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Many religions can be characterized as either polytheistic or monotheistic. This lesson teaches not only those concepts, but also how many of today’s religious traditions fit into those definitions. After you’ve watched the video, test your new knowledge with our quiz questions!

Need for Understanding

Since the earliest moments of human history, our species has sought to understand more of the world around us.

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Think about it – this curiosity has inspired many of our accomplishments, such as a desire to learn more about outer space eventually led to the moon landing. However, there have always been some things that are outside the realm of understanding. One of the most important of these is the idea of a greater force, or greater forces, working on Earth that is beyond the perception of many people. From ghosts to droughts, so much seemed beyond the understanding of the earliest societies.As a result, people began to tell myths, or stories that explain the existence of life and how the natural world works. Some of these myths were very fanciful and were probably more for entertainment value than anything else. But other myths dealt with very real questions.

Back in those days, there wasn’t a lot of scientific understanding of the natural world, so godlike personalities were created to explain the things people didn’t understand.

Polytheism

These unseen personalities were often described as having a particular area of focus, such as controlling a particular mountain spring, or the winds of a certain part of the ocean. Over time, this way of explaining the world evolved into belief systems in which multiple gods controlled all kinds of things on Earth. This type of belief system is known as polytheism, which means believing in multiple gods.The most famous example of polytheism is found in Greek mythology. Here, there were gods and goddesses that controlled just about everything imaginable, including hunting, farming, love, and earthquakes.

There was even a god of wine who was viewed as so important that cults formed in his honor. However, polytheism had problems. These gods were often described as being petty in their behavior, which made people lose respect for them.

Monotheism

Of course, if you were competing with a vast collection of gods, known as a pantheon, chances are you would probably be a little petty too. Then, out of Persia, a new idea came forth that there was only good and evil in the universe.

What’s more, all of the good was controlled by one god, while all evil was governed by an evil power that was not quite yet a god, but could have influence over humanity. We call this belief Zoroastrianism, and it is among the first examples of monotheism in the world. Monotheism is the belief in only one god.Yet, Zoroastrianism was a messy monotheism. While the god of good and light was certainly stronger than the forces of evil, there was still a pretty substantial force of evil in the world. In order for monotheism to really take hold, a more straightforward version needed to be available. Judaism offered just such a version.

In Jewish tradition, there was one god, pure and simple. This god was not subject to the temper tantrums of the gods of ancient Greece, and while there was evil in the world, it was through the absence of the Jewish god that such evil existed, like when humanity didn’t follow this god’s laws, such as the Ten Commandments.While millions of people still follow Judaism, and hundreds of thousands still follow Zoroastrianism, the idea of a monotheistic god has changed since both were developed several thousand years ago. For much of Christianity, the world’s largest monotheistic religion, the religion’s god presents in three parts: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This may seem like polytheism, but, instead, Christians believe that it is merely the three roles that their single god has. Conversely, Islam believes that the concept of a single god is best described by focusing on what God is not. In other words, God is without limit, without flaw, etc.

Finally, while outside the tradition of monotheism in the West, Hinduism and Buddhism both have interesting, and often multiple, perspectives as to if they are truly monotheistic or polytheistic. Some perspectives on these religions mirror that of Christianity, with one god having multiple roles.

Lesson Summary

In this lesson, we learned about the development of religion from the earliest times. We looked at the desire of understanding as an important part of the drive that led to the development of mythology, which in turn led to the development of polytheism.

From there, we saw how monotheism developed from Zoroastrianism and Judaism, and how the major world religions of today view themselves.

Learning Outcomes

After watching this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Define polytheism and monotheism
  • Discuss how modern religious traditions fit into the concepts related to polytheism or monotheism

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