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>Good Fences Make Good Religions? On Stephen Prothero’s New Theory of Religious Hygiene


“There is no Method of Reasoning more Common, and yet none more blameable, than in philosophical Debates, to endeavor the Refutation of any Hypothesis, by a Pretext of its dangerous Consequences.”

[David Hume, Of Liberty and Necessity]

In simpler, more innocent times, religion scholars who fancied themselves as having things weighty and wise to impart to a wider audience churned out middlebrow coffee table books on World Religions.

If the author was lucky, and/or well-connected, and if the product was deemed sufficiently marketable (with one of the primary criteria for determining the commercial prospects for any book on religion being its inoffensiveness) the book might be picked up by a Major Publisher. In the most fortunate of cases, the Major Publisher would even deign to promote the book in such a manner that people (well, some people, anyway) would come to know of its existence, and perhaps even purchase it — perchance to read it.

But things change. Please try to keep up.

In these 21st century times of ours, inoffensive coffee table books on World Religions are quickly going the way of all flesh, or at least the way of the cassette tape and the floppy disk. What Major Publishers want today in middlebrow books on religion is, instead, polemics and controversy.

And the important thing for all would-be religious controversialists and polemicists is not how one stakes out a positive position and defends it. The new business model demands that all authors, regardless of what position they are promoting, must shock and horrify the reader with the presentation of dangerous, irrational enemies who must be vanquished, else we are all doomed. In a word: it is not enough to be right: others must be wrong. Very, very wrong.

Enter Stephen Prothero, professor of Religion at Boston University, and his new book with the ludicrous subtitle: God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run The World.

Prothero’s book is actually in many (in fact, most) ways really just another middlebrow popular survey of World Religions. And if that were all it aspired to be, then it’s great wealth of distortions and factual inaccuracies could hardly be held against it, since these are no more out of place in the World Religions genre than are straight-faced interviews with Nostradamus “scholars” on the History Channel.

But Prothero takes the usual admixture of information and misinformation and frames it within a polemical narrative against the “dangerous” and “seductive” idea that — horror of horrors! — “all religions are beautiful and true.”

To be sure, few are able, on their own, to discern the dark menace lurking behind this seemingly innocuous sentiment, but, fortunately for us all, Stephen Prothero has been able to decode and expose the diabolical machinations of Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Huston Smith, Joseph Campbell, and their kumbaya-ist co-conspirators!

And just in time. Who knows what horrors might await humankind if this “well-intentioned” but “ethically irresponsible” “all religions are one meme” were allowed to continue to daze and confuse the tender hearts and minds of our impressionable youth and to further sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids.

Dear Surfer, as you can by now plainly discern, I, too, alas, have succumbed to the newfangled fashion for religious polemics and controversy. For I claim nothing less than that Stephen Prothero is promoting an idea that is indeed dangerous, although I cannot honestly claim to see any way in which it could ever be thought of as seductive, except to the extent that the American upper-middle class serious non-fiction hardback-book-buying readership has seldom, if ever, encountered a simplistic ahistorical hyperbolic confabulation, presented by a Noted Academic complete with footnotes and ideologically stereophonic pimpage by NPR and the WSJ, that it did not like.

However, before going further, in order to explain why Prothero’s idea is so dangerous I need to first tell you a little about my grandfather.

“They’re just different.”

I loved my grandfather — he was a good man whom I respected and still admire. He was a deeply religious Christian, and he applied himself with enthusiasm to living a moral life, and to being compassionate and generous to others. And he did this without the arid grimness that one might (unfairly) expect from deeply religious people, but rather with an easygoing amiability that was both completely sincere and downright charming.

But my grandfather didn’t like Jews. “They’re just different,” he would say. He also didn’t much like African-Americans, whom he referred to as “coons.” They were different, too.

Grandpa never finished high school, fought (and was wounded) in WWI, and (except for his military service) lived his whole life in the small factory town in Indiana where he was born and is now buried.

When he came back from the war he was still a very young man, and for most of the next decade the state of Indiana was dominated by the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan’s grip on the state (they even controlled the Indiana delegation to Congress) ended by the late 20’s, but that was due to sex and money scandals, not because of any disenchantment with the racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, and anti-immigrant message of the KKK, a message which continued to be very popular and continued to be championed by Republican and Democratic politicians of the Hoosier state (who were often the very same politicians previously backed by the Klan).

To me it seems overly harsh to label my grandfather a racist and an anti-Semite, but factually speaking that’s what he was. It is, however, also a fact that he was a product of the time and place that he lived. And it’s also a fact that he wasn’t all that different from Barack Obama’s grandmother, whom President Obama once characterized as a “typical white person.”

A very great deal of what comes under the headings of racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism — and bigotry generally — can be summed up in those words of my grandfather: “they’re just different.” And this emphasis on differentness continues to be at the heart of the often more subtle (although not always so) forms of bigotry that are still alive and well in America in the 21st century.

The closest present-day equivalent to the KKK is the infamous CCC, the Council of Conservative Citizens. These fine citizens claim that they are not racists, but, instead, their Statement of Principles says that they advocate “cultural, national, and racial integrity“, and also that “the United States is a European country.” Interestingly, the very first principle of the CCC is that “the United States is a Christian country.”

Sam Francis, the author of the CCC’s Statement of Principles, has been called “the philosopher king of the American radical right”. Francis edited Pat Buchanan’s 2002 book The Death of the West. Far from trying to distance himself from Francis, Buchanan literally eulogized him upon his death in 2005 with these words: “When God created him, He endowed Sam with a great gift—one of the finest minds of his generation.”

Francis, although proud to call himself a “paleoconservative”, was actually very typical of the new approach to race among radical rightists generally: emphasis is placed not on the inferiority or superiority of races, but only on the essential differentness of races. Of course this is very little, if at all, different from the typical racism of the Old South, which emphasized segregation while demonizing “race-mixing”, all the while proclaiming a benevolent, loving, Christian attitude toward “the negro”.

“As all men are alike (tho’ infinitely various)”

By this point you might be asking: what in blue blazes do my grandfather, the Klan and the CCC have to do with Stephen Prothero and his new book God is not One??

Well, Prothero has taken his title from William Blake’s very first illustrated book: All Religions Are One. Blake’s “book” was in fact a little poem with only about 250 words altogether, so we can look at the whole thing before proceeding further:

The Voice of one crying in the Wilderness

The Argument.
As the true method of knowledge is experiment, the true faculty of knowing must be the faculty which experiences.

This faculty I treat of.

Principle I. That the Poetic Genius is the true Man, and that the body or outward form of Man is derived from the Poetic Genius. Likewise that the forms of all things are derived from their Genius, which by the Ancients was call’d an Angel & Spirit & Demon.

Principle II.
As all men are alike in outward form, So (and with the same infinite variety) all are alike in the Poetic Genius.

Principle III.
No man can think, write or speak from his heart, but he must intend truth. thus all sects of Philosophy are from the Poetic Genius adapted to the weaknesses of every individual.

Principle IV. As none by travelling over known lands can find out the unknown, So from already acquired knowledge Man could not acquire more; therefore an universal Poetic genius exists.

Principle V. The Religions of all Nations are derived from each Nation’s different reception of the Poetic Genius, which is every where call’d the Spirit of Prophecy.

Principle VI. The Jewish & Christian Testaments are An original derivation from the Poetic Genius. This is necessary from the confined nature of bodily sensation.

Principle VII. As all men are alike (tho’ infinitely various), So all Religions , &, as all similars, have one source. The true Man is the source, he being the Poetic Genius.

With Blake’s words in front of us, it is now much easier to make clear the reason I have brought up the unpleasant subject of racism: because racism is, in its essence, the denial of human equality. And human equality is the underlying theme of Blake’s All Religions Are One!

Prothero is completely clueless about the implications of his insistence on the essential differences between religions, and in particular the way that he frames his argument with respect to William Blake. To see just how potentially dangerous this is, it is first necessary to recognize that Prothero insists on denying (or at least minimizing to the point of exclusion from any serious consideration) any essential unity to Religion itself, while being equally insistent that religions, plural, each possess a great degree of internal coherence, and that this internal coherence within each religion creates fixed, neatly separated, mutually exclusive religious identities.

In other words, Prothero is conceptualizing religions in exactly the same way that 17th, 18th and 19th century Europeans conceptualized races. And Prothero’s theory of Religious Hygiene (that is, that the separate religions should be kept separate for everyone’s good) can be deconstructed in exactly the same way that so-called “scientific racism” was finally debunked conclusively following WWII.

Whence the urge to create fixed, neatly separated, mutually exclusive religious identities?

Before I go any further let me be clear: I don’t believe that Stephen Prothero is an evil man who has intentionally written a book with a racist subtext. But I do believe that he is a stupid man who has unintentionally written a book with a racist subtext.

The theory of race starts from really existing, easily observed variations in human biology. But from there “scientific racism” imposes sharp boundaries separating a few distinct “races” from each other. It bears emphasizing that these “races” are not invented from scratch. In fact, they correspond closely to popularly imagined boundaries separating humans into different groups. The groupings themselves are real enough, to an extent, but in practice, the lines separating these groups, especially when examined closely, are blurred, and all too easily crossed. The essence of scientific racism is that it provided a “scientific” validation and a much needed reinforcement to a popular belief based in part on objective observation, in part on social conventions, and in part on a myriad of psychological and other factors, many of them far from ennobling. In this way, “race theory” provided an objective-sounding pretext for using the belief in separate races as the basis for social and political policy and also as a guide for individual behavior.

It is essential to be able to distinguish between (a) casual observations of human variability, and (b) the positing of immutable “differences” that unalterably separate groups of human beings from one another. In my opinion, the insights gained from the spectacle of “racial science” and its eventual downfall can be applied to better understanding Stephen Prothero’s proposed scheme for a scholarly sounding reification of religious identities.

To be honest, prior to encountering Prothero’s new book, I had not looked all that closely at the relationship between racial identity and religious identity. But others had:

[I]n the United States and throughout the Americas, from the fifteenth century through the twenty-first — religion has been inextricably woven into both racial and national identities, to such an extent that “race,” “nation,” and “religion” have each defined the others. These seemingly distinct discourses of difference have at times borrowed and at times contested each other’s rhetorical authority, reinforcing and undercutting each other’s social hierarchies, mixing and mingling in unresolved dialectics irreducible to any one term. If we fail to appreciate the relationships among these categories of collective identity, we will be unable to grasp the contours of our own histories — that of the United States, and those of the Americas more broadly.
[Henry Goldschmidt, Introduction to Race, Nation, and Religion in the Americas, p. 5]

What Henry Goldschmidt has to say above is further elaborated upon below by Daniel B. Lee, who contributed a chapter (in Goldschmidt’s book, co-edited with Elizabeth McAlister) on A Great Racial Commission: Religion and the Construction of White America:

For the development of an enduring racial self-description, the late nineteenth century was a particularly innovative period for White people in America. The decade after the Civil War significantly changed the racial and religious landscape of the country. For the first time, Native Americans, emancipated Blacks, and new immigrants from all over the world challenged the cultural hegemony of Anglo-Saxon Christians with their undeniable presence. In the midst of an increasingly diverse population, many White Americans turned to religion as a source of racial and national unity . . . .

My analysis … begins with the theoretical assumption that there is no natural way to be White, act White, or communicate as a White person. There is no a priori metaphysical bond or primordial solidarity between Whites or between the people of any other racial or religious group. White society first emerges when people communicate about sharing “Whiteness.” Communities of people construct themselves and their others as they communicate. A society, such as Whites exchanging race talk, for itself and its environment in an entirely self-referential, autological manner.
[Daniel B. Lee, Chapter 3 in Religion, Nation, and Race in the Americas, pp. 85-86]

In my opinion it is far from coincidental that in the early 21st century Prothero has come along with a simplistic narrative reifying the boundaries that reassuringly separate “the rival religions that run the world.” Indeed, this is a time when America is facing a crisis of identity of far greater, and far more complex, proportions than anything it faced in the late 19th century.

Up until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, America as a nation still accepted as legitimate the idea that Whites should enjoy de jure political superiority, at least in a large part of the US (the South). Even after 1965, though, White Americans still continue, to this day, to enjoy de facto political and socio-economic superiority. Even if that continues into the future, at least in terms of raw demographics Whites will be a minority in the US by 2050. According to projections by The Pew Research Center, 40 years from now the combined Latino, Black and Asian population of the US will be 51%, while the total White population will be 47%.

Race has become, thank the Gods, completely discredited as a “discourse of difference.” But Prothero is now trying to promote a mode of religious discourse primarily based on difference in a way that very closely mirrors the now discarded concept of “race”. By (1) emphasizing and exaggerating the differences between religions, (2) denying any spiritual common ground between religions, and (3) ignoring the often vast differences within religions, Prothero is engaging in exactly the same kind of psycho-social engineering as the race theorists of the past.

Because it really is quite fitting, I will end with Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Walls.” Frost did not himself coin the phrase “good fences makes good neighbors,” but it was from him that I learned of it. And it was my 7th grade English teacher, Mr. Mann, a conservative southerner and a Mormon, who was teaching during the early 1970’s in a very liberal suburb of Washington DC, who taught me to appreciate this poem. Thanks, Mr. Mann!! [Scroll down below the poem for links to other posts on Stephen Prothero.]

Mending Walls
by Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Previous posts from this blog on Stephen Prothero:
Who, if anyone, is Stephen Prothero arguing with, other than himself?
How Stephen Prothero mangles the economics-politics-religion analogy
The basis of universal spirituality
Contra Prothero

>More on Prothero: Who, if anyone, is he arguing with, other than himself?

>In his latest self-promotion campaign, Stephen Prothero has managed to publish more or less exactly the same warmed-over tripe in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the Christian Science Monitor.

Also impressive has been the way in which a substance-free “review” of Prothero’s new book (God Is Not One) has been picked up and repeated by everyone from the Phoenix Metromix to the Mercury News to the Washington Examiner to the Republic (of Columbus, Indiana) to the Stamford Advocate (subscription required) to the West Virginia Gazette (cached) to SFGate.com (cached), and many more (this puff-piece was originally filed by veteran, and now semi-retired, AP reporter Carl Hartman).

Prothero has also been interviewed or otherwise featured on NPR and a number of other print, broadcast, and online media outlets, and he is scheduled to appear on the Daily Show Colbert Report in June (it will be his second appearance he has previously appeared on the Daily Show).

Every time the ubiquitous author of God Is Not One opens his mouth or puts his thoughts in writing these days he mindlessly intones his unchanging mantra: “all religions are not the same.” Like some wind-up political hack campaigning for an open city-council seat, he is never off message.

But who, if anyone, has ever claimed that “all religions are the same”?? Who, if anyone, is Stephen Prothero actually arguing against?

Well, according to Prothero: (1) the “dangerous” concept of religious sameness originated with the Enlightenment philosopher, artist and poet William Blake, and (2) the most “dangerous” contemporary proponent of the idea is religion scholar Huston Smith (whose 91st birthday is coming at the end of this month).

The trouble, though, is that neither Blake nor Smith are guilty of anything like the kind of hamfisted religious homogenization that Prothero imputes to them.

Here is what Huston Smith actually says in his classic The World’s Religions:

What a strange fellowship this is, the God-seekers in every land, lifting up their voices in the most disparate ways imaginable to the God of all life. How does it sound from above? Like bedlam, or do these strains blend in strange, ethereal harmony? Does one faith carry the lead, or do the parts share in counterpoint and antiphony where not in full-throated chorus?

We cannot know. All we can do is try to listen carefully and with full attention to each voice in turn as it addresses the divine . . . .

The book does not attempt to give a rounded view of the religions considered, for each hosts differences that are too numerous to be delineated in a single chapter. One need only think of Christendom. Eastern Orthodox Christians worship in ornate cathedrals, while Quakers consider even steeples desecrations. There are Christian mystics and Christians who reject mysticism. There are Christian Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Unitarians . . . .

Every religion mixes universal principles with local peculiarities. The former, when lifted out and made clear, speak to what is generically human in us all. The latter, rich compounds of rites and legends, are not easy for outsiders to comprehend. It is one of the illusions of rationalism that the universal principles of religion are more important than the rites and rituals that feed them; to make that claim is like contending that the branches and leaves of a tree are more important that the roots from which they grow.
[Huston Smith, The World’s Religions, pp. 2-3]

Huston Smith does refer to “universal principles” that are to be found in “every religion”, and it is important to note that when he does so he directly ties his conception of religious universalism to our common humanity (“what is generically human in us all”).

In the book’s chapter on Hinduism, Smith gives a specific example of universalism when he talks about Tantra and sexuality:

Tantra’s teachings about sex are neither titillating nor bizarre: they are universal. Sex is so important — after all, it keeps life going — that it must be linked quite directly with God. It is the divine Eros of Hesiod, celebrated in Plato’s Phaedrus and in some way by every people. Even this, though, is too mild. Sex is the divine in its most available epiphany. But with this proviso: It is such when joined to love. When two people who are passionately, even madly — Plato’s divine madness — in love; when each wants most to receive what the other most wants to give; — at the moment of their mutual climax it is impossible to say whether the experience is more physical or spiritual, or whether they sense themselves as two or as one. The moment is ecstatic because at that moment they stand outside — ex, out; stasis, standing — themselves in the melded oneness of the Absolute.
[p. 141]

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Prothero never addresses what Huston Smith actually says. Rather he repeats over and over and over again the claim that Smith and others ignore all substantive differences between religions. As the above quotes demonstrate: that is a lie.

Prothero also stoops to bald-faced lying when it comes to William Blake, whose 250 word poem, All Religions Are One, was the inspiration for the title of Prothero’s new book. But in that brief work, Blake twice repeats that “all men are alike (though infinitely various),” and makes it clear that both the commonality and the variability of the human species are reflected in human religion.

Prothero has chosen one of the lowest paths that any scholar can take: the Straw Man argument. Rather than honestly engage with those he claims to disagree with, Prothero only engages with the voices in his own head. Perhaps it is the case that as a young undergraduate he misunderstood some of his assigned reading. And now he is going forth and sharing his misunderstandings with the world.

But the most troubling aspect of all this is not the intellectual shoddiness of Prothero’s theorizing about religious difference/sameness. Rather, it is the fact that the idea of religious universalism, as is made clear in both Blake and Smith, has always been inextricably intertwined with the fundamental principle of human equality. Prothero’s specious argument that “all religions are not the same” is identical to the argument of the segregationist who insists on “separate but equal”, or the misogynist who perverts “la différence” into a justification for sexism. This dark side of Prothero’s theory of anti-universalism will be addressed in a future post coming soon to a web browser near you.

Previous posts from this blog on Stephen Prothero:
How Stephen Prothero mangles the economics-politics-religion analogy
The basis of universal spirituality
Contra Prothero

>"The Basis of Universal Spirituality" (Contra Prothero, Part Two)

>[The following is, complete and unaltered, The Basis of Universal Spirituality, which comprises Chapter Five of Sita Ram Goel’s book Defense of Hindu Society. Much of this is, in turn, quoted from Ram Swarup’s book The Word As Revelation: Names of Gods. The footnotes are active links that will take you to the Voice of Dharma website, where the online edition of the entire book is available (along with many other books by Sita Ram Goel and others). For a little background on Sita Ram Goel and Ram Swarup see: Hindus and Pagans: “A Return to the Time of the Gods”, and also: “The Buddha, Sri Aurobindo and Plato”: an interview with Ram Swarup. Also see Contra Prothero, Part One.]

The Basis of Universal Spirituality

Sri Ramakrishna was one day taunted by a sceptic that the Kali he worshipped at Dakshineshwar was only a slab of black stone carved into a bizarre female figure and decked with glittering trinkets. The saint was taken aback. So far he had not cared to see the sacred icon in its supreme spiritual splendour. He had been content to witness the Divine Mother in all Her majesty in the cave of his heart whenever he was in a state of samãdhi. Now he had been challenged to find out if what he worshipped was a figment of his fevered imagination.

He entered the sanctum sanctorum and stood before the sacred icon. He fixed his gaze on the holy figure, and prayed with all his concentrated psychic power: Mã ! dyãkhã dê (Mother ! Reveal Thyself). And lo and behold! The Divine Mother dazzled his physical eyes with the same indescribable infinities as he had witnessed with his inner eye while meditating on Her form. He looked back at the sceptic who had accompanied him, and smiled with compassion. The sceptic had seen nothing which he had not seen before. To his physical eyes, the Goddess was still a slab of black stone. And it had not been given to him to train the inner eye.

The point which was made that day at Dakshineshwar was that to the physical consciousness a slab of stone in any shape or form will always remain a slab of stone, while to another consciousness which has awakened to some sublime dimension the same slab will reveal its innermost mysteries. To a consciousness such as that of Sri Ramakrishna who had already scaled the highest spiritual heights, the slab of stone became an incarnation of Sat (Truth), Cit (Consciousness), and Ãnanda (Bliss). It was not the icon which was inert and inconscient; it was the witness within the sceptic which had not yet awakened to its own spiritual power. It is not the Gods who are unwilling to reveal themselves; it is the worship which has not yet known how to woo them.

This is the spiritual secret discovered by the Vedic seers. This is the mystery and miracle witnessed and vouchsafed by Hindu saints and sages throughout the ages. And this is the vast vision which forms the spiritual centre of Hindu society.

There is a consciousness, inherent in all beings, everywhere and at all times, which, when reached and brought forward, witnesses the world-play as a drama of divine forms and forces. There is not a thing, nor a thought which does not get transfigured from the terrestrial into the celestial, whenever and wherever this consciousness comes into play. Everything then returns to and resumes its supreme spiritual status, or becomes the outer symbol of an inner sublimity. It is these sublimities which invite the seer’s worship as Gods and Goddesses. It is these sublimities which spur the bhakta to burst out in song and stuti, the paens of praise pouring out of a grateful heart for being permitted to witness what has been witnessed.

The Vedic seers were not primitive animists who invested the phenomena of physical Nature with anthropomorphic attributes, as the “Science” of Comparative Religion will have us believe. They were spiritual explorers who discovered and employed well-defined yogic disciplines to raise up human consciousness from its terrestrial turmoil to its transcendent tranquility. Nor were the Vedic Gods and Goddesses born in the poetic hyperboles of some barbaric bards, as the “higher criticism” of modern Indologists will have us imagine. The poetry did not precede the birth of the Vedic pantheon. On the contrary, it succeeded that birth when the Vedic seers saw the inner secrets of outer forms.


Sages such as Sri Aurobindo who have meditated on Hindu iconography, and savants such as Ananda Coomara-swamy, Stella Kramrisch, and Alice Boner who have studied the subject, assure us that the forms and features of Hindu icons have a source higher than the normal reaches of the human mind. The icons are no photocopies of any human or animal forms as we find them in their physical frames. They are in fact crystallizations of the abstract into the concrete, of the infinite into the finite. They always point beyond themselves, and a contemplation of them always draws us from the outer to the inner.

Hindu Šilpašãstras lay down not only technical formulas for carving holy icons in stone, and metal, and other materials. They also lay down elaborate rules about how the artist is to fast, and pray, and otherwise purify himself for long periods before he is permitted, if at all, to have a psychic image of the God or Goddess whom he wants to incarnate in a physical form. It is this sublime source of the Šilpašãstras which alone can explain a Sarnath Buddha, or a Chidambram NaTarãja, or a Vidisha Varãha, to name only a few of the large assembly of divine images inhabiting the earth. It is because this sublime source is not accessible to modern sculptors that we have to be content with poor copies which look like parodies of the original marvels.

The same sages and savants inform us that the Hindu temple architecture and the rituals that are performed at the time of pûjã, also have a sublime source. This is a deep and difficult subject, largely beyond the reach of the present writer. I shall, therefore, not proceed with it. What needs to be emphasized is that the plurality of Hindu Gods, the icons in which they are embodied, the temples in which they are installed, and the rituals with which they are worshipped, are not mere accessories and aids towards some deeper spiritual vision; instead, they incarnate the vision itself.

Ram Swarup has presented the proper perspective on the plurality of Hindu Gods as well as their incarnation in concrete images, in his recently published book, The Word As Revelation: Names of Gods. His discussion leaves no doubt that the plurality of the Hindu pantheon, and the large use of concrete images is not only quite in keeping with but also necessary corollaries of (1) the spontaneous processes of human psychology, (2) the normal growth of human knowledge culminating in spiritual vision, and (3) the natural development of human language for incorporating and communicating that knowledge and vision. I will quote at length from Ram Swarup’s book because I find it difficult to clothe his insights in my own language.


He introduces the subject as follows:

“If we look at the word ‘God’, we find that though today it has acquired a forced, intellectualized outward meaning appropriate to the mentality of the present age, yet it still retains the memory of the idea of a deity of a more intuitive people and of more spontaneous times.

“Etymologists connect this word with Gothic guth, which is Skt. huta, which means ‘one to whom oblations are made’ and, therefore, one who is worshipped. It connects us with the period when fire was a great living symbol of the deity within and around. In later times, the symbol was denounced as nature-worship by some sects but there was a time when it claimed, along with the Sun and the Sky, universal acceptance. Even Moses who belonged to an iconoclastic tradition had a glimpse of his God through the medium of fire. And in the Old Testament itself, certain hymns are considered ‘nature hymns’ by its scholars.

“Etymologists also connect the word with the German word gotse whose original meaning was an image or a figure. In the Norse language also, the word meant ‘image of a deity’. So the word perhaps referred to the practice of worshipping God through various images and figures, a practice quite common amongst different peoples all over the world, ancient as well as modern.

“There is another feature worth noticing. Spengler tells us that the Old German word for ‘God’ was a neutral plural and was turned into a masculine singular by Christian propaganda. The same is true of the word in the Norse and Teutonic languages. But after the heathens were converted, God changed his gender and number. This can hardly be regarded as the deepening of its meaning and conception.

“The Hebrew word Elohim too is plural in origin, form and sense. The same is true of the Semitic word El. It is not the name of the deity common to all but is a common name for different deities in the Semitic world.

“Thus we see that the untutored and the more spontaneous intuition of the human race excludes neither the plurality of Gods nor the use of images and nature symbols from its religious sensibility. The denial comes when the mind becomes too conceptual; or when dogmatic faith develops faster than understanding.

“If we study the ancient religious literature of the Hindus, particularly the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Mahabharata, certain things stand out prominently. The very first thing is a very large use of concrete image. There are Gods like Indra, PûSana, VaruNa, Ašvins for whom there are no physical correspondences, but many important Gods like Sûrya, Agni, Marut take their names after natural objects.

“There is also another important feature that we notice. The spiritual consciousness of the race is expressed in terms of the plurality of Gods. In these two respects, at least, the Hindu approach agreed with the spiritual intuition of other ancient peoples.


“The physical and intellectual are not opposed to one another. The names of physical objects become names of ideas, names of psychic truths, names of Gods; sensuous truths become intellectual truths, become spiritual truths. As the knowledge of the senses becomes the knowledge of the Manas and the Buddhi, the knowledge originating in the higher organs of the mind also tends to filter down to the levels of the Manas and the senses. So in this way even the highest knowledge has its form, colour and sound. This need not lower down its quality in any way. In fact, this is the only way in which the sense-bound mind understands something of the higher knowledge.

“This reverberating, echoing and imaging takes place up and down the whole corridor of the mind, at all levels of abstraction. Here, as we traverse the path, we meet physical forms, sound-forms, vision-forms, thought-forms, universal forms, all echoes of each other. We meet mantras and yantras and icons of various efficacies and psychic qualities. In one sense, they are not the light above but they are its important formations. They invoke the celestial and raise up the terrestrial.

“There is another reason why images in the Vedas and the Upanishads are concrete. When the fever of the soul subsides, when the mind becomes calm, when the spiritual consciousness opens, things are no longer lifeless. In this state, things which have hitherto been regarded as ordinary are full of life, light and consciousness. In this state, ‘the earth meditates as it were; water meditates as it were; mountains meditate as it were.’1 In this state, no need is felt to separate the abstract from the concrete because both are eloquent with the same message, because both image one another. In this state, everything expresses the divine; everything is the seat of the divine; everything is That; mountains, rivers and the great earth are but the Tathãgata, as a Chinese teacher, Hsu Yun, proclaimed after his spiritual awakening.

“According to Hindu thought, the names of Gods are not names of external beings. They are names of truths of man’s own highest Self. So the knowledge of the epithets of Gods is a form of Self-knowledge. Gods and their names embody truths of the deeper Spirit and meditation on them in turn invokes those truths. But those truths are many and, therefore, Gods and their names too are many, though they are all held together in the unity of a spiritual consciousness.”


Next, he provides a peep into how the Western-Christian mind views the Vedic pantheon. He proceeds:

“This way of looking at the Godhead is disconcerting to the Western schematic mind. In the Vedic approach, there is no single God. This is bad enough. But the Hindus do not have even a supreme God, a fuhrer-God who presides over a multiplicity of Gods. If there has to be a plurality of Gods as is the case in all polytheistic religions, there could at least be a tabulated statement of Gods arranged in some order of superiority and inferiority, each God having some distinctive characteristics of his or her own. But here we have no such thing, no ranking, no order of seniority and precedence, no hierarchy, no recognizable magistracy; it is all anarchy. This melee could not even be called a pantheon – a body of Gods, however disordered (Gk. pan+theos); it is a body of demons and evil spirits, pandemonium (pan+diamon).

“It seems that the Hindus were either confused about their Gods or that these Gods were not jealous enough to be like the God of the Bible. The Hindus worshipped their Gods in turn with the same supreme epithets. It seems to be like a philanderer wooing several women at the same time with the same vows, promises, and protestations and telling each in turn that she is the only beautiful and true one for him. If they only knew what the man was doing there would be trouble enough for him. In like manner, if a Hindu God knew what his worshipper was telling his rival God, it would either expose the devotee’s insincerity or the powerlessness or his God.”


Finally, he presents the Vedic point of view in the following words:

“But there is another approach, quite a different one, which was adopted by the people of the Vedas. According to this approach, ‘Reality is one but the wise call it by different names; they call him Indra, Mitra, VaruNa, Agni, Yama, Mãtarišvãn.’2 Reality is like the Ganges: different villages along its banks are differently named but they are all on the same river; the people drink the same water and their soil is watered and fertilized by the same source. The Reality is like an ocean rolling against different continents; you taste it anywhere, it is the same. The Reality is like a nugget of gold; it is the same at the corners, at the top, or at the bottom, or in the middle. Like a lump of sugar, it is sweet at all points. Similarly, whether you go East or West, South or North, you move in the same pervading space and you meet the same truth and principle of things.

“The Hindus do not call their Gods either “One” or “Many”. According to them, what they worship is One Reality, ekam sat, which is differently named. This Reality is everywhere, in everything, in every being. It is One and Many at the same time and it also transcends them both. Everything is an expression, a play, an image, an echo of this Reality.

“In Vedic literature, the question of the number of Gods was no point of dispute and agitated no mind. The number could be increased or decreased at will. It all depended on the principle of classification, on the context, and on the viewpoint.

“There are two ways of regarding the Godhead. In one approach, God is a jealous one. He brooks no other. He is Ismael-like, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him. But in the Vedic concept, all Gods are friends, one and equal. BrahmaNaspati is associated with Indra, Soma and DakSiNa; they are invoked jointly. The Maruts are requested to come along accompanied, saMjagmãno, by Indra, and both are called of ‘equal splendour’, samãna varcasa.3 Indra and VaruNa are offered conjoint praise, sadhastut.4 They are invoked together. ‘I invoke you both,’ says the worshipper;5 or, ‘come Agni with the Maruts,’ is the repeated prayer of the devotee in another hymn.6

“Spiritual life is one but it is vast and rich in expression. The human mind also conceives it differently. If the human mind was uniform without different depths, heights and levels of subtlety; or if all men had the same mind, the same psyche, the same imagination, the same needs; in short, if all men were the same then perhaps One God would do. But a man’s mind is not a fixed quantity and men and their powers and needs are different. So, only some form of polytheism alone can do justice to this variety and richness.

“Besides this variety of human needs and humus minds, the spiritual reality itself is so vast, immense, and inscrutable that man’s reason fails and his imagination and fancy stagger in its presence. Therefore, this reality cannot be indicated by one name or formula or description. It has to be expressed in glimpses from many angles. No single idea or system of ideas could convey it adequately. This too points to the need for some form of polytheism.


“In this deeper approach, the distinction is not between a true One God and the false Many Gods; it is between a true way of worship and a false way of worship. Wherever there is sincerity, truth, and self-giving in worship, that worship goes to the true altar by whatever name we may designate it and in whatever way we may conceive it. But if it is not desireless, if it has ego, falsehood, conceit, and deceit in it, then it is unavailing though it may be offered to the most True God, theologically speaking. ‘He who offers to me with devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or water, that I accept from that striving devotee,’ says Lord Krishna in the Gita.7

“He also assures us that ‘those who worship other Gods with faith worship me,’ for ‘I am the enjoyer of all sacrifices.’8 Devotion, faith, austerity, striving in the soul – they all belong to Him; they are His food; they can never go to a false God though so declared by a rival theology.

“The fact is that the problem of One or Many Gods is born of a theological mind, not of a mystic consciousness. In the Atharvaveda, the sage Vena says that he ‘sees That in that secret station of the heart in which the manifoldness of the world becomes one-form’, yatra višvam bhavatyekarûpam9 or, as in the Yajurveda where the world is rested in one truth, eka nîDam.10 But in another station of man, where not his soul but his mind rules, there is opposition between the One and the Many, between God and Matter, between God and Gods. On the other hand, when the soul awakens, Gods are born in its depths which proclaim and glorify one another.

“Worship is in man’s soul and the divine glory is reflected in every symbol. Therefore, the Vedic seers worshipped Him in many forms and under many Names. ‘Veneration to the great Gods, veneration to the lesser, veneration to the young, veneration to the old, we worship all the Gods as well as we are able,’11 that is their attitude. A true heart’s homage cannot go waste; it cannot go to false Gods; in a divine economy, it is taken up by That which is the secret meaning and the principle of truth in everything.”

It was this all-pervading sense of divinity which inspired Hindu seers and sages to sense the same Sat-Cit-Ãnanda sleeping in the stone, stirring up in the sapling, smiling in the flower, singing in the bird, shining in the sun and the stars, and resuming its own supreme status at the summit of spiritual experience. It was in this crucible of concrete spirituality that they saw the one Divine Substance manifesting itself in a multiplicity of forms, and many Divine Diversities dissolving themselves in one ubiquitous Unity.

It was these intimations from infinity which invited Hindu saints and mystics to invoke the same Reality in many Names and Forms, and make it accessible to each aspirant according to his or her aptitude (adhikãra) and in keeping with the stage of his or her spiritual development (ãdhãra). They devised many ways of worship and sang their devotion unto the same Divinity in many languages. It was this vision of the One-in-Many and the Many-in-One which is the source of the Vedic verse, ekam sad viprãh bahudhã vadanti, which has now been torn out of context and turned from a trenchant truth of Sanãtana Dharma into a tawdry slogan of Monotheism.

This Vedic verse is neither a defence mechanism to be put into operation whenever the monopolies of Monotheism mouth their war-cry of the ‘true One God’, nor a secularist slogan to be shouted whenever a Muslim mob stages a riot over music before a mosque or over a pig wandering away into a Muslim mohalla. On the contrary, it is the statement of a profound principle which informs sincere spiritual seeking everywhere, at all times. It is the basis of a universal spirituality.


1 Chãndogya Upanishad, 7.6.1

2 Rigveda 1. 164.46.

3 Ibid., 1.6.7.

4 Ibid., 1.17.9.

5 Ibid., 1.17.7.

6 Ibid.,

7 Gita, 9.26.

8 Ibid., 9.23-24.

9 Atharvaveda, 2.1.1.

10 Yajurveda, 32.8.

11 Rigveda, 1.27.13.

>Contra Prothero


Nor do we think of the Gods as different Gods among different peoples, nor as barbarian Gods and Greek Gods, nor as southern and northern Gods; but, just as the Sun and the Moon and the Heavens and the Earth and the Sea are common to all, but are called by different names by different peoples, so for that one Reason which keeps all these things in order and the one Providence which watches over them and the ancillary Powers that are set over all, there have arisen among different peoples, in accordance with their customs, different honours and appellations. Thus men make use of consecrated symbols, some employing symbols that are obscure, but others those that are clearer, in guiding the intelligence toward things Divine, though not without a certain hazard. For some go completely astray and become engulfed in superstition; and others, while they fly from superstition as from a quagmire, on the other hand unwittingly fall, as it were, over a precipice into atheism.
On Isis and Osiris]

Stephen Prothero has an article in this Sunday’s Boston Globe promoting his latest book. Here’s a quote that puts the depth of Prothero’s ignorance on full display:

For most of world history, human beings have seen religious rivals as inferior to themselves — practitioners of empty rituals, perpetrators of bogus miracles, and purveyors of fanciful myths.

Prothero knows less than nothing about the actual history of religion. If that were not the case, then he would know that “for most of human history”, in fact, human beings have not thought in terms of “religious rivals” at all.

Those who actually study the history of religion know that the very idea of “religious rivalry”, especially in the sharp sense that Prothero has in mind (“the exclusivist missionary view that only you and your kind will make it to heaven or nirvana or paradise”) is foreign to most of the world’s religions to this day, and was virtually unknown prior to the advent of Christianity. Even today, this “exclusivist missionary view” is limited to the monotheistic religions.

The problem with Prothero’s whole approach is nicely illustrated by his use of the word “missionary”, a term specifically associated with the peculiarly militant attitude that Christianity has toward all other religions, to characterize what he claims is a general feature of all religions throughout “most” human history.

Ancient polytheists of the Greco-Roman world simply did not think in terms of “religious rivals” whose religions were comprised of “empty rituals”, “bogus miracles”, and “fanciful myths”. James B. Rives, in his Religion in the Roman Empire, goes so far as to state that they did not even think in terms of “different” religions from their own:

[O]n a fundamental level the various religious traditions of the [Roman] empire had more similarities than differences. As a result, when people from one tradition were confronted with another, they often found much that was familiar and immediately understandable, and tended to treat what was unfamiliar simply as a local peculiarity. In short, the impression we get from the sources is that people thought not so much in terms of “different religions,” as we might today, but simply of varying local customs with regard to the gods.

[James B. Rives,
Religion in the Roman Empire, p. 6]

Rives, writing in 2006, was to a great extent re-iterating what Ramsay MacMullen had already written a quarter century earlier in his Paganism in the Roman Empire:

Plutarch’s friend Clea, herself a priestess at Olympia, was also initiate in the rites of Osiris. She, then, could hardly have objected to the accommodation of a second loyalty; no more the priestess of Sun at Philippi, initiate into the mysteries of Cybele and of Dionysus. A cult association of Hercules set up a dedication to its own God in the temple of Jupiter Dolichenus in rome, and “the votaries of Sarapis,” another guild, built a meeting room for Isis and Cybele in Rome’s port. Examples abound of ministrants of one sort or another erecting an altar or a plaque or themselves signing some honorific inscription, in worship of a God other than the one they served. The practice can be observed without distinction of honorand, whether Roman, traditional Greek, Oriental, or Celtic; without distinction of area; and only circumscribed in time, perhaps. It may be that such actions are more often attested in the period after A.D. 150 than before. But even that is not sure.

These apparent betrayals of one’s God were of course no only open, else never known to the present; they were divinely authorized. “By the interpretation of the rites of Sol,” a worshiper honors Liber and Libera. Obviously the priest himself had overseen whatever was done; or a village honors “Zeus Galactinos according to Apollo’s command”; a “priest of Sol invictus saw to the dedication of holy Silvanus, from a vision”; and so on, by a direct order from Hercules or Men or Apollo. It can only have been priests who guided these acts, seeing in them no betrayal at all. No one but priests can have permitted the placing in the temple of Dolichenus, in Rome, a relief that shows the God sitting next to his consort and holding busts of Sarapis and Isis: he had welcomed his friends from Egypt into his house. Priests directed that the feasts of Iarhibol and Aglibol in Palmyra should fall on the same day. The accommodation, fraternal welcome, courteous referra, or punctilious deference shown in one or another part of the surviving testimony seems to an unbeliever merely the interaction of worshipers and priests. But the worshipers and priests naturally saw it as the reflection here below of relations existing in the world above. Tolerance in paganism operated at both levels, until Christianity introduced its own ideas. Only then, from Constantine on, were Gods to be found at war with other Gods.

[Ramsay MacMullen,
Paganism in the Roman Empire, p. 93]

Nor was Macmullen stating anything new. David Hume, writing 250 years ago, had this to say:

The tolerating spirit of idolaters, both in ancient and modern times, is very obvious to anyone who is the least conversant in the writings of historians or travellers. When the oracle of Delphi was asked, what rites or worship was most acceptable to the Gods? “Those legally established in each city,” replied the oracle. Even priests, in those ages, could, it seems, allow salvation to those of a different communion. The Romans commonly adopted the Gods of the conquered people; and never disputed the attributes of those local and national deities in whose territories they resided. The religious wars and persecutions of the Egyptian idolaters are indeed an exception to this rule; but are accounted for by ancient authors from reasons singular and remarkable. Different species of animals were the deities of the different sects among the Egyptians; and the deities being in continual war, engaged their votaries in the same contention. The worshippers of dogs could not long remain in peace with the adorers of cats or wolves. But where that reason took not place, the Egyptian superstition was not so incompatible as is commonly imagined; since we learn from Herodotus, that very large contributions were given by Amasis towards rebuilding the temple of Delphi.

The intolerance of almost all religions which have maintained the unity of God is as remarkable as the contrary principle of polytheists.

[David Hume, “Comparison of these Religions with regard to Persecution and Toleration.”, in his The Natural History of Religion]

Egyptologist Jan Assmann has gone even further and shown that this “contrary principle of polytheists” (ie, the mutual recognition of the religions of different peoples) was not at all peculiar to Greco-Roman civilization, but rather was already ancient when Athens and Rome were founded. Assmann traces what he calls the “translatability” of the Gods back at least to the 3rd millennium in Mesopotamia (see his Moses the Egyptian).

Much more could be said on the very well documented “universalistic” tendencies of ancient polytheism. For example, there is the fact that Homer portrays the Achaeans and Trojans and all the other peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean as worshipping the same Gods. Herodotus does the same in his Histories, as does Vergil in the Aeneid.

In addition to the works by Rives, MacMullen, Hume and Assmann already referred to, an excellent overview can be found in Jan Assmann’s essay Monotheism and Polytheism, in the volume Ancient Religions edited by Sarah Iles Johnston.

To be continued . . . . .

Homo Paganus (Prisca Theologia, Part Four)

“There are Gods – the knowledge of them is self-evident.”
[Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus]

The word “natural” has multiple, overlapping meanings, including:
1. present in or produced by nature
2. not acquired; inherent
3. conforming to the usual or ordinary course of nature
4. characterized by spontaneity and freedom from artificiality
5. being in a state regarded as primitive or uncivilized
(the above are taken from here)

Ancient Paganism, both as it is popularly imagined, and as it actually existed, is accurately described as Natural Religion according to all of the above meanings of “natural”. I want to emphasize that I am not saying that Paganism is a natural religion, but, rather, that Paganism is Natural Religion itself. I believe that this is not, in fact, a claim at all – but merely a description of what ancient Paganism was, and also an accurate description of how ancient Pagans thought about their various (varying with both time and place) religious traditions.

Fortunately we do not have to guess about what ancient Pagans thought concerning their religious traditions. Homer, Hesiod, and Orpheus were (at least!) as much theologians as they were poets – if in fact we can even speak of there being any difference between the two vocations in archaic Hellas. Pindar, Sappho, Solon and Simonides were also overtly religious in their poetry. Pindar primarily wrote his poems for religious occassions, and in addition to the usual Olympians we know that Pindar also revered Cybele and Pan. Of Sappho, Walter Burkert (in his Greek Religion), tells us that “The worship of Aphrodite finds its most personal and most complete expression in the poems of Sappho.” (p.155) Solon is reputed (by Plato and others) to have travelled to Egypt to study religion there, and was the author of the calendar of religious observations for the city of Athens. And Simonides was even associated with a (gruesome) miracle wrought by the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux).

Unfortunately we have only scattered fragments (at most) of the first philosophers – Thales (ca. 624 BC–ca. 546 BC), Anaximander (610-546 BC), Pythagoras (born between 580 and 572 BC, died between 500 and 490 BC), Heraclitus (535-475 BC), Parmenides (510-440 BC), Empedocles (ca. 490–430 BC), Democritus (460-370 BC), etc. But those fragments leave no doubt that these philosophers were largely (or even exclusively) focused on religious matters.

Thales, of whom Bertrand Russell states “philosophy begins with Thales”, is associate with the famous, mystical sounding dictum, “all things are full of Gods.” Aristotle is our earliest source for this, and the Stagyrite says, when quoted more fully “Certain thinkers say that soul is intermingled in the whole universe, and it is perhaps for that reason that Thales came to the opinion that all things are full of Gods.” This would imply a kind of pantheism on Thales’ part – a concept of the Divine being immanent in all things. It also directly connects Divinity with psyche, that is, “soul”. Anaximander, by tradition Thales’ student, is associated with the idea that the Cosmos is inherently and necessarily just and orderly – a central tenet of Greek Pagan theology.

Concerning Pythagoras one hardly knows where to start. Contemporary scholars are now largely agreed that he was first and foremost a religious thinker of a decidedly mystical bent. It is still in dispute just how much of (and what, if any, kind of) a mathematician and/or scientist he might have been. But it is not in doubt that his successors Philolaus and Archytas made fundamental contributions to the fields of harmonic analysis, optics and mechanics. So from the beginning (or very very near the beginning at any rate) Pythagoreanism was intimately associated with both mystical philosophy and science and mathematics.

Similar observations could be made about Heraclitus, Empedocles and Parmenides. As for Democritus, one of the fragments attributed to him states, “The Gods grant to humans all that is good, both now and in the past. Whenever we encounter anything that is bad, harmful or useless it is not because of the Gods, but rather it is through our own ignorance as mortal humans.”

By the time we get to the late 6th century (BC) in Athens, the age of the great tragedians/poets, we find a “literature” that still cannot be disentangled from the Gods and Their “myths”. If we wish to know about Dionysos we must turn to Euripides’ Bakkhae; and to know Aphrodite and Artemis we must turn to his Hippolytos. Aeschylus provides the earliest (and possibly the original) version of the story of Prometheus as the great benefactor of humankind. Greek “mythology” was as much about the semi-Divine Heroes of the past as it was about the Gods – and this is also reflected throughout the surviving works of Athenian Drama.

The first “historian”, Herodotus, was also not only a religious man, but when he wrote his famous Histories he dwelled often and often at some length on the religious practices and ideas of the people he “inquired” about (our word “history” comes from the Greek word for “inquiry”). Indeed, Herodotus is one of our most important sources of information on ancient Greek religion – as well as of the religious traditions of non-Greek peoples ranging across much of Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

There can be no doubt that Herodotus was a proud Hellene, and that he had a decided bias in favor of his native land and it’s culture, including it’s religious traditions. But it is also true that wherever Herodotus cast his gaze he found people who worshipped the same Gods, albeit using different names for those Gods and employing different rites in their worship, and holding different beliefs about those Gods. It is also clear that Herodotus assumes that all religious traditions share a common origin, and that origin is Divine. It was therefore Herodotus’ view that the differences that separate the various religious traditions are fundamentally human in their origin – but the commonalities are Divine in their origin.

The naturalness of religion flows directly from the fact that religion is truly “of the Gods”. From the dawn of humanity the Gods have sought to teach and help human beings. This is why religion tends to be so inextricably interwoven into every aspect of human society among “primitive” peoples. Everything from how to make their clothes and houses, to how to find and prepare their food – to the very structure of their social organizations – all of it is believed to have been (or at least said to have been) taught to them by the Gods.

Religions arises spontaneously among all human societies because there is nowhere that the Gods cannot go, and no set of circumstances in which the Gods cannot teach and help humans. All along, even as they have instructed us in the making of tools and the building of cities, the Gods have endeavored to teach us more fundamental and profound lessons – in the proper care of our souls.

Interpretatio Prisca (Prisca Theologia, Part Three)

It was widely assumed among ancient Greeks and Romans that religion, as they knew it, was a universal feature of all human societies and had always been so. Although different groups of people had different (sometimes very different – at least seemingly so) Gods, nevertheless it was taken for granted that all humans worship the Gods. As often as not all human beings were even thought of as worshipping, in some meaningful sense, the same Gods – albeit under differing names and in differing ways. We need look no further than Homer: the Achaeans of the Iliad and Odyssey worshiped the same Gods as their Asian enemies, the Trojans. In fact, Homer definitely gives the impression that all human beings everywhere had always worshiped the same Gods.

In addition to the Homeric Epics, the ancient story of Jason and the Argonauts also portrays the “barbarians” of far off Colchis as people who worship the same Gods as the Greeks. Medea, the barbarian wife that Jason brings back with him, is portrayed by Euripides as praying to Artemis, Themis, and even Zeus – so apparently these “Greek” Gods were not viewed as exclusive to the Greeks.

It is not just in myths that foreigners like the Trojans and the inhabitants of Colchis are portrayed as co-religionists of the Greeks. Herodotus in his Inquiries famously not only assumes that the different peoples he describes have overlapping pantheons, he even provides correspondence tables between the Gods of one people and those of another (using the “Greek” Gods as the common point of reference, naturally). Herodotus even takes time to single the only group of people he knew of who presented an exception to this general rule: the Caunians, who, in Herodotus’ words “differ greatly from all other men” because they “determined that they would no longer make use of the foreign temples which had been long established among them, but would worship their own old ancestral gods alone.”

Just as the Greeks had their Interpretatio Graeca, the Romans had their Interpretatio Romana. Tacitus provides the earliest example of explicit use of the phrase “interpretatione romana” in his Germania, where he discussed the sacred grove of the Naharvalians. This grove was sacred to a pair of Gods called the Alcis, and Tacitus states that “according to the interpretation of the Romans” these Gods were none other than Castor and Pollux, who were, of course, as much (if not more) Greek than Roman in the first place. That is, Tacitus is applying a “Roman interpretation” according to which two Germanic Gods are identified with the Greek Dioscuri. It should be emphasized, however, that the Dioscuri were not “late borrowings” from the Hellenes – they were already worshipped in Lavinium in the 6th century BC, and a temple to the Castores was part of the Roman Forum early in the 5th century BC. The Dioscuri were also revered by the Etruscans – and it is likely from them that they were first introduced to the Romans.

Speaking of the Etruscans, why is it that no one ever speaks of an Interpretatio Etruria? The Etruscans (aka Etrurians), not only revered the Dioscuri, as mentioned above, but also Bacchus, Apollo, Artemis, Janus, Hercules, Mars, Minerva, Saturnus, Silvanus, Semele, etc. For that matter why not an Interpretatio Lydia? Did not the Lydians worship the Olympian Goddess Artemis? In fact, it was the Lydian king Croesus who initiated construction of the great Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Herodotus also recalls that this same Lydian King was spared from a fiery death by the direct intervention of the Olympian God Apollo, to whom Croesus prayed for deliverance at the last moment.

But since the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus was completed by the Persians, perhaps there should also be an Interpretatio Persia? But since Ephesus is itself located in Lycia, why not an Interpretatio Lycia? At what point do we abandon the notion that there was anything peculiar about the Greek “interpretation”? After all, we have already noted that Herodotus insisted that the Carians were unique in their rejection of “foreign” Gods. Perhaps we should think in terms of an Interpretatio Prisca?

"Ancestral traditions, coeval with time" (Prisca Theologia, Part Two)

All religions change over time, and new religions do in fact appear and take hold. Cases like that of the cult of Pan in Athens after the Battle of Marathon, the cult of Magna Mater in Rome, and that of the modern day cult of Santoshi Maa, all show how “new” religious traditions can arise in a way that is consistent with (and can even reinforce) already existing traditions. But why is it that this deference to tradition is insisted upon – especially in the face of the fact that “tradition” is itself far from static and unchanging?

The idea of Religion as inherently and necessarily old is a compelling one. Religions, after all, presuppose a relationship between the human and the Divine. The idea that this relationship has begun only recently makes little sense. If the Gods are interested in communicating with and helping human beings, then They should have been doing so all along. It also makes no sense to think of this relationship as going through abrupt changes, much less reversals. The idea that the Gods teach human beings first one thing, and then change Their minds and teach something else is internally incoherent – it would be (and consistently has been) rejected out of hand by anyone who accepts the premise that the Gods are interested in and capable of teaching us in the first place.

So the notion of any completely and utterly new religion is unreasonable. It would, at least implicitly, assert that the Gods have been either wrong or silent up to a certain point, and then either changed their minds and finally got it right, or went through a change of heart and finally decided to let humans in on what the deal is. All religions at least tacitly accept this constraint – they all seek to locate themselves in the broad sweep of the history of humanity and the cosmos. The most common strategy, to speak crudely, is like that seen with Pan, Cybele, and Santoshi Maa: to defer to tradition and to assert that the “new” teaching being proposed/revealed is confluent with already existing tradition.

But isn’t there a possible alternative strategy for the introduction of a new religion? Namely, to proclaim that currently existing religions are wrong and must now be abandoned in favor of the proposed new religion? The error, naturally, is not that of the Gods, but of humanity, who have taken a wrong turn (through no fault of the Divine!) somewhere along the line, but are now being set straight thanks to Divine benevolence. Many people might assume that this is the strategy of, for example, Christianity. The problem, though, is that Jesus, at least so far as we can tell, never proposed any such thing. He was born, lived and died an observant Jew – and he certainly never, ever, intimated anything along the lines of abandoning Judaism.

But even though Jesus obviously, and emphatically, did not preach a radical break with the past, this is precisely what his followers, if that is what they were, eventually proposed. Somewhere between Jesus and Constantine a dramatic shift took place: a reform movement within Judaism morphed into a completely new religion, opposed both to Judaism and to all other religions.

By the mid-fourth century, Christianity had not only made the transition to presenting itself to the world as a “new” religion distinct from Judaism, but it was also being aggressively “promoted” (putting it nicely) by the Roman State. Christianity still claimed validity based on Jewish prophecies (and many Christians continue to make such claims to the present day), but as it “spread” (again, this is a very nice way of putting it), it was found that reliance on Jewish scripture alone was not sufficient. Gradually a new theory was put forward by Eusebius, Augustine, Orosius and others – a theory that sought historical validation of Christianity based on the dominant Hellenistic culture of the Roman Empire, and especially the most intellectually prestigious aspect of that culture, Greek philosophy.

The Christians (predictably) faced accusations that they were making precisely the kind of nonsensical claims that we have already talked about: that if in fact their religion was true while all others are false, then their “God” had been inexplicably negligent in waiting so long to reveal the truth! To counter this the Christians put forward the idea that came to be associated with the Latin phrase: Preparatio Evangelica (“Preparation for the Gospel). According to this theory all of human history, leading up to the birth of Jesus, had been “all part of God’s plan” for preparing the way, so to speak, for (finally!) revealing the truth (that is, the truth according to the Christian religion).

Eusebius of Caesarea (c.263 – c.339) wrote the first real history of the Christian religion, a biography of the Emperor Constantine, books of Biblical exegesis, a universal history of humanity, and many other works, including a whole book devoted to the subject of Preparatio Evangelica. A good idea of what Eusebius was up to can be gleaned from some of the titles for sections of his book:

Character of the cosmogony of the Greeks
Philosophers’ opinions concerning the system of the universe
Why we rejected the opinions of the Greeks concerning the gods
What Plato thought of the theology of the ancients
On the Ideas in Plato
On the first successors of Plato
On the philosophy of Aristotle, and his personal history
On the Stoic philosophy, and the account of First Principles as rendered by Zeno
Numenius the Pythagorean philosopher concerning the Jews

Whew! In fact, there is much, much more. Eusebius drags in the Egyptians, Phoenicians and other “barbarians” as well as, naturally, the Hebrews.

The bottom line here is that even though Christians proposed to do nothing less than replace all existing religions with their own, they nevertheless were still forced to try to justify and validate themselves in the usual way – to show that what they were doing, if only looked at from the proper perspective, could be seen as a natural progression from all that had come before!

Early in the fifth century (410 AD – about 70 years after Eusebius died) the city of Rome was sacked by the Visigoths. One of the central tenets of the whole Preparatio Evangelica idea had been that God had, in fact, created the Roman Empire for the express purpose of spreading the Gospel. But now the very capital of the Empire had not only been overrun – but the people who did it were …. Christians! Rome was also a center of Pagan resistance to Christianization, and the Church now faced a chorus of rancor from those who “began to blaspheme against the true God more ferociously and bitterly than before,” – or at least that’s how it looked to Augustine of Hippo, who, in response, composed his most famous work, The City of God: Against the Pagans.

City of God was a massive literary effort aimed to establish the intellectual credentials, indeed, superiority, of Christendom in the face of a culturally entrenched Paganism composed of people “who were not isolated die-hards,” but who were, rather, “the center of a wide intelligentsia,” according to Peter Brown, a leading scholar of late antiquity who further states (in his biography Augusine of Hippo): “Quite bluntly, the Pagans were the ‘wise’ men, the ‘experts’, prudentes, and Christians were ‘stupid’.” And so Augustine churned out a Juggernaut of literary allusions and “cumulus clouds of erudition.” He paid special attention to aligning Christianity with Greek philosophy and Platonism in particular (with Christianity, naturally, portrayed as building on and far surpassing what had come before). In terms of impact, Augustine succeeded so well that his distorted Christianizing “analysis” of Pagan philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Plotinus and Porphyry is still strangely influential among scholars of late antique philosophy.

Augustine’s City of God, then, is yet another example of the need for Christianity to explain itself in the same basic way that religions had always explained themselves. Christians sought to claim a continuity with the past, in the same way that previously introduced religious innovations had claimed such continuity. The rather obvious difference being that where all previous examples of this phenomenon had merely added a new wrinkle to the richly textured fabric of religious diversity, the Christians undertook the extirpation of all other (that is, all previous) religious traditions whatsoever, while still claiming continuity with the past.

A question of attitude (Prisca Theologia, Part One)

What is it that all religions have in common? It should be noted that this is not a new question at all. In the ancient “known world” of the oikoumene (Europe, North Africa, the Middle East – and even India), there were hundreds if not thousands of religions existing more or less peacefully side by side. Religious tolerance wasn’t really given much thought back then, it was just a basic fact of life – an absolute necessity in a world with such a rich diversity of religious traditions. Two excellent scholarly books that give a broad overview of this diversity and tolerance are Ramsay MacMullen‘s Paganism in the Roman Empire, and James B. RivesReligion in the Roman Empire.

Human nature being what it is, though, there were going to be people who weren’t satisfied with just choosing from what was already available. What was the attitude to those who sought to proclaim some “new” revelation from the Gods? Was this to be tolerated as well? The answer, it turns out, was a qualified “no”.

A simple criterion was used to distinguish between those religions which were genuine – that is, genuinely of Divine origin – as opposed to those false “religions” (not properly so called) which were simply the result of vain human imaginings. This criterion was age. The only true religions were the old ones – and the older the better.

The fact is, however, that what was really at issue was not the objective historical age of a given religious cult, practice, or belief. The real issue was one of attitude. New ideas, even new religions, could, and were, introduced and accepted – but this required the right attitude. The introduction of a new religion to replace the old ones was not welcomed – but if a new religion sought to take it’s place, respectfully, among the already existing traditions, well, that could be arranged.

A recent example from Hinduism, the cult of the Goddess Santoshi Maa, shows how this works in practice. The precise origins of this Goddess are obscure. She appears to have been a “minor” Goddess worshipped only in remote, backwards rural areas of India. But in 1975 a film celebrating this humble village Goddess became a spiritual blockbuster. All across India, theaters showing the film Jai Santoshi Maa were turned into impromptu Hindu Temples – audience members would leave their shoes outside the theater, burn incense, toss flowers at the screen and bow reverently every time the Goddess appeared.

In a sense, Santoshi Maa was a “new” Goddess, and her cult a “new” phenomenon. But Santoshi Maa fit in with the previously existing Hindu Deities and practices. The Goddess’ father is Ganesha, one of the most beloved (and ancient) of the Hindu Gods. A key role is played, in the movie plot, by Narada, a legendary Hindu sage and devotee of the God Vishnu. Many other important, and ancient, Gods and Goddesses are also prominent in the film, as are traditional Hindu devotional practices such as aarti. And so the worship of Santoshi Maa was able to take it’s place alongside the already dizzying variety of religious traditions in the Hindu family. More than three decades after the film first came out, Santoshi Maa continues to be widely revered by Hindus, and even non-Hindus.

Robert Parker, devotes chapter 5 of his book Athenian Religion: A History, to discussing both “new” and “foriegn” Gods and how they took their place in the hearts and minds of pious Athenian Pagans, alongside the Olympian Goddesses and Gods. One interesting case that Parker discusses is that of the God Pan, who, not unlike Santoshi Maa, had been only a “minor” God prior to the Battle of Marathon, in 490 BC. But the Athenians attributed their famous triumph over the Persians (who had vastly outnumbered the Greeks) in that battle to Pan’s intervention on their behalf, and his cult subsequently underwent a significant upgrade, so to speak. The Athenians even sought out and found an already existing natural cave under the Acropolis, and dedicated this cave to Him – for no Temple made by human hands was suitable for this most wild of Nature Gods.

Herodotus is the source for the story of Pan’s role in the Battle of Marathon. In his Inquiries he tells the story of the runner, Pheidipiddes, whom the Athenians had sent out, in vain, to ask the Spartans to send reinforcements. While running back from Sparta with the bad news, through Pan’s ancestral homeland, the sparsely populated land of Arcadia that lies between Athens and Sparta:

“According to the account he gave the Athenians on his return, Pheidippides met the god Pan on Mount Parthenium, above Tegea. Pan, he said, called him by name and told him to ask the Athenians why they paid him no attention, in spite of his friendliness towards them and the fact that he had often been useful to them in the past, and would be so again in the future. The Athenians believed Pheidippides’s story, and when their affairs were once more in a prosperous state, they built a shrine to Pan under the Acropolis, and from the time his message was received they held an annual ceremony, with a torch-race and sacrifices, to court his protection.” [Inquiries, 105-106]

Let’s look at one final case – if for no other reason than to show that those of Pan and Santoshi Maa are not isolated anomalies. When the Romans found themselves in something of a bind during their wars with Carthage in the year 204 BC, they looked to the Sybilline Books for Divine guidance. These books contained ancient enigmatic prophecies as well as various recommendations for religious observances. On this occassion the recommended action was to bring an image of the Asian (Phrygian) Goddess Cybele to Rome, and establish Her cult in that city, where She was honored as Magna Mater, “Great Mother”. The foreign Goddess’ cult took firm root and flourished in Rome for centuries to come. For example, Cybele was praised by the Emperor Julian in 362 AD in his “Oration to the Mother of the Gods”. The story of the introduction of the cult of Cybele to Rome is recounted at some length in Lynn Roller’s book In Search of God the Mother.

The important thing about the cult of Magna Mater in Rome is that it was introduced in accordance with ancient tradition. In fact Her presence in the city was demanded by the hoariest of ancient authorities: The Sibylline Books. These sacred books were already centuries old in 204 BC, and they were viewed as a direct connection to the mythical past of Rome. It was believed that they had been brought to the city by the seventh and last of the legendary Kings of Rome, the first of whom had been Romulus himself. This was a case in which the introduction of a new, foreign Goddess actually reinforced the centrality and authority of ancient religious traditions!