Is monotheism superior to polytheism?

Stabroek News
December 29, 2001

Dear Editor,

Mr. Accabre Nkofi's letters in the media on African thought and philosophy have been very revealing. In "In African faiths God is infinite", [ please note: link provided by LOSP web site ] [S.N. December 20, 2001], he has pointed out that the belief in God as the "One" and the "Many" has led to derision of African religions as polytheistic by monotheists.

It is customary to think that monotheism is superior to polytheism. This claim of superiority is based on assumptions not acceptable to all. Their difference lies not in the degree of perfection, but in the method.

Monotheism is the belief in a single Divine Person. However, the belief in the oneness of God alone does not make one a monotheist. For instance, God cannot be an Impersonal Being. To the monotheist, God is a Person and not a metaphysical Essence. God is not only a Single Person, but also a Male Person. God can never be a Mother in the monotheistic religion. The monotheistic God is not only a single and a male Person, but He stands in a single relationship to man -- that of Father; not only a Father, but a Patriarch.

As a Person, the monotheistic God cannot exist anywhere; He has His special abode - heaven. He is a Father who is in heaven. He can go wherever He likes, but heaven is the place of residence. Perhaps the most essential difference between monotheism and polytheism lies here:- that monotheism contemplates the Divine in heaven and polytheism contemplates the Divine in the universe.

This makes a difference in the entire conception of life and religion. To the monotheist heaven represents a superior plane of existence and God a superior order of reality. To that order belong angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, ginns and ginnies, who also share that space with God. According to this cult, while heaven is sacred, the universe is profane; while God and the angels who live in heaven are holy, man who lives on earth is sinful; while God is great, man is small.

Polytheism finds the Divine in the universe and hence, there is but a thin dividing line between the sacred and the profane, the human and the Divine, the mortal and the immortal. In fact, polytheism contemplates heaven on earth and God in nature and among men. While polytheism is attached to the earth and thinks in terms of life and the joy of living, monotheism is attached to a hereafter and lives for heaven, looking down upon earthly things.

Monotheism is monarchical theism as its God is also King of Heaven from where He rules over the universe as its sole Monarch. He has His servants and emissaries. As the only King, He is jealous of usurpers and rivals. He alone should receive the homage and no other. To offer homage to any but the God of Heaven is to be a traitor to the Kingdom of God. He has His perpetual adversary or enemy - Satan, who is a sort of anti-God. Men are in constant risk of going over to God's enemy and God's wrath is directed against them when they are suspected of having done so. He takes the best of His subjects to His heavenly court. The worst are flung into the dark prison-house, hell.

Monotheism, being political in structure, needs the 'soldier' to fight the battle of the King of Heaven. Polytheism does not know any holy war, while it is a usual feature of monotheism.

Polytheism, on the other hand believes in a synod or assembly of gods, each with a well-defined individuality, possessing a character of his own, and each distinguished from the others by sex, and special attributes. Here the divine power is not centralized in one person; hence the divine government is oligarchic instead of monarchical. It attempts to have its hold on the masses of people by poetical and artistic forms -- by rituals and ceremonies, songs and dances, as well as by the appeal of architecture, sculpture, painting, etc,. Monotheism, on the other hand builds up a central authority and institution with ramifications that penetrate into the entire life of the people, often to the rigid exclusion of most of the arts.

The appeal of polytheism is like that of poetry and art -- spontaneous, independent, unofficial. The appeal of monotheism is centred in the compulsion of an institution and fear of its laws. Thus, while conformity is the fundamental condition of the existence of monotheism, non-conformity is part of the essence of polytheism. While there is uniformity in monotheism, polytheism is marked by variety.

While polytheism has owed its continued existence to flexibility and the capacity for change and adjustment, monotheism has derived much strength from orthodoxy and dogmatism, sometimes leading to the ruthless persecution and destruction of heretics and infidels.

However, there is a certain religious attitude typical of the Vedic religion where the Divinity is contemplated as the "One in Many" and the "Many in One". It is neither entirely monotheistic nor polytheistic. Max Muller has coined the name "henotheism" to describe this idea. The Vedic Deity is not the same as in Semitic monotheism, nor are the different Gods and Goddesses so well defined and individualized the same as in polytheistic faiths. Its speciality lies in that, though it contemplates many gods, it asserts each as the Supreme Being. By clear statements in the Vedas, one Deity is identified with another, or different Deities with one Deity. Thus, Vedic theism is the worship of the One Divinity in many names and forms. "The One Being the sages call by different names," says the Vedas.

Yours faithfully,

Pt. R. Balbadar