Monday, 19 May 2008

Explaining Polytheism To An Atheist

At brandondedicant the author Brandon writes: "This is a conversation culled from the Neokoroi list. Unfortunately the thread was quickly hijacked by a flamer, and didn't get as many responses as might be hoped. Still, since He Epistole is short on submissions currently, I thought it might make for an interesting article." Here I add my answers (with a bit of modification to the format).

Aldrin - How would you explain your religion to an irreligious person, an atheist or a person who has never experienced religion?

An atheist colleague asked me this today: "Honestly, I really have no idea what your beliefs are and how it is different from traditional theism. All I know is that you are a polytheist (Greek/Roman gods). If you could elaborate on your belief... Are your god's sentient? Influence the earth today? Answers prayers. Makes themselves known to men and women? what makes you think they exist instead of say, the Hindu gods. Are they still gods in the traditional sense then? Is it deistic?"

How would you have an atheist understand/relate to our viewpoints as 'ethnic polytheists'?

The Atheist Interviews Todd Jackson, Brandon in Japan, and Aldrin Tanos

(a somewhat imaginary conversation)

Atheist - Thanks for taking the time to speak about your polytheism.

Todd - One of this can only be answered for yourself.

Brandon - I'll try to answer as best I can, speaking only for myself of course.

Aldrin - How is my theism different from traditional theism? I'm not sure what you mean by 'traditional theism'. I know for one that belief patterns can be extremely complex, that they cannot be so easily boxed as to how they should be be practised by individuals. But I suppose my theism is different from Mainstream Christian theism in the sense that I don't believe in the "supernatural". Everything that happens is natural. Everything has a rational explanation in nature. However this is not to say that rational experiences are to be devoid of spirituality. Thunder and lightning are natural phenomena with obvious rational explanations to us modern folk but at the same time a paganus like myself would certainly find something spiritual in watching them 'work it'.

In regard to the Greekness of my theology, I worship the Gods in a Greek approach amongst many understandings (I am a syncretist) but they are not really Greek. The gods are the gods. Raw forces of the universe. The only difference between my stand and that of the conventional western atheist's is that I try to build personal relationships with these forces and that I anthromorphise them guiltlessly.

Atheist - If you could elaborate on your belief... Like your version of the Nicene creed.

Todd - This isn't a credal religion. Hellenismos varied from city to city, and from era to era, over at least hundreds of cities and 1500 years. This creates a need for experience, for experiment. Instead of creed, Hellenismos has philosophy, myth, and prophecy - each of which requires interpretation. This process is the prehistory of modern science.

Brandon - Yes, as Todd said, it's not a credal religion. It's an orthopraxy (emphasis on practice) rather than an orthodoxy (emphasis on belief). I work with my gods, rather than believing in them per se. Let me explain that a bit:

For me there's a crucial difference between "believing in" and "working with" the gods. Strictly speaking, I don't believe in the gods, I suspend disbelief. Then I work with them as if they were distinct, real-existing entities, just seeing what happens. Philosophically this view is called Pyrrhonian Skepticism: in the absence of compelling evidence for or against a claim, the rational thing to do is suspend belief either way, and carry on in a spirit of inquiry.

I find that polytheism provokes a powerful response in me. Perhaps it is psychological, perhaps not. Whatever it is, it provokes a clearer and more compelling response than henotheism, duotheism, monotheism, etc. Being able to address a deity as a distinct, unique being in the world, not unlike a person, accesses something very basic and primitive. Call it anthropomorphism and I won't argue. It may very well be. At any rate, as a result, more of my being is stimulated in ritual. It just comes more natural, and provokes a more holistic response. And it allows for a more steady, grounded focus.

But again, that's just my belief, and I wouldn't say it's necessarily prevalent among the majority of polytheists.

Aldrin - I nod at Todd. Belief and practice for many modern pagans are not credal. Most of us believe that religion is experiential, experimental, and philosophical. Continuous thought, analysis, evaluation, and scrutiny of what one believes in is greatly encouraged.

Atheist - Are your gods sentient? Influence the earth today? Answer prayers? Make themselves known to men and women?

Todd - Yes, yes, yes and yes.

Brandon - I work with them that way, yes.

Aldrin -

Are my gods sentient?

I would believe so, swearing by personal experience, but I might find difficulty in proving that to the lot, so I will not. The sentience of gods (albeit non-human) are through personal interpretation.

Influence the earth today?

Yes, of course, as they have always had - do not (e.g.) thunder and lightning influence the earth today? Think of god as a synonym of force.

Answers prayers?

Prayer is not always about "asking something". In fact, to me, prayer is more of reflection, meditation, focus, grounding, etc. Asking for something would be a petition, one form of prayer/ritual. I do not believe in asking external forces for personal desires. Not always. Prayer to me is not faith but acknowledgment. The gods will not do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. By praying for safety every time I commute from my place to the office, I am not throwing the responsibility to some external force - I am acknowledging the fact that it is a dangerous world beyond my home and that I have to be extra alert, and practise cunning wit to ensure my safety. The God of Travellers protects those who keep their senses open on the road.

Makes themselves known to men and women?

Yes, they make themselves known day by day. At every point in our lives. They are there. But whether one translates their presence as sentient or not or what-have-you is subject to personal interpretation (yet again). If my history is correct, Yahweh was originally a Canaanite storm god (originally a Hurrian version of the Babylonian-Sumerian Ea-Enki, merged with the Canaanite El Elyon, Yam Nahar, and Baal Haddad). He was vengeful and arrogant to some people but could have been compassionate to others. No one can say for sure whether storms are vengeful or compassionate of course. At least not in the human sense. Yahweh, or Zeus for that matter, is just the way he is. It is in our various interpretations of him that differ.

Atheist - What makes you think they exist instead of say, the Hindu gods?

Todd - You're expressing this in Abrahamic formulas. The ancients, whether Hellenic, Egyptian, Indian or other, did not understand themselves as "following different religions" or even, necessarily following different Gods. It was always understood that the God spoken of as Dionysos in Hellas might be known under other names elsewhere.

And it was always understood that when one experiences the presence of a God and names that God Apollon, one is being only relatively accurate; the Gods cannot be fully known. So that Hellenismos means not yielding to a dogma - on faith - but walking into a vocabulary, inserting oneself into that vocabulary.

Brandon - And exclusivity is not implied. Just because the Greek gods exist, it doesn't mean other gods don't. Furthermore, we are not duty-bound to worship gods just because they exist. Quite to the contrary, we worship the ones that call to us, or that we feel called toward, and that we establish a relationship with. So even though we worship Greek gods, we don't have to also worship Hindu gods, Chinese gods, and so forth.

The precise relationships between gods of different peoples gets complicated. All kinds of theories have been proposed through the ages, and in the end it comes down to your personal interpretation. As Todd said, some ancient Greeks--though not all--were inclined to believe that foreign gods might be the same Greek gods worshipped under different names. Other polytheists, such as the Egyptians, saw god-names as able to be combined and separated somehow, sometimes worshipped as Amon-Ra, other times as Amon and Ra. So, it's complicated enough just comparing different polytheistic traditions. If you throw monotheist traditions in there too, where some traditions are making mutually exclusive claims, then it really gets fun.

Aldrin - I nod at both of you.

Atheist - Are they still gods in the traditional sense then?

Brandon - That depends what the traditional sense is, I suppose. If that means classical monotheism, where gods are characterized by omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience, then no they are not that way. If the traditional sense just means real-existing beings, in some respect outside the self, rather than some manner of allegory or archetypal expression wholly within the self, then yes, they are gods in that sense.

Aldrin - I am not sure what you mean by this. My understanding is that people have different ideas on what 'gods' are.

Atheist - Is it deistic?

Brandon - Again, that depends on the meaning of deistic.

If deistic just means theism again, i.e. divine beings really existing, as opposed to an atheistic or agnostic or other view, then yes, they are deistic.

If deistic means deism, i.e. a divine creator that does not interfere in the laws of nature, then no, they are not deistic. Mythically speaking, polytheist gods may or may not have created the world (in many traditions they just gave it its current order). They do act in the world. "Interfere" would be an unfair word though. IMO they are part of the world, not unlike us. They don't stand outside of nature, like a divine watchmaker. They grow out of it, just as we do. And when they act, they act through the laws of nature, not against them. For just about any phenomenon that a polytheist might express in divine terms, there can likely be found a "natural" or "scientific" explanation, without reference to deity. The difference IMO is what happens to the polytheist as a result of his/her working with divine terms--the "powerful response" mentioned above. This, in polytheist terms, is a divine blessing received, the power of communion.

There may be those who believe in miracles in the strong sense, as the impossible happening, divine will as against the laws of nature. But I know nothing of that. I speak for myself.

Aldrin - Wiki says: "Deism is the belief that there is a God that created the physical universe but does not interfere with it."

If this is what you mean by deism then, no, my belief system contains very little deism.

Atheist - Well, thank you for your opinions.

Brandon - Hope that helps.

Todd - In the Gods.

Aldrin - Those are not my best answers up there, but I tried. Fraternal feelings to you.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting, it's very similar to panentheism, but with a plurality of various forces rather than one.... and a much cooler set of mythologies.