The Uncomplicated Gods

The Uncomplicated Gods

Unless generations of historians have lied, no army in ancient Greece or Rome took to the field to fight for religious reasons.

Zeus never commanded war for dogma. Achilles did not fight Hector for doctrinal reasons. Rome’s wars with Carthage where not over the dual nature of Apollo. The gods of the ancient world, it seems, may have been capricious, uncaring, sex-crazed, and caused the downfall of proud men by first making them mad, but never did they encourage killing over the nature of their divine being.

The Spartans were the most religious of the Greeks, although that never stopped them from basing their entire society on the subjection of other Greeks, known to history as “helots.” They might have stiffed the Athenians when fighting the Persians at some points citing a holy festival, but their own conflict with that city had nothing to do the proper worship of Athena.

It is the spread of monotheism in the guise of Christianity that these things are possible. No matter that everyone thought the gods were on their side; even the victor respected a city’s vanquished higher powers. But the force of monotheism taking up arms radically altered all of that: the triune god of Christianity commanded the faithful to war, to wipe out enemies and purge non-believers.

When Islam spread through force of arms (not, as the apologists would have you believe, as part of a benign door-to-door campaign of literature-leaving adherents), the one true god enjoined the Muslim community to “fight in the path of Allah.” War was to be made against the unbelievers until either they were dominated or converted. And if anyone insists that jihad is a misunderstood concept of philosophical abstraction, there is an entire corpus of Islamic law stemming from the sayings of Muhammad called “hadith” that demonstrate otherwise. The word “Islam” stems from a root word meaning “submit”: submit to what? Submit to the will of the one God. The Quran and the hadith are very clear: they are expressions of divine will, not suppositions of a flesh and blood human. When the one true god commands war, is it for reasons that are bound with his inexplicable will. Zeus never made it that far.

The Hebrew Bible refers to the God of Israel as a “man of war.” He leads the armies of Israel through his proxy Moses to fight against the Canaanites, in order to wrest control of the land from them due to the Almighty’s disgust at their various abominations. One wonders why he never ordered the Corinthians or the Euboans to oust the Athenians for their boy-friendly ways. Indeed, the Greek gods never commanded Pericles to take up arms and stop the naked workouts of the Spartans in the cause of modesty, but show too much leg in modern Jerusalem or uncovered hair in Gaza and you’ll be lucky to make it out alive.

What is it with monotheism and its fanatical intolerance? Are we better off with the myths of the gods to follow us around, rather than the dark conviction that the one true god desires war after war? In Troy, the gods picked their sides between the Greeks and the Trojans, but in conflicts birthed from the Reformation, the one true god was invoked on both sides. We cannot say the Holy Spirit favored the Catholics while God the Son fought on the side of the Protestants.

In equal measure, what do we make of the spectacle of those traveling charlatans, the priests, who accompany armies to give solace to soldiers that the one true god is with them, while their counterparts assure the faithful making preparations to kill that the one true god is actually with them? Zeus here and Hera there makes sense; Athena throwing a weapon at Ares on the battle field has its own strange logic. But the one true god fighting...against himself? Both sides cannot be right, although both sides are convinced the one true god is with them and wants them to fight. Muslim fanatics do not appeal to universal humanism in their determination to blow themselves up: they fervently believe they are going to paradise. Imagine Achilles saying to the Myrmidons the same thing! Fight in the path of Zeus and gain life everlasting against the infidel Trojans!

Homer tells us the reality of war: he describes the fear and pain of “hateful death” that overcomes the fighters. Not so his monotheistic heirs: they dwell at length on paradise, virgins, and happy times of eternal life as a result of fighting, egged on by the one true god who has promised these things. Do we not see the contradiction here? How can one monotheist kill another monotheist believing he will go to paradise, while the victim is also promised heaven for fighting in a righteous cause? The blind poet of Chios told more truths in a few lines of verse than all the monotheistic theologians who spilled an ocean of ink to fool others into spilling a sea of blood in the name of the one true god. Death is not hateful, it is a chance for life eternal! How many minds have been warped by this? How many souls have been lost because of these fictions? If you do not accept death as The End, how can you develop a proper sense of the value of life, clinging as you are to the fantasy that you will live forever for killing that abortion doctor, or executing the homosexual or believing whole-heartedly that the Son is co-substantial with the Father? The gods never promised us life everlasting and now it seems, with good reason, because there was no incentive to take such pleasure in killing.

The gods, those passionate, timeless beings have left us with the one true God who either lacks their panache or sees fit to encourage the deception that killing in his name is the surest path to eternal glory. This is called, by his true believers, his mysterious will, or his mysterious plan. Would it be that we could return to the uncomplicated passions of the gods rather than remain as slaves to this mysterious, unknown cosmic fiend who offers unending war!