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I disagree with this article. Henotheism is generally recognized as different from polytheism. For example, the ancient Israelites probably believed that many gods existed, although they only worshipped one; yet few call them polytheists for this belief. -- SJK

I think you are conflating two different issues. The Torah (first five books of the Tanach) is vague on whether the earliest Israelites were strict monotheists in the modern day understanding of the term, or whether they were henotheists. Some passages imply the former, but others may imply otherwise. In any case, the later books of the Hebrew Bible (Tanach) make clear that no other gods were real, period. Only the God recognized by the Jewish people was held to be extantg. Maybe you could argue that before, and perhaps during, the time of Moses, some Israelites were henotheists, but this is an issue still under study, and one not likely to generate any conclusions any time soon - if ever. In any case, the Tanach teaches a strict and zealous monotheism; the only god that Jews even accepted as existing was the Jewish God (YHVH). However, at certain times some (not all) later adopted the polytheistic beliefs of the surrounding nations. That is precisely why their strict monotheist Israelite neighbors became so incensed at them, and why the Bible attacks them in the harshest of terms. RK

Someone wrote - "IMHO, polytheism implies worship, not just belief" Not so. Most polytheists did not even attempt to pray to all the gods that they believed in. This was especially true of the ancient Greeks and Romans, who acknowledged the existence of a huge pantheon of gods - they even admitted that other pantheons existed! But they usually only worshipped a handful, and sometimes just one.RK

The ReligiousTolerance.Org website defines henotheism in this way:

Henotheism. belief in many deities of which only one is the supreme deity. This may involve: One chief God and multiple gods and goddesses of lesser power and importance. Ancient Greek and Roman religions were of this type; One supreme God, and multiple gods and goddesses who are all simply manifestations or aspects of the supreme God. Hinduism is one example; they recognize Brahman as the single deity. Some Wiccans believe in a single deity about which they know little. They call the deity "The One" or "The All." They recognize the God and Goddess as the male and female aspects of that supreme deity; One supreme God who rules over a country, and many other gods and goddesses who have similar jurisdiction over other territories. Liberal theologians believe that the ancient Israelites were henotheists; they worshipped Jehovah as the supreme God over Israel, but recognized the existence of Baal and other deities who ruled over other tribes.

Isn't this clearly variations on polytheism, and not monotheism? (If we want to keep this quote it will need to be properly cited and rewritten to address fair-use issues. RK

RK: Henotheism can be a form of polytheism, but in at least some forms it is closer to monotheism. Imagine some new sect of Judaism or Christianity or Islam (take your pick; hereafter JCI) called X. X believes all the doctrines JCI, with one difference: it believes in the existence of other universes, each with its own God. However, X believes that we cannot know anything about these other universes or Gods, and that it would be wrong for us to try to worship them. Other than this one new belief, X is identical to JCI. Now to me at least X is much closer to monotheism than polytheism.

Sure. But it depends on whom you ask; many Jews already believe that there may well be some sort of multiverse; this is a big issue in physics nowadays. Scientific American and Discover magazine has done a few articles on this topic. I think this question would be worth posing on the Jewish discussion form I am in, and maybe other on other forums can ask this as well. I am guessing that the Jewish answer would be that this belief system is polytheism nonetheless. RK


Secondly, monotheism and polytheism are not incompatible. Polytheism is incompatible with exclusive monotheism, but is more than compatible with inclusive or pluriform monotheism. Henotheism then is both monotheistic and polytheistic. -- SJK

Wow. This really raises the question of whether the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should be classified as henotheistic. It sure sounds like it. --Dmerrill
What is inclusive monotheism and pluriform monotheism? I have never come across these terms before. The explanations I have seen so far sound like oxymorons. If you believe in more than one god, that polytheism. That is what the prefix "poly" means. I get the idea that there are people who are very uncomfortable with polytheistic belief systems, and want others to think of them as if they were the same as monotheists. But they are not; if people don't want to believe in the existence of one deity, we don't need to make them out to be monotheists. This rubs me the wrong way, in the same way that radical theologians such as Alvin Reines make atheists out to have the same belief system as theists! (Reine's book on theology is called 'Polodoxy').


I have never heard a LDS member confirm or deny that there are polytheists, but they do say that they believe in three distinct deities, not a trinity. Some Catholics and Jews view the Church of LDS as outright polytheistic.


RK: Inclusive monotheism is a common term, I believe; our main competitor (i.e. the Encyclopaedia Britannica) discusses it in its article on monotheism. Pluriform monotheism is a less common term, though Britannica also discusses it; I believe it primarily relates to certain African tribal religions -- it is the belief in several gods, but these are just differing forms of one divine substance.

I think your problem is you are treating exclusive monotheism, traditionally the most common form of monotheism in the West, as the only form of monotheism. Many ancient polytheists were monotheists -- they believed in many gods, but they also believed in one God transcending and incorporating the many gods. -- SJK