IV. Ethical Estimation.


I. Scope and Definition: (§ 1). Meaning in Scripture. Polytheism or the doctrine and belief that there are more gods than one is the more scientific term for what is otherwise known as idolatry and heathenism, and refers to those religions which are in contradistinction to the monotheism of Judaism, Christianity, and Mohammedanism. It is based on the natural tendency of man to seek religious relations with deity in the light of the revelation of natural religion alone. In the evolutionary process nature proceeds from plurality to unity, and even pantheism appears as a philosophical elaboration and inspiration of primitive polytheism. The verdict of both the Old and the New Testament on the nature and value of polytheism is essentially the same. Polytheism is the lapse from the living God to the worship of vain idols and the perversion of divinely revealed truth in order to smuggle in falsehood, darkness of spirit, and association with demons. The gods of the heathen are powerless (Jer. ii. 28; Isa. xli. 29, xlii. 17, xlvi. 1 sqq.), and made by man from perishable material (especially Isa. xli., xliv.; Ps. cxv. 4 sqq., cxxxv. 15-18). So far as they really exist, they are demons (Deut. xxxii. 17; cf. Deut. x. 17, xxxii. 17; Ps. xcvi. 15, cvi. 27). In the New Testament idols are vain, and are not really gods (Acts xiv. 15, xix. 26; I Cor. viii. 5; Gal. iv. 8), and he who eats of their offerings eats the meat of demons (I Cor. x. 19-21; Rev. ix. 20).

(§ 2). Lapse from Monotheism. In considering the origin of polytheism, the usual development of pantheism from an earlier polytheism, illustrated in India by Brahmanism and in Greece by the Eleatic and Stoic systems, would naturally lead one to consider the primitive form of all religion to consist in the worship of a plurality of gods from which even Biblical monotheism was developed. Nevertheless, neither the Pentateuch nor the prophetic writings contain any traces whatsoever of an earlier polytheism, and the Old Testament very definitely regards the polytheism of the heathen as caused by a fall from primitive monotheism in the account of the tower of Babel (Gen. xi. 1 sqq.). The gradual development of polytheism from an original monotheism is supported by the history of Abraham (Gen. xiv. 18-20; Josh. xxiv. 2 sqq.); of Jacob, who saw the introduction of Teraphim (q.v.) into his household (Gen. xxxi. 19-20, xxxv. 2-3); of Joseph, who married the daughter of an Egyptian priest of the sun (Gen. xli. 50), and of Moses who was able to keep his people true to the God of the covenant only by bitter struggle against the paganism of Egypt and Midian (cf. Num. xii. 1 sqq.; Deut. xxxii. 15 sqq.; Amos v. 25-26). Similar views are presented in the New Testament, as in Rom. i. 21 sqq.; Acts xiv. 16, xvii. 29.

II. Classification: Granted that the theory of evolution is legitimate in the domain of natural science, the question arises whether it applies as well to this sphere in view of the facts of religious history. From the time of David Hume (q.v.) and the English deists and of the German G. L. Bauer, the theory of the origin of monotheism from polytheism has passed through three definite stages: gods were derived either from fetishes, dead ancestors or other spirits, or from the heavenly bodies. These three theories may conveniently be termed fetishism, animism (with its varieties of spiritism, Shamanism, q.v., ancestor worship, hero cult), and Sabaism.

(§ 1). Fetishism. The theory of Fetishism (q.v.), dating from the period of Voltaire and Hume, was essentially established by Charles De Brosses in his Du culte des dieux fétiches (Paris, 1760), and was further developed by Auguste Comte (especially in the fifth volume of his Cours de philosophie positive (Paris, 1830-42), who assumed that from the worship of rude objects of a childlike superstition in magic, or fetishes, was developed first the polytheism of more civilized pagan nations, while from the latter was evolved monotheism as the highest ethical form of religion. This has become a favorite dogma of positivists in France, England, and North America as well as Germany, as illustrated by Lord Avebury's Origin of Civilization (London, 1870); S. Baring Gould's Origin and Development of Religious Belief (1869); C. Meiners, who held, in his Allgemeine kritische Geschichte der Religionen (Hanover, 1806), that fetishism was not only the oldest but also the most general form of worship; G. P. C. Kaiser in his Biblische Theologie (Erlangen, 1813-21); Hegel in his Vorlesungen über Phi1osophie der Religion (Berlin, 1832) maintaining that magic, constantly changing its objects of worship in the form of fetishism, creates the first and lowest type of religion; and T. Waitz, in his Anthropologie der Naturvölker (Leipsic, 1859-65). The fetishistic theory was developed into a formal system by F. Schultze in Der Fetischismus, ein Beitrag zur Anthropologie und Religionsgeschichte (Leipsic, 1871), in which an interpretation of the individual tendencies of fetishism is attempted, on the assumption that the rudest fetishism of modern aborigines is necessarily the closest in approximation to the primitive type of all religions. This theory of fetishism has exercised more or less influence on historians of civilization like K. Twesten and F. von Hellwald, natural philosophers like C. Sterne, E. Haeckel, and investigators of religions like A. Wuttke, whose Geschichte des Heidentums (Breslau, 1852-53), while proceeding from a rigidly monotheistic basis, regards fetishism as the oldest and most primitive type of religion known to history; and G. Roskoff in Geschichte des Teufels (Leipsic, 1869) and Religionswesen der rohesten Naturvölker (1880). In opposition to the frequent assumption after Darwin that there are numerous primitive peoples without any trace of religion, so that absolute atheism is alleged to be the real basis and starting period of the entire religious and ethical development of mankind, Roskoff, in the latter work, marshaled an array of facts confirmed by a company of scholars; but he falls in also with the naturalistic view, regarding magic as the prototype of all religious activity. The theory of fetishism is scientifically false. The fetish is not, according to De Brosses and the other naturalists, an enchanted and therefore prophetic object (as if from fari, fanum, or fatum), but is something artificially made (Portuguese, feitiço--Latin facere) especially for religious purposes, such as an amulet, cross, or idol. Properly speaking, fetishes are devotional or cultic objects which imply a relatively developed stage of religion, and are even typical of an incipient decay of religious life. They are invariably relics of an older and more perfect concept of the deity; for some sort of an idea of a higher being to be invoked must have been present before steps could be taken to make a fetish. The stone, block, bone, or rag, which forms such a magic idol for the African, was never anything but an idol capriciously adapted to a long developed, even though rough and vague, concept of God. The worship of fetishes forms a rude parallel to the veneration of relics and objects of superstition like the tooth of Buddha in Ceylon, Mohammedan talismans, Greco-Roman amulets, or the teraphim or earthern serpents of the peoples with whom the Israelities came in contact. Far from belonging to the childhood of religion, as Meiners, Hegel, Lord Avesbury, and others have held, on the ground of the puppet shape of the fetishes and the childish homage of dances and drummings in their honor, fetishism is decadent, even as senility frequently assumes an appearance of childishness. Neither fetishism nor the primitive atheism assumed by Avesbury can rationally be made the foundation of religious development either of mankind as a whole or of individual stocks or peoples (cf. J. Happel, Die Anlage des Menschen zur Religion, pp. 112, 134 sqq., Leyden, 1877; O. Pfleiderer, Religionsphi1osophie, pp. 318-319, 742-743, Berlin, 1878; F. M. Müller, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion, especially vol. ii., London, 1878; P. Schanz, Apologie des Christentums, 2d ed., ii. 37, 297, and passim, Freiburg, 1887-88; and C. von Orelli, Allgemeine Religions-geschichte, pp. 15, 265-266, 841-842, Bonn, 1899). [For another view of the subject, see FETISHISM.]

(§ 2). Animism. The animistic hypothesis, or soul-cult, as the source of all religious development is considerably later than that of fetishism. As introduced into comparative religion by E. B. Tylor in his Primitive Culture (London, 1871; new ed., 1903) and Anthropology (1881) animism denotes a belief, wide-spread among the primitive peoples throughout the world, in more or less powerful souls or spirits dwelling in material objects, in a word, "spirit worship" (cf. J. Lippert, Der Seelenkult nach seinen Beziehungen zur hebräischen Religion, Berlin, 1881; O. Seeck, Geschichte des Untergangs der antiken Welt, pp. 339-377, Berlin, 1901). Logically, this form of religion is a grade higher than fetishism, regarding its cultic objects as filled with, or possessed of, certain spiritual beings, which human magic can cause to appear and become operative. At the same time, cruder fetishistic views and usages are found in animism, especially in the magic character of the priests of both types. Three forms of animism may be distinguished: physiolatric, anthropolatric, and patriarcholatric. Physiolatric animism is the worship of certain nature spirits residing in wells or rivers (nymphs, nixies), in hills or rocks (cobalds), in trees (hamadryads), or in animals, and the like, the two chief subdivisions being the two last, phytolatry and zoolatry, the latter comprising ophiolatry. Anthropolatric animism is the worship of the dead, whether regarded as being in some inanimate medium or in some living animal from simple inhabitation to metempsychosis; this type is the darkest of spiritism issuing in necromancy and fanatical Shamanism. Patriarcholatry, or ancestor worship, is the worship of the ancestors of special families or entire stocks, this frequently passing over among wild tribes into totemism, in which the ancestors are held to have been certain beasts or birds, which thus become fixed emblems of the families or stocks in question. All attempts to make any or all of these types of animism the source of the development of religion have failed. Ancestor worship in particular, defended by H. Spencer in his Principles of Sociology (London, 1876-82), J. Lippert (ut sup.), and others, is rendered nugatory because the pious regard of ancestors presupposes too long a development and too ripe a civilization to be regarded as the primitive source of religion; as, for instance, the Chinese cult and the Pitris and Rishis of India and the Greeks. See COMPARATIVE RELIGION, VI., 1, a, §§ 1-6; HEATHENISM, §§ 2-4, 6.

(§ 3). Sabaism. The Sabaistic theory, or the assumption that the cult of the heavenly bodies is the source of religion, seems to go back, strictly speaking, to such Church Fathers as Clement of Alexandria, and Firmicius Maternus, who held that, while monotheism was the original religion, the stages of decline had begun with the worship of the heavenly bodies. They were closely followed by Moses Maimonides (q.v.), and, among more recent students, by those who investigate mainly religions possessing an astronomical basis, as the Egyptian, Babylonian, and Phenician. A chief exponent of this theory was the French astronomer C. F. Dupuis, who, in his Origine de tous 1es cultes ou religion (12 vols., Paris, 1795), sought to prove that worship first of the sun and then of the other heavenly bodies was the point of departure for all religious evolution. Similar attempts were made by J. A. Kanne in Neue Darstellung der Mythologie der Griechen (Leipsic, 1805), J. G. Rohde in Versuch über das Alter des Tierkreises und den Alter der Sternbilder (Breslau, 1809), E. von Bunsen in his Einheit der Religion (Berlin, 1870) and Die Plejaden und der Tierkreis (1879), and C. Ploix in La Nature des dieux (Paris, 1888), in which he blended Sabaism and fetishism. If, however, a stellar cult developed into adoration of the zodiac, the planets, and other celestial objects, it presupposes a degree of culture which is incompatible with the primitive period of mankind. The truly primitive forms of worship of the heavenly bodies seem rather to be monotheistic, the divine element being regarded not so much as the sun, moon, or "host of heaven," as the heaven itself as the symbol or manifestation of the highest beneficent power, in comparison with which the individual stars constituted mere sub-deities. A number of adherents of primitive monotheism have accordingly regarded Sabaism as the mediate stage through which man passed in his decline from monotheism to the baser forms of polytheism. Criticism of Sabaism leads necessarily to the positing of a primitive monotheism though not in its absolute form.

III. Development: (§ 1). A Corruption of Monotheism. A relative monotheism, consisting of a theistic basis with pantheistic elements, was assumed as the basis of all religious development by Schelling in Philosophie der Metologie und Offenbarung (Stuttgart, 1856-59), and he was followed by many others. This relative monotheism of the earliest historic period was termed kathenotheism or henotheism by Max Müller; and though restricted by him only to certain characteristics of the Vedic religion, yet it may well be applied, mutatis mutandis, to the earliest periods of the religion of various other peoples of similar antiquity. This henotheism is defined by Müller as a naive faith in individual powers of nature which alternately appear as supreme. The religion of the Chinese seems to be an unfolding of the cult of heaven, and early Iranian religious records show similar traces of a relatively pure primitive monotheism, since between the supreme creator of the universe, Ormazd, and his subordinate deities, the six Amshaspands, a considerable interval is held to exist. The oldest religious concepts of the other Indo-Germanic peoples were richer in polytheistic elements, though even in them the sky-god was dominant. Among the religions of southwestern Asia, the ancient Arabs and the Phenicians had a basis of primitive monotheism, consisting in the worship of a supreme god of the light or of the sun (Ilâh or Shamsh in North Arabia, Bel among the Sabeans of South Arabia, and Baal Hamman among the Phenicians), though even in the earliest records this basis had received many accretions of stellar polytheism. The same statements hold good of the religion of ancient Babylonia. The most ancient supreme sky-god Anu must early have received by his side a Bel and an Ea, their number later being increased by various younger nature deities, such as the moon-god Sin and the sun-god Shamash, as well as the five planetary deities Marduk, Ishtar, Adar, Nergal, and Nebo. Many of the most competent Egyptologists agree in placing at the head of the development of the Nilotic religion a creative celestial "king" or "father" of the gods, who was called Amon-Ra by the Thebans and Ptah at Memphis; and Le Page Renouf, in his Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion, p. 119 (London, 1880), declares: "The sublimer portions [of the Egyptian religion] are not the comparatively late results of a process of development or elimination from the grosser. The sublimer portions are demonstrably ancient; and the last stage of the Egyptian religion, that known to the Greek and Latin writers, was by far the grossest and most corrupt."

It must not be supposed, however, that this process of degeneration from monotheism everywhere took the same course or passed through the same phases. In like manner, various motives entered into the creation of early myths; and neither the one-sided interpretation of myths as personifications of meteorological phenomena nor the one-sided anthropology of the euhemerists nor the operation of diabolical forces as held by early orthodoxy is in accord with the actual state of affairs.

IV. Ethical Estimation: Regarding the relation of polytheism to morality, the stern judgment must hold which the Old and the New Testament alike pronounce upon idolatry without distinction of its various forms or grades. Idolaters are evildoers punished by the law with the severest penalties, and upbraided by the prophets for their enormities. In the New Testament sinners and heathen are parallel (Matt. xviii. 17; Gal. ii. 15; I Cor. v. 1), while idolatry is classed among the "works of the flesh," being placed between lasciviousness and sorcery (Gal. v. 20), and repeatedly designated as belonging to the worst abominations (Romans ii. 22; Rev. ii. 15, 20, ix. 21, xvii. 4-5, xviii. 22) and as leading to the gravest sensuality (Rom. i. 24-28). And this judgment not only holds true of classical antiquity, but of modern primitive peoples as well.


The conclusions reached by the author of the preceding article are not those of the modern school of comparative religionists. Every line of evidence exhaustively examined by these students leads to results that are in complete accord with the science of anthropology, which regards man himself as a development. Religion appears distinctly and unmistakably as a growth, in which monotheism is the choicest fruit, not the root. Wherever the history of religion can be traced for long periods, as in Babylonia and China, and now in Greece, the farther back one searches the more diffused is the worship, until the gods are lost in spirits or demons. This is confirmed by the study of primitive religion, where the objects of worship are spirits, not gods, with rare exceptions, and these exceptions afford no support to the theory of monotheism as original. Similarly in the organized religions, the irrational and animistic elements, for instance of ritual (in which are always preserved longest the traces of origin), are clearly derivable from the earlier stages and point to polytheism or animism, never to monotheism. While there may be reversion of a people from monotheism to polytheism (as in the decadent period of Jewish history), the case can always be shown to be reversion and not degeneration. The background of Hebrew religion is now recognized by the entire critical school as not only polytheistic but animistic. A case of this is the action of Jacob in anointing the stone (an act of worship) on which he slept while he saw his vision (Gen. xxviii. 18), which action was precisely that which Arab tribes directed to the stone deities which they worshiped (Smith, Rel. of Sem., passim). The first commandment is an explicit recognition of the existence of other deities.

The conclusions of comparative religionists as to the order of development in religion are briefly indicated in COMPARATIVE RELIGION (q.v., especially VI., 2, d).