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Arnold Angenendt {*}

Violent Monotheism - Human Polytheism?


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 2005/5, p. 319-328
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


For some time the debates about the possibilities of tolerance of the great monotheistic world religions have repeatedly got attention also in the feuilletons of the daily papers. Among the numerous participants in the discussion above all the theses of two scientists triggered lasting echoes: the Giessen philosopher Odo Marquard, and the Heidelberg Egyptologist Jan Assmann.


Looking For an Explanation

Years ago Odo Marquard gave out the suggestive formula poly-mythology versus mono-mythology, i.e. the biblical 'One God' with its 'one truth' meant the authorization to religious omnipotence. Against it only a division of power on the level of 'the absolute' would help, and that division of power would be accomplished by the great human principle of polytheism. For when many gods existed you had no longer totally to obey the Absolute One; when one god demanded an exclusive service, you could excuse yourself by your service for another god.

For Marquard it is about nothing less than today's main problem: the one world and the many powers and authorities. For - as we all aware of - to achieve tolerance and peace and to avoid the "clash of civilisations" there is demanded that nobody pushes through by force an absolutely valid religious truth applying to everybody and everything. For that reason Marquard's division of power, his propagating many myths, and his saying 'good-bye' to the One Absolute God.

Jan Assmann has, so it seems at first sight, even further strengthened those considerations by contributing his meanwhile much discussed Mosaic Turn. Only with Moses the distinction between "true" and "wrong" came into religion, which in its consequence cost rivers of blood. As "original scene" of religious violence Assmann quotes Moses' command to kill all adorers of the Golden Calf {1}. Nevertheless has from the outset to be clarified that Marquard and Assmann stand contrary to each other. Marquard's formula reads: "The individual develops in opposition to monotheism." {2} Assmann's formula reads: "Man develops in partnership with ... the One God to an autonomous, resp. theonomous individual." {3}



Mythology - Ethnology - Biology

On closer inspection Marquard makes with the actually most legitimate world-political postulate of religious tolerance a language game with ethnology and does in the end not take into account the religious-sociological findings about the reality behind the many myths. For all the myths are not only "tales about the many gods" but always also "tales about the own nation". Such mythical folk-tales ethnologically mean, if you follow Klaus E. Müller who works at the Essen Scientific College, that people make their own life-system absolute. "The own traditional order of life is regarded as the only reasonable, the best formed, and thus also for the only justifiable possibility; in a word, for the 'non-plus-ultra' of human life." That is the inward perspective of the myth on the own people. A devaluing outward perspective on other people corresponds to it: "It is just impossible that outside your own culture living conditions, moral, humanity and civilization exist which come up to the standard that you consider as befitting for a human being." {4} Yes, those people there outside are brutes, descendants of the devil; you have therefore to avoid them or even fight them.

That means in consequence: In view of such a mythical making one's own people absolute there will be no peace, no tolerance. On the contrary, tribal religions give generally rise to a permanent degradation of those who are 'different' and proclaim always their own being better:

"One located oneself, the own group, the own village in the centre of the world, laid claim to one's lineal descend from the first created human being, and considered the own people to be the most efficient, most intelligent and most beautiful human beings, the own culture to be of oldest origin and of highest development too." {5}

That is the ethnologically centred world view. Here insider / outsider moral is at work: Social behaviour for one's own people - degradation, yes, enmity against 'outsiders'. Consequently in tribal cultures war was and is the normal thing. In view of the Homeric world for example the historian George P. Landmann confirms:

"We are gladly open to the illusion that peace was the normal condition between peoples and war only a disturbance. In reality peace had to be made and retained always by a peace treaty. The one who does not belong to the own community, who stands 'outside' is in the first instance an 'echthros', an enemy ... In the early period robberies of women and herds (which belonged to 'others') were ordinary events." {6}

For the Germanic world the Bochum scholar in religious studies Hans-Peter Hasenfratz thinks he was to state: "All who are outside kinship peace are enemies, the slave who can be killed by his master without atonement belongs to them" {7} The Kiel historian of law Hans Hattenhauer succinctly attests the archaic law of old Europe:



"The foreigner was at the same time the enemy." {8} The French medievalist Georges Duby sees almost a "natural enmity between the races" in the early medieval world {9}. That enmity can be observed up to the ethnical cleansings of the twentieth century. The American historian Norman Naimark, who introduced the term "ethnical cleansing", writes that the goal of such cleansings was always to exterminate foreigners - no matter whether they were ethnically or religiously interpreted -, and to cleanse one's own territory; on that occasion mass murders became almost a matter of course:

"Since the beginnings of a documented history the dominating peoples attacked and drove away those who were less powerful, and groups which they regarded as subordinated and foreign. Homer's 'Iliad' is full of brutal and shocking examples of things which you could call ethnical cleansings; the same applies to the Bible." {10}

The concentration on people and clan recently gets still an additional explanation by biology which found out that our genes are "selfish" and cause "kin selection" (relationship preference). According to the Götting philosopher and biologist Christian Vogel from our age-old inheritance (phylogeny) the "principle of genetic self-interest" results which caused two different behaviours:

"On the one hand distrust, refusal or hostility against non-relatives, strangers and outsiders, on the other hand towards relatives, to people who are 'closely connected' and familiar with us altruism, helpfulness and the readiness to make sacrifices." {11}

Universalism, understood as orientation towards the larger whole of world and humankind, is just not inborn to human beings, so Vogel, but has still to be wrested from the human nature. For the ethical goal "mankind" and the principles of universal humanity and world-wide equality associated with it are "unnatural" and by no means innate and have culturally to be developed: "To obtain that presupposes an enormous cultural achievement, which has to be wrested from a constantly reluctant human nature." {12} On the whole there can be no doubt: The world of the myths is ethnocentric and propagates an ingroup/outgroup moral. Violence is something "natural" for that world. Poly-mythology creates war, not peace.


Niklas Luhmann's Draft

How we, in contrast with it, are to imagine a universal religion can be illustrated by a characterisation of "world religion" drafted by Niklas Luhmann. For Luhmann world religion is characterized by boundlessness. The universal religion imparts faith contents without ethnical, national or territorial restriction:



"When a world religion is offered you have to dispense with ethnical or regional supports. ... Everyone who is recognizable as human being is to be addressed. ... World religions anticipate, as it were, the world society." {13}

Luhmann considers as necessary requirements for a world religion that the characteristics of family, ethnic or other social structures are ignored and the gods de-regionalized. What matters in religious affairs is faith alone {14}. But as far as faith alone matters, Luhmann rightly sees a new border, namely that to the unbelievers. That means: World religions create a universalism and overcome for it the ethno-centred barriers. But at the same time they run the risk to establish now, instead of national boundaries new ones which are purely religiously determined: on the one side the orthodox believers, and on the other side heretics, apostates and unbelievers. By that partition the bio-genetic ingroup/outgroup moral can then become active again.

In view of those findings is to be noted down: Marquard's playing off poly-mythology against mono-mythology is only a play on words. It obscures the "natural enmity" between clans or tribes and brings by no means a solution for the tolerance problem. Since the polytheistic tribal religions are national religions {15}, they realize innate enmity - that has to be objected to Marquard's poly-myths [Polymythie]. In order to advance to tolerance, the poly-myths concept of clan's gods as well as of clan structures has to be overcome in favour of universality.


Jan Assmann and "Psycho-History"

The Egyptologist Jan Assmann takes just here his starting point. Thereby he argues with the help of several layers, i.e. with the distinction of a primary and a secondary religion. While the primary becomes a secondary religion, according to Assmann a "psycho-history", a historically observable change unfolds with and within man, in his psyche. Assmann's illuminating and most topical thesis deserves special attention.

Assmann understands as 'primary religion' the imbedment in world and people. For it the typical religion is that of national gods and national cults, i.e. poly-mythology. Opposite to that Assmann propagates the secondary religion as much more substantial and more important: "The secondary religion is religion in a completely new and emphatic sense, and above all: The secondary religion is a 'matter that is near to one's heart'." {16} - that is the key element of his argumentation.

And how are you to think that? The secondary religion has - surprisingly enough - its origin in monotheism. For in monotheism, and only there, God appeared as guardian of right, truth, and ethos. That was absolutely new, and exactly therefore monotheism was allowed - with historical authorization - to claim the honorary title "justice"; for no "pagan" religion had ever made right and ethos to its main affair {17}.



Monotheism therefore presents itself to Assmann as spiritualized and devoted to ethics. Monotheism usually sees its origin in a revelation and requires - in terms of civilization - the book; hence it is based on the "culture of memory". With that keyword Assmann reached the scientific world opinion {18}.

Assmann interprets the effect of that 'monotheistic God' with his spiritual mentality and its consequences for man's conception of himself as psycho-history, as emergence of the "Inward Man". Two moments are to be regarded as important for it: On the one hand the "break-through to transcendence" - that concerns the gods; on the other hand the enlargement of the inward man - just that concerns Psycho-History with its "development of the Inward Man". Before that break-through the gods appear in human shape, anthropomorph: They rule and hate, eat and drink, love and fight. Actually they hardly differ from human beings.

In contrast to that the second religious turn leads to transcendence; that is, the gods or God exceed all human and worldly things. The gods are purely mental beings now, and thus - as religion history says - also "undemanding"; gods or God do neither need for their living - to quote for instance from the Old Testament - the blood of rams and bulls nor the material gifts of human beings. The divine being is of such a superior spirit that there is one God only. In short: God becomes transcendental and monotheistic. The only things which still please that one God are spirit and ethos, and he demands them now also from man {19}. According to Greek philosophy God's spirit is looking for union with the thinking 'nous' {20}, and - in the message of Israel's prophets - with the loving human heart {21}.

Man has consequently now to let heart and spirit work in the relationship with God. Assmann stresses, "The One and Only God finds in the act of his turning to the world no other partner as the people of his faithful and the human heart." {22} For God matters only what is done spiritually and heartily by a human being. That spiritual divinity had transformed man and awoken in his inside a new dimension for spirit and heart. Exactly that awakening Assmann calls 'psycho-history'. Only now the human psyche had further developed and had won autonomy and dominance.

Precondition for that process of civilization, so Assmann, was the book: monotheistic religions were always book religions. It then surprises how radically Assmann connects that turn to ethos, truth and right with monotheism. In that point he himself admits no doubt, "I plead neither for a return to the myth nor to the primary religion." {23} Yes, Assmann even expressly rejects the "old cliché of a 'tolerant polytheism'" {24}.



By the way, Niklas Luhmann thinks similarly. The book religions and only they produced a distinct monotheism. By it the one God became the "Observer God" who embraces experiencing and acting - both activities of the human intellect and will {25}.


Tolerance and Intolerance in Christianity and Islam

That turn to spirit and ethics - of god as well as of man - by means of religion has substantial consequences for the problem of violence. For only Psycho-History with its inward-looking nature creates the insight into the absolute necessity of tolerance. As soon as secondary religions produce the Inward Man with his ability of sympathetic understanding, also the understanding for the inner convictions of other people developed, and thus the ability to acknowledge and to leave those others in their different way of life. Those who want freedom for their own decisions have to grant that freedom also to those who are different. What is more, one knows that a merely outward conversion is not appropriate to God and is therefore religiously worthless. Consequently one sees oneself compelled to tolerate others. From their mental starting point monotheistic secondary religions must therefore insist on freedom of compulsion.

Christianity is to be located in that context. Its first commandment wins here a special profile: To love God with one's whole hearts, with one's whole understanding, with all one's strengths (see Mk 12:29f.). Above all also St Paul's well-known formula belongs here, "Caritas tolerat omnia" (Love bears everything; see 1 Cor 13, 7). The historian Klaus Schreiner identifies that formula as Core of Christian Tolerance:

"The term 'tolerance' as word for relations between human beings has been brought forth by the old-Christian Latinity. In classical Latin tolerantia refers primarily to dura et aspera (hard and rough things), to enduring injustice, torture and force, to hardships of 'dirty hard labour', to suffering pain and dangers, to enduring famines, natural catastrophes and military defeats, but not to forbearance of differently thinking people. ... That fellow human beings and fellow citizens can assume the character of a burden which has to be borne in an attitude of love is not expressed in that conceptual system." {26}

In marked confrontation to the antique pagan understanding of tolerance Schreiner notes down:

"Not the Roman classical authors but the Church Fathers and early medieval theologians made 'tolerantia' a social virtue, a leading term for interpersonal behaviour and for the formation of the Christian community." {27}



A Biblical basic text about tolerance was above all also the Parable of Weeds and Wheat with its order: "Let both grow up to the harvest" (Mt 13, 24-30). The history of interpretation of that parable shows the whole Christian tolerance debate up to modern times {28}.

In his thesis submitted to get the qualification as university lecturer for philosophy Rainer Forst confirms the view of the antique understanding of tolerance in the sense of bearing pain, misfortune, and injustice. Beyond that he characterizes the Christian view of tolerance - because of the forbearance with other humans - as important for interpersonal relations, "The failings of other people are tolerated by love." {29} The New Testament, so Forst, is "for the entire European discourse on tolerance of central importance" - and this "up to the modern times" {30}.

The consequences of that view one reads with the early Christian theologians {31}, for instance with Tertullian ( after 220). ... It must "be left open to me to admire whom I want. ... Nobody (also God not) wants to be honoured by someone who does it not gladly. This is a human right and a matter of freedom." {32} in Laktanz ( after 317) it says similarly:

"It is just in religion alone where freedom has established its dwelling. Religion is more than anything else a matter of voluntary decisions and nobody can be forced to venerate something which she/he does not want." {33}

Islam gives the same arguments in support of religious freedom: The Koran declares unmistakably, "Religion is a thing of freedom." {34} It thus confronts, as the Essen theologian Hans Zirker writes, "all expectations that one could enforce God's will in the world by means of human control. Only God can overcome the persistent refusal of man". Hence "the intention to convert by force those who do not come voluntarily is forbidden in principle" {35}.

The Koran gives as reasons: "If your Lord had pleased, surely all those who are in the earth would have believed, all of them; will you then force men till they become believers?" (10,99). Monotheism has in this respect - due to the "psycho-historical effects" which are ascribed to it - fundamental consequences for humanity and tolerance. Whenever violence has to be overcome - in the psycho-historical consequences of monotheistic religions the possibilities are given to do it.


Memories and Consequences

But when that is the state of affairs, what then is with the Mosaic Turn and with the consequences of violence connected with it? Should it be that they have not occurred at all? Of course, terribly and deplorably enough, there has been enough violence.



Though at a completely fixed place: Not as violence against heathens but against apostates of one's own religion or denomination. We again remind of Luhmann's thesis. Any intensification of the demands of faith will necessarily ... "aggravate the difference between orthodox believers and heretics or unbelievers" {36}.

Mostly a gradated procedure is used. For those who became believers there was - when they became apostates - still a respite for reversal. Those who did then not return but finally became apostates had to be eliminated, even by killing them. Here then Assmann's "original scene of violence" is to be found - with its rivers of blood. Already the venerators of the Golden Calf had been exterminated, for they had deserted the faith in Yahweh. In the beginnings of Christianity, when Christians were still reckoned among the temple community, the Greek Stephanus was stoned as a dissident critic of the temple, just like Jacob the Elder was executed {37}.

The same pattern can be seen also in Islam. The Koran still admonished, as Frank Griffel worked out, "that nobody is able to judge the true faith ('the heart') of a fellow believer" {38}. Hence apostates should not be punished or killed, but only be inflicted with the sanction that their former fellow believers would no longer be on friendly terms with them {39}. But soon the opinion arose that everyone who had committed a serious sin was a disbeliever and had to be killed {40}.

The Christians who had actually wanted to do without any bodily violence in religious things nevertheless agreed with the late antique emperor's laws threatening apostasy with death penalty. One has to call that their great 'Fall of Man'. Aggravatingly was added that Christianity became pedantic "to the letter". The scolding of heretics and with it a climate of intolerance and spitefulness developed. "The doctrinaire quarrelling belonged to the appearance of Christianity", summarizes the Regensburg church historian Norbert Brox {41}. The defining of dogmas was done to a large extent 'via argument', not only by means of correction but in addition by intimidation and denouncement, and in the end by suppression by force. The 'Mosaic distinction' thus proves to be a possible consequence of the book religion.

But as corrective for the public opinion it has at once to be added that we expressly know only of one execution in the western Christianity for the first millennium: that of Priscillian in Trier in 386. Of course, Martin of Tour and Ambrosius of Milan immediately protested against that action {42}. The time of bloody persecution began in the Middle Ages and reached its zenith in the early modern times. The victims of the medieval Katharer Inquisition are estimated at some thousands. With the Roman Inquisition there were after 1551 altogether 97 {43}, with the Spanish Inquisition in the "wild period" from 1480 to 1530 toward 5000 victims; then - as the in Germany scarcely known "Henningsen file" (named after the Danish folklorist and researcher on Inquisition) proves - from 1540 to 1700 exactly 826 victims {44}.



The number of Anabaptists, who were executed in Switzerland, South Germany, and the Netherlands according to the Imperial Law, is estimated at 2000 {45}. Those executions were purely "national", they did no longer - as in the Middle Ages - happen after an express sentence of a church law-court. In the same way the executions of witches were "national". One reads in the catalogue of the in 2002 in Berlin shown exhibition "Hexenwahn. Ängste der Neuzeit" (Witch Mania. Fears of the Modern Times):

"With a special obstinacy the prejudice lasts that the law-suits against witches had taken place in their majority before church law-courts of the inquisition. ... In countries where the persecution of witches lay in the hands of the Inquisition, one can see just with the modern Inquisition authorities a moderate and careful dealing with the offence of sorcery." {46}

In all can be stated: Just the biblical monotheism, the Jewish and Christian as well as the Islamic, demands the 'Inward Man'. Since God only looks at the heart, everything that does not rise from there is contrary to him. That means for the question of freedom of violence, God accepts nothing that is enforced. It is therefore pointless to want to force people to the true faith. Nevertheless the (three) monotheisms have become violent, namely in the persecution of heretical dissidents and apostates.



{1} J. Assmann, Moses der Ägypter. Entzifferung einer Gedächtnisspur (Frankfurt 2000) 269; the same, Die Mosaische Unterscheidung oder der Preis des Monotheismus (München 2003).

{2} O. Marquard, Abschied vom Prinzipiellen. Philosophische Studien (Stuttgart 1981) 108.

{3} Assmann, Die Mosaische Unterscheidung (note 1) 62.

{4} K. E. Müller, Das magische Universum der Identität. Elementarformen sozialen Verhaltens. Ein ethnologischer Grundriß (Frankfurt 1987) 140.

{5} The same, Der gesprungene Ring. Wie man seine Seele gewinnt und verliert (Frankfurt 1997) 20f.

{6} G. P. Landmann, Das Gedicht vom Kriege. Homers Ilias (Heidelberg 1992) 17f.

{7} H. P. Hasenfratz, Die religiöse Welt der Germanen. Ritual, Magie, Kult, Mythus (Freiburg 1992) 46.

{8} H. Hattenhauer, Europäische Rechtsgeschichte (Heidelberg 1992) 23.

{9} G. Duby, Krieger u. Bauern. Die Entwicklung der mittelalterlichen Wirtschaft u. Gesellschaft bis um 1200 (Frankfurt ²1986) 65.

{10} N. M. Naimark, Flammender Haß. Ethnische Säuberung im 20. Jahrhundert (München 2004) 12, 14.

{11} C. Vogel, Vom Töten zum Mord. Das wirkliche Böse in der Evolutionsgeschichte (München 1989) 37.

{12} In the same place 56.

{13} N. Luhmann, Die Religion der Gesellschaft (Frankfurt 2000) 276.

{14} In the same place 276f.

{15} Assmann, Die Mosaische Unterscheidung (note 1) 13, 59.

{16} In the same place 156.

{17} In the same place 76.

{18} The same, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis. Schrift, Erinnerung u. politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen (München ²1997).



{19} B. Gladigow, Gottesvorstellungen, in: HRWG, Volume 3. (Stuttgart 1993) 32-49; C. Elsas, Hochgottglauben, in the same place 155-160.

{20} W. Burkert, Griechische Religion der archaischen u. klassischen Epoche (Stuttgart 1977) 468-495).

{21} J. B. Bauer, Herz, in: RAC 14 (1988) 1093-1131, 1096f.

{22} Assmann, Die Mosaische Unterscheidung (note 1) 158.

{23} In the same place 25.

{24} The same, Die "Mosaische Unterscheidung" u. die Frage der Intoleranz. Eine Klarstellung, in: Kritik u. Geschichte der Intoleranz, edited by B. Kloepfer u. B. Dücker (Heidelberg 2000) 185-195, 189.

{25} Luhmann (note 13) 267, 157.

{26} K. Schreiner, "Tolerantia". Begriffs- u. wirkungsgeschichtliche Studien zur Toleranzauffassung des Kirchenvaters Augustinus, in: Toleranz im Mittelalter, edited by A. Patschovsky and H. Zimmermann (Sigmaringen 1998) 335-389, 336f.

{27} The same, Toleranz, in: Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland, volume 6 (Stuttgart 1990) 445-605, 447f.

{28} The same (note 26).

{29} R. Forst, Toleranz im Konflikt. Geschichte, Gehalt u. Gegenwart eines umstrittenen Begriffs (Frankfurt 2003) 55.

{30} In the same place 58.

{31} B. Kötting, Religionsfreiheit u. Toleranz im Altertum, in: the same, Ecclesia peregrinans. Das Gottesvolk unterwegs, volume 1 (Münster 1988) 158-187.

{32} Tertullian, Apologeticum 24, 6, in: CCL 1, 134, 30.

{33} Lactanz, Institutiones 49, 1, in: CSEL 19, 728.

{34} Der Koran, 2, 256; cf. A. Th. Khoury, Toleranz im Islam (München 1980) 20f.

{35} H. Zirker, Islam. Theologische u. gesellschaftliche Herausforderung (Düsseldorf 1993) 235.

{36} Luhmann (note 13) 276.

{37} A. Demandt, Hände in Unschuld. Pontius Pilatus in der Geschichte (Köln 1999) 196; W. Tratscher, Jakobus (Herrenbruder), in: RAC 16 81994) 1227-1243, 1229.

{38} F. Griffel, Apostasie u. Toleranz im Islam. Die Entwicklung zu al-Gazalis Urteil gegen die Philosophie u. die Reaktionen der Philosophen (Leiden 2000) 97.

{39} In the same place 28.

{40} In the same place 52.

{41} N. Brox, Häresie, in: RAC 13 (1986) 248-297,271.

{42} F. Prinz, Der Testfall. Das Kirchenverständnis Bischof Martin von Tours u. die Verfolgung der Priscillianer, in: Hagiographica 3 (1996) 1-13.

{43} J. Tedeschi, The prosecution of heresy. Collected studies on the Inquisition in early modern Italy (New York 1991) 127-203; former version: The same, The Organization and Procedures of the Roman Inquisition: A Sketch, in: The Spanish Inquisition and the Inquisitorial mind, edited by A. Alcalá (New York 1987) 187-215; E. W. Monter u. J. Tedeschi, Toward a statistical profile of the Italian Inquistions, sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, in: The Inquistition in early modern Europe. Studies on Sources and Methods, edited by G. Henningsen u. J. Tedeschi (Illinois 1986) 130-157.

{44} G. Henningsen, The Database of the Spanish Inquistion. The "relaciones de causas"-project revisited, in: Vorträge zur Justizforschung, edited by H. Mohnhaupt u. D. Simon (Frankfurt 1993) 42-85, 54.

{45} C.-P. Clasen, Anabaptism. A Social History, 1525-1618. Switzerland, Austria, Moravia, South and Central Germany (London 1972) 358-370.

{46} R. Voltmer u. F. Irsigler, Die europäischen Hexenverfolgungen der Frühen Neuzeit - Vorurteile, Faktoren u. Bilanzen, in: Hexenwahn. Ängste der Neuzeit. Begleitband zur gleichnamigen Ausstellung des Deutschen Historischen Museums, edited by R. Beier-de Haan and others (Berlin 2002) 30-45, 33.


    {*} For some time one debates about the possibilities of tolerance of the great monotheistic world religions. ARNOLD ANGENENDT, professor of Church history at the University of Münster, particularly deals with the theses of Giessen philosopher Odo Marquard and the Heidelberg Egyptologist Jan Assmann.


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