Is monotheism worse than polytheism?


We are taught to think of polytheistic societies as primitive and intellectually shallow and that the introduction of the idea of monotheism, that there is only one god, was a generally good thing, a sign of increased sophistication as civilization progressed. But an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reviewing the work of Egyptologist Jan Assmann says that his view is that this may not be true, and that the shift to monotheism was actually a bad thing and the likely cause of violence spawned by religions over millennia.

Assmann argues that biblical monotheism, as codified by the Pentateuch, disrupted the political and cultural stability of the ancient world by introducing the concept of “religious exclusivity”: that is, by claiming, as no belief system had previously, that its God was the one true God, and that, correspondingly, all other gods were false. By introducing the idea of the “one true God,” Assmann suggests that monotheism upended one of the basic precepts of ancient polytheism: the principle of “divine translatability.” This notion meant that, in ancient Mesopotamia, the various competing deities and idols possessed a fundamental equivalence. This equivalence provided the basis for a constructive modus vivendi among the major empires and polities that predominated in the ancient world.

Assmann readily admits that the ancient Middle East was hardly an unending expanse of peaceable kingdoms. However, he suggests that before monotheism’s emergence, the rivalries and conflicts at issue were predominantly political rather than religious in nature. For this reason, they could be more readily contained. Monotheism raised the stakes of these skirmishes to fever pitch. According to Assmann, with monotheism’s advent, it became next to impossible to separate narrowly political disagreements from religious disputes about “ultimate ends” (Max Weber) or “comprehensive doctrines” (John Rawls). According to the new logic of “religious exclusivity,” political opponents to be conquered were turned into theological “foes” to be decimated.

By introducing the “Mosaic distinction,” Assmann argues, the Old Testament established the foundations of religious intolerance, as epitomized by the theological watchwords: “No other gods!” “No god but God!” Thereafter, the pre-monotheistic deities were denigrated as “idols.” As Assmann explains: Ancient Judaism “sharply distinguishes itself from the religions of its environment by demanding that its One God be worshiped to the exclusion of all others, by banning the production of images, and by making divine favor depend less on sacrificial offerings and rites than on the righteous conduct of the individual and the observance of god-given, scripturally fixed laws.”

These measures and techniques infused monotheistic religious practice with a new stringency—an element of fideistic absolutism—that differed qualitatively from the more diffuse cult practices of its polytheistic predecessors. Moreover, by introducing the idea of a transcendent and omnipotent deity, monotheism was guilty of estranging its adherents from the natural world—a tendency that stood in marked contrast with the world-affirming and life-enhancing orientation of pagan belief systems.

It is an interesting and plausible thesis that we may be better served by the life-affirming polytheistic beliefs of what we now refer to as ‘primitive’ or ‘pagan’ religions than by the seemingly sophisticated monotheistic ones.

But if Assmann’s argument is true, how is it that we have for so long seen monotheism as a good thing? Maybe because if you are fortunate to live in a pluralistic secular democratic society that does not allow one religion to assert its dominance over others, then we have effectively recreated a polytheistic society with all its benefits while paying lip-service to monotheism. We have Jews worshipping a Jewish god, Muslims worshipping a Muslim god, Christians worshipping a Christian god, Hindus worshipping a Hindu god, and so on. Whatever they may think in private, each set of believers is tacitly forced to at least publicly acknowledge the legitimacy of all the other gods. As a result violent religious efforts to establish supremacy are suppressed.

In such societies, the question that is never asked in mixed company is “Which of your gods is the true one?” In ecumenical gatherings one gets vague mumblings to the effect that all worship the same god. Any major religious leader who openly says that his or her religion is the one true one and all others false would be violating a social taboo. At most, they will only declare the less politically influential ones, such as Muslims and Wiccans in the US, as false.

Of course, few believers really think that they all worship the same god because the idea would be obviously preposterous to even the most naïve believer. Why would a single god reveal himself multiple times in multiple places and societies and create different rules and doctrines and holy books for people to follow? How can they all come from the same god if they are contradictory? The only logical answers are that only one is true and all the others false or that none of them are true, with the second being the only sensible choice.

The problems created by monotheism lie just below the surface in religiously pluralistic societies. Monotheism rears its ugly head when one religion acquires state power and influence that it has the ability to suppress others or when one set of believers breaks the taboo and proclaim that they alone worship the ‘one true god’. One doesn’t have to look far to find examples of the mess that this creates.

Comments

  1. kimbeaux says

    Absolutely yes. Monotheism is worse than pantheism. Look at the progress in science in the western world when polytheism, monotheism and then secularism were dominant. Only dominant monotheism caused the Dark Age stultification of scientific inquiry.

  2. Corvus illustris says

    We are taught to think of polytheistic societies as primitive and intellectually shallow and that the introduction of the idea of monotheism, that there is only one god, was a generally good thing, a sign of increased sophistication as civilization progressed.

    Um … who and where are the “we” who are taught this? (I know where I was taught it, but that was an extreme case.) Even the most superficial acquaintance with philosophical activity in south Asia would disabuse “us” of the cliché “primitive and intellectually shallow,” and Indian polytheism can give Christian trinitarianism a hard time at the foundational level. The uniqueness theorems of Aquinas and others only produce an impersonal entity.

    Monotheism as practiced gives you “my tribe’s deity is the one that occurs in the uniqueness arguments,” and licenses its adherents to annihilate the tribes with the “wrong” unique deity. Polytheism as practiced has about the same track record. Sophistication, civilization, my left foot.

  3. Corvus illustris says

    Only dominant monotheism caused the Dark Age stultification of scientific inquiry.

    Please harmonize this statement with the record of achievement of early Muslim intellectuals, who worked in the context of a more rigorous monotheism than European Christians do (or did). Oh, and the inaccuracy of the cliché “Dark Ages” is well understood. What accuracy it has is as much due to the collapse of the Western Roman empire as to Christianity.

  4. says

    Polytheism is more fun, but I think that there is a clear progression: that the fewer gods there are the better and that no gods is better than one.

  5. Alverant says

    I remember learning that the Mongols were polytheistic and as such were very tolerant for their time (they still plundered, slaughtered, and raped but they didn’t force conversions). So was the Roman Empire provided you gave credit to the Roman pantheon you were pretty much left alone. It’s when you have people believing your god is the only god is when you start with the “convert or else”. I guess if you believe in multiple gods, it’s easier to accept the other people believe in other gods.

  6. Hairy Chris, blah blah blah etc says

    Looking back at European history, the Greeks, Romans (and Egyptians) definitely mapped their god concepts to those of other societies, in some case creating interesting hybrids. As far as the Romans went, this was politically useful as they could basically say “look, your god x is the same as our god y” to subject and allied nations, and generally* respected the local traditions.

    This is not possible with a monotheistic my-way-or-the-highway system.

    * They didn’t like the druids very much but that may have been more a political beef… Some of the Roman propaganda was over human & child sacrifice, so some things don’t change.

  7. says

    We have Jews worshipping a Jewish god, Muslims worshipping a Muslim god, Christians worshipping a Christian god, Hindus worshipping a Hindu god, and so on.

    And as far as Christians go, today we really have different Christians worshipping a different Christian god. The names they give it are generally the same, but the characteristics differ, which leads to these arguments about who the True(TM) Christians are. But, yeah, I would generally agree that it is the secular part of society that is preventing these factions from duking it out. No credit whatsoever can be given to monotheism. Before today, the reason monotheistic society was able to work was because one particular religion had conquered large sections of land (Christianity in Europe, Islam in Middle East). But just look what the Protestant Reformation did to Europe! Christianity began dividing into those multiple sects and people started fighting. How much worse would it have been for Europe if there hadn’t been any secular presence?

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    But the kinder and gentler deity who can be teased out of the scriptures through a selective reading of the text is very different from the jealous and vengeful god who so inspired the rigorists in Judaism and Christianity during the early history of monotheism. They imagined God not as a heavenly father, bland and benign, but rather as a cuckolded husband who is so embittered and enraged by the promiscuities of his spouse that he is moved to torture and murder. Indeed, it is the image of the spurned lover – a favorite and even obsessive theme of the angriest biblical prophets, including Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Hosea – that allows us to feel the visceral emotions that drove (and still drive) the most zealous of monotheists to acts of terror and carnage.
    Apostasy and idolatry are the theological equivalent to adultery and harlotry, according to these biblical authors…[cites Ezekiel 16:7–34]”
    — Jonathan Kirsch, God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism

  9. Corvus illustris says

    As far as the Romans went, this was politically useful as they could basically say “look, your god x is the same as our god y” to subject and allied nations …

    The political utility is clear, but this practice was also founded on Roman religion: while they “recognized” other peoples’ deities as identical to their own, it was a part of their belief system not to assume that they “knew the names” of all the gods. So when they took over your country, they were careful to render respect to those of your gods with whom they were not themselves familiar, to the “genius of the place,” etc. If your religion was “old,” the Romans were more respectful of its peculiarities, so they tolerated Jewish monotheism more easily, at least at some times.

  10. shash says

    Both Assmann’s work and the article seem to be filled with poor arguments and cherry picked instances from history. For example:

    “The Torah with its commandments and prohibitions … served as a script for leading one’s life, running one’s business, performing the rituals, ruling the community, in short regulating every aspect of individual and collective existence,” he argues. “This was a new phenomenon in the history of writing as well as that of religion and civilization generally. Never before had writing served such comprehensive functions.”

    All I can say is that he’s never seen a Veda, a Shastra or an Upanishad. Products of a polytheistic (or pantheistic, or monist, or whatever) culture, they definitely prescribe hundreds of intricate commandments, prohibitions, taboos, rituals,… And that’s to say nothing of Confucianism and Shinto!

    A major failing of Assmann’s approach is that it systematically neglects ancient Judaism’s robust moral inclinations toward tolerance and neighborly love. Numerous prescriptions in the Old Testament, known as the Noachide Laws, stress the importance of providing hospitality and succor to strangers. As we read in Leviticus (19:33-34): “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as your self, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” Thus, contra Assmann, lurid tales of plunder, bloodlust, and divine retribution fail to tell the whole story.

    Yes, there are instances of “tolerance and neighbourly love” in the Torah, as indeed, there are similar instances in any religion’s literature. There are also several bloody and violent incidents in most of them, and quite a few more in every religion’s history that’s not necessarily recorded in their scripture. This is hardly a mitigating factor.

    A number of astute critics have also pointed out that, from a social-evolutionary perspective, biblical monotheism represents a significant ethical breakthrough, providing a normative basis for the idea of universal human brotherhood—a characterization diametrically opposed to the “exclusionary” mentality that Assmann considers predominant. Historically, the Exodus parable, which Assmann judges the ur-text of exclusionary monotheism, has served as a foundational narrative of political emancipation: humanity’s deliverance from the injustices of bondage and oppression.

    “Significant ethical breakthrough”? Breakthrough from where? Into what? “Universal human brotherhood” that apparently doesn’t include the Canaanites?

    In Assmann’s view, ultimately it was not the Germans who were responsible for the Holocaust. It was the Jews themselves who were responsible, by virtue of having conceived and implemented a doctrine of “religious exclusivity” whose ultimate historical repercussions could in biblical times only dimly be perceived.

    Now that sounds like an argumentum ad absurdum! Probably a few other fallacies mixed in there as well!

    There’s definitely an argument to be made that Abrahamic monotheism may have caused a good portion of the world’s problems, but Assmann probably goes a bit too far, though we’d have to read his original work (and not somebody’s quotation of his work) to know.

    You can also argue that monotheism vs polytheism is not really the root cause of religious intolerance, but the author of the article doesn’t do that. Instead, he seems to be writing a defence of Biblical monotheism, and comes across as merely sensitive.

  11. brucegee1962 says

    I thought this was an interesting post, but I immediately saw a bunch of holes in Assmann’s theory as presented, so I followed your link and read the original article. The second half of the article and the comments, I thought, did a fairly good job of dismantling many of Assmann’s assumptions.

    His thesis seems to be that Mosaic monotheism has led to totalitarianism and genocide, or at least more of both than would have come about under polytheistic paganism. There are a bunch of problems with this. One is that, if you want to attribute some kind of direct connection, then you also have to assume that the events described in the Pentateuch actually happened – that the ancient Jews really did perform genocidal warfare against the Canaanites, and that they themselves were monotheists while doing so. Both assumptions have been seriously challenged by historians. Also, even if those events did happen, they were a historical flash in the pan – if Israel’s glory days as an independent kingdom really happened, it was for only a few generations before they got smashed by the Babylonians, Assyrians, and Romans, during several centuries in which their monotheism was seen more as a quaint cultural eccentricity than a useful model for justifying monotheistic conquest.

    On the other hand, if you want to say that the pernicious monotheistic model was indirect, then you’ve got some timing issues to deal with. After the Israelite kingdom was no more (assuming it ever existed) it wasn’t till Islam began taking off in the seventh century that you began having monotheists going around again and killing their enemies in the name of the one true God. I don’t know enough about Islam to know how much it’s based on Moses as a source for monotheism, but I know that they don’t read the Pentateuch much. And the earliest that Christianity could be both monotheistic and militaristic was after it became a state religion under Constantine – but really, you’d be hard pressed to find Christian wars designated as holy before the Crusades. So if you’re looking at over fifteen centuries between a cause (Mosaic monotheism) and an effect (the one true God wants me to kill you), I’d say that was a pretty big flaw in your theory.

    Assmann’s theory also assumes that polytheistic religions were less totalitarian and genocidal, which is also dubious. As a comment to the linked article says, “Warfare was always deeply religious, never purely political; all ancient Near Eastern peoples viewed battles between armies as proxy wars between national gods. Atrocity was commonplace, especially between closely-related ethnic groups. The Bible arises out of this world and makes (often ugly) rhetorical use of these tropes; it is not uniquely responsible for introducing them.”

    Finally, Mano says “Of course, few believers really think that they all worship the same god because the idea would be obviously preposterous to even the most naïve believer.”

    This may be true, but it’s nevertheless a belief that’s extremely widespread. At least before 2001, if you asked Christians “Do Christians, Jews, and Moslems all believe in the same God?” I’m sure big a majority would have said yes. It’s something I believed when I was a Christian. Islam teaches that Jesus was one of its prophets. I suppose you can explain this by saying that, once you’ve accepted something as fundamentally nonsensical as a God, it isn’t too hard to give him nonsensical attributes such as manifesting himself in mutually antagonistic forms.

  12. Corvus illustris says

    Finally, Mano says “Of course, few believers really think that they all worship the same god because the idea would be obviously preposterous to even the most naïve believer.”

    This may be true, but it’s nevertheless a belief that’s extremely widespread. At least before 2001, if you asked Christians “Do Christians, Jews, and Moslems all believe in the same God?” I’m sure big a majority would have said yes.

    Well, it follows from uniqueness ;). Of course, the Jews and Moslems would immediately point out that trinitarian Christians are really believers in something else. But Christians (pace St Martin of Tours) have never had a problem with roasting heretics–i.e., persons holding wrong beliefs in the same deity–so still no problems after 2001.

  13. MNb says

    “predominantly political rather than religious”
    This is a false dichotomy. Organized religion is always political in nature. It’s especially a nuisance because the tendency of organized religion to assert itself outside its own domain. That’s the main difference with say a chess club.

    “that the shift to monotheism was actually a bad thing”
    I don’t like this very much either. Bad to what standard? Because it politically destabilized the status quo in the Middle East? I can think of many situations that to my standards are asking for getting destabilized, simply because they suck. And the Roman Empire sucked in quite a few ways – just think of slavery. At least christianity gave the slaves and the other have nots a voice. Of course it didn’t play out too well as soon as christianity became the state religion (and probably not before either) but at the other hand I find the assumption that the Roman Empire was something worth keeping rather absurd.
    This analysis is suffering from a typical American good guy vs. bad guy perspective. It’s very narrowing.”

  14. says

    “There are a bunch of problems with this. One is that, if you want to attribute some kind of direct connection, then you also have to assume that the events described in the Pentateuch actually happened – that the ancient Jews really did perform genocidal warfare against the Canaanites, and that they themselves were monotheists while doing so. Both assumptions have been seriously challenged by historians.”

    If your only history of Judaism is reading the first 5 books, and you reject the historicity within, then it would look like the Jews were ignored eccentricities by the Romans.

    But they weren’t. They were a constant thorn in their side.

    The story of Hannukah is basically the equivalent of modern Islamic terrorists, if Islamic terrorists had actually succeeded. There was a sort of civil war between the more progressive Jews who wanted to assimilate with their surrounding Greeks and the more rigid, monotheistic Jews who wanted their isolation around 150 BC. When this started creating too much tension in the region, the Greeks stepped in and occupied Jerusalem. The more intolerant Jews obviously opposed this, and began a guerrilla warfare campaign against the Greeks until they were ousted, in which they retook the Jewish temple and purged it of all foreign influence/gods. A supposed miracle of oil happened when they relit the candles in the temple and this is where the holiday comes from.

    More intolerance followed.

    As you may or may not know, Jews and Samaritans never got along. Jews say that Samaritans are “heretics”, Samaritans say that Jews are “heretics”. Well, due to Jewish monotheistic intolerance, they really resented having another temple dedicated to YHWH where the Samaritans were at. So after building up enough military clout after ousting the Greeks, the Jews invaded Samaria and annexed their land and destroyed the Samaritan temple. There can only be one!

    More intolerance followed. This time, it led to the destruction of their own temple.

    After sacking Samaria around 110 BC, more tension followed. This time, the Romans – who were now the dominant empire in the land instead of the Greeks – had to step in and occupy Judea. This ended the Hasmonean era of the history of Judea that came into power at Hannukah and it became a province of the Roman empire put under the care of Herod the Great (yes, that Herod that supposedly killed a massive number of babies in Matthew) around 40 BC.

    Again, a large number of Jews resented foreign occupation and little skirmishes broke out over the next 100 or so years (read the Jewish writings on Pilate, a totally different character than how he’s portrayed in Christianity). This was the time period of a bunch of messiah claimants, who were attempting in some form or another to emulate Moses or the Joshua of the Canaanite conquests (note: Jesus and Joshua are the same exact name), all written about by the Jewish historian Josephus. Also during this time there was a lot of tension between Jews and Greeks and Philo was tasks with appealing to the Roman emperor on behalf of the Jews in Alexandria over skirmishes between Jews and Greeks there.

    Eventually, apparently a Greek made a sacrifice to one of their gods in or around the Jewish temple, and this pissed off the Jews (again, monotheism!) and started the 1st Jewish war with Rome around 66 AD, which led to the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 (ironically, I think this event led to the popularity of Christianity). But that didn’t deter these monotheists at all. They again started a minor war with Rome trying to take back the area around 110 AD and then again around 132 AD. The one in 132 AD is the success of Simon Bar Kokhba. He reigned in Israel from 133 – 135 AD until the Romans enacted a scorched-earth policy and took it back over. The Romans then renamed the area Syria-Palestinia (Palestine) because they hoped that renaming the area would prevent the Jewish zeal for sacred space (due to monotheism) and that was the last time Jews had ruled that area until the UN mandate after WWII.

  15. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    The achievements of the Muslim scholars have been much overrated. They did salvage much of hellenistic science, but their own contributions are rather thin on the ground, and mostly come from Baghdad. It was more or less openly a secular business city, not a religious hotbed like Mecca. Most of the administration was run by Persians, not Arabs.

    As for the Dark Age… depends on what period you mean. Much of the “stultification of scientific inquiry” happened after the Catholic Church had taken a firm control of the society in late middle ages. Ironically, the canonisation of Aristotle’s texts as the Final Word on Science (“Scholasticism”) was possible only because the Muslims had provided copies of his books.

  16. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    There are two kinds of polytheism. If you see spirits everywhere, and believe they control your life continuously (e.g. animism or ancestor worship), then monotheism is an improvement. At least you attribute only major problems in your life to your god, and are free to handle lesser things on your own.

    On the other hand, you can remain a polytheist and grow out of animism, like the ancient Greeks had. They still paid lip service to their traditional gods, but their authority was decliming. The great philosophers were in practise pantheists or even atheists. Forcing them to monotheism was not an improvement. Quite the opposite happened: the monotheists adopted their ideas as a part of Scholasticism.

    BTW, the Catholics have returned to polytheism. Saints are a form on ancestor worship. And angels aren’t that far away from spirits…

  17. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    One advantage of monotheism, as A. H. Clough pointed out:

    Thou shalt have one god only. Who
    Would be at the expense of two?

  18. brucegee1962 says

    Fair enough. I don’t think we have major disagreement here. I wasn’t trying to say that many (though as you point out, not all) of the Jews weren’t fanatics who would dearly have loved to set up their own theocratic state and oppress or exterminate all neighboring religions — just that, through most of recorded history, they were rather spectacularly unsuccessful at doing so.

    Thanks for the history lesson.

  19. says

    Overrated? The majority of the arts and works of the Greeks only exist today because the Muslims preserved them in Arabic while western Europe turned out the lights in their brains…this is overrated? The preservation of Aristotle, Plato, Aristarchus, Erastothenes, Pythagoras…is overrated? The works of Maimonides and Avicenna – both Muslims – are overrated?

    Your blithe dismissal belies a profound ignorance of history and is deeply insulting. Insulting to the Arabs, to the Muslims, to the ancient Greeks, and to every human being on the planet who has benefited (and in countless cases expanded upon) from the Muslim and Arabic preservation work for the last millenium.

  20. naturalcynic says

    Mosheh ben Maimonwas definitely a Sephardic Jew [born in Spain], working as a physician and philosopher for Muslims in a rather open and tolerant societies in Cairo and Marocco.
    The ruin of the intellectual and secular Baghdad can be laid at the feet of Hamid al-Ghazali around 1100 CE and the Mongols around 1250 CE.

  21. naturalcynic says

    And the earliest that Christianity could be both monotheistic and militaristic was after it became a state religion under Constantine – but really, you’d be hard pressed to find Christian wars designated as holy before the Crusades.

    How do you think that Carolus Magnus [Charlemagne] became so magnus? By conquering various pagan Germanic tribes. After the battles, he did that by literally giving tens of thousands of them a choice of baptism or beheading. And quite a few of them it was baptism before beheading.

  22. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    You seem to have stopped reading my comment at the first period. You may now proceed to the next one.

  23. shash says

    Frankly, I think they’re significantly underrated… Obviously they took a lot from the Greeks (and quite a bit from India, too). This in no way diminishes their accomplishments. Apart from Avicenna, who was already mentioned, think of the work they did in cartography – inheriting Aristotle’s maps is not nearly enough to account for it. Or mathematics – al-Kindi was probably the first true cryptanalyst. They made several original contributions in their own right, quite apart from the preserving and interpreting of Greek, Babylonian, Persian and Indian works.

    Yes, it was mostly in Baghdad – a far more cosmopolitan city than, for example, Mecca. There’s a reason that Mecca was not a capital of the Islamic empire for very long. But most of the scientists themselves were “devout” Muslims (probably in the same way that there are several devout religious scientists in today’s world). What this demonstrates is that there’s probably no link between the monotheism/polytheism divide and scientific accomplishment.

    We could be here all year debating the individual accomplishments of medieval Islamic science, but that’s not the point of this thread…

  24. shash says

    Not necessarily. It’s quite possible to stop with one!

    Check out the Ajivika and Caravaka systems in India. Both are materialistic, and one openly atheistic. They both evolved from polytheism…

    There are also systems that are atheistic but still filled with woo (objectivism for example). Don’t make the mistake of thinking that progression is linear!

  25. JJH says

    “Is monotheism worse than polytheism?”

    Well, I don’t know and I certainly wouldn’t base my opinion on the basis of a review of a non-peer reviewed book in a non-historical journal. When the author of the review presents as (at least what appears to me) established fact that their were Jews held captive in Egypt for 400 years (love to see the evidence on that), and the author of the book has never published any of his thesis in any reputable peer reviewed historical journals, I must reserve judgement. I also must cast serious doubt on what both the author of the book and the reviewer present (if you have a great argument or a great rebuttal, there are reputable historical journals to publish them in. Which also leads to me ask, how did the “The Chronicle of Higher Education” decide it would be appropriate to publish a book review based on historical evidence in an education journal? I wonder if they would do the same thing if a physicist submitted a review of a pop “string theory” book?)

  26. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    “We could be here all year debating the individual accomplishments of medieval Islamic science, but that’s not the point of this thread…”

    Agreed. But I’ll still add a note…

    The reason why I don’t rate them highly is that very little of their results have survived the test of time. The model of the world that they inherited from Hellenism was all wrong – there are more than four elements, the Earth circles the Sun, life is not a force, etc. Hellenistic science (and its descendant, Scholastics) was a dead end, but nobody was brave enough to doubt it, because it was the Canon. Most of Galilei’s experiments could have been done in Baghdad centuries before.

    The only field where ancient science is still relevant is mathematics. It is based on axioms, not observations, which makes it timeless. If there is one major scientific result that is truly Muslim, it is frequency analysis. It was developed to analyse the authorship of the Koran, but it was also used to crack encryption.

  27. shash says

    Hmm… Here’s how I’d put it: They could have accomplished quite a bit more if they weren’t stopped when they were. Same with most other scientific movements in history (1st millennium India, Song dynasty in China and the Ionian Greeks for example). The only reason the Renaissance and post-Renaissance movements held on was (relative) political stability. The fact that their work was badly cut short the way it was shouldn’t reflect on their real accomplishments, in my opinion.

    Besides, don’t leave out medicine! Yes, not perfect by today’s standards, but extremely advanced compared to what much of the world was doing at the time. It’s also a core foundation of our current medical system, which couldn’t have been built without their observational system. Or chemistry – they were the first to call alchemy humbug, and it was their tradition that went back to Europe.

  28. Mano Singham says

    It is almost impossible to predict what the Chronicle will and will not publish! Almost anything goes as long as it has even the most tenuous connection to academia.

  29. Pierce R. Butler says

    brucegee1962 @ # 10: … it wasn’t till Islam began taking off in the seventh century that you began having monotheists going around again and killing their enemies in the name of the one true God.

    I kinda suspect that Ikhnaton felt it necessary to knock in a few heads for (mono-)theological purposes.

    And you might want to read up on the Zoroastrians sometime.

    Then there was this other sect, the Anointed-One-ians, or something silly like that, whose (known) record of bloodshed-for-blessings began with the poisoning of Arius at the First Council of Nicaea …

  30. Corvus illustris says

    Not necessarily. It’s quite possible to stop with one!

    Your comment indicates that the culture that “discovered” zero also found it possible to stop with zero.

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