The Discreet Charm of Polytheism
By Jessa CrispinNovember 9, 2014
A Million and One Gods: The Persistence of Polytheism by Page duBois
HERE IS THE EVOLUTION of religion, as we understand it:
For a while, we believed in magic. Not only did we believe in it, but we believed that it was us who made the sun rise, the crops ripen, and the animals needed for food appear. We believed that the trees, the rocks, the earth, and the sun were all divine, and that we could manipulate them to our will with the proper rites and reverence. But that was wrong, so things changed.
For a while, we believed in polytheism. We thus believed that for every urge, every aspect of human life, every natural occurrence, there was a god or goddess. We also believed that we were at their mercy, and that they could be persuaded to show us favor with the proper observances. Our daily lives were intricately enmeshed in our religious beliefs, as every act we performed and every emotion we felt had a corresponding divine being. And our attention to that correspondence gave meaning to our lives. But that, too, was wrong, so things changed again.
For a while, we believed in monotheism. Our God was a jealous God, so it became important to proselytize and convert others who did not believe. It was crucial, we thought, that the entire world share our one, jealous God. Our God was our one observer and judge, our only source of consolation and assistance. Because there was only the one God who stood between us and either eternal life or eternal torment, we were given a list of rules about what exactly our God wanted from us. It became important not only that we obeyed these rules, but also that all of humanity obeyed them. But this, too, turned out to be wrong, and so things changed.
Now we believe in science. We believe that the universe is knowable, and that our understanding of it is attained through empirical observation, logic, and rational thought. We believe that we are here by accident, by a series of causes and effects. One day we will know and understand the original cause and the final effect.
And we are totally sure we have it right this time.
This is a very Western timeline. As Page duBois points out in her book A Million and One Gods: The Persistence of Polytheism, the West tends to forget that polytheism does still exist, and that it did not naturally evolve into a monotheistic system. Indeed, sometimes it forgets that religious belief exists at all, and isn't just some form of massive societal delusion. In any event, when we do talk about religion in our culture, for the most part, we mean monotheism. Everything else is shoved under the dismissible heading of “Other.”
In A Million and One Gods duBois attacks the misconception that polytheism is a more primitive form of religion and that monotheism is a more logical and ethical progression, representing just one stop on the way to scientific materialism, which is the truth drained of all superstition. In this reading of history, the polytheism that exists today, from Hinduism to Wicca to whatever that whole Yoga-Kabbalah mix thing is, is simply a regression, an embarrassing reminder of man’s inclination to cling to superstition and fantasy.
We like this clear-cut development because we like to believe that progress is a real thing: that we are all moving towards getting everything right. Once we were really foolish, then just foolish, then less foolish, and now we’re finally okay, we have things figured out, or at least we’re not far from that. Maybe if we just manage to smash some atoms together in a certain fashion, all will be revealed. That makes us feel better about ourselves and where we are in the human story.
In Ioan P. Couliano’s indispensable Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, he tacks a little bomb to the book’s last page. Atheism and the scientific mindset, he writes, are simply an outgrowth of the Reformation. They are not progress (a concept he rejects out of hand), but part of the same trajectory.
We have some idea about the Reformation: that it was a necessary response to a corrupt Church, that it tamed indulgence and hypocrisy. Mostly what the Reformation involved, though, was an attack on the imagination. Art and imagery was labeled “idolatry,” smashed up and burned. The worship of women in the form of the Virgin Mary — long worshiped as a mother goddess by Catholics until the Church pretty much gave up trying to correct them on that — and saints was forbidden. Religious services were no longer transcendent sensory experiences: they were now lectures and arguments.
The Reformation also ripped the individual out of the religious community. No longer did he or she need to seek out guidance; his or her own reading and interpretation of the Bible was enough. No longer did a priest need to absolve you of your sins; you could confess to God and receive forgiveness from him directly. No longer were sins deposited at the feet of a clergyman who would then negotiate with God on your behalf. Now it’s all up to you to approach God unprotected, to constantly monitor your own behaviors lest you overlook one, forget to ask forgiveness, and end up in eternal hellfire. This is a surprisingly efficient method of societal control: instill in an individual not only the responsibilities of personal judge and jury, but also make confession and forgiveness such a tightly wound loop that even thinking about sin becomes a sin.
Eventually this logical, abstract way of thinking about the divine became an equally logical and abstract way of looking at the world. God became knowable, and so did the world. The substitution, then, was complete. Remove God from the Protestant way of thinking and you get contemporary atheism.
I’ve been trying to figure out what to do about Page duBois’ book, above all, to figure out what it does. There’s what she says it does — lays out an argument for polytheism’s legitimacy as a religious system and defends it against ingrained Western prejudice — and then there’s what it actually does, which is not a whole lot. I wonder whether this not doing much is a product of not wanting to look ridiculous. One can't simply say — as a matter of personal experience, of an emotional, spiritual or philosophical support system — that polytheism is a legitimate way of looking at the world. You’d have eyes rolling and critics muttering “Oh, you silly cow.”
A Million and One Gods has some marvelous moments. Page duBois’s interpretation of Sappho’s poetry in devotion to Dionysus, for one. Her outline of the history of the arrogance of the monotheistic mindset is also quite good. But other than a few vague wanderings, she is hesitant to get into how the experience of polytheism compares to the experience of monotheism. She also isn’t really clear as to why any of this matters, outside of some kind of academic setting, in a “getting mad at some old books and young undergrads” kind of way.
Which is a shame, because this is a deeply interesting topic. Particularly with the rise of atheism, where every experience not filtered through scientific fact is regarded as delusion. Philosophers such as Mary Midgley have spent a lot of time dismantling the scientific materialist worldview, but few have convincingly laid out an appreciation for a re-enchanted world.
Perhaps duBois thinks she has to fight the monotheists on their own turf, but it makes it so easy to discount what she says. (I am including atheism in monotheism, because that’s what it is: a belief in the inexistence of God — of one god, that is.) There are citation gaps when she struggles to make the case for a prejudice against polytheism to the point that she includes online comments and quotations from Yahoo! (Answers, complete with typos and general insanity). She makes claims at polytheistic societies being more open and less warmongering than the monotheistic ones, linking the West’s thunder God with its much more violent history. But that argument falls apart pretty quickly. This reminds us of Islamaphobes such as super atheist Richard Dawkins trying to pin the violence of the Middle East on the violent rhetoric of Islam. It’s a convenient, simple reasoning that overlooks the real historical and economic complexity of war.
And just because a society worships female gods, it does not mean its members treat women any better than we do. A marvelous, if unintended illustration of that is to be found in Peter Grey’s Apocalyptic Witchcraft, a manifesto of sorts for a wild, pantheistic paganism. He worships a goddess, but 95 percent of all the evidence he cites — quotations from thinkers of all times — comes from men. The women in his book are muses, goddesses, and companions, but not thinkers, doers, or leaders.
Grey’s book does what duBois’s does not: it embraces the experience of polytheism and talks about it as an alternative way of interacting with the world. His view is that monotheism has led to where we are now: environmentally devastated, ruled by corporate fascism, dismissive of anything that cannot be scientifically proven, and intolerant of mystery. Grey sees his own religious practice — where nature’s dark terrors are divine and not in need of civilizing, where women are the equal of men, where the irrational is given expression — as an antidote to this dominant culture.
One of the more interesting things Grey does is to reintroduce us to the Devil. Satan has fallen out of fashion. Most mainstream Christian churches have moved away from him, and demons have been recast as sexual urges — the untamed id, a lack of personal control. For Grey, the Devil is simply all that is forbidden, taboo, irrational. He points out that the number that has been used to represent the Devil in tarot and in Christian oracle texts (15) is the same number that has been used to represent the goddess. The Devil is, and has been for centuries, whichever behavior or group of people we wish to disown or disempower.
Grey quotes Catherine Clement from The Newly Born Woman: “Somewhere every culture has an imaginary zone for what it excludes, and it is that zone we must try to remember today.” Our culture excludes the irrational and the mysterious, looking for a logical explanation (or a brain scan or an economic breakdown) of just about every human characteristic. And this is perhaps one of the real differences in the way polytheism and monotheism are experienced: there is an acceptance, in the former, of a larger range of emotions, behaviors, and different kinds of people. (Your gods are not a threat to my gods, hey, I like that one, can I borrow him for a bit?) There is still the taboo and the untouchable, but there is less of a need to dominate and force conformity with polytheism. And darkness is not evil; it is merely a different divinity. It is meant to be revered, not isolated and rejected.
DuBois also notes this shunning of the irrational and the illogical. It’s human nature to try to dismiss anything that is not understandable, but there is also a long line of stories warning us against this act. She gives the example of Euripides’s The Bacchae: the story of a man who refused to acknowledge the god of wine, ecstasy, and frenzy — Bacchus — even existed. He was later killed by his own mother, a follower of Bacchus, who in her ecstatic state mistook him for a lion cub and devoured him raw. This tragedy, says DuBois,
recognizes the impossibility, the potential insanity of attempting to maintain absolute reason with no room for irrational, unexpected wildness and femininity. Dionysos appears here as the wildness at the heart of civilization — nature, fertility, the incomprehensible.
Those who try to disown the irrational will find themselves the victim of it.
The sleep of reason may produce monsters, but so does the sleep of unreason.
What a tremendous weapon pity is! If you can frame someone as “pathetic,” then it’s okay to take their land, destroy their language and heritage, steal their children and place them in “decent” homes, and kill off their gods and heroes. It’s for their own good, after all.
In duBois’s book, the language monotheist believers use to talk about the heathens is essentially the same as the language New Atheists use to talk about all believers: “pathetic,” “superstitious,” “irrational,” “a stupendous system of error.” (That last one was said by Scottish missionary Alexander Duff about Hinduism.) Those who believe in something else are not simply different: they are misguided and need correction. This has been the justification for any number of wars or cultural erasings. Religion and dogma as colonialism.
One of the strongest side effects of the Protestant revolution was the introduction of doubt into the religious experience. Now that each person was responsible for their own connection to God, if one had trouble sustaining it, doubt would be formed. Because for monotheists, from one God springs all of life: the ethical code, the entryway into the afterlife, the meaning of existence. If one lost their connection to God, they could lose their entire way through life.
In When Prophecy Fails, Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter examine doomsday cults. They link the blooming of doubt to the moment when proselytizing begins. In order to quiet down the cognitive dissonance, they try to convert others into their belief system. If other people believe in what you believe, then you don’t have any reason to doubt. This may be one explanation for why monotheisms, more than any other religious system, often bring about ideologies of world-wide domination and conversion.
If polytheism allows for plurality and flux, and monotheism believes in one right and multiple wrongs, then it’s easy to figure out where atheism lines up here.
There has been a sharp increase in Westerners identifying themselves as pagan, Wiccan, or followers of some Greek-like pantheon of gods and goddesses. As yet, however, they are not included in the conversation about religion.
If we are all supposed to be on a steady march towards atheism, then this is an inconvenient reality. And it’s unfortunate that there isn’t a new literature yet that understands what polytheism is providing this growing number of believers.
Until we are able to accept other people’s experiences without needing to convert them to our way of thinking, there’ll be half-hearted books like DuBois’s, and preaching-to-the-choir books like Grey’s, everyone talking at cross-purposes and thinking their misguided counterpart is in need of their assistance. You can remove God from the culture, but you cannot remove the religious behaviors quite so easily.
Jessa Crispin is the editor and founder of the literary magazines Bookslut.com and Spoliamag.com. Her first book, The Dead Ladies Project, will be released by the University of Chicago in the Fall of 2015.
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