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  Monotheism (Greek, ‘single-god-ism’) means belief in one all-powerful God who is distinct from the world but at the same time involved in it. Monotheism is, therefore, different from animism (in which natural phenomena are perceived as living beings, with spirits, and are worshipped accordingly), polytheism (belief in many gods, with or without a ruling deity), deism and monism (in which there is no separation between God and the world).

Under the influence of David Hume\'s views (in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 1779), it used to be believed in the West that monotheism was a superior form of religion which had developed from polytheism. Growth of historical knowledge and of scientific anthropology has shown that this is not so. The Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten (15th century  BCE) worshipped one god, Aten, with the exclusiveness associated with monotheism. Many so-called ‘primitive’ peoples believed (and believe) in one supreme god, though he may have under him intermediaries such as the ancestors and local protective deities. This latter view is prevalent even among some overtly monotheistic religions. Christian and Muslim saints, for example, serve a similar purpose and are worshipped in similar ways. Hinduism is a particularly interesting case. Some schools of Hinduism are avowedly polytheistic; other Hindus see the various deities as manifestations of one deity; generally each believer worships one deity (for example Siva) as supreme lord, and other deities do not impinge on them.

In Judaism, the term monotheism was originally used to describe Israel\'s perception of its God, who commanded on Mount Sinai, ‘I am the Lord your God: you shall have no other gods before me’. This view took many centuries to flower into belief in God as the Supreme Being, creator of all that is, in control of history and ordaining the rise and fall of nations, and who loves those He has chosen and who obey His will. (This belief finds its classic statement in such prophets of the 8th century  BCE as Isaiah. Prior to that the ‘god of the fathers’, that is of such patriarchs as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, was simply the protecting deity of a family, tribe and nation. This notion was known as enotheism: there are other deities, but only one God for Israel, whose power had geographical limitations. It took the anguish of the Jewish exile in Babylon in the early 6th century  BCE to make Judaism a universalist religion.)

In the Christian New Testament, monotheism and universalism are taken for granted, except that Paul seems to waver between regarding Greek gods as nonexistent or as demons. (The Greek word daimon means ‘spirit of place’: see demonism.) Biblical monotheism, both Judaic and early Christian, was hammered out in response to the challenge of surrounding polytheistic worship, and even then, and as late as the 4th century, Christian trinitarianism was castigated by outsiders as a form of limited polytheism. EMJ

Further reading John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent.



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