter available through the Martin Marty Center of the University of Chicago.