What are some of the differences between monotheism and polytheism?

The word ‘religion’ can invoke a vast amount of emotions in a person upon hearing that term. It is a word that not only means something different to different people but it is hard to define.

When you try to define religion you end up with more definitions and belief systems that it is hard to know the difference between them. Monotheism and polytheism are just two of the many religious beliefs that exist today.

They are not the same type of religion and any similarities are found in the basic criteria that many use to define the term religion. The differences speak volumes about the people who adhere to each one.

Defining the terms

This is the first difference between these two religious belief systems. While the terms are found in the same source, ancient Greek, the terms mean the exact opposite of each other.

The word theism comes from the Greek word Theos which means God, the word mono comes from the Greek word ‘monos’ meaning one and finally the word poly comes from the Greek word ‘polus’ meaning many.

These terms set the foundation that neither religious system is similar. They have different views, different moral codes, and different holy writings. The other similarity between these two religious beliefs is that they are umbrella terms.

By that, it is meant that there is a wide variety of religious systems that are categorized under each subgroup of religion yet hold to different beliefs and gods. The most famous monotheistic religions are:

  1. Christianity
  2. Islam
  3. Judaism
  4. Different cults or false religions that are sometimes classified as Christian Mormonism and Jehovah Witnesses being just two examples

The more well known polytheistic religions are:

  1. Ancient Greek religious beliefs
  2. Ancient Roman religious beliefs
  3. Ancient Egyptian religious beliefs
  4. Modern Hinduism

The source of polytheism and monotheism

Some people would say that this would be another similarity between the two religious belief categories as there is no real source for either. One theory holds that both systems were started by the commands of Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs(1). There is no real evidence for this even though one Pharaoh, Akhenaten, did command his people to follow Aton only.

Another theory holds to the concept that both polytheism and monotheism were the results of an agricultural revolution (2). Then others hold that Abraham was the founder of a few monotheistic religions but in reality, both systems were in place long before Abraham moved from Ur.

The rise of either really depended upon the charisma of the leaders of the different systems, their acceptance by the government, and so on. Then there are those who simply do not accept religion in its basic form and put the rise of different religious beliefs down to cultural practices (3).

How many of these religious beliefs started, the issue is that they still exist today and people need to know the differences between them.

The differences between polytheism and monotheism

The differences between these two religious belief categories lie in the basic similarities of what is a religion (4). This section will use those basics to show those differences.

#1. There are divine beings involved

Monotheism, as you know, believes that there is only one God or god that created everything and rules it under their individual set of rules. For Islam that god is Allah, for Judaism, Christianity, and many cults, that god is the God found in the Bible.

Polytheism simply has more than one god. Almost anyone or anything can be declared a god under the beliefs of the different polytheistic belief systems. Hinduism and ancient Egyptian beliefs have over 100 while ancient Greek and Roman gods number under 50.

#2. A moral code is involved

The moral codes of the monotheistic religions are well known. Some can get quite violent if the offender is found guilty. On the other hand, the moral codes for polytheism are not so harsh in some aspects and their code allows for the acceptance of many different conducts of behavior.

These moral codes dictate to the adherent how they will act and how they will view those outside of their accepted faith.

#3. Temples, symbols, icons, etc. are involved

While the God of both Christianity and Judaism forbids graven images, there are many images of Christ used, including statues- i.e. Roman Catholicism, and temples, churches, and other buildings are used for their corporate worship.

Islam has mosques and cults have their own places of worship as well. For polytheism, there are many statutes, icons, religious symbols used as well as temples being raised for the adherents to offer their prayers and so on.

The permission for statutes, etc., is one of the differences between these two religious systems. One encourages their use while the other does not.

#4. The practice of the two religious systems

One of the biggest differences between these two belief systems is how each one practices their moral code. Those practices are often interpreted by observers in different ways.

For example, the people who observe the different monotheistic religions would describe those belief systems as being intolerant. They have a strict moral code and alternative preferences and moral behavior are outlawed and rejected.

Whereas different observers of polytheistic belief systems would describe those religious systems as tolerant. That conclusion is based upon those systems’ acceptance of different ways of doing things, and different preferences.

The attitude of both systems sets them apart and the chasm between them will never be bridged.

#5. Implementation of Rituals & prayers

One may say that this is more of a similarity than a difference as both religious systems belief in supernatural powers and need to communicate with those powers and please them.

The different polytheistic religions have prayers but who they pray to varies and the type of prayer they offer can be done in different ways. Also, the rituals involved in those different religions are often different even though they are all placed under the umbrella title of festivals, celebrations, and so on.

There are prayers offered in the monotheistic religions and some, like Islam, have a set list of prayers to be said and a set order of those prayers which must be done on a daily basis.

Christians do pray but their prayers are individually constructed, for the most part, and can be offered at any time and anywhere. The use of prayer in Christianity depends on the situation.

While some may say that their gathering on a Sunday for worship or a Wednesday for a prayer meeting are rituals. They are not. Those are just appointed times to help people make their personal schedules and be free to join their fellow members for corporate times of worship and prayer.

The rituals found in polytheism can vary and some allow for the cutting of the body during their prayer sessions. Rituals certainly raise the emotions of the adherents and some practices by monotheistic religions accomplish the same result.

#6. The universal aspect

This is supposed to be one of the criteria to determine if a belief system is a religion or not but if it is applied strictly, then the polytheistic belief systems would not be considered a religion.

While they can be described as universal, in that they are found and practiced around the world, those belief systems are hardly missionary in nature. It is rare to hear of the members leaving home and traveling to another country with the sole purpose of converting others to their belief system.

Christianity is said to have been the first missionary religious belief and its adherents are famous for giving up their lifestyles, their homes, family ties, and so on and traveling throughout the world to lead other nations to their savior.

Some monotheistic religions used force to convert others to their religious beliefs a practice looked down upon by almost everyone else.

#7. Acceptance of truth

Under polytheism, there is the concept of many paths can be taken to the same eternal reward and there are many different forms of truth existing, that guide people to that eternal reward.

With monotheism, there is only one path to eternal rewards and those end goals vary between the different monotheistic religious systems. This ideology sets these two categories far apart and again this chasm will not be bridged.

Some final words

Religion, in almost all cases, is practiced in the manner of how people view their religion. Even within each group of polytheistic and monotheistic religious systems, there are people who practice their faith differently.

That is the case even when they belong to the same group. It is difficult at times to tell them apart without a scorecard or an in-depth review of the individual beliefs of both categories.

Those difficulties and differences are two of the reasons many people say religion does not exist and refuse to acknowledge any.

Gene Botkin

Gene is the director of the Theosis Christian Project. He studied physics and military science before founding the Project. Gene is currently pursuing his doctorate in systems engineering at an engineering college in the Ozarks. The Theosis Christian Project is his attempt to expand Holy Orthodoxy in America.

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