Apologetics (Gk. “Speaking in Defense”) is something which I love. When I was a Christian, apologetics were taught in an effort to justify our beliefs as opposed to that of “sinners.” Witchcraft, Satanism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, Roman Catholics: it didn’t matter. I enjoyed lively debates which, I hoped, would have led to conversions. I read the works of some of the Church Fathers who wrote constantly of the defense for Christianity as opposed to the “pagans.” With that in mind, I’d like to write this post as an attack on monotheism and the defense of polytheism.
Monotheism in the West: A Brief History
Many of you will be made uncomfortable by this topic. After all, we lot tend to be very tolerant of other religions and religious practices. The last thing many of us want is vitriol. However, I feel this is important, not least because of how much monotheism around the world and throughout history has been violent.
Monotheism means “One God.” It first arose with the Hebrew tribes who united to create a single nation. It was not without violence and theocrasia, or the blending of different deities into one main one. The Canaanites as a whole were all polytheists. They worshiped deities named Asherah (a female Goddess), El, or El Elyon (the Most High), El Shaddai, Elohim, and others. Eventually, the Israelites compounded the El of the Canaanites and their YHWH to became a single deity. The inspiration there was one single omniscient and omnipotent Creator was unique. The Goddess, Asherah, was worshiped alongside YHWH for centuries. In fact, you can read about the condemnation of her worship by the Hebrew prophets in the Bible, so popular was she.
In Egypt, the Pharaoh Amenhotep IV raised a solar deity into the Supreme Deity named Aten. By his orders, all idols were forbidden and so was polytheism. He changed his name to Akhenaten, and declared that Aten was the sole deity of Egypt with him as the intermediary between the God and the people of Egypt. In fact, Amenhotep IV wrote a hymn which states:
O sole God, like whom there is no other!
Thou didst create the world according to thy desire…
After Amenhotep IV’s death, polytheism returned and cartouches of the Pharoah were destroyed.
When Christianity began as a religious movement, it was divided into different sects which all had various views on God. The New Testament makes it seem like there has been a good stream of monotheism throughout the early history of Christianity, but that wasn’t the case. Christian groups like the Arians (popular among the Germanic tribes), believed that there was one God, and that Jesus did not exist until he was born. This effectively undermined the work of the Trinitarians, who espoused the belief that the Christian God was 3-in-1.
In the year 325 CE, when the Roman Emperor Constantine I (the Great) assumed the throne, he was baptized by an Arian bishop. Hoping to bring the different groups together, Constantine called for the first Ecumenical Council held in Nicaea (a town in modern day Turkey). Everyone argued about which doctrines were correct. Christianity pushed doctrine rather than practice, something the polytheistic religions were known for.
Christian bishops wanted a clear orthodox (“right teaching”) which defined their creed. As a side note, they also argued when to celebrate Easter. Anyway, the Council of Nicaea came up with what is now known as the Nicene Creed; a creed which represents Christian orthodoxy. Among the most important beliefs was where Jesus stood in regards to God: was he non-existent before being born? In other words, not God? Was he God always and just merely an essence, or extension, of God? And what of the Holy Spirit?
At the Council, these questions were answered by declaring that God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, were all in eternal existence and made of the same substance. The Trinitarian view was subsequently affirmed in later Councils as well. However, the Trinitarian teaching was rejected by Judaism and later Islam as proof that Christianity was not monotheistic, but polytheistic.
In Islam, monotheism is believed to set this religion apart from Christianity. This teaching is known as a tawhid, or “oneness of God.” A central tenet in Islam, God is the only being in the Cosmos; submission is to him alone. Islam recognizes Judaism as a fellow monotheistic religion. However, Islam as a whole rejects Christianity for their doctrine of the Trinity, which smacks of polytheism. God in Islam is fully transcendent; that is, God is separate from his creation.
Why Monotheism Fails
As you can see, the definition and defense of monotheism by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam has a long a sordid history. The teaching that there is as single, transcendent deity who is all pervasive creates in the mind of humans a strict dyad, the fallacy of everything in black and white. That there can only be two choices for a human, one resulting in punishment and the other in a paradise. This feeds into a narrative in which judgement reigns supreme, a superiority complex that upholds a monotheist’s emotional connection to their strong beliefs, rather than an understanding of multiple viewpoints.
Monotheism, by introducing the singular Divinity, erases critical thinking skills, a pluralistic worldview, and contradictions in the functions and thoughts of that deity. For example, a singular divinity is said to be omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent. But these cannot co-exist with the reality of our world and Cosmos. In truth, our world is a violent one: earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, venomous animals, limited resources, and extinction level events.
Can monotheism explain evolution? Can monotheism explain why for millions of years no humans existed, and yet we are meant to believe that we are the only animal in need of salvation? The transcendent God – the one removed from the world after Creation – is by default unconcerned. They cannot be omnibenevolent and still allow violence to overtake and cause pain, misery, and suffering for humans from natural events. I use the Nature argument as opposed to the fanatical Human argument, which places the blame of murder and genocide squarely on humans. Monotheists will claim that we did this to ourselves by falling from grace. Then again, the Nature argument will also be debated by a monotheist stating that all violence in this world is the effect of falling from grace and out of favor with the single God.
In human history, monotheism has been the singly greatest cause for murder and genocide. It is a tenant which must be believed, rather than allowing the mind to see the beauty of plural truths in our world. By taking this belief system and fighting over which one is the true doctrine, differences of opinions have led dissenters of these monotheistic teachings to harass and kill these “heretics,” while destroying their relics, statues, and committing cultural genocide.
Modern examples include the burning of women and children in Uganda, where Pentecostal churches are making a major political impact with support from American Pentecostal megachurches. In the United States, religion in right-wing Christian groups have been pushing to take away the rights of LGBTQIA people, along with pushing holy wars with the Islamic Middle East. In Brazil, Pentecostal churches lead the way as cultural genocide and murder are committed against Afro-Diaposric religions such as the adherents of Palo. In the Islamic Middle East, Wahhabi (orthodox) Muslims wage violent jihad against Baha’i and other Islamic sects for being heretical. The Yazidi people are called Satan worshipers and murdered.
There are of course also the historical narratives of Christians, Jews, and Muslims committing atrocities against polytheistic peoples. Canaanites, Arabic polytheists, Germanic polytheists, and others have faced the sword of monotheistic belief systems. Indigenous peoples have suffered under the might of monotheistic belief systems invading their lands.
In Favor of Polytheism
Wars were committed under polytheistic societies, this is fact. However, wars were fought over land and resources, not belief systems. When we are born and we grow, we discover the wonders of diversity in our world: multiple colors, multiple shapes, multiple ethnicities, multiple animals, etc. The world is an enchanted place. We all carry different opinions, truths, and a myriad of different experiences. This diversity is naturally going to be applied to how we view deity and spirits.
In some beliefs such as those of folk Catholics, saints replace the Old Gods as people seek out different beings over different influences. Polytheism is realistic in its approach to the world: there are separate peaceful and violent spirits which exist in our world. Yes, polytheists have faith and prayers to their deities and spirits, and oftentimes they are not answered just like in monotheism. But that is a human issue, not a divine one. Polytheists make no mistake that the world is a giant contradiction in its diversity, and so therefore our spirits are extensions of how the world and the Cosmos work.
Our deities and spirits are also limited. They are not omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, or omnibenevolent. They are limited in their scope. That is fine. We humans are also limited, and Nature is as well. Some people assert that polytheism is merely a primitive way to explain the world prior to the “truth of [insert monotheistic religion here].” But one can also argue that point with monotheism. So that argument, in my opinion, is moot.
But an all-powerful deity cannot be all good and all knowing and all powerful at the same time. That is a contradiction. So monotheists will inform their followers that they must rely on faith, because those contradictions make no sense to the human mind. Polytheists, on the other hand, also have faith, but are more concerned with Right Behavior, Right Choice, and Right Action. It is an orthopraxy (“right practice”). Atheists existed in the ancient world as they do now. Rational thought is a positive approach. As a polytheist and a person of Reason, I am not ashamed to say that those go hand-in-hand. Parmenides, the Father of Western Rationalism, was presented with the rules of Reason by his Underworld journey to the Goddess Persephone. Secular Reason and polytheism can co-exist side by side.
I am glad that there are many Jews, Christians, and Muslims who have rationally and honestly looked at their religion’s past and have adapted over the ages, becoming more secular and progressive. They don’t allow their facts to deprive them of their faith. At the same time, this poses a danger to many strict monotheists whose worldview only allows for one way and one truth. The perennial problem of evil in the world has no justifiable answer in monotheism, because their God is supposed to be all good. In polytheism, however, we face this issue with knowing our Gods and Nature can be inseparable (not that our Gods and spirits are sole expressions of natural phenomenon).
In the end, we view the history of humankind and that of evolution as an issue for human thought. However, monotheistic loyalty to their “true God” continues with more questions for the ages. Who is the true God? Which heretic was right? Which one was wrong? It is only a human’s authority which proclaims such things, along with the belief that the “right people” are in sole possession of knowing the Mind and Will of God. They KNOW. But in polytheism, there is nothing wrong with philosophical contemplation. We worship, we practice: we CHOOSE. The Gods and spirits will not rain down wrath because we choose not to worship. It comes down to that simplistic of teachings: free will.
Our free will is in danger when monotheism is permitted to define our national frame of mind. We can exercise it without the fear of being punished, whether here or in the hereafter (which is again a choice to believe in polytheism). I encourage my “soft” monotheistic friends to hold their monotheistic comrades, churches, and masjids (mosques) accountable when their ways endanger our fellow polytheists, such as in Australia, Africa, India, South America, and here in the United States. When our allies do so, we can then face the world together.
Eirene kai Hugieia!
(Peace and Health!)