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Monotheism (from the Greek monos "only", and theos "god") is a word coined in comparatively modern times to designate belief in the one supreme God, the Creator and Lord of the world, the eternal Spirit, All-powerful, All-wise, and All-good, the Rewarder of good and the Punisher of evil, the Source of our happiness and perfection. It is opposed to Polytheism, which is belief in more gods than one, and to Atheism, which is disbelief in any deity whatsoever. In contrast with Deism, it is the recognition of God's presence and activity in every part of creation. In contrast with Pantheism, it is belief in a God of conscious freedom, distinct from the physical world. Both Deism and Pantheism are religious philosophies rather than religions.

On the other hand, Monotheism, like Polytheism, is a term applying primarily to a concrete system of religion. The grounds of reason underlying monotheism have already been set forth in the article GOD. These grounds enable the inquiring mind to recognize the existence of God as a morally certain truth. Its reasonableness acquires still greater force from the positive data associated with the revelation of Christianity. (See REVELATION.)


Was monotheism the religion of our first parents? Many Evolutionists and Rationalist Protestants answer No. Rejecting the very notion of positive, Divine revelation, they hold that the mind of man was in the beginning but little above that of his ape-like ancestors, and hence incapable of grasping so intellectual a conception as that of Monotheism.

They assert that the first religious notions entertained by man in his upward course towards civilization were superstitions of the grossest kind. In a word, primitive man was, in their opinion, a savage, differing but little from existing savages in his intellectual, moral, and religious life. Catholic doctrine teaches that the religion of our first parents was monotheistic and supernatural, being the result of Divine revelation. Not that primitive man without Divine help could not possibly have come to know and worship God. The first man, like his descendants to-day, had by nature the capacity and the aptitude for religion. Being a man in the true sense, with the use of reason, he had the tendency then, as men have now, to recognize in the phenomena of nature the workings of a mind and a will vastly superior to his own. But, as he lacked experience and scientific knowledge, it was not easy for him to unify the diverse phenomena of the visible world. Hence he was not without danger of going astray in his religious interpretation of nature. He was liable to miss the important truth that, as nature is a unity, so the God of nature is one. Revelation was morally necessary for our first parents, as it is for men to-day, to secure the possession of true monotheistic belief and worship.

The conception that Almighty God vouchsafed such a revelation is eminently reasonable to everyone who recognizes that the end of man is to know, love, and serve God. It is repugnant to think that the first generations of men were left to grope in the dark, ignorant alike of the true God and of their religious duties, while at the same time it was God's will that they should know and love Him. The instruction in religion which children receive from their parents and superiors, anticipating their powers of independent reasoning, and guiding them to a right knowledge of God, being impossible for our first parents, was not without a fitting substitute. They were set right from the first in the knowledge of their religious duties by a Divine revelation. It is a Catholic dogma, intimately connected with the dogma of original sin and with that of the Atonement, that our first parents were raised to the state of sanctifying grace and were destined to a supernatural end, namely, the beatific vision of God in heaven. This necessarily implies supernatural faith, which could come only by revelation.

Nor is there anything in sound science or philosophy to invalidate this teaching that Monotheistic belief was imparted by God to primitive man. While it may be true that human life in the beginning was on a comparatively low plane of material culture, it is also true that the first men were endowed with reason, i.e., with the ability to conceive with sufficient distinctness of a being who was the cause of the manifold phenomena presented in nature. On the other hand, a humble degree of culture along the lines of art and industry is quite compatible with right religion and morality, as is evident in the case of tribes converted to Catholicism in recent times; while retaining much of their rude and primitive mode of living, they have reached very clear notions concerning God and shown remarkable fidelity in the observance of His law. As to the bearing of the Evolutionistic hypothesis on this question, see FETISHISM.

It is thus quite in accordance with the accredited results of physical science to maintain that the first man, created by God, was keen of mind as well as sound of body, and that, through Divine instruction, he began life with right notions of God and of his moral and religious duties. This does not necessarily mean that his conception of God was scientifically and philosophically profound. Here it is that scholars are wide of the mark when they argue that Monotheism is a conception that implies a philosophic grasp and training of mind absolutely impossible to primitive man.

The notion of the supreme God needed for religion is not the highly metaphysical conception demanded by right philosophy. If it were, but few could hope for salvation. The God of religion is the unspeakably great Lord on whom man depends, in whom he recognizes the source of his happiness and perfection; He is the righteous Judge, rewarding good and punishing evil; the loving and merciful Father, whose ear is ever open to the prayers of His needy and penitent children. Such a conception of God can be readily grasped by simple, unphilosophic minds -- by children, by the unlettered peasant, by the converted savage.

Nor are these notions of a supreme being utterly lacking even where barbarism still reigns. Bishop Le Roy, in his interesting work, "Religion des primitifs" (Paris, 1909), and Mr. A. Lang, in his "Making of Religion" (New York, 1898), have emphasized a point too often overlooked by students of religion, namely, that with all their religious crudities and superstitions, such low-grade savages as the Pygmies of the Northern Congo, the Australians, and the natives of the Andaman Islands entertain very noble conceptions of the Supreme Deity. To say, then, that primitive man, fresh from the hand of God, was incapable of monotheistic belief, even with the aid of Divine revelation, is contrary to well-ascertained fact. From the opening chapters of Genesis we gather that our first parents recognized God to be the author of all things, their Lord and Master, the source of their happiness, rewarding good and punishing evil. The simplicity of their life made the range of their moral obligation easy of recognition. Worship was of the simplest kind.


The ancient Hebrew religion, promulgated by Moses in the name of Jehovah (Jahweh), was an impressive form of Monotheism. That it was Divinely revealed is the unmistakable teaching of Holy Scripture, particularly of Exodus and the following books which treat explicitly of Mosaic legislation. Even non-Catholic Scriptural scholars, who no longer accept the Pentateuch, as it stands, as the literary production of Moses, recognize, in great part, that, in the older sources which, according to them, go to make up the Pentateuch, there are portions that reach back to the time of Moses, showing the existence of Hebrew monotheistic worship in his day. Now, the transcendent superiority of this Monotheism taught by Moses offers a strong proof of its Divine origin. At a time when the neighbouring nations representing the highest civilization of that time -- Egypt, Babylonia, Greece -- were giving an impure and idolatrous worship to many deities, we find the insignificant Hebrew people professing a religion in which idolatry, impure rites, and a degrading mythology had no legitimate place, but where, instead, belief in the one true God was associated with a dignified worship and a lofty moral code. Those who reject the claim of Mosaic Monotheism to have been revealed have never yet succeeded in giving a satisfactory explanation of this extraordinary phenomenon. It was, however, pre-eminently the religion of the Hebrew people, destined in the fullness of time to give place to the higher monotheistic religion revealed by Christ, in which all the nations of the earth should find peace and salvation. The Jewish people was thus God's chosen people, not so much by reason of their own merit, as because they were destined to prepare the way for the absolute and universal religion, Christianity. The God of Moses is no mere tribal deity. He is the Creator and Lord of the world. He gives over to His chosen people the land of the Chanaanites. He is a jealous God, forbidding not only worship of strange gods, but the use of images, which might lead to abuses in that age of almost universal idolatry. Love of God is made a duty, but reverential fear is the predominant emotion. The religious sanction of the law is centred chiefly in temporal rewards and punishments. Laws of conduct, though determined by justice rather than by charity and mercy, are still eminently humane.


The sublime Monotheism taught by Jesus Christ has no parallel in the history of religions. God is presented to us as the loving, merciful Father, not of one privileged people, but of all mankind. In this filial relation with God -- a relation of confidence, gratitude, love -- Christ centres our obligations both to God and to our fellow-men. He lays hold of the individual soul and reveals to it its high destiny of Divine sonship. At the same time, He impresses on us the corresponding duty of treating others as God's children, and hence as our brethren, entitled not simply to justice, but to mercy and charity. To complete this idea of Christian fellowship, Jesus shows Himself to be the eternal Son of God, sent by His heavenly Father to save us from sin, to raise us to the life of grace and to the dignity of children of God through the atoning merits of His life and death. The love of God the Father thus includes the love of His incarnate Son. Personal devotion to Jesus is the motive of right conduct in Christian Monotheism. Co-operating in the sanctification of mankind is the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of truth and life, sent to confirm the faithful in faith, hope, and charity. These three Divine Persons, distinct from one another, equal in all things, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, are one in essence, a trinity of persons in the one, undivided Godhead (see THE TRINITY). Such is the Monotheism taught by Jesus. The guaranty of the truth of His teaching is to be found in His supreme moral excellence, in the perfection of His ethical teaching, in His miracles, especially His bodily resurrection, and in His wonderful influence on mankind for all time. (Cf. John, xvii, 3; I Cor., viii, 4.) As Christianity in its beginnings was surrounded by the polytheistic beliefs and practices of the pagan world, a clear and authoritative expression of Monotheism was necessary. Hence the symbols of faith, or creeds, open with the words: "I [we] believe in God [theon, deum]" or, more explicitly, "I [we] believe in one God [hena theon, unum deum]". (See Denziger-Bannwart, "Enchiridion", 1-40; cf. APOSTLES' CREED; ATHANASIAN CREED; NICENE CREED.) Among the early heresies, some of the most important and most directly opposed to Monotheism arose out of the attempt to account for the origin of evil. Good they ascribed to one divine principle, evil to another. (See GNOSTICISM; MANICHÆISM; MARCIONITES.) These dualistic errors gave occasion for a vigorous defence of Monotheism by such writers as St. Irenæus, Tertullian, St. Augustine, etc. (see Bardenhewer-Shahan, "Patrology", St. Louis, 1908).

The same doctrine naturally held the foremost place in the teaching of the missionaries who converted the races of Northern Europe; in fact, it may be said that the diffusion of Monotheism is one of the great achievements of the Catholic Church. In the various conciliar definitions regarding the Trinity of Persons in God, emphasis is laid on the unity of the Divine nature; see, e.g., Fourth Council of Lateran (1215), in Denziger-Bannwart, "Enchiridion", 428. The medieval Scholastics, taking up the traditional belief, brought to its support a long array of arguments based on reason; see, for instance, St. Thomas, "Contra Gentes", I, xlii; and St. Anselm, "Monol.", iv. During the last three centuries the most conspicuous tendency outside the Catholic Church has been towards such extreme positions as those of Monism (q.v.) and Pantheism (q.v.) in which it is asserted that all things are really one in substance, and that God is identical with the world. The Church, however, has steadfastly maintained, not only that God is essentially distinct from all things else, but also that there is only one God. "If any one deny the one true God, Creator and Lord of all things visible and invisible, let him be anathema" (Conc. Vatican., Sess. III, "De fide", can. i).


Of Mohammedan Monotheism little need be said. The Allah of the Koran is practically one with the Jehovah of the Old Testament. Its keynote is islam, submissive resignation to the will of God, which is expressed in everything that happens. Allah is, to use the words of the Koran, "The Almighty, the All-knowing, the All-just, the Lord of the worlds, the Author of the heavens and the earth, the Creator of life and death, in whose hand is dominion and irresistible power, the great all-powerful Lord of the glorious throne. God is the mighty . . . the Swift in reckoning, who knoweth every ant's weight of good and of ill that each man hath done, and who suffereth not the reward of the faithful to perish. He is the King, the Holy, . . . the Guardian over His servants, the Shelterer of the orphan, the Guide of the erring, the Deliverer from every affliction, the Friend of the bereaved, the Consoler of the afflicted, . . . the generous Lord, the gracious Hearer, the Near-at-hand, the Compassionate, the Merciful, the Forgiving" (cited from "Islam", by Ameer Ali Syed). The influence of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, on Mohammedan Monotheism is well known and need not be dwelt on here.


What has thus far been said leads to the conclusion that Christian Monotheism and its antecedent forms, Mosaic and primitive Monotheism, are independent in their origin of the Polytheistic religions of the world. The various forms of polytheism that now flourish, or that have existed in the past, are the result of man's faulty attempts to interpret nature by the light of unaided reason. Wherever the scientific view of nature has not obtained, the mechanical, secondary causes that account for such striking phenomena as sun, moon, lightning, tempest, have invariably been viewed either as living beings, or as inert bodies kept in movement by invisible, intelligent agents. This personalizing of the striking phenomena of nature was common among the highest pagan nations of antiquity. It is the common view among peoples of inferior culture to-day. It is only since modern science has brought all these phenomena within the range of physical law that the tendency to view them as manifestations of distinct personalities has been thoroughly dispelled. Now such a personalizing of nature's forces is compatible with Monotheism so long as these different intelligences fancied to produce the phenomena are viewed as God's creatures, and hence not worthy of Divine worship. But where the light of revelation has been obscured in whole or in part, the tendency to deify these personalities associated with natural phenomena has asserted itself.

In this way polytheistic nature-worship seems to have arisen. It arose from the mistaken application of a sound principle, which man everywhere seems naturally to possess, namely, that the great operations of nature are due to the agency of mind and will. Professor George Fisher observes: "The polytheistic religions did not err in identifying the manifold activities of nature with voluntary agency. The spontaneous feelings of mankind in this particular are not belied by the principles of philosophy. The error of polytheism lies in the splintering of that will which is immanent in all the operations of nature into a plurality of personal agents, a throng of divinities, each active and dominant within a province of its own" ("Grounds of Christian and Theistic Belief", 1903, p. 29). Polytheistic nature-worship is to be found among practically all peoples who have lacked the guiding star of Divine revelation. Such history of these individual religions as we possess offers little evidence of an upward development towards Monotheism: on the contrary, in almost every instance of known historic development, the tendency has been to degenerate further and further from the monotheistic idea. There is, indeed, scarcely a Polytheistic religion in which one of the many deities recognized is not held in honour as the father and lord of the rest. That this is the result of an upward development, as non-Catholic scholars very generally assert, is speculatively possible. But that it may as well be the outcome of a downward development from a primitive monotheistic belief cannot be denied. The latter view seems to have the weight of positive evidence in its favour. The ancient Chinese religion, as depicted in the oldest records, was remarkably close to pure Monotheism. The gross Polytheistic nature-worship of the Egyptians of later times was decidedly a degeneration from the earlier quasi-Monotheistic belief. In the Vedic religion a strong Monotheistic tendency asserted itself, only to weaken later on and change into Pantheism. The one happy exception is the upward development which the ancient Aryan Polytheism took in the land of the Iranians. Through the wise reform of Zoroaster, the various gods of nature were subordinated to the supreme, omniscient spirit, Ormuzd, and were accorded an inferior worship as his creatures. Ormuzd was honoured as the creator of all that is good, the revealer and guardian of the laws of religious and moral conduct, and the sanctifier of the faithful. The sense of sin was strongly developed, and a standard of morality was set forth that justly excites admiration. Heaven and hell, the final renovation of the world, including the bodily resurrection, were elements in Zoroastrian eschatology. A nobler religion outside the sphere of revealed religion is not to be found. Yet even this religion is rarely classed by scholars among monotheistic religions, owing to the polytheistic colouring of its worship of the subordinate nature-spirits, and also to its retention of the ancient Aryan rite of fire-worship, justified by Zoroastrians of modern times as a form of symbolic worship of Ormuzd.

The so-called survivals in higher religions, such as belief in food-eating ghosts, pain-causing spirits, witchcraft, the use of amulets and fetishes, are often cited as evidence that even such forms of Monotheism as Judaism and Christianity are but outgrowths of lower religions. The presence of the greater part of these superstitious beliefs and customs in the more ignorant sections of Christian peoples is easily explained as the survival of tenacious customs that flourished among the ancestors of European peoples long before their conversion to Christianity. Again, many of these beliefs and customs are such as might easily arise from faulty interpretations of nature, unavoidable in unscientific grades of culture, even where the monotheistic idea prevailed. Superstitions like these are but the rank weeds and vines growing around the tree of religion.

KRIEG, Der Monotheismus d. Offenbarung u. das Heidentum (Mainz, 1880); BOEDDER, Natural Theology (New York, 1891); DRISCOLL, Christian Philosophy. God (New York, 1900); HONTHEIM, Institutiones Theodicæ (Freiburg, 1893); LILLY,The Great Enigma (2nd ed., London, 1893); RICKABY, Of God and His Creatures (St. Louis, 1898); MICHELET, Dieu et l'agnosticisme contemporain (Paris, 1909); DE LA PAQUERIE, Eléments d'apologétique (Paris, 1898); GARRIGOU-LAGRANGE, in Dictionnaire apologétique de la foi catholique (Paris, 1910), s.v. Dieu; FISHER, The Grounds of Theistic and Christian Belief (New York, 1897); CAIRD, The Evolution of Religion (2 vols., Glasgow, 1899); GWATKIN, The Knowledge of God and its Historic Development (Edinburgh, 1906); FLINT, Theism (New York, 1896); IDEM, Anti-Theistic Theories (New York, 1894); IVERACH, Theism in the Light of Present Science and Philosophy (New York, 1899); ORR, The Christian View of God and the World (New York, 1907); RASHDALL, Philosophy and Religion (New York, 1910); SCHURMANN, Belief in God, its Origin, Nature, and Basis (New York, 1890).

The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume X
Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor
Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York