By Vexen Crabtree 2014
Monotheism is a religion or belief system that involves just one God. Different religions have different numbers and types of gods. Those with no Gods such as Buddhism and Taoism are atheist religions, and Humanism is an atheist philosophy. Those with many Gods are polytheist, including Hinduism, ancient Roman Religions, Wicca, most types of Paganism and old Semite religions. The most famous monotheistic religions are Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism.
Judaism, Christianity, Islam are called the "Abrahamic religions" because they share the same set of Hebrew stories featuring Abraham, who may have lived in around the 19th century BCE, although some scholars today question his status as a historical figure1. The Bible and the Qur'an contain accounts of Abraham that are "somewhat different"1 and there is no archaeological or genetic evidence that any peoples in the Middle East are descended from such a father-figure. David Leeming in "Jealous Gods & Chosen People: The Mythology of the Middle East" calls him a "mythical hero and father"2.
Most monotheistic religions have a god that has certain common characteristics, and it is this type of religion and this type of god that this website is largely about. The typical monotheistic god is Omnipotent (infinitely powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), the supreme creator and First Cause of all existence, benevolent (perfectly and purely good-natured) and personal (it cares about, and communicates with, individual people). More about the assumed character-traits of the monotheistic god: "The Assumptions about God and Creation, of Both Theists and Atheists" by Vexen Crabtree (2014)
Monotheism is an ancient idea, and it appears in various religions and cultures for thousands of years before the emergence of modern-day monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The idea was codified most clearly in ancient Greece amongst the pagan sages, but long before then it had already appeared in Egypt, 3400 years ago and perhaps as long as 4000 years ago.
“Monotheism probably owes its origins to ancient Egypt. From 1379BC to 1362BC, during the time that the Israelites lived there, the country was ruled by Amenhotep IV. He substituted a universal and virtually exclusive supreme god, Aten, for the traditional polytheistic pantheon [...]. So convinced was Amenhotep of the existence of this supreme deity that he changed his name to Akhenaten, meaning literally, "raising the high name of Aten".
No icon of this super-deity was allowed but, in Akhenaten's imagination, the god was symbolized by the disc of the sun, first winged and with outstretched hands in imagery made famous by various Hollywood movies, and then more stylized with the cobra symbol of the goddess Wadjet. [...] The god Aten and the notion of the pharaoh returning to his creator, the Sun, was in use in at least 2000 BC.”
Robert Schroëder (2007)3
“Five hundred years before Christ, Xenophanes had already written: 'There is one God, always still and at rest, who moves all things with the thoughts of his mind.' The legendary Egyptian sage Hermes Trismegistus is credited with teaching: 'Do you think there are many Gods? That's absurd - God is one.' [...] The Pagan sage Maximus of Tyre declared: 'The one doctrine upon which all the world is united is that one God is king of all and father.'”
Pythagorus, the famous mathematician and leader of a pagan religion, preached single-god pantheism as part of a mystery religion. Jewish monotheism was not present at the inception of Judaism - "early Jewish texts indicate that 'the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob' was seen as the most powerful among the many gods and goddesses [...] but by about 700 BCE, belief in the existence of only one God (monotheism) had become common in Judaism"5. Christianity started out diverse, with a various number of gods, but from the 4th century the idea of the Trinity was made prominent. The confusion and battles between polytheistic Christians and Trinitarian ones led to an opening into which a new religion quickly spread. This new religion was clear, unambiguous and stern about how many Gods there were: exactly one. Islam converted nearly half the Roman Empire, and the Qur'an specifically condemns the Trinity as non-monotheistic.
Religions are combinations of two elements. Firstly, the grassroots practices and cultural norms of the lay believers. And secondly, the high-brow theologizing and intellectualization of the religious professionals. When academics try to categorize and define religion, they often get caught up arbitrarily with just one type6. The two forms of a religion often struggle against each other. Folk practices are resilient to top-down declarations of what is or isn't supposed to be part of a religion, and often reforming popular beliefs results only in name-changes and other surface changes, leaving underlying practices more or less as they were. When academics codify the religion they often fail to account for - or completely ignore - the practices of the laypeople. When documenting a religion we cannot rely only on the testimonies of the masses, who might en masse be taken in by fads, nor rely only on the definitions of the professionals, academics and clerics, who only represent a small portion of believers. Therefore the only pragmatic route is to consider religions to be pluralities and umbrella terms.
The grassroots of a religion is nearly always a combination of beliefs and practices from multiple historical sources. Magical thinking, ritualistic habits and popular beliefs all tend to survive within a culture even though its official religion may change. On the other hand, the formal and scholarly religion of clerics and religious professionals is complex, more complete and resilient to change. Theology is demanding to study and is frequently very convoluted because the religion's scholars debate the weakspots and difficult spots of the tenets and work out complex philosophies to circumvent them. The more difficult the area of study of a religion, the more maze-making its scholars will do in attempts to explain irrationality. But the more complex and difficult the intellectual aspect of a religion, the more the lowly masses will fail to comprehend or implement it, and the bigger the divide will be between the cultural and scholarly versions of the religion. A religion is always a contradictory mix of both what the leaders say the religion is, plus what the mass of the actual followers do and believe.”
Current edition: 2014 Dec 29
Second edition 2010 Feb 15
Originally published 1999 Feb 22
Parent page: The Bane of Monotheism: Against Single-God Religions
All #tags used on this page - click for more:
Breuilly, O'Brien & Palmer
(1997) Religions of the World. Hardback book. Subtitled: "The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, & Festivals". Published by Lionheart Books. By Elizabeth Breuilly, Joanne O'Brien & Martin Palmer. Published for Transedition Limited and Fernleigh Books.
Budge, E. A. Wallis. (1857-1934)
(1921) The Babylonian Legends of the Creation.
Clarke, Peter B.. Peter B. Clarke: Professor Emeritus of the History and Sociology of Religion, King's College, University of London, and currently Professor in the Faculty of Theology, University of Oxford, UK.
(2011) The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion. Paperback book. Originally published 2009. Current version published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
(2011) Defining Religion: A Social Science Approach. This essay is chapter 14 of "The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion" by Peter B. Clarke (2011) (pages 263-279).
(2004, Ed.) Jealous Gods & Chosen People: The Mythology of the Middle East. Hardback book. Published by Oxford University Press.
(2007) Cults: Secret Sects and Radical Religions. Hardback book. Published by Carlton Books.