“It is not clear why the change from polytheism to monotheism should be assumed to be a self-evidently progressive improvement.” So writes Richard Dawkins in Chapter 2 of The God Delusion. And while his snide tone continues to annoy me, he’s got a point.
It was a truism of my Jewish education that monotheism was the fundamental and most significant of Judaism’s innovations. Belief in one God was supposed to be more rational and more sophisticated than belief in many. But why? Is the existence of several supernatural beings really less likely than one? Additionally, one might argue that polytheism is a healthier religious attitude for contemporary times, as it might support democratic, pluralistic societies more so than monotheism. If there’s only one God then (perhaps) there’s only one truth. If there are many gods, well then, the very idea of difference, of multitudes, is divine.
So what’s so great about monotheism? I’ll let you chew on that and, hopefully, suggest your own opinions, but my teacher, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, argues, that pluralism is actually a natural outgrowth of belief in a single, absolute God. How so? Because if God is absolute, God is the only thing that is absolute. Everything other than God, everything human — including human statements about God and paths to God — is, therefore, fundamentally imperfect and relative. Everything in the human realm is, at best, a partial truth. So pluralism prevails and claiming to have a monopoly on religious truth is actually idolatrous.