Some Thoughts and Ideas
Scientists, Philosophers, and Theologians from the Abrahamic Faiths1 all tend to agree on one thing: Polytheism is an earlier, less advanced conception of religion. The idea has been and is so popular that today many people agree without reasoning why. From the theological perspective it goes something like this: Human beings began to engage with forces they did not understand and conceived of a world in which everything was alive with spirit (animism), then since human societies grew more complex people took animism to its logical extreme and posited a world inhabited by spiritual beings which were aspects of various life-forms and personalities (polytheism), then as people continued to search for ways to relate to the divine they discovered that there was one divine force underlying everything (pantheism), eventually leading humanity to discover the nature and reality of the God who created everything (monotheism). Unfortunately, this idea, and ideas like it are both false and ignore the fruits of recent research.
Keep in mind as well that a society that has been dominated by monotheism for centuries is going to come up with ideas to justify that dominance which make it seem logical, or a natural evolution of spiritual conceptions. Monotheism is often thought of as the triumph of the quest for unity or as humankind’s ultimate realization of God’s oneness. Monotheistic religions tend to be viewed as more true than polytheist or animist religions. People assume that faiths like Islam and Christianity are dominant worldwide because of their inherent validity over other faiths. But these smug notions are still wrong. They make the error of thinking that the dominance of monotheistic faiths means that monotheism is a superior spirituality. Monotheist faiths, like Christianity and Islam, have historically gained their dominance through militant evangelism and colonialism. Their dominance is frankly due to the superiority of certain armies and economic controls, not due to any superiority in their divine conceptions.
Also remember that the “evolutionary” conception of the divine, in which ideas normally applied to species and biology are wrongly applied towards religion, has only been around for about two hundred years and strongly point to the work of people like David Hume. In today’s world, the philosopher who defends this perspective most thoroughly is Ken Wilber. But Ken Wilber’s work, while based on originally Buddhist conceptions of human spiritual evolution, seems to miss the point of those conceptions. Buddhist evolution or ‘spiritual development’ is to be taken in the context of individual practice. The Buddhist spiritual ‘evolution’ idea has nothing to do with conceptions of and approaches to divinity.2 Even if it can someday be definitively proven that human spirituality can be explained via evolution, it says nothing about the superiority or inferiority of polytheism verses monotheism or any other approach to the divine. In fact, it could be vigorously argued that polytheism is the crowning approach to the divine in that it allows for natural diversity and tolerance to occur….polytheistic faiths tend to thrive in social complexities, such as exist in today’s post-modern urban world. Polytheism also allows for monotheism within its approaches, but the reverse cannot be said to be true.
There is no evidence that monotheism came later than polytheism, but even if there was, that does not say anything about the superiority/inferiority of monotheism. Historical evidence also points to an interesting fact concerning monotheism: No society that was largely polytheistic ever engaged in persecutions or warfare for religious or spiritual reasons. There is ample evidence that monotheistic faiths, once they became socially and politically powerful, justified the expansion of their faiths through warfare, conquest, and persecution. Polytheistic religious tolerance is largely credited to the experience of diversity and the subsequent openness this creates in such milieus. Polytheists recognize a plethora of diverse powers, deities, and spirits. They likewise recognize a plethora of spiritual approaches and practices that exist side by side without any need for conflict or spiritual one-up-manship. The difference between polytheistic and monotheistic religions is clearest on this one issue of tolerance. Whereas polytheistic societies allowed for new or ‘strange’ religions to take hold, the reverse is not true for monotheistic groups, even when such groups were part of minority religious movements.
While many people would object to the idea that polytheism is valid, citing the noble sounding statements over the “unity of God,” a cursory glance at the history of such monotheist religious movements shows a history of intolerance and brutality in which religious leaders gained control over their societies and enforced their version of correct theology and spiritual practices upon everyone else. The polytheist most certainly could ask people who think that monotheism is the superior approach the question “If there is only one God, why has there been so much argument and disagreement even among the monotheists over the nature of that God?” Muslims, Christians, and Jews have been persecuting and killing one another for centuries. And all three of these faiths have been the engine of persecution and death for their polytheist, pantheist, nontheist and even atheist neighbors. (The historical record is unflattering for these three faiths. I will cite just three examples: Judaism in ancient Canaan, in which entire polytheist cultures were wiped out by conquest; The Muslim conquest of Persia which destroyed the native religions and Islamic inroads into India and Central Asia which decimated Buddhism; The Christian spiritual conquests of Europe which started the “Dark Ages” and led to a subsequent period of brutality unknown on the earth up until then.)
While detractors who pay little attention to my actual arguments will certainly point out that polytheist societies most certainly engaged in wars of conquest and genocide, the point is that such societies did NOT do so for religious reasons. There have been no polytheist holy wars, crusades, or jihads. The Romans, to use one example, conquered for purely commercial and political reasons. Roman society in fact largely left peoples’ native religions alone, so long as the native religious leaders did not instigate rebellion. Roman society might have been hierarchical and crass by today’s standards, but freedom of religion was a paramount right enjoyed by all, even by those, like the Jews and Christians, who had problems living in the Roman system. In fact, the Jews enjoyed a relative period of peace and prosperity in the Roman Empire, despite the Jewish rebellions occurring in Palestine. With the rise of Christianity, the situation was a little different. The Romans at first decided to persecute the Christians, but not because of religious differences. Christians were allowed their worship practices. What Roman society did not accept was a mixture of both Christian proselytizing and expansion and Christian ‘anti-authoritarianism.’ Roman authorities put two and two together and decided to nip the movement in the bud. Once Christian groups demonstrated that they could live within Roman society without preaching civil disobedience, they were largely left alone. (A side note: The Edict of Tolerance which legally allowed Christianity to propagate itself within Rome’s reach also admonished Christians to stop persecuting each other.)3
Despite the history, this argument could have been a moot point had it not been for the revival of polytheism in Western Societies (unless one wanted to include India which is notorious for its strongly polytheistic Hindu practices which have largely remained undisrupted for hundreds of years). The rise of Neo-Paganism in North Western Europe, North America, Australia, and other places has brought this argument to the forefront at least in terms of conflicts with the dominant religions within those areas of the world. Monotheists and the supposed atheist/skeptic people who claim to be unreligious have argued vehemently against the creation or revival of Pagan Polytheist practices. They claim that such practices and approaches are discredited by either Divine Revelation (meaning one of the books) or by Science. Divine revelation means nothing to polytheists who, of course, are not members of faiths where it is thought that the “One God” revealed scriptures or spoke through prophets. And science, or rather ‘scientists’, says nothing, and should say nothing, about the validity of polytheistic approaches.
So where do we go from here with all of this? How does a polytheist stand up and argue for their more tolerant approach to the divine? We can start by focusing on our acceptance of diversity. It reasons that since we accept the existence of more than one god than we are open to the fact that there are many approaches and religions. All of them equally valid to the world. Individuals should have the maximum freedom to make their own choices and pick an approach that fits their temperament.
By fitting of temperament, I don’t mean to suggest that religion or spirituality should be a mental accessory. In light of this we must realize that different approaches appeal to people of different temperaments and life situations. No one should be brow-beaten into submission to a path on which they can not develop. The attitude of “One-Size-Fits-All” religion that is exhibited by more fundamentalist members of monotheist faiths is considered erroneous by polytheists4…indeed, even by some monotheists themselves. It is important to realize that many of the claims and assumptions held by monotheists towards polytheists are wrong. Many of the charges leveled against polytheists, whether true of some of them or not, can likewise be turned around and leveled at monotheists. Often the behaviors that monotheists are critical of are very prevalent within monotheistic faiths.
One of the most common assertions made by monotheists is that polytheism is “idolatry.” By this they usually mean the worship of idols and icons which depict the deity. This is an assertion that is ignorant of what polytheists really do. Just as Christians do not confuse their icons and sacred relics/symbols with their god, but yet treat such icons and relics/symbols with a respectful reverence that are due to objects deemed sacred, polytheists likewise treat their representations of gods and goddesses. Monotheists also tend to ascribe certain powers and energies to the sacred icons, etc. Likewise polytheists. None of this constitutes ‘idolatry’ except in a strict fanatical sense. If idolatry is putting the symbol, representation, or conception of a god (or even another human being) first and then getting fixated upon that to the point where divinity is then placed into a proverbial box, then it can be said that idolatry is more common among monotheists then among polytheists (who by their more diverse approaches tend not to become fixated upon any representations or symbols).
Polytheists are often accused by monotheists of being opportunistic bet-hedgers. Those who are not polytheists see the worship of more than one god as an act of grasping as many straws as possible. This comes from the monotheist assumption that worshipping more than one god is simply the shallow approach of appealing to more than one power in an effort to increase one’s chances. While there may be such opportunists among us polytheists, such people also exist within monotheistic faiths. The polytheist critique of monotheists can follow a similar assumption: monotheists are only loyal to their god because they believe that god to be the most powerful and thus wish to get in on such a being’s good graces. Besides all of that, such arguments are moot since the same amount of shallowness and opportunism is exhibited by people in most religions or spiritual traditions whether mono, poly, or nontheist. It is simply a part of human behavior for good or ill.
There are many things that polytheists do not fall prey to easily. Some of them include fanaticism, dogmatism, unquestioned obedience, and the resulting narrowmindedness. Polytheism also exhibits a healthy respect for human life, as well as the life of other beings, in that, while some gods can be fearsome and all should be respected, none of them demand that human worshippers give up their own identities and remake themselves in the image of deity. This is because polytheism is usually in tandem with a healthy dose of pantheism. Thus we are all thought of as divine beings. Divinity, or whatever makes the gods divine, also is the stuff from which our lives are made.
Polytheism likewise gives rise to a realistic conception of the Cosmos as being one in which there are many centers of activity and concern. The human drama is important to us humans but the multiverse is not anthropocentric in the least. It is important to remember that. Polytheism also contains a synthesis of conceptions. The gods are thought of as both immanent and transcendent. The vast majority of members of monotheistic faiths conceive of their god as being entirely transcendent, thus there is a need for salvation so that human beings too can become transcendent. Polytheism sees this as an error in cognition. We can’t become any more transcendent than we already are….and a focus on transcendence is meaningless outside of the context of immanence. We polytheists are creatures of this earth and of this world. We are happy with this. Since the world is not merely a stage upon which we are tested by a transcendent deity, it is meant to be enjoyed as much as possible. The enjoyment of life is important to polytheists. We hope that people use some intelligence and discernment in their lifestyles, but we understand that enjoyment and celebration is necessary.
Our approach to our many deities is seen as healthy. We can appreciate the fact that many gods exist in their own right, regardless of our favorites. This approach is much like human social life where we interact with more than one person based upon the connections we share. In social life, it would get extremely unhealthy if a person unduly relied too heavily on just one other person. Likewise, the polytheistic conception of our relationships to our gods. This does not mean we cannot favor one over many others (which is called henotheism), but even if a polytheist remains aligned to only one god or goddess throughout their entire life, they still recognize the reality of other gods and accept the fact that other people will worship and align with other gods. This approach is also healthy from a psychological standpoint as it leads a polytheist individual to recognize and accept the fact that what they call their own ‘self’ is an amalgam of many facets, emotions, and aspects. Nothing need be repressed or denied. Thus there is less of a danger of mental or emotional imbalance since there is no “One God” upon which the person projects various hypertrophied parts of themselves.
The polytheistic approach also leads individuals to realize that the multiverse cannot be explained by just one thesis or story. (Such explanations are called monothesisism by Isaac Bonewits.) A polytheist can just as easily slip into henotheism, the worship of one god/dess primarily but not excluding the existence of other gods, nontheism, an approach that doesn’t factor in deities all that much, atheism, either outright denial of the gods or approaching them as psychological archetypes, and/or pantheism, which is the idea that divinity is in everything…simultaneously due to the openness of the polytheistic approach. No one idea or teaching or experience is held to be the final or ultimate arbiter of validity. All ideas have validity. All explanations point to some truth or another. All religious paths are valuable and meaningful in their own right.
For those of us who are living in Western societies, the old gods and goddesses have come back because we yearned for them and relearned that it was okay to invoke them. We are also discovering some new gods and goddesses. The new religious traditions that have revived polytheism are still minority faiths. But those of you who are not polytheists can take heart that even if polytheism ever became the dominant group of approaches to the divine, there will always be more room for all other approaches so long as everyone’s right to freedom of religion is respected and cherished. Polytheism as embodied within the Neo-Pagan subculture has proven itself to be a powerful and vital family of religious traditions that need to be dealt with on their own terms, and not on the terms of the detractors and naysayers who are full of prejudices. Neo-Paganism is now becoming a “third generation” movement, so it is clearly not a fad. And it won’t be going away. So those of you from monotheistic religions had better get used to the idea that we exist and have as much a right to worship our gods and goddesses and to celebrate our lives as the rest of you.
-Irreverend Hugh, KSC
May 9th, 2005
revision May 19th, 2005
1 “Abrahamic” refers to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism; so called because they trace their roots to the legendary Abraham in the Old Testament. I use these as examples of Monotheism since they are what I and most of you would be familiar with. I could have mentioned Zoroasterism, but I am mostly ignorant of that religion. Some people might claim the Isis cult, which throughout the Roman Empire was about as popular as Christianity when the latter was legally recognized, to be an example of monotheism. But the Isis cult and other Pagan examples of worshipping ‘one god’ could be more correctly thought of as “henotheistic.” Also, the Pagan henotheist cults recognized the validity and existence of other deities.
2 Buddhism being largely non-theistic at heart. The Buddhist idea of spiritual evolution focuses on individual beings and their journeys throughout lifetimes. It says nothing about the evolution of ideas. Buddhism has nothing akin to ‘revelations’ or ‘special times’ when people are to be more inherently spiritually aware. The works of Ken Wilber seem like a ‘forced interpretation’ when seen in this light.
3 The name of the edict or decree varies. It can also be called the “Decree of Universal Toleration.” It was released in 313 CE and is considered the crowning achievement of what was up to then an unrecognized and often persecuted religious movement. It should be noted that three years later, the decree was revoked at the suggestion of politically powerful Christians, and the Roman State colluded with them to persecute Christian heretics. In 392, Emperor Theodosius outlawed Pagan religious practices, and in 435 the death penalty was instituted as a punishment for practicing Pagan religions. The tone was set for the next several centuries of European history.
4 It should be noted that the “One-Size-Fits-All” ideology is also infecting some very sincere but misguided members of the Neo-Pagan movement. This could be considered a vestigial holdover in individuals raised up in religions which exhibited “One Truth, True Faith, One Way” tendencies. Such people could be said to still be in a semi or pseudo-Pagan mindset in which their childhood religious approaches are still strong, albeit now with some Pagan names and terms splashed across their minds. Perhaps such people should learn to experience polytheism first hand.
This article published by the DSSS/PMM, ©2005. All Rights Reserved by Author. Permission to share, copy, or save is granted provided this notice is included and the text is left intact. Permission secured by Daven’s Journal to reproduce these articles here.