Concerning the “Legitimacy” of Contemporary Paganism

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On a few occasions, I will see someone try to criticize contemporary Paganism by attacking its “legitimacy.” Some might criticize its practitioners for attempting to resurrect traditions that were systematically destroyed, while others may laugh and advance a form of misotheism against the Gods for being somehow “irrelevant.” These assertions are not only faulty, but are nothing more than a self-indulgent echo chamber of smug satisfaction.

Firstly, some might try to put forward a hostility towards the Gods who contemporary Pagans worship, and claim that the decline of a belief system indicates that the God(s) of said system are somehow irrelevant, if even real. This point is imprudent, because throughout history it wasn’t the Gods failing people, but rather it was people failing the Gods. After all, it was people who would run throughout Syria destroying sacred spaces (both in ancient times and today), people who destroyed grand temples to the Gods, and people who on several occasions declared it illegal to engage in the proper cultus of the Gods and participate in sacrifice to the divine in any form, even privately in one’s own home, on the risk of the death penalty.

Some may retort how I am “conveniently blaming people,” and yes, this is precisely what I am doing. People are to blame for this, as for so much else. This entire point becomes moot because it doesn’t say a single thing about the Gods, but it does say a whole lot about how far mankind can devolve into degeneracy and depravity. And it isn’t like this is unique to ancient paganism; the same issue is even prevalent in parts of the world today, not only among even contemporary pagans, but extending to other Abrahamics and peoples of related faiths. The logic is ultimately weak and counterintuitive; after all, hadn’t Islam, a different belief system from Christianity, not only overthrown the Galileans in a significant amount of regions across the globe, but also asserted their own systems of beliefs and practices in these areas centered around the worship of the same God? Using this very same logic, would Islam now be the superior religion? If so, why did YHWH change His mind and assert a new preference? The point is exceedingly crude and ignorant. To blame the divine for the sins of man is an act of hubris. It’s peoples own faults for blinding themselves to the light of the divine and bringing about the destruction of ancient traditions. After all, it’s difficult to worship a God if terrorists are coming to persecute you by confiscating whatever you own, imprison and torture you, or sometimes even kill you, even in a contemporary society.

Truly, no one needs a license to worship the Gods they choose, or that have chosen them. If they do require such a license, what could possibly constitute it? What makes it “legitimate” for somebody to worship Yeshua or YHWH as opposed to Isis or Athene? The cultures that many contemporary Pagans seek to emulate may have died at one point, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t any value in their philosophical worldview or understandings, nor does it mean that they don’t derive some meaningful relationship to the world because of it. At the barest, to deny the existence of other people’s Gods weakens the case of your own. If you suddenly decide to call another person’s religious experience fake, especially if from or derived from a set of long-standing religions with the historical agency of living, individual Gods, then what value are your own? To even assert that these traditions and practices are somehow less valuable than those that survived destruction at the hands of evangelism, proselytization, and persecution is itself a robust display of unconcealed ethnocentric snobbery. The idea that what we have now, the violent Protestant overculture that has stripped the world of its resources and created a system of consumerist hyper-commodification, is somehow “better” or “more acceptable” than the traditions of our ancestors is nothing more than self-indulgent pomposity.

 

Bibliography

Butler, Edward P., Dr. “Polytheism as Methodology in the Study of Religions.” Henadology. October 30, 2016. Accessed January 14, 2018. https://henadology.files.wordpress.com/2016/11/polytheism-as-methodology.pdf

Nixey, Catherine. The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. London: Macmillan, 2017.

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“Hard Polytheism” and “Soft Polytheism”: A Non-Distinction

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There’s an abundantly annoying claim in polytheist circles which accomplishes essentially nothing. The frivolous claim puts forward that there are two types of people who call themselves “polytheists” based on two beliefs regarding the divine:

  • Hard polytheism: The unequivocal belief that there are many distinct, separate and real deities who are independent of humanity; rather than psychological archetypes or personifications of natural forces.
  • Soft polytheism: A multitude of reductive approaches to the divine. It might be a form of archetypalism that associate the divine with human conditions/beliefs, or functionally atheistic pantheism. More often than not, it comes with an inbuilt assumption of agnosticism or even outright atheism, because the term itself was primarily conjured for so-called “humanistic pagans.”

There is a reason why this armchair terminology is useless: It distinguishes nothing.

 

Hard Polytheism

What “hard polytheism” describes is simply just polytheism. It’s the belief that there are numerous discrete, real existing Gods with independent agencies. End of story. This can mean anything from three to a thousand, all the way to a near-infinite amount. What polytheism is isn’t negotiable.

 

Soft Polytheism

Soft polytheism, on the other hand, is essentially something that is not polytheism. The various ideas that “soft polytheism” is usually used to describe already have names; none of which are “polytheism” because what is being described is not polytheistic (a belief in independently existing entities). It doesn’t exist for any other reason but to reduce the Gods down into a neat package, because it’s inherently messy. One either believes in many Gods, or does not. (e.g., if you believe in archetypal symbolic representations, you do not believe in multiple Gods. Jungian Archetypalism is about human psychology and a “collective unconsciousness” that is synonymous with nature, not about the existence of independent entities with agency.)

We can see that the term causes more issues the good it provides. With “soft polytheism,” you have two significant problems:

Firstly, because the term is so vague in itself without a concrete definition, people will often misunderstand what is being said and thus cause miscategorization. The term “soft polytheism” has been used to describe anything from functionally atheistic archetypalism and pantheism, to things that are separate but more than compatible with polytheism such as monism and panentheism, to merely forms of polytheism that incorporate historical elements of syncretism. The term is so muddy that it can put a pious Stoicist or Platonist, with a full belief in independently existing Gods but who hold a panentheistic understanding of the divine, in the same category as an atheistic archetypalist or some vague pantheist. As such, in the words of Hrafnblod, the “soft polytheism” distinction provides a convenient door for secular atheists (e.g., “Humanistic Pagans”) to adopt the facade of a religious tradition without requiring any actual belief nor effort from them, as well as to undermine, subvert and stifle actual development of polytheist theology (and polytheistic practitioners themselves) by presenting a “more rational” alternative, which leads into my second point.

Secondly, it doesn’t exist for any other reason but to produce an “us vs. them” mentality and muddle the landscape of polytheistic theology. The argument of “soft polytheism” intends to convey that actual polytheism is to be characterized as an “extreme” fundamentalist relative to some “moderate” position. As such, it attempts to whitewash polytheistic theology, which is inherently subversive to Monotheist Abrahamic-centric ethos and makes it more tolerable to people who view polytheism as ultimately a dangerous, aberrant form of worship. “Soft polytheism” isn’t merely incompatible with polytheism; it is also hostile and damaging to it.

 

Conclusion

Ultimately, the major problem with the two terms is that it’s an either/or dichotomy, and polytheism absolutely isn’t an either/or theological quality. Polytheism is just “hard polytheism,” and there is a clearly defined line between what polytheism is (worship of many Gods) and what it is not.

 

(Special thanks to TheLettuceMan and Hrafnblod)

 

Bibliography

Hrafnblod, Reddit post “Against the dismissal of archetypes”, Nov 18, 2017 (2:22:59 a.m. UTC), accessed November 26, 2017, https://www.reddit.com/r/pagan/comments/7dnh84/against_the_dismissal_of_archetypes/dpzksxu/

TheLettuceMan. “Baggage and Reactionary Definitions.” Of Axe and Plough. August 16, 2016. Accessed November 26, 2017. https://thelettuceman.wordpress.com/2016/08/16/baggage-and-reactionary-definitions/

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Against the Monotheists “Occam’s Razor”

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Often, monotheists will end up invoking Occam’s Razor, a theory at its most basic principle summed up as “the simplest theory is most likely to be correct,” as a defense for their belief (or lack thereof) and as an attack against polytheism. Here I shall dissect their use of Occam’s Razor to show that monotheism is not “simpler” or “more likely” than polytheism in any way, but rather the opposite.

 

Through reason

Firstly, Occam’s Razor at its most basic principle is “All things being equal; the simplest theory is better”… But all things are not equal. With polytheism, there is more power in the theory, as it has more explanatory and predictive power.

  • Polytheism is more functional as a different deity means a different approach to life, and thus you may not have a guarantee of favor with all of the Gods based on your relation with them. You may be brilliant in economic ventures due to having a secure relation with Hermes, but you might find yourself poor at martial skills due to not having as strong of a relation with Ares.
  • Despite being faced with diverse human religious experience globally that would indicate multiple deities, monotheism ignores this and enforces a belief in only one God, which invalidates the religious experience of others by denying theirs. This makes monotheism require special bargaining because of its atheism which requires one to accept evidence that supports their conclusion but reject any that doesn’t. As such, monotheism has no weight because it claims other Gods do not exist or are merely demons due to its atheistic tendencies which creates a negative inference. A polytheist, however, can use the theory of pragmatic truth and see all religious experience as true, since proper polytheists believe all divinity and thus accept all religious experience. Polytheism thus best accounts for religious experience by abductive reasoning, as the polytheist explanation is less ad hoc and has more explanatory and predictability power.
    • Accepting the existence of all divinities also gives a better explanation of the great diversity in the world. If creation were only shaped by one deity, then all created things would be identical, and no great diversity would exist in the world. Rather, there is a great plurality and diversity between humans, animals, cultures, languages, and morality globally, which proves that different Gods shaped different beings.
    • The case for a plurality of worship is further seen with Platonism, a polytheistic philosophy, as endorsed by the philosopher Iamblichus. Iamblichus states that the Gods are monoeides, meaning “in the form of singularity,” a term that Plato uses for the Good. This means that the Gods have a singular divine essence first, before they are individuals, as unity preceeds multiplicity. This makes the Gods more unitary and emanatory as manifestations of their divine source, functioning as horizontal extensions of the same power which ultimately leads back to that unity. This singular divine essence gives support to the plurality of worship, as it means there are many ways to approach and worship the divine.

 

Through definition

The claim that one God is simpler is, in itself, inaccurate. It can be easily countered.

  • A single God by definition is not more likely, as a single God would still be unavoidably complex and beyond the realm of the mind, and thus as likely as a more numerous amount of Gods. Due to this, a single God would thus be on the same footing as a numerous amount of Gods, since a single God is already unavoidably complex in nature. Gods are not simple; a deity’s existence isn’t tied to the human mind’s ability to wrap itself around that existence.
    • One may try to counter this by claiming that there is only one God who “absorbs all” or that all the Gods “are an aspect of one,” however this is still polytheism in itself since you are imposing dualism by splitting divinity. When you split divinity, you merely make “God” a class term, which polytheists have always understood. As such, doctrines such as this (e.g., pantheism or “immanent monotheism”) just become a form of polytheism.

 

Bibliography

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

Dillon, Steven. The Case for Polytheism. Place of publication not identified: Iff Books, 2015.

Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus, and Wilmer Cave. Wright. The works of emperor Julian. London: Heinemann etc., 1962.

Greer, John Michael. A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry Into Polytheism. Tucson, AZ: ADF Pub., 2005.

Iamblichus. De Mysteriis. Translated by Emma C. Clarke, John M. Dillon and Jackson P. Hershbell. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.

Kupperman, Jeffrey S. Living theurgy: a course in Iamblichus philosophy, theology and theurgy. London: Avalonia, 2014.

Many gods, One logic. Directed by Epified. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KWM7P1K1mU.

Plato, and Benjamin Jowett. The Complete Works of Plato. United States: Akasha Pub., 2008.

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Pragmatic approach of Polytheism

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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.

 

Bibliography

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.

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Rationalism and Empiricism in harmony

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Rationalism and Empiricism are two concepts in epistemology that seem to oppose each other directly. The former is based on the concept of apriori knowledge such as innate ideas, deduction, and reason. The latter is dependent on aposteriori knowledge, which is a type of knowledge not dependent on innate ideas but rather on induction and sense perception. I propose that these two seemingly opposing ideas are not only in harmony but are both necessary to understanding the greater universe and religion. One cannot be independent of the other; both are necessary.

 

Empiricism is necessary

If you look to the Gods, their essential essence is beyond the material realm altogether. However, simultaneously, empiricism is necessary because our experience with the divine is empirical. We do not experience their intelligible essence, which is so beyond us and near impossible to determine, but rather we can only see their activities, and even those tend to be viewed second hand (as they manifest in nature, not, in any obvious way, immediately from their hands). As such, empiricism is necessary to understand the divine in our material universe.

 

Rationalism is necessary

There exists a problem with solely relying on empirical evidence and assuming there are no such things as nonmaterial beings, such as deities and greater kinds, based on that; empiricism relies on materialism. Materialism assumes that things that cannot be empirically weighed cannot exist. The problem with that assumption is that it’s something that in itself cannot be empirically supported. You cannot prove a negative; and as such, materialism suffers from a weak, and unrecognized, metaphysics.

Sole reliance on our senses isn’t intelligent since our senses can be easily deceived. We can bear witness to false things and optical illusions, or even simply make mistakes when trying to learn the truth. As such, sense perception isn’t something to be solely depended on to understand the truth.

Math, for example, can be understood apriori. We understand that Pythagoras’ theorem is true for all triangles, despite not needing to test every triangle. Math and logical truths aren’t true because of our senses, but rather because of reason’s ability to connect ideas, or Forms. The idea is eternal and unchangable since the idea isn’t dependent on anything physical for its existence. Whether or not a physical triangle is drawn, Pythagoras’ theorem still holds true.

Though we only can only bear witness to the Gods’ activities, we must use reason and deduction to truly understand the divine, to the best of our ability.

 

Conclusion

Though pure reason is to be stressed over empiricism, empiricism still has its uses in understanding the divine and the universe around us, and as such both rationalism and empiricism are necessary for understanding the cosmos.

 

(Special thanks to Jeffrey S. Kupperman for heavily inspiring me with this!)

 

Bibliography

EsEinsteinium03. YouTube. January 21, 2014. Accessed November 14, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1g8wjsEQyw.

Markie, Peter. “Rationalism vs. Empiricism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. July 06, 2017. Accessed November 14, 2017. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rationalism-empiricism/.

Kupperman, Jeffrey S. “Living Theurgy: a course in Iamblichus Philosophy, Theology and Theurgy”. London: Avalonia, 2014.

Plato, and Benjamin Jowett. The complete works of Plato. United States?: Akasha Pub., 2008.

Yount, David J. Empiricism versus Rationalism. 2013. Accessed November 14, 2017. http://www.mesacc.edu/~davpy35701/text/empm-v-ratm.html.

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