Monotheism: A Cross-Cultural Impediment?

nemrutAn Egyptologist, Jan Assmann argues in his 1997 work, “Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism,” that monotheism has been the single most important impediment to cross-cultural translation, communication and understanding, and, for this reason, the single most influential source of negativity and intolerance. According to Assmann, it is only with monotheism that we encounter the phenomenon of a “counter-religion”, by which he means a religious formation that posits a distinction between true and false religion. Before the emergence of monotheism, the boundaries between polytheistic cults were in principle open. Translatability is readily grounded in a general function attributed to divinities whose work in nature shows a correspondence. “The polytheistic religions overcame the primitive ethnocentrism of tribal religions by distinguishing several deities by name, shape and function,” Assmann writes, “the names are of course different (…) But the functions are strikingly similar” [so that] “the sun god of one religion is easily equated to the sun god of another religion. In contrast, monotheism, because revealed and not grounded in nature, erects a rigid boundary between true religion and everything else. Whereas polytheism (…) rendered different cultures mutually transparent and compatible, the new counter-religion blocked inter-cultural translatability. False gods cannot be translated.” (Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).


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