The original humans were monotheists (Genesis 2). I think learning how humans became polytheists can teach us something about the correct worship of God.
It is important to remember that paganism is not the same thing as being a gentile. There were many righteous gentiles who believed in God, such as Job and Melchizedek. Paganism is the worship of false gods.
The bible lays out the following origins for paganism:
- The worship of ancestors. We see this in many ancient cultures. A good example is the Sumerian Kings List. Many historical people have been turned into gods here. This is because ancient people actually did live hundreds of years (Genesis 5 and 11), so it is easy to see how they were later seen as gods.
- The worship of kings. In many ancient cultures, the king was seen as being a god. This is why God condemns the Israelites for wanting a king like the other nations (1 Samuel 8). The Israelites want an idol.
- The worship of physical things (Exodus 32). This is because they did not glorify God, so they started to see the world around them as God (Romans 1:21-25).
- The worship of demons (1 Corinthians 10:20). This is proof the other gods exist, they just are not the true God. This is why many Old Testament passages appear polytheistic, when in reality they are not.
If we study anthropology, we will see that almost all tribal cultures have a most high God and lots of lesser spirits. This is no different than the Christian view of God and lots of lesser angels and demons. As we see a shift to city states, cultures develop pantheon of gods. A more orderly society require more orderly gods. The most high God becomes the sky god and the head of the pantheon. This is why almost all ancient pantheons are lead by a sky god. As monotheism developed in the Hellenistic world under philosophy, Zeus/Jupiter was often once again associated with the God of the philosophers, who Paul connects to the God of Israel (Acts 17:23).
Christian monotheism is not the opposite of polytheism. Polytheism is a distortion of the true monotheism. Christianity turns all of these polytheistic ideas on their head.
- Ancestors are to be respected and venerated, but not worshiped. They passed down the Holy Tradition to us, and they are now saints in heaven, interceding on our behalf.
- The king is to be respected, for he is appointed by God and is a minister of God (Romans 13:1-7). God wants a philosopher king like Plato describes in The Republic. God’s issue with Israel is not that they wanted a king, but that they wanted a king like the other nations. David was a righteous king, seeking after the wisdom of God. This can be seen in his psalms.
- Icons are windows to heaven. The important distinction here is that the veneration must not be directed at the object itself, but what the icon represents. The pagans prayed to the image itself, making it an idol. The father, who is unseen, is also never depicted.
- Angels are to be venerated (Psalm 103:20). However, demons are not to be venerated. They no longer contain the goodness of God.
Some Christian throughout history have sought a strict iconoclasm. This created an opposition between paganism and monotheism. This has a central theological issue. There are now two opposing forcing. This is a duotheism. A truly Christian worship of God has one source with two distortions, polytheism and iconoclasm.
The iconoclast worship fits in well with a Darwinian anthropology. Man was originally polytheistic, later developing henotheism, then monotheism, and then eventually throwing off the shackles of theism for an enlightened deism (or even atheism).
This deism produces the same fruits as polytheism: infanticide, sodomy, democracy, and even idolatry.
In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism, by Winifried Corduan