Wyrd Words: Pointless Arguments (Part 1) – The Polytheism Debate

Greetings, and welcome back to Wyrd Words. Keeping the Thor in Thursdays, every other week here on Agora!

Everybody who has ever bothered to peruse the Pagan Blogosphere (or seen more than two Pagans try to have a conversation) knows that our community is constantly arguing with itself. We debate things like the proper application/interpretation of historical minutiae, the pros and cons of institutionalizing Paganism, and whether or not Twinkies are an appropriate sacrificial offering. Some of these conversations are important, and productive; others… Not so much. Thus, this week I am pleased to announce Wyrd Words’ newest series.

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PART 1

(The Polytheism Debate)

There’s been quite the debate buzzing around the Pagan Blogosphere recently, regarding the nature and interpretations of modern Polytheism. That is, if by “debate” you’re referring to the kind of passionate expositions one might find in a Kindergarten playground, and by “buzzing” you mean a spectacular fecal missile barrage, catapulted by a hundred angry monkeys on crack. For those of you who left your Galoshes at home today, or simply have no room for “Spelunking into a soul crushing pit of madness” on their itinerary, here’s the cliff-notes version.

Follow me! We can call it a rabbit hole if it makes you feel better.

THE ARGUMENT:

“Hard” polytheists believe that the gods are unique, individual, autonomous entities who deserve to be treated as such. Thus some among us view more syncretic/universalist/non-theistic rituals as being disrespectful to the gods. Meanwhile, various other groups within the Pagan community have a wide variety of theological opinions that they view as equally “Pagan”, which can lead to some interesting (and sometimes hilarious) miscommunications.  All of this was completely fine, until some of my fellow “hard” polytheists decided that holding a dissenting opinion was actually somehow an attack on our beliefs.

The most common claim seems to be that there aren’t enough “hard” polytheist voices within the pagan community, and because some popular bloggers promote different theological perspectives, we must be being oppressed, or silenced, or excluded.

WHY THIS ARGUMENT IS POINTLESS:

For starters, you’re arguing about theology. Mistake number one. Theology is the only spectator sport in the world with a 0% success rate. There’s no ball, the goal posts keep moving, and nobody knows the rules. I’m an unapologetic Polytheist; my wife is a Monotheist. We could all argue about theology until we’re blue in the face, but in the end we’re only debating a matter of faith, as neither of us has any objective evidence with which to support our case.

This is a dilemma I like to call “Schrodinger’s God.”

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Three guesses which one is me!

Theology is the sport of guessing what color your theoretical cat-in-a-box is. Good luck.

The second reason why this whole argument goes on my “Pointless Arguments” list, is the fact that Fox News could air this debate at Halloween and call it:

The War on Polytheism, with Bill O’Reilly.”

Seriously, since when do we Pagans use “They disagree with me, therefore I am being oppressed” rhetoric? It doesn’t make sense when THEY do it either.

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Little known fact: All Heathens carry axes around for just this purpose.

Nobody is forcing us to deny the gods. If my faith is so fragile that it can’t withstand being confronted by other people’s ideas, then that’s nobody’s problem but my own.

THE SOLUTION:

If you think that there aren’t enough “hard” polytheist voices out there, then get off your keister and speak up! If you’re already shouting your message to the heavens, then try to encourage others to do so as well!

If you see that your thoughts and opinions aren’t being represented on the major blog hubs, then start blogging! (If you’re not sure you have the skills, let me just remind you that approximately 1/6th of this article was stick figures holding boxes!)

If you believe that Non-Polytheist ritual celebrations are insulting or uncomfortable, then don’t go to them. Hold your own, it’s that simple. I do it all the time.

Remember, the Duotheists, the Syncretists, the Humanists, etc. are no less “Pagan” than we are. They’re just writing down their thoughts, exploring their beliefs, just like us. We don’t need to try and attack their position. Just make your case for your own beliefs, and let them stand on their own merit! If one person believes that “All gods are One,” that’s no skin off my nose, and I respect their beliefs even though they aren’t the same as mine. If we want the Polytheist perspective to be respected, then we need to respect the perspectives of others. It’s THAT SIMPLE.

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Don’t agree with me? GREAT! Don’t tell me, tell the world! Write about it!

*Note: I LOATHE the “Hard V.S. Soft” Polytheist terms. I use them here because I don’t have another phrase that everybody else will understand.


Wyrd Words is published on alternate Thursdays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

About Alyxander Folmer

Alyxander Folmer is a student of Anthropology at ASU, focused on analyzing and building religious communities. He is a devoted Heathen, and married to a Rabbi in training. Interest in Pagan interfaith relations lead him to join the committee for the formation of the Pagan Chapter at the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, where he hopes to utilize his training in community building and cultural exchange. The majority of his work can be located at http://www.heathenhof.com/

  • Mikal

    “Three guesses which one is me!”

    Too easy, only one of them has a beard.
    Next time I get into a religious debate with the wife I’m borrowing your “Schrodinger’s God”. May have to explain it, but I’m sure she’ll appreciate the humor.

    • xJane

      Yeah, Schrödinger’s God is the best description of all theology, ever.

      • Mikal

        It’s very fitting, I’ll give him that. I can’t get the Indiana Jones Lost Ark box out of my head every time i hear this now though for some reason.

        • Alyxander M Folmer

          Gah! RUN AWAY LITTLE STICK MEN! DON’T OPEN THOSE BOXES!!

        • xJane

          Hey, if you’re going to keep gods in a box, the Ark of the Covenant seems like the right kind of box.

    • Alyxander M Folmer

      When I brought it up to my wife, she tried to explain that “Schrodinger’s Cat” was about the concept of the unknown cat being both alive and dead at the same time, and that I was using it incorrectly. I told her she was ruining a perfectly good joke with facts! LoL

      • Swift Rabbit

        ^_^ That cracks me up because that was actually my first impulse in how you used “Schrodinger’s Cat” too. And then I said to myself “This is a case of you being too literal and just this side of trollish”.

        I adore that your wife went there for me cause she would know better what was appropriate.

        Anyhow, I still enjoyed the post. Good thoughts all around even if I like to knit pick.

  • http://b.rox.com/ Editor B

    This is so hilarious and so right-on. Thank you.

    • Alyxander M Folmer

      Pleased to be of service!

    • https://www.facebook.com/ThePaganNaturalist Nicole Youngman

      You beat me to it B. :) What actually scares me just a wee bit re: some of the more intense hard-polytheism how-dare-you-disrespect-us-by-disagreeing arguments is the underlying suggestion that 1) those of us with other theologies are insulting and angering the gods by not believing in them or honoring them properly; and therefore 2) we should stop believing/doing what we believe/do because 3) there will be consequences if we don’t. Not much different from Christian varieties of fundamentalism, methinks. (Yeah, I said it, let the screaming begin… :) )

      • Alyxander M Folmer

        -Now over to Bill O’Reilly for “The War on Polytheism!”
        :)

  • xJane

    Theology is the sport of guessing what color your theoretical cat-in-a-box is. Good luck.

    I am stealing this.

    I also love the line about the fragility of faith. I feel like that’s where a lot of these arguments lie—if you’re right, then I’m wrong, and I can’t bear that. See: the debate between Nye and Ham. One was secure in his position and willing to be talked out of it; the other was insecure and had to invalidate the other’s position in order to continue in his world-view. This is true even though necessarily only one of them can be right (just as in the spectrum of numbered gods—from many to none).

    • Alyxander M Folmer

      I’ve honestly just never understood arguing over Theology. It seems so silly to me, which is why I think this whole kerfuffle is pointless.
      (I’m also glad to see that so many of my fellow Pagans watched that debate! Comedy gold! LoL)

      • xJane

        I grew up in the Catholic tradition where arguing theology with other Catholics is part of spiritual/intellectual growth—and look at it more as a philosophical exercise. And I still love doing it (I love arguing with my Catholic friend because I know the arguments inside and out and can use them against him). My philosophical training (mostly Aristotelean) reinforces the idea that, in order to become more secure in your ideas, you should routinely exercise them with close friends (and, conversely, that your close friends are—and should only be—those who keep you intellectually on your toes).

        To that extent, I believe there is value in arguing the spectrum of numbered gods with people who disagree (even slightly—there’s no point in arguing with people who agree). But in the spirit of debate and friendship and intellectual inquiry. The base outcome of a debate is that each side better understands their own position. The best outcome is that each side better understands both positions.

        It’s only as pointless as life: there’s only one outcome (you’re not likely to change anyone’s mind) but the point is in the experience.

        • Alyxander M Folmer

          A lively debate for the sake of exploration is one thing. Fighting about and and calling each other names is quite another.
          That’s the point I was making :)

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/allergicpagan/ John H Halstead

    This was great! I loooooooooooved the drawings!

    • Alyxander M Folmer

      Years of training and hours blood, sweat, and tears, have culminated in my artistic masterpiece :P

      (Glad you got a chuckle out of it!)

  • Traci

    Hilarious!

    • Alyxander M Folmer

      Yay! Stick figure wisdom! LoL

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/awitchsashram/ A Witch’s Ashram

    YES. Loved this.

    • Alyxander M Folmer

      Pleased to be of service! Glad you enjoyed. :)

  • Bill Noble

    SIXTY SEVEN CATS FOR VALHALLA!!!

    • Daniel Ballard

      INFIDEL!!! Clearly, there are only 66!

  • Christopher Scott Thompson

    Love it.

  • Laurie J. Lahr

    Thank you, It is just what I’ve been trying to explain to my family, but couldn’t put into words.

    • Alyxander M Folmer

      If only this argument worked on MY family!!

      I have some terrifyingly conservative relatives that love to tell me I’m going to hell. I usually tell them they’re probably right, but they’re spelling it wrong! LoL

      • Laurie J. Lahr

        Only one of my sisters understand and my other family members who know, pretend they don’t. I am not supposed to bring it up either, and I am 55 years old. Oh well..Good luck to you.

        • Alyxander M Folmer

          The funniest part about the situation, is the fact that my Mormon step mother, and Rabbi mother-in-law, are both FINE with having a kid who doesn’t follow their religion. But my actual genetic mother? She thinks I’m going to hell. My family is like a real live soap opera at times :)

  • Kim Martin Bannerman

    Words can’t properly express how happy I am that you wrote this. We’re all Pagan. What we all believe is going to be a little different than other folks. It’s what makes us the dynamic community that we are. It’s interesting to me to hear other’s beliefs and practices. Bravo! Thank you :)

    • Alyxander M Folmer

      Pleased to be of service!
      I feel like there are perfectly valid debates that we could be having, that might lead to productive growth. We just aren’t having them because we’re to preoccupied with trivial things like this!

  • g75401

    Love it. I’m a half Scot half German pagan and, after lots of reading about Celtic stories, I was called to explore heathenism. The result of my readings? There is more alike than there are differences. And, of course, we hear different things in our life paths. Each is true for the person on the path. So I celebrate the presence of the cat in the first place-if your box has 67 of them, even better!

    • Alyxander M Folmer

      It just seems silly to argue over things that we can’t prove anyway. It’s like debating which color is “Best”.

      P1- “I like Blue.”
      P2- “and I like green!”
      P1- “YOU’RE WRONG!”
      P2- “but you just said…”
      P1- “YOU DISHONOR MY ANCESTORS!!!!”

  • Alley Valkyrie

    “If my faith is so fragile that it can’t withstand being confronted by other people’s ideas, then that’s nobody’s problem but my own.”

    Oh thank you, thank you for that quote as well as this article. I’ve been watching this debate go back and forth for months and months now, and you’ve nailed my feelings on this exactly.

    I fall into the “hard” polytheist camp, even though I can’t stand that phrasing either, but I’m greatly offended at the way that some folks are trying to claim “polytheism” as a distinct identity and then engaging in privilege/oppression-based identity arguments with everyone else who doesn’t agree. They’re speaking for me just as much as they’re screaming bloody murder about others who are supposedly speaking for them. To me, the Gods are real. But I don’t feel the least bit “oppressed” if someone who sees things from John Halstead’s perspective also calls himself a “polytheist”. And I resent the fact that a very loud vocal minority is militantly drawing lines in the sand over this subject. My 67 cats don’t care what anyone else believes.

    So yes, thank you.

    • Alyxander M Folmer

      EXACTLY!
      Honestly I’m pleased this article is going over so well. It’s nice to know that there are plenty of us out there that can see why this kind of infighting is destructive.
      I really expected more resistance.

  • http://ourpantheons.org/ Troy Young

    Thank you so much! I too am weary of the polytheism debate and wish we Pagans of all stripes could set such topics on the back burner and work together on projects that are beneficial to all.

    • Alyxander M Folmer

      I agree completely!
      So! Assume you had the power to direct the conversation in any way you wanted. What do YOU think the Pagan community should be talking about? Where would you focus our efforts?

  • http://endlesserring.wordpress.com/ Treeshrew

    An absolutely brilliant summary of the whole kerfuffle. Thanks for writing it, you’ve said what I wanted to far better than I ever could!

    • Alyxander M Folmer

      Kerfuffle is one of my favorite words :P

  • http://spinningofthewheel.wordpress.com/ Áine Órga

    This is absolutely brilliant and so spot on. :)

  • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

    You know we can open the box, right?
    My response: http://paganarch.com/2014/02/09/gods-in-boxes-a-modest-proposal/

    • Alyxander M Folmer

      Great response!

      I would have left a comment, but I didn’t see a comment section. So I shared your article on Facebook. :)

      As far as opening the box goes, the main point of my example was to illustrate that theology is a matter of faith, not fact. I can no more “Prove” Odin, then two-thousand years of Christian apologists have been able to “Prove” YHWH. The box is an allegory for the absence of objective evidence.
      I’ve talked to Skadi, and I firmly believe she’s there. HOWEVER, I can offer nothing but my word on that. To anybody who wasn’t there, I might as well be telling campfire stories, because there’s no “proof”. That’s the box.

      My intent was not to imply that Theology is pointless to pursue; my intent was to explain why it’s pointless to FIGHT over it. To pull an example I used in another comment, it’s a bit like fighting over which color is “best”.

      • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

        Thank! Replied back on the post, and also, hey! Let’s have tea. : )

        • Alyxander M Folmer

          I’d love to! Superheated infusion of free radicals and tannen—just the thing for heating the synapses!

  • WAH

    “All of this was completely fine, until some of my fellow ‘hard’
    polytheists decided that holding a dissenting opinion was actually
    somehow an attack on our beliefs.”

    Um, no. This is a gross misrepresentation of most of the “hard” polytheists you speak of. The problem is not “dissenting opinion” (“dissenting” against what? We’re talking about the mainstream Pagan opinion here), the problem is presenting one’s opinion as representative of all. When polytheist Pagans (a category I don’t include myself in, by the by) complain it’s typically in response to someone blind to the actual diversity of Paganism saying “Paganism is X,” where X = their particular religious or theological views. The argument isn’t about theology, the argument is about misrepresentation of minority voices within Paganism, a problem that you’re contributing to with this post.

    “because some popular bloggers promote different theological perspectives, we must be being oppressed, or silenced, or excluded.”

    I’ve never seen someone say that the bloggers are the source of oppression or exclusion or silencing. It’s an illustration of that dynamic, but every time this issue comes up many polytheists post about their own experiences with the Pagan community, experiences that are routinely ignored, silenced, or excluded (kinda like you’re doing now by writing off their complaints as being internet butthurt, instead of responding to what they’re actually saying). And again, the bloggers promoting their theological perspectives isn’t the problem, the problem is them promoting those perspectives as representative of all or most of Paganism.

    ““They disagree with me, therefore I am being oppressed” rhetoric?”

    Um, no one is saying this. The more I organize my response, the more I see that this entire post is based on a straw-man of the people you’re referring to. And a rather shallow straw-man at that.

    “If you think that there aren’t enough “hard” polytheist voices out there, then get off your keister and speak up! If you’re already shouting your message to the heavens, then try to encourage others to do so as well!”

    Wow! I’m sure no polytheist has every thought of that! Thanks for solving the problem! /s In reality, most of the polytheists who are upset have been doing *exactly this*, some of them for many years. And you know what they’ve experienced? An entrenched party-line Paganism unwilling to self-examine or change in order to welcome actual diversity that it constantly touts itself as respecting.

    Here’s what happens: Polytheist tries to get involved in Paganism. Pagans organize things around their own beliefs and practices that they are comfortable with. Polytheist brings up wanting to represent their beliefs and practices more in the community. Pagans either rebuff polytheist in various ways, or simply treat them as a token and usually try to reinterpret the polytheist’s ways as synonymous with the the Pagan party-line, thereby preserving their comfortable notion that “all Pagans X.” They then vehemently argue that their reinterpretation is correct and that the polytheist is being the jerk for disagreeing.

    Repeat cycle a few times, and eventually polytheist says “screw it” and divorces from the Pagan community to go their own way. Pagans then act bewildered and piss and moan about “losing diversity in the community” that they didn’t really have in the first place. Polytheist then complains that this dynamic drove them from the Pagan community and that it isn’t being addressed, to which Pagans respond with, “there is no problem with Paganism! The problem is with you! Work harder! Work harder!” and the polytheist, who has previously worked rather hard, thanks, doesn’t fall for that argument and continues on their own direction away from the Pagan community.

    I’ve watched this occur many times with my fellow polytheists who unwisely cling to their attachment to “the Pagan community.” It’s a real problem, and it’s not a problem whose fault sits only on the shoulder of polytheists, regardless of Pagan histrionics to the contrary. As long as Pagans refuse to self-analyze and own up to their own part in the problem, the issue will continue until there isn’t a “hard” polytheist left in Paganism. Which, in my opinion, is probably the best outcome.

    A personal question, if you don’t mind, your byline says you are a “second generation Heathen” and your blog mentions that your dad is a “Pagan with Taoist leanings” and your mom is a Christian. What’s your math on that?

    • Alyxander M Folmer

      Wow! Big one. Okay, I’ll tackle this as best I can.

      The issue I was mostly focusing on in this article was a recent blog-feud. I contemplated trying to expand out and cover other related issues, but that proved to be a lot of ground to cover in a 1000 word article.
      The issue of the “wicca centric” model of communal Paganism is well known and much discussed, and a perfectly valid issue that needs to be worked on.
      What I’m talking about in this article is a nasty back and forth blog war over theology, which is silly. I would have given more context, but my goal was not to goad those involved, it was to point out the issues with the arguments being made.
      When I said “some of my fellow ‘hard’ polytheists decided that holding a dissenting opinion was actually somehow an attack on our beliefs”, it was because I had watched several bloggers (who were not afraid to discuss their own ideas/models for Paganism) attack other bloggers for doing EXACTLY THE SAME THING. Which is, silly, and a suitable topic for a satirical article containing stick figures! :)

      As far as “unwisely clinging to our attachment to the Pagan community.”, I’m very sorry that your friends had negative experiences. I am a Polytheist, who’s fairly active in the Pagan community, and I’ve NEVER had an issue. Nobody has EVER told me that my theology is wrong, or attempted to exclude me because of it. At the same time, I’ve also never taken issue with the theology of others, because that would be silly. :P

      In regards to the personal question, the answer is unfortunately devoid of cloaks, daggers, and intrigue. The original bio explained that I was a second generation Pagan, and then explained that I was a practicing Heathen. Unfortunately, the amount of room we have in those tiny little bio-blurbs is very limited. So it got condensed to “second generation Heathen”. I’ve been contemplating how to better explain that in such a limited space, but as you saw on my blog I’m not shy about it and I’m perfectly wiling to explain my “origins”.
      It wasn’t an attempt to mislead (which would have been a terrible idea on my part because my story is plastered all over the internet), it was just a limitation on space.
      I hope I hit on the important bits here, and I’m sorry for the confusion.

      • WAH

        Ah, ok. I thought it was a more general reference, my bad. I haven’t
        been paying attention to much of the blog feuding for the past while, so
        the little bit I have seen didn’t really cover everything apparently.
        Sorry if the tone of my comment was a bit rough.

        “Unfortunately, the amount of room we have in those tiny little
        bio-blurbs is very limited. So it got condensed to “second generation
        Heathen”.”

        I figured it was something like that. Thanks for the clarification.

        • Alyxander M Folmer

          No worries!
          Sorry about the confusion. I’m glad I could help clarify.

  • Hrafn Skald

    Interesting article.

    I agree 100% that the idea of oppression is a waste of time, and that we should accept that different people follow different paths, and should be free to do so.

    Where I disagree is on the virtue of pagan unity and outreach, or “Why the heck are we in a room together?”.

    Simply put, as a hard polytheist heathen, I worship in my own way, with those who honor our Gods in a similar fashion, and see nothing to be gained by hanging out with those who treat our Gods in a fashion that makes me want to reach for the metaphorical axe. Spending time around people that act in a way that makes you angry is a waste of time and energy.

    For me, a big part of the problem, I would even say the source, is this idea that we need to be pushed together and locked in the room labeled paganism, where inevitably people will disagree. This inevitably pushes groups together that could easily coexist in harmony with sufficient space and boundaries.

    The issue is not that hard polytheists and pantheists don’t get along, or how many cats are in the box, the issue is that some moron thinks we need to be trapped in the same room arguing.

    Space and boundaries make good neighbors. Let heathens be heathens, pagans be pagans, let wiccans be wiccans, and we can all both get along and worship separately, in peace, each in our own ways.

    Just my take. YMMV.
    Frith,
    Hrafnskald

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