Unpacking Our Monotheistic Baggage

God-by-Monty-Python

The intolerance of narrow monotheism is written in letters of blood across the history of man from the time when first the tribes of Israel burst into the land of Canaan. The worshipers of the one jealous God are egged on to aggressive wars against people of alien cults. They invoke divine sanction for the cruelties inflicted on the conquered. The spirit of old Israel is inherited by Christianity and Islam, and it might not be unreasonable to suggest that it would have been better for Western civilization if Greece had molded it on this question rather than Palestine.    – Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

We are a new movement.  Despite claims of ancient lineages and unbroken traditions, the Pagan movement is in its infancy.   Most of us that fall under the problematic umbrella of Pagan are first generation pagans, coming to this collection of paths from a variety of faiths and beliefs, mostly monotheistic.  Yes, we are starting to see the first group of second generation pagans take their place in leadership roles within their various traditions, and there are a few third generation pagans running around under our feet, but the majority of us have had to come into this carrying the baggage of monotheism on our backs.  This burden of monotheistic thought is so ingrained in our psyche that we are often unaware of the effects that it has on our thought processes.

There are a number of ways that monotheistic thought and polytheistic thought clash.  At the heart of this clash is  monotheism’s basic and often unexamined assertion that monotheism is the more “advanced” philosophy of the two.  This little holdout of colonialism has, over the centuries, created a mindset that encourages people who are infected by monotheistic thought to dismiss any polytheist individual or culture as ‘backwards” or “primitive”.   This dismissal and disregard of the basic intelligence and perceptions of polytheist culture has had horrifying and lasting effects on those cultures.  Monotheistic thinking, no matter what form it takes, can be seen as less pluralistic and therefore less tolerant of others beliefs.  The monotheist’s belief in a single path to God lends itself to the arrogant cultural attitude that the monotheist practices the “correct” religion and therefore everyone else is practicing the “wrong” religion.  Whereas the polytheist worldview, by its very nature, accepts that everyone’s relationship with the unseen is different, accepts that there are many paths to many gods, and encourages and celebrates diversity.  By its very nature, polytheism is inclusive, whereas  monotheism is divisive.  This is where the danger of unexamined monotheistic thought becomes a detriment to cultural diversity.  If we look at our global history, it is soaked in the blood of monotheistic thinking.

So how do we recognize the monotheistic baggage that we are toting around with us and how do we look past our indoctrination with it?  The same way that strive to face and overcome white privilege in our modern culture, by learning to spot it in our own thinking and recognizing how it affects our relationships within our communities.  For there are similarities in the way that monotheistic privilege and white privilege saturate our collective consciousness and both come from a place of arrogance and a false sense of superiority.  Because the future of our species is in diversity not uniformity, and monotheistic thinking encourages division and hierarchical social structures.  Breaking the dominance of monotheistic thought is one of the first steps we must take in order to create a diverse and just society and we have to start with ourselves.  So here are a number of ways that we are saddled with this theological holdout.

  • An over reliance on the written word or liturgy.  This is the theory that the lore and mythological traditions of a particular religion is the “word of god or the gods”  In Christianity, this concept shows up most clearly as the belief that the bible is to be taken literally, that is the direct revelation of “God”.  In the Pagan world, this shows up most often in the reconstructionist  debate on the Lore vs. UPG (unverified personal gnosis… basically encounters with the unseen).  There has been much written on the subject recently and instead of rehashing all of their points, let me just point you in the direction of their work so you can read it for yourselves.  There’s John F. Beckett’s piece “The Lore vs. UPG – A False Dichotomy” ,  Rev. Tamara L. Siuda’s piece “Reconstruction, Revival, and the Styrofoam Cake Syndrome”, and Morpheus Ravenna’s “The Morrigan Built My Hot Rod: On Scholarship and Devotion”.  All of which are insightful viewpoints on learning to incorporate lore and practice together in a cohesive and functional religious practice.  What it comes down to is that lore, no matter what religion it’s from, was written by human hands, with human concerns, human agendas, and human fallibility.  So to rely on the lore, without taking into account the culture, time period, and political viewpoints of the author, is not only foolish, but it’s an attitude that has been used throughout history to justify a laundry list of atrocities.  The Christian belief in the bible being the literal truth of God is one of the most damaging weapons used by fundamentalists against people that they disagree with.  Because the bible was written and rewritten by humans, not the divine, there is an extraordinary amount of conflicting and contradictory bullshit scattered throughout it.  The bible can be used to justify almost any action and can also be used to oppose that same action if one digs deep enough.  When I have a Heathen waving the Havamal in my face telling me that the words in it trump experience and practice, or a Celtic Reconstructionist makes a claim that they know the “truth” about any subject because “It says it in the lore,  I see the monotheistic baggage heaped on their shoulders that they seem to be unaware of.   Lore and liturgy is a part of the puzzle that we are piecing together to create a living religious practice.  Putting it in the right context is essential to avoiding the philosophical pitfalls of the dominant monotheistic culture we live in.
  • The idea that mediation between humanity and the divine is necessary .  This is the theory that in order to experience the divine, we need a priest to provide that mediation for us.  This is wrong for a number of reasons.  At its core, this attitude creates a hierarchical social structure that places priests and clergy at the top and everyone else relegated to a lower social class, reliant on the priestly class for the most important aspects of their existence.  This attitude was emphasized  most heavily during the middle ages in order to give the Church political power over kings and is one of the main reason that modern thought is struggling with the concept of separating the Church and the State.  In 1906, in an encyclical written to the government of France after France passed a revolutionary law defining the separation of Church and State, Pope Pius X lays out a view of what the Churches idea of a just society would look like. The Church is essentially an unequal society, that is, a society comprising two categories of persons, the Pastors  and the flock, those who occupy a rank in the different degrees of the hierarchy and the multitude of the faithful. … the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors.”  This puts into words what many have been pointing out all along, that one of the primary functions of monotheistic religions are to accustom people to unquestioningly follow an autocratic elite.  Individuality and free thought is discouraged and conformity is valued and stressed.  In polytheism, not only is diversity and individuality encouraged, the role of priest is not one of a mediator between oneself and the gods, but one who helps to facilitate one’s own relationship between the unseen world and this one.
  •   Proselytizing.    Proselytizing is the act of trying to convert another from their religion or beliefs to the proselytizer’s religion or belief,  and it is arrogant, self-righteous and extremely annoying.  I’ve written on this subject before in my post  “Not That Kind of Priest: or Why I Don’t Proselytize for the Morrigan”,  so I have a definite bias about proselytizing and consider it an act of ego and arrogance.  This practice is becoming more and more common within the Pagan community, and can been seen most commonly coming from individuals that rarely recognize it for what it is.
    These individuals think that they are the smartest kids in the class and have the correct way at looking at religious thought, whether they  be monists, dualists, or atheists, they are “right” and everyone else is “doing it wrong” or lack their exalted “intelligence”.  We are tired of this elitist and unexamined bullshit and look forward to a time when these individuals step down from their soap boxes and actually join the community as equals, rather than perpetually attempting to undermine and discount other people’s intelligence and experiences.  This attitude alienates the community that they desperately want to have relevance in and is a direct by-product of monotheistic thinking.  As a community, we don’t want or need missionaries.
  • The “One True” Religion Concept.  This is the most obvious and the most prevalent bit of monotheistic nonsense that we carry along with us from our upbringings and it is one of the most historically damaging attitudes that a religion can have.  The attitude of “one true” faith or “one true” god (or lack of gods), unavoidably leads one to the correlation of that,  which is that other religions or faiths are “wrong”, that the practitioner of the monotheistic religion or belief system holds the “Truth”.   This is a very unhealthy attitude in a diverse and pluralistic community such as the pagan community.  It’s a colonial and imperialistic holdout, a worldview that places monotheism and monotheistic thought as more culturally and philosophically “advanced” than all other philosophies.  This attitude is the beating heart of colonialism, a justification to treat others poorly because of their “ignorance” and lack of “virtue”.  This attitude spawned inquisitions, slavery, manifest destiny, and massacres.  It seeks to put man above nature, and white, christian men above all.  If we are to advance as a functional community, as a viable alternative to the monotheistic paradigm, we need to face this reality, address it, and work on overcoming it, and like facing our own white privilege, it will require hard work, self-reflection, and honesty.

“Polytheist religion is a type of religion, first and foremost. While that does not mean that all Polytheists do the same thing or feel the same way on all of the same issues — quite the contrary, ‘many gods, many people, many paths’ is sort of a thing! — and so it stands to reason that its leaders, visionaries, writers, moderate thinkers and radical advocates would be attentive to examining RELIGION in the pursuit of, developments in, and protections for their religious identities, freedoms, and expressions. This is not an act of “devolution”, but an act of radically progressed differentiation and lawfully protected identification.” – Anomolous Thracian “The Polytheist Movement is a Human Rights Movement

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8 thoughts on “Unpacking Our Monotheistic Baggage

  1. I love this piece and I really enjoy your no BS way of putting things –

    Looking at the words “monotheistic” and “polytheistic” for a moment.

    Monotheistic thinking leads to an awful amount of “this or that” conclusions. In a non-religious sense this bleeds into our culture as the “my way or the highway” mentality we see in business, in historical doctrines like “manifest destiny” and even the ol’ “USA. USA. USA” chant (which roughly translates to anyone that isn’t American as “Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck You”.

    Polytheistic thinking leads to “yes, and…” conclusions. This can be true, that also can be true, this third thing can also be true and they can all co-exist simultaneously. That kind of thinking is thought of as dangerous and subversive and not at all likely to make people want to bomb foreign countries or give away their rights so other people can marry or expect that their children won’t be shot on the street for, you know, just being on the street.

    Polytheistic thinking leads to questions and compromises and valuing multiple opinions and voices – Wonderful, dangerous stuff indeed!

    Gwion

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Excellent post! As an initiate in a West African religious tradition, it amazes me to see the extent to which many people of Yoruban descent disassociate themselves from the “stigma” of polytheism with Orisha worship, claiming that they share along with their Christian and Muslim detractors the idea that there is “one True God” and they are a “God-fearing” people. But since “He” is a remote, emotionally distant Creator for the Yoruba, the Orisha are needed as intermediaries. But these fellow co-initiates are quick to point out the Orisha are not “Gods,” just powerful but lesser Beings that are not the focal points of worship (could’ve fooled me), so they as devotees can’t get tainted by a polytheistic orientation. I get into spirited (no pun intended) discussions at my godfather’s house about postcolonial conditioning and the internalization of oppression. I’m not there to tell people what to believe or to define the Powers to my liking, but seeing people have knee-jerk negative reactions to being thought of as polytheists when they don’t see themselves as such is disheartening. What is it? Is it just pervasive monotheistic conditioning, a need to be seen as conforming–and not “Other”–with their Abrahamic compatriots in Nigeria? I really wish the late Roman Emperor Julian had been successful in undoing the legacy of his uncle, Constantine. How differently the trajectory of history might have gone!

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  3. Reblogged this on Pagan Church Lady and commented:
    As someone who grew up in not one but two monotheist traditions, this article has some important advice. I’ve often seen the reactionary, “No, don’t worry, we don’t worship more than one god!” from Pagan type people and other people who are made to feel uncomfortable do to monotheist bias. That’s just one example of monotheist baggage that this fascinating post explores.

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  4. Reblogged this on 4 of Wands and commented:
    A lot of great points, the best one, IMO, is “What it comes down to is that lore, no matter what religion it’s from, was written by human hands, with human concerns, human agendas, and human fallibility. So to rely on the lore, without taking into account the culture, time period, and political viewpoints of the author, is not only foolish, but it’s an attitude that has been used throughout history to justify a laundry list of atrocities. “

    Like

    • This is my favorite part as well. I get so frustrated when I meet Pagans who insist the Lore is like the bible: factually true and not tied to the people and places and societies and cultures in which it was written.

      I’d also like to point out that monotheistic thought is also akin to male privilege, straight privilege, cis privilege, and able-bodied privilege.

      Great article. Will be sharing with my group and tucking into my mind so I can locate and rid myself of my own Christian baggage.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I am having trouble with the wording in this article. The first issue is that Paganism can be just as fundamentalist as Abrahamic faiths/Hinduism, etc. This is a human trait not a trait of a religion. When people are afraid, they project their fear and impending annihilation onto God’s voice, they develop black and white processing tendencies, when people are under educated they really strongly tend toward black and white thinking. There is a deep need to develop the ability to abstract think (being able to have 2 different things be correct, to see past yourself) in religious settings, but often the most religiously rigid are the least educated, the ones without means to live, etc.

    Second, reliance on a book vs inner belief: these two need each other, it is the hope that scriptures be it the Hebrew Torah, the Christian scriptures or the Bhagavad Gita would be written by someone who had something to say on the topic, not having spiritual processes be their first rodeo. tt is true, that there is a great deal of baggage in these too, God’s doing terrible things, humans doing terrible things. It is as much our history as it is a record of our fear… and it is also a record of a way out of that pain. To rely solely on a book for guidance is not healthy for any person, as is to ignore the writings from the traditions from before. I have been in plenty of circles that were bat shit crazy who were following one Goddess or God or another, and were entirely ego trips, pathology or just a flight of fancy. I have met people who thought they were fairies.

    So my big disagreement with his premise is this line: “I see the monotheistic baggage heaped on their shoulders that they seem to be unaware of.”

    This is not monotheism. Monotheism means that you just see God everywhere, there multiple personalities running around running things, there aren’t “gods”… all the aspects of God around you that you see in all the forms are just “God” “Spirit” or the “Universe” . Monotheistic belief doesn’t say that other traditions are wrong, but that they are all saddled under the same label as God. This is intrinsically inclusive.

    “One-way-ism” however, which is what this guy is referring to a plague on religion, politics, family systems etc. This is the “I am right, you are wrong, there is only one right way and it happens to be the path I follow, and it happens to be the one I am going to tell you God created”. This is not monotheism because Monotheism just is about how this is all just Spirit, and when it is all JUST GOD, the expressions of each one becomes God and we have to figure that shit out. And that’s the hard work right there. That is what people either do not want to do, or frankly cannot because they were never taught how to handle complexity.

    These two can often be found together, but they are not the same thing. There are many monotheistic traditions out there that do not have one-way-ism as their trait. It is a mature spiritual practice or practitioner that opens the way for us to put this down. If people would put one-way-ism down it would stop hurting them and others.

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    • While I agree that there is fundamentalism in paganism I feel that it goes back to peoples monotheistic upbringings. Polytheism by its very nature has a harder time justifying fundamentalism. When you work with many Gods, you learn a respect for others differences and diversity. You learn that there is no “one” way.
      But I think you are conflating monotheism and monism. When you speak of “multiple personalities running around running things, there aren’t “gods”… all the aspects of God around you that you see in all the forms are just “God” “Spirit” or the “Universe” .”
      You are speaking on Monism or pluralistic monotheism at best. Traditional Monotheism states that there is only one God, which as a basic statement, sets itself as exclusionary. Even saying that my Gods are just reflections or aspects of your “One” God, is a colonial mindset.
      I completely agree with you in your statement that we need to step away from “one wayism” as you call it, but that “one wayism” is fundamentalism, and its a byproduct of monotheistic thought, and its wrong in whatever form it appears in. But that fundamentalism goes deep. The attitude that monism is the “Truth” sets up a Darwinian religious hierarchy, putting forward the belief that polytheists that have relationships with Gods and entities that are real, have agency, and are not an aspect of the “one god”, are just not spiritually evolved enough to realize that its “all just one” Thats a very unhealthy attitude to leave unexamined

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  6. Pingback: Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and intolerant “monotheism” | Musings on Hellenism

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