The Marginalization of Polytheists in the Public Sphere of Paganism
Posted on May 28, 2017
Of late, there’s been some question as to the position of varying theological Pagan-types within the public (largely Online) sphere of Contemporary Paganism, and the definition of core defining characteristics of Paganism as a contemporary religious umbrella term. And, what happened to begin with the question about definitions has warped into a general attack on polytheistic theology. With this, I am putting my hat in the ring and adding my perspective, even though those I’ll be criticizing have already succeeded at getting out numerous tracts since Sunday.
This has been most notably found within discussions (beginning in early April) of the question about whether or not Paganism was both an “earth-centric” religion (as denoted here: “On “Earth-Based Religions””) or, if Paganism was “dying” as an institution (as denoted here: “Paganism Isn’t Dying; It’s (Finally) Maturing”). It’s your general, frivolous Pagan drama in its reception. Both topics are somewhat nuanced, and, I think reflect on the changing demographics and cultural shift of Pagan practitioners.
The death of pan-Pagan institutions, and the changing demographics are absolutely something that needs to be discussed. And people should absolutely have reasoned debate about it.
However this debate has one notable point that consistently comes to the fore: the reactions of some of the people in the comments section of the second post (“Paganism isn’t Dying”), who have made appearances in other spaces of the public Pagan fora. These people are those who inherently talk down about polytheistic belief in the public sphere. People who are, for all intents and purposes, acting like anti-polytheists. I encourage people to read those comments, to see this in action.
I feel that most people who are getting their dander up about this whole situation, which Hrafnblod of Grennung Hund Hearth has quite willingly provoked, do so because they lack a fundamental ability to critically read the situation of which is being spoken. That, or they elect to raise purposefully misleading strawman arguments in an attempt to control dialogue and mischaracterize the discussion. We’ll see a bit of this later.
It should be said that in my experience, most (because I obviously cannot speak for everyone in this matter) polytheists aren’t trying to tell nature-worshipers, deep pantheists, non-specific Druidic practitioners, or whomever else that, by in large, their nature-based practice and interpretation of Paganism is wrong. They’re trying to expand and move the dialogue of Pagan definition beyond archaic and Romanticized variants of back-to-nature Western philosophy that the 19th Century and the Victorian Era both inculcated within the popular discourse.
Now, I’m of the mind that non-specific nature-based spirituality is a type of Contemporary Paganism. I’m talking about things like the Hindu-like, Emersonian post-Christian nature spirituality types of Robert Corrington. Even if they’re influenced by liberal Protestant theology. But I adamantly do not believe that definition of Paganism as a fundamentally “nature-based religion” is at all applicable as a broadly defining characteristic any more. That doesn’t mean that it is invalid for all Pagans, though.
And I’m certainly not kicking them out from the table. I’m certainly not trying to define their religion for them. I am trying to see that Paganism, as a non-specific descriptor of varying religions, expand accordingly.
I’m trying to establish space for polytheism. I am not going to go over the timescale of this last debate or discussion, because the roots of this go back further than just these past two months. I had largely thought it had blown over after the bigger names had said their piece, and certainly seemed to quiet down. Last Sunday night, however, defecation hit the proverbial rotating oscillator.
I have made my position abundantly clear over the years, but I think perhaps it is best to recount this for some people who may be drawn into this space:
- I am a Pagan. No, really. I am. For twenty years this year, even! But, that’s obvious, right? Isn’t that why we are all here. I have a vested interest in the comings and goings of this community. And despite not being as prolific as others, that nevertheless gives me the right to share in the space.
- I am a reconstructionist. Like, a lot. Like, a lot-a lot. But I’m not one who thinks everyone should be a reconstructionist. It’s a methodology for those who are inclined to do so. However, I do recognize that a lot of reconstructionist work is used by avowed non-reconstructionists, while reconstructionists themselves are looked down upon. And I think that this should be rectified.
- I am an American, specifically a Northeasterner. I was born in the 80s. I am part of the 21st century. I don’t pretend to be anything else. I have never said that any bit of my religious expression was anything but a contemporary interpretation of a historic one, modified to the present world. Very few people in historic or reconstructionist polytheisms will say that what they’re doing is 100% accurate to the past, or believe they can totally revivify what is there.
- I am focused on humanity and our intersection with the divine. After all, we experience divinity, even if it exists without us or our impact. I don’t classify my Paganism as nature-based at all, no more than Rome would be considered a “nature based” civilization because they were subsistence agriculturalists. And I am not alone – Urbanites, or Cosmopolitan Pagans routinely question their place in Contemporary Paganism with its seeming emphasis on “nature worship” as a descriptor. And this is something that isn’t going to change any time soon, with the expected 15 million to 20 million new urban dwellers by 2050. We’re seeing a shift in demographics away from suburbia back towards urban centers. Let alone the fact that many millennials aren’t looking at being able to afford a house, or land, or whatnot. All of these need to be considered in the definition of Pagan identity.
- I am an unrepentant polytheist and animist. That should go without saying, if you know anything about me. I believe in the multiplicity of the divine and the pluralism of the religious spheres through a polytheistic and animistic religious system. And, as such, I have been targeted by specific rhetoric implying I am religiously and ideologically contaminated.
So let’s talk about the incidence of polytheist marginalization. Along with other polytheistic faiths (Hinduism, Shinto, etc.), polytheistic Pagans face comparatively more discrimination from the overarching society because of this fundamental disagreement with what is considered an “acceptable” religious orientation. First we’ll take a look at ways in which society approaches polytheism, especially in regards to the more ‘legitimate’ polytheistic faiths. Then, we’ll take a look at some of the ways polytheistic experience in Contemporary Paganism is marginalized, and how a certain few attempt to control the narrative in order to diminish what is already an arguably minority population.
I was going to publish a more formal piece from a more academic view point, so I’ll be drawing a bit of information from this unpublished paper.
As a religious theory, polytheism is inherently aberrant to modern Western society, with its predominantly Christian cultural foundation. It has been constantly and externally defined, as is the case of the origination of the term “polytheist” by Philo of Alexandria, to routinely disparaged as primitivist, as by Jesuit missionaries. In those Western countries which are thoroughly Protestant, I contend that the perception of the aberrance of polytheism is magnified immensely. I’ll be speaking to this largely from the perspective of an American Pagan although I have personally had discussions with Northern European Pagans that would intimate a commonality of reception to polytheistic practices.
One of the notable ways in which polytheism is marginalized within society can be seen in the discussion of public “secular” space and how this space is inherently used to reinforce a singular religious paradigm, e.g. Protestantism. And this is not some claim of self-victimization, but discussed at length in a variety of scholastic works. Notably, this is spoken about in The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, where it is highlighted how the public space is “encoded”, and supporting of various Protestant monotheistic traditions.
This is done by establishing a perspective of what is considered religiously normalized with an eye to internal consistency. Everything that falls outside of this popularly perceived “norm” is pushed into the private sphere as they are not palatable or appropriate for group consumption. Americans are quite familiar with the concept of the separation of Church and State, and use it both as a weapon and defense against religious encroachment. But it should be remembered that this accomplishment and by extension the whole of what is considered the “public sphere” in regards to religious discourse is largely a Protestant (and overwhelmingly monotheist) accomplishment. In short, this public sphere presupposes and blatantly reaffirms the dominant religious tradition as what is effectively considered secular, while purporting tolerance.
What we find in the public is the lack of a pluralistic understanding of religion, which takes into account the differences in cultural expressions and religious concerns not at all. It masquerades certain religious tolerance – more appropriately in some cases as mere toleration – only if it evacuates public life. The demarcation between “secular” and “religious” space is inherently untenable for theists who take an immanent view of divinity. Divinity – and by extent the enactment of the religion – pervades facets of everyday life which necessarily includes accountings in public space. This defined separation is unnatural and ultimately disenfranchising.
What we find is that, essentially, a “separation of Church and State” ultimately fails in its task of being a multi-religious, pluralistic model within our “Secular Democracy”. The result is that secular public space does inherently assume and favor a church (or a series of confessional/congregational populations), at least as it exists in North America. Compared to the multireligious pluralistic state of India, the United States (and the United Kingdom) effectively engages in state-sponsored religious coercion in which their definition of “religion” inherently privileges Christianity.
The failing of popular society to distantly tolerate – let alone anything socially outrageous like embrace – concepts of pluralistic polytheism are apparent. C.S. Lewis’ work Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life quite clearly indicated a form of “chronological snobbery” (his term) where the hegemonic forces of Christianity are felt; the intellectual and cultural capacities of an earlier time positioned as inherently inferior to that of the present modern time, simply by view of the present being experienced and dominated by Lewis’ own ‘ethical monotheism’.
Predating and complementary to Lewis, the followers of the “Psychologists of Religion”, inspired by Wellhausen, Hegel, Boyer, and others, position the theisms of animism and polytheism as an archaic religious “primitivism”, something that will naturally and ultimately give way to more “advanced” expressions of religious thought until something akin to Lewis’ ethical monotheism is obtained. Atheistic writers and philosophers push this synthesis of biological evolution and cultural progress further, aiming for an ultimate goal of a mature society existing in a state of post-monotheistic secularism.
These views, along with lingering colonial attitudes towards identifiably non-European peoples, pervades the reception of polytheistic theology, even in the nominally “modern” and “tolerant” West. We find these notions of modernity and enlightened tolerance to be hollow claims.
We see this biological argument even in the sphere of Paganism, with the discussion of the “evolving trajectory” of religion. We see in these words the same intellectual rhetoric of C.S. Lewis, only consisting of the idea of a non-specific post-Christianity instead of his ethical monotheism. We see the same assumption of chronological snobbery, that the modern period is better than the pre-modern. That looking to the past is unrealistic and applying anything from it is anachronistic.
As a collection of new religious movements, contemporary Pagan polytheisms are often suspect in regards to the their claims of religious legitimacy to practice or concerns regarding their theism as being accepted. In a religious and social culture that expects identified figureheads, these people are often without an overarching authority or representative body. This is to say nothing about how the recognized polytheistic religions have had to adapt to these hegemonic monotheistic cultural forces.
Even the “legitimate” polytheism of Hinduism, when in the diaspora of the United States, was forced to contend with and eventually adapt to these hegemonic forces. Prema Kurien’s Place at the Multicultural Table: The Development of an American Hinduism offers an engaging and fascinating account of the pressures of American Hindus in adapting their religious image to one of a “model minority”, both in regards to religion and ethnicity. These pressures ultimately lead to the assimilation to Western culture in both the colonial and the immigrant contexts through a constructed, organized Hinduism based in both text and history, and heavily reminiscent of the monotheism of the colonizing or immigrant culture.
Within the Protestant, monotheist West, we see significant cultural pressures against polytheistic traditions. Consider that one of the world’s oldest, and largest, polytheistic religions finds itself at the mercy of these prevailing hegemonic forces. What is a minority religion with a lack of resources like polytheistic Paganism to do?
It is absolutely true that most Pagans do not face the same associated racism and ethnic prejudices that the polytheistic cultures of South and Southeast Asia experience. I am identifiably white, and I make no such claims that my discrimination is anywhere near the same. But, the same distrust, disgust, and diminishment of religious experience remains. Contemporary Pagans are, of course, well versed in the struggles of being a religious minority – doubly so in parts of the West at the mercy of evangelical monotheisms in social and political power. In these places there exists an even greater pressure in regards to engaging in an identifiably polytheistic religion, resulting in the expectation of religious privatization for economic or safety concerns.
So how can we say that Paganism engages in this same type of marginalization?
Regardless of the location in which it originated, Contemporary Paganism was reared within a Protestant and Protestantized monotheist culture. If Gerald Gardner’s foundation of British Traditional Witchcraft is held as the “beginning” point of Contemporary Paganism, that is a product of his Protestant culture. If we’re speaking specifically to the American exegesis and the varying developments primarily driven by American Pagans, these likewise were birthed under a Protestant monotheist overculture. If the “proto-Paganisms” of the Romantic and Victorian eras are counted as the first stirrings of Contemporary Pagan thought they are undeniably of Protestant origin.
All Westerners are exposed to these Christianized, monotheistic, and ultimately hegemonic forces. They’re externally and internally used as a metric which all other things – morals, ethics, actions, beliefs – are inherently measured. In seeing how minority religions like Hinduism acclimate to these forces in their own diaspora, we can perhaps see the types of hegemonic forces that are exerted on us without our awareness.
Everyone and anyone – even people who were never raised within a religious household or were not raised within a monotheistic religious system (a-religious, atheistic, etc.) is raised this way. No one is raised in a vacuum, not even Contemporary Pagans. As a product of this culture, Paganism sees these same prejudices and the same biases which have to be addressed by everyone in some capacity. I have, in the past, written about some of these biases in the form of baggage and reactionary definitions which serve to warp our conception of Paganism into a shadow or an inversion of the overarching culture. This problem is far less easy to approach than identifying baggage because it deals with a fundamental understanding of our society which we are all collectively raised with.
When polytheism enters the public sphere it is subject to this same type of baggage by other Pagans. And invariably they are attacked not for the theological substance of their claims but for strawmen that are erected which are quite clearly not the focus of discussion. These misrepresented arguments are masked behind the claims of their detractors, like Mark Green’s “not being in competition with theism” in “Atheopaganism and the Future” (linked above), or in John Halstead’s willful misrepresentation of claims of supporting polytheism and polytheistic Pagans. But, when pressed, they always revert back to disparaging, insulting, and painfully public comments. What is lacking is a fundamental understanding of the basic qualities of (particularly Western) polytheistic practice, with no apparent attempts to learn.
This is the culture that preaches tolerance (remember: toleration) of polytheism within Contemporary Paganism – these logical thinkers, empiricists, and humanists who would value the “human experience” within Paganism so much that they would denigrate theistic belief as inferior and morally primitive. The same attitudes that we see repeated in anti-Hindu, anti-indigenous, and overwhelmingly monotheist tracts.
Their “sympathy” masks their moral positioning and supposed intellectual superiority. Even when they admit that we are not remotely the same thing, at all, on a basic cosmological level. And in the same breath state that because polytheists might have issues with being marginalized, our faith is weak.
What we see with commentary like Halstead’s and Green’s is a concerted and well admitted attempt to simultaneously control the polytheist narrative and to diminish polytheistic theological experience within the nominally and ostensibly public sphere. These even go so far as to directly insult the fundamental basis of polytheist belief through repeated efforts to portray polytheists as backwards and conservative ignorants who worship “fictional” characters or “imaginary friends”. It follows the footsteps of the majority of the monotheistic West in viewing polytheism as something fundamentally flawed and erroneous in belief, to be pitied and not defended.
Halstead and company imply that our “disenchantment” with the world is a result of our failure to view the interconnectedness of all things in life and to enjoy our place within this reality as it is. In fact, our “disenchantment” is due to the colonization of aberrant hegemonic monotheistic forces that continually warp and assault polytheistic beliefs, practices, and idols. Polytheists aren’t “re-enchanting” their religious life. They’re recognizing it for what it is, and embracing this ancient and widespread theological paradigm, and honoring these timeless beings anew.
The marginalization of Western polytheists persists with an abundantly glaring, disheartening frequency. The attempts to portray the gods as thoughtforms, archetypes, or imaginary friends simply takes its theological place as adjacent to Protestant monotheism. It has become normalized, with constant attempts to diminish the oddities of multiple-god worship. Following Hindu attempts to make their polytheistic values palatable to Westerners, Contemporary Pagans have engaged in reductionist efforts to make their many gods as close to monotheistic as possible.
What is done in the name of “tolerance” is reaffirm these hegemonic practices in the public space. Halstead, Green, and those who would cast aspersions on polytheistic theology are perpetuating this. These actions diminish pluralist thought in favor of privatization of “aberrant” philosophical and theological outlooks. It is an irony of this entire argument that both sides are claiming marginalization and victimization, a gulf created by people who consistently fall back on questioning the “realness” and existence of the other’s focus of worship.
However, what religious and social history both show is that only one of these two theisms has consistently been marginalized since before even the time of Lactantius, establishing a culture of bigotry, marginalization, and ridicule. And this rhetoric only promotes it.
Butler, Judith, Jürgen Habemas, Charles Taylor, Cornel West, The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, ed. Eduardo Mendieta and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.
duBois, Page, A Million and One Gods: The Persistence of Polytheism, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.
Green, Mark, “Atheopaganism and the Future”, Atheopaganism: An Earth Honoring Religion Rooted in Science, May 5, 2017, Accessed May 28, 2017. https://atheopaganism.wordpress.com/2017/05/05/atheopaganism-and-the-future/
Green, Mark, “What About Those Who Insist Their Gods are Real: A Policy Statement”, Atheopaganism: An Earth Honoring Religion Rooted in Science, May 25, 2017, Accessed May 28, 2017. https://atheopaganism.wordpress.com/2017/05/25/what-about-those-who-insist-their-gods-are-real-a-policy-statement/
Halstead, John, “Literal Gods are for the Literal Minded: Re-Enchanting Polytheism”, Humanistic Paganism, May 25, 2017, Accessed May 28, 2017. https://humanisticpaganism.com/2017/05/25/literal-gods-are-for-the-literal-minded/
Halstead, John, “I Got Played By A Troll”, Patheos Pagan, The Allergic Pagan, November 3, 2016, Accessed May 28, 2017 http://www.patheos.com/blogs/allergicpagan/2015/11/03/i-got-played-by-a-troll/
Hrafnblod, “On Earth Based Religions”, Grennunghund Hearth, April 5, 2017, Accessed May 27, 2017. https://grennunghund.blog/2017/04/05/on-earth-based-religions/
Hrafnblod, “Paganism Isn’t Dying, It’s (Finally) Maturing”, Grennunghund Hearth, May 21, 2017, Accessed May 27, 2017. https://grennunghund.blog/2017/05/21/paganism-isnt-dying-its-finally-maturing/
Kurien, Prema, Place at the Multicultural Table: The Development of an American Hinduism, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007.
Levi-Bruhl, Lucien, Primitives and the Supernatural, New York: E.P Dutton & Co., Inc, 1935.
Lewis, C. S., Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1955.
York, Michael, Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion, New York: New York University Press, 2003.
*Note: I make no apologies for my caustic commentary on Hrafnblod’s blog. I stand by those words, although I recognize that I could have been a little bit less acerbic.