Monotheism rising amidst polytheism

My post is inspired by the recent DVD Caprica, set in the universe created by the reimagined Batlestar Galactica. In the story, the majority of humans (known as the Colonials) are polytheists, nominally worshiping the Greek gods. However, central to the story is a group of heretics who are espousing a monotheistic world-view and advocate worshiping the “One True God”. These monotheists are generally clandestine, though they sometimes use violence and terrorism to advance their agenda.

So, my topic is, how did monotheism actually arise in our world? I chose GD for this discussion because I feel that there are two potentially competing points of view which could address this. One could look at it from simply an anthropological point of view. How did humans develop the need or desire for only one god. However, there is also a theological point of view. How did God assert Himself in the polytheistic world?

Are there many polytheists in the real world today?

There are more than a billion Hindus. They’re polytheists; OTOH, in some way I’ve never understood, they see all the gods as aspects of a single divine essence.

The traditional folk religion of China is polytheist; how seriously Chinese take it nowadays I don’t know.

Most Japanese are Shinto – polytheist/animist.

Buddhism has a profusion of saints and divine beings, but is essentially atheistic. That is, the gods might exist, but they are beside the point. They’re in the same fix we are, trapped in the world of maya and bound to the wheel of karma, and you can’t get enlightenment by praying to them.

Many Africans, Polynesians and American Indians still worship multiple gods.

Well the way that scholars pretty much accept it happened on earth was an evolution from henotheism, in which this God is our God and is better than your God, to montheism, your gods are so small they do not even exist, either under the reign of Josiah or perhaps even as late as during the Babylonian Exile. (Something I recently learned on these very boards!)

Absolutely! IMHO, most of the polytheists call themselves “Christians.”
I started a thread a while back about polytheism. Many believers, all forms of christianity, seem to have their own personal version of the god they worship. The practices of worship remain related (communion, readings from the old and new testament, etc.), but individually, I believe them to be beyond widespread.

It’s really all about competition. Humans like to say, we’re fans of the best team, the best president, the best movie star, and the best god.
Yet, though most believers really worship the same god, they have to subdivide their own god into what he thinks, says, or meant on a new situation.

Look at issues like homosexuality, SSM, medical care and the Jesus Cheeto. Some will come right out and say things like, “The reason we have tsunamis killing thousands is because we allow homosexuality.” Or something that’s said by a LOT of people, “The United States is meant to be a Christian nation.” Or the woman in Wisconsin (was it Wis?) and her followers who refused medical care for her daughter’s diabetes, opting for prayer instead. Already, to me, we’ve got three different gods in the same realm of worship and practice.

Two of our favorite posters who favor religion, kanicbird and Lacunae Quell, are both believers, yet I haven’t heard them agree completely on what god wants and desires, only that they both believe.

Even some of my old catholic school counterparts swear that homosexuality is making god angry, most likely bringing our 2012 apocalypse. Some other friends think that any cruelty to man offends god in the same way, also bringing the possibility of the 2012 apocalypse. Now we have 5 versions of god.

How many times have you heard “Obama is the antichrist”? The fact that many believe in an antichrist shows yet another type of believer. Up to 6.

Now add the combinations we have already. Say, you believe that Obama is the antichrist, but homosexuality is AOK. There’s another type. Add that you think the Jesus Cheeto is a clear sign we need to act a certain way, another type. (That’s going for 20 Gs on eBay. :slight_smile: )

It’s not just the ancients who preferred more than one god. I think that really makes more sense in many ways. Virgin Mary would be better for women to pray to since Yahweh seems to be for the boys, and not too knowledgable about harvesting crops gorwing in lush, green areas.

Of course, growing up catholic, I believed in four gods: god, mary, jesus and the holy spirit.

Now there’s me presently, saying it’s all bunk.

Polytheism does have a certain intuitive appeal. If there were just one god the world would be orderly and sensible. That it is not is explained by assuming many gods who are often working at cross-purposes.

A polytheist is someone who beleives in more that one God. If you and I have different ideas about God, we could still each believe in one God and neither of us would be polytheists. (Furthermore, the fact that we have different ideas about God doesn;t even mean that we don;t believe in the same God.)

Yes, individually, but since you believe in one version of Yahweh, and your wife believes in a different version of the same god, your pew neighbor also believes in a different version of god, then, individually, you are all monotheistic… your CHURCH is polytheistic. Hence, UDS is monotheistic, christianity is polytheistic.

Locrian, you are standing on its head the definition of a term that is central to the OP. If you wish to open a new thread that claims “where two or three are gathered there is polytheism,” have at it.

However, in the interests of not hijacking this thread into a discussion of your peculiar views of language, please knock off this hijack.

The question is “how does monotheism arise” and making the odd claim that all belief is really polytheistic pretty much destroys that sought discussion.

[ /Modding ]

Yeah, but…

…Our Goddess has been worshipped for MANY millenia longer than some Sumerian Storm God! Er, what I meant is that Mary, as a human assumed into Heaven, is an intecessor between us, in the material world, and Jesus–er, GOD, since they are the same.

My pal Polycarp created for this board an extensive, and almost persuasive, apologia for the Trinity. Having been raised as, for all intents and purposes, a Marianist, I try to buy it, at least on the surface. But yeah, Christianity is, by most definitions, a polytheist religion. And that’s made worse because Mary is Hera, and sometimes Athena. And Minerva. Face it: the Gentiles to whom Paul preached shoved memes into the form of the memes they knew. He only promoted one goddess, if any at all, and the roles of many had to be shoehorned into one avatar.

Don’t entirely agree, Tom. There is no reason to deny, beyond what ones faith says (that “My God’s Better Than Your God”) did not result in a petulant “Oh YEAH? Well, MY God says that YOUR God doesn’t exist!” The OT is full of it.

Oh, and isn’t putting on your mod hat in a theological discussion a bit heavyhanded? Yeah, you are Catholic; we all know that and how that entails some beliefs. You should leave said beliefs at the door. Monotheism arose in a world that was entirely polytheistic. By that one can assume that polytheism may not be “natural,” but it’s damned close to it. Please don’t bring your Catholic moralizing into the discussion.

To the extent that they are Shinto, I think it’s a primarily cultural/social thing rather than a religious one. Most Japanese will, IME, self-identify as athiest. But they still have Shinto protective charms and visit shrines on New Year’s Day.

This is true in theory. But in practice (that is, the way most Buddhists go about it) I don’t think there’s much difference between Buddhism and other religions.

Locrian, you know the blind men and the elephant story? Do each of the men believe in the same elephant? Or does one believe in a tree, one a wall, one a rope, and one a snake?

Am I a different entity because I serve a different role and am perceived differently to each of my four children, my wife, my four siblings, my mother, my co-workers, and my patients and their families? (Amazingly none of whom imbue me with God-like features.)

That is not what Locrian was saying, however. His claim was that since every person has a different view of any given god, there are actually multiple gods and that all religion is polytheistic.

The words polytheism and monotheism have meanings that are generally understood: that the belief system holds that there are many gods or one god. This thread asks how a belief in many gods changes into a belief in one god. Speculation regarding that question is fine. Speculation along the lines that Locrian has posted might be interesting questions, but they belong in their own thread.

Maybe you’ll understand it in your next life. :stuck_out_tongue:

However, after many thousands of years of this question being hashed out over nights of Poking the Fire (see the recent studies of how Hunter Gatherers sleep, and that it is closer to a bunch of stoners taking turns Poking the Fire–I assume you were a Boy Scout and are familiar with the pastime–than it is to Everybody Goes to Bed and Wakes Up At the Same Moment), Locrian’s question is closer to the Primordial Question than anything the medieval theologians came up with.

Given a few boring hours, everybody prone to thinking beyond, “Will Hilda do me?” comes up with something like what Locrian described.

I already started a thread about what you suggest a few months ago.
And I adressed the OP about monotheism when I said it’s about being the champ:
“best team, best actor, best god” before I went on my usual rant style.

My point really was, monotheism isn’t really possible. No hijacking. :slight_smile:

It’s not a very convincing point, though.

Monotheism - the belief that there is only one God - is certainly possible at an individual level.

It is also possible at a communal level. The members of a community may all assert that there is only one God. Even if they do not agree on absolutely every aspect or characteristic of that God, they are still a monotheistic community.

What DSeid said is basically what happened with Judaism, though the timelines are still a little blurry.

Essentially there was tribal polytheism, then there were individual, adopted tribal gods, then there was tribal henotheism, then there was politically enforced henotheism, then there was the politically enforced denial that other gods existed at all.

One of the key methods for achieving this was forbidding cultic sacrifice anywhere but one designated temple in Jerusalem. Another method was the creation of a written, mythic history, which syncretized and collated a lot of older tribal legends and oral history (a long with a healthy dose of subliminal political propaganda pertaining to the time contermporaneous with the creation of the Deuteronomic history) into a single unified saga for the tribal confederacy called “Israel.”

Really, one of the best ways to sell any new religion is to create a grand, epic backstory which elevates your target audience and makes them feel they are culmination, the heirs, the chosen ones. It also helps to create a common enemy.

A slight hijack:

I was raised as a Reform Jew. At a fairly early age, in Sunday School, we learned the story of Abraham. The teacher explained that Abraham was the first Jew, because he was the first monotheist, the first person to believe in only one God. And to this day Jews believe in one God.

I raised my hand and asked the teacher, “What if Abraham was wrong? What if someday we discover that there really are many Gods?” (The possibility of NO God hadn’t crossed my mind yet.) If I recall correctly the teacher answered my question with, “Well, we believe in one God,” meaning that she didn’t answer my question.

Like most children and too many adults, I had the idea that religious beliefs represented objective facts.