polytheism versus monotheism

Stipulation: for the purposes of this thread, I want to talk about religions / mythologies strictly as a construct of man, and leave what may or may not be the truth with a capital “T” out.
Why did polytheistic religions mostly die out? Or maybe the better question is why did monotheistic religions gain such wide acceptance? Better marketing (I’m think specifically of role of the Roman empire in spreading ideas)? Or did something fundamentally change about what man looked for / needed in religion as we became more advanced?


If you’ll notice, much of myth and legend regarding polytheistic deities dealt with a human trying to outwit a Being of more power and cunning than he but likewise limited by whatever was superior to It – Zeus, Odin, Fate, etc.

In that, you see the main difference: a polytheistic god is not one of a number of Gods in the monotheistic sense, as it is limited in its powers and abilities by those of other, coordinate or superior, gods.

I personally suspect that, just as the Divine Right of Kings phased out with the realization that the king was intrinsically no different than you or me, the idea of placating supernatural limited beings by worship died out. Even within polytheism, there were those focused on the Supreme God to the exclusion of the rest of the pantheon. From there to monotheism is only a short step.

My personal theory would be that monotheism is simply more useful as a means of social control than polytheism. Monotheism general corresponds with a certain set of rules for living. Do this, don’t do that, believe this, don’t believe that. This inherently corresponds with what monotheism is. If you believe in the existence of exactly one supreme consciousness then the set of rules follows naturally. Humans are supposed to follow whatever that one supreme consciousness desires.

Polytheism instead is far more ambiguous. Multiple deities means multiple desires, possibly not agreeing or even openly conflicting with each other. This makes it harder to nail down a specific set of rules for humans to follow. In that respect, then, if there’s more religious ambiguity, human beings are more likely to doubt and to question than to follow one set of rules.

This gives monotheistic religions the advantage in terms of spreading their religion. With one set of rules, it’s far easier to convince people to be single-mindedly dedicated to spreading the religion. With more ambiguous religions it’s difficult to achieve that single-mindedness. The most obvious example is Islam, which spread in less than a century from one city to total control over the Middle East, northern Africa, Spain, and much of central Asia. The Muslim warriors would face anything, up to and including certain death, because they had a clear and certain presentation of what and why they were fighting.

I have a feeling that devotees of Hinduism – by no means a small group of people – would have a debate with you. Some forms of Buddhism and Chinese beliefs very strongly resemble polytheism. Many have argued that Catholicism, with its many saints, many of which are associated with a particular attribute, are suspiciously polytheistic as well.
Polytheism in the Western world was overrun by Christianity and Islam, and there were other non-polytheistic contenders in the Roman world as well (Mithraism, especially, but there were others, too.) Why these should have displaced formal polytheistic religion, I don’t know. But there are new devotees to the older religions running around today.

My theory is that there is a one-way ratchet that favors intolerant religions over tolerant ones. A Christian of Muslim missionary moving to a polytheistic area isn’t a shocking threat to a polytheistic religion. After all, they’re just enouraging the worship of one particular god among many. Importation and cooption of foreign religious practices is common in polytheistic religions. So a missionary preaching worship of Jesus alongside those advocating the worship of Thor and Frey is perfectly acceptable. But in a Christian or Muslim area it would be completely unacceptable for a pagan to come in advocating worship of some other god than Allah or YHWH.

A religion that allows people to make up their own minds can be supplanted by other religions as fashions change. Eventually people will change to a form of religion that preaches against making up your own mind. Once you’ve changed to that form it’s much more difficult to change out, your community will shun you. Intolerance is a stable state, tolerance is unstable.

However, India is still largely polytheistic, even though it has a large Muslim minority, Japan and China are also a mishmash of traditional animism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. Within the last 100 years Africa has changed from a population that was mostly Animist to a population that is mostly Christian and Muslim. But you don’t see the reverse…a largely Christian or Muslim population converting en masse to animism.

It’s worth keeping in mind that many historical polytheisms were entirely happy to nick gods that they thought were worth having. It’s fairly easy to get a monotheistic god into a polytheistic system if the polytheists think it’s cool; that can provide some leverage to get into the worldview in the long run. At the same time, though, the polytheistic beliefs will often persist even in nominally polytheistic communities. There is a Polish word for having both pagan and Christian beliefs, dwojwierny, lit. “two faiths”; this was not uncommon in the Slavic world, though I don’t remember the Russian cognate. Dvoeverie, something like that. I was told by a Celtic recon a while back that the word ‘leprechaun’ may actually be a bastardised version of an epithet or title of . . . I think it was An Dagda.

The African Diaspora religions syncretised with Christianity not merely due to oppression and the violent putting down of their original religions, but because (generally speaking) they believed in a prime creator who was too distant and alien to be understood, who therefore communicated through a variety of lesser gods. Christianity offered an understandable prime creator with whom one could have a personal relationship, and often a whole bucketful of saints to adopt or equate with established gods; this had its appeal.

The idea that polytheism was an evolutionary step towards the superior monotheism was popular a hundred, hundred and fifty years ago; I am given to understand that it is largely discredited as being the same sort of cultural smugness as White Man’s Burden.

I would like to add on a bit of a tangent that those polytheists who are around find it hard to be heard in an environment that is dominated by the monotheisms. I used to post a lot more in religious threads in GD, but wound up discouraged by the fact that the input from a polytheist was apparently too alien to the axioms of the argument to even get acknowledged as existing most of the time.

Their are hundreds of millions of people who would disagree with you on this premise. Christians will claim their is but one God, but the He is comprised of three persons, The Father , the Son and the Holy Ghost. When you consider Satan and the archangels who are claimed to wield considerable power as well, it is not inconceivable to draw parallels with the Greek pantheon.

As far as the West is concerned, it just so happened that Constantine, for whatever reason, decided to favor Christianity. He reigned a long time, long enough to establish Christianity as the major religion in the Roman empire. After that it’s a no-brainer that Christianity won out, with the power of civilization behind it. Pagan nations converted either voluntarily out of a desire to “join civilization” (Russia for example) or were converted “by the sword”. The same could be said of Islam.

I tend to the feeling that polytheism hasn’t fully yet evolved out of the major religions at all. Roles of saints, prophets and other religious figures largely mimic the roles previously assigned to lesser gods. eg patron saints of animals, travellers, fishermen and the prayers given to these entities, to my mind has all the practical aspects of given worship for required responses that was the due of previous gods of these various disciplines.

I know that adherents would argue that saints aren’t lesser gods but intercessaries, I hold though that this is evidence of darwinian evolution in progress The lesser god’s have become saints, (men and women have taken up their role) In the future I don’t see why man should not evolve out the head god and realise that we can do that job too.


To answer this question, it is important to understand that while there is a clear contrast between pure polytheism (e.g. early Greek mythology) and pure monotheism (e.g. Islam), polytheism itself has a number of gradations.

Many religions deemed polytheist believe, for example, in the existence of many gods but worship only one considered the supreme being; a practice known as inclusive monotheism or Henotheism. There is also the belief that multiple Gods are different manifestations of a single divine power; this is the bedrock belief, for example, of the Hindu Smartas, and was argued by the Modalists to be an interpretation of the Christian trinity.

It is a tenet of Western history that the religious culture evolved from polytheism to monotheism. The evidence for the antiquity of polytheism is obvious; the early Egyptians, Sumerian, and Akkadians were all polytheists. Furthermore, comparative study of the various polytheisms of Western Europe hints that they may have derived, like Indo-European languages, from a common Proto-Indo-European Religion.

The short-lived monotheistic revolution of the Egyptian pharaoh Akenaten involved the elimination of all but one god in the Egyptian pantheon. This point is important because Akenaten’s destruction of all the newly false idols finds reflection in e.g. the Ten Commandments (God’s first/second commandment does not say there are no other gods, but that no other gods will be “held before” him, implying symbols of their worship should be destroyed). In my opinion this shows a general tendency for monotheism to drive out older polytheist beliefs. As someone noted earlier on this thread, there is an inherent tolerance built into polytheism, whereas monotheism by definition cannot accept another culture’s gods.

Zoroaster represents another important step in the development of Monotheism. Despite the underlying dualism between the Spenta Mainyu and the Angra Mainyu, these are clearly a clash of concepts–something like the struggle between the concepts of good and evil–and both are subservient to the all-powerful single god Ahura Mazda. In short, the religion’s metaphysics are cast as dualism, but worship and devotion were monotheistic.

But the importance of Zoroastrianism was its adoption by the Persians just as they were beginning to build an empire across the Near East. Religion and state power were inseparable in ancient cultures, and once a monotheistic religion was adopted by a ruling class in a powerful enough nation, it seemed inevitable it would spread as far as military and political power would take it.

One poster remarked that “polytheism hasn’t fully yet evolved out of the major religions at all,” and cites as an example the role of the saints in some Christian religions. It may indeed be human nature to ascribe the assumed unseen powers hovering over different aspects of life to different supernatural forces, and the Christian role of saints as intercessors is perhaps an accomodation of this tendency. But monotheism in general relies upon an ascent of mind and will to overcome indulging this tendency. By comparison, Christian religions accept the presence of sin even though the main goal of the religion is to avoid sin. In that sense monotheism may truly represent a mental evolution, but I’d hesitate to apply that to non-Western religions.

Dang, the collective wisdom of the Dope inspires and awes. Much fodder here I had not considered.


Most Hindus would tell you they have 350 million gods. They would then tell you that those are just manifestations of Brahman the one true god.
I had a hindu friend who told me that the deity his family would worship was made up four generations ago. At that time his family was in need of agricultural help, so they made a “god” to help the farm.
To me it sounds very similar to catholic saints.

Who says they died out? Father, Son and Holy Ghost? The Saints? Angels? :dubious: :dubious: :dubious:

Actually, the Hebrew texts of the Christian Bible refer to God as Elohim, which is plural. There is much evidence that the original texts of the Bible refer to the creation of the world as a work of a plurality of Gods, thus getting its roots from polytheism.

Of course this comes as no surprise to biblical scholars as much of what is found in the Bible is borrowed from a wide variety of other religions.

Monotheism didn’t triumph- Christianity and Islam triumphed. Judaism, for example, isn’t half as popular.

The answer is pretty obvious and doesn’t involve a lot of thinking about human nature. Christianty and Islam are the evangelical religions. They are the only religions that actively seek converts on a wide scale. Most religions keep a place for non-believers (Buddhist don’t care, Jews figure “great, they don’t have to do all this Jewish stuff” and Hindus figure they’ll end up Hindu one of these days), but in Islam and Christianity, non-belief is not a valid option.

And a non-evangelical religion can’t compete with an evangelical one. Even India has had to enact anti-conversion laws to stem the tide.

Jewish monotheism probably came about a a means to consolidate political power in Jerusalem by designating the Temple to Yahweh as the only legitimate place to offer sacrifice. There is a non-negligible degree of archaeological and literary evidence that El (or Elohim- a Canaanite word for “gods”) and Yahweh (whose origin is more obscure) were originally two separate traditions which were combined into one. This consolidation was also probably influenced by Zoroastrian monotheism during the Babylonian exile (as well as by other elements such as a cosmic battle between good and evil and a day of judgement)…

I am not a Catholic, but I do know, Catholics do not revere their saints as anywhere Godly, As I understand it,their understanding of the Trinity is like a clover it is one plant with three leaves, They only worship one God in three natures. They pray to saints like other people ask for prayers from other humans. They just believe that their Saints are with God and can pray for them. The same as to praying to the Virgin Mary to pray to God or her son(who they believe is God) for them.


I’m not sure I agree with this assessment. Evangelism is clearly a factor in the spread of Christianity and Islam, but it seems to be begging the question: Why are these religions (compared to polytheistic ones) evangelical?

Are any other religions (particularly polytheistic) evangelical? The late history of the Roman Empire provides us one example. Although the early Christian persecutions were likely the result of xenophobia rather than a systematic effort to preserve Roman polytheism, by the IVth century there seems to have been an active effort by followers of the old Roman religion to keep it alive; the controversy over the Altar to Victory is a good example. Of course by the time this defensive effort was undertaken it was too late for the old religion, but it still represents something akin to what we would call evangelism.

What is the general character of monotheistic evangelism? Well, we have clear examples (early Islamic caliphate, Roman empirtre after Constantine), where the evangelical nature is linked to political power (i.e. adherence to a faith is equivalent to supporting a political structure). This is something different than the modern understanding of evangelism (winning converts by persuasion), so I think you do have to consider human nature in understanding the spread of monotheism.

As you note, some Indian provinces have passed anti-conversion laws, but most of these banned forcible conversion (this includes conversion by fraud or allurement). Mere adoption of a non-Hindu religion as a free act is not illegal, and has in fact been a means for many to protest a wretched social condition (cf. the example of Christianity’s early appeal to the lower classes). Does evangelizing monotheism then have an advantage–with respect to evangelizing in appealing to the poor–over polytheism? One might argue that a montheistic religion presents a more orderly view of the universe, and therefore naturally provides a sense of divine justice that might be appealing to a society’s “losers”. I don’t know the answer, but list the question only to show there is more to the triumph of monotheism than simple evangelization.

I think the question that has to come first is why those religions are universalist.

Most ancient religions are tribal: these are the gods of our people (and of course they’re the best because our people are the best and we wouldn’t have substandard gods, now, would we?). There is no interest in converting other tribes to these gods, because one of the things that’s a marker of tribal membership is worshipping the right gods in the right way. “Of course they don’t worship our gods, they’re not our people.”

You can see this in surviving indigenous religions – some of them are pretty much dying out, but it’s fairly rare for them to accept an outsider to the tribe as someone who can convert to the religion. They’re not the right people; outsiders don’t get to know these gods. Some of the modern polytheisms from the pagan revival operate similarly; in some cases it’s racism, in others it’s, “No, you don’t get to have my family recipes and traditions just because you want them.”

There’s also that a lot of ancients considered it important to acknowledge the gods of the locations they were in, as they were much more likely to be present and available (and potentially irritated at them) than their native gods. “Of course I give offerings to the god of this place, I’m here.” There’s also an Egyptian legend of a shipwrecked sailor who meets a god on the island he wound up on; the god gives him assistance in return for a promise to bring the god’s Name back to Egypt so that it can expand its worshippers; on its own, it had its distinct area.

You get cases of conquest, where the gods of the victorious are imposed on the subjugated; this is not so much evangelism in my opinion as, “Our gods are the gods of this area by right of conquest. Show you’re a part of the legitimate social order by worshipping them”. Often, the gods of the conquered people continue to be worshipped too, or a syncretic development happens where They are equated with gods of the conquerors. (The Romans were really big on that latter.)

But I really think the big transition is to the idea that everyone in the world gets the same god. (I, personally, find that one baffling.) At which point the step to evangelism is fairly simple, though not necessary. I suspect the groundwork was laid in the Abrahamic monotheisms with some of the shifts that happened during the Babylonian captivity – “How can we sing the songs of the LORD in a foreign land?” is the tribal-local approach, and that had to change to survive that situation as a coherent people.

This is an excellent point. Ancient religions and the god(s) they espouse are typically tied to a particular people or location. This is somewhat easier to accept under a polytheistic religion–if there are X gods I know about, who says there aren’t others I don’t know about taking care of foreign peoples/places? However if my people follow a monotheistic religion, the next logical step is to assume not just one god watching over my tribe, but one god watching over all tribes. This is obviously a motive for evangelization.

Early Jewish religion, although monotheistic, seems to have retained the idea that Yahweh/Elohim was the God of Israel only. Though this isn’t the proper thread to debate whether Zoroastrianism influenced Jewish monotheism or the reverse, it is clear that neither of these monotheisms was universalist.

I agree conquest is not the same as evangelism; it does, however, offer an explanation for how a religion is spread to other peoples, and in my opinion was the dominant method in the ancient world.

Accomodation to the conqueror’s religion within the conquered people’s religious customs did occur, but the survival of a conquered people’s religion in any substantial form was rare; the preservation of the distinctive Jewish religion against Babylonian, Hellenic, and Roman conquerors was noted as exceptional by outside observers (e.g. Tacitus, Histories 5.8; fairly anti-Semitic to modern ears, so I’m making a personal decision not to link).

The Romans were notably unique in adopting elements of foreign religions (the adoption of the Phrygian goddess Magna Mater after the early 2nd century BCE conquest of Turkey is a key example). However, even they retained elements of religious conquest such as the deification of the conqueror (e.g. the temples raised to Julius Caesar during his lifetime in Pergamum and Tarragona, and the Augustalia priesthoods in the provinces under Octavian’s rule). I doubt any Roman–least of all Caesar and Augustus themselves–actually believed they were divine, but it shows the Romans understood that religion was a key part in maintaining a hold on newly-won peoples, and in my opinion this reflects a history of religious propagation by conquest.

I agree. The spread of monotheism could have grown using the same pattern as previous religion–by conquest. But the belief that everyone has the same god–universal monotheism–gave it a subsidiary channel for propagation. This, really, is the only way to explain the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire: Winning enough people to your side through persuasion first, then letting them use the political power they wield to grow the religion.