World Building Question: Where’s Your God Now?


This is not a blog about religion. It’s a blog about writing and whatever else I want to write about. I don’t talk about religion on this blog. However, as we look at building a world and its society and cultures, it’s sometimes necessary to talk about talking about religion. Which is what I’d like to look into today. What is your culture’s religion, how did it grow, and how is it implemented? Primarily, I’d like to focus on four words: polytheism, henotheism, monolatry, and monotheism. If those middle two terms are unfamiliar, they were to me as well. They were coined by Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling and popularized by Max Müller. If you don’t know the words, I suspect you’ll recognize the underlying notions.

First, let’s back up and acknowledge our societal biases. That’s really an essential starting point. Most of the readers of this blog, whatever their individual beliefs, come from societies where most religious adherents are monotheistic. As such, we tend to think of religions as existing in one of two primary states: monotheistic and polytheistic. These western biases also push us towards the idea that monotheism is somehow more socially evolved. We call a lot of polytheistic religions “pagan,” lumping them together under that one broad term that really is a catch word that comes out of Judeo-Christian rhetoric.

In a way I’m going to pile on with that cultural bias by talking about moving from polytheism to monotheism. This is not to imply it’s the correct direction. However, it does represent the direction early adherents of what became the three major Abrahamic faiths moved, and presents a wider range of options when we’re determining just what the societies and characters we build believe and why. This is also all deistic religion, religions with gods. Religions surrounding shamanism or spirits will have to wait for some other time.

One last bit of ass covering. I’m going to talk about these things in the context of the Greek gods. This does not mean that the Greeks went under the stages that I’m presenting, only that I’m choosing a recognizable pantheon for hypothetical examples.

Wow. Alright, three hundred words in, and I feel my ass now sufficiently covered against a theological flame war in my comments. So let’s look at the four stages of divinity.

Polytheism. Most people have a handle on this stage. This is the Greek pantheon. Today is a beautiful day so I will offer my thanks to Zeus. Tomorrow I undergo a sea voyage, and so I will sacrifice a goat to Poseidon. My nation is at war, and so I will entreat Ares to see our armies to victory. Under polytheism there are multiple gods, often with a patronage system defining which god oversees which aspect of life or the world. There is often a hierarchy within these gods that includes power struggles and politics, and frequently a family tree. It’s important to note that a polytheistic individual is not just acknowledging multiple gods, but is actively worshiping multiple gods. This is an important distinction as we move through the categories.

Henotheism. Here things are getting a little more specific. A henotheistic adherent to the old Greek gods would acknowledge the entire pantheon, and even that it’s appropriate for others to worship their choice of god or gods within that pantheon. But with Henotheism we’re getting into a dedicated cult of Athena. Henotheistic individuals or societies will choose just one god within a broader pantheon to worship, forsaking all other gods. They may still recognize the hierarchy of gods within the pantheon, and the validity of worshiping these other deities, but they are devoted only to their individual god of choice.

Monolatry. Now we’re moving one step further. I have formed a cult of Athena, and while I recognize that Athena is just one of a multitude of gods, I believe that she is the only god anyone should worship. We’re now moving into a territory where the individual is no longer respectful of the choices of others to worship the god or gods of their choice. Sure, there are other gods out there, but only the worship of my particular god is the true way towards religious enlightenment.

Monotheism. Last step along the path. Not only is the worship of my god the only true way towards religious enlightenment, my god is the only god. No others exist. Any other proclaimed “god” is falsely divine or an idol.

Looking at this broadly, it’s likely that a society as a whole (assuming religious uniformity) is going to be polytheistic or monotheistic. However, individuals within a polytheistic society have the potential of being henotheistic or monolatristic. The best example that comes to mind is Dungeons and Dragons. The society as a whole is polytheistic, there is a very clear pantheon of gods who frequently have direct interaction with the people of the world. However, most characters with a divine build tend to be either henotheistic or monolatristic, depending on the heat of their particular religious fervor.

I’d like to briefly acknowledge one other deistic option. Monism. Monism is an odd duck. From the inside the religion is monotheistic, from the outside it appears polytheistic. This is the view, as typified by Hinduism, that there are multiple divine forms or avatars, but that they are all aspects of one god.

Clearly things can get more complex as the writer desires. There are examples within human experience that hybridized polytheism and monism. Which is to say that there is a vast pantheon of gods, and that some of these gods (Zeus is an actual example this time, not a hypothetical one) may take multiple, distinct forms. Religion is far more complex concept than these five terms. Theologians far more knowledgeable than I have had extensive debates about whether Christianity is strictly monotheistic, or if it represents monism or monolatry. I’m not having that debate here or now. I’m merely presenting these terms as a fantastic place to start when determining the beliefs of your society writ large or your individual characters.

During most of the history of religion in western civilization, movement trended down the chart. This isn’t to say societies only move in one direction. In ancient Egypt, the pharaoh Amenhotep IV moved the society from a henotheistic or monolatristic worship of the sun god Aten and pushed for monotheism, but his son Tutankhamen returned the pantheon and reasserted Egypt’s polytheism. However, the general momentum towards monotheism means that most radicals within societies were the ones that pushed in that direction. Even in the case of King Tut, he only reasserted an existing pantheon. We are now so accustomed to a monotheism that I’m not sure we would know as a society where to move if we were to return to polytheism. Ignoring that the path of western society, if it is moving at all, is from monotheism to atheism, trying to imagine a monotheistic society where polytheism is reemerging is intriguing. If western culture moved back up the scale, recognizing first the existence, then validity, of gods beyond the God of Abraham, what would that look like? Would it be an old pantheon reasserting itself into society, or a new pantheon being crafted? Does it grow out of the veneration of saints? These are the questions just within Judeo-Christian society.

Within your society, what would cause movement in the “wrong” direction on the course “towards” monotheism? What, if anything, maintains the status quo? Who are the renegades? The zealots?

If religion is going to be a core within your society, these are all important questions to ask and have answers for. Even if religion isn’t going to be a core issue of the story, if your society does follow a deistic religion, it’s important to at least have a notion of where it fits within categories, or how it straddles or breaks with categories.

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