Polytheism Is A Party Where Everyone Is Invited

Religion is only a sensitive topic if you see religion as inviolable. It’s always a fun (and fulfilling topic) to talk about, if you ask me. Polytheists do it all the time!

“Gurl, your Athena statue needs a new peplos. That one looks so 2016.”

“Dude, Ogun seems to like rhum. I wonder if Hephaistos would, too.”

“This year’s Durga Maa murti is rocking that crimson saree, YAAAS!”

When two polytheistic cultures meet, they compare (and often also share) their gods and traditions. It’s more about commerce than it is about competition—inclusion, not exclusion. That all religions are at each other’s throats cannot be farther from the truth in polytheism. There’s never an argument about whose god is true or false because they’re all true. Obviously. Plurality and multiplicity echo throughout the cosmos and this is evident in polytheist thought.

“Y’all should worship the One True Thor—YOUR ZEUS IS FALSE!” … said no polytheist ever. “There is no jealousy in the divine chorus”, as Plato put it.


Krishna worships Shiva with no issues. Olympians pray to other Olympians. It’s called polytheism.

Now, it doesn’t take a genius to know which religions have been the exact opposite of everything above. But that’s not for here.



Soft and Hard Monotheism?

Is it possible to have a monotheism that doesn’t reject other gods as false? But that wouldn’t be truly monotheistic. Is it possible to have a monotheism that focuses on an all-loving, compassionate power? But that wouldn’t be truly monotheistic. Monist, maybe, or henotheist, but never truly monotheistic.

One might say that all monotheism is radical; it isn’t truly monotheism if it doesn’t espouse a belief in an exclusive, singular supreme power that is ultimately tyrannical and controlling.

I live in the largest Catholic enclave in Asia and I’m thankful that most of these same Catholics aren’t taking their monotheism seriously. Because, honestly, the truly monotheistic ones would be extremely difficult to deal with.

I think that needs to be said.

Absolute Anti-theism Is ‘Racism’

Ever experienced being told that you’re crazy because one of your relatives is? Or having your family name associated with that crazy relative’s craziness as if one relative’s actions represented the collective character of the family?

What about being profiled as a mugger, a lazy worker, or a parasitic immigrant because you’re the same colour or eye shape as that mugger, lazy worker, or parasitic immigrant from the other side of town?

That’s how it feels when anti-theists throw around the word ‘religion’ when they mean a specific religion (often, Christianity or Islam) or a specific strain of religion within that specific religion (like Evangelical Protestants or Wahhabists).

Easier to do, but not smarter. It’s truly offensive, too.

Religion is such an old, vast, and diverse thing to ever compress into one definition or characteristic. This isn’t an ideal — this is thousands of years of actual history. Which is why it seems extremely racist (to borrow the term with good reason) to group a good chunk of the world’s population into one basket, as if they were all the same.

And that’s really how a lot of anti-theists seem to see the religious in their repetitive, impassioned memes: that religious people are a monolith; a cohesive group of delusional, backward bigots holding the world back from science, reason, and progress.

But on what basis?

There’s also the matter of shrugging off the decline of ancient religions as if it were a matter of “progress”.

This Halloween, Hemant Mehta, an otherwise Friendly Atheist, yet again, praised the annual anti-theistic stunt of UW-Madison’s atheist group on his blog:

As they do every year, the Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison put together a fantastic “Graveyard of the Gods,” reminding students of all the deities who were worshiped, believed in, and eventually forgotten.

The purpose is to get students thinking about when their God will join the ranks of the dead.

“Fantastic”? But this isn’t a matter of critical enquiry, at all. It’s not that it bothers me what these kids believe about the old gods. It’s because the graveyard, essentially, is an endorsement of cultural genocide, no different from building a monument to Christopher Columbus.

Basically, how this sounds like is, “These cultures are dead and you’re next”. But since these cultures didn’t die of “natural causes” or “old age”, this isn’t a reminder of mortality — it’s a threat. We know from history that most of those religions “died” and their gods “forgotten” because of coercion, not for simply falling out of favour.

Now, I understand how they want to “help” monotheists see how ridiculous it is to question other religions but not theirs. I think that’s important. However, this graveyard stunt (and others like it) comes off as historically and culturally uninformed. There are countless accounts of pagan peoples fighting for their right to exist in an increasingly pagan-hostile society, ultimately losing because the enemy had more money for a bigger army. In some places, it still happens.

Imagine future generations, talking about how there are no more Jews because their ancestors simply saw their culture useless and assimilated happily into the Reich. Or how Native American culture is vanishing because everybody decided it was so much better to join the White Man.

This kind of thinking doesn’t question monotheism’s absolutist claims as effectively as it could and should because these anti-theist attacks are still Eurocentric–still monoculture-centric. By using the same absolutist language the Wahhabists and Evangelicals use, power remains with the powerful. Putting up this sort of graveyard only adds insult to injury and only supports the same hegemony we’ve all been trying to defeat.

Polytheist, Lily A. Connor, laments on her Facebook:

[…] blanket antitheist rhetoric – deities are “imaginary friends,” using the language of psych disability for religion (“delusions” etc) – doesn’t hurt Christian institutional power or hegemony. It doesn’t weaken abusive religious orgs.

It does, however, hurt people like me – practitioners of stigmatized minority religions. Some of that religious abuse and stalking was on the basis of my religion, and from my position, there’s not much difference when atheists and fundamentalists use the same arguments to dismiss me.

[…] I wish y’all would approach atheism like I approach vegetarianism – do your thing, but don’t be an ass, and go out of your way not to accidentally marginalize already-marginalized people. Discrimination is real and collateral damage is still damage, y’all.

Because if you’re against racism, racial profiling, and stereotyping, maybe you should be against absolute anti-theism, too. After all, there are so much better, more informed ways to critique religion.


On Science, Religion, and Dualism


Tired of the usual science vs religion rubbish? Hear Cosima Herter out:

Although she’s an atheist, Herter is especially critical of the science-religion duality that’s emerged in Western culture. “That they are somehow two different magisterial domains that can’t cross each other is just so fundamentally untrue.” Many early scientific practices emerged from religion, and even now “many, many scientists also have deep-seated beliefs, right? Some things they are driven to look for and to contemplate and investigate come out of these kinds of questions, like ‘what does it mean to be you?” She understands the issues, “especially as somebody who is not religious, who is very much an atheist. At the end of the day I will put my faith in science more than I will put my faith in god, but I will also recognize that it doesn’t have all the answers.”

Religion has, as its critics say, wrought intolerance and violence, but “we are equally and often as oppressed and exploited and done violence to by science. We forget that anything that we give explicit and uncontrollable authority to has a power to be oppressive and violent and is often used for these purposes. Science is not neutral and we endow it with authority by calling something that is science neutral because then you give it a power to be whatever anybody wants it to be. You’ve invested it with its own supernatural status.”

I agreed. “The thing that fascinates me as a complete layperson about science,” I said, “is that the moment a scientific concept turns out to be untrue, it is no longer science. So science has a built-in way of sidestepping accountability for mistakes made in its name.”

At the same time as she’s disturbed by the cult of science, though, she’s also exasperated and troubled by cartoonish depictions of scientists. “As either heroic geniuses or conspirators in an evil plan?” I asked. “Or clinically almost Asperger’s-objective, have no personality, removed from everything. Yeah,” she said. “It’s not just about depictions of scientists— it’s about tropes, the lowest common denominator tropes. If you just think about your own self, you’re pretty multifaceted and you’re pretty complicated and it’s not always easy to determine what your own motivations are for things. It’s like saying all priests are pedophiles, right? That’s just an outrageous thing to say, completely irrational. And it’s offensive to people who are scientists.” She mentioned James Watson. “He was all of these things [people say], racist, misogynistic, classist, selfish, but [the] four or five million dollars that he just made from his Nobel sale, his Nobel award, he wants to set up scholarships for this, he wants to endow this institute with that. Do you know what I mean? People are complicated.”

A Case for Beneficent Religion

There is religion that is opposed to science, modernity, and reason — a religion that pretends and insists to know everything about the cosmos. It is a religion of authority and exclusivity; it is arrogant and tyrannical and ever jealous. It is a religion of fear and shame; of indescribable cruelty to the human spirit.

I understand how some have been driven to recant it. What could be more reasonable than to reject this plague?

But there is religion that is not any of these. It is a religion of life, this life, and is a celebration of the world’s many wondrous beauties, the fair and the terrible. It adapts and evolves, according to nature, forming many hues and shapes and forms according to each place and time and people. And it isn’t new.

Should this type of religion be recanted, too?

Some have suggested that religion is the cause of all of our woes as a race. They aren’t entirely wrong on this, but they are still mistaken. Religion isn’t a monolith any more than, say, food is. We can’t talk about it in any meaningful, intelligent way without addressing the complexities.

We musn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, as they say — especially when there are so many different babies you don’t even know about.

An Imaginary Dialogue Between Atheism & Polytheism

I’m jumping on the bandwagon: it’s #ThrowbackThursday! (It’s unclickable, don’t bother.)

A while ago in 2008, when the Neokoroi mailing list was bustling with people, I shared an online conversation I had with an atheist colleague with the group. Soon, a couple more polytheists added their responses, and so Brandon thought that it might make for an interesting article. He made a somewhat imaginary conference between the atheist, himself, and another Hellenist, and posted it over his blog.

Much has changed after 6 years, of course. Brandon now identifies as a fully naturalistic pagan and Todd is, well … I don’t exactly know what Todd is right now, to be honest. Regardless, the message still applies: polytheism is a lot more than having “many gods”; it’s having a radically different mindset towards the world, and it’s unfortunate that its voice isn’t heard as often as it should.

I’m also brewing a more updated article, but for now, enjoy below’s re-post (with some of my own ideas added):

A reconstruction of the east pediment of the Parthenon

A reconstruction of the east pediment of the Parthenon

The Atheist Interviews Todd Jackson, Brandon in Japan (and Aldrin)

(a somewhat imaginary conversation)

Atheist – Thanks for taking the time to speak about your polytheism. Honestly, I really have no idea what your beliefs are and how it is different from traditional theism.

Brandon – I’ll try to answer as best I can, speaking only for myself, of course.

Aldrin – I’m assuming that your idea of “traditional theism” is Abrahamic monotheism; theism of that sort and traditional polytheism couldn’t be any more different from each other. Although both “theistic” by name, their definitions of theos (god) are in stark contrast with each other: each views the concept of divinity in a radically different light.

For one, polytheistic deities are (usually) not omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent–or omni-anything, really. And they don’t have to be. Hitchens and company are right to criticise the idea of an omni-deity: it is neither sensible nor particularly useful to us. This makes the ‘problem of evil‘ mostly a monotheistic question.

Atheist – If you could elaborate on your belief… Like your version of the Nicene creed.

Todd – This isn’t a credal religion. Hellenismos varied from city to city, and from era to era, over at least hundreds of cities and 1500 years. This creates a need for experience, for experiment. Instead of creed, Hellenismos has philosophy, myth, and prophecy – each of which requires interpretation. This process is the prehistory of modern science.

Brandon – Yes, as Todd said, it’s not a credal religion. It’s an orthopraxy (emphasis on practice) rather than an orthodoxy (emphasis on belief). I work with my gods, rather than believing in them per se. Let me explain that a bit:

For me there’s a crucial difference between “believing in” and “working with” the gods. Strictly speaking, I don’t believe in the gods, I suspend disbelief. Then I work with them as if they were distinct, real-existing entities, just seeing what happens. Philosophically this view is called Pyrrhonian Skepticism: in the absence of compelling evidence for or against a claim, the rational thing to do is suspend belief either way, and carry on in a spirit of inquiry.

I find that polytheism provokes a powerful response in me. Perhaps it is psychological, perhaps not. Whatever it is, it provokes a clearer and more compelling response than henotheism, duotheism, monotheism, etc. Being able to address a deity as a distinct, unique being in the world, not unlike a person, accesses something very basic and primitive. Call it anthropomorphism and I won’t argue. It may very well be. At any rate, as a result, more of my being is stimulated in ritual. It just comes more natural, and provokes a more holistic response. And it allows for a more steady, grounded focus.

But again, that’s just my belief, and I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily prevalent among the majority of polytheists.

Atheist – Are your gods sentient? Influence the earth today? Answer prayers? Make themselves known to men and women?

Todd – Yes, yes, yes and yes.

Brandon – I work with them that way, yes.

Atheist – What makes you think they exist instead of say, the Hindu gods?

Todd – You’re expressing this in Abrahamic formulas. The ancients, whether Hellenic, Egyptian, Indian or other, did not understand themselves as “following different religions” or even, necessarily following different Gods. It was always understood that the God spoken of as Dionysos in Hellas might be known under other names elsewhere.

And it was always understood that when one experiences the presence of a God and names that God Apollon, one is being only relatively accurate; the Gods cannot be fully known. So that Hellenismos means not yielding to a dogma – on faith – but walking into a vocabulary, inserting oneself into that vocabulary.

Brandon – And exclusivity is not implied. Just because the Greek gods exist, it doesn’t mean other gods don’t. Furthermore, we are not duty-bound to worship gods just because they exist. Quite to the contrary, we worship the ones that call to us, or that we feel called toward, and that we establish a relationship with. So even though we worship Greek gods, we don’t have to also worship Hindu gods, Chinese gods, and so forth.

The precise relationships between gods of different peoples gets complicated. All kinds of theories have been proposed through the ages, and in the end it comes down to your personal interpretation. As Todd said, some ancient Greeks–though not all–were inclined to believe that foreign gods might be the same Greek gods worshipped under different names. Other polytheists, such as the Egyptians, saw god-names as able to be combined and separated somehow, sometimes worshipped as Amon-Ra, other times as Amon and Ra. So, it’s complicated enough just comparing different polytheistic traditions. If you throw monotheist traditions in there too, where some traditions are making mutually exclusive claims, then it really gets fun.

Atheist – Are they still gods in the traditional sense then?

Brandon – That depends what the traditional sense is, I suppose. If that means classical monotheism, where gods are characterized by omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience, then no they are not that way. If the traditional sense just means real-existing beings, in some respect outside the self, rather than some manner of allegory or archetypal expression wholly within the self, then yes, they are gods in that sense.

Atheist – Is it deistic?

Brandon – Again, that depends on the meaning of deistic.

If deistic just means theism again, i.e. divine beings really existing, as opposed to an atheistic or agnostic or other view, then yes, they are deistic.

If deistic means deism, i.e. a divine creator that does not interfere in the laws of nature, then no, they are not deistic. Mythically speaking, polytheist gods may or may not have created the world (in many traditions they just gave it its current order). They do act in the world. “Interfere” would be an unfair word though. IMO they are part of the world, not unlike us. They don’t stand outside of nature, like a divine watchmaker. They grow out of it, just as we do. And when they act, they act through the laws of nature, not against them. For just about any phenomenon that a polytheist might express in divine terms, there can likely be found a “natural” or “scientific” explanation, without reference to deity. The difference IMO is what happens to the polytheist as a result of his/her working with divine terms–the “powerful response” mentioned above. This, in polytheist terms, is a divine blessing received, the power of communion.

There may be those who believe in miracles in the strong sense, as the impossible happening, divine will as against the laws of nature. But I know nothing of that. I speak for myself.

Atheist – Well, thank you for your opinions.

Brandon – Hope that helps.

Todd – In the Gods.

Aldrin – Thanks for having us.

Blessed Are the Lupine-Lovers

If you haven’t yet, better head out to Aedicula Antinoi. Phillupus has written some pretty cool stuff (as always).

The first one is about atheists:

The present post is, in certain respects, an attempt at a more clear-headed elaboration on another post I did last month, which itself was a response to this. Another polytheist colleague wrote this post, which had some of the most appalling and inexcusable comments I’ve seen in a long time on it; but, they got me thinking about a variety of matters.

Then, the following post was made at The Wild Hunt on atheist appropriations of Winter Solstice, Saturnalia, and other matters, and the present post seemed all the more relevant and urgent.

I assume, because of the claims that many atheists make, that you are open to reasoned discussion, and are on the whole an intelligent lot of people. I go into the present excursus not expecting to “convert” any of you away from your own positions in regards to theological matters; I merely write the present hoping that you might come away from it more informed, and thus more likely to make better-informed decisions on certain matters in the future.

The second is about Wiccans speaking for all modern pagans:

This particular post was initially inspired by a round-up post on The Wild Hunt, which had quite a conversation in the comments about what I’m going to discuss here. The round-up post featured a link to Don Frew’s article “The Rudiments of Neopagan Spiritual Practice.”

Not long after that occurred, I read a post on Wiccanate Privilege by Rúadhán McElroy, and then shortly after that, via further links on The Wild Hunt, I read Melissa Harrington’s essay on the dangers of conflating different pagan traditions together. Both of these address the problem I’m going to speak about here, without actually dealing directly with Frew’s article; nonetheless, it was timely that all of these things appeared at about the same moment.

Something that non-Wiccan modern pagans and polytheists have been fighting to have realized, tooth and nail, on a wider scale for decades now is that “while all Wiccans are pagan, not all pagans are Wiccan,” and similar viewpoints which challenge the notion that Wicca is pretty much the lingua franca and “universal” modern pagan methodology.

And the third one is about Shinto:

There are huge and complex issues involved here, one of which is what I refer to–and not dismissively, I hope–in my subject line above as the “Shinto-y slope argument,” namely that this restoration of knowledge about Shinto as an integral part of Japanese culture in public education leading to the same atrocities more widely associated with World War II, fascism, and the like in a manner that pretty much amounts to a“slippery slope” argument–and, no matter how commonly employed such arguments are, they are still considered logical fallacies.

I know they’re quite lengthy, but I swear, they’re all worth it.

husky descartes