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Why Polytheism?

Quintessence

Consults with Trees
Staff member
Premium Member
Something I read recently got me to thinking about the question: why polytheism? Particularly in a culture that is so dominated by Christian thinking (and in spite of an increase in people identifying as unaffiliated with a religion)? What does polytheism really have to offer? John Beckett over at Patheos provided some interesting thoughts about this recently, and there's one in particular that I liked from his essay:

"Polytheism is a counterbalance to materialism. There are two forms of materialism prevalent in our mainstream society. [*snipped*] The second form of materialism is our society’s preference for things (especially for expensive, extravagant things) over relationships and experiences. [*snipped*] Polytheism reminds us that relationships with the Gods and embodying their virtues are more important than collecting more things. For many of us, this approach isn’t just more virtuous, it’s also far more satisfying."

More possibilities are offered in the full article. However, one of the things I find problematic about Beckett's article is that none of the things he lists there are particularly unique to polytheism and can be found in other types of theism. What would a list that is really specific to polytheism look like? I'm curious what our residents of RF might think polytheism adds to the dialogue. While this conversation is open to all of our members, please bear in mind this thread in a
discussion section of the forum, so this thread is not for debating. :D
 

Unveiled Artist

Veteran Member
Something I read recently got me to thinking about the question: why polytheism? Particularly in a culture that is so dominated by Christian thinking (and in spite of an increase in people identifying as unaffiliated with a religion)? What does polytheism really have to offer? John Beckett over at Patheos provided some interesting thoughts about this recently, and there's one in particular that I liked from his essay:

"Polytheism is a counterbalance to materialism. There are two forms of materialism prevalent in our mainstream society. [*snipped*] The second form of materialism is our society’s preference for things (especially for expensive, extravagant things) over relationships and experiences. [*snipped*] Polytheism reminds us that relationships with the Gods and embodying their virtues are more important than collecting more things. For many of us, this approach isn’t just more virtuous, it’s also far more satisfying."

More possibilities are offered in the full article. However, one of the things I find problematic about Beckett's article is that none of the things he lists there are particularly unique to polytheism and can be found in other types of theism. What would a list that is really specific to polytheism look like? I'm curious what our residents of RF might think polytheism adds to the dialogue. While this conversation is open to all of our members, please bear in mind this thread in a
discussion section of the forum, so this thread is not for debating. :D

I would like to comment; but, could you clarify or reprase what your question(s) is? The article doesn't seem specific to polytheism as, as in your OP, what he mentions is true of monotheism as well.

If you're asking what is specific or unique that polytheism provides, if I think of my own experiences, compared to monotheism, it not only gives a sense of community - which in many theism, sense of community is usually between people rather than more than one god - but it gives more avenues or ways to receive information (lack of better word) or perspective in life than one. Crude example: it's like instead of looking at one source for a research project, you have many at once and equal value to take from. That gives more freedom to expand one's faith and relationship with the world (spirituality). I like freedom of expression and having more than one way to reach my goal; and, a benefit to polytheism is that it provides that outlet.

I don't know if I agree with polytheism being unique as connecting to someone higher than oneself. That is in a lot of faiths mono, poly, etc in general. Maybe because a polytheist have many ways to connect to the gods, it may feel that person has a family? Supported by more people is more comfortable than one (say having two parents instead of one?)

I do agree that polytheism gives us a connection and context to our experiences based on my first point. The only difference between this and monotheism is probably the authority or hierarchy outlook. Monotheism (and one founder faiths) have more of a hierarchy look (hence why worship is used) while in my experience, polytheism has more of an "equalism" outlook. I don't see the spirits greater or lesser than myself but then I guess this point depends on what the polytheist believes. I don't refer to the spirits as gods and I don't worship them, so maybe polytheism and its definition is miscued because of the terms we use and hence why it's had to find distinguishing characteristics and benefits polytheism has that monotheism does not?

That's my view.
 

Quintessence

Consults with Trees
Staff member
Premium Member
From the OP: What would a list that is really specific to polytheism look like?
 

1137

Veteran Member
Premium Member
Something I read recently got me to thinking about the question: why polytheism? Particularly in a culture that is so dominated by Christian thinking (and in spite of an increase in people identifying as unaffiliated with a religion)? What does polytheism really have to offer? John Beckett over at Patheos provided some interesting thoughts about this recently, and there's one in particular that I liked from his essay:

"Polytheism is a counterbalance to materialism. There are two forms of materialism prevalent in our mainstream society. [*snipped*] The second form of materialism is our society’s preference for things (especially for expensive, extravagant things) over relationships and experiences. [*snipped*] Polytheism reminds us that relationships with the Gods and embodying their virtues are more important than collecting more things. For many of us, this approach isn’t just more virtuous, it’s also far more satisfying."

More possibilities are offered in the full article. However, one of the things I find problematic about Beckett's article is that none of the things he lists there are particularly unique to polytheism and can be found in other types of theism. What would a list that is really specific to polytheism look like? I'm curious what our residents of RF might think polytheism adds to the dialogue. While this conversation is open to all of our members, please bear in mind this thread in a
discussion section of the forum, so this thread is not for debating. :D

The article quote sure doesn't hit home for me. I think polytheism is where multiple gods are considered (1) equal, (2) parts of a whole, and/or (3) necessary.
 

Unveiled Artist

Veteran Member
From the OP: What would a list that is really specific to polytheism look like?

List as in what benefits or characteristics that distinguishes polytheism in and of itself without a monotheistic outlook?

That and I dont understand how materalism has any contrast relevance to polytheism. I would think materalism is in its own category outside of religious thought since many religions dont have either mono or poly theistic outlook. I see some bias in the article hence for a clarification on the OP.
 

GoodbyeDave

Well-Known Member
I'd agree that the article doesn't really answer the question.

If I were asked that question, I'd say "Because it's true." Religious experience involves the gods. Atheist rejection of such experience is based on special pleading, and monotheists can't reject other people's experiences without calling their own into question. Polytheism enables us to accept things as they are without trying to explain anything away.

Then consider the philosophical arguments for creation. The monotheist then has the job of proving that creation could only have been done by one individual. How can they do that?

Monotheism is also open to criticisms to which polytheism is not. The best argument for atheism is that from the existence of evil. If there is an omnipotent and benevolent god, why is suffering allowed? There are strategies to deal with that problem, but polytheists don't need them as they aren't committed to belief in such a being.

Then there are the bad effects of monotheism. The One True God tends to be assimilated to an absolute monarch, He Who Must Be Obeyed. Then the disobedient or the non-believer becomes a criminal. It is possible to avoid this, but most monotheists have been persecutors. Polytheists don't go round saying "worship X or I'll stone you!" Nor does the list of commands stop at "Worship me!" Shave your beard off, grow your beard, cover your head, bear your head, don't eat a pig, don't eat a deer unless you shot it yourself — the list is endless (and I've left out all the sexual taboos) and gives more reasons to persecute the disobedient.
 

lovesong

:D
Premium Member
I'd say there's too real explanations, for me at least. The first is just, because it feels right. Why monotheism when polytheism was the norm? Because followers had some experience that lead them to it, as I've had experiences that lead me to polytheism. The second, and probably more what you're looking for, is that it provides an alternative form of religiosity and theism for those who just can't stay with popular monotheism. It allows for divinity without dominance, worship without fear, ritual without rules, a community without condemnation, and life without sin.
 

Aupmanyav

Be your own guru
Polytheism brings about tolerance and acceptance of differences. Polytheism has saved India from religious strife and made India hospitable for even the migrants who did not follow Indian religions (Jews, Christians, Muslims and Zoroastrians). Hindu polytheism is not angry with even my atheism, leaves my views to myself. :D
 
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Saint Frankenstein

From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!
Premium Member
It allows for divinity without dominance, worship without fear, ritual without rules, a community without condemnation, and life without sin.
That's not quite true, especially for the traditional polytheistic religions. You could certainly offend the Gods, they were definitely viewed as superior Beings who could punish or send grave warnings to humanity, there are notions of transgression and realms of punishment after death and there were also prescribed ritual formulas which, if you screwed up badly enough, could invite the wrath of the Gods. It's much the same in traditional animism, where misfortunes are viewed as the result of angered spirits which must be propitiated or otherwise dealt with.

The more eclectic, modern forms of Paganism such as Wicca and such have largely been stripped of those things, probably as a reaction to the Abrahamic religions which they were (partially) rebelling against.
 

Aupmanyav

Be your own guru
You could certainly offend the Gods, they were definitely viewed as superior Beings who could punish or send grave warnings to humanity, there are notions of transgression and realms of punishment after death and there were also prescribed ritual formulas which, if you screwed up badly enough, could invite the wrath of the Gods.
There is only one way one can offend the Hindu Gods, and that is by going against one's 'dharma'. Till one does that, one is safe (and entitled to a stay in heaven).
 

The Emperor of Mankind

Currently the galaxy's spookiest paraplegic
Then consider the philosophical arguments for creation. The monotheist then has the job of proving that creation could only have been done by one individual. How can they do that?

And further, they must also prove that their interpretation of that one creator is the right one. So they need to prove that the universe was created by a single god, and that they are worshipping the right One.
 

Sees

Dragonslayer
I think acknowledging and honoring the pluralistic nature of reality and stifling exclusivism is the major thing. Polytheism tends to avoid going down the road of life/world being corrupted, sinful, and/or illusionary by nature.

The article itself seems poor and you definitely could just substitute theism or even more vague, religion, in place of polytheism.
 

Quintessence

Consults with Trees
Staff member
Premium Member
I think acknowledging and honoring the pluralistic nature of reality and stifling exclusivism is the major thing. Polytheism tends to avoid going down the road of life/world being corrupted, sinful, and/or illusionary by nature.

I think that's a big one too. I find the article interesting, in particular because Beckett is usually a bit more on point than I feel he was on this particular article. Granted, it's important to understand the context of the article, as he was writing it somewhat in response to "when you have all this magic stuff in the Pagan community, why bother to add theism to the mix?" The idea is that practices of magic are self-empowering, but what does polytheism give you? That question gets asked sometimes, it seems, though to me it is the wrong question to ask. The very idea of worship isn't (or perhaps shouldn't) be about what you get out of it - just like giving a present to a friend isn't about what you get out of it, it is about what your friend (or the gods, in the case of practicing theism) gets out of it, right? :D
 

lovesong

:D
Premium Member
That's not quite true, especially for the traditional polytheistic religions. You could certainly offend the Gods, they were definitely viewed as superior Beings who could punish or send grave warnings to humanity, there are notions of transgression and realms of punishment after death and there were also prescribed ritual formulas which, if you screwed up badly enough, could invite the wrath of the Gods. It's much the same in traditional animism, where misfortunes are viewed as the result of angered spirits which must be propitiated or otherwise dealt with.

The more eclectic, modern forms of Paganism such as Wicca and such have largely been stripped of those things, probably as a reaction to the Abrahamic religions which they were (partially) rebelling against.

Oh there certainly can be aspects of fear and dominance, but not every god is vengeful. A polytheist can partake in any number of rituals and prayers to a kind-hearted god without worry, whereas a monotheist only has one god to pray to, for them there is no other option. Another guiding force in my post was the idea of hell and eternal torture, something that is almost nonexistent in most polytheisms, for them this punishment is only for the worst of the worst people.
 

Sees

Dragonslayer
I think that's a big one too. I find the article interesting, in particular because Beckett is usually a bit more on point than I feel he was on this particular article. Granted, it's important to understand the context of the article, as he was writing it somewhat in response to "when you have all this magic stuff in the Pagan community, why bother to add theism to the mix?" The idea is that practices of magic are self-empowering, but what does polytheism give you? That question gets asked sometimes, it seems, though to me it is the wrong question to ask. The very idea of worship isn't (or perhaps shouldn't) be about what you get out of it - just like giving a present to a friend isn't about what you get out of it, it is about what your friend (or the gods, in the case of practicing theism) gets out of it, right? :D

I can see it as a way to get those folks curious and interested. I know a lot of pagans do start with Wicca first and the theistic aspect of Paganism kinda takes a back seat, at least focus-wise. It's hard to remember that perspective is not only out there but pretty pervasive.
 

von bek

Well-Known Member
I can see it as a way to get those folks curious and interested. I know a lot of pagans do start with Wicca first and the theistic aspect of Paganism kinda takes a back seat, at least focus-wise. It's hard to remember that perspective is not only out there but pretty pervasive.

I think because of the vast array of books on the subject, Wicca serves as a stepping-stone for a lot of religious seekers in the West who are dissatisfied with the (Abrahamic) religion they were raised in. For those like you and I, people who worship traditional deities, we have to always struggle with how to properly reconstruct the old faith. We are not going to pull a book down off the shelf that will give us details on all the proper rituals we wish to observe. Sure, we can find some excellent scholarly works that take us down the path; but, in the end, we always will have to make a leap out and create new rituals.
 

Quintessence

Consults with Trees
Staff member
Premium Member
I think because of the vast array of books on the subject, Wicca serves as a stepping-stone for a lot of religious seekers in the West who are dissatisfied with the (Abrahamic) religion they were raised in.

I wonder if this is still the case as much as it was a few decades ago - the nature of these communities has changed quite a bit. I think @Sees makes a good observation in that theology may take a back seat for those shifting to a new religious path. Deep dives into theology aren't really present in many introductory books, whether they are about Wicca or something else. Dialogues about polytheism in particular are relatively new to the communities, and many books published discussing this in any depth are fairly recent ones. Speaking of which, has anyone run across good books that discuss polytheistic theology? I know of some, but it's always nice to see if I've missed one off my list. :D

Here's a few that I'm aware of that provide some good food for thought with respect to that question "why polytheism" . . .

  • Greer's "A World Full of Gods"
  • duBois' "A Million and One Gods"
  • Krasskova's "Devotional Polytheism"
  • Dillon's "The Case for Polytheism"
Of those, the last two are very recent works, and I haven't gotten to reading either of them.
 

von bek

Well-Known Member
I wonder if this is still the case as much as it was a few decades ago - the nature of these communities has changed quite a bit. I think @Sees makes a good observation in that theology may take a back seat for those shifting to a new religious path. Deep dives into theology aren't really present in many introductory books, whether they are about Wicca or something else. Dialogues about polytheism in particular are relatively new to the communities, and many books published discussing this in any depth are fairly recent ones. Speaking of which, has anyone run across good books that discuss polytheistic theology? I know of some, but it's always nice to see if I've missed one off my list. :D

Here's a few that I'm aware of that provide some good food for thought with respect to that question "why polytheism" . . .

  • Greer's "A World Full of Gods"
  • duBois' "A Million and One Gods"
  • Krasskova's "Devotional Polytheism"
  • Dillon's "The Case for Polytheism"
Of those, the last two are very recent works, and I haven't gotten to reading either of them.

First off, thank you for the book list. In the interest of sharing, I would like to offer up some books that may be of interest to others on the Hellenic path.
-"The Greeks and Their Gods" by W.K.C. Guthrie (this may be out of print)
-"Orpheus and Greek Religion" by W.K.C. Guthrie
-"Hermes" by Karl Kerenyi
-"Athene" by Karl Kerenyi

And, for my Heathen friends:
-"Gods and Myths of Northern Europe" by H.R. Ellis Davidson (Don't let the title fool you. This is not another book that simply retells the myths. It goes into cultic practices and actual Heathen religion.)
 

Unveiled Artist

Veteran Member
I'd say there's too real explanations, for me at least. The first is just, because it feels right. Why monotheism when polytheism was the norm? Because followers had some experience that lead them to it, as I've had experiences that lead me to polytheism. The second, and probably more what you're looking for, is that it provides an alternative form of religiosity and theism for those who just can't stay with popular monotheism. It allows for divinity without dominance, worship without fear, ritual without rules, a community without condemnation, and life without sin.

Let me ask without being rude. How does "divinity without dominance, worship without fear, ritual without rules, a community without condemnation, and life without sin" contrast to forms of monotheism that doesn't have these things? How is it unique from polytheist religions that does have things things?

I am a polytheist though I don't call spirits gods and I don't worship them, but in my point of view (my humble opinion), the reason I am and was raised polytheist wasn't based on monothiesm outlook nor compared or contrast to monotheism. Other than the spelling-poly and mono- how can polytheism be opposite than monotheism in those regards when either can have or not have rules have/not have divinity or so forth?

I am not sure yet but can you clarify for me the OP if it's asking about how polytheism is unique from monotheism? I'm not following but your reply caught me.
 

lovesong

:D
Premium Member
Let me ask without being rude. How does "divinity without dominance, worship without fear, ritual without rules, a community without condemnation, and life without sin" contrast to forms of monotheism that doesn't have these things? How is it unique from polytheist religions that does have things things?

I am a polytheist though I don't call spirits gods and I don't worship them, but in my point of view (my humble opinion), the reason I am and was raised polytheist wasn't based on monothiesm outlook nor compared or contrast to monotheism. Other than the spelling-poly and mono- how can polytheism be opposite than monotheism in those regards when either can have or not have rules have/not have divinity or so forth?

I am not sure yet but can you clarify for me the OP if it's asking about how polytheism is unique from monotheism? I'm not following but your reply caught me.
It was more in response to popular monotheism. Divinity without dominance refers to how multiple gods leads to multiple divine opinions, therefore eliminating the idea of "I'm all you've got so you have to obey my every whim." Worship without fear was taking a hit at the idea of hell, "disobey and I will torture you." Most polytheisms reserve eternal damnation (if there is any) for the most evil of souls where popular forms of monotheism likes to hand it out to everyone but their particular flavor of monotheism. Ritual without rules refers to how polytheism today is less dogmatic and more open to personal adaptations. A community without condemnation looks at modern polytheistic communities and how they tend to be more liberal and open than their monotheistic counterparts, with many opting to not shun members for their actions or lifestyles. Finally, a life without sin is another reference to the idea of hell and how most polytheists can relax in the knowledge that we're all going to the same place regardless of how many times we prayed or how much we donated to charity. This was all referencing modern/popular monotheism and polytheism, not just the act of believing in one or multiple gods or even their historic manifestations. Because the OP asked what polytheism offered in a monotheistic world I chose to interpret it as asking what becoming polytheistic today can give us that being monotheistic today usually does not.
 
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