Roman Emperor Constantine was a hot topic a few years ago, as historians took a look at his sometimes brutal imposition of Christianity on his realm. Now Jonathan Kirsch, a Los Angeles lawyer and self-taught biblical scholar, has written "God Against the Gods," about Constantine's successor Julian, who died before he could undo Constantine's work. Had Julian lived, Kirsch says, paganism might have shown us a safer, freer road to Western civilization. We interviewed Kirsch recently about his book.

You tell the story of the Roman Emperor Julian, known as Julian the Apostate for his attempt to roll back his predecessor Constantine's effort to Christianize the empire. What's fascinating is that he was a pagan, but was punctiliously moral. It's not entirely clear his empire would have been a less Christian place in that sense.
It's a very important assumption that I make that there was a morality in the world of late classical paganism that was not greatly different from Jewish and Christian morality.

Is that because Jewish and Christian morality and pagan morality have a common source? Or does society organize itself along the same lines no matter what the idea of the divine may be?
I'd have to come down on the side of those who see morality as a human characteristic common to many cultures, rather than one that flows from ethical monotheism. The best argument I can make is that by the period of the Common Era, wherein Christian and Judaism are contending with the other religions in Rome, there is a great commonality of belief about what a decent life consists of. We're taught to regard paganism as something dissolute and promiscuous and superstitious and crude and cruel, and it was not necessarily any of those things. Julian insisted on seeing a resemblance between paganism and Judaism. He says, "We're alike in all of our religious practices, except you worship one God and we worship many gods. In all other ways we're alike." Certainly, Julian was not just a proper person, but almost a puritanical person.

Had paganism not more or less run its course, however?
By late antiquity, the pagans were jaded about their religious practices. Ceremonies were not as elaborate as they had once been. One reason the Romans were quick to embrace exotic, imported gods, including the Christian one imported from Palestine, was that they were jaded and bored with their own gods and goddesses. They had lost the mystery and the thrill that had once been attached to it.

It's also true that they engaged in many ceremonies as part of everyday life. The most important example is the deified emperors, the symbols of political loyalty to the Roman empire. A loyal Roman citizen was expected to sacrifice to the image of the emperor as a gesture of political loyalty. It was nothing more than casting a pinch of incense on a little brazier of hot coals set up in front of an image of a dead emperor. It was something along the lines of the Pledge of Allegiance: it wasn't elaborate, it wasn't extreme, it didn't require much effort or thought. Christians and the Jews were instructed by their faith that even that much accommodation to someone else's religion was not only prohibited, but evil.

How did one anoint oneself a follower of one god or the other?
You could pick and choose among virtually hundreds of gods and goddesses. A god would have some special appeal to you, have some claim on your allegiance because of your trade or profession, or the local gods of your city or region. The core value of classical paganism is what we would today call freedom of religion. It's human nature, human beings being as diverse as they are, to have different ways of understanding and envisioning divine power. Really, this is a very dramatic phenomenon where Christianity comes to power in Rome and suddenly for the first time in history, state power is dictating what you can and cannot believe.

In my book, I point out that there was a convergence taking place. In Rome some worshipped a god called Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun, who represented a kind of pagan monotheism. It showed that some pagans suspected that there was one ultimate all-powerful source of divinity and that all other gods and goddesses were just reflections of this one god. If this convergence had been allowed to proceed, it might have resulted in a kind of universal monotheism-without the Inquisition.

The problem was, that while the pagans were willing to kind of accept many different ways of understanding the one all-powerful divinity, Christians and Jews were not willing to do that. Whenever they had the physical power to compel submission to that one true God, they were perfectly willing to do it.

Do you see that same tussle today in this country?
Absolutely. We have this idea that the New Age is something new-using the term to describe precisely this free market in religion. Go into any bookstore, not just a so-called New Age bookstore, and you'll find every manner of religion, ancient and modern, traditional and improvised. That's new only in that Christian civilization has not permitted that kind of freedom of choice for centuries. Most people in America today embrace the idea of religious diversity and religious liberty. Ironically, they are behaving in the way pagans behaved.