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What is Monotheism?

Updated on December 27, 2016

Monotheism, in religion, is the belief in one God. The equivalent term in philosophy is theism. Monotheism is opposed to atheism, belief in no God, and to polytheism, belief in many gods. It differs from pantheism, the belief that God is inseparable from the world, in holding that God is transcendent, outside the world.

At the same time it differs from deism, the belief that God has withdrawn from the world, in maintaining that he is immanent, or active in it.

The God of monotheism is, moreover, a personal being who can be imagined, although not understood, in human terms of power, wisdom, and love and who can be approached in prayer.

Thus he differs from an impersonal abstract principle, or Absolute, as in Greek (Aristotle), German (Hegel), and Hindu (Shankara) philosophy.

According to the three great monotheistic religions of the West-Judaism, Christianity, and Islam-monotheism is the highest form of religion.

Some thinkers, however, consider the concept of a personal God a step toward the more sophisticated concept of an Absolute. Either way, monotheism has provided an intellectually and emotionally satisfying answer to many of man's eternal questions about the meaning of existence.

It has not, however, definitely explained the presence of evil in a universe created and ruled by a benevolent, omnipotent God.

Sources of Monotheism

Jews, Christians and Muslims traditionally have believed that monotheism was revealed by God to Adam, but that after the Fall mankind declined into polytheism, The biblical prophets and Mohammed labored mightily to remove these polluting influences and restore man's original faith.

This traditional view was challenged in the 19th century as a result of historical and anthropological research. Some scholars concluded that man's religious ideas have progressed from the animism of primitive societies through the polytheism of ancient and Eastern civilizations to culminate in the monotheism of the West. This historical view has been modified in the late 20th century. Some scholars have posited the existence of an original monotheism among primitive peoples.

Others maintain that some individuals in all religions tend toward monotheism, often by way of henotheism, the worship of one great God without excluding lesser divinities.

Types of Monotheism

The major Western religions are rigidly monotheistic. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, God as the Creator is the all-powerful ruler of the universe, who jealously permits no rival or subordinate deities. Also just and loving, he requires trust and ethical conduct from his followers, whom he will save from sin and death. Although non-Christians have found it difficult to reconcile the doctrine of the Trinity with monotheism, Christian theologians insist that there is no contradiction.

Zoroastrianism is initially dualistic, but since the good God, Ahura Mazda, defeats the evil God, Ahriman, it is ultimately monotheistic.

The major religions of the East have more or less monotheistic aspects but these shade into other views. Hindu monotheism requires loving devotion to a supreme God-Vishnu or Shiva who will save his followers from the cycle of endless rebirths, but it permits lesser divinities.

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