The following is my response to Ule (a.k.a. Robin Artisson), who left an interesting comment to a recent post of mine (which was, in retrospect, a bit whiney of me, for which I apologize). Please take the time to read his comment (second to last) before reading this post, if you can.
Ule, Believe it or not, I agree with much of what you say in principle. I agree that religion should not be "a free or easy thing," that through it we should strive for spiritual integrity and growth, and that intolerance for or marginalization of a person's spiritual life, beliefs and practice and her or his relationship with the Divine (however it is presented or perceived, in whatever deities or non-deities, etc.) is a kind of violence against that person. (I've even used the metaphor of unique personal love to talk about the idea of "accepting Jesus" when I was confronted by a belligerent costumer my first month working as a waitress.) I think we can agree that, all other things set aside, we both want the same thing for the future.
Where we differ, I think, is our view of the past and how it shapes our reactions to the present, to the circumstances and people of today. Clearly, you believe strongly in a pre-monotheistic past that embraced tolerance and respect for all deities of all traditions, while affirming the unifying themes, struggles, joys and sorrows underlying the human condition throughout the world's diverse cultures and times. You see monotheism as a perversion of this ideal form of tolerance, a denial of how others experience the spiritual realm and a marginalization of an individual's personal experiences with their gods--all of which is, as you said, a very insidious and harsh form of violence. (If I'm getting any of this wrong, please correct me.)
If you'll bear with me, I think that we disagree partly because, though I agree that these forms of denial, marginalization and violence have all become a tragic part of the modern religious life, I do not happen to blame monotheism alone for the situation. One reason is that, no matter what anyone else says, monotheism itself has simply never had that effect on me. It may be that I am an exception (which, by and large, I don't think I am) or that I'm just lucky (which I know for sure I am), but I was raised in a loving, tolerant Christian family--one in which I was encouraged to explore other religious traditions, to ask questions and challenge "received ideas" from the Church, to admire and find value in the literature and arts inspired by other spiritual traditions, and to always explore my own personal relationship with deity. The very first Sunday school lesson I can remember learning was about the nature of paradox (the one-in-many/many-in-one, no-where/now-here nature that the term 'God' implies, and how it was a failure of imagination and a lack of the hard work required of religion to simply sit back and accept 'God' as some jealous tyrant in the sky).
I no longer really consider myself a monotheist, preferring the term "panentheism," the immanent within the transcendent and the transcendent through the immanent--which, according to my strict, Catholic father, is a perfectly acceptable belief within the dogma of the Catholic Church, in any case. But even when I did still consider myself a monotheist, I too experienced the frustration of having my beliefs dismissed and attacked as "fake" or "demonic" or a psychological failure of an uneducated mind. These attacks came from materialist/atheist rationalists, of course, but the experience was much the same as the one you describe as the conflict between polytheism and monotheism. And my reaction, for a long time, had the same bitterness and anger that you express. (Unfortunately for me, I loved math and science, and I was pretty good at them, too. I couldn't just turn my back and declare them uniformly bigoted and ignorant of "what really matters" in the spiritual life. For better or worse, they had already proved themselves to have some usefulness and insight to offer.)
My point, in all this rambling, is that you and I have shared a common experience--it just happens to have been at the hands of two different abusers. I have no doubt that there are monotheists out there who would still persist in the ignorant intolerance of accusing your spiritual life of being a sick aberration of the mind, or even of soul. Simply because I have not had that same experience with other Christians (admittedly because perhaps many of them hear the label and assume I agree with them, and so they stop listening) does not mean that your experiences are not valid and have some truth. My personal experiences, on the other hand, and the time I spent in college researching comparative world religions and, in particular, the origination patterns of counterculture religious groups (both modern and ancient), lead me to suspect that the real culprit is Cartesian duality and the modern rationalist trend that, for the first time in history, distinguished "religion" as a separate category, to be analyzed, criticized and eventually discarded by the "educated" person. Before this point, I do not think human beings consciously treated religions as "entities" (or even emergent systems) in their own right, distinct from the people who practiced them. The idea that religion itself can have a kind of consciousness, with intentions and ulterior motives, able to conquer and manipulate its "believers," is mostly a post-Enlightenment notion. I am hesitant to draw a stark line between the corruption of monotheism and an idyllic polytheistic time before it, projecting all the problems and frustrations of our current cultural intolerances onto a single Religion from the past (especially if the concept of Religion-capital-R wasn't even prevalent at the time).
In the end, perhaps monotheism is just a quirk in the spiritual development of the human species. After all, Hinduism and Buddhism are centuries older than the oldest monotheistic tradition, and yet they have continued to thrive and evolve uninterrupted. Indeed, they have developed to a point where postulating the Brahman, the "unchanging, infinite, immanent and transcendent reality" is not seen as conflicting with an experiential and practical polytheism (even though this conception of the Brahman is remarkably close to what I was taught, growing up Catholic, was the nature of the monotheistic 'God' as the ground of being and creation).
The conflict between polytheism and monotheism is, to me, just the ancient paradox of the many versus the one, the value of the unique individual versus the value of the unifying transcendent. Polytheists accuse monotheists of intolerance for denying all other gods and spiritual experiences, while monotheists accuse polytheists of short-sightedness for not recognizing the basic unity of divinity. The truth is, neither accusation is really accurate, nor are they fair. Monotheists--except for the most fundamentalist/extremists among them--do recognize the importance of individual experience in the spiritual life (I've heard plenty of monotheists say that there as many versions of God/Jesus as there are believers, since each person's relationship with the Divine is unique). Meanwhile, polytheists--except for the most fundamentalist/extremist among them--do appreciate and value the unifying sense of Spirit that underlies all human spiritual experiences no matter how diverse or different.
The question for me, really (and I would like to think, in the end, for you as well) is not so much who's to blame for the current spiritual and personal violence we commit against each other on a daily basis, but how do we overcome it and work towards a better future? Even if monotheism is a 'mistake,' the history of Christianity itself should serve as an example of how dangerous and self-defeating angry, forced and fearful conversion can be. The fact is, like it or not, monotheism happened. Where do we go from here, how do we work with the people who are sharing the world with us today, speaking strongly for our personal ideals and experiences while preserving their right to be thinking, engaged spiritual beings who, for their own reasons, may not always agree with us? How do we provoke a dialogue that will bridge the separation between monotheism and polytheism, recognizing them not as intrinsic, entrenched enemies, but as uneasy partners in the grasping, slow evolution of the human spirit?
Those are questions for which I don't have simple, final answers. But they are the questions I'm most interested in answering, much more so than whose fault is it and how should they be punished or pitied.
Whew, that was a long one! You might be relieved to know I'll be taking a short break from the obsessive blogging fairly soon in order to go visit my folks for Thanksgiving (and then book it back here to work on Black Friday (I shudder in anticipation)). If you've been feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the heady, ridiculous rambling (both textual and auditory now, huzzah!) on this blog as of late, hopefully now you'll have a chance to catch up, or perhaps just throw your hands in the air, declare, "I'm done with this!" and go have a nice conversation with the nearest tree. Either way, thanks as always for reading.