In theology, monotheism (from Greek μόνος "one" and θεός "god") is the belief in the existence of one deity, or in the oneness of God. In a western context, the concept of "monotheism" tends to be dominated by the concept of the god of the Abrahamic religions and the Platonic concept of God as put forward by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.

The concept of monotheism has largely been defined in contrast with polytheistic religions, and monotheism tends to overlap with other unitary concepts, such as monism.

Whereas monotheism is a self-description of religions subsumed under this term, there is no equivalent self-description for polytheist religions: monotheism asserts itself by opposing polytheism, while polytheism does not use the same argumentative device, as it includes a concept of divine unity despite worshipping a plethora of gods. By the same token, monotheistic religions may still include concepts of a plurality of the divine, for example the Trinity, in which God is one being in three personal dimensions (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit). Additionally, Christians believe Jesus to have two natures (divine and human), each possessing the full attributes of that nature, without mixture or intermingling of those attributes. Although christian theology reserves worship for the divine, the distinction between worshipping the divine nature of Jesus but not the human nature of Jesus can be difficult for non-Christians (and even christian laity) to follow.

Christians of a catholic tradition venerate the saints among them Mary as human beings that had remarkable qualities, have lived their faith in God to the extreme and continue to assist in the process of salvation for others.

Origin and development

The word monotheism is derived from the Greek, μόνος meaning "single" and θεός meaning "god".[4] The English term was first used by Henry More.

The concept sees a gradual development out of notions of henotheism and monolatrism. In the Ancient Near East, each city had a local patron deity, such as Shamash at Larsa or Sin at Ur. The first claims of global supremacy of a specific god date to the Late Bronze Age, with Akhenaten's Great Hymn to the Aten (connected to Judaism by Sigmund Freud in his Moses and Monotheism), and, depending on dating issues, Zoroaster's Gathas to Ahura Mazda. Currents of monism or monotheism emerge in Vedic India in the same period, with e.g. the Nasadiya Sukta. Philosophical monotheism and the associated concept of absolute good and evil emerges in Classical Antiquity, notably with Plato (c.f. Euthyphro dilemma), elaborated into the idea of The One in Neoplatonism.

In Islamic theology, a person who spontaneously "discovers" monotheism is called a ḥanīf, the original ḥanīf being Abraham.

Austrian anthropologist Wilhelm Schmidt in the 1910s postulated an Urmonotheismus, "original" or "primitive monotheism", a thesis now widely rejected in comparative religion but still occasionally defended in creationist circles.


Further information: Comparative religion

Conceptions of God


Some argue that there are various forms of monotheism, including:

  • Henotheism involves devotion to a single god while accepting the existence of other gods. Similarly, monolatrism is the worship of a single deity independent of the ontological claims regarding that deity.
  • Theism a term that refers to the belief in the existence of a god or divine being.
  • Deism is a form of monotheism in which it is believed that one god exists. However, a deist rejects the idea that this god intervenes in the world.
  • Monistic theism is the type of monotheism that is found in Hindus, encompassing pantheism, monism, and at the same time the concept of a personal god.
  • Pantheism holds that the universe itself is a god. The existence of a transcendent supreme extraneous to nature is denied. Depending upon how this is understood, such a belief may well be presented as tantamount to atheism, deism, or panentheism.
  • Panentheism, or monistic monotheism, is a form of theism that holds that god contains, but is not identical to, the universe. The 'one god' is omnipotent and all-pervading, the universe is part of god, and god is both immanent and transcendent.
  • Substance monotheism, which is found in some indigenous african religions, holds that the many gods are different forms of a single underlying substance.

On the surface, monotheism is in contrast with polytheism, which is the worship of several deities. Polytheism is however reconcilable with inclusive monotheism, which claims that all deities are just different names or forms for the single god. This approach is common in Hinduism, e.g. in Smartism. Exclusive monotheism, on the other hand, actively opposes polytheism. Monotheism is often contrasted with theistic dualism (ditheism). However, in dualistic theologies as that of Gnosticism, the two deities are not of equal rank, and the role of the Gnostic demiurge is closer to that of Satan in Christian theology than that of a diarch on equal terms with god (who is represented in pantheistic fashion, as Pleroma).

Early History

In ancient Egypt

Ancient middle-eastern religions may have worshipped a single god within a pantheon and the abolition of all others, as in the case of the Aten cult in the reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten. Iconoclasm during this pharaoh's rule is considered a chief origin for the subsequent destruction by some groups of idols, holding that no other god before the preferred deity (dually and subtly acknowledging the existence of the other gods, but only as foes to be destroyed for their drawing of attention away from the primary deity).

Other issues such as the divine right of kings may possibly also stem from pharaonic laws on the ruler being the demigod or representative of the creator god on Earth. The massive tombs in the Egyptian pyramids which aligned with astronomical observations, perhaps exemplify this relationship between the pharaoh and the heavens.


Zoroastrianism is considered to be one of the earliest monotheistic beliefs, but the Zoroastrian definition of monotheism is neither comparable nor compatible with the monotheism of other religions that - in addition to being monotheistic - are also monist.

In Zoroaster's revelation, Ahura Mazda is a transcendental and universal god, the one uncreated creator (standard appellation), and to whom all worship is ultimately directed. However, Zoroaster also perceives Mazda to be wholly good, and that his creation is wholly good. In conflict with creation is anti-creation, evident in the created world as decay and disorder. Since anti-creation is purely destructive, it cannot have been created (otherwise it would self-destruct) and hence it must - like the creator himself - be uncreated.

In the Gathas, Zoroaster does not acknowledge any divinity other than Ahura Mazda. However, the hymns of indo-iranian religious tradition (of which the Gathas are a part) are always addressed to a specific divinity and those closely associated with him, and in this sense the Gathas are not (necessarily) a denial of the other divinities, but the exhaltation of a specific one. Although not mentioned by name (in the Gathas, Ahura Mazda is itself an epithet, not yet a proper name), Zoroaster implicitly acknowledges the existence of other Ahuras "Lords", as in "thou who art the mightiest Ahura and the Wise (Mazda) One" (Yasna 33.11). In addition to these lords that are "worthy of worship" (yazata), Zoroaster also refers to the daevas as the 'wrong' gods, or 'false' gods, or gods 'that should not be worshipped' and whose followers are to be brought onto the path of righteousness. In later Zoroastrian tradition, the daevas are demons, but this is not yet evident in the prophet's own poetry.

Zoroastrianism is thus monotheistic inasfar as all worship is ultimately directed to Ahura Mazda. However, unlike Zurvanite Zoroastrianism, neither revealed nor present-day Zoroastrianism is monist. At no time did Zoroastrianism preclude the existence or worship of other divinities, which are today considered to be aspects or evidence of creation and hence of the creator god. The invocation of divinities besides Ahura Mazda is however common practice in Zoroastrian tradition, and is not necessarily either a sign of henotheism (the one extreme interpretation) or the worship of pure abstractions (the other extreme): In the past it was common for an individual, household or clan to adopt a patron divinity and although several attempts have been made to define ancient Zoroastrianism on the evidence of such adoptions - for instance, in inscriptions or in theophoric names - these are inherently unsuitable for that purpose.

Monotheism in the Vaisnavism

Further information: Bhagavan svayam

It is often argued that Vaisnavism is one of the earliest impicit manifistations of non exclusive monotheism in the traditions of Vedas. Svayam bhagavan - (svayam bhagavān kṛṣṇa in IAST) is a Sanskrit term for the original deity of the Supreme God worshiped across many traditions of the Vaisnavism as the source of all, the monotheistic absolute Deity. Within Hinduism, Krishna is worshiped from a variety of perspectives. However it must be noted that the Svayam bhagavan concept refers to the Supreme Being of the Orthodox Gaudiya Vaishnavism,[9] the Vallabha Sampradaya and the Nimbarka Sampradaya, where Krishna is worshiped as the source of all other avatars (including Vishnu). A distinguishing feature of the Vaisnava teachings is that God, Krishna or Vishnu, is a real person and His variegated creation is also real.

Krishna worshiped in Vaisnava religion as the Supreme came into being as soon as all creatures came into existence. Brahma was the first Vaisnava. Shiva Mahadeva is also a Vaisnava. The ancient Prajapaties are all Vaisnavas. Narada who is the born child of Brahma, is a Vaisnava. Thus pure monotheistic Vaisnava religion began with the beginning of history. In the recent times man arrived once again at the instinctive monotheism of the Aryans and Vaisnavas.

Abrahamic religions

The major source of monotheism in the modern Western World is the narrative of the Hebrew Bible, the source of Judaism, which was created from the 13th century BCE to the 4th century BCE. Judaism may have received influences from various non-biblical religions present in Egypt and Syria. This can be seen by the Torah's reference to Egyptian culture in Genesis and the story of Moses, as well as the mention of Hittite and Hurrian cultures of Syria in the Genesis story of Abraham.

In traditional Jewish thought, which provided the basis of the Christian and Islamic religions, monotheism was regarded as its most basic belief. Judaism and Islam have traditionally attempted to interpret scripture as exclusively monotheistic whilst Christianity diverted to a more complex form of tripartite monotheism, as a result of considering the Holy Spirit to be a part of God, and attributing divinity to Jesus, a Judean Jew, in the first century AD, defining him as the son of God. Thus, "Father, Son and Holy Spirit".

Monotheism in the Hebrew Bible

It is often argued that the Hebrew Bible takes a position not of monotheism, but of henotheism. God reveals himself not as the only god, but rather as the god whom Abraham knows. (Gen 15:7) In such a respect, the god of Israel is not God alone, but the god who was worshipped by Abraham's clan. In this context, the god of Israel is a type of tribal deity, that although was worshipped alone, did not explicitly exclude the existence of other gods, who were not relevant to them.[15]

In the early Mosaic era, the possibility of other gods is left an open question, although by this stage Israel claims that their god is greater. (Ex 18:11) This same subtle shift is shown in 2 Chr 2:5, and could indicate that Israel understood that the god they recognised was God alone, and other gods were therefore false. This would be Monotheism in the proper sense of the word. By the time of the prophet Isaiah, Monotheism is solidly and explicitly accepted. “Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: "I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.” (Is 44:6) Thus, the development of the people of Israel to a true Monotheism, appears to be a gradual process, with the exception of Gen 1:1. It is therefore likely that Gen 1:1 was redacted later than the other examples supplied, and so, the development of Monotheism comes firstly on a tribal level, and gradually advances to recognition that the god of Israel is the only god. It is into this context that Christianity emerges, and thus Christianity was from the outset Monotheistic. (John 1:1)

A strictly literal interpretation of Deuteronomy 4:39 excludes the possibility of henotheism. The verse states: "Know this day, and take it to heart, that the LORD is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is none else." According to the view that Deuteronomy is a late addition to the Five Books of Moses, this would reflect the later adoption of monotheism. However, if Deuteronomy is taken to be part of the original text, as it generally is among those who use it as scripture, this would indicate that the monotheistic concept existed from the time the Torah was composed.

In the west, the Hebrew Bible has been the primary source describing how and when Monotheism was introduced into the Middle East and the west. As believed by followers of some of the Abrahamic religions, it teaches that when Abraham discovered God (Genesis 12:1-9 [4] ; 13:14-18 [5] ; 15 [6] 18 [7] ; and 22 [8]), he thus became the world's first Monotheist. According to these, until then, in ancient history all cultures believed in a variety of multiple deities such as in idolatry, forces and creatures of nature as in animism, or in celestial bodies as in astrology, but did not know the one and only true god.

However, the Hebrew Bible teaches that, at Creation, Adam and Eve knew God (and so did their descendants) but that over the ages, God and his name were forgotten. This is how one of the most important Jewish sages, Maimonides describes the process in his work the Mishneh Torah:

In the days of Enosh mankind made a huge error...they reasoned that since the Lord created the stars and the heavenly spheres and placed them in the skies giving them great significance, and they serve before Him, it is therefore fitting to praise and elevate them and give them honor believing this to be the Lord's will to honor that which He makes great and honorable...The people then built altars to worship the stars and to praise and bow down to them...and this was the essence of idol worship (avoda zara)...After a few generations false prophets arose and said that the Lord had actually commanded people to worship the stars...and they built images in their honor...spreading these false images by building them in gathering places, under trees, on tops of hills, and in valleys, gathering people who bowed down to them declaring: 'Such and such an image brings good or bad luck and therefore fear it'...after a number of generations, the Divine Name was completely forgotten...until the mighty one (Abraham), began to question this in his mind and asked 'How could it be that the heavenly sphere moves without a Mover behind it? because it is impossible that it moves itself', and he had no teacher and no-one to inform him for he lived in Ur of the Chaldees surrounded by foolish idol worshippers...He (Abraham) subsequently arose and made it known to the people that there is only one Lord in the entire world and that only He should be worshipped, gathering people from city to city and kingdom to kingdom until he came to the land of Canaan calling out as it says: 'Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there he called in the name of God, Lord of the Universe (El olam) (Genesis 21:33)' Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Sefer Mada ("Book of Knowledge"), Chapter 1, Hilchos Avodah Zarah

Monotheism in Judaism

Judaism is one of the oldest known monotheistic faiths. The best-known Jewish statements of monotheism occur in the Shema prayer, the Ten Commandments and Maimonides' 13 Principles of faith, Second Principle:

God, the Cause of all, is one. This does not mean one as in one of a pair, nor one like a species (which encompasses many individuals), nor one as in an object that is made up of many elements, nor as a single simple object that is infinitely divisible. Rather, God is a unity unlike any other possible unity. This is referred to in the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4): "Hear Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD is one."

There has historically been disagreement between the Hasidic Jews and the Mitnagdim Jews on various Jewish philosophical issues surrounding certain concepts of monotheism. A similar situation of differing views is seen in modern times among Dor Daim, students of the Rambam, segments of Lithuanian Jewry, and portions of the Modern Orthodox world toward Jewish communities that are more thoroughly influenced by Lurianic Kabbalistic teachings such as Hasidism and large segments of the Sepharadi and Mizrahi communities. This dispute is likely rooted in the differences between what are popularly referred to as the "philosophically inclined" sources and the "kabbalistic sources;" the "philosophic sources" include such Rabbis as Saadia Gaon, Rabenu Bahya ibn Paquda, Abraham ibn Ezra, and Maimonides. The "kabbalistic sources" include Rabbis such as Nahmanides, Bahya ben Asher, Rabbi Yitzhak Saggi Nehor, and Azriel. The Vilna Gaon is usually granted great respect in modern times by those who side with both views; by the more kabbalistic segments of Judaism he is regarded as a great kabbalist; those who take the other side of the issue regard him as a strict advocate of the people of Israel's historical monotheism.

The Shema

Judaism's earliest history, beliefs, laws, and practices are preserved and taught in the Torah (the Hebrew Bible) which provides a clear textual source for the rise and development of what is named Judaism's ethical monotheism which means that:

(1) There is one God from whom emanates one morality for all humanity. (2) God's primary demand of people is that they act decently toward one another...The God of ethical monotheism is the God first revealed to the world in the Hebrew Bible. Through it, we can establish God's four primary characteristics:

1. God is supernatural. 2. God is personal. 3. God is good. 4. God is holy. the study of Hebrew history: Israel's monotheism was an ethical monotheism. Dennis Prager

When Moses returned with the Ten Commandments, the second of those stated that "you shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3), right after the first, which affirmed the existence of God. Furthermore, Israelites recite the Shema Yisrael ("Hear O' Israel") which partly says, "Hear, O' Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one." Monotheism was and is the central tenet of the Israelite and the Jewish religion. The Shema Hebrew שמע ישראל יי אלהנו יי אחד Common transliteration Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad English Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God! The LORD is One!

The literal word meanings are roughly as follows:

  • Shema — 'listen' or 'hear.' The word also implies comprehension.
  • Yisrael — 'Israel', in the sense of the people or congregation of Israel
  • Adonai — often translated as 'Lord', it is used in place of the Tetragrammaton
  • Eloheinu — 'our God', a plural noun (said to imply majesty rather than plural number) with a pronominal suffix ('our')
  • Echad — 'one'

In this case, Elohim is used in the plural as a form of respect and not polytheism.

Gen.1:26 And Elohim said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

Elohim is morphologically plural in form in Hebrew, but generally takes singular agreement when it refers to the god of Israel (so the verb meaning "said" in this verse is vayyomer ויאמר with singular inflection, and not vayyomru ויאמרו with plural inflection), and yet in this case the "our" and "us" seems to create a presumption of plurality, though it may just be God talking to angels and not another god.

Judaism, however, insists that the "LORD is One," as in the Shema, and at least two interpretations exist to explain the Torah's use of the plural form. The first is that the plural form "Elohim" is analogous to the royal plural as used in English. The second is that, in order to set an example for human kings, Elohim consulted with his court (the angels, just created) before making a major decision (creating man).

Monotheism in Christianity

Christians profess belief in one God. Historically, most Christian churches have taught that the nature of God is something of a mystery. Among early Christians there was considerable debate over the nature of godhead, with some factions arguing for the divinity of Jesus and others calling for a unitary conception of God. These issues of Christology were to form one of the main subjects of contention at the First Council of Nicea.

The First Council of Nicaea, held in Nicaea in Bithynia (in present-day Turkey), convoked by the Roman Emperor Constantine I in 325, was the second ecumenical[16] conference of bishops of the Christian Church, and most significantly resulted in the first uniform Christian doctrine, called the Nicene Creed. With the creation of the creed, a precedent was established for subsequent 'general (ecumenical) councils of Bishops' (Synods) to create statements of belief and canons of doctrinal orthodoxy— the intent being to define unity of beliefs for the whole of Christendom.

The purpose of the council was to resolve disagreements in the Church of Alexandria over the nature of Jesus in relationship to the Father; in particular, whether Jesus was of the same substance as God the Father or merely of similar substance. St. Alexander of Alexandria and Athanasius took the first position; the popular presbyter Arius, from whom the term Arian controversy comes, took the second. The council decided against the Arians overwhelmingly (of the estimated 250-318 attendees, all but 2 voted against Arius).

Most modern Christian traditions follow this decision, which was codified in 381 and reached its full development through the work of the Cappadocian Fathers. They consider God to be a triune entity, called the Trinity, comprised of the three "Persons" God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, the three of this unity are described as being "of the same substance" (ὁμοούσιος). The true nature of the Trinity is held to be an inexplicable mystery.

Some critics contend that the Trinity originated in the Pagan Celtic tradition, in which many gods and goddesses were tripartite, and that its incorporation into Christianity is a corruption of the original doctrines, similar to the adoption of many Pagan gods and goddesses such as Brigid as Christian Saints. Other critics contend that because of the adoption of a tripartite conception of deity, Christianity is actually a form of Tritheism or Polytheism. This concept dates from the teachings of the Alexandrian Church, which claimed that Jesus, having appeared later in the Bible than his "Father," had to be a secondary, lesser, and therefore "distinct" god. This controversy led to the convention of the Nicean council in 325 CE. While this might be the case in various unorthodox (non-Nicene) instances, Christianity is popularly understood as Tripartite monotheism.[17] For Jews and Muslims, the idea of God as a trinity is heretical - it is considered akin to polytheism. Christians overwhelmingly assert that monotheism is central to the Christian faith, as the very Nicene Creed (among others) which gives the orthodox Christian definition of the Trinity does begin with: "I believe in one God".

Some Christian groups eschew orthodox theology, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, followers of Mormonism, and Oneness Pentecostals, the Unitarians, Socinians, and some of the Radical Reformers (Anabaptists), do not teach the doctrine of the Trinity at all. The Rastafarians, like many Christians, hold that God is both a unity and a trinity, in their case God being Haile Selassie.

Monotheism in Islam

The Qur'an asserts the existence of a single and absolute truth that transcends the world; a unique and indivisible being who is independent of the creation. The indivisibility of God implies the indivisibility of God's sovereignty which in turn leads to the conception of universe as a just and coherent moral universe rather than an existential and moral chaos (as in polytheism). Similarly the Qur'an rejects the binary modes of thinking such as the idea of duality of God by arguing that both good and evil generate from God's creative act and that the evil forces have no power to create anything. God in Islam is a universal God rather than a local, tribal or parochial one; an absolute who integrates all affirmative values and brooks no evil.

Tawhid constitutes the foremost article of the Muslim profession. To attribute divinity to a created entity is the only unpardonable sin mentioned in the Qur'an. [19] Muslims believe that the entirety of the Islamic teaching rests on the principle of Tawhid.

Monotheism in Bahá'í

Main article: God in the Bahá'í Faith

The Oneness of God is one of the core teachings of the Bahá'í Faith. Bahá'ís believe that there is one supernatural being, God, who has created all existence. God is described as "a personal God, unknowable, inaccessible, the source of all Revelation, eternal, omniscient, omnipresent and almighty."[22]

Bahá'ís believe that although people have different concepts of God and his nature, and call him by different names, everyone is speaking of the same entity. God is taught to be a personal god in that God is conscious of his creation and has a mind, will and purpose. At the same time the Bahá'í teachings state that God is too great for humans to fully understand him or to create a complete and accurate image of him. Bahá'u'lláh teaches that human knowledge of God is limited to those attributes and qualities which are understandable to us, and thus direct knowledge about the essence of God is not possible. Bahá'ís believe, thus, that through daily prayer, meditation, and study of revealed text they can grow closer to God. The obligatory prayers in the Bahá'í faith involve explicit monotheistic testimony.

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