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Monotheism and Polytheism are umbrella terms used to categorize and group various religious traditions.
While it can be helpful to use these broad terms, what one quickly finds is that even a surface level examination of most religious traditions makes categorizing them more complex.
The following is a general examination of monotheism and polytheism with some discussion of the nuances and brief examples of the religions most commonly placed in these categories.
What is Monotheism?
Monotheism is the belief in a single, Supreme Being. This one God is responsible for creating the world. Some monotheistic religions are narrower or stricter on this concept of God than others. This can lead to controversy as to the nature and worship of other categories of spiritual beings.
Strict or narrow monotheism understands there to be only a single, personal god to be worshipped. This may also be called exclusive monotheism.
A broader or more general monotheism views god as a single supernatural force or a series of gods who share a common unity. Panentheism is a version of broad monotheism in which the divine resides within every part of creation.
Some religious systems are difficult to categorize into monotheism vs. polytheism.
The term Henotheism denotes the worship of a single supreme God without denying the possible existence of other lesser gods. Similarly, Monolatrism is the belief in many gods with the elevation of one god who is consistently worshiped.
Many examples of this exist in the ancient world and are viewed as early proto monotheism. Commonly one God would be elevated above a pantheon of Gods by the king or ruler of an ancient civilization for a time.
Major Monotheistic Religions
The Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all considered monotheistic religions. Islam and Judaism both tell the story of Abraham rejecting the idol worship of his family and culture in ancient Mesopotamia in favor of the exclusive worship of Allah or Yahweh respectively. Both religions are narrow and strict in their monotheistic view of a personal, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent God.
Christianity is also considered to be monotheistic, however the belief that God is triune (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) causes some to view it as broader in its monotheism or seek to categorize it as polytheistic.
Due to the breadth of different views within Hinduism, it is difficult to categorize. Most traditions stress that God is one, appearing in many forms and communicating in many ways. This could be viewed as monotheism or panentheism. Two of the major sects of Hinduism stressing a monotheistic view of God are Vaishnavism and Shaivism.
As one of the oldest continually practiced religions, Zoroastrianism has influenced Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and others. This religion is based on the teachings of an ancient Iranian, Zoroaster. It is difficult to date when he lived, but Zoroastrianism was prominent in ancient Iranian culture by the 6th century BCE. Some argue it has roots that go as far back as the 2nd millennium BCE, placing Zoroaster as a contemporary of Abraham.
Zoroastrian cosmology holds a radical dualism between good and evil with the ultimate conquest of evil by good. There is a single deity, Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord) who is the supreme being.
What is Polytheism?
Like monotheism, polytheism serves as a large umbrella for various belief systems and cosmologies. In general terms it is the worship of multiple deities. The actual practice of worshipping multiple gods distinguishes it from monotheistic systems which leave open the possibility of other deities. Yet, a distinction can be made between soft and hard polytheism.
Hard polytheism teaches that there are multiple distinct deities rather than simply personifications of various forces. The idea that all gods are one is a soft polytheistic or panentheistic concept rejected by hard polytheistic beliefs.
Polytheistic cosmologies are often complex, with many types and levels of divine beings. Many of these deities are connected to natural forces such as sun, moon, water and sky deities. Other deities are associated with ideas like love, fertility, wisdom, creation, death and the afterlife. These deities exhibit personality, character traits and unique powers or abilities.
Major Polytheistic Religions
There is anthropological and sociological evidence to support the idea that humans’ earliest forms of religion were polytheistic. The religions of well-known ancient cultures such as the Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Chinese practiced polytheism along with the Greeks and Romans of classical antiquity. The origins of monotheistic Abrahamic religions are set against a landscape of these polytheistic societies.
As mentioned above, Hinduism is difficult to categorize as fitting under monotheism or polytheism. Some of its most widespread traditions are portrayed as monotheistic though they would fall into broader understandings of that term which convey the concept of all gods being one or multiple emanations of a supreme being. Yet, many Hindus practice polytheism, the veneration of multiple deities.
A more modern polytheistic movement is Neopaganism. There are various forms of this movement, the best-known being Wicca. Adherents of these belief systems are seeking to recover lost religions of their ancestors. They view monotheistic religions, and Christianity in particular, as having colonized and co-opted the religion of native ancient people. Neopagan worship centers around ceremonies and rituals practiced at various sites such as ancient stone circles and earthen mounds.
Broadly understood monotheism is the worship of a single deity while polytheism is the worship of multiple deities. However, just exactly what one means by single or multiple is nuanced and understood differently by different religions.
In general, polytheistic religions have a bigger, more complex view of the supernatural because of the number of deities. These deities are often connected to natural forces or human traits such as love and wisdom. There is strong evidence that the first and oldest religions practiced by humans were polytheistic.
Monotheistic religions vary in their understanding of what it means to worship one supreme being, but that being is usually the creator of everything and exhibits omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotent.
The Abrahamic religions are all monotheistic along with some smaller groups such as Zoroastrianism. These tend to have strong ethical teachings, a dualistic view of the cosmos and see themselves as standing against polytheism.