Pagan, Polytheist, or Both? Why Labels are Sometimes Important.

Russia, Saint Petersburg, 2012 From the series "White Nights". Ivan Kupala, pagan rite which has its origins in the cult of Kupala, god of love and fertility.

Russia, Saint Petersburg, 2012
From the series “White Nights”.
Ivan Kupala, pagan rite which has its origins in the cult of Kupala, god of love and fertility.

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending Many Gods West, a conference on Polytheism that took place in Olympia Washington.  It was a small, intimate event. An event that not only featured an astounding variety of speakers and presentations, but also powerful work with the Gods and land spirits, along with days and nights of deep conversations with brilliant people.

I have been to a number of Pagan gatherings, from the lighthearted and celebratory, to the deep and scholarly.  Being at a conference that was specifically Polytheist in scope was a meaningful and important experience, and different from any one that I have had before.

Why is a gathering of people who define themselves specifically as Polytheists important?  Why are these distinctions important to us, and why would the idea of having space for Polytheists to talk about Polytheist practice and theology cause problems among people who aren’t Polytheists?

One of the things that I noticed about Many Gods West is that even though the group gathered at the event was diverse and varied with attendees coming from a broad spectrum of religious practices,  there was a noticeable air of respect and courtesy towards each other and each other’s practices.  As a matter of fact, the only real display of discourtesy that I witnessed came from someone who seemed to be struggling with the feeling that they had of not being included in the Polytheist “group”.  I find this very interesting.  What I witnessed at this event and what I generally see among the Polytheist community is radical inclusiveness to anyone that shows that they have respect for other people’s beliefs and practices.  But the important factor in that is the respect for others.  When that respect is absent, or compromised by ego or judgements, Polytheists understandably distance themselves from that.

We are a minority within a minority, we have the right to have our own discussions about our practices, theology, and future without being interrupted by people hostile to those rights.  The importance of events like Many Gods West is to provide those spaces for people to have conversations and make connections, unmolested and uninterrupted by people who have deferring practices and theological structures.

This is one of the most important reasons for having events that are specifically for Polytheists to discuss Polytheism, to have a space free of hostile judgements and free of having to have theology 101 discussions with people who have differing views than Polytheists do.  We deal with hostility online daily, from arrogant atheists, atheo-pagans, and general assholes that feel that its their place to belittle what they don’t understand or believe.  We have spaces when we mingle with Wiccans, archtlpalists, and  monist / dualists, they are called “Every other Pagan  event”.  We have plenty of Monotheists telling us that  we are crazy or going to hell every single day.  Creating space for us to have the discussions that we need to have without them being hijacked by other people’s agendas is crucial for our future and its crucial to allow people to practice their religion safely and unmolested.

This is one of the main reasons that allowing these spaces is important for the rest of Paganism.  As a set of practices and beliefs that has a long history of being persecuted, it is of crucial importance that we don’t become the type of intolerant douchebags that attack and belittle religious beliefs that we don’t understand or agree with.

Paganism is not a cohesive set of beliefs and practices.  We are a collection of diverse and varied people and in that is our strength.  Our power resides in that diversity and more importantly our willingness to accept and celebrate that diversity.

But why separate ourselves from the larger “pagan umbrella” ?  Why are these labels important?   Because these labels are there in order to help us define our beliefs, and the act of defining our beliefs helps us to clarify them and allows us to have clear conversations about specific aspects of our beliefs and experiences.

I choose to define myself as both a Pagan and a Polytheist.  I see value in the broader term of Pagan.  I feel that there is strength in numbers in a world where the dominant religions are actively hostile to anything that is not their particular brand of monotheism.  I feel that having an open umbrella for anyone who feels marginalized in their religious practices is incredibly valuable.  We should all have a place to feel safe and sheltered while the monotheisms of the world tear each other apart  and attack us.  The large tent of Paganism provides that space for people.  A place for people to be their authentic selves without condemnation.

I identify as a Polytheist because I believe that not only are the Gods real and individual entities with agency and their own destinies,  but everything has its own agency and agenda.  To me, the Gods are not reflections of our psyche, or collective human creations, but beings that have lived alongside us  since the beginning of time, beings that I choose to honor and respect because I feel that they deserve honor and respect the way that all beings that we share this world with deserve honor and respect.

For me, these terms Pagan and Polytheist are not incompatible, for others they are.  Both views are correct.  The terms are there to help us define our beliefs and encourage deep thought about our theological views and systems.  This type of discernment and philosophical thought is important.

What I see in the Polytheist community that is sometimes absent in the larger Pagan community are these types of philosophical discussions that are so important to a religious community.  I sometime see Pagans defining their theology by what they don’t believe, not what they believe, the “I’m a Pagan because I don’t believe in Christianity” view.  When these people are asked what they do believe the answers get pretty nebulous.  Discernment and depth of thought should be valued in our community.  Discussions on morality and the nature of the Gods is important to deepen ones religious practice.

I believe Paganism and Polytheism hold deep value in the world that we live in.  That in a culture of materialism and injustice, Paganism and Polytheism are paths to a more authentic and healthy relationship  with the world and with the communities that we interact with.  But in order for us to provide those paths, to provide a valid alternative to narrow monotheisms, we must go deeper.  We must explore and discuss our differences and similarities, we must celebrate our diversity and allow it to flourish.   We must be more than people playing with wands in our backyards.  We must be the best witches/priests/druids/pagans/polytheists that we can be.  We must go deep and be articulate in our practices.  Most importantly, we must be accepting of other people’s beliefs and practices and we must give them the space to develop their own theologies.

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