Polytheists face discrimination in western societies because of the West’s fundamental disagreement with what is considered an “acceptable” religion. An essential component of this discrimination is, paradoxically, Western secularism. Though ostensibly Western secularism pretends to treat all religions equally, it in truth has been significantly shaped by a background of a monotheistic cultural background and infused with it, which profoundly influences what the West will consider an “acceptable” religion. Because of this, it inherently grants favor towards the monotheist theological paradigm by forcing “unsavory” or culturally distinct practices out of the public. This essentially makes secularism a tool by monotheists to deny an understanding of actual religious plurality, and with that, force religions deemed “deviant” (e.g., polytheistic religions) which tenant in Western society to fundamentally change to better suit the public eye.
Polytheism as “Abhorrent” in Secular Space
Though the very term polytheism goes as far back as Aeschylus (Suppliant Women 424f), it is likewise regularly defined externally and instilled with the monotheist overculture, as seen with the cases of Philo of Alexandria. And much later, it arrived in the early modern West as a slur, mostly by predominantly Protestant countries, where it can be contended that the disgust of the supposed deviancy of polytheism is immensely increased so much so that the term is used as a weapon, seen in the term’s entrance into modern English, where it was used as an anti-papist slur against Jesuits operating in Asia in the 17th century (Page duBois 2014, 19).
One of the most notorious methods of disenfranchising polytheism is enforced is through the use of secular space. This is discussed by Judith Butler in her book The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, which highlights how the public space of religious discourse is embedded by an Abrahamic foundation, and is inherently used to reinforce a monotheistic religious paradigm (most particularly of Christianity). There exists an unfair advantage given to monotheists in all aspects of western society, much of which is protected because of secularism; for example in 1833 a judicial precedent was established in the United States by Joseph Story which privileged and encouraged Christianity (Joseph Story, 693-703), while in 1892 the Supreme Court made a decision which created a rhetoric still espoused today which identified the United States as a “Christian Nation” (143 U.S. 457).
Saba Mahmood suggests in her work Is Critique Secular? that despite what many come to believe about secularism (being the separation of a religious body and the state), history often shows that secularism acts as a force for regulation and reformation of religious beliefs in light of what the overculture considers what a “proper religion” is. This is accomplished by the establishment of what is considered “religious” by the society, which is normalized and carefully maintained with an eye for internal consistency. In truth, Western secularism isn’t genuinely pluralistic. Western secularism arose out of Protestantism, and regardless of its allusions to the contrary, it still privileges a single religious mode of thought by driving practices deemed unsavory or culturally distinct out of the public eye. Everything that is regarded as foreign to the overculture of the perceived “norm” is deemed deviant and inappropriate, as they are not viewed as being consistent with the overculture’s concept of what is considered properly “religion,” and thus pushed into the private sphere, because it is not adequate for public consumption. This, in essence, bars any possible understanding outside of what is deemed “the norm,” which results in the public sphere having a fundamental lack of pluralistic understanding of religion that brings into account the differences and variations in religious concerns and cultural expressions. It masks religious tolerance — more aptly mere tolerance — only if it exits the public eye, and prevents the chance of actual religious plurality from taking root. Instead, religion is ostracized, regulated, and ultimately, reshaped and remade through the practice of law.
Yes, most countries in the West, especially in the Americas, follow a concept of the separation of Church and State. However, it’s essential to keep in mind that this achievement, and by extension the “public sphere” concerning religious discourse, is overwhelmingly a monotheist achievement. It isn’t merely that the majority of the populace maintains a religious affiliation with a monotheistic religion, but rather the very legal foundation of this culture is established on Abrahamic Monotheistic dominance. This fundamentally means the public will presuppose what is properly “religious,” and blatantly reaffirm the theological paradigm that is dominant in the overculture while ostensibly putting forward a notion of tolerance.
Because of this, a boundary is created between the “secular” and “religious” space that is artificial and inherently untenable for polytheists, and even more broadly theists who merely hold an immanent view of the divine (a view not only common among polytheists, but also frequent among non-Protestant sects of Christianity). The divine— and to that extent, the practice of the religion— penetrates aspects of daily, even mundane life, which inevitably includes public life. Religion isn’t merely confined to the temples— it can be part of a lifestyle, and the separation currently existent in western secularism isn’t simply unnatural; it is ultimately disenfranchising.
This marginalization produces an end result that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for cohabitation while maintaining religious integrity and practice. It leaves ultimately two options to a religious tradition which lies outside the norm of the overculture. To either continue to be marginalized in the grand scale of society, or alternatively, to conform to the overculture and model itself after the ideal “minority religion,” and with that willingly submit itself to a systemic disenchantment of religious identity and spirituality, which doesn’t recognize nor embrace their theological paradigm. And this is precisely what many polytheistic traditions submit themselves to in the west.
India is a shining star that should be looked up to— a place which holds a heritage of multifaceted religious diversity and has never held a dogma of an exclusive truth. Indian society defines the concept of secularism as religious pluralism, which aims to accept and integrate diversity both in private and public life. It’s not the separation of a religious body and state, but rather the acknowledgment of the state’s multireligious nature (Page duBois 2014, 8). In stark contrast, western nations follow a skewed form of secular doctrine which only ends up effectively engaging in state-sponsored religious oppression in which their definition of what is “religion” inherently privileges monotheistic Abrahamic religions. The failing of contemporary western society to tolerate – let alone embrace – any notions of pluralistic polytheism are abundantly clear.
Notions of what is “properly religious”
During the early 20th-century, C.S. Lewis released his autobiography Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life and coined the term “chronological snobbery.” This is a fallacy that indicates that the intellectual and cultural capacities of an earlier time can be positioned as inherently inferior to that of the present, merely by a view of the current time being actively experienced and the past, in contrast, as outdated. This is precisely what the hegemonic coercion of Abrahamic monotheism does in the west to shape the public perception of what is “acceptable,” and is even dominant in Lewis’ own work with his concept of “ethical monotheism.”
This fallacious notion of linear development in religion has always existed. The term Pagan itself was initially something that was synonymous with “rustic” or “rural.” The term was later adopted by Christians, who primarily established centers in urban areas, as a derogatory term against polytheists who lived in the more “rural areas” of society, and thus kept their traditions. This term was consequently weaponized and used to refer to polytheists as “out of reach,” with a strong implication of being backward or primitive (Michael York 2003, 6).
Western notions of what is properly “religious,” and with that the notion of “polytheism” being synonymous with “primitivism”, were engraved into the West with the dominance of Abrahamic monotheism. The word polytheism would be used in Christian schisms as a slur invoked against opponents (Page duBois 2014, 31). Western convictions would carry into Western colonial expansion, most particularly damaging in regions like India during the British Raj, where the British came to be appalled by the immeasurable diversity in the continent and thus imposed a uniformity through an Anglicized Indian elite that would shape much of what became modern Hinduism (Wendy Doniger 2010, 7-9). Also in the British Raj during the 19th-century a number of missionaries, most notably the infamous John Wilson, harassed Zoroastrians and implied that they were primitive by referring to them as polytheists (Jenny Rose 2012, 205).
Western (particularly Protestant) notions of what’s “religious” was the metric scale of which other cultures were judged from, and this would have grand influence when it came to foreign policy. When the Americans used the threat of armed force against Japan to open the country 1853 ACE, it imposed a list of treaties and demands, among which was a freedom of religion that forced the country to contest with western ideas of religion. This signifcantly altered the idea of religion in Japan. Japan never even had a word for “religion” in the notion much of the Protestant West understood it; religion was simply part of life. Once considered an extension of Buddhism, religion in Japan was profoundly shaped by western ideas, which led to the rise of Shintoism as an independent faith (Jason Ananda Josephson 2012, 98).
The notion of polytheism being a sort of spiritual archaism persisted into the era of early psychology, where certain psychologists who were inspired by Boyer, Hegel, Wellhausen, et al., tried to put forward a notion of linear human development in the progression of religion, which would culminate into an ultimate “end result.” Here, they position animism and polytheism as archaic religious “primitivism,” which would naturally and ultimately yield to more “developed” expressions of religion, until something akin to C.S. Lewis’ “ethical monotheism” is achieved. This attempt at “naturalizing” monotheism is oftentimes even furthered by post-monotheistic Atheistic writers who, having only been exposed to the monotheistic theological paradigm due to a lack of any actual religious plurality in Western secular space, will claim that the ultimate goal of a fully mature society is post-monotheistic secularism (Page duBois 2014, 12).
These long-held views of what is properly “religious” have been so engraved into western society that it results in the west consistently disenfranchising polytheists at an alarming frequency. When these views are coupled with the deeply ingrained colonialist attitudes of the West, it penetrates the public reception to polytheistic theology, even in the contemporary “tolerant” West, and causes polytheism to be perceived as inferior, archaic and ignorant. The apparent claims of tolerance and modernity expose themselves to be fictitious, and this can have a strongly negative influence on polytheistic communities, leading them to hold onto a sort of baggage which causes them engage in reductionist efforts to make the belief in many Gods as close to monotheism as possible to be more comfortable to westerners. This normalizes conformity to the monotheistic overculture in the West.
Those who live within or are profoundly influenced by the monotheistic overculture in the west will start with baggage by default, simply by being a part of that culture, regardless of your personal or familial beliefs. Because of this, connecting to a religion that doesn’t adhere to the monotheistic overculture’s paradigm can be a bit like learning a second language, but sometimes accidentally replacing words with words from the language you were raised with, or making your sentences function like the language you were raised with, even though your second language doesn’t function like that. This is the essence of baggage, and it can drastically effect polytheistic communities who come under influence of the monotheistic overculture, resulting in conformity to the Western perception of what is properly “religious.”
Effect on Polytheistic Diaspora
Even some of the worlds oldest polytheistic religions find themselves changing drastically when influenced by the monotheistic overculture, and will often hold onto baggage which distances them from traditional practices and beliefs. Two of the most notable examples are Hinduism and Zoroastrianism.
Hinduism is one of the world’s oldest continuously living polytheistic religions. As already stated, however, much of modern day Hinduism came to be directed by an Anglicized Indian class during the British Raj (Wendy Doniger 2010, 7-9). This influence is exemplified in Hindu diaspora in the west, however, where it is often forced to struggle with and ultimately conform to the hegemony of monotheistic overculture in the West. Prema Kurien’s work Place at the Multicultural Table: The Development of an American Hinduism reveals the pressures on American Hindus to adapt their religion to the “model minority,” which can encompass both religion and ethnicity. These pressures culminate into the assimilation of Hindus into a Western culture, in both the colonial and immigrant contexts, through an artificial, organized Hinduism based in both text and history, which is profoundly evocative of the more accepted monotheism present in the colonial overculture (e.g., Arya Samaj)
Often Western Hindus will try to make their polytheistic values more digestible to Westerners, underplaying the individuality of the Gods and putting forth a claim that Hinduism is truly monotheistic, or that all people worship the same God.
An additional example is found in contemporary Zoroastrianism, another one of the world’s oldest continuously living polytheistic traditions, with a tradition of worshiping Ahura Mazda, the highest God, and the Yazatas, the Good Gods, under Him. This, however, has been long since mutilated— at least among the Parsi. Though the monotheizing of Zoroastrianism can be traced as beginning during the Islamic Invasion of Iran, it wasn’t until the British Raj did Zoroastrianism become forced to adapt (Jenny Rose 2012, 23). At this time, seeing the wealthy Zoroastrian Parsi community (Jenny Rose 2012, 23), Anglicans attempted to harass and convert the Zoroastrians and launched a smear campaign against the religion for being “polytheistic” (Jenny Rose 2012, 205). In an effort to relieve themselves, Zoroastrians adopted a western reinterpretation of their religion by 18th-century German linguist, Martin Haug, who imposed sole monotheism. Following Zoroastrian conformity to the overculture, the Anglicans stopped bothering them so much once they adopted monotheism and went so far as to adopt angelic choir.
An ignorance towards the worship of good Gods, the Yazatas, which translates as “those worthy of worship,” is present in the public face of contemporary Zoroastrianism, and translations often write them off as “angels” in the monotheistic sense. Furthermore, many contemporary Zoroastrians want to claim this prize of “oldest monotheism” to simultaneously protect themselves from and also shame their Abrahamic neighbors, despite a history of worshiping many Gods as well as the prophet Zoroaster clearly referencing to and giving praise for other Gods in the Gathas (Yasna 30:9).
Effect on Polytheists in Contemporary Paganism
Considering that some of the worlds largest and oldest polytheistic religions find themselves substantially altered to adapt to a western monotheistic overculture, there isn’t any doubt that contemporary Paganism also faces grave issues with baggage, especially since it’s homegrown. The disgust and dismissal of religious theology and experience is likewise a prevalent force that Contemporary Pagans in the west face every day. Since day one, Contemporary Paganism has understood the struggles of being a religious minority, with proof of its “legitimacy” being frequently demanded. Quite often an expectation of privatization exists for economic and safety reasons, especially in regions of the West where evangelical monotheisms hold hegemony.
Furthermore, Contemporary Paganism was born in a monotheistic, largely Protestant West. If we mark Gerald Gardner’s foundation of British Traditional Witchcraft as the beginning of modern Paganism, or look to the “early Paganisms” of the Romantic and Victorian eras, then it arose out of Protestant overculture. This can be coupled with the fact that not many of us were “born into” Paganism. Most of us began as some sort of Abrahamic religion– and even if we were born into a family that was outright atheist, we weren’t born in a vacuum– we were under constant influence of that monotheist mode of thought so ingrained into western culture, and likewise both externally and internally use it as a metric to measure all other things, whether that be ethics, morality, actions, or beliefs. Due to all of this, Contemporary Pagans can sometimes come with some type of baggage and hold the same prejudices and biases, and itself produce an environment hostile to Polytheists.
The topic is addressed wonderfully in TheLettuceMan’s post on this very topic, but overall this exact same fallacious gargle of linear human development is regurgitated by certain individuals who try to latch onto Paganism such as John Halstead and Mark Green, except holding a notion of a non-particular atheistic post-Christianity rather than C.S. Lewis’ conception of an ethical monotheism. The same notions of ethnocentric pomposity and chronological snobbery are assumed by these “authors,” who uphold a conviction that the modern period is superior to the past, and that looking back is nonsensical and applying anything from it is inappropriate. By large, these atheistic “humanistic Pagans,” who try to downplay the existence of the Gods as mere archetypes or thoughtforms, are the result of a Protestant overculture that preaches a mere toleration of polytheism within Contemporary Paganism. They espouse the exact same attitudes that are repeated over and over again by an overwhelming monotheistic Protestant West, and serve as nothing more but another example of Monotheistic overculture.
It’s important to recognize the problems of approaching secularism as a state-religious apparatus. Instead of secularism being a space of no Gods, which only enforces an overculture by forcing anything outside of the theological paradigm into the private sector, we should look to the example of multicultural India and transform secular space into a heterogenous area of many Gods, which truly functions as a way to manage and integrate with diversity and allow for true religious plurality, rather than enforce a hegemonic overculture. It’s imperative to recognize, address, and extricate ourselves from the baggage of the monotheistic overculture, and instead try to embrace a religious climate that we’re more comfortable with.
(Special thanks to my close friend TheLettuceMan for greatly inspiring me with this article!)
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