The worship of a single god is familiar to many of us. This lesson examines that belief through examples of both old and new religions, including several of their component branches.
Man & Religion
Religion is a topic near and dear to the hearts of many people. Even those who are not religious can have difficulty discussing religion, because believers may become offended. Still, religion is an important part of culture that has to be studied if we’re to advance the understanding of human behavior and societies. Human is the operative word here. Anthropologists and other social scientists study religious belief systems for what they tell us about human beings, rather than to find any kind of universal religious truth.
Many modern religious belief systems are monotheistic, but what does this mean?
What Is Monotheism?
Theism is the belief in some kind of god or gods, while atheism is the lack of belief in a god or gods. Among theists, monotheism is the belief in a single god, while polytheism is the belief in multiple gods. Note that henotheism is a belief in multiple gods, though one is more important than the others. Modern faiths include a variety of monotheistic, polytheistic and atheistic beliefs.
Monotheism Yesterday: Egyptian ; Zoroastrianism
So, what was the very first monotheistic faith? There’s actually no clear answer to that.
The Egyptian deity, Aten, was declared the one and only god by the pharaoh Akhenaten around 1350 BCE. Akhenaten went so far as the strike out references to the other gods and make them reference only a singular divine figure, Aten the sun god.The Persian religion of Zoroastrianism began around 1000 BCE. This faith focused upon a single god, Ahura Mazda.
Zoroastrians also believed in an evil god-like being called Angra Mainyu, which is similar to the modern Western concept of the devil. Hinduism, one of the world’s earliest religions with roots dating back to 2000 BCE, is also an interesting case, as it has some followers who may be properly called monotheists. However, this monotheistic tradition dates back to around 900 CE, and so this tradition can’t be called the oldest.Nevertheless, in the case of both Atenism and Hinduism, their monotheistic traditions can be seen as developing from polytheistic sources. Both of these religious traditions have preceding traditions that feature multiple gods.
These faiths likely progressed through a sort of henotheism in which a single deity became prominent. In the case of Atenism, this was due to a concerted effort by Akhenaten to erase the old gods. With Hindu monotheism, all the gods can be said to be different forms of Brahman, the all-pervading god principle.
Monotheism Today: Christianity & Islam
Today’s monotheistic religions include a wide variety of contemporary faiths, such as Christianity and Islam. Many of their beliefs differ from one another, but they also share some beliefs. In addition, they share a heritage, as both can be considered offshoots of Judaism.
Christianity is the world’s most widespread religion, with followers in every nation and on every continent. Most Christians believe in a single deity that is divided into three beings, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The division of a single god into three is considered by most Christians to be a mystery.
In the religious sense, a mystery is a belief in something that is beyond human understanding.The central belief in Christianity is that a benevolent God made the universe and all the things within it. Humans were created in a state of innocence, but fell from this prehistoric state of grace because of sin. The Christian God became human in the form of Jesus and allowed himself to be killed as a sacrifice to restore humanity’s state of grace.
Christianity is often very dependent upon faith. For instance, God’s sacrifice through Jesus must be believed on faith in order to benefit from it.In religious studies, a sect is a branch of a religion with beliefs that set it apart from other branches.
There are a great many sects of Christianity. Some estimates place the number in the thousands. The three major branches of Christianity are Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. The majority of differences between these branches, and any individual sects, is in the interpretation of scripture and the power of earthy authority to decide upon doctrine.Followers of Islam, called Muslims, believe they have surrendered to the will of Allah, as it was revealed through the prophet Muhammad.
Muslim beliefs are characterized by five practices, called the Five Pillars of Islam. The first of these Pillars involves a profession of faith like, ‘There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet.’ The second Pillar involves prayer five times a day while facing the holy city of Mecca.
The third Pillar is charity to the poor and less fortunate through the donation of a portion of one’s income. The fourth Pillar is a tradition of fasting during the holy season, called Ramadan, which commemorates the revelation of the Allah’s message to Muhammad. The fifth Pillar of Islam is a pilgrimage to Mecca referred to as a hajj.Islam has two main branches, the Shi’a and the Sunni. These branches are the result of a dispute that arose upon the Prophet Muhammad’s death. Shi’ite Muslims believe that Muhammad named his son-in-law, Ali, as successor, with authority passed down through the family.
Because of this, Shi’a Islam tends to rely upon the teachings of Muhammad’s descendants. Sunni Muslims, the most widespread group, rely upon leadership that was passed down from the Prophet’s disciples.
As humanist forms of study, the social sciences can make no comment on the concept of ultimate religious truth. The academic study of religion has value because it is essentially the study of how people view the universe. Monotheism is the worship of a single divine being. The history of monotheism is the history of individual cultures adapting their beliefs in a changing world, often from polytheism to henotheism to monotheism.
Monotheistic faiths are represented all over the world in a variety of different religions and sects.