Monotheism: Definition, Origin & History

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  • 0:01 Man & Religion
  • 0:36 What Is Monotheism?
  • 1:00 Monotheism Yesterday:…
  • 2:26 Monotheism Today:…
  • 5:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Duane Cloud

Duane has taught teacher education courses and has a Doctorate in curriculum and instruction. His doctoral dissertation is on ''The Wizard of Oz''.

The worship of a single god is familiar to many of us. This lesson examines that belief through examples of both old and new religions, including several of their component branches.

Man & Religion

Religion is a topic near and dear to the hearts of many people. Even those who are not religious can have difficulty discussing religion, because believers may become offended. Still, religion is an important part of culture that has to be studied if we're to advance the understanding of human behavior and societies. Human is the operative word here. Anthropologists and other social scientists study religious belief systems for what they tell us about human beings, rather than to find any kind of universal religious truth. Many modern religious belief systems are monotheistic, but what does this mean?

What Is Monotheism?

Theism is the belief in some kind of god or gods, while atheism is the lack of belief in a god or gods. Among theists, monotheism is the belief in a single god, while polytheism is the belief in multiple gods. Note that henotheism is a belief in multiple gods, though one is more important than the others. Modern faiths include a variety of monotheistic, polytheistic and atheistic beliefs.

Monotheism Yesterday: Egyptian & Zoroastrianism

So, what was the very first monotheistic faith? There's actually no clear answer to that. The Egyptian deity, Aten, was declared the one and only god by the pharaoh Akhenaten around 1350 BCE. Akhenaten went so far as the strike out references to the other gods and make them reference only a singular divine figure, Aten the sun god.

The Persian religion of Zoroastrianism began around 1000 BCE. This faith focused upon a single god, Ahura Mazda. Zoroastrians also believed in an evil god-like being called Angra Mainyu, which is similar to the modern Western concept of the devil. Hinduism, one of the world's earliest religions with roots dating back to 2000 BCE, is also an interesting case, as it has some followers who may be properly called monotheists. However, this monotheistic tradition dates back to around 900 CE, and so this tradition can't be called the oldest.

Nevertheless, in the case of both Atenism and Hinduism, their monotheistic traditions can be seen as developing from polytheistic sources. Both of these religious traditions have preceding traditions that feature multiple gods. These faiths likely progressed through a sort of henotheism in which a single deity became prominent. In the case of Atenism, this was due to a concerted effort by Akhenaten to erase the old gods. With Hindu monotheism, all the gods can be said to be different forms of Brahman, the all-pervading god principle.

Monotheism Today: Christianity & Islam

Today's monotheistic religions include a wide variety of contemporary faiths, such as Christianity and Islam. Many of their beliefs differ from one another, but they also share some beliefs. In addition, they share a heritage, as both can be considered offshoots of Judaism.

Christianity is the world's most widespread religion, with followers in every nation and on every continent. Most Christians believe in a single deity that is divided into three beings, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The division of a single god into three is considered by most Christians to be a mystery. In the religious sense, a mystery is a belief in something that is beyond human understanding.

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