The Realization of Polytheism
Posted on June 1, 2017
“Religion is ‘a verbal and nonverbal structure of interactions with superhuman being(s).” – Hans Penner, Impasse and Resolution: A Critique on the Study of Religion.
“[Religion is] a convenient label that we use to put together all the ideas, actions, rules, and objects that have to do with the existence and properties of superhuman agents such as God.” – Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought.
“All religions follow the same structural contours. They invoke supernatural agents to deal with emotionally eruptive existential anxieties, such as loneliness, calamity, and death. They have malevolent and predatory deities, as well as many benevolent and protective ones.” – Scott Atran, “Religion’s Social and Cognitive Landscape”, in Handbook of Cultural Psychology.
“Persons who spent whole days in prayer and sacrifice to ensure that their children should outlive them were termed ‘superstitious’ (from superstes, a survivor), and the word later acquired a wider application. Those on the other hand who carefully reviewed and so to speak retraced all the lore of ritual were called ‘religious’ from relegere (to retrace or re‑read), like ‘elegant’ from eligere (to select), ‘diligent’ from diligere (to care for), ‘intelligent’ from intellegere (to understand); for all these words contain the same sense of ‘picking out’ (legere) that is present in ‘religious.’” – Cicero, De Natura Deorum II.72.
On the surface, despite many numerous differences, definitions of religion are predicated on – or otherwise revolve around – the concept of an identified object of extra-human and “supernatural” quality. Something which necessarily sets itself apart from nature or is otherwise added to the natural world. Of course, as a trained anthropologist, as well as a historian who has dealt with religious history quite frequently, religion as a definition genuinely transcends the notion of a mere supernatural qualifier. Pascal Boyer’s quote, above, is largely comparable to my own internalization and use of the definition of the phenomenon of “human religion”.
This year – 2017 – marks the twentieth year as identifying as a Pagan in the contemporary religious sense. While I’m not hardly in the running for that being any length of time, I am particularly seasoned. And as that anniversary draws closer I will do my best to commemorate it. But, to me, it has always been the pull to the “supernatural”, to the imminency of this religious quality, that gets ascribed to the definition of religion by academics. I do not feel that the term “supernatural” is wholly appropriate as a description of the quality of the divine, as I view it as pervasive within the natural world. The description of the gods, the spirits, and other holy powers is diminished through the use of this word, implying that they exist beyond nature – a transcendent quality which informs the greater understanding of “religion”. It, in some way, simply does not apply.
I am an empiricist. I have training in two social sciences and rely on qualitative observations and the collection of identified facts in order to orient my deductions and assumptions. Two of the primary philosophical schools which I ascribe, and which inform my worldview, are Empiricism and Scepticism as they’re understood in the humanistic understanding of the Renaissance, prior to the period of the Enlightenment. I trust in the scientific method. I am excited by new discoveries that rewrite our understanding of our place in the cosmos, of evolution, and of the geologic timescale.
As a result of this very logical framework to my training and my approach to life I do not particularly favor coincidence, repetition, and other probable qualities as indication of some greater-than-human force within the world.
And yet, I am an ardent polytheist and animist. This is because of my experiences in this world, many of which do not have a logical answer.
I suffer from a very mild form of depression, which is being treated. Who from the millennial generation doesn’t? That is the extent of any “aberration” to my mental health. I do not have a history of greater mental health problems in my family. I do not “crack” under stress. I am considered healthy and active. Other than a bout of unemployment, I’m productive. I’ve never done drugs, other than drinking a ton of coffee and socially drinking alcohol. I’m generally pretty boring.
Why is this laundry list important? Because they are generally the first qualities which skeptics and atheists look for in the overtly religious, in order to denigrate our intelligence or our actions. That there’s something wrong with us. That our intelligence is up to question. Or we’re inherently inferior. I find that polytheism receives the brunt of this, because we don’t believe in just one “imaginary friend”, but many.
But, because of this, I am forced to accept that there is more to the world than what I know and conceivably articulate or explain. To me, and to my experience, that translates to a multiplicity and plurality of divinity, and an intersection with a world of spirits that I share the space with. I never “lost” the worldview of my youth, was fortunate that it was never stamped out by over-zealous parents. I was raised in a fairly a-religious household, with a mother and grandmother who were interested in other religions.
So being a polytheistic Pagan is very much just a natural progression of my life.
But what I learned early on was that being a polytheist – and by that I mean one who doesn’t reduce down the deities into a mere two (or less) beings, or view them as facets and manifestations of the human condition – was very atypical. I came to Paganism during the heyday of the Llewellyn craze, after the SRA panic settled and Wicca and Paganism were commodified. After The Craft. One year before Charmed.
Paganism, Wicca, and “the supernatural” were suddenly trendy. Marketable.
Polytheism, however, was not. At least, not in the same way. Our gods were “petty and cruel”, according to the lead-in of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. They were really aliens, either little grey men or parasitical worm that enslaved worlds, as in Stargate. Fast forward into the Aughts, and Supernatural, and Loki was really Gabriel and the Gods were all demons. Or whatever, that show is trash. While Wicca and Paganism were being rehabilitated (regardless of their accuracy), polytheism languished as a cheap television trope. Something either blatantly wrong, or the hallmark of primitivism. (We’ll see if American Gods changes that, but I’m hardly expecting it to).
And, it seemed, that these common themes were repeated in the wider Pagan community in attitudes and reception. I ventured into the world of online Paganism shortly after I embraced it and what I found was reductionism and reactionary baggage and toxic “free spirited” counterculture.
The Gods are all facets of One God, the Goddesses are all facets of One Goddess. There were no gods, but a universal divinity towards Nature. Worship was what Christians did. The Gods are myths and stories and do not exist. Spells, spells, spells. These thoughts, and others, were the common zeitgeist of the collective discussion Paganism. Discussion was on spells and self-realization and either ego/self-centric or nature-centric practice. If you believed in [Divinity] you were a Wiccan or a Druid, but always in a reductionist way. Deity reduced to a Duality or Nature. Or nothing at all.
If you believed in multiple and independent deities, well, you were wrong. You were corrected. The gods were all facets of one universal source, not independent entities. The same people who said that belief didn’t matter, and that Paganism was focused on action, were the first to cast aspersions were you to go beyond the pale of indoctrinated theology and believe – truly believe – in multiple gods.
And it’s funny because in my twenty years, that really hasn’t changed.
It’s more accepted now, but polytheism in a Western context is still looked at as aberrant. It is still openly derided and mocked by those who would claim a part of the community, and expect respect and toleration for their blatantly intolerant views. It’s been beaten into the Western mind that the Gods are fables, myths, stories, demons, or sheer delusions. They’re tropes, archetypes, figments of personality, or mental projections.
The great writers of the past who earnestly believed in these beings, who took part in their cults, and who lived these lives, are looked at as relics with little religious value. The words of Marcus Aurelius in Meditations are viewed as an example of “someone who really didn’t believe” in a polytheistic divinity (Secret: He did), and the modern Stoic Revival distances itself from the religious implications of his words. In exchange, modern Pagan and Wiccan writers that look at the gods as metaphors are excused, accepted, and lauded.
Can we really argue against an anti-polytheist indoctrination within Contemporary Paganism, even if it is unintentional? I’m not even sure that it truly can be that unintentional.
Contemporary Paganism is full of people with agendas, like any other human institution. And it’s not a new feature. Margot Adler had a very specific view of what she felt should be promoted in the Paganism she wrote about in Drawing Down the Moon. She was not above reporting false information (Claimed Ray Buckland’s Seax-Wica/Saxon Witchcraft tradition was founded as a “joke” and refused to recant). It is as full with petty drama as any other community, both in the online and in the offline spheres. Witch wars were, and still are, a thing – often driven by ego.
And that’s not even getting into the politics. Woo, boy.
Is the growth of polytheism within Contemporary Paganism an effort to enforce an orthodoxy, a correct belief in the multiplicity of the divine? The sinister attempts of a cabal to enforce a rigidity designed to trample expression and belief? Of a rising fundamentalism of religion? There are many who would portray it that way and who believe it to be that way.
Or is it due to forces that have only really taken hold since the early 2000s? The growth of online communities connecting people in far-flung areas, to discuss their ideas of worth, value, religion, and belief? And the realization that there are many more than the dominant culture would otherwise have expected? A burst of new interests, new changes, new developments, and a maturing community?
The pressure against polytheism within the Contemporary Pagan community bears the hallmarks of a majority population feeling threatened by a vocal minority who are agitating for representation within the demographic. Accusations that any one space are overrun with the perspective and paradigm, false portrayals and misrepresentative accounts of the group in order to discredit the whole. Accounts are diminished in ways that would rile people up if it was done to the indigenous folk religions of other peoples.
Since 2012-2013, we’ve largely seen some of that representation. The Wild Hunt now refers to “the polytheism community” (itself a problematic term, but that’s another story). Initiatives like Polytheist.Com were launched, although apparently now deceased. Devotional and theological anthologies treating the deities with due reverence, honor, and respect are published frequently, taking advantage of more affordable small-scale publishing and print on demand services (although Neos Alexandria as an organization predates this by several years). There were talks of the establishment of polytheistic Pagan conventions. We first had the Polytheist Leadership Conference, from which spun out Many Gods West.
(Still hoping on a Many Gods East, or comparable meetup.)
The theological beauty of polytheism is that it is inherently pluralistic. It can coexist with a variety of other theological perspectives because it is a non-exclusivist position. It makes only one universal claim: that the gods exist and those gods number more than two. The iterations of them are up to the individual religion and context.
It clashes with the assertion of a transcendent deity. It has problems when people tell us that there are no deities and that we are backwards people believing in a fiction. It denies our agency and the claims of our legitimacy of practice, and represents an all-too-ethnocentric viewpoint. The expectation that we are broken, or that we should meekly kowtow to the popular will of an overly reductionistic society, rankles. The implication that we are only “new” since the turn of the millennium is simply incorrect.
The belief in immanent spirits and deities is an “anthropological universal”, and is one of those features that is widely regarded as consistent across all human cultures. It has been since the beginning of humanity, and is thought to be represented in our closest hominid relatives. Our belief is not “new”, even if our contemporary practice is.
If polytheism has one universal quality that it asserts, it is that the gods and spirits exist. They simply are. They don’t need to have their detractors believe in them. Their worshipers need to not have people try to silence them.