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Monotheism is a form of theism, generally defined as the belief in a single deity - though it has also been defined as "the belief that one supreme being exists whose will is sovereign over all other beings".
Similar concepts in practice and somewhat related include:
- monolatry, which is an individual's acceptance that other gods exist but only one Deity is worthy of worship,
- henotheism, which places exclusive devotion on a single Deity, venerated as the unique God for a short period of time, usually for liturgical worship.
The best known monotheistic religions are the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Other monotheistic religions include Eckankar, Baha'i, and Sikhism, and also some sects of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism.
Monism and deism are not religious systems but philosophical schools, and they both revolve around one basic principle (e.g., reason, mind, matter, soul, etc.) that explains the origin of reality (which is not regarded as God, anyway); thus, they are not monotheisms.
Whilst Christianity is usually considered a monotheistic religion, but there are some critics who think that it is a matter of debate how "monotheistic" Christianity really is.
Protestant, Reformed, Restorationist, and Fundamentalist Christian Churches or denominations often accuse Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians of polytheism because of the practice of venerating saints. They especially point to the position of the Virgin Mary - she is the mother of Christ, has (in Roman Catholicism) been assumed into Heaven, and is the recipient of vast numbers of prayers. As a result, these other denominations claim that she is obviously a goddess in all but name, and have been known to bash Catholics as "Mary-worshipers".
Mormons too have been frequently criticized by other Christians (mostly Trinitarians) because they don't accept the Trinity as it was established in the Nicene Creed; Mormons are more prone to define their conception of the Godhead as a "social" interrelation between God the Father (the "Supreme Being" and "Creator"), God the Son and Holy Ghost: they all form the Godhead, but they're also autonomous and distinct Persons; the Father and the Son have physical bodies, whereas the Holy Ghost has a spiritual one (this definition of the Triune God has been accused of "Tritheism"). Thus, Mormons are charged with heresy by some Trinitarian Churches.
However, opponents of this position contend that it is essentially based in a double misunderstanding of the concepts of "god" and of "worship". In particular, saints (and angels) are not worshiped in the same sense as God is, but are rather said to be "venerated". In theological terms, the difference is between latria, or in Latin adoratio, which describes the worship of God, and (hyper-)dulia, or veneratio, which refers to the honoring or veneration of saints and other worthy people. A 2012 article in Free Inquiry magazine revealed how ancient Hebrews attempted to remove polytheistic notions from the original Hebrew scriptures, yet many remain in the Christian Bible.
Furthermore, there is the matter of the henotheistic form of monotheism which is believed ancient Jews practiced and it is well documented that some sects of Christianity were (and are) monolatristic.
The "Trinity" concept has many historical precedents, particularly within the Greco-Roman tradition, where tripartite deities such as Hecate are well known. A tripartite deity is essentially one god with three aspects or "faces". The perception of god in the Christian tradition could accurately be described as a tripartite deity, with the aspects of Father, Son and Spirit.
Christians generally reject this description, but within the realms of comparative religious studies and amongst some theologians, the term is widely regarded as an appropriate description of the "Trinity" concept.
Islam is generally regarded as a monotheistic religion. Whilst accepting Jesus as a prophet of the Abrahamic god, Muslims do not accept his divinity, and thus have no concept of "Trinity". Although technically forbidden by the Qu'ran and several hadith, the veneration of saints in Islam is extremely common, particularly in countries with a strong Berber culture, such as Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, and also in Egypt, where there there is a strong and long lasting Coptic tradition of sainthood "inherited" by Egyptian Muslims.
Satanism comes in both theistic and atheistic flavours. Theistic Satanists who worship Satan as a divine being, would strictly speaking also be regarded as monotheistic (or henotheistic if they also believe in the Christian God), though it is rarely regarded as such. Since theistic Satanism uses Abrahamic mythology for the basis of aspects of its own beliefs, it could be argued that Satanism is also a cousin of the Abrahamic religions, though both Satanists and Abrahamic adherents tend to reject this view. This situation is further confused by the fact that some Satanists use theistic imagery to personify and interact with an atheistic world-view, such as Setians.
Atenism is the belief in the Egyptian solar deity, Aten (Re was actually the sun itself, whilst the Aten was the rays that touch everything and everyone). It was introduced during the reign of the 18th Dynasty pharaoh, Amenhotep III. His son, Akhenaten (his name was originally Amenophis IV) effectively turned Aten into the chief God by (pretty much) outlawing all other deities in the Egyptian pantheon, and making the entire country follow a monotheistic religion (initially, Akhenaten made it a monolatry, but it turned monotheistic in his later years).
In 1939, Sigmund Freud wrote Moses and Monotheism, an essay where he theorized a connection between Akhenaten and Moses: Moses would have been an Egyptian priest of Akhenaten, which escaped from Egypt after the pharaoh's death and subsequent prohibition of Atenism; after that, he would have joined a Semitic tribe, the ancient Hebrews, convert them to Atenism, and finally get killed by them. So, according to Freud, Akhenaten's religion inspired the formation of Judaism. Freud's theory started an interesting debate among other psychoanalysts, as well as criticism and appraisal from Bible scholars, historians and Egyptologists. Various academics suggested that Freud's theory on the rise of Jewish monotheism was based on a psychoanalytic rationalisation of the Exodus (most of it relies on Oedipus complex, father–son conflictual relationship, and parricide), with the insertion of an entirely fictional story that would link the Exodus with Akhenaten's fall; however, there's no archaeological proof that all this has ever happened. For this reason, most biblical scholars and Egyptologists today consider Freud's essay to be "fanciful", no more than a "historical novel", which he championed, together with Moses' murder, "because he needed the fact for his psychoanalysis of Judaism".
Varieties of monotheism
There is a distinction between inclusive monotheism and exclusive monotheism. Inclusive monotheists believe in one ultimate deity, but they are willing to accept many different gods as being different names, forms, aspects, emanations, representatives, servants, etc., of this one ultimate deity.. Inclusive monotheism is compatible with polytheism; worship of many different gods is seen as a way of worshipping the one God indirectly. By contrast, exclusive or strict monotheists believe that no other gods than their preferred deity are real. Thus the deities worshipped by other people are either simply non-existent, demons masquerading as gods, human sorcerers or |conmen tricking their believers into worshipping them, and so on and so forth. The worship of other deities is seen as sinful indeed as a cardinal sin. Historically, Judaism, Christianity and Islam have adopted the exclusive monotheist position, though it's clear from the Old Testament that Judaism started out as a henotheist religion. The majority of the followers of these Abrahamic religions remain exclusive monotheists, but some liberal Christians have turned to inclusive monotheism instead.
Monotheism is often seen as related to political authoritarianism. The idea that we must subjugate ourselves to an all-powerful God is a central part of most monotheistic systems (in contrast, polytheism often allows picking and choosing, and suggests gods will either be in conflict or rule as part of a council or consensus). If God is seen as masculine, this aligns monotheism with patriarchy. Carol Delaney has written about the myth of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac as an exemplar of patriarchal control of society exerting power of life and death.
The Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin saw the existence of a monotheistic God as the greatest enemy to human freedom:
“”For, if God is, he is necessarily the eternal, supreme, absolute master, and, if such a master exists, man is a slave; now, if he is a slave, neither justice, nor equality, nor fraternity, nor prosperity are possible for him. In vain, flying in the face of good sense and all the teachings of history, do they represent their God as animated by the tenderest love of human liberty: a master, whoever he may be and however liberal he may desire to show himself, remains none the less always a master. His existence necessarily implies the slavery of all that is beneath him. Therefore, if God existed, only in one way could he serve human liberty - by ceasing to exist. A jealous lover of human liberty, and deeming it the absolute condition of all that we admire and respect in humanity, I reverse the phrase of Voltaire, and say that, if God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him.
- Benjamin Sommer Monotheism in the Hebrew Bible Bible Odyssey "Monotheism, then, is the belief that one supreme being exists whose will is sovereign over all other beings. These other beings may include some who live in heaven and who are, in the normal course of events, immortal; but they are subservient to the unique supreme being, unless that being voluntarily relinquishes a measure of control. It is not the number of divine beings that matters to monotheism but the relationships between them. A theology in which no one deity has ultimate power over all aspects of the universe is polytheistic (even if that theology knows only one deity); a theology in which one deity has supreme power is monotheistic (even if it knows other heavenly beings)."
- Nathan MacDonald, Deuteronomy and the Meaning of "Monotheism" (2012), pp. 53-54, Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck (2nd and Revised edition), ISBN 978-3-16-151680-1.
- A. Van Selms, "Temporany Henotheism", Symbolae Biblicae et Mesopotamicae (FS. F. de Liangre Böhl; [M. Beek-A. Kampen, eds.] Leiden 1974), pp. 341-348.
- Heiser, Michael S. "Monotheism, Polytheism, Monolatry, or Henotheism? Toward an Assessment of Divine Plurality in the Hebrew Bible" Bulletin for Biblical Research 18.1 (2008) 1–30
- What is henotheism / monolatrism / monolatry? Got Questions Ministries
- See the Wikipedia article on Absolutism.
- Fletcher, Paul (2009). "Trinitarian Politics". Disciplining the Divine: Toward an (im)political Theology. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.. p. 103. ISBN 9780754667162. Retrieved 2018-02-28. "[...] a monotheistic theology, a theology which finds its apotheosis in the early-modern conception of absolutist monarchy [...]. [...] the manifestation of monarchical power in its sacred and mundane semblances is not concluded at the threshold of modernity. A more thoroughgoing secularisation of political monotheism is conspicuous in the totalitarianisms of the twentieth century where the sovereign decision of the divine monarch is made wholly and completely immanent in the decisive moment of judgement performed by the earthly sovereign."
- "Exposing the Heresies of the Catholic Church: Mary Worship" Grace to You
- D. C. Peterson and S. D. Ricks, "Comparing LDS Beliefs with First-Century Christianity" (March 1988), lds.org
- T. L. Givens, P. L. Barlow, The Oxford Handbook of Mormonism (2015), pp. 638-640, NY, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-977836-2.
- "God the Father", True to the Faith (2004), 74–76, lds.org
- G. B. Hinckley, "The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost" (March 1998), lds.org
- See the Wikipedia article on God in Mormonism.
- Paulkovich, Michael B. (2012). "A Tale of Two Tomes". Free Inquiry 32 (5): 39–45.
- Gerald McDermott The Bible's many Gods
- "Polytheism and Christian belief" Journal of Theological Studies, NS, Vol. 57, Pt 1, April 2006
- Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian (1998), Chapter 2, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-58738-3.
- Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XXIII (1937-1939), "Moses and monotheism". London: Hogarth Press, 1964.
- Jan Assmann, From Akhenaten to Moses: Ancient Egypt and Religious Change (2014), pp. 65-66, The American University in Cairo Press, ISBN 978-977-416-631-0.
- James K. Hoffmeier, Akhenaten and the Origins of Monotheism (2015), pp. 245-246, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-979208-5.
- This is distinct from henotheism which accepts other gods as independent divine beings, this is actually a form of syncretism
- This is similar to how Greco-Roman religion associated foreign deities with various gods from its own pantheon (syncretism again).
- For instance the First Commandment quite clearly acknowledges the existence of other gods, but simply insists that YHWH be venerated above all other gods, since He "is a jealous god".
- "The Will of the Fathers: Review of Abraham on Trial: The Social Legacy of the Biblical Myth by Carol Delaney", Jenny Diski, London Review of Books, Vol. 20 No. 24 · 10 December 1998, pages 24-26
- God and the State, Mikhail Bakunin, 1871, Chapter 2