Why I Don’t Call Myself a Polytheist

Why I Don’t Call Myself a Polytheist January 25, 2014

In the recent debate over my alleged misappropriation of the term “polytheist”, I think something small, but significant got lost in the debate: I never actually called myself a polytheist. The offending post was entitled “(Neo-)Paganism is Paradox”, and it listed nine theological concepts which characterize my Neo-Paganism, including panentheism, polarity, process, and … yes, polytheism. I explained that, to a Neo-Pagan like me, polytheism does not mean a belief in separate and distinct gods, but more of a belief in the plurality of manifestations of divinity. I made a note that this is different from the beliefs of “hard” or devotional polytheists. But at no point did I actually describe myself a polytheist. Maybe I’m splitting hairs, but I think there is a difference between saying that there is an element of polytheism in your theology and labeling yourself a polytheist. Still this post upset some people, because they felt I was appropriating a term to which I had no right, like calling myself Jewish without actually converting to Judaism.

At some point in the ensuing discussion, someone wrote that I was calling myself a “Jungian polytheist”. And many of the comments seemed focused on whether I had the right to call myself a polytheist. Again, this seemed a little strange, because I’ve never really considered myself a polytheist. My belief system does include elements of a kind of polytheism, but it also includes elements of animism, and I’ve never really called myself an animist either. (Interestingly, it seems that there is much less contention over the “animist” label. For example, consider how the Animist Blog Carnival is open to “pantheists, monists, naturalists, mystics, wildcrafters, foragers, eco-pagans, traditional indigenous lifeway keepers, sacred materialists, nature intuitives” including those “having other beliefs, like Vodou[n], Judaism, polytheism, atheism, Heathenry, astrology, etc. at the same time”.)

The commenter who said I was calling myself a “Jungian Polytheist” also linked to this post of mine at PaganSquare entitled “Polytheistic experience and Jung’s experience of the archetypes” in which I had tried to show that Carl Jung’s personal experience of archetypal images was similar in kind to how some polytheists have described their experiences of the gods. But nowhere in that post did I describe myself as a polytheist, or even a Jungian polytheist. If I were a polytheist, it would be of a Jungian variety, but I couldn’t recall actually describing myself this way.

So then I did a Google search for “Jungian polytheism” and “Jungian polytheist”, because I figured I must be missing something. And it turns out there was one post that I wrote back in January 2012 entitled “Spiritually, but not religiously, pagan”, in which (ironically) I discussed how I felt the Pagan community was moving away from my sense of what “Pagan” means. And while I did not actually refer to myself as a Jungian polytheist, in that post, I did refer to “Jungian ‘polytheism’ (a la David Miller)”, but “polytheism” was in quotes, indicating a polytheism only in a special sense.

There are a lot of terms I would use to label my religiosity first. Polytheism is in there somewhere, but probably at the end of a long list. More important to me are terms like “Pagan”, “Neo-Pagan”, “Jungian Neo-Pagan”, “Humanistic Pagan”, “Naturalistic Pagan”, “Pantheist”, “Spiritual Naturalist”, and “non-theist”.

On a side note, it’s kind of interesting that pantheism and non-theism (both terms I identify with) are not generally considered mutually exclusive categories, even though the word “pantheism” includes the word “theism”. See, for example, Michael Levine’s book, Pantheism: A Non-Theistic Concept of Divinity, as well as the Wikipedia entry for non-theism and Paul Harrison’s “Varieties of Pantheism”. If there can be a non-theistic pantheism, I wonder why there can’t be a “non-theistic polytheism”? (I found only a few references to “non-theistic polytheism” and “atheistic polytheism” through Google searches.) I suppose one good reason why you don’t see the term “non-theistic polytheism” much is because it’s confusing as hell — which, incidentally, is why I would not call myself a polytheist unless I either (1) was trying to confuse someone or (2) had a sufficient time to explain what that really means to me.

Anyway, I then came across this quote on another blog from Sannion, referring to me: “It doesn’t matter how clearly or reasonably we articulate our positions – he’s decided he’s one of us, definitions be damned, and anyone who doesn’t agree with him will suffer his allergic ire” (emphasis added).* That really shocked me! Not only have I never called myself a polytheist, but I really never said I was a hard polytheist or devotional polytheist or deity-centered or anything like the kind of polytheist that Galina Krasskova, Sannion, Anomalous Thracian, Sarenth, et al, are. I get that they believe that if you are not their kind of polytheist, then you are not any kind of polytheist. (We’ll just have to disagree about that.) But, in any case, I certainly never said I was part of their community.

So, just for the record, I don’t actually call myself a polytheist, hard or otherwise.  Yes, I do think there is such a thing as Jungian polytheism, but for clarity’s sake, I think it’s probably a good idea to put “polytheism” in quotes when talking about it in that sense.  And yes, there is an element of polytheism in my theology, in the sense that I believe the archetypes are gods and the psyche is the size of the earth.  But don’t worry, I won’t be changing the name of my blog to “The Allergic Polytheist” anytime soon.

Having said that, I’m not ready to say that any one group owns the copyright on the word “polytheist”, which will be the subject of my next post.

*Note: Incidentally, Sannion went on to say that I chose my religious identity as a form of “adolescent rebellion” and proceeded to take a quote from my blog out of context, even going so far as to leave off the beginning of the sentence he quotes. I would have commented on his blog, but he has the comments turned off (not that I blame him). If you care, here is the context:

“And I call myself a (Neo-)Pagan, because the image of the maypole-dancing, idol-worshiping, and fornicating-in-the-forest non-Christian calls to me. While others are called by the image of the Witch, the powerful woman on the margins of society, the healer and visionary. Of course, the Pagan and (even more so) the Witch archetypes are different from the Druid, in that they have strong negative connotations in our society. (I have never known someone to be called a Druid in a pejoritive sense.) But for some of us, it is precisely because these terms carry negative connotations that we embrace them and seek to reclaim them. Part of the reason I identify as (Neo-)Pagan is actually because the term is synonymous with irrelegion and hedonism for many Christians, and because my religion is so different from Christianity that some Christians don’t even recognize it as a religion. […] I like the challenge that the name ‘Pagan’ presents to others. And I suspect that many who identify as Witch feel the same.”

If that’s adolescent rebellion, well so be it.

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