Johnny Humanist Strikes Again

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So, John Halstead has posted a response to my article here. As expected, instead of sticking to the issue at hand, which at least on the polytheistic end of the spectrum is one of respect for the Gods, he’s turned it into rather personal attacks against me and Tess Dawson. Classy. Still, I’ve been guilty of this myself at times, and it’s an easy thing to overlook. What I would like to discuss instead, are some of the other points that he attempts to make in his article because he’s attempting to manipulate his readers down what I consider to be a rather dangerous rabbit hole. I’m going to be fairly selective in what I discuss here, largely because most of it is irrelevant to my work as a whole. So bear with me.

Halstead writes: “Does it matter that culturally all of us are much closer to the perpetrators than to the victims of the cultural crimes that we are claiming to be vicarious victims of?”

Yes. It matters immensely and for this reason, as much as any other it is crucial that we reorient ourselves. This is precisely what I mean when I have written in previous articles that we must reclaim our indigenous mindset. We are closer, both chronologically and more importantly in our social conditioning, to those who destroyed our traditions. This means that we have an even greater obligation to address that, to look it right in the face, to deprogram ourselves, and to root out that mental poison.

This isn’t something new. I remember reading quite a long time ago, when I was pouring through the works of Julian the martyr (whom Christians call the apostate), that he was aware of this too. He wrote once that having been raised Christian, he knew that he carried a mental corruption; that he would never be as clean in his faith as someone raised in polytheism in a polytheistic culture. He did his best and I think we are called to do so too. That we are close to the perpetrators is no reason to give up and say that this thing cannot be done. What it means, is that we carry an ancestral debt and part of restoring our traditions is addressing that debt, individually and collectively. To say that we should throw up our hands and step back from protecting our traditions specifically because we are on the other side of that genocidal abyss is to say that there is never any cause to make repair and reparation when damage has been done, because after all, we’re closer to the conquerors than the conquered because the conquered are the ones that prevailed and survived. It is to put into their hands the palm of victory once again and to spit into the face of our ancestors.

In fact, I would say that one of the biggest problems facing Polytheism is the necessity to address our own mental conditioning and the difficulties in doing so with few external aids. Halstead is wrong though in another way: it’s not cultural crimes that we’re attempting to right; it’s religious.

Right from the get go, Halstead is positioning this as part of what he calls the “cultural appropriation controversy.” It isn’t. That obfuscates. This is instead a religious question. It’s about piety and respect, which should cross cultural boundaries. After all, I’d certainly call out someone who was showing disrespect to a Christian icon, or a Muslim holy book as readily as I would someone who was showing disrespect for one of our holy images. Why? Because there are some things that are more important than our petty fights; because the Gods are bigger than all of us and that which is sacred is deserving of respect – even if the Gods in question are not my Gods; and because the Gods and doing right by Them, is far, far more important for the integrity of our traditions – newly reborn as they may be—and there are times when trying to shift the discourse onto mundane, profane ground is merely a tool for further erasure of reverence. But of course, in positioning it as part of that controversy, Halstead is attempting (in a beautiful piece of rhetorical manipulation, I might add. Well done, John) to back me and other polytheists into a corner where if we argue with him, we risk being labeled as pro-appropriation, when nothing could be further from the truth. We are very much against appropriation, hence why some of us called John out on his abuse of our religious iconography in the first place. This kind of behavior is inappropriate when done to the Gods just as it’s inappropriate when done to people.

John makes a fairly big deal out of the fact that neither I nor Tess are biologically descended from Levantine culture, that we’re not Canaanite and were not raised in Canaanite culture. Clearly he doesn’t fully comprehend how ancient polytheisms worked. There was tremendous flux, movement and interaction between religions. Part of this was due to the networks of trade and transportation being partly linked through coastal temple complexes. Religion was an international phenomenon. The cultus of various Gods went everywhere. Thus we find the Canaanite Goddess Anat being adopted into the Egyptian pantheon. Why? Because traders and immigrants brought Her cultus to Egypt and She was popular, even amongst Egyptians. Thus we find Isis being venerated at Rome, or Mithras, or Cybele…by Romans with no genetic link to the peoples who first were honored with the Presence of these Deities. Likewise, we see Minerva and Mercury venerated in Germany. Religion in the ancient world was never a closed cultural book. People bring their Gods wherever they go. And to damn us for not being raised in the religions we’re working so hard to restore is a particularly insidious type of trap.

Yes, John is an outsider to polytheism. He does not believe in the Gods. He uses them. Instead of dealing with polytheisms and Paganisms on their own ground, he and many others like him are attempting to shift it to better suit their own lack of theism. Polytheism is about the veneration of many Gods. To come to that and then attempt to create an atheist paganism or atheist polytheism or merely a cultural paganism is an attack on polytheism as a whole. It’s taking traditions, fragile in their restoration still, and striking at their very core, or attempting to. This was in part what the battles last year over the words “Paganism” and “Polytheism” were about: religious identity.

Halstead writes that Tess Dawson, for instance, is attempting to revive Canaanite “culture.” He is incorrect. She is, if I may be so bold as to speak on her behalf (Tess, if I am wrong, please correct me and I will update this), restoring veneration of a particular family of Gods. We cannot restore Canaanite culture. It is gone in the flux of time. The Gods are not, however, gone; and they still call for veneration. That is something that not only can we restore, but those devoted to the Gods may even have an obligation to make the attempt. That is what Tess and I are talking about, for all that Halstead is attempting to shift the discourse onto (for him) more familiar ground.

When we draw parallels with the destruction of ancient polytheisms, contemporary accounts of discrimination, and horrors like Daesh destroying the temple at Palmyra and committing numerous atrocities on people in the areas they control we are not comparing our struggles to restore our traditions to such horrors. We are calling out a continuum of attack. All of these things, from the Hindu woman last week who was fired for being a polytheist, to the polytheist who had her office vandalized with crosses and bibles left laying all over, to the Syrian woman who was pulled out of her house raped and murdered two years ago by relatives for being polytheist, to a terrorist group blowing up a symbol of polytheism exist on a continuum. It’s the same mindset behind it all and it’s a mindset that we were raised with too and we will never untangle it within ourselves if we do not recognize it without, if we do not learn to connect the dots.

I would go so far as to say we are all (Halstead too – I’m sure he has polytheistic ancestors somewhere) victims of crimes committed “by Christians against pagans in a time and place so far removed from us.” That victory, the shift in dominant worldview from polytheism to monotheism brought with it devastation and a mechanization of outlook that we are still fighting today. Traditions are not interchangeable and being a polytheist or monotheist has consequences in far more than just to Whom one prays. It affects the way we engage with everything in our world, with how we evaluate right and wrong, with how we choose to leave our mark in our culture. The spread of monotheism changed, diametrically changed the face of our world and not, I would posit for the better and every social movement that has come after for good or for ill has been a response to that change. We are still living with the consequences of those crimes and Halstead wants us to ignore that? Or to excuse it? I don’t think so. That’s not the way to deal with ancestral debt and it’s certain not the way to rebuild a tradition. It’s not ok simply because it happened a long time ago.

John ends his article by the feel good assertion that “ Your holy may not be my holy, but what matters is that we both are trying to see the holy.”

This is not about trying to see the holy. It is a wonderful thing that you want to see that, John. In fact, I think it’s a necessary thing for all of us. One of the places I think we can agree is on the need for us to relearn how to see the sacred in our world – what sometimes we call re-enchanting the world. But this is about far, far more than that. You take the Gods out of the equation. We never can and never will and for a polytheist, that is where it begins and ends. One can do many things, excuse many things when one is exploring the holy, but when one is engaging with the Gods and restoring a tradition, sometimes those things matter, and sometimes they can’t be so readily excused.

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Posted on October 10, 2015, in Polytheism and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Virginia carper

    So in other words, we can only worship the Gods of our ancestors. Sounds like folkish Heathenism and the purity of race. At least that is how I read his blog.

    As someone grappling with the Sumner Gods, They call whomever They want. The only connection I have is a husband who works with Syrians. One thing I did learn is that even the most religious monotheist has some reverence for other sacred artifacts. It’s the ego driven ones in the name of religion and academics destroy things. And those who live in fear.

    As to Baal, He became one of the aspects of Jupiter of the Romans.

    As for ancient history and cultures, they speak to us still. If we take things out of context, we destroy the meaning for the future generations. The culture ceases to be. By taking something out of context as he did, he destroyed cultural meaning. It is not holy but graffiti and defacement. It is the same as writing killjoy was here.

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  2. Oh, no culture is really dead. They live on under various disguises, and have melded with present cultures. The Julian calendar of the Romans is still being followed by some religions. The laws of Sumner are reflected in current law. And so it goes.

    As long as we are alive, our Ancestors live within us. They carry the culture forward to us. Even cultures long forgotten are still with us.

    I know this is tangental to the Gods and what is holy, but each group of Gods had their cultural context in which They operated. Divorce the God from this context, and you have created a copy of a God that you can control.

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  3. Agree thoroughly with all of this but especially your last statement. It really highlights why I do not even do ritual with non polytheists, because while I certainly respect their spirituality, there is a huge gulf of difference. Acts of spirituality and worship has no meaning to me with the gods taken out of the equation. Respect is given foremost to the gods, even to gods of other religions I will show respect to….to me that is the defining element of my spirituality and “the holy” is giving honor respect to the divinities. A large part of that is removing the corruption the way Christianity has made us think of the gods and relate to gods outside of our pantheon and spiritual sphere that tells us only what we are doing is important and nothing else, something which habitually perpetuates violence against people of minority religions. Without that burden we are able to appreciate and defend the veneration and worship of gods and spiritual practices that are removed from ourselves.

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  4. You know, maybe a few weeks ago, I read some post of his about why he identifies as a Pagan. Something like “I use God-talk in my rituals” was what he said. It took a while for it to sink in why that phrase bothered me, but it suddenly dawned on me when I was reading about this local Native American Pow Wow coming up in my town. “Oh, so that’s what cultural appropriation feels like!”

    I thought of that before I saw any posts from you or any other polytheists online, so I just want you to know that you’re not the only one who made that connection. I try to be nice and respectful of other cultures and try to avoid cultural appropriation, but being a white person, I always assumed I would never experience it myself and therefore could never fully understand what it’s like.

    But I think this is as close as it might get for me. I take the gods seriously, and this Halstead fellow, as you say, doesn’t believe in the gods, he just uses them. He thinks speaking their names in ritual spices it up, but he doesn’t believe they actually exist or anything. It’s like people who slap sacred Native American symbols onto keychains and t-shirts because they think it looks nice, but they either have no idea what it means, or they don’t care if some people think it has a deeper meaning.

    I guess one thing I can be grateful for is that hopefully that bit of insight will help me have more empathy towards indigenous people who complain about their cultures being appropriated. Now I might understand how that feels a little bit better than I did before.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Amanda, THIS. Precisely this.

    and all the while Halstead and others like him insist that we are all part of the same community (i have just removed a comment asserting just that). We are not. I think it comes down to not just believing that the Gods exist (polytheism!) but understanding that this impacts the way we are in the world and with everything else. It is the one immutable part of our theology and our identification as religious beings.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I try to be pretty inclusive when it comes to the concept of “the pagan community.” I run a Meetup group where I state that pagans of all kinds are welcome. We have Heathen and Druids and Wiccans and “I’m not sure what I believe but I’m curious about this” people show up.

      I don’t think the distinction between being a “hard” or “soft” polytheist is a very big deal. I don’t think that Odin and Mercury are the same god, for example, but I can see how some people might have gotten that idea (even going back to the ancient Romans). I can agree to disagree with people who have different understandings of the gods if at least they believe in the gods in some way. Even the people who think all goddesses are one Great Goddess still believe there’s something powerful and sacred there.

      But I have to draw the line at atheists who think the gods are imaginary characters who have no power of their own, and think that believing otherwise is actually *harmful*. I still don’t understand why Halstead wants to call himself a pagan except to cause trouble. Looking at his blog, it looks like he doesn’t like anything about modern paganism. He doesn’t like the gods, he doesn’t like the holidays, he doesn’t like magic.

      If someone showed up to my Meetup group and started going on about how everything about modern paganism is stupid, I’d probably ban him from coming back. (And if he started drawing connections between Wotan and the Third Reich, he’d probably be kicked out instantly by me and all the other Heathens there. There’s no “respectful” way you can call Odin a Nazi.) There are atheist Meetup groups. If he wants to write an atheist blog criticizing the modern pagan movement, he’s free to do so, but why is that on the Patheos Pagan Channel? Patheos has an atheist channel where his blog would fit in just fine.

      He seems to think being an environmentalist makes you a pagan, which means he agrees with evangelical Christians who say that the environmental movement is incompatible with Christianity. That actually hurts the environmental movement by turning monotheists away from it.

      Oh well, if the pagan revival is going to last past our generation, it’s not going to be with people who “use God-talk in [their] rituals.” It’s going to be with people who actually take this stuff seriously enough to let it change how we view the world and our place in it, like you said.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Why this insistence that we all are under the same umbrella? What is the driving force for this forced inclusion?

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  7. thetinfoilhatsociety

    One of the most difficult things for anyone recreating the worship of ancient deities is to try to understand the cultural milieu from which they arose. Whether or not you, personally, are a reconstructionist has little to nothing to do with this, in order to properly venerate these deities you NEED to have at least a little understanding of the culture, as much as is able to be comprehended from a distance of more than a thousand years. Heathenism may be the main one known as the religion with homework but let’s face it, ALL Paganism really requires homework. And to basically poo-poo the cultural context these deities were worshipped within is in its own way disrespectful of them. I’m not saying you have to be a hard reconstructionist to worship these deities. But if you want to understand them, you have to research the ancients in order to understand their religious texts and why they did what they did and how they did it. For Halstead (or anyone else) to say that doesn’t matter…well, I guess I just don’t understand what the point of worship is if you don’t want to know about the deity you’re worshipping.

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  8. “ Your holy may not be my holy, but what matters is that we both are trying to see the holy.” What! Atheists don’t see anything as being holy. What a load of crap-ola that is. Obviously he does not read Richard Dawson or any of the other new atheists. And, yes, environmentalism is NOT paganism. The thing is, he is a “Devil’s Advocate.” The problem comes into being that most so-called “pagans” cannot see through his schtick because they are undereducated from the beginning having never been been taught tough thinking skills. He should not be allowed to speak/write for generic pagans. If the site wishes to create an outlet for atheists I would be all for it. Even though we try to ignore his sorry ass, he deliberately knows how to spark controversy. He is the Ultimate Troll.

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    • I wrote a blog post tackling this very thing. If there is no concept of the holy existent within one’s theology, or, in the case of atheist (as opposed to non-theists) there are no Gods and thus, no cosmology, then saying one holds something holy has no meaning. Without a theology to inform one’s conception of holiness there is no concept of holiness.

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