Monotheism rising amidst polytheism

It’s sort of interesting how much Christianity has drifted towards polytheism since its inception. Between worship of the Saints, Mary, the Holy Trinity and believing in the devil as sort of an evil god, at least some branches of it seem more or less indistinguishable from polytheism.

Oddly enough, Hinduism and Christianity almost (if you squint right) end up in the same place, having started walking in opposite directions. Essentially, there is one ultimate wellspring of divine essence, but with different aspects*. I’m curious - do any Jewish sects have a similar outlook? It’d be interesting to see if most monotheisms tend to elevate secondary characters to objects of worship.

*as a side-note, learning object-oriented programming has made this so much easier to understand. if(gregorianCalendar.year == 1) {god.addChild(jesus)};

And don’t forget that host of “lessser” Gods, the Angels and Demons.

If Alexander Hislop and Barbara Walker had a love child…


More likely Metro sexual.

Man, imagine how well you’d get it if you knew aspect-oriented programming.

Polytheism seems to always gravitate toward monotheism (as much as the other way around). Egyptians and Greeks would have cults and temples dedicated to individual gods. On an individual level, you might have a god you’d identify with and pray to. The critical step would be for everyone to agree on which one that was.

The slow emergance of a more scientific worldview might have something to with the rise of monotheism over polytheism. The world would have seemed a chaotic place for the first human cultures. Once you understand more about how the world works it becomes possible to ask the question “whose rules?”.

Compare the god of the old testament with the new. The former is much more hands-on in a whale-to-D4, rain-of-fire-and-brimstone, pillar-of-salt kind of way. The later god is much less interventionalist.

Christinity really isn’t polytheist in the same way as the Greek or Norse pantheon. God, the big G, is of a whole other order to angels, demons and saints. God dispenses the fire, no-one steals it from him.

I’m not sure that “scientific” has much to do with it, although I suppose it could. Islam’s Golden Age ocurred after Islam esablished itself in the Middle East and early Christianity hardly spread most rapidly among the intelligentsia of the Roman Empire.

There may be a bit of truth in the Diogenes scenario of polytheism==>henotheism==>monotheism.
On the other hand, I tend to doubt that monotheism ever evolved or grew slowly from any preceding system. It appears to be the result of revolutionary activity. Zoroastrianism (although its origins are very obscure), does not appear to have been the development of any previous system, but a separate belief that sprang forth on its own. Monotheism, (in the Diogenes scenario), arose in Judaism at the time of the Babylonian Captivity, (or, perhaps, under the threats of the Assyrian and Egyptian assaults that immediately preceded it). Plato and a few of his contemporaries toyed with the idea of monotheism in an atmosphere of total cultural disruption that occurred during and followed on the Pelopennesian War. Islam was created in one fell swoop in competiton with polytheistic pagans, (along with some Jewish and Christian neighbors). After moving from Judaic monotheism into a sort of monotheism-in-name-polytheism-in-practice, creating a sub-pantheon of saints, Christianity reverted to a much stricter monotheism at the time of the Reformation, and then Catholicism shed a lot of its attention to saints during the aftermath to the tumultuous Second Vatican Council.

I do not have a theory of the mechanism by which monotheism arises, but I have never seen any evidence that it originates in a gradual transformation from polytheism. Established religions that are not under overt pressures, (internal or external), all seem to continue to develop more gods. Monotheism tends to arise, abruptly, in periods of crisis.

Tom, I’ll defer to anyone with some scholarly expertise but from what I can gather you are wrong, especially regarding your claim that Zoroastrianism, and specifiaclly the concept of monotheism within it, “sprang forth on its own” rather than evolved out of previous systems.

I cannot vouch for the reliability of the source but this cite claims that Zoroastrianism developed primarily out of an early Vedic faith and that

Then, gradually over centuries, the henotheistic to montheistic transition occurred:

In any case I see nothing other than mythic evidence of monotheism arising “abruptly, in periods of crisis.”

It goes even further than that, they see ALL THINGS you and I included as aspects of a single divine essence.

This can be seen in the Bhagavad Gita where Krsna tells Arjuna that not only is it ok to commit war against his own people, but that it is right and just because he is the true King of the Pandavas. Krsna asks him what does it matter if he kills thousands of people, they are all part of the same thing anyway, that there is no such thing as death only the shattering of the illusion of separation, individual identity.

I don’t think that Hinduism can really be called polytheistic confidently, but neither could it be considered monotheistic. They are both inadequate terms for describing what it is. Then again, Hinduism is also a sort of conglomeration of various Indian traditional beliefs, different tribal sects as I understand it, consider themselves as having a distinct religion from other sects of so-called, ‘Hindus’.

I think you actually have it backwards. It has been a drift AWAY from polytheism. The Saints and such were placeholders for polytheistic pagans being brought into the religion, so that they could understand and separate different exemplified concepts. Mythological Gods serve as placeholders for grand archetypes. Zeus is specifically representing Power, raw and unadulterated power. Hercules typifies the hero. Prometheus typifies the principle of human enlightenment. Of course these interpretations can be picked at, so I don’t want to get sidetracked into the minutiae of my particular interpretation or whether they are right and wrong. The Saints in this regard typify certain ideals in the same way, though in a much more real way because they are actual people, though the mythology often overtakes the actual memory of the person behind the saint. You may note that the Catholic church at a certain point went to great pains to de-emphasize angels. Pretty central to Christianity is the journey AWAY from worldly illusions to the truth of the one true God. Christ’s role is specifically to mediate between the human being and the raw power of God. Christ is often presented as the, “Logos”, or simply the ability to know. The manifestation of God on Earth and not separate and distinct from God in the way Apollo is a God vs Demeter being a Goddess.

Could you expand on this? This is very interesting, and while I never pursued computer programming, the logical architecture of computer systems has had a similar effect on me. I once used the example of the Internet in a way that actually made an impression on Voyager. We all have different ideas about what God really is or really isn’t, but saying, “My God vs Your God”, is kind of like saying, “My Internet vs Your Internet.”, we recognize it’s the same internet even though the information we get from it is radically different.

Zoroastrianism is sufficiently murky that I would not hold it up as anything more than anecdotal for either position.

There is nothing “mythic” about the Babylonian Captivity, Athens at the cusp of the fourth century BCE, Mohammed, the Reformation, or the Second Vatican Council.

They are all events in which a polytheistic society “gave birth” to a form of monotheism with no discernable cause.

Nothing I have ever read supports any of this.

Saints only took on powers and attributes, (as opposed to being mere role models), after the church had become established in society and a force in the secular world. The veneration of saints–with the accompanying attribution of godlike powers–increased steadily up until the time of the Reformation. While a few saints appear to have been “baptized” gods, (Brigid, for example), they do not appear to have been adopted directly from pagan pantheons, but accepted later on in history based on confused records mixed with local beliefs.

That’s not what I meant. I meant that saints fulfilled roles that traditional cultures found necessary, ancestor worship and the need to exemplify certain ideals. I am not saying that the saints became like Gods in that sense, only that they provided a ‘Pantheon’ that helped personalize ‘divine’ attributes.

The Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten is sometimes called the first or at least one of the first monotheists. Those with a casual interest in Egyptology may know him better as the husband of Queen Nefertiti and possibly the father of Tutankhamen.

The Egyptians were polytheistic, although by the time Akhenaten came along then sun god Amun-Ra was generally believed to be the most important and powerful in the Egyptian pantheon. Early in his reign Akhenaten began saying that the god Aten (a minor sun god) was actually the supreme god. He changed his name from the more traditional Amenhotep to Akhenaten, which means “Servant of Aten”. I’m unclear as to whether Aten was initially presented as an aspect of Amun-Ra or a similar but different sun god. In any event, within the next few years Akhenaten declared Aten not just the #1 god but the ONLY god. He disbanded the priesthood of other gods, had many of Amun-Ra’s temples defaced, and banned idols depicting other gods. In fact, he banned even references to “gods” in the plural – there was to be only one god, and that god was Aten. Unlike earlier Egyptian gods, Aten was not depicted in the form of a human or animal. Aten seems to have been worshiped as an omnipresent, universal god.

Atenism was the official religion of Egypt for about 20 years, until Akhenaten’s death in the 1330s BC. Egypt quickly returned to its older religious practices, and Akhenaten’s temples to Aten were destroyed. Akhenaten’s name was removed from monuments and from the official list of pharaohs.

As far as I know there was no Atenism movement prior to Akhenaten’s reign. He seems to have come up with the whole thing himself. Atenism predates the earliest known evidence for Judaism by several centuries, so it may well have been the first monotheistic religion. Some scholars (notably Sigmund Freud) have argued that Atenism actually became Judaism, but most Egyptologists reject this theory.

Tom your statement was

Your example was Zoroastrianism, which you now instead concede is at least “murky.” The evidence seems to be that monotheism in Judaism was evolutionary, not revolutionary or even revelatory. Especially not revolutionary as the first moves of its hundreds of years progression towards it from henotheism were apparently as a means for Josiah to exert more state control on a diverse lot of tribes into one greater national identity, and then as an assimilatory process as Jews in Exile moved further in that direction because of the influence of the society in which they resided. Its spread from there had periods of gradual spread, periods of rapid transition (such as the spread of Islam) and periods of movement back towards functional polytheism (as you are discussing with others) - but its creation seems to have been evolutionary not revolutionary and were not “with no discernable cause” albeit I am sure scholars will debate those causes to no end.

I wasn’t implying causation, what I was trying to say is that early polytheistic gods were often associated with natural forces (Zeus make thunder). As our view of the world became more informed the concept of gods became more abstract, and more removed.

No. Zoroastraianism was one of several separate incidents and the one that I noted was obscured at the time I first posted it.

We have any number of societies with henotheistic belief sysyems. What caused Judaism to lurch from, “Our god is top dog” to “there is no god but ours”? And how is that shift characterized as evolutionary? Do we have writings with good dates in which we see a tension between henotheism and monotheism? I am not aware of any. The famous statement from Isaiah, “there is no god besides me” occurs in the 44th chapter–Deutero Isaiah, written after the Captivity. Ezekiel, who rails against other gods, was written during the exile. There appears to be a very clear shift in perspective and it appears to be associated with the exile, itself. How is that not revolutionary?