Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Polytheism is on the fringes. Really, Apparently we don't actually exist...

Ah the convenience (and fun) of "Google news searches". The things you learn from it can be, if nothing else, rather amusing. Like the folks who seem to talk about "polytheism" more than anyone else are Muslims. Or that there is a baseball player named "Angel Pagan"? Sometimes though, you get some decent hits back, and this is one example.

"Texas faith Blog: "Do you think monotheism a superior form of religious belief? If so, why? If not, why not?""
It was preceded by the following blurb:

"The three Abrahamic faiths are known for being monotheistic religions. They worship one Deity, even though they may leave room for several concepts of the Divine. For example, Christians believe in the Trinity.

But other faiths aren't monotheistic. They allow for more than one god. As Texas Faith panelist Amy Martin wrote in an email:
"If you ask a Hindu if they are monotheistic, they will acknowledge the all-encompassing nature of the Brahma and say that all theisr gods and goddesses are simply aspects of that godhead. Even pagans say the same thing. The spiritual-not-religious, like Buddhists, posit an all-is-one divine energy, but do not define it as God."

Over time, these concepts have shaped traditions, cultures and even nations. So, for this week I'd like to hear your answer to this question"
The question posted above was asked by William Mackenzie for the religion blog on the Dallas Morning News web site, to a large number of priests, religious scholars, writers and representatives from around Texas. I say large number, because calling them assorted would be untrue. The respondents are overwhelmingly Christian, then monotheist, then pantheist, then monist. Even the token alt-spirituality panelist is at best a pantheist. Was it so difficult to find an actual polytheist? Are we so few in number that we can not be reached for comment? Well, there may be something to that last question actually. However, I'll touch on that a bit later.

The responses are precisely what I expected they would be. "Yes, monotheism is superior, though we don't like the word "superior", how about this, monotheism is true. Period. Oh, okay, here is every rehashed apologetic argument for the existence of a single, all powerful deity..." I'm not surprised, just disappointed really.

I'm beginning to sound like a broken record here, lamenting the fact that polytheism in theological discussions never gets a fair shake, is marginalized and when spoken about is relegated to a passing curiosity of some primitive people.But when it happens over, and over and over again, and when one's focus is on polytheistic issues, this si what I've got to work with.

So, the arguments. They range from the typical, "revealed through scriptures", "revealed through reason", "the unity in nature" to the really odd: "I'm not a theist... but there is a supreme... energy", "polytheists were monotheists in practical engagement" and my personal favourite, "Paganism, Shintoism, Native Americans and other indigenous faiths, and many more paths often described as polytheistic, have at their core an acknowledgement of the one God." I'll address each in measure.

"Revealed through scripture": This is probably the most common argument I've come across when discussing theological matters with monotheists of all stripes. The simple fact of the matter is that different sources say different things, and the only significance of any given source is whether you afford it a special position in comparison to other texts. For those who do not afford a given text that special place, it is just another book. This isn't going to convince someone who doesn't already agree with you. It also depends largely on the hermeneutics one applies to the understanding of a given text. The reconciliation between the OT and NT, for example, is one which is still not really resolved. Instead, it relies largely on what amounts to a Christian retcon (that is, for those not familiar with the geek aphorism, retroactive continuity), where established aspects of a given narrative are displaced, reinterpreted, or removed in order to fit in with a new continuity.

"Revealed through reason": This is a little more theological and philosophical in its scope, and arguments have raged for the reason based belief in a single omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent (and very often omnibenevolent) deity, for centuries. Of course, this flies in the face of theological issues which have yet to be adequately addressed, the problem of evil chief among them. There are other problematic aspects of this as well, which ties into the "unified whole" that would be impossible under the behest of competing forces. Which flies in the face of human history when one thinks about it. Humans have been in conflict for as long as there have been humans (and perhaps even longer), yet the world none the less exists, human civilizations rise, flourish and fall, and yet different interests continue to exist, humanity continues to exist despite this "chaos", and so to does the universe continue to run along, despite the fact that there are any number of different "forces" at work. Such issues, and others are adequately addressed in Greer's "World Full of gods" which argues rather convincingly that such arguments are based less on reason than worldview. I could rehash those arguments here, but for now I'd rather not.

"Polytheists were monotheists in practice": This was at first an odd, and then ridiculous claim. It is far more telling of the ignorance of the commenter on the nature of polytheism, than it is about the superiority of monotheism. The essential argument is that even, so called, polytheists were in fact really monotheists. Has this guy ever read anything about the ancient religions of most of the world? His point about "practical monotheism" states that when a given polytheist would invoke a deity, they chose one based on the area of influence. In such a case, the polytheists were invoking only a single god or goddess, which meant that in practice, one dealt with gods on an one to one basis, practical monotheism. It is baffling, to say the least and hilarious when one thinks of the logical end of such a view. So polyamorists are really monogamous, because they have sex with one person at a time, regardless of the fact that they have multiple partners? I'd chock it up to simple ignorance of what the differences between polytheism and monotheism are. Aside from the contradiction in terms, there is also the issue of invoking "the gods", or invoking multiple deities simultaneously.

I'll be spending a little more time on the last comment, because it really gets my dander up. I can not comment on whether or not Martin is a self identified Pagan. Her website is in essence a new age/ pluralistic one, but specific aspects of theology are lacking, at least without access to the news archives. Though she is guilty of the "Paganism" states X fallacy which so many fall into when speaking to non-Pagans about Pagan beliefs. Judging from her statements, though, I would wager she falls into the pantheistic/monist camp. To be fair, there are a vocal (if not large) number of self described Pagans who do believe in the concept of a unified godhead, or the "one diamond, many facets" theology. Unfortunately, not all who identify as Pagan do. You'd never know that though, which is why the aforementioned statement falls into the aforementioned fallacy. A little tweaking could have placed the comment in context, instead of a sweeping proclamation of belief. However, this strikes me of someone who isn't just generalizing, but wholly glosses over the very idea that there are actually polytheists out there. Towards the beginning of the article, there is a quote from Martin:

"Paganism, Shintoism, Native Americans and other indigenous faiths, and many more paths often described as polytheistic, have at their core an acknowledgement of the one God. Hinduism, the most polytheistic of faith paths with phantasmagorical gods and goddesses, exalts Brahmin, the one God who is vast and beyond capability of the human mind to understand.
In these allegedly poly paths, the myriad aspects of the one God are articulated in the forms of gods and goddesses, who are like us but not like us. Giving these aspects of God unique identities, with songs and stories and temples attached, enables people to have personal relationship with the divine."
What the quote does is reinforce the idea that even those kooky Pagans (who since Martin is the only one who mentions them, becomes the representative of) don't actually believe in polytheism. So the real question ought to have been "How many monotheists does it take to tear down a straw-man?" There isn't a single argument for polytheism in the whole bunch, where polytheism is mentioned it is either treated as a throwback to primitive superstition or something which doesn't actually exist among theists today. So even those Pagans, the folks who identify themselves by a term derived from a pejorative label for those who continued to practice pre-Christian, POLYTHEISTIC beliefs, even they have moved on from that silly polytheism. I can not remember the last time I felt such rage at being marginalized, and I'm an outspoken polytheist who works for a Catholic funeral home.


So then, this whole exercise begs the question, where are all the polytheists at? Are we so numerically insignificant, or so illusive, that we cannot even be found for a comment for which we may actually have something to say? Are there just no polytheists in the Dallas/Austin area? Perhaps there are no established groups of polytheists who were available for comment? Maybe local polytheists don't read the Dallas Morning News religious blog?

I mentioned it before, but this whole exercise begs the question, why was this question actually asked in the first place? If there were no polytheists for comment, it makes sense that a polytheist wasn't there to ask the question to begin with. So what would be the motivation for Mackenzie to even ask such a question? The knowledge that some people said that other people may worship more than a single god, even if that god is actually a facet of the "One True God"?

What this does illustrate, however, is why I get so excited when I find books like "God Against the Gods". Not only do such works actually look at polytheism, they place it as a legitimate way to understand divinity; at least as reasonable as other such theological perspectives as the more familiar monotheism, atheism and pantheism. It also illustrates that just because polytheism may actually be discussed in an article, it doesn't mean that anyone who participates knows diddly squat about it.


  1. Been there, too! I read a book on Interfaith Dialogue, written by someone who has experience on the field, but who's also a Catholic priest. And one of his arguments was that there really are no polytheistic religions, only monotheistic and monistic.
    It's the consequence of centuries of philosophical tradition where religion is discussed as a synonym for Christianity, revealed truth (seen as a sign of superiority) and God. And it’s also an easy way for exclusivist and orthodox faiths to handle the idea of dealing well with what they see as their competition: it has to be all the same thing. Otherwise, it's unbearable for them.

  2. Thanks for an eye-opening article!

    Why this determination to explain true polytheism away? Does the addition of another theological view point make things too complicated for the hard working theologians out there?

    I find their viewpoint baffling!