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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  • > 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”.

    I think that’s interesting too. It’s probably due to historical uses of the term; over time, it underwent a drift toward non-theism, so when we got to the twentieth-century, it came to mean “God is all (material) things.” Then theologians had to coin the term “panentheism” to put the theism back in pantheism.

    Sam Webster thinks this is dumb: http://witchesandpagans.com/EasyBlog/transcendental-hogwash.html

    I’d like to do the research to find out when and how the term drift happened, but who knows when I’ll get around to that. 🙂

    • Henry Buchy

      it might be interesting to seek out the when and how, more interesting is the “why”. I do a lot of sussing out the origins of words, and how they change in meaning. I’ve come to the conclusion that the changes in usage of many terms is due to sectarian and/or political reasons. In the ‘west’, I would include ‘religious’ reasons under politics. In some cases, the definitions are expanded from general characteristics to specific characteristics which really aren’t implied in the basic sense or basic definition, which in many respects are pretty neutral, in the sense of moral/ethical imputations. They become clubs to beat people with.
      I’m not sure I’d consider pantheism drifted towards non theism as much as it was coined in objection to Cartesian dualism, at least in the west. I would agree that it later took on aires of a non theism, though the ‘theism” here was ideas around anthropomorphic theism, and I would tend to agree panentheism developed to remedy that trend.

  • As an interesting question related to this matter, I wonder if all of Paganism itself is suffering from the same problem that American discourse seems to suffer; that is, the difference between a label that denotes ascribing to a belief or tendency, and a label which denotes a practice.

    Let’s move it out of the realm of religion altogether for a moment, if you don’t mind. Consider “Capitalist.” I run into this quite often when speaking about Capitalism, as many people who identify themselves as Capitalist actually are not.

    How can I say that? Because “capitalist” (as a noun, not an adjective) specifically denotes a person who engages in capitalist accumulation and re-investment. That is, a person who hires (exploits) labor on behalf of his or her capital. I’m not a Capitalist because I do not hire any workers, nor do I possess any capital. The small, single business owner without employees is, likewise, not a capitalist.

    On the other hand, Capitalism as a system functions as an adjective (Capitalist exploitation would be an example), and people who think Capitalism is a good idea might identify themselves as Capitalist, even though they (according to the specific denotation of Capitalist) they are not.

    See how this may apply to Polytheism? If Polytheist, as the denotative form, describes someone who worships multiple gods, then Sannion and Galina are correct in suggesting that it shouldn’t be used by those who do not engage in the worship of multiple gods.

    If it functions on the other level as well (as merely a modality of belief, or an adjectival description of another form of belief), then anyone might describe themselves as such.

    But the secondary (adjectival, intangible definition) definitely functions as a way of muddying discourse, at least when speaking of Capitalism. In order to talk about the activities of a Capitalist, I often have to weave back to a more primary level of semantic agreement just to begin a conversation with many people, because on a more general level, “capitalist” has come to mean anyone living in a capitalist country, just like “American” might.

    As a matter of fact, I think this is probably the root of many, many of the conflicts about words. What constitutes polytheism to the “devotional polytheist” is practice, not only ascribing to the idea of many gods. One can be a Monotheist, for instance, while still acknowledging the existence of many gods–what matters is the practice.

    Does this seem like a good way forward?

    • It certainly makes a difference to me. There are even elements of Christianity in my symbolic cache, but I’m not Christian.

      Looking at it from the other side though, the devotional polytheistic community is trying to create community, a worthy cause. You kind of need a label to build around, and the more qualifiers you add (like “hard”, “devotional” etc.), the weaker the label becomes in a way. Likewise any use by someone not part of the community, dilutes the meaning and is, if not an attack, at least another obstacle to building that community.

      • True. And some of us definitely have elements of Christianity in our practice–tracing the vestiges of the worship of my gods, for example, has involved tracking through the places where it merged/hid within Catholicism and trying to extract what I can from what remained.

        An interesting thing to note, too, is that something can be “an attack” or an appropriation without ever having been thus intended. Consider those who, without understanding that they are contributing to the erosion of First Nation’s culture, dress up as “Indians” for Halloween. They mean no harm yet nevertheless contribute to appropriation and the erosion of what it means to be First Nations. Or, on a different level, how describing America’s current president as “a Socialist” makes it incredibly difficult for anyone to have conversations about what Socialism actually means. And again, “Fascist,” because Fascism is a very specific thing, and when I’m tempted to call my boss at work a “fascist” I’m both exaggerating and also diluting the meaning of a very real (and very bad) thing.

        I’m not comparing Polytheism to First Nations, Socialists, or Fascists (with the blogosphere the way it’s been lately, I feel like I need to add such caveats!), but I wonder–if indeed such diluted meaning at the very least creates obstacles to building community, what might be a good path through the minefield? As you note, constantly adding additional adjectives to “polytheist” to maintain a specific, concrete meaning also weakens the label. What do you think might be the balance between an individual’s desire to self-identify and a community’s need to create identification?

        • I don’t have any suggestions. Considering the battles that still go on over “Christian” (i.e., Mormons), I’m not optimistic about anyone discovering one soon. For the most part, I think we are able to function best by assuming a certain definition only when we are with our in-group, and not making assumptions when outside of that group.

        • Christopher Scott Thompson

          Except that other uses of the term polytheism don’t dilute the meaning, since the meaning was never restricted to the specific theology of hard polytheism except in the imaginations of people like Sannion. It means what it says- worship of many gods. A number of different theologies could reasonably be described with that word. I take it pretty personally that a handful of people have been trying to take control of a word I have been using to describe my religious practices since I was twelve years old. No ire directed at you btw- I enjoy your writing quite a bit.

          • Aw, thanks! I emailed you, by the way. : )

          • “I take it pretty personally that a handful of people have been trying to take control of a word I have been using to describe my religious practices since I was twelve years old.”

            Strange, that’s how I feel when people try to define polytheism as something other than worship of and/or belief in many gods.

  • Alyxander M Folmer

    Mr. Halstead,

    I am a huge fan of your work here, and I particularly enjoyed the last few posts. I was wondering if you would be interested in joining me for Tea Time 🙂

    • Absolutely! I’ll message you on FB and we’ll arrange a time.

  • Regarding your “side note,” please allow me the indulgence of quoting myself: “I find the mythic stories of… gods and goddesses… infinitely compelling, even if I don’t believe they have a real existence, so I guess that makes me a polytheistic atheist. How’s that for contradictory?” (NP group discussion, Sept. 2012)

    • Ahh, so YOU’RE the “polytheistic atheist” I’ve been hearing about!

  • thehouseofvines

    All this talking at each other isn’t really accomplishing anything. Want to have some pagan tea? I promise not to punch you in the nose. 🙂

    • I’d like that! Thank you for asking. I’ll FB you and we can arrange a day and time.

      • thehouseofvines

        Awesome! I’m really looking forward to this. You’ll have to shoot me an e-mail though – I don’t do FB.

    • I can’t find you on FB. I’ll try g+.

    • Or email me at allergicpagan [at] gmail

      • thehouseofvines

        doing so now!

    • We’re DEFINITELY gonna need a screenshot of this one, guys.

  • Henry Buchy

    that’s okay John 🙂
    heh, I’m a fundamentalist- I adhere to a few basic principles,( yes a dirty F word to be sure)
    I’m a polytheist- because I believe in the existence of many “gods”.
    I’m a pantheist- because I believe in the existence of all of them.
    I’m a dualist/monist/pluralist because I believe there are two irreducible principles, one of which is singular at its root, the other consists of a plurality.
    I’m led to believe these due to being an animist at heart.
    and none of it leads to a pair o’ ducks…

    • Did you just use polytheism and monism in the same paragraph?! 🙂

      • Henry Buchy

        yup, contrary to popular belief they are not mutually exclusive.

  • Y. A. Warren

    “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.” This should say it all. It is absolute two or three-year-old arrogance to insist that all see the sacred the same way as any one of us experiences what we consider sacred.

  • Helmsman Of-Inepu

    There are a number of terms, like Pantheism and Panentheism, Monism, Henotheism, etc which have specific meanings, and it might be more useful if people would use them where they apply. It reminds me of music school long ago, when the New Music folks were trying to expand the definition of music to cover things that didn’t involve sound in any way. “Performance Art” would have been a much more useful term. Or we should all just call ourselves “Christians” that happen to worship Baal. 😉

    • So I guess Nietzsche and the death of God theologians must have been talking about literal deicide?

    • And I guess you can’t be a monotheist if you believe God is Being (or the Ground of Being) instead of *a* personal being? It’s like the last 100 years of theology never happened.