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Monotheism versus Polytheism
Monotheism vs. Polytheism
by Amir Arsalan

Within the thread "Tribute to Russell"

Tribute to Bertrand Russell

I touched upon the concepts of Polytheism and Monotheism briefly. This is a noteworthy comparison in and of itself, and so I will now review it again in its own thread, and further expand upon it.


L. The classical philosopher, Bertrand Russell with classical pipe
R. The modern philosopher, Bertrand Russel with modern pipe

It is a most curious finding that theists today contend that polytheism is not only historically archaic but also intellectually archaic as compared to monotheism. They hold that monotheism is morally and logically superior to polytheism. So let us explore them both in order to reach an educated conclusion.

I. Intellectual and Moral Comparisons

Religions of all forms were initially created in order to fulfill a function. That function has primarily been to provide explanations regarding the world. The explanations have ranged form physical to philosophical in nature. From the basic physical explanation of lightning to the most complex philosophical explanation of the existence of the universe, religion has served as the source of the explanation.

It was this query and search that gave birth to religion. It was this same search that incidentally also gave birth to science - but that contrast is the topic of another discussion.

Since all humans share the search for explanations about the world, independent but amazingly similar pathways to religion emerged in different parts of the world. An examination of history reveals that uniformly this pathway led to polytheism. The only exceptions are to a small extent Zoroastrianism and a larger extent Judaism, which I will return to shortly. The point is that if a culture is not influenced by another's religion and is allowed to independently invent its own religion, in the overwhelming majority of cases that religion will be polytheistic.

So then the question emerges as to why the natural inclination of man is toward polytheism. The answer lies within the initial fundamental role of religion itself. Religion's primary initial role has been to provide explanations regarding nature. The universe and the questions it poses are quite diverse. Thus, diverse answers are given in response, which are in turn linked to diverse sources, or Gods. A God is assigned to explain the behavior of water or the seas, another to explain lightning, another to explain the sun, another to explain death, and so forth.

The other commonality of various religions has been their anthropomorphisms. "Did God create man in his own image, or did man create God in his own image?" pondered Nietzsche. In all religious motifs the Gods are more powerful and immortal representations of men. In this way, man attempts to better relate to nature. Furthermore, the anthropomorphism of the Gods allows man the opportunity to plead with them and perhaps persuade them to act in his favor. Man can plead to a different God as the circumstance and subject dictates.

Man's social structure is also reflected in his Gods. As man's social world is structured and tiered, so is his Gods'. Some Gods are more powerful and dominant than others. Usually, there is a supreme God, such as Zeus. As in real life, a certain person may have his favorite God, and vice versa.

A multitude of Gods provides variety of choice. One may not fair so well with one particular God, but has the opportunity to plead with another, which may view his cause more favorably. The variety of choice of polytheism also carries a balance. The Gods balance each other out, and absolute and irrefutable power is not in the hands of one, but many. In a way, polytheism compares to a democracy at best or an oligarchy at worse in contrast to monotheism's absolute dictatorship.

It is within monotheism that one finds the concepts of omnipotence and omni-benevolence. Within polytheism, no one God has all the powers and therefore lacks authority over every aspect of the world. In this respect, the shortcomings of the world are at least a little more understandable since no being has complete power. So from a logical perspective, it is actually more difficult to disprove the polytheists' Gods than it is to disprove the monotheists' God. A great pitfall of monotheism is the inability to reconcile an omnipotent and omni-benevolent God with the flawed, imperfect world and the evil within it. Within polytheism, there is a logical shield that provokes the defense that the multiple Gods interact in a manner that causes such shortcomings in the world. No God has complete authority over everything.

From the perspective of practice, since these Gods don't truly exist one may wonder why such a distinction is even relevant. It certainly is not relevant in the sense of the Gods themselves, but becomes very relevant in the effect that such a belief system has upon the men that practice such a faith. Polytheism's multiple Gods impresses better religious tolerance upon men. If there are ten Gods, it is possible that there are a hundred. If a hundred exist in one's country, perhaps a thousand more exist outside of it. The religion of other men does not provoke contempt. The Gods of other men are not seen as diverting, heretical and evil. The men that believe in those Gods are not in turn branded as heretical and evil and dealt with accordingly.

In ancient times religious wars and persecution were unheard entities. With the arrival of Judaism, Christianity and Islam did such horrific practices bare fruition.

Within the context of religious tolerance also lies a large domain of morality. Religious intolerance leads to ethnic intolerance, political intolerance, and general intolerance of all others except oneself. Religious intolerance is the doorway to dictatorship, sadism, and oppression in all of its forms.

"I AM THE LORD THY GOD, THOU SHALT NOT HAVE STRANGE GODS BEFORE ME." This is the first commandment. The first commandment, which usually signifies the most important of all other entities within a list. The very first, and probably the most important commandment of theism is to denounce all other Gods. Within this first commandment lies religious intolerance of all others. Polytheism is thus fiercely opposed by the monotheist, even though the polytheist cares nothing about the monotheist's God.

One wonders how monotheism which is not morally superior managed to dominate the world while polytheism faded away. Again, the answer lies within monotheism's intolerance. The very thing that made monotheism morally inferior was also its vehicle of expansion. Via intolerance and force, all others were squeezed into oblivion. Monotheism spread first against polytheists, but when they ran out, the different sects of monotheism opposed each other and engaged in a never ending struggle to dominate and extinguish the other's light. It is a struggle that has been ongoing and has no end in sight.

The first completely monotheistic religion to develop was Judaism. However, it obtained some of its framework from several other religions, one of which was Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism was the first religion to divide the universe into two camps: Good and Evil. A Good God versus a Bad God epic was born. Duality thus developed in its infancy.

Prior to this Zoroastrian concept, purely good Gods and purely evil Gods did not exist. Some Gods were more righteous than others, and by nature were the masters of certain domains that one may consider more or less desirable, but none were purely good or evil Gods.

Citing the Greek pantheon as an example, no God acted always righteously and no God acted always deviously. The God of the underworld was Hades, brother to Zeus. Hades was not evil by any stretch of the imagination. He was simply the God that was allocated the position of ruling over the underworld and dead men's souls. Zeus was no more virtuous than Hades, or any other God for that matter.

This is in stark contrast to the Zoroastrian concept of Good God (Ahura Mazda) Bad God (Ahriman). By associating virtue and goodness with one God and evil and darkness with another, a polarization occurred in the history of religion that would have disastrous consequences. The polarity of good versus evil destroys shades of gray and tolerance. It beckons humanity to take up arms and join the forces of good (which is defined differently depending on who is doing the defining) in battle against the forces of evil. It sets up an artificial showdown which ought not exist. It serves as a valuable excuse to conveniently call others servants of evil so that their extinguishment may be justified. It allows fascists, conquerors, and oppressors to simply invoke divine guardianship over the good cause in order to wield their ruthlessness over their enemies without any other rational explanation offered.

This first appearance of duality of good and evil in the Zoroastrian Gods served as a precursor to the framework of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam which expanded this concept and carried out all of the above inhumanities in the name of a Good God.

Going back to the Greek Gods, they were very similar to humans, in that in different circumstances they acted with good intentions, whereas in others acted with poor intentions. In one story, a particular God may be the protector of a hero or people, whereas in another incident that same God may be the antagonist of the story. The Gods themselves acted morally or immorally, and morality was not at all intertwined with the Gods.

Morality was a very distinct concept from the Gods themselves and existed independently from them. This is a very important distinction between monotheism and polytheism.

Within polytheism, since Gods were neither good nor evil, morality did not need to be mixed up with them. However, as the monotheistic God developed, which was defined as a good God, it forced that God to be fused with morality. There was no other way around it. If out of the concept of duality, only a Good God remains along with his nemesis (the Devil), then the goodness of that God must be emphasized and defined in order to explain his nature and the ultimate explanation as to why only that one God exists. How else can the goodness of that God be explained and emphasized, if he is not married to morality?

As a side note, it is worth mentioning that by invoking a God that is concerned with morality, monotheism falls into yet another logical pitfall when attempting to explain God's existence based on the moral argument. I will not repeat the argument and its pitfall, but for those interested in reading about it they may refer to my post "Tribute to Russell," Part 2 (Why I Am Not a Christian), Section D: The Moral Argument For Deity.

Tribute to Bertrand Russell

In short, out of "Good God Bad God" was born monotheism, which was subsequently forced to maintain its one God's hold on morality. Ironically, monotheism's forced grasp for morality is a reason for its own ultimate immorality.


Bertrand Russell

Monotheism forcibly mended morality with its own God, causing strict definitions of the morality mandated by its respective God, which the clergy of each religion were more than happy to deal out. The so-called religious experts materialized and using nothing more than the cultural trend of the time began carving laws into stones that were subsequently enforced upon the population whether that population liked it or not. As these laws were presented to be from their particular God, they were seen very stringently and thus resistant to change. With changing times and sociological evolution conflicts arose between the evolved notions of morality and the old, dogmatic laws. Given the monotheist's characteristic intolerance of others, it is no surprise as to which party usually was on the receiving end of God's justice and moral code. In short, the monotheistic claim to morality has historically caused the monotheistic religions to act immorally secondary to the intolerance that such a claim to morality enticed.

II. Polytheism within Monotheism

In the above paragraphs, the intellectual and moral inferiority of monotheism was explained. Now, let us explore another aspect: monotheism's secret incorporation of polytheism within its practice.

No coherent argument has ever been presented on the inter-relationship of the Christian Trinity - the God, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Many attempts at explanation have been given by the theists on the matter, but each sounds just as contradictory and illogical as the next. The vaguest of all is the Holy Spirit. Isn't God's role to act as the "Holy Spirit?" How is another God-like spirit entity both a part of God, yet distinct from him? Furthermore, if God has a Son through a mortal mother, is that son not a half-God, half-mortal, or Demi-God? Here are three different Gods, clearly a part of polytheistic belief, yet billed as a single God within monotheistic beliefs. A God which has reproduced has clearly become pleural, thereby falling within the realm of polytheism. Yet, Christians avidly deny this. The Christian reluctance to abandon the concept of the Trinity, all the while maintaining its grasp to monotheism serves as yet another of its logical inconsistencies.

This inconsistency is not limited to just the concept of the Trinity, or even to Christianity alone. The dozens and dozens of Saints show the unconscious acceptance of polytheism within Christianity. These Saints are seen with a certain super-human quality about them. Miracles, guardianship, and supernatural events are linked to them. Specifically, each is a "patron saint" of a certain act, event, or group of people. Is that not how the Gods of a Pantheon were viewed? Each with his or her own specialty and area of protection?

Added to this are the angels. What exactly are angels? They belong outside of the natural and physical world, and are God's workers / helpers / collaborators. They certainly have supernatural and super-human abilities. They are therefore Gods, if only subservient and less powerful ones than the supreme God. This is flagrant polytheism.

The concept of angels applies to Islam as it does to Christianity. Idolatry was strictly prohibited in both religions specifically as an attempt to eliminate other polytheistic religions that relied heavily on pictures and graven images. Last year, the Moslems were in an uproar because the image of Mohammad was depicted. They claimed it was because his image is not to be portrayed, but the real reason was that they did not like the manner in which it was portrayed.

I recall pictures of Mohammad and Ali hung up on frames everywhere I went as a child in Iran. Every male in my family also had a golden neck-chain with a picture of either Ali or Mohammad on it. An image of religious people carved on a piece of gold, and displayed on the neck for all to see. Is that not idolatry, and in following of pagan polytheistic practices? The same is true with Christians, who have graven images of Jesus on a cross, and pictures of Saints in Churches.

In line with the Christian Trinity is the close analogy of Ali's divinity. The Shia hold him as almost God's equal.

Ali khoda nist
Vali as khoda joda nist

Meaning Ali may not be God, but he is not separate from him. Is that not calling him a God in his own right, only slightly inferior to the supreme God?

These examples of the secret incorporation of polytheism into monotheism are cited to illustrate the natural human desire and attraction to polytheism as opposed to monotheism, as well as monotheism's hypocrisy and self-deceit. Although polytheism was forcefully driven out of men's lives, there is a curious attraction that it still maintains.

III. Conclusion

The intellectual and moral poorness of monotheism as compared to polytheism have been demonstrated in this essay. From a developmental standpoint, it is shown that man's natural tendency is towards polytheism. However, the reason why monotheism replaced polytheism had more to do with the incorporation of politics into religion than the merits of monotheism itself.

Since monotheism bestows upon ruling religious and political classes a right to dominate, punish, and expel rivals by virtue of a defined moral code unique to its God, it becomes an extremely powerful political tool indeed. Furthermore, its inherent intolerance of other religions has served as the ultimate enabling force used to eliminate the competition, causing the emergence of monotheism as the dominating belief system of the world.

Monotheism's illogical and unnatural existence is further highlighted by its own hypocrisy of containing polytheistic elements within its own ranks, all the while denouncing polytheism as a cardinal sin. It condemns polytheism as a matter of religious decree in attempting to maintain its authority and justification for existing, although it cannot control the basic human attraction to multiple Gods and sub-specialized domains of the divine. It has extinguished formal polytheistic religions, yet adopted polytheism within itself; a most illogical stance.

Zoroastrianism was the primary influential religion which laid the framework for the subsequent monotheistic religions. It was not, however, a purely monotheistic religion. Although it incorporated morality for the first time into religion by inventing a Good God and an Evil God, it still held to a pantheon of Gods, that through the passage of time lost their significance to some degree.

It is most curious to see modern Iranians and Zoroastrians maintain that theirs is a monotheistic religion from a time before Judaism. This reflects the domineering effect that monotheism has had in this world, to the point that a religion such as Zoroastrianism feels compelled to emphasize its own monotheism and de-emphasize its elements of polytheism in order to be more palatable as well as less persecuted. As there is neither intellectual nor moral superiority to monotheism, a drive to portray a religion such as Zoroastrianism as monotheistic is driven more by political pressure than truth or progress.

Since the disappearance of polytheism, almost all people would scuff at the notion of a polytheistic pantheon. Rightly so, because with man's current knowledge the concept that a God dwells in the sea, a volcano, Mt. Olympus, or Damavand is ridiculous. Polytheism is nothing more than mythology. Yet, it is a mythology that intellectually and morally is superior to monotheism.

That a mythological polytheistic religion is found to be superior to one's own monotheistic religion should act as a wake up call to all members of such a religion. Nevertheless, that wake up call will go unheard by most, because after all, it is a call based on reason and logic. Two entities that are in short supply within the environment of the monotheist.


Bertrand Russell, the pipe smile!

 
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