08/24/2007 05:20 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Monotonous Monotheism

For many centuries now, three major religions -- Islam, Christianity, Judaism -- have been proclaiming the superiority of their monotheistic creeds to the "savage" polytheism of more "primitive" belief systems. The worship of multiple gods has virtually disappeared in the West, while the idea of a single all-powerful deity is treated as the culmination of religious thought. But does monotheism provide credible explanations of a world beset by hurricanes, floods, tornados, typhoons, forest fires, global warming, and tsunamis, and, on the human level, by holocausts, jihads, world wars, global terror, beheadings, xenophobia, nuclear weapons, genocide, and other instances of man's inhumanity to man?

The fact that Islamic suicide bombers shout "God is great" when blowing up a marketplace and a hundred innocent Muslims or that the Iranian clerisy authorizes police to rape and torture virgins before executing them, or that Christian soldiers routinely cross themselves and finger rosaries upon assaulting the enemy, or that orthodox Jews invoke a "God of vengeance" when stoning cars on the Sabbath, reminds us how many savage deeds have traditionally been committed in the name of monotheism, notably the burning of heretics and witches during the Inquisition and the slaughter of infidels during the Crusades. One of the few practical advantages of monotheism would seem to be its capacity to generate slogans that justify the annihilation of other races and religions.

Rather than an advance in metaphysical thinking, the concept of a single "God" would seem to be a superstitious regression created by people incapable of understanding their origins or contemplating their deaths. By contrast, the idea of polytheism, or the worship of multiple deities -- whether practiced by Hindus, Buddhists, Africans, Greeks, Romans, or American Indians -- far from being a primitive theological throwback provides a much more credible explanation for the nature of the universe and the behavior of humankind. Take the Olympian deities, for example. Stories that began in pre-history with the Homeric myths and reached their consummation in the glory of Attic tragedy constituted a far more sophisticated belief system than the stories memorialized in the Koran, the Old Testament, or the synoptic Gospels. Unlike Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, Greek polytheism never attempted to impose a faultless Deity -- whether called Yahweh, Allah, or God the Father, or named after their mortal representatives, Moses, Mohammed, and Jesus -- on all-too-human followers. Polytheism is inclusive, not exclusive.

Hinduism even accepts Jesus as a prophet. And it does not divide the world into good and evil. In the effort of monotheism to create religious ideals one could be unworthy of, it encouraged humankind to aspire towards an unreachable form of godly perfection, a process that could only end in failure or guilt -- unless you were a saint. Polytheism, on the other hand, revealed that far from being faultless, the gods could behave as badly as anybody else, displaying all the same human imperfections -- jealousy, adultery, revenge, anger, competitiveness, infanticide, and murder. The Greek gods may have been Colossi, but like their human followers, they were also deeply flawed.

Take Zeus. Far from being an example of radiant perfection handing down instructions from Mount Sinai about how we should lead our moral lives, Zeus is the embodiment of raunchy behavior, seducing the mortal Alcmena, for example, by pretending to be her husband (thus producing Hercules), and raping Leda in the shape of a swan (thus producing Helen and Polydeuces) -- even having a brief fling with his gay torchbearer, Ganymede. Along with the other gods, Zeus takes sides in the Trojan Wars, proving himself as jealous and vengeful as any figure in the nomenclature. And it is this imperfect figure who rules Olympus and the firmament, producing storms and other natural catastrophes, thunderbolt in hand. This suggests how, in order to explain certain natural phenomena, the Greeks personified their gods -- Poseidon representing the force of the sea, Demeter the essence of fertility, Apollo the beauty of reason and the harmony of music, Dionysus the force of ecstasy and drunkenness, and Aphrodite the power of sexual love. In fact, polytheism features many gods who personify sexual love while very few monotheistic deities, least of all Jesus, the God of love, have any interest in sex. Those carnal appetites are left to such later demi-gods as Don Juan, Lothario, and Casanova, who eventually achieve the level of myth not found in conventional Christian hagiography.

Between those multiple imperfect deities who mingle in the human sphere, and those singular images of perfection who keep their moral distance from us sinners, whom would you choose to party with? The stern gods of monotheism who charge the human race with every calamity, and blame all evil on Satan? Or the polytheistic roustabouts who mirror our misdeeds and misbehavior, and share our portion of joy and despair?