Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind: serialised in quotes XXII: The benefits of polytheism

A leading theory about the origins of the gods argues that gods gained importance because they offered a solution to this problem [ensuring the success of farming in the face of climate, disease, etc]. Gods such as the fertility goddess, the sky god and the god of medicine took centre stage when plants and animals lost their ability to speak, and the gods’ main role was to mediate between humans and the mute plants and animals.

But once kingdoms and trade networks expanded, people needed to contact entities whose power and authority encompassed a whole kingdom or entire trade basin. The attempt to answer these needs led to the appearance of polytheistic religions.

Polytheism exalted not only the status of gods, but also that of human kind [because good depended not on the gods alone but on the relationship between gods and humans].

The fundamental insight of polytheism, which distinguishes it from monotheism, is that the supreme power governing the world is devoid of interests and biases, and therefore it is unconcerned with the mundane desires, cares and worries of humans.

The insight of polytheism is conducive to far-reaching religious tolerance. Since polytheists believe, on the one hand, in one supreme and completely disinterested power, and on the other hand in many partial and biased powers, there is no difficulty for the devotees of one god to accept the existence and efficacy of other gods. Polytheism is inherently open-minded, and rarely persecutes “heretics” and “infidels.”

The polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians. In contrast, over the course of the next 1500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion.


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