Why Polytheism was Replaced by Monotheism: A Very Brief History of Religion

Part 1: The shift from polytheism to monotheism

How did the world come into existence? How did mankind rise from the primordial ooze to dominate the animal kingdom? How do the forces of nature work? Throughout history, all cultures have wondered about these and many other questions. They have all created explanations for both natural phenomena and metaphysical mysteries, mostly from their vivid imaginations rather than from any scientific evidence or logical ruminations. We call these stories they made up to explain the mysteries of the Earth “mythology”. In simple terms, then, the purpose of mythology is to explain the unexplainable. Just because we label religions that were created before the births of Abraham of Ur or Jesus of Nazareth or Muhammad in Mecca as “mythology”, that certainly does not mean they are the only religions that were founded on myths.

As early as the Upper Paleolithic era, some 250,000 years ago, various tools and iconography demonstrate that primitive religions were practiced, and possibly existed up to 250,000 years before that (Campbell, 1988; Gimbutas, 1991; and Jelínek, 1975). All of these religions, as far as we can determine from that evidence, were polytheistic. So, after a quarter of a million years of humans investing supernatural powers to a wide diversity of gods and goddesses, why did most people begin to believe in the existence of a single supreme being? When and where did this transformation happen?

According to Jewish tradition (Rich, 1998 – 2011), Abram (or Abraham) was born in the city of Ur in Babylonia (Southeastern Mesopotamia) in the year 1948 from Creation (circa 1800 BCE, although this does not necessarily mean that Judaism believes the universe has existed for only 5,700 years as we measure years). At that time, the Mesopotamians were still highly polytheistic, worshiping idols. Abram was the son of Terach, an idol merchant, but from his early childhood, Abram questioned the faith of his father and sought “the truth”. Abram came to believe that the entire universe was the work of a single creator, and he began to teach this belief to others. Abram tried to convince his father, Terach, of the folly of idol worship.

One day, when Abram was left alone to mind the store, he took a hammer and smashed all of the idols except the largest one. He placed the hammer in the hand of the largest idol. When his father returned and asked what happened, Abram said, “The idols got into a fight, and the big one smashed all the other ones.” His father said, “Don’t be ridiculous. These idols have no life or power. They can’t do anything.” Abram replied, “Then why do you worship them?”

Eventually, as the story goes, the one true creator that Abram worshiped called to him and made him an offer: if Abram would leave his home and his family, then god would make him a great nation and bless him. Abram accepted this offer, and the b’rit (covenant) between god and the Jewish people was established.

Of course, the irony of this story seems to be lost on both the Jews and other religious believers: if the “gods” exist only in icons, and have no power that has ever been truly demonstrated to humans (well, except for the handful of “chosen” witnesses and prophets), what difference does it make if you pray to one or five hundred? They are still idols, creations of the imagination of Man. But such is the power of “faith” that logic can be ignored for the sake of whatever belief makes you happy.

Next: Why Monotheism, and Why in Mesopotamia?

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