Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

Government advisers are suggesting that religious education in schools should teach Christian, Islamic, Judaic, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh beliefs. The purpose is to encourage 'tolerance and respect'.

Greeks and Romans would have found this incomprehensible. In the absence of divine and therefore authoritative scriptures, monotheistic, jealous gods did not exist in the ancient world, let alone 'churches' with a 'priesthood', imposing creeds, beliefs and moralities. Religion was a form of cult, hallowed by tradition, centred on rituals carried out in the right way at the right time. At its heart was sacrifice (lit., 'making sacred') when something useful to humans was made over to the god. With luck, the god so honoured would then answer your prayers, the most common of which were to be safe, prosperous, fertile and healthy.

If you met new gods in new cultures, you assimilated them to your own gods, if you could, or added them to the pantheon. So in Britain, for example, we find an altar to Mars, Minerva, Hercules and the local horse-goddess Epona. As Minucius Felix (3rd century AD) comments, all nations have their own gods, but Rome welcomes the lot. …

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