Polytheism and Moral Relativity in the Ancient World
One of the beliefs of nearly all ancient peoples was that the world was created and ruled by many gods. There was a god for the wind, a god for the ocean, a god for the rain. People who believed in many gods are called polytheists. Polytheists believed that if you wanted something, you could make a sacrifice to a god, and this god would then give it to you. If you wanted it to rain, you might kill an animal and burn it to make the rain god happy. Sadly, some polytheists sacrificed other humans, even children, to their gods. Human sacrifice happened on every continent in the ancient world.
Polytheists did not believe that there was a clear right and wrong for everyone. Since there were many gods, and sometimes the gods would compete with each other, what was right depended many times on what the ruler said was right. In Egypt, in ancient Africa, the leader was called pharaoh, and all Egyptians had to consider pharaoh a god. For the pharaoh, right was whatever made him strong. This meant that if the pharaoh believed killing someone made him strong, it was right. What was moral, right and wrong, was relative to the Egyptians. It depended on the person making the judgment what was considered right and wrong.
The Hebrews, Monotheism, and Morality
The Hebrews are considered the moral founders of western civilization. Western civilization refers to civilizations that have shared ideas and beliefs such as the idea that there is one God, that all people are created equal, and that all people should be treated equally by the law. Hebrews were the world’s first monotheists, which means they believed in only one God.
The Hebrews believed in morality, the idea that there is a right and wrong for all people. Hebrews taught that all people lived under God’s creation and were ruled by the same truth. We can also call this a moral order. Sometime around 1300 B.C., Hebrews believe God gave the Hebrews a set of laws to live by. Called the Mosaic Law, it is one of the first set of written laws that deals with relationships, placing importance on respecting parents and helping those in need. In the Mosaic Law, right and wrong is not a matter of feelings and emotions, but of justice and goodness.
Western Civilization, Morality, and Homosexual Marriage
Homosexual marriage was forbidden in all countries of the world from the beginning of civilization to 2001. In both the polytheistic and monotheistic societies, there was no such thing as homosexual marriage. However, in 2001, the Netherlands legalized homosexual marriage, and, Ireland recently legalized it, as well. Many in the United States of America and in countries of Europe are arguing that homosexuals should be allowed to marry. Their main arguments are, “If two people love each other, why shouldn’t they be allowed to marry?” and, “Who are we to tell someone that homosexual marriage is wrong, if that is the way they feel?”
The movement away from a society based on morality, justice, and goodness, to one based on individual and relative emotions and feeling marks a monumental change in how polytheistic and monotheistic civilizations have understood what is right and what is wrong. There is no historical precedence for it, and there are many problems that arise out of this understanding of what is good for society. Will polygamy be possible, if three or more people want to marry each other? Will children in schools have to be taught that homosexual marriage is healthy for individuals and society? If two people feel it is alright to murder each other, does this make it right? What happens when we base a society on individual feelings and emotions?
1. How did polytheistic societies determine what was right and wrong?
2. How did the Hebrews determine what is right and wrong?
3. What are two reasons proponents of homosexual marriage give to support legalizing homosexual marriage?
4. Before 2001, which society of the world legalized homosexual marriage?
5. Why do you think many Americans believe homosexual marriage should be legalized?