views updated Jun 11 2018


MONOTHEISM . Derived from the Greek mono ("single") and theos ("God"), the term monotheism refers to the religious experience and the philosophical perception that emphasize God as one, perfect, immutable, creator of the world from nothing, distinct from the world, all-powerfully involved in the world, personal, and worthy of being worshiped by all creatures. Some forms of monotheism, however, differ about the notions of God as distinct from the world and as personal.

The term monotheism has generally been used theologically rather than for philosophical or cross-cultural descriptions of religion. Philosophers have used the term theism with the same meaning as monotheism, and cross-cultural descriptions find categories like monotheism and polytheism to be inappropriate in describing some religious traditions. The term monotheism presupposes the idea of theos a divine being with mind and will, fully personal, conceivable in images drawn from human life, and approachable through prayer. In this respect monotheism differs from deism and from the various forms of monism. It also presupposes the unity of the divine and raises one theos exclusively to absolute supremacy and power, producing and governing everything according to the divine will. In this respect monotheism differs from those views that accept a plurality of divine beings. In the strict sense, monotheism best describes the idea of God in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and in the philosophical systems based on these traditions. But one may extend the term to include conceptions of deity in certain other traditions such as Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, and some forms of Hinduism and Buddhism, even though these traditions include somewhat different conceptions, such as the existence of evil forces alongside God, the nonpersonal nature of God, God's complete immanence in the world, or the fundamental unreality of the world. In this article, the basic requirement for a religious tradition to be considered monotheistic is that it emphasize both theos and monos.

Monotheism in Religious History

Whereas monotheism is most often associated with the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions and philosophies, tendencies contributing toward a monotheistic outlook have long been present in human religious history. Monotheism is like a river with many springs and many tributaries. The course of the river is difficult to map, for monotheistic beliefs are often put forward in protest against other beliefs and practices.

Obscure as they are, springs of monotheism can be discerned at the very earliest levels of known human cultural life, in the primordial high god of the archaic hunters. The theory of Urmonotheismus ("original monotheism") as put forth by Wilhelm Schmidt and others held that a primordial monotheism was the earliest form of human perception of deity, and that the plurality of gods and spirits found in most primal religions was a degeneration from this original perception. While that theory cannot be substantiated in the history of religions, research in recent years has made it clear that a great many primal or archaic peoples have conceptions of a high god who is creator of the world, has supreme authority over other gods and spirits, and presides over human morality. Some of the most archaic peoples, such as certain groups in Africa, Australian Aborigines, and the nomadic hunters of Tierra del Fuego, have definite conceptions of a supreme god associated with the sky who is changeless, invisible, and all-powerful and who gives morality. The supreme high god characteristically is a remote god (deus otiosus ), too distant, all-powerful, good, and just to need worship or to be intimately involved in ordinary existence; there are lesser gods and spirits who play a much more active role in the lives of the people.

The streams of the monotheistic vision run dimly through the fertile valleys of archaic agricultural religions with their pluralistic experience of the forces of nature centered on Mother Earth. Here the high god tends to become head of the divine pantheon; pushed into the background by earth gods of fecundity, the high god could hardly be the focus of a unifying perception of deity. But a few high gods developed with supreme sovereignty and autonomy, as sources of fecundating power and guarantors of the order and norms of the world and of human society. For example, Zeus and Jupiter were ruling high gods fashioned in accord with the Greek and Roman notions of norm and law. In India, Varua was sovereign guardian of ta, cosmic order, a role taken over later by the great gods Viu and Śiva. Yahveh, the high god of the ancient Hebrews, was known as all-powerful creator, absolute sovereign, and author of all norms and laws by which the earth functions. Belief in these high gods did not necessarily exclude lesser divine forces, but it did provide the opportunity for reflections on the unity of divine reality, as will be seen in the following examples from ancient Greece, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

Greek religion

Among Greek thinkers, ideas of a unitary divine reality were expressed as a means of showing the order and reasonableness of the world. Already in pre-Socratic times, it seems, philosophers like Xenophanes depicted the spiritual unity of the whole world in the notion of the All-One, uncreated, unchangeable, and immanent in all things. Plato stressed the unity of the Good and identified God with that: God must be perfectly good, changeless, and the maker of the best possible world. Aristotle also made the idea of goodness central to his concept of God, the causal principle of all. The unicity of the supreme First Mover follows from the unity of the physical world: God is one, eternal, and immutable. God is defined as pure mind (nous ), who always thinks one and the same subject, namely himselfand thus this view is not really theism. Later in the Hellenistic religions, the sense of God's unicity was expressed by raising one god or goddess to supremacy, encompassing all others. For example, Apuleius described Isis as the one Great Mother of all, by whatever name she may be called in different areas (Metamorphoses 11).


Hinduism is characterized by monistic (advaita, or nondualistic) thought, which merges the divine reality with the world in a unity called brahman. Here the unifying principle is strong, but the theistic quality of the unified divine reality is of lesser importance. There have always been theistic tendencies in Hinduism, but these have been associated with a variety of divine beings. Yet intense concerns of bhakti (devotion to a god) have sometimes led Hindus to raise up one god as supreme ruler, or to see the various gods as manifestations of one God. "They call it Indra, Mitra, Varua, and Agni ; but the real is one, although the sages give different names" (gveda 1.169). Among Vaiavas, Viu tends to become all, and the same is true of Śiva among Śaivas. Ka, avatāra of Viu, can be put forth as the supreme God behind all names: "Many are the paths people follow, but they all in the end come to me" (Bhagavadgītā 4.11). One theistic strand in Hinduism identifies ultimate reality with Devī, the Great Goddess, in one of her many forms. Thus Hinduism does recognize the oneness of the divine, and it includes theistic forms of worship, even worship of one God exclusively, without denying the reality of other gods.


Buddhism, like Hinduism, is based on monistic or nondualistic thought and posits only an inferior role for those born at the level of gods, trapped as they are like all living beings in the cycles of rebirth. But in Mahāyāna Buddhism, the idea has arisen that beings who have realized their Buddhahood (that is, Buddhas and bodhisattva s) can function similarly to gods in theistic religions. Generally Mahāyāna Buddhism holds to the multiplicity of these powerful beings, but in certain schools one such Buddha becomes supreme and is worshiped exclusively. Such is the case with Amitābha (Jpn., Amida) Buddha in Pure Land Buddhism, a soteriological monolatry offering the one hope of salvation for this degenerate age. Esoteric (Vajrayāna) Buddhism has developed a unified cosmotheism, according to which the whole universe is the body of Mahāvairocana, the Great Sun Buddha, with all Buddhas and bodhisattva sand thus all realityunited in this supreme Buddha-reality.

Egyptian religion

One of the earliest forms of exclusive monotheism apparently developed in ancient Egypt. Within the elaborate and complicated polytheism of Egyptian religion there had long been rationalistic tendencies toward seeing various gods as different forms of one particular God, with an emphasis on the supremacy of the Sun God, who tended to absorb other gods. Around 1375 bce Pharoah Amunhotep IV repudiated the authority of the old gods and their priests and devoted himself exclusively to Aton, the god appearing as the sun disk. He proclaimed himself the son of Aton, taking the name Akhenaton ("devoted to Aton"), and he imposed this worship on others. By royal decree Aton became the only God who exists, king not only of Egypt but of the whole world, embodying in his character and essence all the attributes of the other gods. Akhenaton even had the names of the other gods effaced from inscriptions and replaced with the name of Aton. Akhenaton's monotheism was related to protest against abuses in the cults of the gods, but it does not appear to have led to new ethical standards. Within twenty-five years Akhenaton was gone, and his successors restored the old cults.


Growing from the ancient Indo-Iranian polytheistic religion, Zoroastrianism unified all divine reality in the high god Ahura Mazdā. Zarathushtra (Zoroaster), who probably lived sometime between 1700 and 1000 bce, was a priest who turned against some of the traditional cultic rituals and proclaimed the overthrow of polytheism. In his teaching, Ahura Mazdā (Pahl., Ōhrmazd) is the one God who, to implement the divine will in the world, associates with the six Amesha Spentas ("holy immortals"), spirits or angels that represent moral attitudes and principles. Ahura Mazdā, the Wise Lord, is good, just, and moral, one who creates only good things and gives only blessings to worshipers. The one God is sovereign over history, working out the divine plan for the world. Humans are to assist God through upright deeds, and there will be a final judgment in which every soul will be judged to see if it is worthy of entering Paradise. Conflict is accounted for as the hostility of two primordial spirits: Spenta Mainyu, the good spirit, and Angra Mainyu (Pahl., Ahriman), the evil spirit. Ahura Mazdā apparently fathered these two spirits; the struggle between them has been going on since the beginning of time, when they chose between good and evil. It appears, then, that Ahura Mazdā cannot be called omnipotent, for the realm of evil is beyond his control; in that sense it may be said that this is not a complete monotheism. Yet there is no doubt that Zoroastrianism considers the realm of Ahura Mazdā to be ultimately victorious. Further, in this eschatological religion the conflict between good and evil is understood not so much metaphysically as ethically, involving the free choice of humans either for the rule of the Wise Lord or for that of Angra Mainyu. It is true that later Zoroastrianism brought some of the other gods back into the picture again. But in the teaching of Zarathushtra in the Gāthās is found a unique type of monotheism with an ethico-dualistic accent and an eschatological monotheistic fulfillment.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

The three religions that generally are held to be the full expressions of monotheism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, also arose against the background of the polytheism of the ancient Near East. These three religions are closely related in that they grew from the Semitic cultural background and the foundations of the religion of ancient Israel.

Although it was the fountainhead of this type of monotheism, the religion of ancient Israel was not actually monotheistic in early times. Stories of the patriarch Abraham show that he worshiped the Canaanite high god ʾEl in a variety of forms in addition to the god of the clan, and when the people of Israel entered into a covenant with the high god Yahveh they did not exclude the existence of other gods. One might call early Israelite religion henotheistic or monolatrous in the sense that exclusive loyalty was to be given to Yahveh, but Yahveh's power was limited because other nations had their own gods. Some Israelites lived with a polytheistic vision, giving loyalty to Yahveh as the god of the covenant but also worshiping Baʾal and the other gods of fecundity as they settled in Canaan and became agriculturalists. But the covenant relationship with Yahveh contained the seeds of monotheism; the Israelites experienced Yahveh as personal, being revealed in historical events and demanding exclusive loyalty and ethical behavior according to the covenant law. Prophets arose who challenged the polytheistic notion that various gods controlled the functions of nature. Elijah and Hosea, for example, held that it is only Yahveh who has power in all areas of existence, as the creator of all and the one God who sends corn at the harvest and wine at the vintage. Just as polytheistic ideas were overcome, the prophets also struggled to overcome the limitations of a henotheistic view of God. At one time it was accepted that one could not worship Yahveh outside the land of Israel. But Amos insisted that the one God, Yahveh, had not only brought Israel out of Egypt, but had also brought the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir (Amos 9:7). And Second Isaiah, the prophet of the Babylonian exile, went so far as to describe Cyrus II, the mighty king of the Medes and Persians, as "the anointed one of Yahveh" whom Yahveh had taken by the hand (Is. 45:1). In the vision of these prophets, Yahveh is no tribal god sharing power with other nations' gods but is in fact the universal creator of all and the director of the history of all peoples, according to Yahveh's own design.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims drew on the fundamental monotheistic vision of ancient Israel, each group filling out the picture of God with colorings and shapes drawn from its own particular culture. The dimensions of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim type of monotheism will be discussed at more length below.


One more expression of monotheism should be mentioned in this religio-historical survey: Sikhism. Starting with Gurū Nānak (14691539 ce), an Indian type of monotheism developed that synthesizes the mystical monotheistic tendency found in Hinduism and the ethical, personal monotheism brought into India by Islam. In Gurū Nānak's teaching, there is only one God, who is immortal, unborn, self-existent, creator of all the universe, omniscient, formless, just, and loving. God is both transcendent as pure potentiality and immanent as world-embodiment. Thus God is contained in everything. God is personal but is beyond complete knowledge, to be worshiped mainly in rituals of repeating his name. Revelation comes through gurū s who speak the divine word. Humans attain heaven or hell at the end of a lifetime, although they are involved in many rounds of births and deaths. Final salvation for humans is nirvāa, absorption into God's being like water blending with water.

Summing up this cross-cultural religio-historical survey, it is clear that monotheism has arisen in a number of ways. In some areas it came through rationalization, seeing the logic of unified divine power. In other traditions, mystical experience of everything as one and unified with the divine gave rise to monotheistic expressions. In still other traditions, historical experiences of one powerful, personal God led toward formulations of monotheistic belief.

Monotheism in Contrast to Nonmonotheistic Views

Monotheism often arises in opposition to other views of divine reality. One of the most obvious contexts against which monotheism defines itself is a plurality of divine beings or forces, which is commonly called polytheism. Central to polytheism is the notion of theoi, personal divine beings within nature and society. These gods have personal wills, control specific spheres, and interact with one another to make up a functioning organism. The functioning of nature is seen as the operation of a plurality of divine wills, and this plurality and conflict are extended to human life and society. Typically there is a head of the pantheon, but this high god is limited in power and authority and often is thought of as old or impotent.

Monotheism distinguishes itself from the various forms of polytheism in that the whole realm of divine power is unified, with no conflicting wills or limitations. God has unlimited authority and power but still is theos, possessing personal will and relationship to the world. The plural forces are seen as qualities and attributes of God or as subservient beings of the created world. In the monotheistic view, God transcends the world of nature and human society; the world is not the locus of divine power, for God is the universal creator of everything out of nothing (ex nihilo ). Humans find value and integration of meaning by realizing their common creaturehood and serving this one universal God. Revelation from God is the source of unified, universal meaning.

Related to polytheism is what F. Max Müller called henotheism and what others have called monolatry: worshiping one god at a time or raising up one most powerful God as the only one to be worshiped. The other gods, while real, are downgraded before this supreme God. Monolatry means one God is worshiped as supreme, though the lesser gods of other peoples are recognized. Henotheism (kathenotheism) would be the view that different gods can be worshiped as the supreme God one at a time without implying that the other gods do not exist.

In contrast to monolatry and henotheism, monotheism universalizes the power and authority of the one God exclusively, for even sharing power with lesser gods would be a limitation that cannot apply. Monotheism is intrinsically universal, transcending tribal or nationalistic limitations; the one God has authority and power over all peoples, friends and enemies alike. And monotheism refuses the henotheistic idea that one god can be worshiped as supreme at one time and another at another time, although it does allow for the experience of various aspects of the one God at different times.

A form of thought close to monotheism but still related to polytheism and henotheism is theistic dualism. Typically, this experience of the divine reality separates out the hurtful or evil elements and associates these with another divine power, thus setting up a divine struggle with echoes in human life. One unified supreme God is posited as the good divine force, and the source of evil can be thought of as many beings or as one evil being.

Strictly speaking, monotheism does not allow the one God to be limited even by the causes of destruction and evil; these causes cannot be divine forces outside the will of the one God. Ultimately the one God must be the source of all reality and all events, including those that humans experience as evil and destructive. Some forms of monotheistic thought do allow for evil beings as creatures of God, permitted to cause destruction and evil for various purposes within the overall authority of the one God. But these demons, devils, and satans are only part of the panorama of human existence, and they cannot limit or act against God's power, authority, and will.

Monism in the history of religions refers to a broad category of thought and experience that emphasizes the oneness or unity of all reality, so that no ontological separation exists between the divine and the world itself. All reality, including humans, share in the divine nature. Hindus and Buddhists have preferred the term nondualism, emphasizing that multiplicity arises from a single basis, and that there is no ultimate duality between self and other. Monism and nondualism tend to be nontheistic, for qualities of personal will and otherness from the world do not fit this perception of the divine. The world is not what it appears to be in the multiplicity of one's perceptions. Rather, either the world is in essence one divine reality, or it is fundamentally an illusion, or it consists of forms and expressions that emanate from the one divine source. Further, monism and nondualism tend to be nonhistorical, in the sense that a cyclical rhythm of time expresses the experience of the one divine reality. The religious path is one of mystical discipline and meditation, bringing progressively higher stages of knowledge and ultimate liberation in union with the one divine reality. Of course, provision is made for theistic practices at the lower levels of spiritual perfection.

Monotheism distinguishes itself from the various forms of monism and nondualism by positing a definite separation between the one divine reality and the world that God brought into existence. In this sense there is a dualistic emphasis in monotheism, for there are two distinct realms of reality, the divine and the created world. Only God is eternal and transcendent, having created the world out of nothing (ex nihilo ). At the same time, most forms of monotheism hold God not only as transcendent but also as immanent in the world: God's presence, power, and operation are immediately present in human experience. The world is a creature, real and good as part of God's design. Revelation from God is important as guidance; prophetic and devotional emphases predominate over the mystical and meditative ones. God is a personal theos who confronts one in historical existence as an Other, to whom one relates through obedience and service. And God works in the history of the world, directing events toward an eschaton in which there will be evaluation and judgment. History has a beginning and an end, and God transcends it all.

Dimensions of Monotheistic Belief and Practice

In setting up a typology of monotheism to show the ideal types toward which the various monotheistic religious traditions seem to point, it is important to realize that even within one tradition there will be different experiences and philosophies of monotheism. Thus, while a tradition may be dominated by a certain type, its particular coloration may be affected by hues drawn from other types. Further, monotheistic thought focuses especially on the theoretical or verbal dimension of religious experience. In moving to the practical and the social spheres one encounters a variety of phenomena that at times may not be distinctively monotheistic. Worship, law, customs, and social forms may show striking parallels in different religions without regard to the theoretical stance on monotheism, polytheism, or monism. For example, visual images of the divine reality are used in Christianity as well as in Hinduism, but not in Islam or Judaismand also not in polytheistic Shintō. Some Muslim mosques are as bare and simple as Buddhist meditation centers, while some Christian churches gleam with golden brocade, candles, images, and saints that rival Hindu or Daoist temples. Orders of priests, monks, and nuns bring some Christian groups close to Buddhism, while the rabbi and imam of Jews and Muslims resemble more the learned teacher of a Hindu ashram. The veneration of saints in some sectors of Islam and Christianity appears similar to the veneration of spiritual beings in traditional African religions, but other sectors of Islam and Christianity strongly reject these practices. Thus care needs to be taken in setting up a monotheistic typology, so that religious traditions are not fitted in too tightly, doing damage to the integrity and richness of the particular religion.

The following typology of dominant emphases in the monotheistic religions includes elements from some religious traditions that may not be fully monotheistic, yet they all put forth the two essential ingredients of monotheism: monos and theos.

Monarchic monotheism

Monarchic monotheism, the belief in one God who rules over many gods, is close to polytheism and grows out of a cosmic religious context. One high God rises to supreme authority and unlimited power, forcing the other powers to total submission. Akhenaton's monotheistic movement in ancient Egypt was of this type; and Yahvism in early Israel displays this form, with Yahveh pictured as "a great king above all the gods" (Ps. 95:3). The attitude that subjugates other religions and imposes a monolithic system on all may be a result of this type of monotheism.

A subtype of monarchic monotheism would be dualistic monotheism: one God opposed against evil forces. In this view there is one ruler God, all-good and all-just, who tends to become distant, watching over the struggle within existence in which evil divine forces play a part. The distinctive quality of this type of monotheism is that it takes evil away from the being of the one God, accounting for it through demons or devils. Zoroastrianism is a classic example of dualistic monotheism: although the one God, Ahura Mazdā, is supreme, the evil spirit Angra Mainyu struggles throughout the history of the world, to be overcome only at the end. Popular forms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have sometimes approached this type of dualistic monotheism with ideas of Satan or the devil defying God's will, although generally these religions see the evil one as a creature permitted by the one God to perform evil within creation. The struggle between God and evil forces can be seen as a cosmic struggle, as in the Hindu Purāas, in which demonic powers arise anew in each new age and Viu is incarnated anew in an avatāra to do battle and realign the cosmic order. Some traditions in Judaism and Christianity describe God's struggle with Satan or the Antichrist as taking place on a trans-historical, cosmic plane. More commonly, however, dualistic monotheism has strong ties to the historical plane of human existence and provides an ethical dimension for human involvement in God's struggle against evil.

Emanational mystical monotheism

Emanational mystical monotheism may be divided into two subtypes: the worship of one God through many gods, or the worship of one God as the world soul. The first subtype, congenial especially to a monistic context, recognizes many gods but sees them as emanations of the one divine source, which is conceived of in theistic terms. Some ancient Greeks rationalized the plurality of the gods in relation to a particular supreme high god in this way. Hindu theistic cults sometimes offer this explanation of the relation of the many gods to the one great god worshiped in that cult. Viu, for example, can also be worshiped in many avatāra s and with many different names. Another example would be Esoteric (Vajrayāna) Buddhism, in which all Buddhas and bodhisattva s can be seen as emanations of the Great Sun Buddha, Mahāvairocana.

Another type of monotheism related to the monistic worldview is the mystical view of the one God as the world soul. This type of monotheism holds that there is one personal theos who is not sharply separate from the world but rather is the creative divine force in everything. Again, the great theistic cults of Hinduism and Buddhism often show this type. For example, Rāmānuja's "Qualified Nondualism" holds Viu to be the absolute, supreme God to whom the worshiper relates in bhakti as qualitatively different from the worshiper himself; yet Viu and the worshiper are united as soul and body are united. In the theistic Ka cults, Ka as the supreme personality of God can be experienced as different from the world, yet in the highest mystical experiences these differences fade away and Ka becomes all, as expressed in Arjuna's vision (Bhagavadgītā, chap. 11). Sikhism is a monotheism that emphasizes God as absolute creator, self-sufficient and unchanging; yet God is embodied in the world, and the believer who finally reaches nirvāa becomes absorbed in God. Sikh monotheism, like Hindu monotheistic forms, tends to be nonhistorical, looking on existence as a countless series of cycles until finally the separation is overcome and the worshiper achieves complete union with the one God. Certain mystical movements within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have also approached this type of monotheism without displaying the ahistorical feature. For example, the "panentheism" ("everything is in God") of ūfī mystics like Ibn al-ʿArabī (11651240 ce) or of medieval Jewish mystics tended to see the whole universe as an emanation of God's own being, a reflection of the divine, while maintaining a view of God as distinct from the world.

Historical ethical monotheism

Historical ethical monotheism, the belief in one God guiding the historical design, characteristically describes God as personal, having a will for the historical design of the world, guiding all events as the creator, separate from the world yet immanently involved in human history as the God whose law governs all, who gives value to all and holds all accountable at the end of history, and who is revealed through pivotal prophets, events, and scriptures. Humans are expected to follow God's design by establishing goodness and justice in human society. God makes total demands, controls political history, is intolerant of other gods or other ultimate commitments, and is to be worshiped by all exclusively.

Zoroastrianism contains most of these monotheistic features, although it makes the dualism of good and evil central to the conception of the divine and thereby assigns some limits to the power of God. Sikhism also contains many of the features of ethical monotheism, but it gives central place to a cyclical view of existence and the goal of mystical absorption into God.

The family of religions made up of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam most fully expresses this type of monotheism and places it at the center of religious thought and practice. Each of these three traditions also adds its particular hue to the universal monotheistic vision. Judaism places a strong emphasis on the personal character of God, encountered in an "I-Thou" relationship and providing an ethical design for life as spelled out in the Torah and Talmud. The universal character of the one God is seen as turned toward humankind, especially in the very specific form of the covenant relationship with the Jews as "chosen people." The particular nature of this covenant and its demands does not negate God's universality, in the Jewish view. God's design for the world is to be fulfilled especially through the covenant with the Jews and thus a great responsibility is placed on them. Further, all non-Jews who fulfill in their lives the basic human principles known as the "seven commandments of the children of Noah" will have a share in the life of the world to come. Thus the religion of Judaism expresses a universal monotheism that focuses on God's particular relationship to humans through the covenant with the Jews.

Christians have modulated historical ethical monotheism into concrete, existential terms by emphasizing the personal character of the one God revealed in human history. Resisting tendencies of tritheism, Christian tradition has worked out a triunity that makes God concretely immanent in this world as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Central to this vision is the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ, a historical particularization of the universal God that provides a pivot for all of human history and points to the fulfillment of God's whole design in the eschaton. Christians insist that their Christology is monotheistic; Christ is one substance (homoousios ) with God the Father. Jews and Muslims, of course, find this doctrine of the incarnation of God in Christ to be out of line with their understanding of monotheism.

Muslims have made the unity (tahīd) of God the central statement of their confession of faith: "There is no god but God." Islam puts forth a very radical monotheism in insisting on the utter transcendence and sovereignty of God, all-powerful in every aspect of the universe, to be likened to nothing. The greatest sin is shirk, associating anything else with God. The universal God is particularized in Islam by making the Qurʼān the concrete revelation by which God relates to all humans and gives them guidance. While the final revelation came through the prophet Muammad, it is intended for all humans in all ages as their guide to the ethical life and to the blessings that God intends for faithful creatures.

Current Reflections on Monotheism

Monotheism is the long-established religious tradition in the cultures informed by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but still a considerable amount of searching and rethinking goes on. Philosophers and theologians continue to draw out the implications of the monotheistic vision for thought and society. For example, an influential work by H. Richard Niebuhr, Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (New York, 1960), argues that modern society tends toward henotheism, making one particular society into the center of value and the object of loyalty; in contrast, radical monotheism has as its reference the One, beyond all the many, from whom all reality receives its value. Contemporary Jewish and Muslim writers have also stressed radical monotheism as a critique of the polytheistic or henotheistic tendencies of modern society.

Modern thinkers have also been wrestling with some of the central characteristics of traditional monotheism that seem to be problematic. Difficulties revolve around issues such as God's personality, God's immutability, God's strict separation from the world, the theocratic overtones of monotheism, its patriarchal associations, its seeming suppression of human freedom, and its supposed tendency toward exclusion and violence toward others. Recent critiques of traditional monotheism have come particularly from analyses of the type of ideology and society associated with monotheism. In 1935 Erik Peterson, in an treatise called Der Monotheismus als politisches Problem (Leipzig, 1935), described monotheism as a political ideology linked with the notion of divine kingship and leading to totalitarianism, and this line of criticism has recently been renewed. For example, Regina M. Schwartz in The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism provides a strong indictment of traditional monotheism for the way it has supported various forms of oppression and violence. Feminist thinkers, especially in the Christian and Jewish traditions, have criticized monotheism as a model of the highest form of patriarchal power and authority; in monotheism, God is imaged as male, omnipotent with unilateral power and authority over the world, separate and autonomous, exclusive, and opposed to everything related to change, sensuality, nature, feeling, and femininity. Disillusioned by the effects of secularism, thinkers such as Alain de Benoist and Manuel de Diéguez blame monotheistic ideology for suppressing human freedom and forcing people to adopt atheism as the only alternative. They seek a neopagan resurgence as a new location of the sacred in the plurality and freedom of human life rather than in the monolithic totalitarian rule of monotheism. David Miller likewise has suggested that monotheism can no longer sustain and provide creativity for modern culture, calling for a return to the creative sources of polytheism.

Without surveying all the recent reinterpretations of the idea of monotheism among philosophers and theologians, several lines of thought may be mentioned here. In general, theologians and other thinkers have attempted to be more careful in the use of conventional dualisms like monotheism-polytheism, personal-impersonal, and transcendent-immanent, recognizing that religious traditions, including those labeled monotheistic, are complex and embody elements from both sides of these conceptual dualities. For example, feeling that the traditional view of God as personal tends to make God another being in additional to those known in the world, John Macquarrie and Paul Tillich speak of the divine reality as "Being" or the "Ground of Being," avoiding pantheism but holding God to be not one being but the source of all being.

The movement known as process philosophy or theology has attempted to move to a via media between an untenable unipolar theism in which God is immutable and completely separate from the world, and an equally untenable pantheism. Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne maintain that God includes and penetrates the world, while still being distinct from the being of the world. This bipolar view sees God as infinite personal existence and thus independent of the actual world in abstract identity but including the actual world in concrete existence. God is the source of love and the cause of nature's order and has an overall design for the world. Since God is personal, change and growth take place in God as well as in the world.

Many Christian theologians, like Jürgen Moltmann and Colin Gunton, recognizing the problems with a monarchical, patriarchal monotheism, stress God's liberating relation to humans by reemphasizing the trinitarian conceptionthough such emphasis widens the gulf between Christian thought and that of Judaism and Islam. Feminist thinkers have produced far-reaching reinterpretations of monotheism, making extensive use of feminine experiences and symbols. For example, Elizabeth Johnson re-envisions the patriarchal God and the attendant hierarchical world order by a theology "from below," drawing on women's life experiences and focusing on the biblical Sophia (Wisdom) tradition as a way of bringing out feminine aspects and qualities of God.

Some scholars continue to defend the value of the traditional monotheistic perspective. For example, Bernard-Henri Lévy turns to the Jewish tradition to show that the monotheistic ideal of eternal, universal law actually has a liberating function, safeguarding against totalitarianism and all the idols of nature, ideology, and the state. In contrast to the criticism that monotheism represses human freedom and creativity, Lenn Goodman draws on Jewish and Islamic philosophy to bring out the interplay of human values and the idea of monotheism, arguing that the monotheistic idea of God illuminates one's social, moral, cultural, and aesthetic life and guides one toward a genuinely humanistic phi-losophy.

This ongoing discussion makes it clear that monotheistic thought, while often challenged by and in tension with alternate and modified religious understandings, is still central to most of the Western world and will continue to be a dominant mode of experiencing and expressing the divine reality.

See Also

Deism; Dualism; Henotheism; Monism; Theism; Transcendence and Immanence.


The classic study that marshaled much evidence for an Urmonotheismus among archaic peoples is Wilhelm Schmidt's Der Ursprung der Gottesidee: Eine historisch-kritische und positive Studie, 12 vols. (Münster, 19121955); although Schmidt's theory is no longer accepted, much of the material is still useful. John S. Mbiti gathers and synthesizes concepts about the unity of the high god from all over Africa in Concepts of God in Africa (New York, 1970). Arvind Sharma, Classical Hindu Thought: An Introduction (New Delhi, 2000), discusses the tendencies toward monotheism alongside monism in Hindu thought and practice; and Tracy Pintchman, The Rise of the Goddess in the Hindu Tradition (Albany, N. Y., 1994), shows that various forms of the great Goddess often become a unifying focus in the theistic traditions. Paul Williams, Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations (London, 1989), describes tendencies in Mahāyāna Buddhism to raise one or another form of the Buddha to supreme status. Rajinder Kaur Rohi, Semitic and Sikh Monotheism: A Comparative Study (Patiala, 1999), explores monotheism in the Sikh tradition.

Erik Hornung, Akhenaten and the Religion of Light (translated by David Lorton; Ithaca, N. Y., 1999), examines Akhenaten's brief monotheistic era in ancient Egypt. Tendencies toward a monotheistic view in Greece, Rome, and the Near East are described in Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity, edited by Polymnia Athanassiadi and Maichael Frede (Oxford, 1999); and John Peter Kenney, Mystical Monotheism: A Study in Ancient Platonic Theology (Hanover, N. H. 1991). Peter Clark, Zoroastrianism: An Introduction to an Ancient Faith (Brighton, U. K., 1998), discusses the unique interplay of dualistic and monotheistic ideas within Zoroastrianism.

William F. Albright's From the Stone Age to Christianity: Monotheism and the Historical Process, 2d ed. (Garden City, N. Y., 1957), is a well-known study of the development of monotheism in ancient Israel viewed against the background of ancient Near Eastern cultures. Two studies emphasizing that the development of monotheism in Israel was a long and complex process are Stanley Rosenbaum, Understanding Biblical Israel: A Reexamination of the Origins of Monotheism (Atlanta, 2002); and Robert Karl Gnuse, No Other Gods: Emergent Monotheism in Israel (Sheffield, 1997). The Jewish rabbinic conception of the oneness of God is presented by Louis Jacobs in A Jewish Theology (New York, 1973). A forceful exposition of monotheism in the Jewish view is found in Abraham Heschel's Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (New York, 1951). Paul Tillich presents a monotheistic theology related to his view of God as the "Ground of Being" in his Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Chicago, 1951). Radical Monotheism and Western Civilization (New York, 1960) by H. Richard Niebuhr has been very influential in discussing the relevance of monotheism for Christian societal ideals. The central importance of the unity of God in Islam is presented by Muammad ʿAbduh in The Theology of Unity (London, 1966). The articles in Islamic Spirituality: Foundations, edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr (New York, 1987), look at the oneness of God in relation to many other aspects of Muslim spiritual experience. A rich sampling of philosophical ideas about God, with a typology of theistic views, is found in Charles Hartshorne and William L. Reese's Philosophers Speak of God (Chicago, 1953). H. P. Owen surveys the various philosophical approaches to God as he defends traditional theism in Concepts of Deity (New York, 1971).

Among many critical views of traditional monotheism, Regina M. Schwartz, The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (Chicago, 1997), presents a strong discussion of the relationship of monotheism to various forms of violence and oppression. Material on feminist critiques of traditional theistic concepts can be found in Rosemary R. Ruether's Sexism and God Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (Boston, 1983), and in Judith Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective (New York, 1990). Thinkers as different as Alain de Benoist, Comment peut-on être païen? (Paris, 1981), and David L. Miller, The New Polytheism: Rebirth of the Gods and Goddesses (New York, 1974, revised ed. 1981), suggest that monotheism fails to provide freedom and religious creativity for the modern age and a return to polytheism is needed. Jan Assmann, in Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (Cambridge, 1997), shows how the idea of monotheism fostered the dichotomy of true religion and false religion in Western intellectual history, while alternate forms of cultural memory more favorable to ancient Egypt continued to persist. And Rodney Stark, in his One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism (Princeton, N. J., 2001), presents a far-ranging discussion of the historical and sociological repercussions, both negative and positive, that monotheism has had in Western culture.

Presenting monotheism in a positive view, Bernard-Henri Lévy in Le testament de Dieu (Paris, 1979) attempts to show that the monotheistic ideal of a universal moral law can be a liberating safeguard against all forms of totalitarianism. Monotheism, edited by Claude Geffré and Jean-Pierre Jossua (Edinburgh, 1985), is devoted to the theological discussion of the criticisms of monotheism and the need to rethink and renew this theological concept. Jürgen Moltmann counters oppressive monarchical monotheism with a liberating trinitarian model of God in The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (London, 1981); and Colin E. Gunton, The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge, 1993), argues that both trinitarian and monotheistic perspectives are necessary for upholding human freedom. Elizabeth A. Johnson, in She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York, 1992), is representative of many feminist scholars as she reinterprets the "one living God" with metaphors and images suggesting relationship and communion. Drawing on extensive studies in Jewish and Islamic philosophy, Lenn E. Goodman presents philosophical investigations of monotheism with respect to ethics and human values, notably in Monotheism: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Foundations of Theology and Ethics (Totowa, N. J., 1981); and also in God of Abraham (Oxford, 1996).

Theodore M. Ludwig (1987 and 2005)


views updated Jun 27 2018








The term monotheism derives from the Greek words monos (single, only) and theos (god). It refers to the belief that there is only one God. Although various forms of monotheism can be traced to ancient times, the term itself is relatively modern. After the Irish freethinker John Toland (16701722) published Christianity Not Mysterious (1696), the term pantheism was applied to his concept of the divine. Eventually, it became necessary to distinguish traditional monotheism, which understands God as transcendent or distinct from the universe, from pantheism and other forms of theism.


As the study of religions developed in the 1800s and 1900s, further distinctions were made between traditional monotheism (belief in a single, transcendent God who communicates by revelation), polytheism (belief in multiple or many gods), deism (belief in God as a transcendent being or power who does not intervene in history), henotheism (exclusive adherence to one God without denying the existence of other gods), and pantheism/monism (affirmation of an identity between the universe and God or the affirmation of a single, ultimate reality of which the multiple existing things are only parts or extensions).

Traditional monotheism, as developed principally within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, understands the one divine being not only as transcendent but also as the almighty creator and sustainer of all things, and, therefore, as distinct from and exalted above the created universe. Because everything that exists has been created by and depends on the one God, human beings owe this sublime being complete obedience, submission, and adoration. Moreover, God is understood as infinite, omnipotent, and endowed with all perfections. Although God is transcendent and mysterious, human beings know the divine will by means of supernatural revelation, mediated variously through Gods interventions in human history (e.g., sacred covenants, inspired writings, prophets, and, in the case of Christianity, the incarnation of Gods Word). Traditional monotheism, therefore, looks upon God as a personal being who oversees and guides human affairs.

Various types of monotheism can be found in the world. Deism, as developed during the 1600s to 1700s, understands God within the bounds of reason rather than revelation. Deists see the divine as the ultimate source of creation and order in the universe rather than a personal God who intervenes in history with prophecies and miracles. Many scholars consider pantheism, insofar as it affirms one divine reality, to be a form of monotheismeven though it does not distinguish God from the universe. Pan-en-theism which believes God is both above the universe and within it (as a dynamic principle or life-force)is another type of monotheism. Some even believe that monotheism can incorporate polytheism when the multiple gods are conceived as manifestations of an underlying divine unity (as in many forms of Hinduism).


Scholars differ as to when monotheism first emerged. The German anthropologist and Catholic priest Wilhelm Schmidt (18681954) maintained that monotheism was the primordial belief of human beings. In his twelve-volume work Ursprung der Gottesidee (Origin of the Idea of God, 19121954), Schmidt argued that the High God found in many primitive cultures pointed to an original monotheism (subsequently obscured by devotions to lower spirits and gods). Many anthropologists, however, believe polytheism is more primordial and monotheism the result of a higher cultural development.

The origins of monotheism often have been linked to Judaism and the biblical tradition. Abraham (c. 1800 BCE) is understood as the unifying figure of the three monotheistic or Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Some scholars, however, believe Abraham was not a full-fledged monotheist but a henotheist (i.e., one who pledges exclusive devotion to one God without denying the existence of other gods; from the Greek, heis [one] theos [god]). Exegetes point to the use of the plural, gods (elohim ; see Gen. 1:26; Exod. 12:12), and to several biblical names (e.g., el-elyon, Gen. 14:19; el shaddai, Gen. 17:1) that might have referred to distinct gods worshipped by the early Hebrews.

Some, however, argue that the plural, elohim, is used in a royal sense or as an intensive use of the plural to show that the one God embodies all the qualities of the divine. These same scholars maintain that names such as el shaddai refer exclusively to the one God; thus, for them, there is no evidence of biblical polytheism or henotheism.

Other biblical exegetes find layers of tradition in the Pentateuch or Torah (the first five biblical books), which manifest a gradual move from henotheism to true monotheism. By the time the Pentateuch acquired its final edited form (c. fifth century BCE), authentic monotheism was certainly in force (see Deut. 32:39: See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me). In chapter 45 of Isaiah (c. 539 BCE), the God of Israel proclaims: I am the Lord, and there is no other (Isa. 45:6) and: There is no other god besides me (Isa. 45:21).

Many scholars, though, find evidence for early forms of monotheism not influenced by the Hebrew biblical tradition. The consensus, therefore, is that monotheism cannot be traced, in a unilinear manner, to a single historic source. Instead, the concept of a single God emerges from an underlying perception of unity or the postulation of an original cause of the cosmos. Monotheism, therefore, is understood as a natural structuring of reality by the human mind rather than a concept demanding supernatural revelation.


The monotheism of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) requires the exclusive worship of the one God. Thus, the Jewish sage Maimonides (c. 11351204 CE) numbered among the basic articles of Judaism the necessity of worshiping God alone who is the one, eternal, and incorporeal Creator.

Although some contemporary Jewish scholars acknowledge strands of early biblical polytheism, Judaism, as a whole, has been tenacious in affirming authentic monotheism. Thus, references to the Lords dominion over the gods (see, for example, Prov. 58:12 and 82:1) are rarely interpreted in a polytheistic manner. Instead, such passages are read either as a statement of Gods power over all pretenders to divinity or as an affirmation of the Lords authority over created spirits or angels. Similarly, the Angel of the Lord (see Gen. 16:7 and 22:11 and Exod. 3:2,6, and 13) is perceived as a manifestation of Gods own self and not a separate divinity. The other angels mentioned in the Bible are understood as messengers and servants of God; they are not in any way thought of as separate gods.

Christianity emerged out of Jewish monotheism, but its belief in the divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit led to the doctrine of the Trinity: three eternal Persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) as hypostases or subsistences of the one divine essence. Although some see the Trinity as a compromise of authentic monotheism, Christian creeds and councils reject the view of the Trinity as three gods and affirm the unity of the divine essence. The Christian councils of the fourth and fifth centuries proclaimed Jesus as the eternal Word of God who assumed a human nature and not a creature to whom divinity was subsequently ascribed.

Some people regard the devotion to the saints in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity as a form of functional polytheism. In Catholic and Orthodox theology, however, the saints are not considered deities; instead, they are sanctified human beings who pray for the living from heaven (see, for example, Rev. 5:8). The saints are divinized in the sense that they come to share in the divine nature (see 2 Pet. 1:4). They are sometimes called gods (John 10:34; Prov. 82:6)not because they are uncreated deitiesbut because they participate in the grace of divine life bestowed upon them by God.

Various Protestant Christians likewise consider devotion to images of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the angels, and saints as a form of idolatry. Catholics and Orthodox, howeverfollowing the teaching of the Second Council of Nicea (787 CE)distinguish between the worship (latreia or latria ) due to God alone and the veneration (dulia, proskunesis ) given to the holy images (ikons) of Mary, the angels, and the saints.

There is, though, evidence of crypto-polytheism in Afro-Caribbean religions such as Santeria that blend the Yoruba deities of Africa with the Catholic saints. Also, the Mormons (the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) are sometimes considered polytheists because of their understanding of the Trinity and other doctrines. In spite of these examples, Christianity, as a whole, has been strictly monotheistic.

Islam claims to be the primordial religion of humankind, because all the prophets, since the time of Adam, have taught the same doctrine of Gods unity proclaimed by Muhammad (570632 CE). The Quran, revealed through Muhammad, is seen as the final revelation of God (Allah), which corrects the corruptions that had entered into earlier revelations (such as the Torah, revealed through Moses, and the Gospel, revealed through Jesus).

Islam rejects the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus. Allah is the one and only God, who begets not, nor is He begotten, and there is none like unto Him (Quran 112:34). For Muslims, the greatest sin is shirk, the idolatry of associating something other than Allah with Allah.

Islamic monotheism influenced the religion of Sikhism, which emerged in India under the guru, Nanak (14691538). The Sikhs incorporate certain Hindu teachings, but their concept of God is completely monotheistic. Bahai, which originated in Iran in the nineteenth century, likewise grew out of Islam, and is entirely monotheistic.


The religion of ancient Egypt was polytheistic, but in the fourteenth century BCE the pharaoh, Amenhotep IV (reigned c. 13641347 BCE), changed his name to Akhenaten (servant of Aten) and affirmed Aten (or Aton) as the one true God, symbolized by the solar disk. Akhenaten suppressed the cults of other Egyptian gods, and he referred to Aten as the sole God, other than whom there is no other.

Akhenatens endorsement of monotheism, though, did not persist. After his death, devotion to the other Egyptian gods was restored. In his 1939 book Moses and Monotheism, Sigmund Freud (18561939) theorized that Moses (c. 13001200 BCE) borrowed his monotheism from Akhenaten. Most scholars, though, dispute this claim.

The religions of ancient Greece and Rome were polytheistic, but some signs of monotheism emerged. Plato (427347 BCE) referred to a supreme spirit (psyche ) as the source of motion and order in the universe (see Book 10 of the Laws ), but he seemed to believe that universal Ideas, like the Good, actually transcend the cosmos governed by the supreme Spirit. Aristotle (384322 BCE) affirmed the existence of an eternal and immutable unmoved or prime mover who is self-thinking thought and pure act. This concept of the divine, however, was closer to deism than traditional monotheism because the prime mover is completely transcendent and not concerned with the affairs of human beings or the universe.

The Greek and Roman Stoics affirmed a supreme ordering principle in the universe known as Reason (Logos ). For the most part, however, this Reason was not distinct from the material universe but an active principle within it. This was a form of pan-en-theism or pantheism rather than traditional monotheism.

Plotinus (c. 205269 CE) developed a mystical-philosophical form of monotheism. He believed in a supreme, transcendent reality known as the One out of which all other things emanate in descending, hierarchical order: from the Intellect (nous ), to the Soul (psyche ), and finally to matter.

The Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, named after the prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathustra; c. 900s800s BCE), was monotheistic in its original form. Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord, is the supreme Creator of the material world, and from him came forth the twin spirits: Spenta Mainyu (the Holy Spirit who chose the good) and Angra Mainyu (the Evil Spirit who chose the lie). The Holy Immortals (e.g., Good Thought, Immortality, etc.) are not other gods but eternal forms or attributes of Ahura Mazda.

The original monotheism of Zoroastrianism, however, was obscured by the rise of the cult of Mithra (c. second century BCE) and by the later tendency to depict Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu as competing gods. Zoroastrianism, however, completely rejected the matter/spirit dualism taught by Mani (c. 216276 CE).

Hinduism originated as a polytheistic religion with virtually millions of gods (devas ). As the tradition developed, some hints of monotheism or monism emerged. Even in the early Hindu scriptures known as the Vedas (c. 1200900 BCE), there was the recognition that: The real is one, though the sages name it variously (Rig-Veda I, 169). By the time of the mystical writings called the Upanishads (c. 800500 BCE), some Hindu thinkers began to understand the many gods as expressions or manifestations of the one supreme reality known as Brahman. When the Hindu sage Yājñavalkya (c. 800s BCE) was asked how many gods there really are, he answered, One.

Hindu monotheism, however, sometimes lapsed into monism when Brahman was considered the only true and permanent reality. By contrast, devotional Hinduism tended to concentrate all the attributes of the divine into one personal manifestation of Brahman. Thus, in the Bhagavad Gita (c. 200s BCE), Krishna states: By me, un-manifest in form, this whole universe was spun: in me subsist all beings, I do not subsist in them (IX, 4).

Although differing forms of monotheism or monism can be found in Hinduism, the many gods mentioned in the Vedas could never be denied without repudiating the authority of the Vedas themselves. Thus, in Hinduism, polytheism on a popular and mythological level has continued to coexist with various forms of mystical monism and philosophical monotheism.

In original Buddhism, the focus was on achieving detachment from craving in order to reach a state of liberation called nirvāna. In later Mahayana Buddhism, the ultimate reality was identified variously as emptiness (śūnyatā ), consciousness, or the Buddha-nature. There was, therefore, a single absolute reality.

In some forms of devotional Buddhism, the Buddha became deified, and there emerged the doctrine of the three bodies or aspects of the Buddha: (1) the Transformation Body, which was the body of the Buddha on earth; (2) the Bliss or Enjoyment Body assumed by the various celestial Buddhas; and, (3) the Truth-Body, which is the ultimate reality of the Buddha-essence. Devotional Buddhism, therefore, developed a belief in a unified supreme reality behind all things, which can be understood, at least analogously, as a form of monotheism.

Ancient China was originally polytheistic, but aspects of monotheism emerged in the concept of Heaven (Tien ), taught by Confucius (c. 551479 BCE), and in the Tao of the Tao Te Ching, the mystical treatise attributed to Lao-Tzu (c. sixthfifth century, BCE). In his Analects, Confucius speaks of Heaven as the transcendent source of order and morality, a reality somewhat analogous to a personal God.

The Tao also is analogous to God, because it is the mother of the myriad creatures (I, 2) and the genesis of all things (I, 4). As the all-pervasive source of things, the Tao is like a divine principle guiding the universe (i.e., a type of pan-en-theism).

Native American religion is multifaceted, and various gods or spirits are acknowledged. There is, however, a deep sense of a Great Spirit who pervades nature and is expressed in the numerous powers of animal and human life. In a certain sense, the universe is the dwelling place or body of the Great Spirit, and, therefore, a form of pan-entheism is present.


The religions of the world incorporate different forms of monotheism: from the strict monotheism of Islam to the mystical monotheism of Hinduism (coexisting with popular polytheism). Because Christians and Muslims combine to make up over half of the worlds population, a case can be made that monotheism resonates well with basic human needs for order, meaning, and direction.

SEE ALSO Atheism; Christianity; Church, The; Hinduism; Islam, Shia and Sunni; Judaism; Polytheism; Religion; Roman Catholic Church; Theism


Armstrong, Karen. 1993. A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. New York: Ballantine Books.

Ellwood, Robert S., Jr. 1977. Words of the Worlds Religions: An Anthology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Kramer, Kenneth. 1986. World Scriptures: An Introduction to Comparative Religion. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

Ludwig, Theodore M. 2005. In The Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd ed., Vol. 9, ed. Lindsay Jones, 61556163. Detroit, MI: Thomson Gale.

Pereira, José, ed. 1991. Hindu Theology: Themes, Texts, and Structures. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Smart, Ninian. 1989. The Worlds Religions. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Smart, Ninian. 1991. The Religious Experience. 4th ed. New York: Macmillan.

Smith, Huston. 1991. The Worlds Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. San Francisco: HarperCollins.

Smith, Mark S. 2002. The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans.

Robert Fastiggi


views updated Jun 27 2018


MONOTHEISM , in its literal meaning, oneness of the godhead (i.e., one God). The concept of monotheism is embedded in the domain of religious discourse, and its full and relevant significance must be derived from the connotation which it carries within this domain. Monotheism is usually attributed to biblical faith as its unique and distinct contribution to the history of religious thought. The significance of the word monotheism in its biblical context is taken to lie in the "mono," in the godhead's being one. As such, it is contrasted with paganism, the fundamental religious alternative to biblical faith, whose distinctive religious concept is taken to be polytheism, i.e., the plurality of the godhead (many gods). The difference between the biblical and pagan orientation is thus constituted here as a mere arithmetical difference, a difference between one and many gods. On this basis, biblical monotheism is seen by modern biblical scholars as emerging gradually and in a continuous line from the polytheistic thought of paganism. The mediating stage in such a development is found in monolatry, where the godhead is reduced to one only as far as worship is concerned, while ontologically there is a plurality of gods. It is a mediating stage inasmuch as the arithmetical reduction to oneness is partial. The full reduction of the godhead in all its aspects to oneness emerges from monolatry only later in biblical classical prophecy, when God is claimed not only as the one God of Israel but as the one God of universal history. Here, by drawing the arithmetical reduction to oneness in all the aspects of the godhead, biblical faith achieves ultimately its distinctive, unique character. It is observed, however, that an ontological arithmetical unity of the godhead is achieved also in paganism, even with a remarkable degree of purity (e.g., Plotinus). It must be concluded, therefore, that paganism too has a monotheistic formulation. Yet it is generally felt that a fundamental difference between biblical faith and paganism does exist, and that this difference is expressed in the respective concepts of monotheism. This difference, however, cannot be accounted for on the basis of monotheism understood as the arithmetical oneness of the godhead.

Theistic Monotheism

Consequently, it has been suggested that the difference between biblical and pagan monotheism lies in the fact that the former is theistic while the latter is pantheistic. While it is true that biblical monotheism is exclusively theistic and that pagan monotheism has a definite tendency toward pantheism, to formulate the difference between biblical and pagan monotheism on this basis is to formulate the difference with regard to a totally different aspect of the godhead from that to which the concept of monotheism refers. Monotheism refers to the being of the godhead as such, while theism and pantheism refer to the relation subsisting between the godhead and the world. Thus, while this attempt locates a difference which may follow from the fundamental difference within the concept of monotheism, it does not locate that fundamental difference itself.

Ethical Monotheism

The same point can be made regarding yet another attempt to locate the difference between biblical and pagan monotheism, according to which biblical monotheism is ethical while pagan monotheism is purely philosophical-ontological. Correlated to this is the suggestion that, while paganism arrives at the oneness of its godhead through philosophical reasoning and because of ontological-metaphysical considerations, biblical faith arrives at the oneness of its godhead because of ethical considerations and through a direct insight into the absolute character of the moral law. Thus, biblical monotheism can be distinguished from pagan monotheism in that it alone is ethical monotheism. Here again, however, the distinction is located in an aspect to which the concept of monotheism as such does not refer; the concept of monotheism as such conveys no ethical connotation. It may be that this distinction follows from the proper understanding of the difference between the meaning of monotheism in the biblical context and its use in the context of paganism, but this distinction as such does not capture this difference. In attempting to define the difference, it is interesting first to note that the two formulations above have already shifted the aspect where the difference is to be located from the "mono" to the "theos" part of the concept of monotheism; the theistic-pantheistic distinction refers to the relation of the "theos" to the world, while the ethical-metaphysical distinction refers to what kind of a "theos" is involved. This means that the difference between biblical faith and paganism is no longer seen as a quantitative difference, i.e., how many gods are involved, but as a qualitative difference, i.e., what kind of a god is involved. This shift is essential to a proper understanding of the difference and must form the basis of the attempted formulation.

Ultimate Being

On this basis it can be asserted that the minimal necessary connotation of the term "theos" in the concept of monotheism is that of ultimate being. As such, the arithmetical comparison between biblical monotheism and pagan polytheism is clearly seen to be illegitimate. The "theos" in pagan polytheism is not ultimate. It is superhuman, or "man writ large," but still it remains finite and non-absolute. In polytheism a plurality of ultimate beings is untenable and self-contradictory. Consequently, the "theos" in biblical monotheism and the "theos" in pagan polytheism connote two different kinds of being, for the difference between ultimate and non-ultimate being is not merely quantitative but qualitative. It is not legitimate, however, to compare quantitatively entities which belong to different orders of being. In order to locate the difference meaningfully it must be determined with reference to the same kind of entity, i.e., to the ultimate being which is connoted by the concept of monotheism. As such, however, it is not correct to speak of the development of the concept of monotheism in paganism. Paganism always had a conception of ultimate being transcending its gods and, as indicated above, ultimate being necessitates oneness. There can be no development from many to one with regard to ultimate being. Thus, if the "theos" in monotheism signifies ultimate being, paganism always had a conception of monotheism. The only development that can be pointed to is a development in its articulation, i.e., a development from the cultic-mythological to the speculative-philosophical expression. If the "theos" in monotheism, however, signifies only ultimate being, then it would not be possible to locate any difference between biblical and pagan monotheism, for then the "mono" conveys no additional information which is not already conveyed by the "theos" in itself. In order for the concept of monotheism to have a distinct meaning, the "theos" has to stand for something more than ultimate being. It is here that the real, fundamental difference between pagan and biblical monotheism becomes evident.

Personal Monotheism

In biblical monotheism the "theos" stands for a god who is personal. The "mono" connotes essentially not arithmetical oneness but oneness in the sense of uniqueness. Ultimate being is uniquely one in that it excludes the existence of any other qualitatively similar being. Thus, the authentic meaning of biblical monotheism is the assertion that the "mono," i.e., the unique, the ultimate, is "theos," i.e., a personal being, and this is the distinctive and unique feature of biblical faith and its monotheistic formulation. Paganism, while it too always had a conception of ultimate being and thus a conception of a unitary being, never asserted that ultimate being as personal. It follows from this analysis that the development of biblical monotheism from paganism cannot be envisioned as a linear, continuous development, but must be seen as a "jump" from one orbit to another, for the change that biblical monotheism introduced is qualitative and not quantitative. There is no continuous line of development either from non-personal to personal being or from relative being to ultimate being. This development involves a shift in perspective. While the above articulates the distinctive and essential content of the monotheistic conception of Judaism, it does not preclude or invalidate the fact that the monotheistic conception in Judaism may convey also the arithmetical oneness and the ontological uniqueness of God. Indeed, in post-biblical Judaism (and even in some biblical instances) it is these notions that come to the fore and become the main expressions of the Jewish monotheistic conception. It would seem, however, that the notion of the arithmetical unity of God arises mainly as a reaction against pluralistic formulations found in other religions, such as the *dualism of the Zoroastrian, Manichean, or Gnostic formulation and the trinitarianism of Christianity. The notion of the ontological uniqueness of the godhead arises mainly when Judaism conceives and expresses itself in the philosophical-metaphysical domain, i.e., when its God becomes the god of the philosophers.

Monotheism in Jewish Sources

Thus, Deutero-Isaiah, in response to Persian dualism, stresses the oneness of God in the sense that He alone is God, the one and only creator and ultimate cause of all phenomena: "I form light and create darkness; I make peace and create evil" (Isa. 45:7). This assertion is repeated frequently in rabbinic literature: "He who brought all things into being and who is their first cause is one" (Maimonides, Sefer ha-Mitzvot, positive commandment 2); "I have created all things in pairs. Heaven and earth, man and woman,… but my glory is one and unique" (Deut. R. 2:31). Likewise, the specific use of this assertion polemically against dualism and trinitarianism is extensive: "'I am the first' for I have no father, 'and I am the last' for I have no son, 'and beside me there is no God' for I have no brother" (Ex. R. 29:5); "The Lord, both in His role as our God [who loves us and extends His providence to us, i.e., the second person of the trinity] and the Lord [as He is in Himself, i.e., the first person of the trinity] is one from every aspect" (Leon de Modena, Magen va-Ḥerev, 2:7, 31–32). Furthermore, a number of the basic tenets of Judaism follow logically from this assertion of the arithmetical oneness of God, and rabbinic literature derives them from it. Thus, all forms of idolatry are rejected: God's absolute sovereignty and glory is proclaimed; both love and judgment, mercy and justice are attributed to one and the same God; God's infinity in time as the one God in the past, present, and future is declared. Although the concept of arithmetical oneness is involved also in the assertion of God's unity, the latter is distinct in that God is here distinguished qualitatively rather than merely quantitatively. This assertion finds its expression mainly in philosophical speculation, where the uniqueness of God is understood as essentially conveying the non-composite, non-divisible nature of His being (see Attributes of *God). This is expressed by Maimonides when he says that God is "not one of a genus nor of a species and not as one human being who is a compound divisible into many unities; not a unity like the ordinary material body which is one in number but takes on endless divisions and parts" (Guide of the Perplexed, 1:51ff.). This means that "God is one in perfect simplicity" (Ḥasdai *Crescas, Or Adonai, 1:1, 1), that He is wholly other (Saadiah Gaon, Book of Beliefs and Opinions, 2:1), and unique (Baḥya ibn Paquda, Ḥovot ha-Levavot, "Sha'ar ha-Yiḥud"). Even in rabbinic Judaism, although the emphasis is clearly placed on the two aspects of the monotheistic idea, i.e., the arithmetical oneness and the ontological uniqueness of God, the fundamental underlying assertion is that God is first and foremost a personal being. Thus, though shifting the emphasis, rabbinic Judaism remains fully bound to that aspect of the monotheistic idea where Judaism makes its fundamental and distinctive contribution to the history of religions.


Y. Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel (1960), index; Guttmann, Philosophies, index; A. Altmann, in: Tarbiz, 27 (1958), 301–9; G. Vajda, in: A. Altmann (ed.), Jewish Medieval and Renaissance Studies (1966), 49–74.

[Manfred H. Vogel]


views updated May 21 2018

monotheism This is the belief in a single, transcendental God, who is revealed to human beings through events occurring in history. It is contrasted with polytheism or the belief in many gods. Islam, Judaism, and Christianity are the classical illustrations of religions based on the idea of a single, omnipotent, and omniscient Creator. Examples of polytheism include the supernatural beliefs of classical Greece and Rome, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, and numerous indigenous religions of Africa and the Americas. Polytheism is particularly condemned in Islam, where shirk (or associating another deity with Allah) is regarded as a form of atheism. See also THEISM.


views updated May 14 2018

mon·o·the·ism / ˈmänəˌ[unvoicedth]ēˌizəm/ • n. the doctrine or belief that there is only one God.DERIVATIVES: mon·o·the·ist n. & adj.mon·o·the·is·tic / ˌmänə[unvoicedth]ēˈistik/ adj.mon·o·the·is·ti·cal·ly / ˌmänə[unvoicedth]ēˈistik(ə)lē/ adv.


views updated Jun 11 2018


Monotheism is the belief in a single personal God who is the creator of the cosmos and continues to exercise some influence on it. Monotheism is the core tenet of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as a basic belief about reality for many outside these traditions. God is often, but not always, held to be of unlimited power (omnipotence), unlimited knowledge (omniscience), unlimited extension (omnipresence), and unlimited goodness (omnibenevolence). Further beliefsGod is three persons in one, is self-revealing, is salvifically involved with human beingsare advanced by specific religious traditions; their beliefs about God share important commonalities and exhibit important contrasts.

See also God; Panentheism; Pantheism; Theism

philip clayton


views updated May 14 2018

monotheism Belief in the existence of a single God. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are the three major monotheistic religions.


views updated May 18 2018

Monotheism (Gk., ‘only’ + ‘God’). Belief that there is one God (and only one), in contrast to henotheism or polytheism.