On Polytheism: Thoughts and Clarifications

To say my last post caused a bit of a stir is something of an understatement.  I had expected it might garner more response than my previous posts to that point, but I underestimated the extent to which it would be shared, commented upon and otherwise discussed.  What I’ve noticed, though, is that there were a few misunderstandings of my position, which I would like to clarify; moreover, I would like to address the elephant in the room that is polytheism itself.

The “Dying Paganism” Dustup

I’d be remiss to leave out some remarks on the veritable comment-war that was spawned by my previous post, but I mean to keep it short.  I know that John Halstead, at least, has been writing quite frequently over the last week about his thoughts coming out of that discussion, but mine are somewhat simpler and more concise.

The fact is that I’ve elicited some rather reactionary statements regarding my assertion that paganism’s big tent isn’t quite big enough to encompass atheo-paganism.  Beyond that, people have taken that statement, combined with my first blog entry wherein I argued that paganism cannot simply be defined under the banner of “earth based religion,” and concluded that I am arguing that only reconstructionists can be truly considered pagan.  I want to emphasize the fact that this is not the case.  Others have accused me of advocating for ethnic-focused folkways of all things, or simply of being a dogmatic fundamentalist.  I likewise am not taking either of those positions.

I have argued that paganism may be best defined as religious revivals inspired by or reacreating the pre-Christian religions of Europe, North Africa and the Ancient Near East.  This is not to say that I believe that other polytheistic traditions or folk religions must be barred from pagan spaces, rather, I believe it is improper to extend paganism (as so many do) to extant African, Asian, American and other religious traditions that have persisted through conversion efforts and that do not typically self-identify as pagan.  I have seen a great many pagans over the years attempt to bring Shinto or Hinduism into the fold to add legitimacy to the pagan movement, only to see native practitioners of those faiths recoil from the conflation because they regard the “pagan” brand as a derogatory term imposed by outsiders.

Since it must be stated, given a few insinuations that have been made about me, I do not believe that one should or must follow the religious traditions of their ancestors.  This should be a given, considering my Kemetic practice; I am by no stretch of the imagination Egyptian.  Still, I feel that I must clarify, as much of my time in heathen communities has been spent pushing back against racist ideas and individuals.

I am also not advocating for a wave of dogmatic rigidity in paganism.  I, myself, am not even a very strict reconstructionist.  Rather, I am calling for a more careful consideration of the role that rules, guidelines and distinct definitions can play before they are dismissed as dogma.  It is no secret that pagans, myself included, can be highly reactionary, and often that reactionary attitude is directed at perceived Christian or other Abrahamic concepts being imported into the pagan community.  Oftentimes, these are simply religious concepts more broadly, that apply far beyond the bounds of Abrahamic faiths, and they should not be quickly dismissed.  This brings me into the discussion of polytheism, its nature, and its place in paganism and the broader religious world.

Polytheism: A Theological Outlier

The most simple statement that I can make about polytheism, leading into this discussion, is that it is alien.  It is alien to our modern reckoning in a post-Christian society, a culture that even for those outside of churches or synagogues or mosques is still entirely dominated by the terminology and concepts of Christianity and monotheism.  I am not here to lament that fact, so much as I am laying it as a foundation upon which the rest of this argument must be built.  It is a simple fact of our reality, and it’s something that polytheists in the west are forced to cope with in building their traditions, their faiths, and their understanding of their gods.

It’s nearly a trope in heathen communities at this point that one of the first things that a newly interested, prospective heathen must begin to address is the issue of worldview.  Worldview is something so deeply engrained in most of us that we don’t actually think about it; it’s instinctive, it’s rooted in our psyche and our entire perception of the world, morality, and reason is encompassed by it.  And in the West, the prevailing, natural and neutral worldview is Christian, in America specifically, it is Protestant.

Even those who have scarcely or never at all attended a church, those who are not Christian and have never been Christian, have still developed a worldview steeped in a Christianized overculture.  The way we define the world tends to be in Christian terms, and this is overwhelmingly evident in New Atheism, which oftentimes only manages to be an outward rejection of the aesthetics of Christianity and a doubling down on the dualistic nature of that religion.

Likewise, newcomers to paganism tend to define things foremost in Christian terms; their idea of what a god is, for example, or their basic conception of morality, notions of humility or understanding of the afterlife.  Indeed, some pagan traditions like Wicca are deeply influenced by Christian thought; this isn’t so much a criticism as a reality born of the influences Gardner drew on and was inspired by in its creation.  Much of modern Druidry (particularly groups like and OBOD and unaligned but self-identifying druids, notably excepting ADF) is influenced heavily by Christian thinking as well, due to its roots in the Romantic period and the nature-centric movements that grew out of it.

That is not to say that Druidry or Wicca are less pagan than polytheist traditions, or reconstructionist traditions, which it should be stated, are not always the same thing.  Rather, they are simply different, other traditions under the same umbrella, not necessarily adversarial.  Due to their prevalence, however, there is often a sense of ‘competition’ between polytheists and other pagans, simply because polytheists are far fewer in number than more traditional Wiccans and Druids, particularly when examining any single polytheistic tradition, and even more when one looks beyond heathenry.

Because of this outlier status, polytheists often come off as abrasive (and I am not blind to the fact that I am abrasive, personally) in their desire to be heard.  Most of us do not see ourselves so much as victims, simply as a population who must make ourselves visible in order to raise an awareness of our position, of our traditions and of our particular brand of faith.  I, and of course, a number of others, can be combative at times in defense of polytheism, because it is in constant danger of being diluted or overshadowed, and because the natural inclination is to do as other polytheists in America have done and effectively apologize for our aberrant position, to whitewash it until it is more safely compatible with the prevailing views.

I, for one, will not apologize for being a polytheist, or submit to the degradation inherent in homogenizing myself with monotheistic thought.  That does not mean that I am hostile to duotheistic, pantheistic or panentheistic pagans, by any stretch.  It simply means that when there are calls for unity in that all-too-familiar interfaith tone of “Well, we all ultimately believe in the same [God, power, etc.],” I am left with no choice but to stand up and say “No.”

Which once more leads me to the last, and the least compromising part of this post.

Atheo-Paganism

If I’ve made no secret of my position on paganism being defined as unilaterally “nature-centric” or “earth-based,” then I’ve sounded a veritable tornado siren announcing my disapproval of atheism-in-paganism.  I continue to stand by that, and I will continue to stand by that so long as the most prominent voices of atheo-paganism are individuals like John Halstead and Mark Green, who have spent the better part of a week mocking theists as backwards primitives on social media and in comment sections.

The unique issue of atheism is that it is fundamentally hostile to religious expression.  It is disdainful of those of us who have faith, and it seeks to rationalize and apologize for the allegedly “ignorant” in the pagan community.  Because I believe paganism must stop apologizing for itself, I also believe it’s imperative that it be distanced from ideologies that undermine its very integrity as a religious movement.

I understand that one of the defining aspects of paganism is tolerance, but I also cannot tolerate those who would dismiss theists (of any sort) as incapable of rationality.  I believe it does us no favors as a group of religious minorities to lay a welcome mat for those who are deeply hostile to concepts that are integral to paganism, whether exoteric theistic ritual or the esoteric pursuits often favored in Wiccan and Eclectic circles.  My hope is that paganism will continue to grow and thrive; my assertion that it isn’t dying was meant to be an optimistic one.  I simply don’t believe that it can do so while harboring individuals who would rather it stagnate that they may feel accommodated, than to let it outgrow them.

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3 Responses to On Polytheism: Thoughts and Clarifications

  1. thank you for your clarification. the highlight was “the unique issue of atheism is that it is fundamentally hostile to religious expression.”
    char

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  2. helmsinepu says:

    The Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS) started a re-visioning survey process recently. They’ve used the phrase “Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.”, but it looks like they’re finally going to outgrow this narrow definition. 27% of respondents ID’d as some form of polytheist, About 60% see Gods or spirits as independent beings. And those numbers are despite the exclusive ‘nature-based’ language in their publications, which probably serves as a “you are not welcome here” sign.

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  3. Nicholas says:

    “The unique issue of atheism is that it is fundamentally hostile to religious expression. It is disdainful of those of us who have faith…”

    No. You are confusing atheism with anti-theism, two positions which are not synonymous. The former is simply a lack of belief in a god, the latter an opposition to religion. You can have a god-belief without religion, and a religion without god-belief. Furthermore, you’ll find many (I’d argue most) atheists are not anti-theistic, and in fact will support your right to religious expression without a single upturned nose. For us, super-naturalism just isn’t our cup of tea. Why so many atheists seem so opposed to religion is that, particularly in the West – and especially here in the US – religion tends to be of the Christian variety, and there “free expression” thereof tends to come in the form of, “let’s change the laws to inflict our religion on everyone”. You can see where we’d be vocally opposed to that. Yet we tend to forget not all religion is the same, unfortunately.

    I don’t understand all this gate-keeping. We aren’t holding back the growth of Paganism; we’re taking part in its evolution. You might not like it, but tough cookies. You do you, we’ll do us, and if every so often we get together in a circle or whatever and celebrate our commonalities, the sky isn’t going to fall for not sharing orthodoxy.

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