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Polytheism As An Evolutionary Stage, Polytheism In Modern Anthropology, Bibliography

The concept of polytheism was a creation of the Enlightenment. Before then, Europeans had characterized the religious universe in terms of Christianity, Judaism, paganism, and (eventually) Islam. As late as the sixteenth century, the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagun, in his remarkably detailed and sensitive account of pre-Columbian Mexican religion and culture, equated various Aztec divinities with their putative Roman equivalents. The rubric of "paganism" embraced any and all religions with multiple divinities.

The very distinction between monotheism and polytheism, lumping together, as it did, Christianity with Judaism and Islam, was the product of secularizing intellectuals—deists if not agnostics or atheists—distancing themselves in this manner from any specific theology. These implications were most fully developed by David Hume in The Natural History of Religion (1755). Polytheism, he argued, was the earliest form of religion: "the first ideas of religion arose not from a contemplation of the works of nature, but from a concern with regard to the events of life, and from the incessant hopes and fears which actuate the human mind" (p. 139). Such hopes and fears—about childbirth, illness, a bad harvest, and so on—were multiple, and each was presided over by a separate divinity. Eventually such notions gave way to a far more rational understanding of the world in terms of a single ideal creator—in other words, monotheism. In this way, the difference between polytheism and monotheism embodied the conflict between reason and the passions, which for Hume, ever the pessimist, led not to the ultimate triumph of reason but rather to a perpetual "flux and reflux in the human mind" (p. 58) when the cold and abstract reason of monotheism left human hopes and fears unsatisfied. Worse yet, the emotions aroused by monotheism were "sacred zeal and rancour, the most furious of all human passions" (p. 161). Polytheism was more irrational but also more tolerant than monotheism.

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