{pah' - lee - thee - izm}

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Polytheism is the belief in and worship of many gods. It contrasts with Monotheism, belief in one god, and Pantheism, identification of God with the universe. In polytheism the gods are personified, distinguished by functions, related to one another in a cosmic family, and the subjects of myths and legends.

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The belief in a multitude of distinct and separate deities. It is formally contrasted with pantheism, the belief in an impersonal God identical with the universe, although the two doctrines can sometimes be found in the same religious tradition. Polytheism is distinguished from theism, also called monotheism, on the basis of polytheism's claim that divinity, while personal and distinguished from the universe, is many rather than one. Except for the great monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the world's religions are overwhelmingly polytheistic. Polytheism characterizes Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Shintoism in the East, and also contemporary African tribal religions. In the ancient world Egyptians, Babylonians, and Assyrians worshipped a plurality of deities, as did the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Norse. Belief in several distinct deities serves to provide a focus for popular religious devotion when the official deity or deities of the religion are remote from the common person.

According to Ninian Smart, deities are formed around a number of aspects of life. These include natural forces and objects such as fertility and atmospheric forces; vegetation such as trees, sacred herbs, and vineyards; animal and human forms such as serpents, cattle, and animal - human hybrids; and assorted functions such as love, agriculture, healing, and war.

The birth of Western philosophy in ancient Greece occurred in a culture with a rich popular polytheism. Socrates was sentenced to death for "impiety" and "atheism" in denying the deities worshipped by Athens and for corrupting the youth. Socrates firmly believed in the divine, and in fact believed himself to have a special mission from the gods. His theology was more philosophically and spiritually sophisticated than that of his contemporaries. It became in fact a matter of indifference in his thought whether gods were one or many, since he denied the distinct personality quirks and moral irregularities that served to differentiate them within the Greek pantheon. His successor Plato carried on this tradition, and held that in a well run state there would have to be substantial revision in the Homeric mythology before allowing it to be used, because it depicted the gods performing evil and petty acts (Republic 376e - 383c). Thus the intellectual motive for maintaining a plurality of deities was disappearing from philosophy at an early stage.

Islam erroneously interprets the Christian Trinity as a polytheistic doctrine, and ancient Israel possibly contended with the devotion to other deities in addition to Yahweh. Nonetheless, it is clear that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam represent forms of theism incompatible with polytheism. As the West becomes infiltrated with Eastern religions and their derivative movements, Western Christians will need directly to confront polytheism.

D B Fletcher
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

S G F Brandon, ed., A Dictionary of Comparative Religion; L E Goodman, Monotheism: A Philosophical Inquiry; J M Koller, Oriental Philosophies; Plato, Apology and Republic; N Smart, "Polytheism," Encybrit; G E Swanson, The Birth of the Gods: The Origin of Primitive Beliefs.


Catholic Information

The belief in, and consequent worship of, many gods. See the various articles on national religions such as the Assyrian, Babylonian, Hindu, and the ancient religions of Egypt, Greece, and Rome; see also ANIMISM, FETISHISM, TOTEMISM, GOD, MONOTHEISM, PANTHEISM, etc.

Publication information The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XII. Published 1911. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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