A dispute, at times breaking into violence, has smoldered for thousands of years between polytheists and monotheists, those who believe there are many gods and those who believe there is only one.
Polytheism is generally regarded as the older view, but I think that may be a little too facile, and too self-serving on the part of monotheists who like to think in terms of a progression from animism to polytheism to monotheism similar to the progress of science or in society, with their own views as the latest and most advanced. But very primitive peoples have sometimes had monistic or monotheistic conceptions, with a single spirit animating all of nature, and at least one modern religion, Hinduism, is polytheistic in practice even though its theology treats the question with some complexity. I don’t see any clear progression on a philosophical level. The triumph of Christianity and Islam in the western world came entirely from the alliance of those two religions with various states, including the Roman Empire, European monarchies, the Caliphate, and the monarchies of independent Muslim countries after the Caliphate dissolved. Now that this alliance is broken (for Christianity anyway), the dominance is being reversed and polytheistic religion is making a comeback.
History is rife with examples of the conflict between the ideas of one god and many. In Egypt in the 2nd millennium BCE, the Pharaoh Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten and attempted to impose monotheistic religion on previously polytheistic Egypt. Being an absolute monarch, he succeeded; being mortal, however, his success did not endure. Akhenaten’s form of monotheism is called “henotheism” strictly speaking. He did not deny that other gods existed besides Aten, but insisted that no others were worthy of being worshiped. Egyptian society was highly conservative and seethed under Akhenaten’s religious reforms, which were quickly undone after his death.
The Bible contains a long tale of conflict between polytheism and monotheism. The Ten Commandments provided to the prophet Moses by JHVH, the god of the descendants of Abraham, commanded monotheolatry — worship of only one god — but did not proclaim monotheism. “You shall have no other gods before me” — not “I am the only God.” As far as the revealed nature of this deity who commanded exclusive worship, it was at first not terribly inspiring. He claimed, and in the stories demonstrated, that he was more powerful than other gods, and commanded obedience through threat of punishment. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Jews worshiped the friendlier and more compassionate gods and goddesses of their polytheistic neighbors whenever they thought they could get away with it, as is told particularly in the two Books of the Kings and the two Books of the Chronicles. In the end, the kingdom of Israel was divided by civil war and the two parts were devoured by the Assyrians and Babylonians. Captive in Babylon, the Jews underwent a religious crisis and transformation and emerged with a vastly altered conception of their god into a true universal deity — they became, more or less, Jews as that religion is practiced today.
The Q’uran contains many vitriolic passages condemning polytheism, which was practiced in Arabia before Mohammed elevated the Meccan moon god into a new name for the universal God of Abraham as worshiped in Judaism and Christianity. Islam contains a sort of hierarchy of other religions. Christianity and Judaism, being monotheistic religions in the same family as Islam, and based on the teachings of men the Q’uran regards as holy prophets, are treated with some respect and tolerance, while polytheistic faiths are condemned unequivocally. Islam has had its share of violent conflicts with Christianity and Judaism, but much worse is the conflict in India between Islam and Hinduism that has killed literally millions of people over the centuries since Muslims invaded India and established the Mughul Empire.
More examples could be presented, but the implication is clear enough: a conflict obtains between those who insist that there is only one god or that only one god should be worshiped and those who defend the validity of multiple gods. Monotheists are in this sense authoritarians and centralizers, while polytheists are libertarians and decentralizers. (This is not to say that polytheists can’t be authoritarian, just that the scope and reach of the claimed authority of a god is always limited when some other god can countermand it.)
As with most religious conflicts, this one in my opinion rises from cloudy vision. It arises, specifically, from forgetting (or never understanding in the first place) that religious ideas are metaphors. It also arises from placing too much absolute significance on the division between one thing and another.
Consider your own body. It can be treated as a single, unified whole — yet it also consists of the interaction of many organs and cells, each an entity in its own right. Each cell, in turn, consists of many complex molecules, each molecule of atoms, each atom of subatomic particles. Your body, moreover, is part of a society and part of a biosphere, either of which can also be treated as a whole, and the biosphere is part of a planet which is part of a solar system which is part of a galaxy which is part of the universe.
None of these levels of reality is any more “real” than the others, and so your body is simultaneously a whole entity, a composite of many entities, and a part of a larger entity. Are you one, or are you many? Both at once, obviously: it depends on your perspective.
The same is true of the gods. The universe, ultimately (by both reason and mystical experience) is one — but it manifests in a huge number of different forms. God being a personification of the universe, a metaphor for universal consciousness, he/she/it is also one — but also manifests in a huge number of possible forms. To encompass the totality of the cosmos is beyond the capacity of the human mind, not only because we just don’t have that high a brain-cell capacity but, more fundamentally, because we are part of the universe and so whatever we are observing/imagining (as opposed to being) it is, at best, the universe minus ourselves, which is not the whole thing.
And so it becomes useful to imagine the divine in more than one form, allowing us to relate to more than one aspect of it, each in a way that is within our limited capacity. At the same time, it’s also useful to remember that a unity underlies the diversity of our imagination.
What is not useful — and this is the error of monotheism — is to take a single deity, an image or concept that our minds can encompass (and that is therefore automatically not the whole) and treat that one as if it ruled alone and without rivals or peers.
“There is no God but God” is true when the god looks at another god and sees himself.
Image credit: k6spm / 123RF Stock Photo