On the Term “Monotheism”

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  • 1 Religionsstudier, Institut for Historie, Syddansk Universitet, Campusvej 55, 5230 Odense M, Denmark

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Abstract

The category of monotheism is not only central to the study of religion, it is also well known outside of academia. Yet there is no real consensus as to its content. Considering existing literature on the subject, one will observe that the term monotheism is defined in a diversity of ways and may be applied to a variety of religions as well as to a variety of different elements in religion.

This is problematic for several reasons: for one thing, this ambiguity means that it is not necessarily very informative to categorize a given phenomenon as monotheistic. For another, in several cases the use of the term corresponds rather poorly with the meaning that can be inferred from the etymological root of the word. Furthermore, it is often used where it would be more accurate to use other categories.

The present article intends to break away from the loose application of the category of monotheism often found in the literature. First, it will examine, discuss, and criticize four significant examples of the status quo. Secondly, drawing inspiration from the recent debate on monotheism, it will advocate a “restricted” definition of monotheism and thus a reduced application of the term, as well as an extended use of categories such as henotheism, summodeism, and monolatry.

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  • 6)

    See, e.g., Lang 1998:148.

  • 7)

    See, e.g., van Baaren 2009.

  • 18)

    Heiler 1961:323; Yusa 2005:3913. The term monolatry was introduced in the nineteenth century, probably by Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918), see Mackintosh 1915:310.

  • 31)

    As Berner (2006) has rightly emphasized, some of the objections belong to the field of theology rather than the study of religion, for example the question of what “true” monotheism is.

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