Modernity Does Not Equal Progress
So I was having a rather heated discussion with another polytheist on twitter about modernity. He is a fan and I’m not. Or rather I think the pros do not necessarily outweigh the damage and I think we need to consider very carefully every aspect of modern “values” (or lack thereof) before blanketly accepting them and I think in many ways, the modern worldview is incompatible with a polytheistic one.
Firstly, by modernity I don’t mean technology. I specifically mean a way of looking at the world informed by the Protestant Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Industrialization, and the rise of Capitalism (I’m not anti-Capitalist but even a good thing can be taken too far!). It’s informed by an age that, especially with the rise of the medical establishment, all but pathologizes devotion. (1) It’s a modernity shaped by European imperialism, colonialism, and the idea of a hierarchy of religions that places polytheisms, animism, and deeply experiential ecstatic rites way at the bottom as ‘unenlightened.’. (2) In fact, I’m talking about the love affair we have with enlightenment – as though it’s happened—and the equating of ‘modernity’ automatically and uncritically with ‘progress.’
This is so much the case that it is difficult even to frame this discussion without falling into language already co-opted by evangelicals who rave about ‘culture wars.’ Well, while I think they are part of the problem, and the values they espouse ugly and hateful, I don’t disagree that there is a conflict between our dominant culture and the way our ancestors looked at the world.
Now the last time I had this argument, the inevitable red herrings arose: “but Galina, the position of the womyns is better now, and we have democracy, and there is no more slavery” (oh yeah, tell it to the single mother of two working three jobs at barely minimum wage living in a state that regulates what foods she can purchase with her EBT card. Tell it to the young black man serving twenty years for possession of a joint in a private prison where he’s used for slave labor or better, the one that isn’t because the cops shot him in the back). “Things are unqualifiably better now. We have gay marriage.”
Yes we do but I would caution that some progress does not mean unqualified progress. The position of women? Women had to fight and die for that (actually read accounts of what the suffragettes went through to gain us the vote in the US and the UK). That didn’t just happen with some magical wave of the modernity wand and perhaps had our people not been mentally and spiritually stomped down for two thousand years of Christianity with its intense and ingrained misogyny we might have managed to improve the lot of women sooner. And lets point out that for many women the world over their lot isn’t much better now than what it would have been in a poor family two thousand years ago. Yes, we have gay marriage but we also have a sickeningly high suicide rate amongst LGBTQ adolescents. The ancient world wasn’t perfect but there were parts of the polytheistic world where same sex couplings were not an issue. In fact, there were even places where it was celebrated.(3)
Many of the conveniences we have now the ancient Romans had (running water, hot baths, indoor plumbing) and then lost with Christianity (clean might let the devil in!) and then had to regain. So I”d say we’re about running even there.
Racism is probably worse now than it ever was in the ancient world. I would go so far as to say race didn’t exist as a discriminatory classification until modern colonialism and the rise of industrialization (racism and classism are deeply intertwined as is discrimination against workers in general). As far as government goes, I make it my policy not to discuss what I consider to be the best and worst forms of government online and I’m not violating that one here! But I digress. Some things are in fact better now. I wonder how much sooner they would have gotten better without the interregnum of the Inquisition.
My intention isn’t to underplay the very important improvements we’ve made socially but to point out that there were areas in the polytheistic world just as advanced socially and ethically and we in our modern world have a hell of a long way to go.(4) I also think there are some very serious issues with modernity that cannot be easily accommodated by a polytheistic worldview.
The problem with modernity first and foremost is that it encourages us to compromise in our values and with our Gods. Some people, like my twitter critic, would argue that this is the nature of things. That as values shift in society our practices must of necessity change, that this is called compromise and is the mark of a civilized man. I’m sure that’s what the Christian missionaries told native American children too as they were herding them off to mission schools, cutting their hair, starving them, forbidding them their ‘savage’ religion, and saving their souls. Think I’m making a leap of logic? Well, I’m just trying to keep up with Mr. Twitter. Seriously though, it starts with a sense of entitlement and superiority, with a sense that one is more enlightened than those backward folks sacrificing to their gods. (5) It starts with a story we tell ourselves about how the world works.
As polytheists, I think we run the risk of having internalized that self-consciousness. I think this sense that there is something somehow less than about our ancestral ways, that we must be more evolved, that we know better than our ancestors, that we are entitled to do things our way without ever considering what the Gods might want because we can’t really know what the gods want that’s crazy talk is part of the poison that comes with being a child of the post modern age.
Because we assume that our ‘values’ are unquestioningly egalitarian, we all too often never pause to consider how a polytheist raised in a polytheistic culture might view the world and I think to restore cleanly we have to do exactly that. I think that when we approach these traditions as dead traditions (until we came along, having been all modern and enlightened to pluck them out of obscurity) we do ourselves, our ancestors, and Gods a disservice. I think that it is crucial to truly comprehend how to establish and maintain right relationship with the Gods, to attempt to at least consider the worldview of those whose entire religious culture was focused on just that. (6)
Modernity was very much a reaction to Christian hegemony. In some ways that was good, fostering as it did a greater climate of criticism and intellectual inquiry but it is significant that it was formed in response to a monolithic force absolutely hostile to polytheistic religions in all their forms. In its response to religion, “Religion” all too often came to mean “superstition” and now atheism or humanism has replaced Protestant Christianity as the highest point on that hierarchy of religions.
The result, (and I’m skipping a couple of steps here that I will address later – I don’t want this to become too long) is a certain moral relativism and subjectivity where the comfort levels of community take precedent over the rites and rituals of the Gods, where personal comfort and liberty are reified beyond piety and devotion; and the flip side of that where devotion is then given over to ridicule. “You put the Gods before anything’ my critic cried and he’s absolutely right, including over the depredations of modernity because despite the best spin doctoring in the world by first world corporations, they exist.
Progress at any cost, comfort at any cost has led to an environment on the brink of collapse. Women still fight for freedom of choice, a right they had de facto in many ancient polytheistic cultures. (7) We pollute our food sources with GMOS unthinking of the long term consequences to the earth, and we still have monotheisms tearing up sacred sites and ravaging the earth in the name of their God. I could go on. The most troubling is that we have largely lost the ability to see the sacred in the world.
There’s been a lot of talk in Pagan and Polytheistic circles lately about ‘re-enchanting the world.’ Well, I don’t think the world ever got disenchanted. We did. We lost our ability to position our world as a sacred landscape, full of Gods, spirits, temples, shrines, and sacred sites, full of the holy and dangerous. The problem is that our spiritual senses have atrophied over generations. That is in part what we’re fighting to reclaim.
Worst of all modernity teaches us to dismiss our Gods. If I were an evangelical I might refer to the unholy alliance between modernity and pop culture. We not only are surrounded by influences that teach us to take our Gods for granted, but by those that encourage outright impiety.(8) Most of us are only all too willing to compromise: “oh I can’t do animal sacrifice. What would the neighbors say?” or “I can’t cover my head when I pray, people might think I’m backward. I feel self conscious.” Or maybe “that’s too inconvenient right now and people might think I’m strange so I wont’ do that.” We talk about values but how many of us seriously sit down and consider whether or not the values we’ve been raised with (largely Christian influenced) and with which we’ve been inculcated by this idea of modernity are compatible with a polytheistic outlook? How many of us are willing to change those values when we find they’re not, rather than first immediately changing our practices?
How many of us would think to consult a diviner to find out what the Gods want before changing a potentially problematic practice out of convenience? I do not think this urge to compromise to seem more modern and ‘with it’ is a positive one, or one that serves the restoration of our traditions at all. I think it’s ultimately deleterious and a step away from secularism.(9)
I think we at least need to recognize that there are potential conflicts and as polytheists need to learn to allow our polytheism to be the lens through which we engage with and yes, judge “modernity.” That’s where the ‘culture war’ lies in our lack of critical acceptance of modernity as unquestioned progress.
- Ariel Glucklich talks about this at length in his book “Sacred Pain,” drawing a straight line between the rise of the AMA (American medical association) and its British equivalent and the growing distaste for deeply embodied forms of devotion.
- Many of the disciplines in academia that we take for granted including Religious Studies and Anthropology came right out of European colonialism. You can see it even in the work of such seminal writers as Emile Durkheim, who positions religion solely as a social phenomenon, clearly priviledging white, upper class Protestantism as the most enlightened form of religious thought. See also Max Weber’s “The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” for a glimpse into the specifically Protestant nature of the modern world view. These are very basic writers, and I note them here as a starting point for research. This is by no means an isolated thing.
- In the Roman empire for instance, it was not a matter of being heterosexual or homosexual but of who held the power position. It was all about power dynamics. Think also on the Sacred Theban band, an elite group of fighters that had to be partnered men. It was considered better for their psychological health and their prowess in combat if they were partnered with each other. “Gay” as a category wasn’t invented yet, and so long as one didn’t violate expected familial obligations or make an ass of oneself socially, no one for the most part cared. Of course the Theban band was still defeated by Alexander …. And his male lover.
- Just on the subject of women, for instance, western Locri was largely matrilineal. Certain black sea tribes had relative equality between the sexes up to and including women going to war. Pythagoreans and Cynics had female philosophers who taught the genders equally. There were plenty of female monarchs during the Hellenistic period and the polytheistic world in general was deeply inventive and creative.
- The polytheistic world also had an inherent acceptance of religious diversity. You don’t really see conquest in the name of God with the moral mandate to convert until monotheism. Polytheism by the very fact that it is rooted in a broad diversity of divinity seems inherently more flexible in accommodating regional cultus and other polytheisms.
- And in most polytheisms in the ancient world there was very little if any division between religious thought and social thought, or between “church” and “state”. Rome is a perfect example, or Egypt, or even Germania where military commanders would not make a move without consulting diviners. The sacred and a sense of our communal and individual obligations to the sacred was interwoven into polytheistic cultures organically in a way that it isn’t for us no matter how hard we work.
- The Roman empire for instance so loved its abortifacients that the most popular of them, sylphium, was enshrined on coins and eventually went extinct from over use. Go, Rome!
- We have academics parsing out the protocols of religious devotion in mystics reducing it to psychosis and social maladjustment or resistance, ignoring accounts of a deeply fulfilling spiritual life left by the mystics themselves. We turn sacred sites into tourist traps to make a buck and don’t think twice. We have television series like “Supernatural,” “Xena,” and too many comic books to count and the like presenting our Gods as laughing stocks worthy of mockery. The ancients had traditions of satire and comedy but these were rooted in a culture that by and large supported cultus to the Gods. We’re not in that situation and even in the ancient world these things were often open to criticism on the grounds of impiety.
- One should consider for instance how this worked (or not) for the Catholics. I would argue that Vatican II, which took much of the mystery out of the mass, put it in the vernacular, turned the priest to face the audience, and then later changes which put the emphasis away from the sacrality of the rite and on to the social experience of going to mass have watered down Catholic ritual structure to near meaninglessness. Anything approaching mystery or reverence is slowly receding, a process that started with the backlash to the Counter Reformation in the nineteenth century.