Hearts of Darkness 5 - One God or Many

Is one god more or less, worth fighting over?

A major variation in the concept of God is whether there is one God or many gods.  Throughout history, most people appear to have been polytheists who believed in many gods.  Polytheism is dominant in Japan, China, most of Asia, Africa, and traditional cultures in South America.

Polytheists tend not to go to offensive war over religion although most of them will defend themselves if attacked.  If you already believe in a lot of gods, what's one more?  If someone else chooses to believe in a god who's not on your list, you can make the shelf a bit bigger and add that god to your pantheon.  This sort of flexibility is an advantage if paying homage to the other person's god serves some useful purpose such as doing business with him or persuading him not to slaughter you as an infidel.

Hinduism is thought of as being highly polytheistic; their documented pantheon numbers more than 330,000 gods.  I was told by a highly educated Hindu that Hinduism, at the highest level of enlightenment, is actually monotheistic.

He said that there is in fact only one God, but since that one God is infinite, there can be infinitely many ways to view Him or to represent Him.  Each of the many, many Hindu gods is a projection, or an image, or an idea, of the one true God; all of them are equally valid finite projections of one infinite being.  Apparently, it is not at all uncommon for devout Hindus to also venerate Jesus, Mohammad, even Joseph Smith - they're all just other aspects of the same God-ness.

If you believe there's only one single, unitary god, however, all other deities who are worshiped by anyone else are false gods by definition.  As the Islamic muezzins proclaim, "There is no god but Allah."  Depending on your god's marketing strategy, you fight with people who believe in other gods or you leave them alone, but you can't worship their false gods.  Either way, this can lead to conflict.

The Roman empire initially had a policy of simply adopting whatever gods were worshiped by whomever they conquered.  They worshiped Ares, the Greek god of war, under the Roman name of Mars; and Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, under their name of Venus.  Whenever they conquered another nation, they left religion pretty much alone.  Practical-minded empire-builders that they were, they realized that messing with other people's religions would make it harder to collect taxes.

This changed when the emperors started declaring that they were divine.  Caesar worship went down pretty much OK in polytheistic nations, there was always room for one more god, but the Jews were determined monotheists and wouldn't accept Caesar as God no matter what the practical advantages of so doing.

In the early years of Caesar worship, the emperors didn't mind particularly if an obscure people in out-of-the-way Palestine wouldn't worship the Emperor.  So long as they paid their taxes and didn't cause trouble, "sacrilege" could be ignored.

As succeeding Emperors got more and more serious about being worshiped, however, the Jews' and, later, the Christians' refusal to worship the Emperor because less and less acceptable.  Punishments for not worshiping escalated to the point that it was a criminal offense punishable by death by torture.

There are records of Roman governors writing plaintive letters back to headquarters asking if it's really necessary to execute all these Christians.  They don't cause trouble, they pay their taxes on time, if it weren't for this teensy-weensy little difficulty with worshiping the Emperor, they'd be model citizens.  Was it really necessary to kill them, and thereby reduce Imperial Revenue?

Over time, the answer became, "Absolutely.  Don't ask again," and Christians were martyred in large numbers.

In today's world, the majority of people are monotheists of one form or another; Hinduism is the only significant remaining polytheistic religion and it, too, can be said to be monotheistic at some level.

Polytheism, Violence, and Persecution

Polytheists don't generally engage in violence for the sake of religion, but that doesn't mean they aren't violent when the occasion demands it.  In the native Japanese polytheistic religion of Shinto, each rock, tree, spring, lake, mountain, or whatever has its own minor deity which watches over it.  All these gods are arranged in a hierarchy with the Sun God at the top; the basic concept is somewhat related to the animistic religions found in Africa.

Human beings, too, are arranged in a hierarchy with the peasants at the bottom and the Emperor at the top.  The Emperor, being an exalted being, outranked the lower-ranking deities that watched over minor fields and streams.  For centuries, the Japanese Emperor claimed to be descended directly from the Sun God and was therefore divine by inheritance.

The question of which deities the Emperor outranked and which were the other way 'round is a compelling issue with significant practical consequences, or at least it would have been except that even asking the question was liable to bring serious and possibly fatal retribution down on your head.

When Portuguese merchants found Japan in 1542 and started trading, their Catholic sensibilities required that they convert as many Japanese to Christianity as possible.  This was extremely successful for several decades.

When Tokugawa Ieyasu took over the country in 1600, he realized that Christianity was a mortal threat to his absolute rule because Christians worshiped a god other than the Emperor and, indeed, considered the idea of the Emperor's divinity to be sacrilegious.  In 1614, Catholicism was officially banned; all Catholics were told to leave the country; Japanese Christians were told to renounce their religion, leave the country, or die.

Serious persecution of Christians followed.  The repression culminated in the Shimabara rebellion in 1637 during which Japanese Christians were effectively exterminated.

Polytheistic Japanese rulers did not persecute Christians in order to defend their own religion; they exterminated them because the Christians believed that their obligations to their One True God were far more important than their obligations to a mere human ruler and they feared the political implications of permitting Christians to remain at large. Becoming a Christian was an automatic and fatal form of "lese majesty" which no imperial deity could tolerate without denying and destroying his own right to rule.

Ieyasu was correct in believing that Christianity was a threat to Japanese society in general and to his power in particular.  Christianity teaches that God is so far above men that all men are effectively equal before God; logically, this means that Christians believe that a ruler has to follow the law just like anybody else.

This idea gathered momentum in Christendom over time, starting when English nobles forced King John to renounce certain of his traditional kingly rights by signing the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215, several centuries before the time of Ieyasu.  Ieyasu wanted none of this nonsense of peasants and merchants thinking they were equal to the nobility, no sirree!

The thought of exalted rich and powerful people having to follow the same laws as common people is anathema to upper-class Asian thinking even to this day, and doesn't go down all that well in elitist parts of America.  I've had Japanese ask me, "What's the point of being rich if I have to follow the same laws as everybody else?"  Equality before the law appears to be a uniquely Christian concept, as it's really only found in cultures heavily based on Judeo-Christian traditions.

The violence which Ieyasu and his successors directed against Japanese Christians was not impelled by religion, it was because of religion.  The difference might seem irrelevant to a Japanese Christian who was being crucified because government officials considered his refusal to renounce his faith to be a threat to their power, but it's real nonetheless.

The current Chinese government has a similar attitude toward Chinese Christians.  They are well aware that the Christian concept of the relationship between God and men is a mortal threat to any totalitarian government.  Traditional Asian religions have made an accommodation to having an all-powerful human ruler.  Confucianism taught that God Himself wanted citizens to obey the government, for example, but Christianity is a Western import which has proven to be subversive from a dictator's point of view.

There are probably too many Christians in China for the government to have any hope of exterminating them as Ieyasu's successors exterminated the Japanese Christians, particularly if they want to seem to be responsible members of a world community which didn't appreciate the way they dealt with religious disagreement in Tibet; there appear to be many more Chinese Christians than there are Tibetans.  Even so, the Chinese government distinguishes between Christians who worship an abstract and not-physically-present God, which can be grudgingly tolerated under heavy regulation and oversight, versus traditional Catholics who honor the authority of an all-too-existent Pope and must therefore be suppressed as much as international geopolitics permits.

History has also shown that persecution strengthens a religion by separating the true believers from the hangers-on.  The Chinese might also be aware of the fact that the Japanese government didn't completely exterminate the Christians - when Commodore Matthew Perry opened Japan in 1854 and the missionaries came back, a number of Catholic families came out of hiding.  They had maintained whatever Catholic beliefs and practices they could for more than 200 years, that's ten generations.

These Christians were able to hide because their villages had no love for the Japanese government either; it ruled through fear and summary execution even if you weren't a Christian.  When the anti-Christian forces came through, they lined everybody up and forced them to spit and rub their feet on a picture of Jesus and a picture of Mary.  Spitting and putting your feet on someone's picture was a real insult to the victim; Japanese Christians wouldn't do that and many died.

The families who survived were known to be Christians in their towns, but nobody felt like talking to the government.  When the soldiers came by, Christians were put at the end of the line.  Each villager gave the pictures an especially vehement rub to "prove their loyalty."  By the time the Christians' turn came, the pictures had been rubbed blank and it was OK to spit on them, so the Christians survived.  This illustrates that, in Japan, although monotheistic Christians were persecuted in a polytheistic society, it seems that the persecution was at least as much political as religious.

As we've noted, most modern religions are tending towards monotheism, but there remain differences in the way people view the character of God.  It matters a great deal whether you think God rules chaotically according to whims or whether you think God has a plan which He works out in an orderly manner.  The next article discusses the implications of how theists see God's sense of order or lack thereof.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments
January 2, 2009 8:49 AM
While it is true that polytheistic religions tend to not fight directly because of religion that in no way makes them more peaceful. It is impossible to call Persia, Rome, Egypt, or the Greeks peaceful. Each of them desired greater power for what was most important to them, their nation.

This is no different in modern religions, the means are not always war but people who believe that God is the most important thing in the world spend their lives trying to expand that belief in God. Christians today usually do so through peaceful preaching and missionaries.

During the middle ages Christendom was incredibly important to many people so when it came under attack by Muslims the response was to fight back, so the concept of the Crusade slowly developed.

I understand the point of these articles is to understand specifically what motivates people, Muslims in particular, to engage in terrorism it is important to remember that what motivates them is essentially the same as a person who advocates fiercely that Evolution be taught in school or that green house gases must stop being produced. Each of these people believe that there is something greater than the individual that -must- happen, or not happen, for the betterment of the world in general, and the betterment for their cause, whatever that is.
January 2, 2009 9:53 AM
"it is important to remember that what motivates them is essentially the same as a person who advocates fiercely that Evolution be taught in school or that green house gases must stop being produced"

GREAT point.
January 2, 2009 10:05 AM
This series of articles is not available in book form at this time, though that is being considered.

The series is about halfway published at this point; additional installments will be released every Friday until they are all out.
January 2, 2009 10:35 AM
Confucianism taught that God Himself wanted citizens to obey the government, for example, but Christianity is a Western import which has proven to be subversive from a dictator's point of view.

"Render to Cezars what is Cezars, render to God what is God's"
January 4, 2009 4:53 AM
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