Dynamism, Polytheism, Henotheism: Understanding Religious Traditions

From the Lecture Series: Philosophy of Religion

By James Hall, PhD, University of Richmond

In most religious traditions the central and most important fundamental idea that binds the religion together as a set of beliefs, practices, and institutions is the idea of “god” or “gods.”

Man silhouette on a night sky background with bright stars trails
(Image: Triff/Shutterstock)

Dynamism and Animism

Dynamism is an ancient and widespread form of religion in which various cultures were convinced that there were powers that occurred in natural objects in the world. A particular rock or a certain gnarled tree might become an object of awe and veneration because it was deemed to be the location of tremendous power. The dynamist did not associate aspects of morality or a future orientation with these items. It’s just power that exists.

One would be cautious and deferential in the neighborhood of such power in the same way one would be if one lived next door to a nuclear generator. It’s present and humming all the time, and you walk by with a certain amount of respect and keep your distance. Notice, there’s no particular personal relationship to these powerful beings in a dynamist’s worldview. There is no imputing of personality, character, intentions, or anything of the sort.

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Contrast that to the animist who is a close cousin. The animist tends to think that various objects in the world aren’t just the location of power but are the location of discrete spirits. This tree or rock is not just an energy source; this tree or rock has a certain personality or character and one can relate to it, in a way. One can try to keep it happy or one can fail. In folklore, this often crops up in the imagery of volcanoes that get angry and that have to be placated, usually with human sacrifice or something of the sort.

Polytheism and Pantheism

The polytheist is likely to limit the number of such entities, powers, or personalities to a certain extent. It’s not just any old rock or old tree. Furthermore, they’re very likely not to associate them with particular artifacts.

The polytheist thinks of the gods perhaps as dwelling in another world and visiting from time to time, or interacting with this one. Of course, the great era of polytheism is the era of Greek and Roman myths and legends.

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We see there that the various gods and goddesses have particular areas of concern and interest that they rule over, but that they are perpetually in conflict with one another. This is one of the problems you run into with the multiplicity of such powers because there’s likely to be rivalry, which creates the wonderful, rich tapestry of the myths of that era.

Photo of Greek Procession of Twelve Gods and Goddesses
Greek Procession of Twelve Gods and Goddesses. (Image: By Anonymous (Greece) – Walters Art Museum/Public domain)

Of course, these myths are created as a way to try to explain some of the phenomena that are going on in the world. The world is an arena in which even divine conflicts are being acted out, and that perhaps can help us understand sometimes why the world does not go the way we would particularly want it to go.

Pantheism is a different kettle of fish. It’s not familiar to most of us in this part of the world although it’s making an interesting renaissance in recent years in the ideas of some people who call themselves neopagans and are involved in Wicca.

Pantheists are inclined to think that maybe there is some sort of divine power or source. But rather than its being focused in a gnarled tree, a rock, or a volcano or, for that matter, in a pantheon of gods who live on Mount Olympus and play havoc with our lives, they see this power as uniformly distributed throughout everything, that the divine is an inherent, implicit, and internal dimension of everything that there is.

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If you begin to look at the world that way, then you can see a piece of the divine in a person, a tree, a sunset, or a set of events in history, with all of it working out together. It’s a cosmic organism in which the holy is an aspect or a dimension of everything seen collectively. Notice, however, that whether it’s dynamism, animism, polytheism, or pantheism, at no point is there one single, supreme other that is external to ourselves and distinguishable from ourselves and against whom our lives stand in judgment.

Henotheism

Henotheism is probably the stage of religious development that existed at the time of Abraham. These people tended to think that every tribe or culture had its own special divinity, and to that extent, they were like polytheists; that is, there were quite a significant number of gods; the gods individually belonged to a particular tribe.

Or another way to put it would be that a tribe individually belonged to a particular god. From that standpoint, it was considered acceptable for the Hittites to worship their god and not another because the god of the Hittites was the god of the Hittites.

Stone carving showing Twelve Hittite gods of the Underworld in the nearby Yazılıkaya, a sanctuary of Hattusa.
Twelve Hittite gods of the Underworld in the nearby Yazılıkaya, a sanctuary of Hattusa. (Image: Klaus-Peter Simon/Public domain).

It’s worth noting that at the stage of henotheism, the status of the god was tied up with the status of the tribe. The desirability and appropriateness of worshipping a particular god had a lot to do with whether or not that god could produce or deliver when your tribe was in conflict with another. It was not at all uncommon if one tribe conquered another tribe for there to be an immediate mass conversion. If a bunch of Uzites wiped out a bunch of Hittites and took over their area, then all of the Hittites began worshipping the god of the Uzites because he was bigger, better, and stronger. After all, their side won. That is not an unfamiliar concept in the 20th century for that matter.

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Dualism, Zoroastrianism, and Deism

Dualism, or bitheism, narrows it down to just two. It’s an interesting play against monotheism. The dualist believes there are two supreme powers and frequently differentiates them morally, one being the god of the good and the virtuous, the other being the demonic power—using the imagery of modern mythology, the “force” and the “dark side.”

Udvada Atash Behram in 2009 located in Gujarat, India.
Udvada Atash Behram is one of the oldest holy place of worship of the Zoroastrian religion in India. (Image: By Warrior4321/Public domain)

The Zoroastrian religion, still present in the world today among the Parsees in West India and those few who survive in Iran, is a good example of those who narrow it down to two powers, interminably locked in conflict.

Deism is more closely kin to ethical monotheism than any of these other systems mentioned, although it remains quite different. Deists say that there is only one God; there could only be one. If something is supreme, then it’s supreme. If it is supreme, then everything else is subordinate to it; to call anything else a god rather than the one supreme God would be an exercise in idolatry.

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You don’t worship anything that does not deserve to be worshiped, and nothing deserves to be worshiped unless it’s the highest pinnacle. On that, the deist and the ethical monotheists are congruent.

The deist, however, has a certain austerity to his or her conception of the divine that is a byproduct of the extreme supremeness of it. It is so other, so transcendently beyond anything human or mundane, that the deist typically is going to say it could not possibly have any interest or concern with anything that goes on here and now, today. It is an object of austere veneration and respect from a distance—never the target of communion, fellowship, and working together.

Common Questions About Religious Deities

Q: Is there a difference between God and a deity?

God is generally the term given to a monotheistic, omnipotent Supreme Being whereas deity is often the term for the various deities who govern over various aspects of a polytheistic system.

Q: What would be a practical example of a deity?

In the Hindu tradition, Shiva, Parvati, Lakshmi, and Ganesh are all deities who represent various types of mental states and focus of energy.

Q: Would Buddha be considered a deity?

No. Buddha is not a deity or a god. He was a man who achieved enlightenment and encouraged others to follow their own path to enlightenment.

Q: Would Thor be considered a god?

Yes. In Norse mythology, Thor is a god associated with strength, protection, and violent storms.

This article was updated on October 12, 2020

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