Secular Polytheism? – Gods, I hope not!
Helios Pires has been writing several articles of late on Euro-centric polytheism, in part as a result of the nearly five hour “discussion” we had a few days ago via twitter. (It’s amazing what one can cram into 140 characters when one puts one’s mind to it!). He writes praising European polytheisms, with which I certainly have no issue – in fact, I think it’s a good thing to see European voices adding their perspective to what has largely been an American dominated discourse– and likewise in praise of modernity, with which I most certainly do. His latest piece is also rather facile, ignoring the impact of a thousand years of Christianity’s impact on Portugal and the surrounding nations. In fact, it almost seems as though Helio is speaking in favor of a secular polytheism, something I hope never, ever to see and it’s that very idea that I’m going to speak to here today.
Before I progress, since modernity is at the heart of our disagreement, I want to take a moment to articulate what I mean when I talk about this idea. There’s going to be a lot of discussion in this article about culture and society and their influence on us. When I talk about modernity, I’m talking about a set of attitudes that shaped our modern world. It is the way that we have been taught from birth to position ourselves in the world, to look at our relationships with our society and everything in it, to engage with concepts of identity, responsibility, personhood and yes, religion. (1)Where do we fall in the grand cosmic scheme of things? What are our responsibilities to our world? How does our world function and what is our part in that? How are our values shaped, what gains priority in our lives? Modernity is what has shaped all of us to some extent or another and it’s what shaped the way we fit into the larger world. It’s what teaches us how to evaluate right and wrong, and how to balance self versus collective entitlements. It’s the lens through which we translate every experience…unless we consciously choose a different way.
Helio is correct when he posits that as Americans we’re shaped by our culture, (everyone is shaped by their culture) including the deep fundamentalist strains of religion that have defined the American religious experience from the time the Pilgrims first set foot in the north. This does have a deleterious effect on some branches of polytheism (I would lay much of the fault I find with certain approaches to and branches of Heathenry at the feet of American religious fundamentalism for instance, something I’ve written about extensively in my thesis and elsewhere). It also means that we must fight to carve out space for polytheisms within our cultural milieu in a way that perhaps isn’t quite so necessary in Europe. Religion is not in any way a “non-issue” here.
Likewise, at the same time, we also have to fight against the incursion of elements hostile to polytheistic belief and praxis insinuating their way into our traditions: atheists, humanist-pagans, new-agers and those unwilling to in any way accommodate polytheism but more than happy to demand polytheism accommodate them. It may indeed seem at times like a cultural war zone. That is not, however, to say that the European perspective is any better, particularly when one rests on one’s laurels as having been native-born European making that the foundation of one’s polytheism. The gulf between modern Europe and pre-Christian Europe is very wide, inheritance of language and folklore not withstanding.
I’ll preface the rest of this piece by saying that my mother was Swiss and I spent many years in Europe, mostly Italy, Switzerland, and a little bit in Germany. She and I had many a discussion and debate over the state of polytheism in Europe and the US. Her description of religion in Europe now, which I pretty much saw played out, was that it was a completely private thing. It wasn’t something that impacted one’s external public life. Part of this emphasis on this rather egalitarian secularism historically came about as a reaction to the devastation of religious war after religious war, so it’s understandable. Given the depredations of monotheism I’m not sure I can blame them.
In his recent piece, Helio also obliquely criticizes the idea of polytheism as counter-culture. I agree with him to a point. At least in cultural studies in the US, that term is usually applied to movements like the hippies in the 1960s. That’s not my polytheism. We do today have a growing number of leftist polytheists who are very vocal about the need to challenge capitalism. That’s not my polytheism either. I’m not a polytheist because I want to challenge the dominant social hierarchies. I challenge the dominant social hierarchies because they are out of alignment with what my polytheism teaches me is right and just. I come to very different conclusions than my more leftist colleagues about just where that ought to lead. So counter culture maybe, but not, I think in the way that Helio implies in his article. I think as polytheists we should very much be counter any culture that does not support and reinforce our polytheisms.
I have to think about that very carefully as I let these words rest on the page because they require a bit of unpacking. The European model as I both understand and have experienced it is one in which one’s religion is a solely private thing with little to no impact on the way one relates in one’s daily life to friends, family, the government, the economy, politics, etc. etc. There’s a deep division between the public and private spheres of life and religion falls clearly in the latter. I don’t find that particularly reflective of how ancient polytheists engaged with their religion or their world and perhaps this is the heart of the difference of opinion between Helio and me. I think in order to restore our traditions cleanly today, we need to at least consider the mindset of our pre-Christian forebears, rather than simply attempt to fit our polytheism into our modern way of doing things without consideration.
I’ll use Roman religion as an example since that is the point of greatest overlap in our conversations. When I approach Roman religion, I’m bringing my piety and devotion to the Gods but also seven years training as a Classist. I’ve been working within a PhD program, studying Latin, Greek, reading ancient writers in their own words and language, parsing the language, studying the literature, and focusing (in my case, as my specialty) on ancient religion, what it was, how it was practiced, and how it intersected with the culture. The two things work together to reinforce my understanding of the proper way to approach the Gods. Piety, what the Romans called ‘pietas’ was indistinguishable from their civic identity. There was no separation of Church and State in ancient Rome. To be pious, one was involved in the civic life of one’s nation and to be civic minded meant also to be pious, to be a person who maintained their obligations to the Gods in right order. Now obviously we don’t have a State cultus deorum so how we express our civic consciousness will be different from an ancient Roman. Julia Ergane put it beautifully when, in speaking of the Roman religious values of ‘pietas,’ ‘civitas,’ and ‘virtus’ she said:
“I have tried to live my life as closely as I could to these ideals. I have served my greater society by being a part of its defense force (USAF). I followed this with a career in psychiatric librarianship with the State. I will never be rich in monetary terms; however, I believe that I have lived richly and with honour. This is all we can do, which is why I raise my arms in worship of the undying, eternal Gods.”
I do not believe that religion is merely an expression of social unity as so many scholars of Religious Studies and sociology have written but neither do I think that one can necessarily parse the two apart.(2) Religion was never a completely private matter in the ancient world. (3) Part of maintaining right relationship with the Gods was positioning oneself in one’s relationship within the world in a way that reinforced one’s religious values (and vice versa). Religion was neatly integrated into one’s daily life. It impacted the choices one made. It impacted the development of one’s character as a human being by virtue of those choices.
In our twitter discussion, Helio commented that we couldn’t have values as polytheists because we don’t have revealed scriptures or a rigid moral code like the Abrahamic faiths. I’ll admit I was a bit floored with this line of thinking because it’s really rather like comparing apples and oranges. Values are not dependent on a religious book and many ancient polytheistic philosophers from Plato to Socrates to Aristotle on down the line would like argue that if one needs negative reinforcement from some external source to be a person of character, to have values, to be a moral human being than one’s character isn’t particularly good. Polytheists did not, it is to be admitted, look specifically to their religions for their social values. They looked to philosophy and to the culture and society in which they lived. At the same time, that culture and society was shaped by reverence for the Gods to some degree, an acknowledgement of Their role in the process of being. The Gods and Their requirements were taken into account socially. There was an intertwining and interdependence. One of the reasons that I so question modern Weltanschauung is that we have that today too, except for us the religion that most influenced our societies in the West is Christianity. Even if one has a secular society, the definition of religion against which that secularism most often defines itself is Christian, or at least monotheistic. Secularism defines itself by what it is not and that negative ontology is for the most part, Christian.
I would go so far as to say that our secular societies are shaped as much by Christian hegemony as modernity itself. That makes them something to be questioned, not accepted blanketly at face value as some sort of unmitigated “progress.” Driving devotion underground and out of the public eye is not something most ancient polytheisms would necessarily have understood (unless we’re talking specifically about mystery cultus). No one is arguing against social advancement (like re-evaluating and improving the role of women in a society (4)) though I think to lay them at the feet solely of modernity is perhaps short sighted. We will never know where we might be today had Christianity not interrupted the creative and social development of polytheistic culture.(5) What we are saying is that the way that we are taught to position ourselves in the world as religious people, is radically different if polytheism is the lens through which one views one’s existence rather than if “modernity” is.
What are the factors that shaped modernity? One of them was a dismissal of the need or role of religion in one’s active life. Another was positioning humanity at the highest point on the cosmic hierarchy. Neither of these positions is one that I believe is particularly compatible with clean polytheism. I question whether the real issue isn’t modernity so much as a resistance toward allowing one’s polytheism to impact one’s life outside of rigidly self-determined times of ritual engagement.
As modern polytheists to embrace the ancient polytheistic type of pietas is to completely reevaluate and reorient our personal identity and our place in the world. For some people, as Virginia Carper so ably pointed out here, it causes a psychic split that just cannot be reconciled. I think that’s part of the challenge facing us as we restore our polytheisms today.
- Philosopher Slavoj Žižek discusses this in his “Pervert’s Guide to Ideology,” i.e. the idea that ideology is not simply imposed upon ourselves. According to Žižek , it is our “spontaneous relationship to our social world, how we perceive each meaning’ and he points out that “stepping out of ideology is a painful experience”. So criticizing modernity is to criticize an ideology itself, not our technologies, not our social advancements but an underlying ideology that tells us how to be and what to value. I’m not the only polytheist to begin engaging with some of this. I would highly recommend Sarenth Odinsson’s post here.
- Most notably, the father of sociology Emile Durkheim considered religion a manifestation of the social glue that binds a society together. He wasn’t wrong, per se, but neither is that all religion is. See his “Elementary Forms of Religious Life.”
- Ironically though, one doesn’t see conquest and war specifically in the name of religion or one God until the advent of monotheism.
- the position of women is the example that I’ve seen most often given in pro-modernity arguments. In many places, women actually lost rights with the coming of Christianity so if the position of women went down, and only with modernity did it begin to change for the better, how much more might it have evolved had we not had that unfortunate interregnum?
- We do know that even the ancients questioned, for instance, the institution of slavery, often arguing that it dehumanized both the one enslaved and the one enslaving. Likewise the role of women was discussed and debated. There really is nothing new under the sun and to assume that social concerns were only truly addressed with the coming of modernity is at best blissfully naïve.