As my friend Edward Butler often says, a degree of pragmatism is necessary for polytheism. After all, the ancients didn’t deny the existence of other peoples Gods, but instead, they accepted the existence of all divinities— because not only is it proper to do so, but it is more effective than the attempt to discount religious experiences by monotheists.
The positivity of experience means no experience can invalidate another. You can experience but only one God and one God alone, even a God who is all things, but you cannot infer from this experience that there is no other God and that this is “the only truth,” as monotheism does, because your religious experience cannot negate another’s, or even your own on a different occasion. In doing so, you’ve created problems by invalidating the experiences of others and producing a negative inference. The negativity of the inference makes it ontologically inferior to the positive experience of myself or another; you can’t discount someone else’s religious experience while still putting forth a claim that your own is real arbitrarily. If this negative inference of disqualifying an experience is followed through, it results in atheism via a process of reasoning such as Hegelian absolute idealism.
After all, when you deny the existence of other people’s Gods, you weaken the case for your own. If you suddenly decide to call another person’s religious experience fake, especially if from a set of long-standing religions, then what value are your own? The existence of your own Gods is reduced to subjective choice, merely based on your own experience as if it were the only experience, instead of affirmation over the existence of Gods. Theism, properly understood, is just polytheism. In the words of Edward Butler, “deny any divinity, and you deny all divinity.” Monotheists do have religious experience, but not “monotheistic” religious experience, as religious experience is something which is purely positive. Hence, their positive component is something which can be accepted, but not their attempted negation.
Because polytheists can believe in a potentially infinite amount of Gods, they can thus use the theory of pragmatic truth and accept all religious experience as true. That is not to say “worship every God,” as you can ignore Gods (and polytheists do it all the time), but rather proper theists must accept the existence of all divinity.
Due to that, a pragmatic approach can be taken when tackling monotheism, as monotheism needs special bargaining since it just invalidates all other religious experience as “false” but puts forth a claim that its own religious experience is true. This, funny enough, shows doctrines such as monotheism, which is the worship of one God which involves a distinct denial of all other Gods, can be deemed a form of atheism that merely flirts with religious experience based on its denial of all divinity except one based on religious experience that is only with that particular.
Butler, Edward P., Dr. Essays on a Polytheistic Philosophy of Religion. New York: Phaidra Editions, 2014.
Butler, Edward P., Dr. “ Monotheism is Atheism, and some thoughts on Vedanta · EPButler.” Storify. Accessed May 19, 2017. https://storify.com/EPButler/monotheism-is-atheism-and-some-thoughts-on-vedanta
Butler, Edward P., Dr. “Polytheism is Theism, Monotheism is Atheism.” Storify. Accessed April 3, 2018. https://storify.com/EPButler/monotheism-is-atheism-and-some-thoughts-on-vedanta
James, William. The varieties of religious experience: a study in human nature: being the Gifford Lectures on natural religion delivered at Edinburgh in 1901-1902. United States: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016.
James, William. Pluralistic universe. Place of publication not identified: Hardpress Publishing, 2012.
This is an interesting post! But I’m curious about what you think of Universalism. From what I understand, Universalism is the idea that all gods are one divinity expressed different ways. But from my reading of you’re article, you’re saying Polytheism is Universalism (and many polytheists simply ignore other gods/only worship certain ones). Is your understanding that Polytheism is Universalism or is there a difference?
On that note, this article made me think of how polytheisn worked in the Greco-Roman world. But I’m not sure what the ancient Greeks thought about it. In the Greco-Roman world it was very common to ‘adopt’ god or synthesize them with others. I believe the Greeks did this often with Babylonian gods or even had cults for foreign gods like the goddess Isis. (And the Romans took heavily from the Greeks.) If you consider Polytheism and Universalism as the same/similar, would you consider the way the ancient Greeks added other gods was Universalist?
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I’ve never precisely heard of that definition for Universalism, but I will address it. Pardon me for any mistakes as this is my first time trying to deal with this concept:
The philosopher Iamblichus writes in De Mysteriis that the Gods are monoeides, meaning “in the form of singularity,” a term that Plato uses for the One; which means that the Gods share a singular divine essence before becoming individuals, as unity precedes multiplicity. In this understanding, from my Platonist point of view, I would argue that there is an underlining common divinity among all of the Gods; let’s call this “Godhood.” As such, I do agree that polytheism is “universalist,” assuming universalism means that all Gods are divine, at this point.
In my consideration, with this taken into account, I can accept that syncretism and adoption of foreign Gods to be “Universalist.”
ADOPTION: The adoption of deities might happen because of migrants and foreigners, which links to international trade and commerce in the Ancient World. Some of these Gods would go on to become incredibly popular in their host cities, such as the divine Isis in Pompeii. Other times, adoption would happen because of a deity being divinely revealed and thus introduced to the city. Serapis is said to have divinely revealed Himself to the city of Sinope before revealing Himself to the Pharaoh of Alexandria.
SYNCRETISM: There are two prevailing views. First I will mention Interpretatio Graeca/Romana, which identified “universal” deities that were worshiped under different names, imagery, and activities. A large example of this is present in Gaius Iulius Caesar’s “Gallic Wars” (6.17, tr. BNP 1998, 2.2.9a):
“[The Gauls] worship Mercury(1) in particular. There are numerous images of Him; they claim that He is the inventor of all crafts, guide for all roads and journeys; they consider that He has especial power over money-making and trade. After Him, they worship Apollo(2) and Mars(3) and Jupiter(4) and Minerva(5), On these deities they have roughly the same views as the other nations: that Apollo dispels sickness, that Minerva bestows the principles of art and crafts, that Jupiter holds sway in heaven, that Mars controls wars. It is to Mars that, after deciding to enter battle, they normally vow whatever spoils they may take in conflict.”
1. The Gallic God Teutates
2. The Gallic God Belen
3. The Gallic God Esus
4. The Gallic God Taranis
5. The Gallic equivalent is uncertain
This is the view I tend to go with, and the view Emperor Julian held. I still accept that there are deities who are independent of other pantheons and specific to peoples, nations, communities and so on; however I believe there are universal deities that other cultures might also worship, even if under different views with their unique myths and iconography. An analogy I can bring up is that there are many names for the Moon, but the moon is still the moon.
Another alternative view on this that came up later, I believe under Proclus, is that syncretisms were “celebrations” of deities. The deities are seen as separate, and syncretisms were celebrations of their commonalities. So for example Zeus-Ammon, a syncretism between Zeus and Amun. Zeus and Amun would be seen as separate entities, however, they may be syncretized for their commonalities (e.g., as King of Gods.)
There were likely many more, and nothing is really set in black and white.
Thank you for your thoughtful and in-depth reply. I wrote up my question in the spur of the moment and I realize that I probably mis-used the term “Universalist.” However, your answer was still enlightening! I’m going to have to read some Plato and potentially dig up my high school copy of The Gallic Wars.
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