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What are the 2 types of religion?

Religion is an integral part of human civilization and culture. Over many centuries, religions have taken on diverse forms and developed complex belief systems. However, most religions can be broadly categorized into two fundamental types based on how they conceive of the divine and the relationship between the divine and the mundane world.

Polytheistic Religions

Polytheistic religions believe in the existence of multiple gods and goddesses. These deities may have control over different aspects of the natural world or human life. Worshippers offer sacrifices and prayers to various gods based on their specialized domains in order to receive blessings of protection, fertility, good fortune etc. Polytheism was the earliest form of religion as ancient civilizations tried to make sense of the forces of nature by personifying them into supernatural beings.

Some examples of major polytheistic religions include:

  • Hinduism – Originated in the Indian subcontinent over 4000 years ago. Hindus worship multitudes of gods and goddesses representing universal forces.
  • Ancient Greek/Roman Religion – Greco-Roman mythology featuring gods like Zeus, Athena, Apollo, Mars etc.
  • Ancient Norse Religion – Worship of Nordic deities like Odin, Thor, Loki, Freyr, Freyja.
  • Ancient Egyptian Religion – Ancient Egyptians revered an enormous pantheon of gods like Ra, Osiris, Isis, Horus, Anubis etc.
  • Shintoism – Japanese folk religion focusing on worship of kami (spirits) representing nature.
  • Chinese Folk Religion – Worship of various Chinese gods, goddesses, immortals and ancestors.

Some common characteristics of polytheistic religions are:

  • Belief in multiple gods with different roles and powers.
  • Gods may represent different aspects of nature and the human experience.
  • Gods are anthropomorphic and have human-like personalities and flaws.
  • Followers often make offerings to please specific gods based on their needs.
  • Important religious rituals and festivals revolve around the worship of different deities.
  • Adherents do not deny the existence of other gods even while devoted to their personal deity.

Monotheistic Religions

Monotheistic religions believe in only one supreme God. This sole divine being is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and creates and governs the entire universe. Monotheism evolved from polytheism as civilizations became more philosophically and theologically sophisticated. Some key monotheistic religions include:

  • Judaism – The earliest monotheistic religion originating in the Middle East. Jewish theology is based on a covenant relationship with the one God Yahweh.
  • Christianity – The largest monotheistic religion. Christians worship Jesus Christ as the Son of God and prophesied Messiah.
  • Islam – Muslims submit to the will of Allah as revealed in the Quran and taught by Prophet Muhammad.
  • Sikhism – A syncretic Indian religion blending Islam and Hinduism. Sikhs worship one formless God.

Here are some defining traits of monotheistic religions:

  • Belief in a single supreme divine being rather than multiple gods.
  • The one God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and eternal.
  • God is transcendent but may reveal itself in different earthly forms.
  • Morality and world order proceed from the will of God.
  • Worship involves praying to the one supreme being.
  • The existence of other gods is denied.

A Brief History of Polytheism and Monotheism

In the ancient world, polytheistic religions were the norm. The earliest civilizations all worshipped a pantheon of gods. Polytheism originated as ancient humans struggled to make sense of the forces of nature and life. They started venerating the sun, rivers, trees, rain, fertility etc. by deifying them. Different tribes and societies had their own patron gods and goddesses. Polytheistic religions dominated for over 2500 years from prehistory to the Axial Age.

Monotheism first arose in the Middle East during the Axial Age (800 – 200 BCE). This period saw the emergence of great sages, prophets and philosophers like Zoroaster, Moses, Isaiah etc. who pioneered monotheistic theology. They preached about one universal God who was omnipotent and morally just. The shift from polytheism to monotheism involved more sophisticated philosophical thinking and ethics. Monotheism gradually spread across the world and became dominant as polytheistic religions declined.

While conversion and colonization helped spread monotheism, polytheistic elements often blended into monotheistic faiths. Local gods and goddesses were adapted as saints, angels or demons. Pagan rituals were incorporated into seasonal festivals. Hence even monotheistic religions have polytheistic influences underneath monotheistic theology.

Major Polytheistic Religions

Here is an overview of some of the most significant and historically important polytheistic faiths that are still practiced today:


Hinduism is one of the world’s oldest religions, originating in the Indus Valley civilization about 4000 years ago. Hindus worship a pantheon of gods and goddesses representing various aspects of the Supreme Absolute called Brahman. Major Hindu gods include Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, Shiva the destroyer, Rama, Krishna, Ganesha, Hanuman, goddesses Lakshmi, Durga, Kali, Saraswati among countless others. Each deity has its own legends, festivals, prayers, temples and idols that devotees pay homage to. Moksha or liberation from the cycle of rebirth is achieved through discipline, meditation, bhakti (devotion) to a personal god or Self-knowledge. Hinduism has over 1 billion followers today making it the world’s third largest religion.

Chinese Folk Religion

Indigenous Chinese religion involves worship of various gods and ancestors. Some of the major gods include the Jade Emperor, the Dragon Gods, the Kitchen God, the God of Wealth, the God of War etc. Along with gods, semi-divine immortals, ghosts and ancestors are also revered. Chinese folk religion also incorporates concepts of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. Temples and shrines dedicated to local gods and goddesses are found across China. Chinese folk religion has around 400 million adherents today.


Shintoism is the native religion of Japan focused on worship of kami or spirits that represent natural phenomena like mountains, rivers, fertility etc. Major kami include the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, Storm God Susanoo, Sea God Nai-no-Kami, Fertility God Inari etc. Followers visit shrines to pay respects to the kami and participate in rituals of purification and offerings. Shinto practices are also incorporated into Japanese Buddhist temples. Over 100 million people follow Shintoism today.

Ancient Greek & Roman Religion

The polytheistic religion of ancient Greece revolved around worship of anthropomorphic deities on Mount Olympus like Zeus, Hera, Athena, Apollo, Poseidon etc. Each god had control over different aspects of life and needed to be propitiated accordingly. After conquering Greece, the Romans adopted Greek gods into their own pantheon by changing the names – Zeus became Jupiter, Aphrodite became Venus etc. Temples housing the idols of major gods and goddesses could be found across ancient Greece and Rome where people made offerings and sacrifices.

Ancient Norse Religion

Norse religion originating in Scandinavia worshipped gods like Odin, Thor, Loki, Freyr, Freyja, Frigg etc. Major gods were worshipped through rituals and seasonal festivals. Odin was the ruler of Asgard, Thor controlled thunder and lightning, Loki was the trickster god, Freyr and Freyja oversaw fertility and prosperity etc. Worshippers made sacrifices and offerings to the gods to win their favor and seek protection. Norse mythology described how the world came into being and prophesied its eventual destruction at Ragnarok.

Ancient Egyptian Religion

Ancient Egyptian religion had an enormous pantheon of over 2000 gods and goddesses. Some of the most prominent deities included Ra/Amun the sun god, Osiris the god of death and afterlife, Isis the goddess of magic, Set the god of chaos, Horus the sky god and Anubis the god of mummification and funerals. Elaborate temples and tombs were built to honor the gods where rituals, offerings and celebrations took place. The pharaoh was also considered a god on earth.

Religions of West Africa & the Caribbean

Indigenous religions of West Africa centered around worship of gods representing natural forces and ancestors. These polytheistic practices were continued by African slaves transported to the Caribbean during the colonial period. Gods like Nyame, Asase Ya, Papa Legba, Orunmila became part of religions like Haitian Vodou, Cuban Santería, Jamaican Obeah etc. that blended African spirituality with Christianity.

Major Monotheistic Religions

Some of the largest and most influential monotheistic faiths across the world include:


Judaism was the first recorded monotheistic religion developing among the ancient Hebrews around 2000 BCE. The foundation of Judaism is a covenant relationship between Jews and the one supreme God Yahweh or Elohim as described in the Torah. Jewish rituals, holidays and ethics ultimately focus on worship of the one God as outlined in the Torah and Talmud. Judaism has over 15 million followers worldwide today.


Christianity emerged from Judaism in the 1st century CE. Christians worship Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God and prophesied Messiah described in the Bible. The Holy Trinity concept defines God as three persons in one – the Father, the Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Through faith and worship of Christ, Christians can attain salvation and eternal life in Heaven. With around 2.5 billion adherents globally, Christianity is the world’s largest religion.


Islam was founded in the early 7th century CE by Prophet Muhammad in Mecca. Muslims believe in the absolute oneness of God called Allah in Arabic. They follow the teachings of the Quran and the examples set by Prophet Muhammad. The 5 Pillars of Islam are the basic acts of worship – shahada (faith), salat (prayer), zakat (charity), sawm (fasting) and hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). With over 1.5 billion followers, Islam is the world’s second largest religion.


Sikhism originated in the Punjab region of medieval India. The monotheistic teachings of Sikh gurus combined elements of Islam and Hinduism. Sikhs worship one formless God and follow the teachings of Guru Granth Sahib, their holy scripture. Sikhs focus on worship through devotion, truthful living and service to humanity. With about 25 million followers, Sikhism is one of the youngest and fifth largest world religions.

Comparing Polytheistic and Monotheistic Religions

While polytheism and monotheism represent contrasting approaches to theology, cosmology and ethics, there are also some commonalities shared between different religious systems:

Polytheistic Religions Monotheistic Religions
Belief in multiple gods controlling different realms of life and nature Belief in a single omnipotent, omniscient God
Gods are anthropomorphic with human emotions and forms The single God is an eternal divine being not limited to human characteristics
Worship takes the form of tributes, offerings, celebrations for different deities Worship centers around prayer, glorification, obedience and love for the one supreme God
Afterlife beliefs oriented around notions of ancestral spirits, reincarnation etc. Belief in eternal afterlife – either union with God or condemnation away from God’s grace
Priesthoods serve as intermediaries between the gods and human worshippers Prophets and religious leaders pass on God’s message and guidance to followers
Religious ethics and duties derive from the desires of the gods and ancestral spirits Morality and righteous behavior stem from obeying the will of the one absolute God
Use of idols, images, talismans to represent different gods Rejection of idols; focus on scriptures, sermons and prayer rituals
Belief in warring and cooperating gods with fallible personalities God depicted as eternal, omnipotent and boundless
Religion organized around seasonal festivals, rites of passage, public ceremonies Religion focused on acts of private worship, meditation and moral living

While monotheism and polytheism are fundamentally different theologically, in practice there are often similarities in lived religious experience. Monotheists may venerate saints, prophets and angels analogous to polytheistic gods. Polytheists may consider some gods supreme over others akin to monotheistic belief. At a social level, all religions utilize myths, rituals, moral codes, sacred places and community belonging to impart meaning to their followers. So while their core theological orientations differ, in practice polytheism and monotheism have influenced each other in varied and complex ways across history.


Polytheistic and monotheistic religions represent two broad modes of religious thought and practice. Polytheism focuses on worship of multiple anthropomorphic gods while monotheism centers around sole veneration of one supreme transcendent being. Polytheism emphasizes ritual propitiation of different deities while monotheism prioritizes faith, devotion and obedience to the one God. Most ancient religions were polytheistic while major contemporary faiths are predominantly monotheistic. While their theologies contrast, polytheism and monotheism often blended together in practice through history influencing each other culturally and spiritually.