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
•Tradition’s priestly and prophetic teacher, Zarathushtra wrote 17 psalms, called the
Gathas, that form parted of the sacred book, the Avesta.
Five feature of particular interest:
1.Emphasis on ethics: morality is central, both as an ideal and as an achievement
2.Eschatology, centred on the expectation of a world to come both for the individual
and for the world as a whole, when this life will be overhauled and a new utopian
age ushered in
3.Zoroastrian tradition’s vivid personification of evil as a demonic antagonist who,
like Satan, in the Christian and Muslim traditions, seems beyond the good deity’s
4.Zoroastrians traditionally dispose of their dead by exposing the remains to birds of
prey in “Towers of Silence”
5.Zoroastrian ideas about evil and the soul contributed to the development of
comparable ideas in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
•Today, most Zoroastrians consider themselves monotheists, perhaps because their
tradition was maintained under Islamic rule in Iran and under Christian rule in
•However their monotheism is not exclusive: Zoroastrians admire a host of divine
entities (corresponding to deities in the Hindu Vedas) that they consider to
function as agents and deputies of Ahura Mazda.
•In the Avesta, it suggests that two other gods hold sway in the universe.
•The good god Ahura Mazda, is the one whom all praise and tahnks are due
•The evil god, Angra Mainyu (later as Ahirman), is the god who controls evil and
must be exorcised
•The devil is much more elusive in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, perhaps
because theologians wanting to affirm God’s purpose and power have been
reluctant to make room for a second ultimate power. Yet he was present in
narratives during the Christian Middle Ages and is still seen in folklore and
popular piety of all three Abrahamic traditions.
•Satan is mentioned in both the New Testament and, as Shaytan or Iblis, in the
•But he does not figure in Old Testament narrative
•The snake Genesis 2-3 is never described as anything more than a snake and Satan
makes no appearance in the Hebrew creation story. Even the book of Job refers
only to “the Satan,” meaning “adversary,” a designated court official
•However in the New Testament, Satan is a fully developed power, independent of
God, which is also viewed in a series of books created after the Old Testament and
before the New Testament, which are not included in either the Jewish or
World ReligionsSeptember 20th, 2010
•Just when Persian influence was at its height, did the devil appear in Jewish and
Christian tradition, thus Christian and Muslim traditions, and to a lesser extent
Jewish folklore, owe it to the Persian depictions of Ahriman.
Westerns view monotheism as the culmination of religious development-final stage in an
evolutionary progression away from polytheism.
To them, dualism represents the intermediary stage
Historically, dualism aired only after monotheism had established itself
Dualism represents a kind of strategic retreat necessitated by the difficulty of explaining
evil in a monotheistic system
The scope of God’s power is limited by whatever the demonic adversary can control
If God is both physical creator and moral sovereign, then the religious narrative must
answer two questions regarding the force of evil:
1.How was it that the creator’s power permitted the introduction of evil?
2.Given the present force of evil, how may we be assured that god will triumph in
Influential narrative response came into movement, “Gnosticism.”
Spreading mainly among Hellenized Jews and Christians living in an atmosphere of
popularized Platonic thought, Gnosticism suggested that humanity could be released from
its primal entrapment in the sinful cosmos only through divine redemption
Since pure spirit had fallen into an evil material existence, it was upto the faithful to reject
physical satisfaction and seek an ascetic’s release from entrapment in matter.
Jewish communities were particularly receptive to the Gnotic message because of early
Jewish mysticism, in which adepts of mediation could ascend to heaven to discover
The awakened person was duty-bound to escape the evil universe, and the only guide
consisted in the special redeeming knowledge called gnosis in Greek.
In many Gnosis systems the spiritually awakened person was called a “pneumatic,” from
the Greek pneuma, meaning spirit.
•3rd century, Syrian Christian, Mani, created his own religion, Manichaeism, on a
largely Gnostic base
•attracted many who cherished individual Gnostic systems and melded them into a
•Spread westward across Mediterranean, where its narratives of good and evil were
present in the Middle Ages in the Balkans and Southern France
•Also spread to China in Central Asia and Buddhist territory
•Monotheistic religions of the Middle East and Mediterranean might see the
problem of suffering and evil as a reason to question divine power, but Buddhism
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.