Why is polytheism less popular than monotheism

Why did the ancient cults of gods fall into disrepair - and did one win?

Evolutionary history of religion (s)

The current EPOC issue 1/2009 deals impressively and highly recommended with the Greek heaven of gods. Waltraud Sperlich provides information about the latest excavations that uncover older roots of Greek traditions, rituals and holy places (Die Cradle of Zeus, pp. 16-24). Barbara Patzek and Klaus-Dieter Linsmeier illustrate the formative influence of Homer and Hesiod on mythology and ultimately also on society and politics (Made out of chaos, pp. 24-27). "The Heavenly Twelve" (out of hundreds) are presented to us on pp. 28-33. And Hakan Baykal looks back on the brief reign of Emperor Julian, who tried again in the 4th century to restore the ancient faith - and failed (The Last Son of the Gods, pp. 34-39). The sociology of religion (e.g. Rodney Stark) have also set out to research how and with what monotheism finally prevailed against state persecution.

The Greek gods were colorful and interesting - why did monotheism prevail?

In recent years religious studies have made some progress with regard to the question of why the ancient cults also declined in the centuries in which they were subsidized by the state - whereas Jews and Christians (but also followers of henotheistic cults such as Isis and Cybele) discriminated against and suffered persecution. Why did monotheism prevail over religious competition and state power? And why did this happen mainly in and out of the cities - to this day non-monotheists are referred to as rural dwellers - pagans, pagans? More recent, empirical research (e.g. by the sociologist of religion Rodney Stark) as well as comparative observations on today's religious communities paint an ever clearer picture.

In short, the answer to the title question can be divided into three parts.

1. Community cohesion

Immigrants brought new gods with them, especially to the cities; huge groups of gods formed on the one hand, and ethnic-religious enclaves on the other. There was friction between the followers of different peoples and the enlightened city citizen was faced with a hodgepodge of different gods for all walks of life. As a result of this "divine polyphony" both the ethical obligation (why should the commandments respect this God of all people?) And the rituals and offerings were "scattered" to various cults.

In contrast, the monotheistic religions came up with the message of a deity who addressed all people and connected strangers to "brothers and sisters", to highly exclusive, but also binding communities. The costly requirements (e.g. food, sacrifice and time commands) detered free riders (see article on rituals and the ten commandments) and synagogue and later church communities formed solidarity communities in which children, the sick, the elderly, the proverbial "widows and orphans "were taken care of and religiously instructed, which also acted as contact points for long-distance travelers. The highest indirect praise for this comes from the aforementioned Emperor Julian, who - unsuccessfully - called for similar solidarity to be created among the pagans in order to curb the influx of Christian communities.

But it should not be concealed: The price for the higher cohesion in monotheistic communities consisted (and still exists!) Nevertheless in an often higher intolerance towards "infidels", also the overcoming of ethnic barriers "inside" is sometimes followed with a clearer demarcation " Outside "hand in hand.

2. Commitment, especially in marriage

Monotheism was (and is!) Particularly successful among women. Because the extensive lack of binding commandments undermined the security of families. It is not for nothing that many myths about "father of gods" Zeus had his infidelities on the subject and his wife Hera is consequently dubbed "the jealous" in EPOC. What shaped cheerful stories among gods was a depressing reality for women in the cities. Economic dependence, sexual libertinage, husband's cohabitation and divorce rights, abortion, and the paternal right to child abandonment posed real threats to her and her offspring.

The strict one-god who blessed the monogamous marriage bond and family life for life and forbade adultery, abortion, and child abandonment, on the other hand, offered men a symbolically increased role only in exchange for sexual obligation. To this day, women dominate membership and everyday religiosity of the monotheistic religions, whereas men who are non-denominational, UFO belief movements and neo-paganisms predominate (cf. contribution to the crucial question). This behavior can also be found today in surveys as well as in empirical marriage research.

However, the price for strict monogamy was (and is!) Often in unacceptable restrictions of freedom for women as well: If men were to commit themselves exclusively to one family, conversely, adultery of women became a sanctioned crime, and often a patriarchal one unfolded Double standards. Consider in this context, for example, the symbolic power of the Jesus tradition (Jn 8: 1-11), who with the reference to the sins of men saved an adulteress from being stoned ...

3. Demographic success

The decline in polytheistic liability also had serious demographic consequences. For example, in the 2nd century BC, Polybius complained about developments that appeared disconcertingly "modern":

"In the period in which we are living, the number of children and the population in general has declined to such an extent that the cities are deserted and the land lies fallow, although we have not suffered from long-term wars or from epidemics had [...] because people have become addicted to big manhood, greed and carelessness, neither marry nor, if they do, want to raise the children they are born with, but mostly only one or two so that they can enjoy luxury Growing up and inheriting the wealth of their parents undivided, that's the only reason why evil has spread quickly and unnoticed. " (quoted from Bernhard Felderer, Economic Development with Shrinking Population, Berlin, Heidelberg, New York 1983, p. 128)

The combination of community life that promotes survival and family orientation that is conducive to reproduction caused (and does!), On the other hand, an average higher number of children in monotheistic families - especially since mothers in particular took on the upbringing of the children in mixed-religious marriages (cf. 2). Anti-Jewish and anti-Christian persecutions could therefore not stop the regrowth of the communities and often only welded the believers all the more firmly together. Interestingly, this is also an observation that we can make today - but which is already discussed in the biblical story of the Pharaoh, who is afraid of the Israelites' abundance of children (Book of Exodus) and was presumably already known from ancient times. Even today it can be proven that people who are religiously committed have on average significantly more children than their secular neighbors - and this especially in liberal and affluent surroundings.


The price for demographic success is, of course, the regional aggravation of overpopulation (currently e.g. in Africa and Southeast Asia) and, in some cases, the rejection of contraceptives by monotheistic clergy.

Better? Maybe. More successful! Definitely.

An interesting, modern comparison for the competition of different belief systems is also offered by India, whose polytheism has in many places already developed into a henotheism (the many as an expression of the one) and continues to develop: But here, too, some Hindu-extremist movements defend themselves partly with violence Against the abolition of the caste orders by the monotheistic Sikhs, Christians and Muslims, monotheistic social services accuse their successful missionary effect, in some Hindu regions especially girls are aborted and especially Muslims have above-average birth rates - with all the resulting conflicts!

Religious studies cannot normatively decide whether monotheistic religions should be judged morally "better". At best, it can report that they become more successful with increasing population density and thus tend to prevail in terms of religious history - but not infrequently with phases of intolerance and violence. Just as the ancient gods had superseded earlier ancestral and shaman cults, their time had finally come when small groups of neo-pagans attempted resuscitation. For millennia, urbanization and globalization have also meant, among other things, the death of the gods towards the one. (See BGAEU article here)

I wish all readers happy holidays and a happy new year (by the way from the Jewish-Hebrew Rosch = New Year)!

Dr. Michael Blume studied religious and political science and did his doctorate on religion in brain and evolutionary research. University lecturer, science blogger & Christian-Islamic family man, author, including "Islam in the Crisis" (2017), "Why Anti-Semitism Threats Us All" (2019) & "Conspiracy Myths". Has also experienced and survived a lot in crisis regions, representative of the state government BW against anti-Semitism. For many years he has blogged weekly on "Nature of Faith" in order to make religious studies accessible and open to discussion.