If somebody would keep a tab of the discontinuities/differences/incompatibilities/incommensurabilities between the judeo-christian and the Greek component of western thought, that person would certainly be compelled to put on the list the attitude towards the religion of other peoples.
The judeo-christian attitude is complex but it can be said with some quantum of truth that these two not so welcoming aspects have prominence:
1. Understanding the gods of the others as false
- this constructs the other as gentile/infidel/heretic
2. Understanding the gods of the others as (our) demons
- this produces the image of the other as a 'Satan lover' or demon-worshiper - this aspect is especially strong in Christianity.
I am now reading in between my other readings, purely for pleasure, the Histories of Herodotus (yes I'm weird - I actually enjoy reading them) and I was struck about his presentation of the religion of the Egyptians which contains a very different approach.
Here are a couple of passages that have caught my attention:
The Greeks tell many tales without due investigation, and among them the following silly fable respecting Hercules:- "Hercules," they say, "went once to Egypt, and there the inhabitants took him, and putting achaplet on his head, led him out in solemn procession, intending to offer him a sacrifice to Jupiter. For a while he submitted quietly; but when they led him up to the altar and began the ceremonies, he put forth his strength and slew them all." Now to me it seems that such a story proves the Greeks to be utterly ignorant of the character and customs of the people. The Egyptians do not think it allowable even to sacrifice cattle, excepting sheep, and the male kine and calves, provided they be pure, and also geese. How, then, can it be believed that they would sacrifice men? And again, how would it have been possible for Hercules alone, and, as they confess, a mere mortal, to destroy so many thousands? In saying thus much concerning these matters, may I incur no displeasure either of god or hero!Here is rundown of a couple of things I found interesting and surprising about this account:
- using the ritual logic of the other's religion to criticize your own religion's myth about the wrongness of the other's religion (cf. the Heracles episode)
- that religions have a history
- that similarities in ritual structure are not mere coincidences but are indicative of relationships between two religions
- that religions are transmitted by people being in contact with each other
- that names of deities can indicate their cultural/historical origin
Beyond all this, I think that by far the most interesting thing is that this relativistic and historicist attitude does not lead to a pessimistic conclusion about the validity of religion.
In modernity historicism has been deployed to show that because religions have a history of transmission they are just human activities, creating a kind of 'nothing godly to see here folks, just humans doing their thing' attitude.
Herodotus does not share this intuition at all and because of this he is no modern avant la lettre. For him, showing that Greek religion is historically related to the Egyptian actually augments its validity and truth. It serves as a confirmation in the sense of 'look they believe it too so it must be true.' In Herodotus' sense, showing that a religion is isolated and unique would actually be a skeptical argument.