In the past week I must have seen a half dozen articles, essays and blogs attacking polytheism. Some were from Christians, others from atheists. Some were mocking, others were rational. Some appealed to the authority of scientistic materialism, others appealed to the authority of scripture. But all of them thought polytheism was important enough to devote writing time and publishing space to counter it.
Though even the Big Tent of Paganism is still comparatively small, we’re no longer small enough to be ignored. Paganism in general and polytheism in particular aren’t proselytizing religions, but we are growing rapidly, and at least a few people are seeing us as a credible threat to their own religion.
Unless someone is spreading misinformation, lies or slander, I see no reason to rebut these essays. The writers are attempting to keep their flocks in the fold, which is understandable. But they aren’t always successful – some of their followers are finding polytheism a more attractive alternative.
There are good reasons for this trend.
Polytheism addresses the diversity of human culture. The Middle East is a very different place from Northern Europe. The geography, climate and history are different. While much of human experience is universal, these local differences have driven local adaptations: some physical, some cultural and some religious. Though mobility and the internet have broken down much of our isolation, these differences still present themselves, in individuals if not in groups. Polytheism recognizes that different people have different languages, different customs, and different gods.
Polytheism addresses the realities of Life. As John Michael Greer says in A World Full of Gods (the best modern presentation of polytheistic theology I’ve found yet):
It can be argued that the universe, with all its evils and miseries, is consistent with the existence of a single, unique, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent god, but that claim is hard to defend and open to forceful challenge. The claim that evil and suffering are consistent with the existence of a large number of limited gods, on the other hand, encounters no such difficulties. From this standpoint it’s reasonable to say that traditional polytheism is a more straightforward explanation for the world we actually experience than classical monotheism.
Polytheism provides an honest response to the problem of evil. Monotheists argue there is only one god and he is all-good and all-powerful. Why, then, is there evil in the world? If the god of the monotheists can prevent evil and chooses not to, he is not good. If he would like to prevent evil but cannot, he is not all-powerful. Theologians and philosophers have struggled with this question for 3500 years and have come up with a variety of explanations, none of which are entirely satisfying.
The rain god and the wind god do not act everywhere all the time; that is a matter of common experience. The goddess of justice does not act everywhere all the time; that, too, is a matter of common experience … Maybe you would prefer the universe to function in some other way, but it does not, and it makes a good deal more sense to acknowledge that fact than it does to condemn [polytheism] because it does acknowledge that fact.
As Greer explains, the problem of evil simply isn’t an issue in polytheism. Our gods and goddesses are neither all-powerful nor all-good. Like so much of Life, they simply are.
Polytheism provides a personal connection to Nature. Both evolutionary biology and our own intuition tell us we are a part of Nature, not separate from it. More and more people are coming to understand that reverence for Nature is not only beneficial on a personal level, it may very well be critical for our long-term survival as a species.
For some, worshipping Mother Earth is enough. Others are content to honor what they see as God’s creation. But many of our goddesses and gods have a direct connection to Nature: Poseidon is a god of the sea, Nut is a goddess of the sky, Cernunnos is a god of the forest. It is easier to form a meaningful relationship with an individual than with a concept.
Polytheism promotes cooperation and understanding. If there are many gods, there are many ways to worship and honor them. The god who called me may not have called you and vice versa – your beliefs and practices may be very different from mine. If I visit your temple (even if your temple is a small altar on the top of your dresser) I am not being unfaithful to my gods if I honor yours. I’m simply being a polite guest.
Much religious discord is simply a cover for political discord – issues of power and control. Polytheism is no panacea for these problems. But to the extent that the respect for religious diversity inherent in polytheism removes religious discord, it focuses attention on the true source of the problems.
Religions rise because they address the concerns of the people who follow them – and they fall because they don’t. A good religion provides a framework for understanding the world and interpreting experiences. A good religion teaches spiritual practices to draw us closer to the gods and each other. A good religion promotes values that help its followers live meaningful lives, both individually and collectively.
For a growing number of people, polytheism and its various Pagan expressions are doing a better job of this than the mainstream religions.
It’s still very early in the game, but we are winning.