What is monotheism, anyway? This may seem like a stupid question, one with a trivial answer: belief in one god, or in one divine being.
But we’ve seen in this series that it is by no means obvious what the concept of a god / divine being is. I hazarded an analysis of the concept of a divine being / god, an analysis which is supposed to help us understand various kinds of god-talk. My analysis: to be a “god” is to be a somehow provident/influential/controlling being which in some sense must be honored, by someone or other.
So monotheism says: there’s only one of those. The problem is, what you want to say are the paradigm cases of monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – all would not be monotheist on the above definition, as they all acknowledge more that one thing which satisfies the concept of a god.
In an interesting entry on “Monotheism” in this book, history professor Baruch Halpern says,
…the line between monotheism and polytheism shouldu not be too precisely drawn. Akhnaton and Nabonidus, the two great [allegedly “monotheistic”] religious reformers of Near Eastern antiquity, focused the cult on their respective gods. Not dissimilar are the monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: all admit the existence of subordinate divinities – saints, angels, demons, and, in Christianity and Islam, Satan… But if these traditions are not monotheistic, no religion… is. The term monotheism loses its meaning.
Monotheism… postulates multiple deities, subordinated to the one; it tolerates myths of primordial struggle for cosmic supremacy. Two elements distinguish it from polytheism: a conviction that the one controls the pantheon, and the idea of false gods. (p. 525, emphases added)
So both monotheism and (your typical) polytheism have a “high god” – a chief god, who in some sense governs the rest of the gods, and perhaps the origin of the others as well. It seems clear that this alone doesn’t distinguish monotheism from high-god polytheism. Did not many Zeus-worshippers think him in some sense the governor and father of the other gods?
It seems to me the key is really the concept of a false god. But what is that? It is something which is thought to satisfy the concept of a god, but does not. How could something which is thought a god turn out to be in fact a pseudo-god?
- It could not exist!
- It could exist, but not be provident in the way supposed.
- It could exist, but not be such that it “must” be honored – i.e. it honoring isn’t legally sactioned, or morally fitting, or both, etc.
- It could exist, be provident, and require honor by others – but not by me. So a thing could, conceivably, be a god to others, but a false god to me.
Thus to simply denounce something as a “false god” is very ambiguous. What is clear is that you’re asserting that X is outside the realm of gods (however many there are). And presumably, you’re taking this X down a notch, so as to focus things (attention, time, money, affection) that would be given X onto some other thing or things. It seems to me that a zealous nationalist polytheist, say, an Egyptian, could denounce the polytheistic deities of some other culture, say Greece, as “false gods” (either simplicer, or false relative to the Egyptians). Of course, they more often too the easier route of identifying the deities in the two rival pantheons, but perhaps insisting on the local names and customs.
If X is in fact a “false god” then we ought not believe it to be a god. But does it also follow that we ought not honor X? It seems not – someone may falsely take their ancestor to be a god, but after they change their mind about that, it seems they still ought to honor their ancestor. Some people probably idolize Barak Obama right now, but in any case, if he’s my president, I ought to honor him. (Congrats, Mr. President-elect.)
We still haven’t defined monotheism, although monotheism paradigmatically involves these claims: (1) our god is the one high god, and (2) some other things thought to be gods are in fact false gods. Note that this allows one to consistently say this: Religion R is monotheistic yet R holds there are many gods.
But if X is a false god does it follow that we ought not worship X? Isn’t worship just a kind of honoring? Moreover, is our definition of the concept of deity too weak? Mustn’t a deity be not only honored but worshiped? And why not define “monotheism” as, there’s only one worship-worthy being?