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Post BBCode URL - Right click and save to clipboard to use later in post Post 1: Mon May 28, 2012 10:09 pm
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Monotheism, Henotheism, Polytheism

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This is a topic run through somewhat in another thread, but I wanted to go at this from a different angle and perhaps, with a new foundation, what I want to get across will be better understood.

There are many so-called "atheists" who make a kind of category error which puts their bona fides as an atheist in doubt. For one, atheism is commonly defined as "the disbelief in God and gods," and I'm not going to be calling for any new definitions or anything like that. However, if one were to understand just what it is that distinguishes monotheism, henotheism, and polytheism, then it ought to be plain that a grouping together a "disbelief in God" and a "disbelief in gods" is like grouping together a disbelief in causal interaction and a disbelief in the existence of unicorns. Granted, one might very well disbelieve both things, but they are disbeliefs in two very different kinds of things.

What I want to explain is how a monotheist can say, in a literally meaningful way, that "I don't believe in gods and I am not an atheist." That is, a monotheist believes in a fundamentally different kind of thing than do polytheists and henotheists.

I will give some definitions. These definitions are essentially impossible to argue with, because if one does, then one loses the distinction between monotheism and henotheism.

Monotheism - a belief in one God who is Absolute, who forms the foundation of fundamental reality

Examples: Yahweh, Brahman, Allah

Henotheism - a belief in and worship of one god (though there could be others), but who is not the foundation of fundamental reality

Examples: Yahweh, Zeus, Amun-Ra

Polytheism - a belief in many gods, who tend to be the patrons of certain parts of nature or geography

Examples: Zeus, Thor, Vishnu

As to the examples I chose, I picked them based on what some of the adherents of their religions believe about the nature of the being picked out by these names. It is worth noting that I placed Yahweh in both monotheism and henotheism, and Zeus in henotheism and polytheism. These are due to historical details that I will get around to; however, these historical details are completely irrelevant to the fundamental ontological differences between monotheism, henotheism, and polytheism that I am meaning to speak about. The reason why will preface the discussion of the historical details.

The way many atheists tend to speak about it, you would believe that monotheists are really just henotheists. Consider the fundamental supposition belied in the popular quote by Stephen Roberts: "I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do." The way Roberts is speaking about the matter, you'd be under the impression that, for monotheists, the God they believe in is essentially of the same kind and category as Thor and Zeus tend to be placed in. An atheist like Roberts just goes one step further than the monotheist and excises that one last "god" the monotheist asserts from his picture of the world. It is quite a neat quote, except that it reveals a fundamental misunderstanding at the heart of just what the monotheist believes in. Because of this, it leads me to doubt that many so-called atheists actually achieve a disbelief in God. Now, they may be quite successful in disbelieving of gods (I'm there with them on that), but atheism is defined as "a disbelief in God and gods." Since God and gods inhabit two completely different categories of being, saying that God is just a god belies the fact that our so-called atheist never graduated Sunday school where these rather elementary distinctions comprise a difference in just what one happens to believe or disbelieve.

As I pointed out above, a monotheist can literally say of their position that "I don't believe in gods and I am not an atheist." How so? Well, I will point out the logical form of that statement for a beginning.

Atheism is defined as "a disbelief in God and gods." Let a stand for God and b stand for (at least one) god/s. Thus, atheism is not(a or b), which can also be represented as not-a and not-b. a and b are not identical. Where the existence of a god is logically compatible with the existence of other gods, the existence of God is not compatible with the existence of another God.

A monotheist does assert a. Therefore, while they may assert not-b, to assert such isn't to assert not-a. Further, the assertion of a does not mean the assertion of b.

That is the logical form of the monotheist's ability to disbelieve in gods. Now why is what the monotheist believes in of a different kind than what the henotheist/polytheist believes in?

First, God is absolute, a transcendent reality of whom there cannot be a plurality of distinct Gods. For the set of divine beings, it cannot admit of more than one God. Further, that one God is necessarily as He is; it is necessary that such a God exists, and it is necessary that God be as He is. So, if we say that God is omnipotent, it is necessarily the case that God is omnipotent; God is not God unless He is omnipotent, and if you are thinking of a non-omnipotent being, you are not thinking of God. Moreover, God is the foundation of fundamental reality. He is the reason why there can be anything at all, and why there can be what there is. He provides an explanation for the whole set of existence, including Himself.

A god, on the other hand, is not postulated to be such a fundamental reality. Such beings can be generated, can die, and are essentially limited beings. They are not foundational, with some other thing having to explain why they can be. They are contingent beings, who do not need to exist and do not need to be what they are. For any god, the existence of other gods is compatible.

I hope this is sufficient to denote the essential difference between God and gods, and why one cannot put God in the gods category, that it is a fundamental mistake. If one were to do so, it would be hard to say that one actually achieves a disbelief in God as I've described Him to be.

Questions for discussion:

Can one be an atheist without being able to articulate the differences between a "disbelief in God" and a "disbelief in gods?"

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Post BBCode URL - Right click and save to clipboard to use later in post Post 2: Mon May 28, 2012 10:35 pm
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Tangent on historical details:

The beliefs in God and gods have a historical relevance, but these historical details are irrelevant to the ontological character and distinction between God and gods.

An example of the way in which these histories are irrelevant is like science. While scientists used to believe in the five elements (and it was the height of science in its day), this is completely irrelevant to current science which holds that elements are things like zinc, gold, oxygen, and neon. You wouldn't read how scientists know of these things and object "But some others believed that water was itself an element!" Such an objection is, simply, completely irrelevant to whether or not water is hydrogen and oxygen. Maybe water could've been its own element, but it turned out not to be, and those who came before were simply mistaken. The beliefs of prior people is not relevant to the ontology of water and other material things.

That said, I'm willing to go over some historical and religious notions which happen to be tangential to the issue of this discussion.

For one, I listed multiple "Gods" as examples of monotheism, and I'm certain its only a matter of time before someone thinks they've found a contradiction in my explanation. However, I noted these multiple examples not because there can be multiple Gods, but because multiple belief systems happen to be monotheistic. Christianity has always been monotheistic (naming God "Yahweh"); Judaism has for the last 2000+ years been monotheistic ("Yahweh" obviously); Islam has always been monotheist (naming God "Allah"); and there are some monotheistic branches of Hinduism (naming God "Brahman"). As monotheists, all would, regardless of religion, tend to describe God in the same way, much as I did above. There could be some differences in what God is like, but then such differences exist within Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism, and always have, without those within calling the others atheists. Further, all these monotheists, regardless of religion or irreligion, would agree that they believe in the same God, with a disagreement about which religion has in fact truly received and maintained God's revelation. Obviously, a difference in belief about this does not constitute a difference in belief about the ontology of God. For instance, I happen to believe in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ, while Jews don't; nonetheless, we both believe in the same being, just happening to disagree on whether or not God did reveal Himself through the Incarnation and Resurrection.

As to my listing of Yahweh in both monotheism and henotheism, I did this because the ancient Jews, up to about the Exile, were probably henotheistic, who worshipped Yahweh as a god among other gods. As the theology of the Jews developed, however, Yahweh came to be understood not as merely a god among gods (or even a god above other gods), but as God, of whom there could be no others like Him. This is especially prescient in Isaiah, who asserts unmistakably monotheistic propositions, though there were definitely monotheistic tendencies even in the texts which came around the time of Moses, i.e. Yahweh's saying that He is I AM THAT I AM.

As to Zeus, the religions which were dominant in Greece up until the Hellenistic age were definitely polytheistic, which included the worship of the whole pantheon of gods, though individual cities and towns were committed to the worship of one god above the others. However, through to about the 2nd century AD, with the development of philosophy, those with education came to regard Zeus as having a special place above all the other gods. While we lack any texts that clearly indicate such, perhaps there were even some who regarded Zeus as God, rather than a mere god, though any who would've were either monotheists as Christians or pagan philosophers like Plotinus. Thus, Zeus is more in the category of henotheism, for at least some educated ancient Greeks.

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Post BBCode URL - Right click and save to clipboard to use later in post Post 3: Mon May 28, 2012 10:52 pm
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AquinasD wrote:
Can one be an atheist without being able to articulate the differences between a "disbelief in God" and a "disbelief in gods?"


Atheists understand that different gods have different attributes, and most would be able to articulate the difference between "God" and "gods." I can't speak for my fellow atheists, but I believe in neither, both due to a lack of evidence and the numerous philosophical problems facing God's existence (hiddenness of God, problem of natural evil, etc.).

Side note: theists can't seem to agree on the attributes of God. For example, some say she is omniscient, others say he is simply "not arbitrarily limited in knowledge"; some say he is a trinity, others say she exists as one person, etc.

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Post BBCode URL - Right click and save to clipboard to use later in post Post 4: Mon May 28, 2012 11:13 pm
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Ah, one of my favorite subjects! Now we have some major issues such as:


Quote:
Henotheism - a belief in and worship of one god (though there could be others), but who is not the foundation of fundamental reality


Excuse me? Where are you getting your definitions?

Henotheism only means you believe there are beings called "gods" but your god is the chief god and above all the others.

And your definition of "Polytheism" is off, it means that one actively worships other beings called "gods" or a some kind of division of the highest god into multiple beings. Like the Trinity for example.

There is a major problem I've noticed, very few people seem to understand what the word "god" means. It means "power" or rather "higher/stronger/prevailing" power. Thus, the Angels are in fact called "gods" because they are heavenly powers. Psalm 8:5 in the Septuagint summarizes this neatly. We also know that Jacob, who wrestled with "An elohim", was actually wrestling with "An angel" according to Hosea 12:1-2.

This is most likely exactly what the ancient Israelites believed. This is even what the early Christians believed. "Indeed there are many gods and many lords".

Psalm 136:2 calls the Father the "god of the gods", as well as in other places.

It doesn't get much more Henotheistic than "god of the gods".

And also, the Septuagint version of Deuteronomy specifies that all the nations of the Earth are given to one of the "sons of god" (later changed to "Sons of Israel", probably by over-reactive "Monotheists"). Many of the more-close-to-original ancient Israelite ideas would not fly with modern "Christian" interpretations.

I strongly believe one of the reasons why the issues of the word "god" and the concept of angels being "gods" has been forgotten is because it gets in the way of the definitions used by that backbone of modern "Christianity", the Trinity.

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Post BBCode URL - Right click and save to clipboard to use later in post Post 5: Tue May 29, 2012 12:34 am
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Is it really meaningful to distinguish between the deist's God, One God in three Persons, the more obviously monotheistic Gods of Islam and Judaism, the many gods of polytheism or for that matter, angels, demons, spirits, ghosts, djinn and all of the other allegedly spiritual beings?

I don't know what these things are and I don't believe in them.

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Post BBCode URL - Right click and save to clipboard to use later in post Post 6: Tue May 29, 2012 1:46 pm
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McCulloch wrote:
Is it really meaningful to distinguish between the deist's God, One God in three Persons, the more obviously monotheistic Gods of Islam and Judaism, the many gods of polytheism or for that matter, angels, demons, spirits, ghosts, djinn and all of the other allegedly spiritual beings?

I don't know what these things are and I don't believe in them.


I don't believe in ghosts or fairies, but if something goes bump in the night, it'd make more sense to blame a ghost than a fairy.

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Post BBCode URL - Right click and save to clipboard to use later in post Post 7: Tue May 29, 2012 2:19 pm
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AquinasD wrote:

McCulloch wrote:
Is it really meaningful to distinguish between the deist's God, One God in three Persons, the more obviously monotheistic Gods of Islam and Judaism, the many gods of polytheism or for that matter, angels, demons, spirits, ghosts, djinn and all of the other allegedly spiritual beings?

I don't know what these things are and I don't believe in them.


I don't believe in ghosts or fairies, but if something goes bump in the night, it'd make more sense to blame a ghost than a fairy.


It makes even more sense to blame the cat!.

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Post BBCode URL - Right click and save to clipboard to use later in post Post 8: Tue May 29, 2012 4:13 pm
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I sense the core of this post is about the Stephen Robert's quote. I do see God and Zeus as being extremely similar. It is like comparing Batman and Superman. It doesn't matter if Superman is more powerful, can do more stuff, or even has more fans because they are both comic book characters.

Is the Zeus story of him impregnating some human woman and watching his child grow up that much different from the God/Jesus story? Is Zeus with the other gods waging war on the titans any less silly than God fighting Satan along with all the angels? The Bible has talking donkeys, rivers turning to blood, and a person living in a whale. Is that really any different from the classic myths?

Saying God made all of reality is not that much different from saying that Chaos made everything.

And that is the point of the quote. If you changed a few names and a few details in the stories, most religions look the same.

And even if someone came up with a wild, new religion which was extremely different, it wouldn't make any difference if it lacked in the most important thing; evidence.

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Post BBCode URL - Right click and save to clipboard to use later in post Post 9: Tue May 29, 2012 5:38 pm
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Re: Monotheism, Henotheism, Polytheism

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AquinasD wrote:
The way many atheists tend to speak about it, you would believe that monotheists are really just henotheists. Consider the fundamental supposition belied in the popular quote by Stephen Roberts: "I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do." The way Roberts is speaking about the matter, you'd be under the impression that, for monotheists, the God they believe in is essentially of the same kind and category as Thor and Zeus tend to be placed in. An atheist like Roberts just goes one step further than the monotheist and excises that one last "god" the monotheist asserts from his picture of the world. It is quite a neat quote, except that it reveals a fundamental misunderstanding at the heart of just what the monotheist believes in. Because of this, it leads me to doubt that many so-called atheists actually achieve a disbelief in God. Now, they may be quite successful in disbelieving of gods (I'm there with them on that), but atheism is defined as "a disbelief in God and gods." Since God and gods inhabit two completely different categories of being, saying that God is just a god belies the fact that our so-called atheist never graduated Sunday school where these rather elementary distinctions comprise a difference in just what one happens to believe or disbelieve.

Most monotheists believe in a god, like Yahweh. They believe that their god is God (to use your terminology). It doesn't make sense to say that Yahweh stopped being a god when the Israelites stopped believing in other gods. It's still Yahweh, he still has all the attributes that he shares with other gods that made people think of him as a god in the first place, he still fits into that category just fine. It makes as much sense to say that Zeus stops being a god when I start believing him to be "the foundation of fundamental reality" as it does to say my couch stops being a couch when I start believing it to be "the foundation of ultimate reality."

The idea of "God" isn't so much a distinct being from a god as it is a series of theological arguments which are generally applied to the god of the monotheist's choosing.

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Post BBCode URL - Right click and save to clipboard to use later in post Post 10: Tue May 29, 2012 5:56 pm
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AquinasD wrote:

McCulloch wrote:
Is it really meaningful to distinguish between the deist's God, One God in three Persons, the more obviously monotheistic Gods of Islam and Judaism, the many gods of polytheism or for that matter, angels, demons, spirits, ghosts, djinn and all of the other allegedly spiritual beings?

I don't know what these things are and I don't believe in them.


I don't believe in ghosts or fairies, but if something goes bump in the night, it'd make more sense to blame a ghost than a fairy.


One night I woke up and saw someone had made a pot of lentils on my stove, in a way that you're not supposed to make it (Taking it out of the boil-bag).

No one else could have possibly it that night unless they broke into my house, or I sleptwalk and made lentils incorrectly.

Darn cats.

Or maybe someone broke in who had the munchies.

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