Polytheism & Monotheism in Religion: Many Gods vs. One God

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  • 0:01 Need for Understanding
  • 1:05 Polytheism
  • 2:01 Monotheism
  • 4:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Many religions can be characterized as either polytheistic or monotheistic. This lesson teaches not only those concepts, but also how many of today's religious traditions fit into those definitions. After you've watched the video, test your new knowledge with our quiz questions!

Need for Understanding

Since the earliest moments of human history, our species has sought to understand more of the world around us. Think about it - this curiosity has inspired many of our accomplishments, such as a desire to learn more about outer space eventually led to the moon landing. However, there have always been some things that are outside the realm of understanding. One of the most important of these is the idea of a greater force, or greater forces, working on Earth that is beyond the perception of many people. From ghosts to droughts, so much seemed beyond the understanding of the earliest societies.

As a result, people began to tell myths, or stories that explain the existence of life and how the natural world works. Some of these myths were very fanciful and were probably more for entertainment value than anything else. But other myths dealt with very real questions. Back in those days, there wasn't a lot of scientific understanding of the natural world, so godlike personalities were created to explain the things people didn't understand.

Polytheism

These unseen personalities were often described as having a particular area of focus, such as controlling a particular mountain spring, or the winds of a certain part of the ocean. Over time, this way of explaining the world evolved into belief systems in which multiple gods controlled all kinds of things on Earth. This type of belief system is known as polytheism, which means believing in multiple gods.

The most famous example of polytheism is found in Greek mythology. Here, there were gods and goddesses that controlled just about everything imaginable, including hunting, farming, love, and earthquakes. There was even a god of wine who was viewed as so important that cults formed in his honor. However, polytheism had problems. These gods were often described as being petty in their behavior, which made people lose respect for them.

Monotheism

Of course, if you were competing with a vast collection of gods, known as a pantheon, chances are you would probably be a little petty too. Then, out of Persia, a new idea came forth that there was only good and evil in the universe. What's more, all of the good was controlled by one god, while all evil was governed by an evil power that was not quite yet a god, but could have influence over humanity. We call this belief Zoroastrianism, and it is among the first examples of monotheism in the world. Monotheism is the belief in only one god.

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