Subject: The Classical World's Religious Tolerance The question was brought up here some w

---
Master Index Current Directory Index Go to SkepticTank Go to Human Rights activist Keith Henson Go to Scientology cult

Skeptic Tank!

From: Loren Petrich Subject: The Classical World's Religious Tolerance The question was brought up here some weeks back on the question of the level of religious tolerance in the classical Greek and Roman world. I believe that this subject has some misunderstandings due to the nature of their religion. Although they considered performing their religious rites very important, belief was not a necessary part, and "theology" was typically riddled with contradictions. Is Zeus Kronos's oldest son (Homer) or his youngest son (Hesiod)? Is Persephone/Kore in the underworld part-time (the Hymn to Demeter) or full-time (most other sources)? Is Zeus immortal (most of Greece) or does he die and get resurrected every year (Crete)? (Cretans were called liars because of this) Furthermore, their religion was non-exclusive and often syncretic. Worshipping one deity did not exclude the worship of others. True, Roman conservatives would grumble about outlandish "cults" like that of Cybele and Attis, whose male followers would castrate themselves and dress like women, but one would see Gauls continuing to worship the horse goddess Epona and Egyptians spreading the "cults" of Isis and Serapis (Osiris-Apis). Syncretism? Certainly. Herodotus in his _History_ referred to the deities of the people he discussed as versions of the familiar Olympians. Thus, for example, Zeus == Amon-Ra == Ahura Mazda == Marduk That was a common practice, and Roman deities were identified with Greek ones in precisely this fashion. They also referred to Gaulish ones as versions of theirs, also. Philosophers' attitudes? My favorite of these is that of the Skeptics (literally "lookers"; their attitude became the well-known word). Some of them argued that they worship the gods and state that they exercise providence, but that they do so without any unwarranted belief in such things. Some were rather critical. Xenophanes commented on the mischief attributed to the gods, and noted that horses and cows and lions would believe that their deities looked just like them. Someone else (I forget who) commented that if Zeus, Poseidon, and Apollo had to pay the fine for deflowering a virgin, they would bankrupt all the temples in Greece. Plato stated that the works of Homer and Hesiod ought to be banned from his Republic, because of such mischief as gods laughing and lusting. My all time favorite cutesy comment was in Aristophanes' play _The Clouds_, in which an old codger reveals that he had always believed that rain was Zeus pissing through a sieve (_dia koskinou ourein_). It is remarkable that he got away with this blasphemous bathroom joke. Seen in that light, Christianity was something rather outlandish. Judaism had had the same exclusivism, but Jews had kept to themselves, for the most part. An aggressive sect that denied all deities except theirs probably seemed antisocial, as might be seen from Apuleius's _The Golden Ass_, where Christianity is called the cult of "the only God".

---

E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank