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Against monotheism


Admission requirements

General knowledge of the academic study of religion


The concept of “pagan monotheism” in antiquity has become remarkably popular in recent times. It can only exist in a context where neither the label “pagan” nor the label “monotheism” has come under scrutiny. Both labels are historically and conceptually problematic. Whereas most scholars will agree that “paganism” only exists in the eyes of those who do not apply that label to themselves, many of them happily continue to use the equally problematic category “monotheism”. Actually, that category has been transformed into one of the main explanatory tools for the history of religion in general. This course will argue that just like “paganism”, “monotheism” is a theological/insider concept that has neither historical substance nor explanatory potential.
We shall discuss the concept of monotheism – its origins, its use by believers and its use in contemporary scholarship – as the most crucial example of the way in which notions that are meaningful within religious systems (in this case, the distinction between ‘created’ and ‘uncreated’ meta-empirical beings) have silently been adopted as instruments of scholarship, and the problems this has produced.

Course objectives

  • Students will be acquainted with the most recent literature on religious change – Students will learn to recognize and discard theological/internal and “folk” concepts in the history of religion – Students will (help) develop better strategies of analyzing religious behaviour



Mode of instruction


Course Load

Total course load is 280 hours
Classes + preparation 52 hours
Conceptual analysis paper 76 hours
Presentation + mid-term paper 76 hours
Final essay 76 hours

Assessment method

Conceptual analysis paper – presentation – final essay


Blackboard is used as a forum for discussion and as a repository for the course

Reading list

Basic readings will be drawn from:
P. Athanassiadi & M. Frede (eds.), Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity (Oxford, 1999)
S. Mitchell & P. van Nuffelen (eds.), One God: Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire, Cambridge 2010
S. Mitchell & P. van Nuffelen (eds.), Monotheism between Pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity, Leuven 2010

R. Stark, One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism, Princeton 2001
J. Assmann, The Price of Monotheism, Stanford 2010
G. Fowden, Empire to Commonwealth. Consequences of Monotheism in Late Antiquity, Princeton 1993

These books (and others) will all be made available in the University Library


This has to be filled out by the key-user of the department.

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