22 Oct 2011

Why Did Christianity Defeat Paganism? Part One: The Birth of Monotheism

Religion is natural to mankind. It is one way we relate to the world around us. Nature and human experience have many aspects, so it natural for us to give these various aspects an identity and to seek a relationship with them. This natural human impulse is what created the pagan gods.

But why were these pagan gods, representatives of specific phenomena, overthrown in most of the world so that now, apart from animist religions among primitive peoples, paganism only exists in India and Japan as a higher level religion? Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the success of the monotheistic religions seems to prove their truth to their believers.

This revolution is all the more remarkable because paganism is both natural and a better fit for reality than the abstractions of monotheism. The success of monotheism can only be countered by developing a clear understanding of why it succeeded.

The first recorded instance of monotheism was in ancient Egypt when the Pharaoh Akhenaten, who reigned in the 14th century BC established the worship of the Aten, a symbol of the sun, as the sole god. Regarded as a god by his people, Akhenaten had the power to impose whatever ideas he chose upon them. His monotheism was his pyramid, an insane scheme that expressed his power rather than the best interests of his subjects.

A flavour of Akhenaten's monotheism can be gleamed from his Great Hymn to the Aten, which expresses his belief in a sole, original, and all-powerful god, a truly frightening example of spiritual reductionism and the totalitarian mindset:

"Oh, sole god, like whom there is no other!
Thou didst create the world according to thy desire, whilst thou wert alone.
All men, cattle, and wild beasts, whatever is on earth, going upon feet, and what is on high, flying with its wings.
The countries of Syria and Nubia, the land of Egypt, thou settest every man in his place..."

This religious aberration only lasted as long as the reign of Akhenaten. After his death in 1336 or 1334 BC, Egypt reverted back to its natural polytheism.

The next instance of monotheism was much more significant, being the Jewish one. Because of the Biblical distortion of history, there is a widespread belief that the Jewish people and the Jewish states were monotheistic from the very beginning. This is highly unlikely and there is evidence that the early Jews were just as polytheistic as any other nation.

The question therefore is, why did the Jews become monotheistic? The fact that the Jews were monotheistic while all the peoples around them were not has always served to strengthen the myth that the Jews were and are in some way unique and special. The fact is that the Jews are not special, but the historical conditions that they experienced and which led to monotheism are unique.

The first millennium BC saw the rise of a number of empires in the Middle East. These empires typically conquered surrounding peoples of different culture and attempted to incorporate them into their empires. This was never an easy process. The history of the Assyrian Empire, for example, is a never-ending cycle of conquest, rebellion, and re-conquest.

Often what inspired the subject peoples to rebel were their various gods. This sometimes led to the conquerors appropriating the gods or at least the idols of their enemies and incorporating them into their own pantheons. Another important technique of subjugation was to deport and resettle entire populations far from their homes and the temples and shrines of their gods. This was a way of weakening their culture and religion, the sources of their resistance.

The Jewish state was split into two kingdoms, the larger Kingdom of Samaria in the North and the smaller 'Kingdom' of Judah in the South. In 722, the Assyrians crushed Samaria and deported its people, who then disappear from history to become the foundation of the myth of the Lost Tribes of Israel. The tiny state of Judah, centered on Jerusalem, remained as a vassal of the Assyrians.

We can speculate that this political reduction of Jewish controlled territory saw a narrowing of the Jewish religious base to a dominant cult centre of a main god, the sky god Jehovah, at Jerusalem. At this stage Judaism would not have been monotheistic but rather a lopsided polytheism dominated by Jehovah.

When the Assyrian Empire collapsed under the assaults of the Cimmerian horsemen from the North in 609 BC, it was succeeded by the Babylonian Empire that then expanded towards Judah and conquered it, deporting most of the population to Babylonia.

Uprooted from their homeland, the Jews were unable to maintain the full spectrum of their religion which contained several lesser gods. Instead they focused their attention only on Jehovah. As with other polytheistic religions, their other gods probably included a fertility goddess, a war god, etc. Uprooted from their land, the Jews would have felt less connection to their fertility goddess while their status as a conquered people would have undermined the cult of any war god. The removal of the people from the religious sites of the past would have broken the connection with their old gods. The hills and mountains that they would have associated with these gods would be absent from view and so they would be forgotten. Jehovah, as a god associated with the sky, would not be so adversely affected by the uprooting, and as religious feeling for the other gods ebbed, it would flow naturally to Jehovah. It was this process that created Jewish monotheism and the fanaticism that allowed it to continue after the Jews were allowed to return to the land of their gods.

When the Babylonian Empire fell to the Persians and Cyrus the Persian Emperor allowed them to return home, it was only the temple of Jehovah that they rebuilt. The shrines and temples of the other gods of the Jewish pantheon were neglected, while these gods were only remembered by being included in the Jewish Menorah, the seven-branched candlestick that refers to the seven main gods that the ancient Jews once worshipped.


  1. In the earliest agricultural settlement known to man (in modern day Syria), there's strong evidence that their main form of worship was ancestor worship (Natufian society -- Archaelogy of Syria, Akkermans & Schwartz). In fact, it seems that all forms of paganism, at one level or another, involve ancestor worship.

  2. The question is not why monotheism displace polytheism, but why cultures which adopted monotheism conquered and displaced polytheistic cultures. Just as the question is not why a genetic mutation occurs, but why the mutation achieves fixation. Asking the question backwards won't yield a good answer.

    P.S. Sorry about the misposting on Facebook.

  3. There's no denying monotheism's political utility (the focus of part II, which is written in my head), but this may be limited to a certain stage of organization or period of history and, as we see with the weaknesses of Western culture, may have severe subsequent costs.

  4. Why did Christianity defeat Paganism?Christianity did not defeat Paganism, it eradicates through a gruesome theocracy with no room for Inherent Free Thinking. Native Tribal Lifestyles are subjected to bow or else. Christianity is hardly loving when you look at its historic record. The Menorah is a symbol of our galaxy with Shamash, the Sun in the center surrounded by the Planets. The names of gods are metaphors for the planets. Judaism or Pharisaic Rabbinism never had a pantheon of Gds. YHWH is the only Gd referred to. Tribal Israel and Judah is a different story. The Names of Biblical Israel do not qualify to be Jewish, the only person who qualifies is Dinah, daughter of Jacob and the book of books does not give the names of her children. The Menorah you present is an ancient version of our galaxy at the Winter Solstice:May Shamash/The Sun be good during the next seasons so the harvest can be bountiful. This is the true meaning of the Menorah. Happy Holidays All.