World ReligionsSeptember 20th, 2010
Chapter 11: The Nature of The Divine
Monotheism and Polytheism
Monotheism – Greek word for worship of only one god
Polytheism – Greek word for worship of many gods
Both definitions first seen in European writing during 17th century of absolute monarchy
Used in intra-Christian context, e.g. Protestants condemned Roman Catholic worship of
saints as polytheistic. Now principally refer to Hebraic model of exclusive devotion to
only one god vs. Hellenic model of devotion to many.
Before “monotheism” was coined, the idea was a distinctive characteristic of: Judaism,
Christianity, and Islam (all regions in the west), where monotheism was exclusive and
declared faithful should worship only one God, that the worship of any other is an
abomination to God, and that no other Gods exists.
Christians and Muslims both believed in this and drew clear boundaries between
themselves and others, which encouraged others to join them.
However Jews view themselves as a community, allowing others who are truly motivated
to join , however have rarely attempted to convert outsiders.
Guy E. Swanson’s book, “The Birth of the Gods: The Origin of Primitive Beliefs,” states
monotheism is associated with social complexity, reflecting the establishment of multi-
However, polytheism may simply represent the attribution of human motivation to natural
phenomena, thus movement towards monotheism could easily be seen as marking a
society’s denial of this primitive understanding of causation.
Greek philosophers tried to reduce all complexities of the world to one single, overriding
element or principle, e.g. fire, water, change, time, love or knowledge.
Hinduism and Buddhism identify a single principle of salvation in which animals,
humans, and gods all participate. Unlike Jews, Muslims, and Christians, they do not view
monotheism and polytheism as being completely opposite of one another.
Dualism: Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, and Manichaeism
Dualism in religion assumes two ultimate principles (usually personified as good god and
evil god) opposing each other and more or less evenly matched.
•A nominally monotheistic religion with dualistic overtones.
•Was developed in Persia (Iran) before mid-6th century BC
•Was states religion of Sasanians
•Supreme creator god is Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord)
•Zoroastrians called themselves Mazda worshippers and their tradition “The Good
•Religious thoughts are placed among the great religious traditions of human