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Monotheism Vs. Polytheism

Monotheism Vs. Polytheism

The belief systems present today are immensely vast and diverse, some of which take the form of religions, while others transform into the cultural moral code. Religion stems from the theistic belief that a higher power exists, one who created us and watches over us as we go about our daily lives. There exist two main branches of this view - monotheism and polytheism. This article elaborates further on their differences.
Komal B. Patil
Egyptian Origins
While polytheism is older than monotheism, both originated in ancient Egypt by the diktat of the ruling Pharaohs of that time.

Concerning the gods I cannot know either that they exist or that they do not exist, or what form they might have, for there is much to prevent one's knowing: the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of man's life.
Over the centuries, many philosophers have put forth their ideas regarding the existence of god. But none truly capture the scope of this debate the way Greek sophist Protagoras does. While he did believe in the presence of a higher power, he did not think that humans with their scarce knowledge and short lifespans were capable of declaring whether god existed or not. Based on this dichotomy, two schools of thought emerged, namely atheism and theism. Atheism denies the existence of god, and explains the occurrence of events through logical explanations and human effort.
Theism refers to the existence of a "God" or a god-like higher power. It does not depend on or chalk out the definition of that god, nor is it affected by the attributes lent to this divine figure. It also doesn't dictate the origin or logic behind the existence of this holy being. It does not lay out if and how the god is supposed to be worshiped. Nor does it elaborate on anything resembling the institution of religion. Put simply, it is just a "belief" in the existence of a higher power.
The way theism is interpreted and practiced by people causes it to diverge. This divergence leads to the emergence of various categories of belief systems, of which monotheism and polytheism are the most prevalent in modern-day populations. These belief systems are practiced by people in the form of religions. While some religions strictly follow one belief system, there are various religions, or particular sects of it, that fall under both systems.
"Monotheism owes its existence not to philosophic speculation about the nature of reality or knowledge or virtue, but to acceptance of reality identified with a supreme being."
― Israel Shenker

"No story is the whole story. It takes many stories to tell the whole story, yet the whole is known always and only through the many."
― David Miller, The New Polytheism
Monotheism Vs. Polytheism

Monotheism Polytheism
It is defined as a belief system based on the existence of a singular supreme deity. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines it as the "belief in the existence of one god or in the oneness of God", while the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church explains it as being "belief in one personal and transcendent God." It is defined as a belief system that is based on the existence of a variety of gods, each with a specific function or power. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as "the belief that there is more than one god."

The term 'monotheism' is derived from the Greek words "monos" meaning one, and "theos", which means god. The term 'polytheism' is derived from the Greek words "poly", meaning many, and "theos", which means god.

Monotheism originated in ancient Egypt in 1352 BCE during the rule of the Pharaoh Akhenaten when he declared to his subjects the existence of only one god. He proclaimed the existence of a singular deity in the form of the solar disc, Aten, and that every other deity was merely a different form of Aten. He also put forth the possibility that the ruling Pharaohs were human versions of Aten. Later, religions like Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam were also centered on the monotheistic belief in a one true god.

The Egyptians were the first to have multiple gods with characteristics that were extensions of the naturally occurring processes observed daily. Their entire culture was based on this philosophy. The gods had attributes similar to objects, trees and herbs, animals, as well as animal-human hybrids. These gods provided an explanation for naturally occurring events. The Greeks had a similar belief system, but their gods had humanistic characteristics, often falling to human faults like jealousy, vengeance, etc. When the Romans conquered the Greeks, they assimilated these beliefs into their own culture.
Monotheism is based on the belief in the existence of a singular supreme divine being. That divine being is believed to take human form and is referred to as the "Son of God". This entity is at the epicenter of the religion, which is based on his life events. The text chronicling the deity's life is held sacred and lays down moral ethics and codes of conduct for the followers of that religion. Such a system puts forth the depiction of an omnipotent, omniscient, and forgiving supreme supernatural being―one who watches over its followers. Polytheism is based on the existence of more than one god, with each god being responsible for specific functions or purpose, and being grouped together into a hierarchical structure, with each god ruling their own domain with supreme authority and no interference from the other gods. The existence of these gods was established in an attempt to explain the various phenomena occurring in nature at any given time. The hierarchical structure would place one god above the others, but it was done in such a way that the god, while being superior to the others, still did not have an authority to overrule.

Roles and Responsibilities
The events transpiring in nature are seen as extensions of that one god. There is an absence of any other divine figure, and any scope for addition to the number of deities. While some religions personify the god, other religions consider it to be an abstract being. The same deity is entreated for success in any and all endeavors.

The different deities in polytheistic culture would include individual divine beings responsible for creation of the world, death, love, maternity, politics, intelligence, etc., each. To achieve success in any endeavor, the people would be required to pray and perform rites and rituals pertaining to the god most suited to benefit them. Due to their diverse nature and no joint responsibilities, it is possible for this cosmic family of gods to be gradually expanded by the addition of newer gods, if required.
Judgment of Actions
The concepts of salvation and purgatory exist in this belief system. The deity is believed to judge the individual's actions and either offer a place of salvation or a place in purgatory. The deity also reserves the right to forgive the individual's sins and offer salvation. The concept of rebirth may or may not be put forth. Most of such religions, due to their exclusive nature, do not recognize the existence of gods of other cultures. These religions, while not specifying an absolute truth, lay down sets of moral code, with the help of which one judges one's own actions as right or wrong. Each individual is free to worship any god and in any way that he prefers. There is no concept of salvation and purgatory. Instead, the concepts of karma and rebirth come into play. Karma is the cosmic effect that one's actions have. The type of karma, negative or positive, that one accumulates in a lifetime, has repercussions on that individual's next life.
Examples of Religions
Modern monotheistic religions include Christianity, Confucianism, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, etc. Modern religions based on this philosophy are Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto, Taoism, Wicca, etc.

While both belief systems are hinged on different premises, they are seen to be influenced by each other. Both systems share a few subtle similarities in the way that they preach goodwill towards their fellow beings and abstinence from sin. The belief systems may be different, but due to their common thread of goodwill, these systems have evolved side by side for centuries.