Monotheism vs Polytheism

I have long been under the impression that “monotheism” and “polytheism” are two of the most unfortunate words in English, or in any language.  The two words present one who hears them with a near intellectual necessity to think the concepts are speaking about the same sort of thing, in exactly the same way, as “monosyllabic” means a word of only one syllable, and “polysyllabic” means a word with more than one syllable.

“Polytheism” does mean “many gods.”  However, “monotheism” does not mean “only one god,” but rather “God, rather than the gods.” The two terms seem to be saying something parallel, on the same level, but they are not.  This generates endless confusion, because monotheists are NOTHING AT ALL LIKE POLYTHEISTS.  In fact, in may be the case that all polytheists ARE ALSO monotheists—at least in one sense of the term.

I was trying to track down the source of these execrable terms. I had assumed some idiot scholar somewhere was responsible—and I was eager to add his name to my list of people who will get a well-deserved beating if I ever get my hands on a time machine—but the truth turns out to be much more complicated and interesting, as truth often does. And the idea that they are “parallel” terms on a par with one another, seems to have been an kind of accident of language, as much as anything else, (although there is some scholarly blame, as we’ll see).

Apparently, “polytheist” was originally the coinage of the philosopher Philo of Alexandria.  Now, Philo was both a Jew and a Platonist and would never be so stupid as to fall into the confusion above—just the opposite, in fact.  In coining the term “polytheist,” he was attempting to underscore to his Greek audience the manifest absurdity of the idea of putting together “many” and “gods” (he also needed a more polite and non-Jewish word for “Gentiles”).

Philo was a learned Jew of Alexandria who was of the “middle camp” of Jews.  In those days, in Alexandria especially, the Jewish community was roughly divided into three camps, of roughly equal size: some Jews were Jewish purists, who wanted to wrap themselves up in Jewish tradition and keep out encroaching Hellenism at all costs.  And some Jews (like everyone else) saw the glory and greatness of Greek civilization and wanted to Hellenize. Philo was an advocate of the middle way between the Jewish Separatists and the Hellenizers: while he recognized the greatness of Hellenic culture and thought, he held that the Jews ought not be be considered inferior, comparable to the many other barbaric and unsophisticated cultures that the Greeks had simply swamped and absorbed.


Nothing could make the Jews stop being the Jews, not even the Greeks—and that is saying something. And for all the glory and greatness and excellence of the Greeks, it was clear that there was SOME ONE ESSENTIAL THING that the Greeks were lacking, and this was precisely what the Jews HAD: namely, a proper knowledge of the nature of God.

Philosophically speaking, the Greeks could arrive at a correct conception of God.  Socrates was already aware that “the gods” were not “the God” (to whom Socrates frequently referred—indeed, it was Socrates’ rather evident disdain for ‘the gods’ that made the charge of atheism leveled against him plausible).  Plato arrived at the ἡ ἰδέα του ἀγαθού or the Idea of the Good, which as Socrates says in The Politeia (The Republic), is “still beyond being, exceeding it in dignity and power.”  Aristotle arrived at the idea of the “prime mover” or absolutely first mover of all things, which is an unmoved mover.

And certainly no one can doubt the mythological and poetic richness of Greek mythology and tradition.  Aesthetically, the gods of Olympus are as remarkable as anything else the Greeks set their minds and hands to.  But Greek mythology, beautiful fantasy that it is, falls rather short as actual theology.

Between the splendid gods of the Greeks and Plato’s The Good or The One, there lies a gulf.  It was precisely this gulf, or gap, that the early Jewish-Hellenic philosophers such as Aristobolus and Philo were convinced that the Jews could fill: the Greeks needed the Jewish understanding of the ONE GOD, of THE GOD who is THE GOOD, the God who is not a magnificent being among beings, nor an abstract and impersonal first principle like Parmenides’ BEING IS, but is the I AM.  For the Greeks, the idea of a personal being was practically a contradiction to the idea of The One or The Good.  The particularity involved in being an I seemed to them to exclude the universality of Being. The Jews, Philo argued, were the people who had learned how to see God precisely as the eternal I AM.

So Philo coined the term “polytheism” as a kind of barbed term. An intelligent, educated Greek could hear the dissonance in the word.  There is something wrong about it, something unstable, deliberately so.  The “poly” is at odds with the “theos.” If the nature of divinity is to be ultimate or highest or first, how could there be many such? Deep down, the Greeks knew well enough that what really mattered was ‘the God’ (as Socrates would had said) and not the various gods of the myths and stories.  The idea of divine unity was one of the central (and (somewhat) hidden) teachings of many of the Greek “mystery” cults. The word “polytheist” would have struck the educated Greek ear like “manyTheOne-ist”—it is a word that is literally its own refutation.  By calling the Greeks “polytheists”, Philo was attempting to jar them into philosophical questioning, to awaken questions to which, he intended to show, the Jews had answers that the Greeks did not. It wasn’t an easy task to convince the Greeks that another people had insights they did not, but it wasn’t impossible either: the Greeks were never averse to borrowing any idea from any other people they encountered, and everyone, even the Greeks, recognized that the Jews were somehow, for good or ill, a unique and singular people.

Philo met with at least partial success and can be perhaps be credited with laying some of the ground upon which Christianity would take root and grow a couple centuries later. But we are chasing the words “polytheist” and “monotheist,” so we must leave fair Alexandria, a city made half of philosophy and half of demotic riots.

“Polytheism” appears to have lain dormant as a term until the French philosophe Jean Bodin resurrected it in 1580, taking it over directly from Philo.  It reappeared in an era newly obsessed with the idea of classification.

“Monotheism” seems to be an English coinage, from various theological debates that centered around a group of called the Cambridge Platonists, which included, among others, Ralph Cudworth and Henry More.  The O.E.D. attributes the first use in print of “monotheist” to More’s 1660 An Explanation of the Grand Mystery of Godliness, but there seems to be some evidence that Cudworth used it first.  Cudworth is known to be the first to use “theism” in print, which he also coined, and it is likely that the terms came about in discussion between Cudworth and More, who were likeminded, and close friends.

“Monotheism” in the original usage of Cudworth and More seems to be equivalent to “pantheism,” the “mono-” being taken as the idea that there is just one thing, and that thing, everything that is, is God.

Cudworth and More were both “Cambridge Platonists” but were also thoroughly men of their time, that is to say, of the early Enlightenment.  The were part of what scholar Nathan MacDonald has rightly spoken of as “an explosion of ‘-isms'” at that period in Western intellectual history.   MacDonald cites N. Lash on the point:

It is, I think, almost impossible to overestimate the importance of the massive shift in language and imagination that took place, in Europe, in the seventeenth century; a shift for which de Certeau has two striking phrases: the ‘dethroning of the verb’ and the ‘spatialization of knowledge.’

Suffice it to say that a massive shift in understanding was occurring, one in which European thinkers discovered a vast new love of categorization and classificatory schemata, and Cudworth and More became the dominant theological voices that shaped the discourse in English. Simply consider this: how many people, today, would think it unusual to USE the term “monotheism”? And yet, the term dates from 1660, and has neither a clear nor direct connection with, for example, Christianity.

In fact, when one considers it, “the number of deities involved” seems to be an obviously terrible and completely misleading way of dividing the world’s various “religions.” What has a mere quantity got to do with anything substantial?

So Cudworth and/or More coined the term “monotheism” (and well as “theism”, by Cudworth) in the mid-17th century, but as everyone should be aware, those who coin a term do not necessarily always get to be the ones who determine its meaning.

From the day of More and Cudworth, the term “monotheism” has had a long and torturous history, undergoing at least THREE major scholarly reconceptualizations, plus innumerable idiosyncratic uses of the term by individual scholars, either in connection with this tradition or not.

The most complete account I’ve been able to find of the history of the word “monotheism” is Nathan MacDonald’s Deuteronomy and the Meaning of Monotheism, to which I refer any reader interesting a truly elaborate account of the term across the 3 1/2 centuries it has been in use, in all its twists and turns.

Despite the fact that scholarly use has always been rather nuanced, although not consistent, when the words “monotheism” and “polytheism” passed into popular usage, it was probably inevitable that they would be put together as parallel terms by those unfamiliar with the historical, scholarly uses of the terms.  Rather, the forms of the words, just by themselves, suggest exactly the same sort of parallelism which is implied by pairs such as “monosyllabic and polysyllabic” or “monogamy and polygamy.”

The point to emphasize are these terms are not from within any given faith or religious tradition. No “polytheists” even called themselves “polytheists.”  Indeed, for polytheisms, there could hardly be a more irrelevant question than the number of the gods. Nor did those who were categorized by Enlightenment scholars as “monotheists” ever think of themselves under such a heading.  It was, indeed, absolutely crucial for the Hebrews that YHVH was absolutely ONE and absolutely OTHER than the various gods of the various other peoples.  But of course the ONENESS and UNIQUENESS of YHVH has nothing to do with mere enumeration, as if one were to count “the gods of the Hebrews” and arrive at the result ‘one’.”

So it eventually happened—and this was probably inevitable—that “polytheism” came to mean, in the popular mind, “belief in many gods” and “monotheism” “believe in only one god.”  This was not what the term “monotheism” was ever meant to express, but no matter. The form of the words was enough to make the case in most people’s minds.

This is conceptually ruinous in several ways. (1) The alienness of the words to the faiths and traditions they attempt to classify, causes systematic misunderstanding of those faiths and traditions.  (2) The false appearance that the words were MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE, when they are not. (3) And worst of all, the tendency strongly engendered by these rather impoverished concepts to conflate God with the gods; the ONE GOD, who is the absolute source of all things with the various “powers and principalities” which populate the spiritual world.  This conflation would be not unlike confusing the Platonic form of DOG for a dog—except it is much worse, since there is less distance between a dog and the intelligible form of dog—both are creatures, particular dogs participate in the form of dog, etc.—than between God and the gods.

God has no more to with the gods than He does with rocks, planets, electrons, or assault rifles.  The only creatures of which we are aware than have any connection to God not shared by all other creatures are human beings, and this because we are created by God in the image of God—or at least so the Christian teaching has it.

Vedantic Hinduism is a good case in point of the near-complete uselessness of the terms “polytheism” and “monotheism.”  Hindus believe in literally millions of gods, so they are obviously polytheists.  And yet, at the same time, all the millions of gods are created by Brahma; they are merely the “dreams of Brahma” (as are men and the world) and will vanish when Brahma wakes.  And yet we are still not done—because Brahma is much more like Plato’s Demiurge, who creates the cosmos by giving recalcitrant matter form, than Brahma is like the God of the Jews or the Christians.  Still beyond Brahma is Brahman, which is the absolute and ultimate beginning and end of all things, including Brahma, creator and sustainer of all lesser things.  Very clearly, it is Brahman—not Brahma, and certainly not any of the millions of other Hindu gods—that Jews and Christians would recognize as God (albeit, they would say, God imperfectly understood, due to the lack of direct divine revelation).  Brahma in his relation to Brahman seems a little parallel to the heresy of Arianism, which held Christ to be the first and highest creature of God the Father—something the Church emphatically rejected.  Let Saint Nicolaus’ breaking Arius’ nose at the Council of Nicaea stand for the whole of the orthodox Christian tradition on this point (Yes, Santa Claus punched out the arch-heretic. It only makes me think the better of him.)  And much the same could be said about Plato’s idea of the Good—this is what Jews and Christians would recognize as God, and not the Demiurge spoken of in the Timaeus or the Nous spoken of in the Philebus.

To bring this to a close, my judgment is that the terms “polytheism” and “monotheism” are at best useless and in truth, usually positively harmful as aids to understanding.  As concepts, they do not clarify the things they name, but in fact, positively mislead and distort them. I suggest that you cease using them.  They do no good, and considerable harm.

By far the greatest harm the terms do is make it too easy to confuse God with the gods, something which, as I have noted, is the most basic distinction one needs to be able to make, in order to talk meaningfully about God.  See my posts God vs the gods,  Which God Exists?, God, gods, and kamikazes, as well as my reblog of the Maverick Philosopher, Bill Vallicella’s “Some Of Us Just Go One God Further“, in which he takes apart the banal atheist trope about theists “being atheists about other gods.”




2 comments on “Monotheism vs Polytheism

  1. Reblogged this on Chris Lansdown and commented:
    A fascinating description of the history of the words polytheism and monotheism:


  2. robalspaugh says:

    Excellent. I feel bad that I pinged you on this a few months back and then twiddled my thumbs while you went digging, but the results are really useful indeed.

    In my earlier years of teaching I would get questions about these terms (and of course the a-variant), with a sort of accusation that by not using them or teaching them I was leaving out something important. Not knowing better, but feeling wrong about it, I started slipping these little words in to ’round out’ my material.

    Now you’ve given me an account of why I didn’t think to use them in the first place and why I shouldn’t have bothered. But now I have another fun tangent lesson for the kiddos, and that’s half the fun. Thanks.


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