Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity, by James J. O’Donnell – This book basically covers the switch from polytheistic religion to Christianity in the Roman Empire, largely looking at it from the point of view of the pagans. O’Donnell makes clear that “pagan” was a term invented by Christians, basically meaning “peasant,” to create an us-vs.-them sort of mentality. The followers of traditional Roman religion wouldn’t have considered themselves pagans, or polytheists for that matter, before monotheism became the norm. There’s some information on how Caesar Augustus more or less invented Roman religion under the guise of restoring old-school practices, and how there really wasn’t any one form of religion that dominated before the rise of Christianity. The earlier religions of the Empire were generally not about faith and personal relationships with a chosen deity so much as participating in certain rituals to appease the gods. The amount that the gods cared about humanity varied greatly, but animal sacrifice was the norm in trying to get them to favor you. Even monotheistic Judaism practiced this prior to the destruction of the Temple. O’Donnell argues that Constantine adopted Jesus as his patron deity in a way that wasn’t specifically Christian, but rather how followers of other pantheons would call on a specific god for success in battle. The book also argues that there wasn’t really a major struggle between Christianity and paganism, at least not in the major cultural centers of the Roman Empire. Some emperors chose to return to worship of the old gods after the rise of Christianity, but didn’t really do much to curb the new religion. The lines were rather less obvious than they are today, with people adopting elements of Christian belief and practice along with pagan ones. It was more of a gradual replacement, aided by the Roman rulers realizing they could use Christianity to their advantage. O’Donnell has a snarky style that I found amusing, but would probably bother some readers. It’s a very secular look at religion, examining the political side more than the personal.
Not directly related to the book, but somewhat inspired by it, I do kind of wonder why monotheism is still the norm. Democracy has become increasingly popular, because societies have learned how dangerous it is to have one person in charge of the government. But isn’t monotheism essentially dictatorship on a heavenly level? At least with polytheism, you can choose another god if yours isn’t working out. But even modern paganism has largely come to favor the idea that many gods are just aspects of one or two main cosmic forces. Of course, what would be convenient for people isn’t necessarily what’s true, so could the prevalence of monotheism despite its drawbacks for humanity be an indication that there’s truth to it? Well, maybe, but I’m still skeptical. After all, people believe in a lot of things that aren’t true and that aren’t to their benefit. Trickle-down economics, for instance. As I’m an atheist, I don’t really have a stake in any particular belief system being the right one, but I do think theists should be made more aware of their options.