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In the cultural development of humanity the emergence of Monotheism is often mentioned to be a milestone comparable to the ability to control fire or write.

Of course it is true, that Monotheism appears to be a relatively young cultural development compared to the time humans actually exist, and it's pretty prevalent, too. But in contrast to the ability to make fire, I find it hard to proof that Monotheism generally brings any objective cultural advantage over polytheism, henotheism, or atheism.

So how can Monotheism be seen as something superior as Polytheism or other kinds of nature religions like Shamanism and so on?

Reasons I heard so far, which do not convince me, are the following (in braces my counterargument):

  • Most humans today were converted to Christianity or Islam (many people doing something doesn't mean anything)
  • Theistic evolution, i.e. monotheism arose through a gradual process of polytheism -> henotheism -> monotheism (true, but still: cultural development was stuck in the middle age Europe due to Christianity and became enlightened by the philosophy of the polytheistic Greeks, which were arguably more enlightened)
  • Proximity to atheism, i.e. one god is closer to none instead of many, while none is the absolute truth (nobody actually knows what the absolute truth is)
  • Acceptance of science, since all of the gods except one were done away with, natural phenomena can no longer be explained by, "it was the will of the god X." (Then you can blame the one and only god without the need to question anything)
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    @PédeLeão Any evidence that Mankind originally knew of the oneness of God outside your favorite box of myths? Do you have historical evidence, based in real history and not mythology, or even psychological theory on which to base this? If not, put your comments in context, and stop stating biases as facts. it is aggressive and confrontational to do so and you are purposely offending people outside your chosen hegemonic group. Yes, I an equally hard on atheist assholes who are that blatant.
    – user9166
    Nov 5 '16 at 18:44
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    "In the cultural development of humanity the emergence of Monotheism is often mentioned to be a milestone comparable to the ability to control fire or write." By whom? Citations, please.
    – user20153
    Nov 5 '16 at 21:07
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    @PédeLeão You state he has his facts wrong. Most comments are not challenges, but those that are should be backed up by something. It is not at all uncommon here for someone who just states the OP is wrong about something to be expected to give evidence. So I don't understand where you got your expectation otherwise.
    – user9166
    Nov 6 '16 at 23:15
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    @PédeLeão The idea that one is accountable for making arguments that back up one's accusations is a general principle of philosophy, not my opinion.
    – user9166
    Nov 7 '16 at 1:14
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    @PédeLeão No, what commando is saying makes sense on the basis of philosphical tradition. Even very religous philosophies, wholly embedded in Christianity, like Spinoza and Decartes or even Aquinas, considered the content of scripture to lie outside philosophy. Even if religion and philosophy are two paths to the same truth, they are different paths.
    – user9166
    Nov 7 '16 at 15:02
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Whitehead suggests a slight variant of the last reason. The reason monotheism is a step toward science is not that it does away with competing mythologies that complicate explanations. It is because it first introduces the possibility of a stable natural law, in a way that allows us to see nature as predictable, but ourselves as still morally accountable.

In the West, the Stoics had tried to assert atheistic natural law, but it makes morality seem optional, and it robs one of motivation. The Platonic god of everything (the basis of the demiurge, the source of the Forms, and perhaps the 'Pan' of the Phaedrus (wholly unrelated to the goat-footed fellow)) lets us put aside the conflict with no attempt to really work it through. We personify the ruleset itself and afford moral value to acts agreeing with that person's dictates.

This is not winnowing down a set of gods to one. It is taking the notion of god and simply slapping it onto another concept entirely. That is the step. The Egyptian 'Amon Ra' version of monotheism, where one of the gods simply kills off all of the others, is not the same step. And it did not accomplish the same transformation in their society.

Conflating this new Platonic God with the Judaic one allows us to declare the dilemma of determinacy vs moral agency mystical, and leave it unaddressed while we focus on leveraging both of them for social good.

(It is also not necessary that successful monotheism be exclusive or thoroughgoing, to have its effect. Hinduism managed to solidify a personification of natural law in a moral context with Brahmanism, and retained their polytheism within the same system. Doing so still created a more coherent philosophical context and spurred cultural advances. China appears to have first had a similar relative and non-exclusive monotheism involving the primacy of Shang-Di and the "Reign of Heaven" in their foundational period.)

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I think one cannot talk about this topic without at least arguing that one major reason monotheism is considered to be a cultural milestone is because many of those who are declaring cultural milestones are part of cultures that support monotheism. There is a well documented pattern in human thought that lends us to believe that what we are doing is superior to all others. To that point, I would venture a guess that the individual who suggested one reason monotheism was a cultural milestone was because "it was one step closer to atheism" was in all likelihood an atheist.

One major advantage 0 or 1 gods has over more is the lack of unlimited conflict. Typically the powers of gods are seen as substantially greater than that of mankind. While we can often reconcile the will of a single god with the physical world we perceive, or reconcile it with the will of many gods who are "playing nice" with each other, conflict between gods is something typically above and beyond that of the mortals.

Consider that, in a conflict between people, we typically assume that neither individual really has full control over the situation. We accept that there are some consequences of that conflict which will arise that were not truly willed by either individual. Conceptually, a conflict between gods would have similar effects, but with sweeping implications.

Polytheism offers the opportunity for people to blame things they don't want to change on something completely out of anyone's control, simply by blaming it on a conflict between the gods. This would be different than blaming a single god (one of the pantheon or a monotheistic god) in that in the former case the event may not have been willed by either god, but in the latter its presumed that the god indeed willed things to happen.

Without defending any one religion or style of religion, I cannot say whether monotheism is a "milestone" or not. However, there is certainly something to be said for a religion which holds its deity responsible for its actions. Ensuring a religion does so is easier if they are monotheistic. If they are polytheistic, one would need to take action to make sure they don't blame conflict for things which should instead reflect on their religion. If these traits are desirable, then it would be reasonable to call it a "milestone."

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  • the first paragraph of this response is reasonable. the folks who say monotheism was some kind of great advance tend to be monotheists. but the rest of it, no disrespect intended, is bonkers. appeasing the gods (pl) is no different than appeasing the one true god. in neither case do religionists "blame" god(s). please remember that vast regions of the human geography are non-monotheistic, and they seem to muddle thru just as well.
    – user20153
    Nov 5 '16 at 21:23
  • @mobileink I did not talk of appeasing gods, but rather focused on world views which are consistent with the particular beliefs. I also merely pointed out one facet of a religion for which monotheism has an advantage, given that that is what the OP asked for. There are many facets to a religion. This is just one where monotheism has an edge. It's an imperfect edge too. I didn't get into it, but if you look at what happens to the sects of Christianity which focus on a "war" between God and the devil, they start showing traits associated with polytheism.
    – Cort Ammon
    Nov 6 '16 at 3:48
  • For example, you start seeing them justify more actions because they feel the need to "fight the good fight" against the devil. In such a case, one could argue that those particular sects of Christianity lose this particular benefit of monotheism.
    – Cort Ammon
    Nov 6 '16 at 3:49
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    @mobileink "No disrespect intended" Plato has Socrates make this argument at length, pointing out a philosophical weakness in his own culture's polytheism in the dialog "Euthyphro ". If it is 'bonkers', tons of folks since 500BC have failed to notice.
    – user9166
    Nov 6 '16 at 8:37
  • (Meanwhile, incorporating Plato into your argument would give it more philosophical context. We discard this aspect of the "Euthyphro Paradox" because we are primarily monotheistic, but Plato included it.)
    – user9166
    Nov 6 '16 at 23:24
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I am not so sure that Monotheism was or is necessarily superior, nor inferior, to other Theisms-(such as, Henotheism, Polytheism or Atheism). Monotheism, has been and is still, a different type of Theism, which had and still has, an exclusive and uncompromising focus, on a single Deity.

Monotheism, is NOT, "a relatively young cultural development"-(unless, you choose to go back to Paleolithic or even Pre-Paleolithic times...i.e. millions of years ago). However, if you are focusing your chronological attention on the earliest History of Civilization-(i.e. Mesopotamia, Sumer & Egypt), then your statement is totally wrong.

For example, if there was a historical Adam who lived nearly 6000 years ago, then we have the earliest record of Monotheism. If one fast forwards to the historical Noah-(and his Noahide Laws as related to God), we have a second example of early Monotheism-(circa 3000 BCE). And if we fast forward to the historical Abraham/Ibrahim, we have a third example of early Monotheism-(circa 2000 BCE).

Each of these above mentioned Prophets, were the Founders or the Forefathers of Judaism, which, is probably, the oldest surviving Monotheistic religion in the world. However, what is perhaps less known, is that the Hanif Ibrahimic/Ismaili Monotheistic religion, existed concurrently-(and fraternally), with Ancient and Early Medieval Judaism, for thousands of years.

The Hanifs, were a Northwest Arabian tribe who, unlike the majority of polytheistic Arabians during The Jahiliyyah-(Pre-Islamic "Dark Ages"), steadfastly retained their Ibrahimic and Ismaili Monotheistic Theology, customs and rituals. The Hanifs remained theologically static for thousands of years, until the arrival of Islam in the 600's CE with Muhammad-(who himself, was a self-identified member of the Hanif tribe and was NOT an Early Medieval Arabian Polytheist). The Ancient Arabian Hanifs, were essentially, absorbed into greater Islam, though their Theology, customs and rituals, deeply influenced early Islam.

It is believed by Muslims that The Kabah-(the Cubed building which is situated in the Center of the Great Mosque of Mecca), was built by Ibrahim and Ismail 4000 years ago. Inside The Kabah is a Dark Stone or tiny meteorite that landed in Mecca 6000 years ago during the time of Adam. For Ibrahim and Ismail, the landing of this actual outer worldly stone/meteor during Adam's time, was viewed to be the most appropriate Center for a Monotheistic Temple to serve as its Foundation and Place of worship. Shortly after Ismail's passing, the Kabah gradually became a Center for polytheism and idolatry during the aforementioned Jahiliyyah. However, The Kabah returned to its Ancient Monotheistic roots, through Muhammad-(who, as mentioned earlier, was a member of the Hanif tribe during The Jahiliyyah). Chronologically speaking, The Kabah, was the First Monotheistic Temple in History dating to Ibrahim and Ismail's time 4000 years ago. The Kabah predated The First Temple-(which was built by King Solomon), by nearly 1000 years.

There is, of course, Persian Zoroastrianism. Its Founder, was a Prophet named, Zarathustra-(a.k.a. "Zoroaster", in Greek etymology) who "came of age", around 600 BCE-(or perhaps a few centuries earlier). While it was centuries younger than Judaism, (as well as the aforementioned Ibrahimic/Ismaili based Hanifism), Zoroastrianism's Theology, helped to develop a Monotheistic mindset and philosophy centuries before Christianity and Islam. Zoroastrianism, is an early historical example of Monotheism, but it is a dualistically based form of Monotheism, whereby Ahura Mazda, the Central Deity, is entangled in a constant supernatural struggle with its Arch Nemesis. While the Zoroastrian God does triumph, at times, he has been and is still, unable to permanently defeat its Supernatural Nemesis. Essentially, the Zoroastrian Metaphysical and Moral War is constant. It is a type of never-ending war between Good Versus Evil, despite various battle victories won by their Central Deity.

The image of Fire, for example, has deep Monotheistic roots. There is, of course, the story of Moses and The Burning Bush at Mount Sinai in Egypt whereby God reveals himself audibly and representationally, as an Eternal Fire, who appeared and then disappeared during Moses' initial encounter-(though returning at a later date for the giving of the 10 Commandments to Moses). Every Zoroastrian Temple had and still has, a Fire Alter, which too, has a deep and profoundly spiritual meaning for its worshippers whereby their God is symbolically and also, "representationally" recognized, as The Eternal Grand Being.

So when looking at the History of Monotheism, it is simply chronologically untrue to say that it was a "relatively young cultural development". Monotheistic Theology and ritualistic practices have existed for millennia throughout the Greater Middle East and were very distinct among many of their fellow Middle Eastern, North Africa, Central Asian, South Asian and Mediterranean polytheistic neighbors, for thousands of years.

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  • The Golden Calf & other issues like El vs Yahweh show Judaism only moved from having a supreme deity to pure monotheism after Moses. As I understand it the earliest evidence for the sanctuary at Mecca is from Samaritan records from 3rd C BCE.
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 18 at 15:45
  • There are some who take the position that Abraham/Ibrahim, may have been more Henotheistic than Monotheistic. However, Abraham/Ibrahim was reported to have destroyed his Father's idol collection-(Abraham/Ibrahim's Father, Terah, was an idolatrous polytheist who professionally manufactured or sold idols). And the prophetic revelations Abraham/Ibrahim claimed to have had with God, is strongly evident of his determined commitment to Monotheism. Again, it is possible that Abraham/Ibrahim may not have entirely abandoned the polytheistic influences of his Babylonian ancestors.........
    – Alex
    Aug 19 at 0:18
  • though History remembers him as The First or one of the earliest Monotheists.
    – Alex
    Aug 19 at 0:19
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I don't buy any of those. It comes down to war and politics.

118 years after the death of Mohammed, the Ummayyed Empire had grown to include 29% of the worlds population, and after taking political control harshly differential taxes on non-Muslims and the death penalty for apostasy including those born in to being Muslims, saw numbers grow rapidly.

Christianity spread overwhelmingly by the conversion of monarchs, pursuaded by the benefits of making Chistianity the state religion. Why so many, across such varied states? Consolidation of power, surely.

It's worth giving counter examples. Pantheist Shinto was the state religion of Japan at their most brutal and expansionist, and would have probably been spread to a fair part of the world if their empire building had proved stable. Hindu Marathas took control of most of India, and were on the brink of consolidating that when the British got involved. The Maratha version of Hinduism was even more racist and (proto)nationalistic than the British however, though it would have become the state form of Hinduism given the chance.

Religions have spread through war and politics. Monotheisms can be correlated with rapidly rising and relatively stable empires, and possibly some shifts from mainly racial to other ways of defining group identity (though all empires succeeded in this to some extent), that is all.

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