A Defense of the Ancient Greek Pagan Religion

In a previous post on the topic of mythos and logos, I discussed the evolution of ancient Greek thought from its origins in imaginative legends about gods to the development of reason, philosophy, and logic. Today, every educated human being knows about the contributions of Socrates, Plato, Euclid, and Pythagoras. But the ancient Greek religion appears to us as an embarrassment, something to be passed over in silence or laughed at. Indeed, it is difficult to read about the enormous plethora of Greek gods and goddesses and the ludicrous stories about their various activities without wondering how Greek civilization ever managed to accomplish the great things it accomplished while it was so mired in superstition.

I am not going to defend ancient Greek superstition. But I will say this: Greek religion was much more than mere superstition — it was about devotion to a greater good. According to the German scholar Werner Jaeger,”Areté was the central ideal of all Greek culture.” (Paideia: The Ideal of Greek Culture, Vol. I, p. 15). The word areté means “excellence,” and although in early Greek history it referred primarily to the virtues of the warrior-hero, by the time of Homer areté referred more broadly to all types of excellence. Areté was rooted in the mythos of ancient Greece, in the epic poetry of Hesiod and Homer, with the more philosophical logos emerging later.

This devotion of the Greeks to a greater good was powerful, even fanatical. Religion was so absolutely central to Greek life, that this ancient pre-industrial civilization spent enormous sums of money on temples, statues, and religious festivals, at a time when long hours of hard physical labor were necessary simply to keep from starving. However, at the same time, Greek religion was remarkably loose and liberal in it’s set of beliefs — there was not a single accepted doctrine, a written set of rules, or even a single sacred text, similar to the Torah, Bible, or Quran. The Greeks freely created a plethora of gods and stories about the gods and revised the stories as they wished. But the Greeks did insist upon the fundamental reality of a greater good and complete devotion to it. I will argue that this devotion was responsible for the enormous contributions of ancient Greece, and that a completely secular, rational Greece would not have accomplished nearly as much.

In order to understand my defense of ancient Greek religion, I think it is important to recognize that there are different types of knowledge. There is knowledge of natural causation and knowledge of history; but there is also esthetic knowledge (knowledge of the beautiful); moral knowledge; and knowledge of the proper goals and ends of human life. Greek religion failed in understanding natural causation and history, but often succeeded in these latter forms of knowledge. Greek religion was never merely a set of statements about the origins and history of the universe and the operations of nature. Rather, Greek religion was characterized by a number of other qualities. Greek religion was experiential, symbolic, celebratory, practical, and teleological. Let’s look at each of these features more closely.

Experiential. In order to understand Greek religion — or any religion, actually — one has to do more than simply absorb a set of statements of belief. One has to experience the presence of a greater good.



The first picture above is of a 40-feet tall statue of the Greek goddess Athena in a life-size recreation of the ancient Greek Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee. The second picture is a depiction of the probable appearance of the statue of Zeus at the Temple of Zeus in the sanctuary of Olympia, Greece, the site of the Olympic games.

Contrary to popular belief, Greek statues were not all white, but often painted in vivid colors, and sometimes adorned with gold, ivory, and precious stones. The size and beauty of the temple statues was meant to convey grandeur, and that is precisely the effect that they had. The statue of Zeus at Olympia has been listed among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. A Roman general who once saw the statue of Zeus declared that he “was moved to his soul, as if he had seen the god in person.” The Greek orator and philosopher Dio Chrysostom declared that a single glimpse of the statue of Zeus would make a man forget all his earthly troubles.

Symbolic. When the Greeks created sculptures of their gods, they were not really aiming for an accurate depiction of what their gods “really” looked like. The gods were spirits or powers; the gods were responsible for creating forms, and could appear in any form they wished, but in themselves gods had no human form. Indeed, in one myth, Zeus was asked by a mortal to reveal his true form; but Zeus’s true form was a thunderbolt, so when Zeus appeared as a thunderbolt, he incinerated the unfortunate person. Rather than depict the gods “realistically,” Greek sculptors sought to depict the gods symbolically, as the most beautiful human forms imaginable, male or female. These are metaphorical or analogical depictions, using personification to represent the gods.

I am not going to argue that all Greek religion was metaphorical — clearly, most Greeks believed in the gods as real, actual personalities. But there was a strong metaphorical aspect to Greek religious thought, and it is often difficult even for scholars to tell what parts of Greek religion were metaphorical and what parts were literal. For example, we know that the Greeks actually worshiped certain virtues and desired goods, such as “Peace,” “Victory,” “Love,” “Democracy,” “Health,” “Order,” and “Wealth.” The Greeks used personal forms to represent these virtues, and created statues, temples, and alters dedicated to them, but they did not see the virtues as literal personalities. Some of this symbolic representation of virtues survives to this day: the blindfolded Lady Justice, the statue of Freedom on the top of the U.S. Capitol building, and the Statue of Liberty are several personifications widely recognized in modern America. Some scholars have suggested that the main Greek gods began as personifications (i.e., “Zeus” was the personification of the sky) but that over time the gods came to be seen as full-fledged personalities. However, the lack of written records from the early periods in Greek history make it impossible to confirm or refute this claim.

Celebratory. Religion is often seen as a strict and solemn affair, and although Greek religion had some of these aspects, there was a strong celebratory aspect to Greek religion. The Greeks not only wanted to thank the gods for life and food and drink and love, they wanted to demonstrate their thanks and celebrate through feasts, festivals, and holidays. Indeed, it is probably the case that the only time most Greeks ate meat was after a ritual sacrifice of cattle or other livestock at the altar of a god. (Greek Religion, ed. Daniel Ogden, p. 402) In ancient Athens, about half of the days in the calendar were devoted to religious festivals and each god or goddess often had more than one festival.  The most famous religious festival was the festival devoted to Zeus, held every four years at the sanctuary of Olympia. The Greeks visited the temple of Zeus and prayed to their god — but also held games, celebrated the victors, and enjoyed feasts. The Greeks also held festivals devoted to the god Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy. Drink, music, theater, and dancing played a central role in Dionysian festivals.

Practical. When I was doing research on Greek religion, I came across a fascinating discussion on how the Greeks performed animal sacrifice. Allegedly, when the animals were slaughtered, the Greeks were obligated to share a portion of the animal with the gods by burning it on the altar. However, when the Greeks butchered the animal, they reserved all the meat for themselves and sacrificed only the bones, covered with a deceptive layer of fat, for the gods. It’s hard not to be somewhat amused by this. Why would the powerful, all-knowing gods be satisfied with the useless, inedible portions of an animal, while the Greeks kept the best parts for themselves? The Greeks even had a myth to justify this practice: allegedly Prometheus fooled Zeus into accepting the bones and fat, and from that original act, all future sacrifices were similarly justified. As devoted to the gods as the Greeks were, they were also practical; in a primitive society, meat was a rare and expensive commodity for most. Sacrifice was a symbolic act of devotion to the gods, but the Greeks were not prepared to go hungry by sacrificing half of their precious meat.

And what of prayer to the gods? Clearly, the Greeks prayed to the gods and asked favors of them. But prayer never stopped or even slowed Greek achievements in art, architecture, athletics, philosophy, and mathematics. No Greek ever entered the Olympic games fat and out-of-shape, hoping that copious prayers and sacrifices to Zeus would help him win the games. No Greek ever believed that one did not have to train hard for war, that prayers to their deity would suffice to save their city from destruction at the hands of an enemy. Nor did the Greeks expect incompetent agriculture or engineering would be saved by prayer. The Greeks sought inspiration, strength, and assistance from the gods, but they did not believe that prayer would substitute for their personal shortcomings and neglect.

Teleological (goal-oriented). In a previous essay, I discussed the role of teleology — explanation in terms of goals or purpose — in accounting for causation. Although modern science has largely dismissed teleological causation in favor of efficient causation, I argued that teleological, or goal-oriented, causation could have a significant role in understanding (1) the long-term development of the universe and (2) the behavior of life forms. In a teleological perspective, human beings are not merely the end result of chemical or atomic mechanisms — humans are able to partially transcend the parts they are made of and work toward certain goals or ends that they choose.

We misunderstand Greek religion when we think of it as being merely a collection of primitive beliefs about natural causation that has been superseded by science. The gods were not merely causal agents of thunderstorms, earthquakes, and plagues. They were representations of areté , idealized forms of human perfection that inspired and guided the Greeks. In the pantheon of major Greek gods, only one (Poseidon) is associated solely with natural causation, being responsible for the seas and for earthquakes. Eight of the gods were associated primarily with human qualities, activities, and institutions — love, beauty, music, healing, music, war, hunting, wisdom, marriage, childbirth, travel, language, and the home. Three gods were associated with both natural causation and human qualities, Zeus being responsible for thunder and lightning, as well as law and justice. The Greeks also honored and worshiped mortal heroes, extraordinary persons who founded a city, overthrew a tyrant, or won a war. Inventors, poets, and athletes were worshiped as well, not because they had the powers of the gods, but because they were worthy of emulation and were sources of inspiration. (“Heroes and Hero Cults,” Greek Religion, ed. Daniel Ogden, pp. 100-14)

At this point, you may well ask, can’t we devote ourselves to the goal of excellence by using reason? There is no need to read about myths and appeal to invisible superbeings that do not exist in order to pursue excellence. This argument is partly true, but it must be pointed out that reason in itself is an insufficient guide to what goods we should be devoted to. Esthetics, imagination, and faith provide us with goals that reason by itself can’t provide. Reason is a superb tool for thinking, but it is not an all-purpose tool.

You can see the limitations of pure reason in modern, secular societies. People don’t really spend much time thinking about the greater goods they should pursue, so they fall into the trap of materialism. Religion is considered a private affair, so it is not taught in public schools, and philosophy is considered a waste of time. So people tend to borrow their life goals from their surrounding culture and peer groups; from advertisers on television and the Internet; and from movie stars and famous musicians. People end up worshiping money, technology, and celebrities; they know those things are “real” because they are material, tangible, and because their culture tells them these things are important. But this worship without religion is only a different form of irrationality and superstition. As “real” as material goods are, they only provide temporary satisfaction, and there is never an amount of money or a house big enough or a car fancy enough or a celebrity admirable enough to bring us lasting happiness.

What the early Greeks understood is that reason in itself is a weak tool for directing the passions — only passions, rightly-ordered, can rule other passions. The Greeks also knew that excellence and beauty were real, even if the symbolic forms used to represent these realities were imprecise and imperfect. Finally, the Greeks understood that faith had causal potency — not in the sense that prayers could prevent an earthquake or a plague, but in the sense that attaining the heights of human achievement was possible only by total and unwavering commitment to a greater good, reinforced by ritual and habit. For the Greeks, reality was a work-in-progress: it didn’t consist merely of static “things” but of human possibilities and potential, the ability to be more than ourselves, to be greater than ourselves. However we want to symbolize it, devotion to a greater good is the first step to realizing that good. When we skip the first step, devotion, we shouldn’t be surprised when we fail to attain it.

Religion as a Source of Evil – Part 2

In a previous post, I critically examined the claim of contemporary atheists that religion, and more broadly a lack of reason, has been a predominant cause of evil in history.  In response, I argued that evil in religion was an expression of deeper causes rooted in human nature, so abolishing religion would not address the fundamental problem of evil.  In addition, I argued that reason itself could not be a solution to evil because reason was too easily used as a tool of self-interest.  However, even after accounting for the deeper causes of evil, there remained a difficult question: what good is religion if it does not actually make human beings better?

This question faced one Christian pastor who was horrified by the easy accommodation of Christian churches in Germany to the Nazi party in the 1930s: Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Bonhoeffer’s response to the tragic development of Christianity in Germany will be examined briefly here.

Contrary to the claims of many atheists, the Christian churches in Germany were not exactly steadfast allies of the Nazis.  Leading Nazis despised Christanity because of its alleged superstitions and it’s compassion for the weak, and in the long term Hitler wanted to abolish Christianity.  However, Hitler knew he could not undertake too many battles at once and he did not want to cause division and turmoil in Germany while he needed national unity.  On the other hand, the Christian churches, while opposed to a number of elements of Nazi doctrine, wanted to survive, and largely agreed with Hitler’s policy of restoring German greatness.  So both sides struck a bargain, in which the Nazis permitted the continued existence of the churches as long as they did not challenge the secular authority of Hitler and the Nazis.  Moreover, a “German Christian” movement arose which attempted to reconcile Christianity and Nazism.

A number of leading Christians rebelled at this corrupt bargain, among them Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the founders of the anti-Nazi Confessing Church.  Bonhoeffer initially attempted peaceful resistance to the Nazis, later fled to the United States, but then returned to Germany in 1939.  Bomhoeffer made contacts with anti-Nazi resisters in German military intelligence, some of whom were involved in various assassination plots against Hitler.  When this underground movement was discovered, Bonhoeffer, already imprisoned by the Nazis, was hanged in April 1945.

In historical retrospect, Bonhoeffer is recognized as being one of the few Christian leaders in Germany who bravely resisted the Nazis and was willing to sacrifice his life for his Christian ideas.  As such Bonhoeffer is an inspiration to many, but it’s impossible to recognize the other side of the Bonhoeffer phenomenon — the fact that he was a definite minority, that most German Christians went along with the Nazis willingly and even participated in some of the Nazis’ greatest crimes.  This problem plagued Bonhoeffer’s conscience and provoked him to write a number of letters and essays espousing a newly reformed Christianity he called “religionless Christianity.”

Fundamental to Bonhoeffer’s argument was a concept he adopted from Karl Barth, that of “religion as idolatry.”  Idolatry, according to Barth and Bonhoeffer, occurs when human beings reject the “infinite qualitative distinction” between the absolute goodness of God and the flawed nature of man, and instead worship a god that is created in the image of man.  Under idolatry, human beings worship themselves, their nations, their political parties, and their churches, claiming that these human organizations speak for God or are carrying out God’s will, even when the greatest of crimes are being committed.  In his posthumously published Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer noted, “. . .my fear and distrust of ‘religiosity’ have become greater than ever here.  The fact that the Israelites never uttered the name of God always makes me think, and I can understand it better as I go on.”

It is important to note that Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” was not  a rejection of faith in God and Christ but a rejection of attempts to claim divine status for ordinary humans and human institutions.  In Bonhoeffer’s view, we don’t need the institutions of religion, which are easily subverted and perverted for evil purposes.  We simply need faith in God, worship, and prayer.  The church itself is secondary and not nearly as important as the individual’s relationship to God.

For Bonhoeffer, “religionless Christianity” was in part an attempt to make the best of a bad situation.  With progress in the sciences and technology making the universe more understandable and life easier to endure, human beings no longer needed God to explain certain mysteries or to cope with suffering.  According to Bonhoeffer, man was “grown up” and could solve many of his problems with technology.  It was no use invoking a “God of the gaps” to account for the remaining problems of humankind, because science could well eventually solve many of those problems as well.

What science and technology could not solve, however, was mankind itself and its tendency to evil, especially when acting in social organizations.  The Nazis excelled with science and technology — they built cutting-edge weapons such as jets and rockets, and their extermination camps were highly efficient in murdering millions at the lowest possible cost.  Man could conquer nature, but how was man to conquer himself?  Christianity in Germany should have been able to address this problem, but the churches only sought self-preservation, and the worship of God was perverted into worship of the German nation and the Fuhrer.  The core meaning of Christianity was lost.  Only the shell of Christianity, in the form of the rituals and the churches, remained.

What was the core meaning of Christianity?  In Bonhoeffer’s view, Christianity was fundamentally about attaining a new life by existing for others and participating in the sufferings of Jesus.  In Bonhoeffer’s words:  “It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life. . . . The ‘religious act’ is always something partial; ‘faith’ is something whole, involving the whole of one’s life.  Jesus calls men, not to a new religion, but to life.”

Bonhoeffer’s view of the future of the Christian Church was quite radical.  In his notes for a book he was writing while in prison, he wrote:

The church is the church only when it exists for others.  To make a start, it should give away all its property to those in need.  The clergy must live solely on the free-will offerings of their congregations, or possibly engage in some secular calling.  The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving.  It must tell men of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others.  In particular, our own church will have to take the field against the vices of hubris, power-worship, envy, and humbug, as the roots of all evil.  It will have to speak of moderation, purity, trust, loyalty, constancy, patience, discipline, humility, contentment, and modesty.  It must not under-estimate the importance of human example (which has its origin in the humanity of Jesus and is so important in Paul’s teaching); it is not abstract argument, but example, that gives its word emphasis and power.

Bonhoeffer’s views would probably appeal today to people who reject the label “Christian” and instead call themselves “followers of Jesus.”  These people are unhappy with the narrow-mindedness of many Christian churches and their involvement in politics; many of these “followers of Jesus” do not even go to church.  But they are drawn to Jesus’s teachings and the example of his love and self-sacrifice.

As for myself, I find a lot of merit to Bonhoeffer’s view of “religionless Christianity.”  But I also see several obstacles to its widespread adoption.  For one, Bonhoeffer’s vision does not appeal to those outside the Christian faith.  Bonhoeffer was fairly insistent that the Christian faith was not just another religion, but in fact a replacement for all religions.  God revealed himself in Christ, and that was that.  Second, the question of what God requires of us when we face particular political and social controversies is not going to be clear all the time, or even most of the time.  People of legitimate and honest Christian conscience may find themselves on opposite sides when faced with questions of war, the duties of the citizen to their government, the proper economic policy, the justice of the laws, etc.  At best, Christ provides general guidance, not specific guidance, and even good Christians may find themselves on different sides of an issue because of different views on the specifics of policy.   Finally, the notion of living for others and suffering with Christ is a noble goal, but extremely difficult, if not impossible, for most people.  We rightly honor Bonhoeffer for following Christ in martyrdom, but how many of us are really willing to become martyrs?  Few, I bet.  Still, even if we only emulate Christ partially and imperfectly, I suppose that is better than nothing, and considerably better than emulating the wrong person.


Two Types of Religion

Debates about religion in the West tend to center around the three monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  However, it is important to note that these three religions are not necessarily typical or representative of religion in general.

In fact, there are many different types of religion, but for purposes of simplicity I would like to divide the religions of the world into two types: revealed religion and philosophical religion.  These two categories are not exclusive, and many religions overlap both categories, but I think it is a useful conceptual divide.

“Revealed religion” has been defined as a “religion based on the revelation by God to man of ideas that he would not have arrived at by his natural reason alone.”  The three monotheistic religions all belong in this category, though there are philosophers and elements of philosophy in these religions as well.  Most debates about religion and science, or religion and reason, assume that all religions are revealed religions.  However, there is another type of religion: philosophical religion.

Philosophical religion can be defined as a set of religious beliefs that are arrived at primarily through reason and dialogue among philosophers.  The founders of philosophical religion put forth ideas on the basis that these ideas are human creations accessible to all and subject to discussion and debate like any other idea.  These religions are found in the far east, and include Confucianism, Taoism, and Hinduism.  However, there are also philosophical religions in the West, such as Platonism or Stoicism, and there have been numerous philosophers who have constructed philosophical interpretations of the three monotheistic religions as well.

There are a number of crucial distinguishing characteristics that separate revealed religion from philosophical religion.

Revealed religion originates in a single prophet, who claims to have direct communication with God.  Even when historical research indicates multiple people playing a role in founding a revealed religion, as well as the borrowing of concepts from other religions, the tradition and practice of revealed religion generally insists upon the unique role of a prophet who is usually regarded as infallible or close to infallible — Moses, Jesus, or Muhammad.  Revealed religion also insists on the existence of God, often defined as a personal, supreme being who has the qualities of omniscience and omnipotence.  (It may seem obvious to many that all religions are about God, but that is not the case, as will be discussed below.)

Faith is central to revealed religion.  Rational argument and evidence may be used to convince others of the merits of a revealed religion, but ultimately there are too many fundamental beliefs in a revealed religion that are either non-demonstrable or contradictory to evidence from science, history, and archeology.  Faith may be used positively, as an aid to making a decision in the absence of clear evidence, so that one does not sustain loss from despair and a paralysis of will; however, faith may also be used negatively, to deny or ignore findings from other fields of knowledge.

The problems with revealed religion are widely known: these religions are prone to a high degree of superstition and many followers embrace anti-scientific attitudes when the conclusions of science refute or contradict the beliefs of revealed religion.  (This is a tendency, not a rule — for example, many believers in revealed religion do not regard a literal interpretation of the Garden of Eden story as central to their beliefs, and they fully accept the theory of evolution.)  Worse, revealed religions appear to be prone to intolerance, oppression of non-believers and heretics, and bloody religious wars.  It seems most likely that this intolerance is the result of a belief system that sees a single prophet as having a unique, infallible relationship to God, with all other religions being in error because they lack this relationship.

Philosophical religion, by contrast, emerges from a philosopher or philosophers engaging in dialogue.  In the West, this role was played by philosophers in ancient Greece and Rome, before their views were eclipsed by the rise of the revealed religion of Christianity.  In the East, philosophers were much more successful in establishing great religions.  In China, Confucius established a system of beliefs about morals and righteous behavior that influenced an entire empire, while Lao Tzu proposed that a mysterious power known as the “Tao” was the source and driving force behind everything.  In India, Hinduism originated as a diverse collection of beliefs by various philosophers, with some unifying themes, but no single creed.

As might be expected, philosophical religions have tended to be more tolerant and cosmopolitan than revealed religions.  Neither Greek nor Roman philosophers were inclined to kill each other over the finer points of Plato’s conception of God or the various schools of Stoicism, because no one ever claimed to have an infallible relationship with an omnipotent being.  In China, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are not regarded as incompatible, and many Chinese subscribe to elements of two or all three belief systems.  It is rare to ever see a religious war between adherents of philosophical religions.  And although many people automatically equate religion with faith, there is usually little or no role for faith in philosophical religions.

The role of God in philosophical religions is very different from the role of God in revealed religions.  Most philosophers, in east and west, defined God in impersonal terms, or proposed a God that was not omnipotent, or regarded a Creator God as unimportant to their belief system.  For example, Plato proposed that a secondary God known as a “demiurge” was responsible for creating the universe; the demiurge was not omnipotent, and was forced to create a less-than-perfect universe out of the imperfect materials he was given.  The Stoics did not subscribe to a personal God and instead proposed that a divine fire pervaded the universe, acting on matter to bring all things into accordance with reason.  Confucius, while not explicitly rejecting the possibility of God, did not discuss God in any detail, and had no role for divine powers in his teachings.  The Tao of Lao Tzu is regarded as a mysterious power underlying all things, but it is certainly not a personal being.  Finally, the concept of a Creator God is not central to Hinduism; in fact one of the six orthodox schools of Hinduism is explicitly atheistic, and has been for over two thousand years.

There are many virtues to philosophical religion.  While philosophical religion is not immune to the problem of incorrect conceptions and superstition, it does not resist reason and science, nor does it attempt to stamp out challenges to its claims to the same extent as revealed religions.  Philosophical religion is largely tolerant and reasonable.

However, there is also something arid and unsatisfying about many philosophical religions.  The claims of philosophical religion are usually modest, and philosophical religion has cool reason on its side.  But philosophical religion often does not have the emotional and imaginative content of revealed religion, and in these ways it is lacking. The emotional swings and imaginative leaps of revealed religion can be dangerous, but emotion and imagination are also essential to full knowledge and understanding (see here and here).  One cannot properly assign values to things and develop the right course of action without the emotions of love, joy, fear, anger, and sadness.  Without imagination, it is not possible to envision better ways of living.  When confronted with mystery, a leap of faith may be justified, or even required.

Abstractly, I have a great appreciation for philosophical religion, but in practice, I prefer Christianity.  I have the greatest admiration for the love of Christ, and I believe in Christian love as a guide for living.  At the same time, my Christianity is unorthodox and leavened with a generous amount of philosophy.  I question various doctrinal points of Christianity, I believe in evolution, and I don’t believe in miracles that violate the physical laws that have been discovered by science.  I think it would do the world good if revealed religions and philosophical religions recognized and borrowed each other’s virtues.

Misunderstanding Manicheanism

A lot of religions and philosophies are misunderstood to varying degrees, but if I had to pick one religion or philosophy as being the most misunderstood it would be Manicheanism.  First propounded by the prophet Mani (or Manes) in Persia in the third century C.E., this religion viewed the universe as consisting of a battle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.  God was good, but was not all-powerful, which is why there was evil in the world.  Human beings and other material things were a mixture of the forces of light and forces of darkness; the task of human beings was to separate the light from the dark by shunning evil and doing good deeds.

In modern day America, the term “Manichean” is used disparagingly, as a way of attacking those who see political or social conflict as being wars of good vs. evil.  A Manichean view, it is argued or implied, depicts the self as purely good, opponents as demonic, and compromise as virtually impossible.  A recent example of this is a column by George Will about the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.  Will describes Iran as being “frightening in its motives (measured by its rhetoric) and barbaric in its behavior,” and quotes author Kenneth Pollack, who notes that Manicheanism was a Persian (Iranian) religion that “conceived of the world as being divided into good and evil.”  Of course, Manicheanism no longer has a significant presence in modern-day Iran, but you get the point — those Persians have always been simple-minded fanatics.

Let’s correct this major misconception right now: Manicheanism does NOT identify any particular tribe, group, religion, or nation as being purely good or purely evil.  Manicheanism sees good and evil as cosmological forces that are mixed in varying degrees in the material things we see all around us.  Humanity, in this view, consists of forces of light (good) mixed with darkness ; the task of humanity is to seek and release this inner light, not to label other human beings as evil and do battle with them.

If anything, Manicheanism was one of the most cosmopolitan and tolerant religions in history.  Manicheanism aimed to be a universal religion and incorporated elements of Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. The most dedicated adherents of Manicheanism were required to adopt a life of nonviolence, including vegetarianism.  For their trouble, Manicheans were persecuted and killed by the Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim societies in which they lived.

The Manichean view of human beings as being a mixture of good and evil is really a mainstream view shared by virtually all religions.  Alexander Solzhenitsyn has described this insight well:

It was granted to me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good.  In the intoxication of youthful successes I had  felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel.  In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor.  In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments.  It was only  when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good.  Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and  through all human hearts.  This line shifts.  Inside us, it oscillates with the years.   Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.

Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: they struggle with the evil inside a human being  (inside every human being).  It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.

This is what Manicheanism teaches: the battle between good and evil lies within all humans, not between purely good humans and purely evil humans.