The Price of Monotheism

The Price of Monotheism

The Price of Monotheism

The Price of Monotheism

Synopsis

Nothing has so radically transformed the world as the distinction between true and false religion. In this nuanced consideration of his own controversial Moses the Egyptian, renowned Egyptologist Jan Assmann answers his critics, extending and building upon ideas from his previous book. Maintaining that it was indeed the Moses of the Hebrew Bible who introduced the true-false distinction in a permanent and revolutionary form, Assmann reiterates that the price of this monotheistic revolution has been the exclusion, as paganism and heresy, of everything deemed incompatible with the truth it proclaims. This exclusion has exploded time and again into violence and persecution, with no end in sight. Here, for the first time, Assmann traces the repeated attempts that have been made to do away with this distinction since the early modern period. He explores at length the notions of primary versus secondary religions, of "counter-religions," and of book religions versus cultic religions. He also deals with the entry of ethics into religion's very core. Informed by the debate his own work has generated, he presents a compelling lesson in the fluidity of cultural identity and beliefs.

Excerpt

At some stage in the course of ancient history—the dates proposed by the experts range from the late Bronze Age to late antiquity—a shift took place that has had a more profound impact on the world we live in today than any political upheaval. This was the shift from “polytheistic” to “monotheistic” religions, from cult religions to religions of the book, from culturally specific religions to world religions, in short, from “primary” to “secondary” religions, those religions that, at least in their own eyes, have not so much emerged from the primary religions in an evolutionary process as turned away from them in a revolutionary act.

The distinction between “primary” and “secondary” religions goes back to a suggestion made by the scholar of religion Theo Sundermeier. Primary religions evolve historically over hundreds and thousands of years within a single culture, society, and generally also language, with all of which they are inextricably entwined. Religions of this kind include the cultic and divine worlds of Egyptian, Babylonian and Greco-Roman antiquity, among many others. Secondary religions, by contrast, are those that owe their existence to an act of revelation and foundation, build on primary religions, and typically differentiate themselves from the latter by denouncing them as paganism, idolatry and superstition. All secondary religions, which are at the same time book, world, and (with the possible exception of Buddhism) monotheistic religions, look down on the primary religions as pagan. Even though they may have assimilated many elements of primary religions in the course of a “syncretistic acculturation,”

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