Polytheism: Old answers, to new questions
i – The Question at Hand
Debates about the existence of (the Monotheistic) God have been going on for ages, and have gone nowhere interesting for almost as long. A regular dance now plays out – where believers and non-believers dodge and weave around the bones of Augustine and Aquinas, Voltaire and Kant, their jousts and jibes predictably inconclusive. I think part of the problem is that what we have is a disagreement between apologists and critics – people who want to defend a particular theory, and those who wish to poke holes in it. What’s more, that “particular theory” is the rather narrow beam of mainline Christian theology – set in stone and ink in a hundred or more synods and councils since Nicea. What nobody ever seems to do in the debate over the Man Upstairs is speculate – theorise openly about what sort of god, if any, the evidence might point towards. It is worth remembering that the question posed – in TV debates and radio discussions around the world – is always “Does God exist?” (never “gods”). Nobody asks “In what ways might the gods exist – from the available evidence we can muster?”
The former question is very narrow, and this can be seen in the lines claimed by the belligerents in the debate itself. Atheists tend to merely claim that God is a “delusion” concerning a “supernatural being” or a “creative intelligence” hypothesis that has now been exceeded. Monotheists tend to agree (apart from the delusion-and-hypothesis part), viewing the traits of supernaturalism and creative intelligence as the natural conclusions to draw from the various omnies they attribute to God – omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence. This view has a long (Christian and Islamic) philosophical provenance, and aside from being logically fraught, it seems to say more about what Divinity does than what it is. Even labels like “supernatural” tell us nothing other than this being or quality doesn’t fit within our world. It doesn’t stipulate how its own world functions, or how we might identify its effects on this one. It throws the divine outside of this world, specifically to protect it from scrutiny – something atheists are wont to criticise, but never really transcend. All this verbiage is the intellectual equivalent of kicking the can down the road.
In short, it seems to me that whole debate is badly posed, and badly understood – even by most theists. They cling to one particular image of Divinity, rather than approach that image philosophically and critically. The reason for this is simple – the importance of upholding the right set of beliefs in Christianity has always been paramount, and is of considerable importance in the other Abrahamic faiths. As such, rather than openly ask the question “What is this Divine thing anyway?”, theists have spent much of their time in the recent past trying to justify other people’s answers (i.e. those of Biblical or Quranic prophets) to this basic question, while atheists have spent most of their time trying to torpedo those same answers. To use an awful academic phrase, nobody is doing any blue sky research. Or nobody participating in the debate is, at any rate.
Imagine if we asked the same question of other things. It looks patently stupid if we apply it to physical objects – when Copernicus discovered that the Earth orbited the sun, nobody began to ask “Does the Earth exist?”, after all. But a more telling comparison arises when we think on immaterial qualities. When Charles Darwin discovered evolution, nobody (or almost nobody) questioned the existence of humanity itself as a category. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, nobody asked “Does the economy exist?” This a particularly good comparison to strike, as the economy is very much a product of human artifice – it is imagined, a fiction, “made up” – and yet it has very real consequences for how we each lead our lives. It is quite real. Nobody denies its reality, and although many of us want to see the entire system transformed, root and stem, there is nobody who either suggests that all exchange between persons should be abolished, or that such exchange doesn’t exist in the first place. So even if the atheists were right in claiming that the gods were brought into being by men (and I do not believe they are), that doesn’t necessarily mean the gods aren’t there at all.
My approach has always been one of looking to the blue sky for answers; always one of trying to explain experiences I have, rather than attempting to defend a theory somebody else has provided for those experiences. For me, the Divine is as real as joy, power or the colour green – it is something I experience directly. So the question isn’t “does this exist?” but “how does this exist?” How does this relate to the world, of which I am also part? This approach – known in philosophical circles as “Natural Theology” – is not only worthwhile because it allows for free and open speculation towards the gods, of the sort we would use for any part of reality – it also allows us to escape two basic contradictions; one in monotheism, one in atheism; that still dominate popular discourse about divinity.
ii – The First Contradiction
Monotheism is predicated on the notion that there is only one god; powerful and eternal. But as is pointed out in Steven Dillon’s excellent text on the subject, this is flatly contradicted by two facts, namely:
a) Many people have wildly contradictory experiences of “God”. He is alternately male and female, kind and cruel, helpful and harmful, generous and selfish, forgiving and grudging, wise and stupid, immanent and transcendent. One is not meant to be all things to all men, but this being supposedly manages it.
b) Still more people – throughout history and around the world, of good character and with no reason to lie – have experiences of more than one god. They meet these beings, work with them, understand them as well as we understand any human person we might meet.
Now, the usual monotheist apologetic for dealing with this is threefold: God’s superlative quality means that he not limited by human perception of his qualities; human beings frequently lie, forget, and are deluded about god; and that these other gods who behave in ways unlike the One True God, are actually devils sent to trick us.
The first of these three statements is easy to dismiss; special pleading, without evidence – it’s yet more kicking of the can. The second two bear closer scrutiny. Both of these may indeed be true; we know that human beings are indeed fallible, and there may well be devils, if there is a God (ignoring why a supposedly omnibenevolent, just God would permit such convincing frauds to carry on their business for now). My objection, however, is that both of these explanations sound suspiciously like gaslighting.
Gaslighting is a means by which abusers twist or manipulate information in such a way that benefits them – denying that a victim’s own experiences of the world (i.e. that social workers, friends, and family are helpful and kind; that you yourself know what’s good for you) are valid (i.e. social workers, friends, and family are all secretly plotting against you; you don’t know what’s good for you – I do). When you consider the behaviour of “God” – the blatant obsession with controlling his followers, the constant threat of (eternal) pain, the desire to police their thoughts, the push to attract more followers, and punish those who disobey, accompanied by the near-constant lip-service towards love and kindness; what emerges is not a kind and loving Father, but a vicious and persistent abuser. In this context, the apologetics of monotheistic theology are unmasked as a rather transparent attempt to separate devotees from those who might otherwise be able to help them – that is to say, other gods, and first and foremost the good sense and genius of each follower in themselves.
With this in mind, there seems to be little reason to doubt such an overwhelmingly well-attested report as that of there being many gods; not just as an article of faith, but a vital step towards personal liberation from long-lasting patterns of abuse on a cultural scale.
iii – The Second Contradiction
From a reductionist atheist perspective, the gods are just mere imagination – voices in the head, created by some quirk in the evolution of the brain. Primitive man, so the theory goes, personified natural phenomena – thunderstorms, dreams, spring, childbirth – in an attempt to better relate to them. Those who still express this trait are a throwback to this earlier time, before mankind developed reason as a better way of understand the world. In anthropology, this idea was championed by Edward Tylor, who believed that religion was a “survival” from a prior phase of human evolution. He was working in 19th century, and his ideas are now seen as highly antiquated by contemporary anthropologists of religion. But they still prove popular amongst certain atheists – particularly Richard Dawkins – because they serve the same purpose for which Tylor originally thought them up – to discredit religious beliefs. There are some Pagans who, quite happily, base their own practice on this theory; here, the gods are just human projections onto the world, protected from refutation by a postmodern affirmation of personal experience. There is a delicious irony in how a theory devised by a sceptic to skewer religion for good has ended up being retro-fitted as a kind of Natural Theology for a relativistic age.
The problem for this reductionist disavowal of the gods is, of course, that lots of other things exist primarily as structures in the brain – not least consciousness itself. Physically speaking, my humanity, that of all the people I know, and the personas of my gods are composed of much the same stuff – neurological matter. If we take a materialist view of the world, my sense of “I” and my sense of “Sulis”, “Frey” or “Nodens” are basically the same mental function – the brain being able to create a particular sensation, in this case, one of persona and agency. We see that this places atheism in a bind; if [a] god does not exist because my experience of it is solely in my head, then my consciousness does not exist by the same token – both are mere shadows on the wall. If we put the gods on the bus, then we will surely join them soon after. What will be left behind are mere bodies; capable of nothing but empty production and consumption, devoid of any meaning or purpose, and easily exploited. This point has been made excellently elsewhere on this blog; but suffice to say, if we kill the gods, then we wipe out ourselves too. The claim that gods do not exist because we imagine that they are there, also indicates that our own consciousness does not exist, because we imagine it is there.
iv – Weighing and Measuring – Towards Better Questions
Here, we have taken the measure of the two conventional stances taken in the debate – that of conventional Monotheism, and that of conventional Atheism. Both, as we have seen, are blighted by fundamental flaws, that conflict with the commonsense view of reality – monotheism is contradicted by the fact that many gods have been met by humans; the flat out denial of the gods on the basis that they are imaginary would also require denying humanity as a “delusion” as well.
So how might we construct a more robust, natural theology?
v – On the Nature of the Gods
We know, from a vast array of historical and personal evidence, that gods exist. They are awesome, powerful, and long-lived beings. From the second contradiction, we know that the gods share their interiority – in some degree – with humanity. From the first, we know that they can lie.
Many of them appear to be embodied by natural forces and features of the landscape. Others are connected with forces and powers that are found within human society – like love, and war, and victory. They are mortal. They can kill. And they can lie. Humans can become divine through theosis, and gods can become human through incarnation.
From a moral perspective, gods seem little different to human beings; some are good, some are bad, all have virtues and vices. As such, we should approach our relations with them in much the same way as we do with one another – showing respect, giving credit where credit is due, and avoiding those who give the signs of being abusive or cruel. Gods may be much wiser than we are, much kinder, much braver – but they are still people, and so, they might not. We must use our own discretion, and that of those we trust, to be sure.
The relationship divinities have with their physical manifestations appears to be the major difference they have with humans. Simply put, humans are tied to and defined by our mortal bodies, in a way that gods are not. We find mirroring of this in the ancient texts, where what marks humanity and the gods apart is not their power, their supernatural station, or their cosmogonic role – indeed, humans often fill these roles too – rather, it is the fact that they eat food that makes them immortal. Ambrosia or apples or the bread of life; it makes no difference. Because they are not tied down by life as we are, they can extend far more broadly throughout time and matter; so that, as Thales once said “All things are full of the gods”. Man, sadly, appears to be mostly full of himself.