Monotheism & Religious Tolerance

In the course of Razib/Mr. Hume’s fine post on the history of the emirate of Cordoba, he had this to say:

We know as an empirical fact that the partisans of the Abrahamic faiths are not very tolerant of dissent from their religious monopolies when they are in a position of power.

Subject to the caveat (which Razib included) that such partisans took a more pragmatic approach when, although in power, they were not in a position to enforce a religious monopoly, there is certainly a lot to that, which raises the question why. If we look at the history of other empires, the Roman, say, or even (an unlikely paragon to be sure) that of Genghis Khan (Genghis was an animist), little attempt was made to enforce strict religious orthodoxy.

Does the reason for this difference of approach, I wonder, stem from the very idea of monotheism itself? While I’m certainly no fan of paganism (a lot of what is today being written about pagan societies is nonsense, motivated by ignorance, sentimentality and the childish desire to embrace a ‘non-western’ Other), could it be that the idea of all those, fractious, often competing, gods and spirits made it almost impossible to enforce a religious monopoly. If the gods could not agree, how could man? Monotheism, by contrast, must, by definition, ultimately mean that there is only one truth, and from that it is not too much of a stretch (particularly in those eras when ‘toleration’ had not become a positive ideology) to insist that all should subscribe to it.

Ovoo (animist shrine), Mongolia, May 2005

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