Religious Pluralism and Tolerance in the Roman Empire?

roman.jpgNOTE:This article is reprinted with permission from As I See It, a monthly electronic magazine compiled and edited by Doug Kutilek. AISI is sent free to all who request it by writing to the editor at dkutilek@juno.com.

Edward Gibbon, (1737-1794), famous for his monumental work, On the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published between 1776-1788, famously stated, concerning the diversity of religions in the vast Roman Empire and how they were viewed by different classes of people—

The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.

He then added, “And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord” (Chapter 2, paragraph 2).

The first part of the quotation is remarkably perceptive of human nature—not just in Roman times but in our day as well—and its approach to religion: for the common man, the unstated hope is that every religion of whatever sort, including whatever “mine” may be, is equally valid and “good enough” to square things with God. Such a religious egalitarianism saves a lot of trouble that would result if, in fact, only some religions—or even just one—were correct and true and others false and deceptive. The “sincerity” of the worshipper (and a not too rigid “sincerity” at that!) alone is the hoped-for criterion for the validity of one’s religion. That is why the only intolerable religious tenet in the eyes of the common man is the claim of unique possession of religious truth—to claim that biblical Christianity alone is true is to necessarily claim that Romanism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and the rest are essentially false, invalid, and untrue. Such a claim is an “affront” to the notions of the average man.

Further, returning to Gibbon’s remark, we note that the philosophers (today we might say, “the intelligentsia”) in turn in general look down their proud noses at all religion without distinction with smug disdain, considering all such belief as evidence of the contemptible stupidity of the masses. The recent book by British scientist/atheist Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, is a typical example. Perhaps rather than exposing the stupidity of the masses, Dawkins has more successfully exposed his own remarkable arrogance. And be it noted, that to denounce that which is false and invalid in religions (and there is much that is false and invalid) is not the same as demonstrating that everything about every religion is false or that because many religions are more or less equally false, therefore all are equally false.

And finally, Gibbons focused on politicians’ pandering to the masses in the matter of religion—“and by the magistrate as equally useful.” Nothing is more contemptible, more disgusting, more nauseating than a profane, wholly secularized politician seeking to curry favor with the religious masses by adopting religious terminology, making patently bogus claims of deep personal faith, and “talking the talk”—or at least trying to—not out of a sincere and devout heart but merely for gaining political power. We have seen this practice on the left: Al Gore in 2000, Hillary Clinton at present; and on the right: John McCain and others. Of course, in the world of religion, there is nothing worse than a pretender—“hypocrite” is a very ugly word. Beyond pandering politicians in democracies, political rulers, especially in tyrannical regimes, have frequently made common cause with religious hierarchies to manipulate, subvert, and control the masses. Under Soviet communism, for example, the state churches of Russia and the rest of the eastern bloc countries were used to suppress and domineer the masses and to compel them to submit to the totalitarian state. National church hierarchies were useful as a means to an end—power.

Thus far, Gibbon was remarkably perceptive. However, the final portion of his statement, affirming that “toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord,” somewhat misses the mark. While the various polytheistic, pagan religions of the empire did enjoy a certain “mutual indulgence” and “religious concord,” that is only because they were merely variations on the same pagan themes—many gods, worshipped via idols, who were remote, arbitrary, and indulgent towards human sin (indeed, often practitioners of the same) and who could be counted on in the end to be non-judgmental and really not very demanding of their adherents. But let a religion claim exclusive possession of religious truth or make claims as the sole means to a proper relationship with deity, and the smiling tolerance becomes a raging intolerance. Judaism claimed to believe in and worship the only true and living God, and the Hebrew Scriptures claimed to be uniquely a revelation of God to man. The more strictly the Jews adhered to these valid claims, the more hated they were in Roman society. And when Christianity began making exclusive claims as the fulfillment and completion of the revelation begun in the Old Testament, the Christians endured the anger, hatred, repression, and persecution of both religious Jew and pagan Gentile. I think particularly of the town riot in Ephesus (Acts 19). It was Paul’s assertion that “gods made with hands are no gods at all” (v. 26, NASB), and the exclusive truth claims of Christianity that made the Christians the most hated religious sect in the empire resulted in persecutions, imprisonments, exiles, torture, and executions.

Mutual religious indulgence in ancient Rome or in modern America can work only if no one claims to possess absolute truth in regard to God—it is “exclusivism” that the pluralists object to, and for obvious reason: they know deep in their souls that they don’t have the truth, and this fact must surely frighten them in their most introspective moments; they cannot bear the thought that someone else might indeed have THE TRUTH. So they console themselves by presuming that since they possess no absolute truth, no one has such truth, and indeed there is no such objective truth to have. Further, no one must be allowed to claim they do have that truth. Such people are much more comfortable with “Agnostos Theos” (“an unknown god”) than with “I am the way and the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father except through Me,” even if they suspect the latter is true.

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Doug Kutilek is editor of www.kjvonly.org, a website dedicated to exposing and refuting the many errors of KJVOism, and has been researching and writing about Bible texts and versions for more than 35 years. He has a B.A. in Bible from Baptist Bible College (Springfield, MO), an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Hebrew Union College (Cincinnati), and a Th.M. in Bible exposition from Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). A professor in several Bible institutes, college, graduate schools, and seminaries, he edits a monthly cyber-journal, As I See It. The father of four grown children and four granddaughters, he and his wife, Naomi, live near Wichita, Kansas.

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