Friday, January 05, 2007

Polytheism vs. Monotheism + Omnipotence

While learning about classical mythology at school, I was taught that these pagan religions are "primitive" (compared to our modern monotheistic religions).

But are they?

This question has always kind of bugged me. It's my impression that the pagan polytheistic beliefs had a certain logic to them that was lost in the transition to monotheism.

Monotheism seems to go hand-in-hand with belief that God is omnipotent, so to simplify things I'll group monotheism and God's omnipotence as a single belief. Feel free to dispute this connection in the comments. :D

Right off the bat, true omnipotence is as self-contradictory as "the set of all sets" (in Mathematics). However, most believers agree that God doesn't really need to create an immovable object (that is so immovable that it can't even be moved by God). So I assume the solution to this conundrum is to say "it's not that God can do anything at all, just anything within reason..."

But even if we ignore this paradox, the idea that there might be a bunch of different supernatural beings -- with different spheres of influence and different goals -- seems to correspond to our chaotic world a lot better than the idea that the world is run by one guy who can do anything (within reason) and actually has some sort of plan...

Then there's the question of followers. If I understand correctly, the pagan gods liked to have followers give them sacrifices because, well, sacrifices are tasty and/or they increase the particular god's strength or something like that.

On the other hand, the unique, omnipotent God likes to have followers worshiping Him because...... ?????

(A tangent for the Christians: Why did God need to sacrifice Jesus in order to forgive His children/creations of the flaws He created in them? Did He just want to do it that way? If not, is He omnipotent or what?)

My goal here isn't to offend people or mock people's beliefs. I am completely serious when I say that as a Mathematician (sort of), I see more logic and internal consistency to a polytheistic system than to a monotheistic/omnipotent system. However it's very possible that it's just that I haven't heard or considered all of the arguments in monotheism's favor.

If any of you monotheists have an argument I haven't heard or an alternate take on any of what I've said above, please post a comment.

p.s. to LDS readers: I realize that Mormonism has a system that isn't quite monotheistic yet is also different from pagan-style polytheism. I am particularly interested in getting a (faithful) LDS perspective on monotheism-vs-polytheism, and not to mock it or shoot it down. I'm genuinely curious as to what is a typical current LDS take on this subject might be.


Anonymous said...

You say: "If I understand correctly, the pagan gods liked to have followers give them sacrifices because, well, sacrifices are tasty and/or they increase the particular god's strength or something like that.

On the other hand, the unique, omnipotent God likes to have followers worshiping Him because...... ?????"

Maybe just because it feels good?????

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Malkie!!!

Good answer. Maybe God likes to be loved in the same way that people like to be loved (assuming God exists).

All this talk of "worship" one hears about in church makes the whole thing sound like God has a huge ego that he likes to stroke by creating little people to stroke it. But maybe I'm just being excessively negative here.

Anonymous said...

Well obviously (tongue firmly in cheek) there are things that our peon brains simply can't grasp or logically work out. Why try to understand why a monothestic god does anything? God just is and does whatever he pleases.

Sometimes he would choose to interfere. Sometimes not (he is jealous and finicky, you know). If he wanted to sacrifice his son, maybe it was to show that he could sacrifice too - just like humans have to all the time?

I use the male pronoun simply because it's what's used in most mainstream monotheist religions.

In all seriousness, you bring up very valid points. Polytheism makes more sense (to me) simply because it's human nature to do things illogically or to manipulate for position/power.

I admire you for attempting to look for logic in the defense of monotheism. I think these kinds of beliefs operate outside logic. I'm also not trying to mock anyone, just stating my perspective.

Anonymous said...

C.L. Hanson said...


All this talk of "worship" one hears about in church makes the whole thing sound like God has a huge ego that he likes to stroke ..."

I'm not sure that the definition of god in the mormon sense does not strongly imply a universe-sized ego! Anthropomorphising, I find it difficult to imagine why else I, if I became a god, would want to create and people my own universe, and have dominion without end.

Become a god, have an urge to create, desire to be worshipped - are there causal relationships there?

btw, the 1967 movie "Bedazzled" ( contains a delicious scene in which the devil (Peter Cooke) demonstrates to his victim (Dudley Moore) why he (the devil) rebelled against god's plan (the orthodox Christian concept of heaven as a place where the "saved" spend eternity worshipping their creator).

Whether or not you are a fan of Pete & Dud (and if you're not, why not!?!) and have not seen the movie, I thoroughly recommend it.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Malkie and Aerin!!!

A lot of interesting points, however, I'm actually not totally certain what position either one of you is advocating.

Malkie -- are you criticizing the Mormon idea of becoming a God or describing and agreeing with it? Aerin -- are you promoting monotheism, or just playing devil's advocate?

I'm familiar with the "limited understanding" argument. It's theoretically possible that there is some sort of rhyme or reason to the plan of the (postulated) omnipotent God, and it just looks like total chaos because of my limited understanding. But the thing is that if you agree that God wanted to have the passage about "by their fruits ye shall know them" written into the Bible, then it seems like He would be more careful not to promote things that are evil such as genocide and slavery (see Old Testament).

-Domokun- said...

I don't believe in the Mormon god anymore, but I'm not so far removed in time from the mindset I used to have that I still can't remember some of the arguments. If a believing mormon wants to disagree with me, I welcome the correction. This is how I understood it when I did believe:

God is all-powerful, but only within the laws of the universe. He's like a scientist with all knowledge. He can create anything and do anything, as long as it doesn't violate the ultimate natural laws. He could make gold, for instance, not by snapping his fingers and having it appear, but by organizing the existing matter - the protons, neutrons, and electrons - in the right order that makes gold. Part of being god is the knowledge of the true ultimate natural laws.

Some would say that makes it so God isn't all-powerful, because he is constrained (by laws). That is explained by saying that it's not so much that God is constrained by the laws so much that he IS the laws. He is logic incarnate, so to speak. He can't create a paradox not because he doesn't have the power, but it's against his very nature. If he created a paradox, he would cease to be god, because he would do something against his own nature.

This explanation explains how mortals are able to one day become Gods. We just have to learn the ultimate truth and natural laws, and we have to have absolute complete obedience to those same laws. Once complete obedience to ultimate natural law is acheived, we have taken upon ourselves the true nature of God, and become a god.

That's how I understood it, anyway. I now believe that the mormon God is impossible. Not that the above kind of God is impossible, but that the same kind of God described above is also the one telling the prophets that the most important thing people on earth need to hear is how many earrings are acceptable, what color of shirt one should wear to church, and that a $2 billion mall in SLC is the best thing to do with his money. There are too many logical inconsistencies with the mormon God who is concerned with minutiae and not concenred with bigger issues that apply to all humankind for it to be true.

Also, that kind of god is one that demands obedience above all other things. Even pure knowledge of ultimate natural law is not enough to overcome the need for absolute obedience. Now, if we could be truly conviced that it really was God telling us to do something, the obedience argument might hold within this paradigm of God being pure logic/natural law. But it's too easy to demonstrate flaws and errors in the things the guys in SLC say are from god. If they can be proven wrong in so many provable things, why should they earn my trust for a few of those unprovable things that require real faith?

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Domokun!!!

That's basically the way I remember the Mormon doctrine on this subject as well.

Also, you make a good point that the Mormon God concept isn't necessarily impossible on principle, but doesn't quite jibe with the way the LDS church is run.

Anonymous said...

Chanson - I was just playing devil's advocate.

I meant to mention that but it looks like it didn't make it into my comment. And when I said I didn't want to mock any beliefs (which might not sound the right way) I meant people who believe in the monotheistic/omnipotent God.

I didn't think about the "by the fruits" passage - but you have a valid point.

I don't think one can find a logical explanation about why a loving God would allow such horrific things to happen.

Anonymous said...

"Malkie -- are you criticizing the Mormon idea of becoming a God or describing and agreeing with it?"

Definitely NOT describing and agreeing! (As a member of the DAMU, I don't feel entitled to describe the Mormon idea of becoming a God.) And not directly criticizing either - trying to put myself in the place of a God I don't believe I could become, even if I believed that God existed, and imagine what might motivate me to have my creatures worship me.

As a very poor analogy, I like it when someone praises something I have "created". I might like it even more if the something was doing the praising.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks for the clarification!! :D

NFlanders said...

I think you and Domokun are right. Mormonism de-emphasizes God in favor of the all-powerful system. God is powerless to do anything contrary to the system; he's just moved up the rungs in this MLM into his present position in our upstream.

The genius of Mormonism is that by venerating the system over the deity, it sells the idea that we can all move up into the hot seat one day.

Baal offers pleasure, regular Jesus just promises happiness; only the Mormon God promises power.

T Wanker said...

The Mormon God and His Omni-potency

1. The Mormon God is most assuredly interested in what feels good. I was cracking up when you were talking about stroking God's huge ego and all I could think about is the Mormon God's Zues-ian exploits with Mary.

2. I do believe that posted somewhere on the entrance to a university I attended was a saying: "The Glory of God is Intelligence." Omniscience is the Mormon God's power fo the day.

3. The omnipotence of the Mormon God is the omnipotence of the watchmaker. He made the system, he just can't interfere with it once it is in motion, except for occasional interference, i.e. impregnating a virgin so she can have a kid who will be nailed to some boards and die. The atonement then fixes the timing error in the watch created by those two little naked hellions, Adam and Eve.

Finally, on a more serious note, I think the entire poly vs. mono discussion is a red herring for the real issue, regardless of your theism -- What does the mythological creation of a God or gods mean?

A God or the gods are symbolic representations of the human experience. Gods resonate with us because they resemble aspects of ourselves. The monotheistic God is the human mystical side, in which we realize that we are all interconnected and that the ego is an illusion. Mathematically and scientifically very logical in terms of system theory. Within the set of all, all power and knowledge is contained. The atonement is a metaphor for this mystical realization.

The poly-theism represents many aspects of our individual human characteristics, often subconcious. The stories of the interaction with the gods resonate with us because that is how we interact with each other and our selves. We like giving them sacrifices, because damn it, that gluttonous/lustful/prideful/envious part of us would like a sacrifice.

In metaphor land, the polytheists are less logical and organized than the monotheist. I think this in part explains the great appeal of the monotheistic religions.

Mormonism contains an interesting mix of the two and in some ways it is a shame that Puritanism crept in and ruined it all. The idea we can all become like God is completely accurate if you simply have to recognize your interconnectedness with the entire universe -- the Mormon version (as most religious concepts do) became literalized and anthropomorphized.

The Mormon religion is also filled with its pantheon of minor dieties as well -- a Mother in Heaven, gods and goddesses without number, Moroni, Joseph Smith (yes, he's a god, remember), Brigham Young, Adam, Eve, Elijah, Jesus, John the Baptist -- you get the idea. Think what we could have learned about our own psychology if we just hadn't had to take everything so damn literally.

Ok, sorry that was a wee bit of a tangent -- but a fun one.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Ned!!!

That is a very good insight for how to view the Mormon God -- that there is an all-powerful system instead of an all-powerful God.

The precise doctrine is a little vague, but it is my impression that Mormons don't think that God invented the "Plan of Salvation" out of nothing, but rather is operating within the constraints of some sort of natural laws (that humans don't fully understand, but can understand as they progress).

I remember when I was a kid wondering if it was a requirement to include some variant of the whole fall+atonement thing if I got to help design a universe one day. A uniquely Mormon musing. ;-)

(Of course being a girl, the best I could hope for was to be sort of an assistant-God...)

I think it's my Mormon background that makes the idea of true omnipotence kind of confusing.

In the Mormon framework, the things that seem bad and wrong about the world around us or about God's plan that we're taught (eg. creating sinful creatures just to punish them) might be questions where God is constrained by natural law. But if you think God is not constrained at all -- that He can do anything He chooses -- it seems He would be capable of making it more obvious that He's actually good...

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey T-Wanker!!!

I like your idea of God or gods as symbolic representations of the human experience. However, I'm not totally convinced by your interpretations of the metaphors.

Pagans and New Agers communing with the spirits or forces around them seem more mystical than the familiar lay-down-the-law monotheist. And the atonement as a mystical realization? Torturing and executing someone is a mystical realization? Okay you've completely lost me on that one...

Anonymous said...

Good post. But it's typical, that monotheists twist every attempt at discussing whether monotheism is such a great invention as they claim, into a discussion about different "flavours" of monotheism. In my polytheistic view, if a belief is based on monotheism, it's simply monotheism, nothing more nothing less.

The real difference between polytheism and monotheism, is the inherent intolerance embedded into the latter belief system. "Mono" means "only" or "alone", not "one" as is often quoted. Monotheism is therefore the belief in a singular God, and the active exclusion of all other Gods. Hence the intolerance.

Polytheists are tolerant of other beliefs. When oneself believes in multiple Gods, another God is not a problem. As a polytheist I don't need to believe in all the Gods of my mythological pantheon, but that doesn't mean that I feel it neccessary to discredit all other Gods. Hence the tolerance.

And no, belief in a single God isn't better or smarter or more structured or more logical than belief in multiple Gods. The very idea is ludicrous. My counter-claim would be, that simple people need simple belief systems, so wouldn't that suggest that all monotheists are simple people ?

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Irenesson!!!

It's good to have a perspective on this from an actual polytheist. (Are you Pagan? Hindu?)

Personally I'm an atheist, but I'm a big fan of religious tolerance. :D

T Wanker said...

The atonement is a variation of numerous myths of agricultural Gods. The god is chopped up and destroyed and is reborn or resurrected. Osiris is a good example of this myth. He is sealed up in a coffin and dies. Isis finds him embedded in a tree trunk, frees him and restores him to life. The torture and death are necessary elements in the myth because it is a myth dealing with death and regeneration. The Chrisitian cross is a modified emblem of the dying tree.

Certainly, you can disagree with me about the extent or meaning of the metaphors. The beauty and strength of a metaphor is that it is flexible and can have multiple layers of meaning.

You started this post arguing that the monotheistic God is not logical. From a mystical standpoint, the mysticism of pantheists and New Agers is weaker logically. The essence of the mystical experience is achieving one-ness. A monotheistic, all- powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing God is a better metaphor by far to describe the mystical experience -- logically. Separate gods show a lack of unity and one-ness.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey T. Wanker!!!

Thanks for the clarification.

I'm not much of a mystic myself so I didn't really make the connection between mysticism and achieving one-ness.

Anonymous said...

A very interesting discussion, which would be even more interesting in real life, with a nice drink following a nice meal, LOL!!!

From an outsider's viewpoint, I think that there are numerous links between the so-called "primitive" religions and the more recent monotheist ones.

Whatever the origins of religion, possibly as an attempt to explain away the unexplainable, there has been a type of evolution from one type of theism to the next.

A good example being the evolution of the agricultural Gods into the Osiris/Christ figures quoted by T.Wanker.

To my mind this ressembles the development of syllabic systems into the alphabetic ones, or the simplification of languages over time. Just as we can trace our roman alphabet to the greek and earlier middle-eastern ones, you can also trace elements of the monotheistic religons' supreme god to father/main/presiding gods in earlier mythologies.

Another simile being the expansion of single-crops compared to more diverse ones, or the rise of chain-stores compared to pop-and-mom ones.

To my mind the monotheistic point of view is simply an evolution of the earlier polytheistic ones shaped by culture, invasions, history and a desire to explain the world.


C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Rudi!!!

True, it would be more fun in person, wouldn't it?

That's a good way of looking at it -- cultural evolution leading to simplification, as with writing.

I'm really glad I've started this discussion because there have been so many great insights I hadn't thought of!!! :D

Stephen said...

For what it is worth, many polytheistic religions had strong monotheistic strains underneath them.

Consider the mysteries of Herakles (Hercules), for example, with the great secret that there is really just one god or some of the systems that swept through Egypt over and over again.

Or the way that many resolved into a Zorastor style duality, with the gods wanting followers so they would prevail in the battles at the last day.

The theme of God as an egomaniac is well developed in fiction as the alternative that God wants us to love him because it will make us happier than anything else.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Stephen!!!

That's a fascinating point -- I'd always thought of monotheism as a relatively recent innovation and polytheism as the older style, but that's not necessarily the case...

Anonymous said...

c.l.hanson: Am enjoying my first acquaintance with your blog; I have nothing to contribute on this topic, but I wondered if you, as a "broad" living in France, are aware that there is a river in North Carolina called the French Broad? See, e.g.:

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Joe!!!

That's cool, I had no idea!!! I'll have to go check it out next time I'm in N.C.

SilverRain said...

You said you were up for a perspective of a believing Mormon, so here goes:

The question "Are pagan religions primitive compared to our modern monotheistic religions?"

Answer - I don't believe so. I think that religion, as a necessity, cannot be "primitive." Religion requires complex thought, being, as it is, an attempt to grasp the metaphysical. In one perspective, it could be seen as "budding" or "comprehensible" rather than "primitive." As you say, it is easier to comprehend a chaotic pantheon of sources when confronted with a chaotic world. It is much more difficult to understand how one entity could be (directly or indirectly) responsible for the whole of existence.

To try to explain my understanding of God's omnipotence:
I think it is a fair explanation of God that has already been described in that He is still subject to a set of laws. I refrain from calling them "natural" laws, because "natural" often means "understood." He has become God because He is capable of using those laws. A good comparison would be a painter. To become a good painter, you have to learn and understand laws of perspective, of color, of proportion and movement. You require an intimate understanding of how things are put together, how they function and interact. Once you learn these things, you can then work within and around these "laws" to create beautiful, disturbing and provoking art. God would require obedience for the same reasons art teachers require students to follow strict laws of art. It is not that He requires strict obedience because He is egotistical or needing our veneration. Rather, He knows we must go through the basics before we can learn the higher levels of art. One could argue that great artists do not abandon the laws of perspective, etc., but know when, where and how to use them to convey what they are trying to convey. In this sense, God would want us to worship and venerate him for similar reasons - not for Him but for us! Perhaps honoring God is part of the requirement to become like Him. It is similar to the concept that good leaders must know how to follow.

To deal with the Christ question requres a little background. Firstly, it is a fallacy to say that God sacrificed Christ. God allowed us to sacrifice Christ. Some might say that is pure semantics, but there is a definite distinction. Our demand that everything be beautiful, good and perfect in order to believe in a beautiful, good and perfect God is exclusive of understanding our purpose here on this earth. We are not here on vacation. We are not here to bask in goodness and beauty. We are here to learn. Essential to learning is an aspect of challenge. In order to learn and grow and change, we must come up against situations that are neither beautiful nor good. In addition, we must be allowed to exercise agency - or the ability to choose for ourselves. Something many people do not understand is that in order to possess agency, or the ability to choose, that agency must also be given to other people. Agency is not the ability to arrange everything to our satisfaction, it is the ability to master our own inclinations and behavior. Some people will make mistakes, some will choose evil over good. Rather than disproving the existence of God, it underscores it when He allows all His children to make those decisions. In order to truly understand this, one has to have a perspective that goes beyond the present. One has to see eternally.

With that established, God needed to allow Christ to be sacrificed so that we could, if we chose, avoid the consequences of our wrong choices. (The consequences being complete and eternal separation from Him.) Someone had to pay the price for our mistakes (another of those "eternal laws.") Since Christ was perfect, by suffering for sins he never committed, he could "pay" justice, so to speak, with his infinite goodness. In essence, he acts as an intermediate - someone with the wealth to pay our debts. No one else can pay the debt of another because no one else on this earth has an abundance. In essence, God allowed His Son to die and suffer innocently to give the rest of us an opportunity to return to Him. Only in this way can the laws of justice and the laws of mercy be fulfilled. Some might say it was not just or merciful for Christ to suffer for us, but He chose it out of His own agency. That is what makes the atonement so amazing and so beautiful.

It is a side note to say that God did not create our flaws, those are our own.

To try to address the question of monotheism/polytheism in LDS belief:
We believe in one God who is made of several personalities. Much as one family has several members, the Godhead also has several members. These members include Heavenly Mother, the Holy Ghost and Christ as well as Heavenly Father. There are many questions about God's nature that have not been revealed to us (ergo, HM's place in the godhead, the HG's lack of body, etc.) that are not necessary for us to know right now. It is enough to say that we are God's children, full of potential to become like him as a child becomes like his/her mother or father. That is really all one needs to know to step onto the road of salvation. More may be revealed, but it is not vital to fulfil our primary purpose here - to prove to ourselves and God that we are willing to do all that He commands us.

I hope this very long soliloquy is what you were looking for.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey SilverRain!!!

Thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response.

Regarding the sacrifice of Christ, whether God Himself did it or whether He created people in such a way that they would do it, He chose to design His plan that way and is ultimately responsible for it. However, you seem to be arguing that He did indeed deliberately design His plan that way, and had a reason to do it that way (as a learning experience for His creations). That's an interesting idea...

Also interesting that you would include Heavenly Mother in the godhead. It was my impression that most Mormons don't include Heavenly Mother(s) in the godhead, but it's true that it's one of those points that is ambiguous in LDS doctrine.

SilverRain said...

For HM, I think it is a matter of simply not knowing. There is no doctrine I'm aware of beyond knowing She exists. Any discussion beyond that is highly speculative. I don't think, however, that it is out of line to say she is a member of the Godhead. In order to be Heavenly Mother, rather than just some lady, She would have to be.

I believe (and bear in mind, I am not an authority on LDS doctrine) that it is not completely accurate to say that God created us "in such a way that they would do [evil]." It would be rather like saying that we have children so they can grow into teenagers, rebel against us and break our hearts. Although many children do do those things, it is generally not the parents' fault or plan that they do so. What the parents do is allow the possibility that they will do so. That elevates their children from being extensions of themselves to personalities in their own right. If I believed that God wanted a sort of large-scale puppet show, where he writes the script and moves the puppets, I would concur with your perspective. I feel, however, that who we are - intelligences, spirits, whatever you wish to call it - has some existence before becoming God's children. In the Pearl of Great Price it states that God organized the intelligences that were before the world was. What, exactly, that means, I don't know, but I think it indicates in a larger existence than Mormon doctrine currently elucidates. In that case, it moves our existence from God's Puppet Play to God's desire to share his joyous state with others. It means He wishes to bring us to His level of being, and has provided the structure where we can do so, if we choose.

It's a slightly different perspective than believing that God created us out of nothing. I suppose the best analogy would be to compare it, again, to a painter. The painter paints the image, he can even mix the paints. To an extreme, he can even mine the minerals and manufacture the substances to make the paints. Those materials, however, had an existence before. One could say he "created" the paint, since it wasn't paint until he mixed it. He "created" the painting, since it wasn't an image until he painted it. God somehow created our spirits, and created our bodies. I believe there is something in us, however, that is eternal and existed before even that.

If that is true, than Christ's sacrifice is a necessary part of a plan to allow us to choose to be like Him, not a patch job or part of a plan that deliberately included flaws.

I think that by placing responsibility for our flaws on God's doorstep, we short ourselves of the opportunity to acheive our potential. We can't become better until we not only recognize our flaws, but take responsibility for them.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey SilverRain!!!

I think your comments illustrate a very important difference between Mormon beliefs and Mainstream Christian beliefs.

Mormons believe that some aspect of each spirit has existed in some form since the beginning of time (see Abraham 3:18 "[spirits] have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after, for they are gnolaum, or eternal").

Mormons hold that Heavenly Father organized spirits out of existing material, hence they have some qualities/aspects that were not created by Him. One might logically argue that beings created of this material require a certain type of treatment as required by some sort of law in order to progress.

This is different from the mainstream Christian belief that God is completely omnipotent; higher than any law -- indeed created the laws -- and hence didn't have to create people in such a way that they would require some sort of bloody execution in order for him to save them, yet chose to do it.

Because of this, I think the Mormin idea of the atonement makes more logical sense than the mainstream Christian view.

SilverRain said...

Thanks for letting me express my beliefs, though they may not be in agreement with yours (and others.) It's good to challenge and redefine beliefs sometimes.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks SilverRain!!!

It's always nice to see an interesting new perspective!!!

Anonymous said...

I believe in one (1) & only God. Before nothing/emptiness/vacuum was exist what was exist?

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Anonymous!!!

Thanks for your perspective. I think you're bringing up the usual "Where'd the universe come from if there's no God?" which is usually countered by "If there is a God, then where did God come from?" If you don't like my respnose, that whole debate has been discussed ad nauseam elsewhere and is not the point of this post.