mon-+o-+the-+ism - The doctrine or belief that there is only one God.
Often a big distinction is made between supposedly "monotheistic" and "polytheistic" religions. Yet from my reading/study on the subject, it would seem to be a useless distinction, or at least an inaccurate one, when you press the terms to their logical end.
While a religion like say, Hinduism (which is more a collection of religions than a single "religion" per se) worships a multitude of personal entities, Vedantic philosophy in it's various forms seems to be pretty agreed on one thing - the basic, essential unity of the Godhead. I've found the same can be said of practically every pagan religion I've read about - that the "absolute" is in fact one, a unity.
Now, what about all of those "gods" that pagans worship? Well I've found that in most of their creation myths, what you find is that these gods are perceived as being personal manifestations of the "divinity", which began at a particular time. Many creation stories (like those of the ancient Egyptians) speak of the "birth of the gods" or things like this, and in turn other gods being birthed or created by them.
While the particulars are disputable, fundamentally how is this much different than the cosmology of so called "monotheistic" religions (typically listed as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam)? Do not all three believe in the existance of angels, demons, jinn, etc? These would seem to be ancient beings, with potencies greater than those of men, who have even been given power over certain spheres of the government of the creation (at least this is true of angels.)
It would seem two things alone separate the "monotheistic" faiths from "polytheistic" religions - the limiting of worship to the divine essence, and the belief that the divinity is essentially distinct from the created order (where as most "higher" forms of paganism are pantheistic - the belief that all things are somehow parts of the divinity). However, that is not really "monotheism" as per the standard dictionary definition, is it? That is a philosphical stand, joined to what has been called "henotheism"...
hen-+o-+the-+ism - Belief in one god without denying the existence of others.
Interestingly enough, a comparison of the extant Hebrew Old Testament with the Septuagint would give creedence to this position. The New Tesament typically makes reference to the Septuagint version of the OT, and this is the rendering of Psalm 8:5, which speaks of mankind.
Septuagint Psalm 8:5 - For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.
Yet the Hebrew version of this, instead of reading angelos (angel), reads elohim, which strictly speaking means "gods". What the Septuagint/NT rendering makes clear, is that the Jewish translators of the OT into Greek, saw an equivelence between the two, at least in the context of this passage.
Psalm 82 would seem to bare out the same notion - with YHWH being the Father and King of the "gods"...
1 God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods.
2 How long will ye judge unjustly, and accept the persons of the wicked? Selah.
3 Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy.
4 Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked.
5 They know not, neither will they understand; they walk on in darkness: all the foundations of the earth are out of course.
6 I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.
7 But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.
8 Arise, O God, judge the earth: for thou shalt inherit all nations.
Or other passages like Pslam 95:3 - For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods. There are many other passages like this.
It is obvious in some places that the "gods" being spoken of are either earthly powers, spiritual powers, or both. For example, the following is an interesting passage from the book of Exodus...
And the LORD said unto Moses, See, I have made thee a god to Pharaoh: and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet. (Exodus 7:1)
I think the problem we have in examining this issue accuratly, is that we have a lot of baggage associated with the word "god", and not all of it bad obviously. We have been so thoroughly formed by the Biblical consciousness of the uniqueness of the worship paid to the Lord, and that He is essentially different than anything else that exists, that we customarily limit the word "god" to Him alone. And this is accurate. But it would seem that the word itself is used much more loosely in the Bible, particularly it's more archaic portions (though this usage is still found to a limited degree in the New Testament.)
A further problem for Christians, is that we do not believe that the worship of the LORD alone equals "unitarianism". In this respect, there is a passing similarity to certain pagan religions, in that we believe the Divinity, while unfathomably one, does exist in plural Persons.
Why these thoughts on "monotheism" you may be asking? Well, beside having way too much time on my hands, I realized that from an apologetical point of view, these terms are worthy of some de-construction. On one hand, it shows where one must REALLY engage the various pantheistic/"polytheistic" religions of the far east. On the other hand, such deconstruction actually does a service to the Gospel, since Christianity is often accused of being "polytheistic" by both Muslims and Jews (but using that term strictly, it would appear then that they too are "polytheistic.") Taking apart these terms, I think, lets us get closer to the roots of the disagreements that keep people away from the Church.