The Place of the Gods

I have been reading an interesting exchange of posts between John Beckett and John Halstead on Patheos Pagan, and today I read a post by Mark Green of Atheopaganism in response to this.

John Beckett: “The Future of Polytheism: Keeping the Gods at the Front”

John Halstead: “If It Doesn’t Help Me Save This World, I Don’t Want Your Polytheist Revolution”

Mark Green: “Castles in the Air”

John Halstead and Mark Green represent an atheistic branch of Paganism. They value the Earth-centered approach to Paganism and they think of Gods and Goddesses as mere ideas, or perhaps archetypes. On one hand, I have some understanding of this point of view. I did go through a phase of a kind of Pantheism myself a number of years ago, but where I am today, and with the experiences that I have had, I am having a hard time understanding how this view has religious value.

Let me explain what I see as the purpose of religion, and why I have to agree with John Beckett’s point of view that we must put the Gods first when it comes to religion. This does not minimize the problems of the world, the environmental crises, the violence, and the social disparities. These are huge issues that must be addressed. We must focus on them and take action in our own life to save our world. But I believe that is true for people of all religious persuasions and is not exclusive to Pagans and Polytheists.

The purpose of religion is not to provide morality. It can, but I think that’s a slippery project. The whole discipline of Ethics built on Reason (and not instructions from a God) comes directly out of the Polytheist traditions of ancient Greece. I am completely in agreement with the common Atheist saying that if you need the threat of eternal punishment to prevent you from being a bad person, then you are already a bad person.

The purpose of religion is not to provide answers about the afterlife. Again, it can, but I also find this slippery. There is certainly no consensus among Pagans or Polytheists about what happens after death. I don’t think agnosticism about what happens after death is incompatible with Polytheism. My general view is that we should concentrate on the world at hand.

When it comes to morality and afterlife concerns, keep in mind that Polytheists don’t believe that their Gods and Goddesses are omnipotent or omniscient. Their powers are greater than humans and their vision goes beyond what we know, but that doesn’t mean they infallibly know the future or even that they can be trusted in all things.

Religion may foster communities, preserve traditions, provide support to members. All these are great, but they’re not essential or exclusive to religion.

What religion provides – and no other institution provides – is an encounter with the Divine. Not the “idea” of the Divine, but the actual Divine. If you think Gods and Goddesses are “ideas”, you clearly haven’t met one. Anyone who knows a God or Goddess, who has had an actual encounter with one, knows that they are not just an idea. They are individual, unexpected, and specific. Encountering a God is not abstract. It is not really otherworldly. It’s immediate, specific, and real.

To encounter a deity, a power greater than oneself, does not require or imply that the God or Goddess is eternal or otherworldly. Gods and Goddesses can and do die in many Polytheist traditions, and they may or may not be reborn. I have encountered and very much believe in genii loci (spirits of place) in beautiful natural places. I encounter them in forest preserves and lakes not too far from my home. If these places were destroyed, bull-dozed, polluted, paved over, I think these spirits would be gone. There’s nothing in a parking lot to nourish them, and they would no longer exist there. They are immediate and of the world, and my concern with preserving natural places and the larger environment is absolutely one with my concern for them. This is not “other-worldly”.

I happen to have had many other encounters with Gods and Goddesses, and this is what keeps me connected to my religious path. It seems to me that atheist Pagans miss the most essential part of being a part of the religion (or the religious tent) of Paganism. If the Gods and Goddesses are just “ideas”, then perhaps they can just be dismissed. But if you only encounter them as ideas, you have missed the unique and powerful experience that Polytheist practice can provide.

Polyamory and Polytheism

When I first think of polyamory, like many others, I think of polygamy traditions in Mormonism, Islam and in other cultures. This consists of one man with multiple wives. It seems like the height of patriarchal thinking. The Alpha male gets multiple partners to make his babies and maintain his multiple households. As a feminist, it’s hard to see the appeal of this arrangement. More troubling still, this is often associated with child brides – marriages arranged for young teenage girls (or even younger) with much older men. This is absolutely not consistent with a culture of consent (as I discussed in a previous post).

But there is a different kind of polyamory, or rather, a broader type of polyamory, because it opens up possibilities for many different shapes of relationships. I have been looking into and educating myself about this lately. It is not especially easy to do. Much of the coverage is sensationalized or judgmental in nature, and much of the dynamics of a relationship are considered private by those taking part.

A number of people have referred to Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land as an inspiration for polyamory. I don’t actually know the book, but I do have my own Sci Fi inspiration for a polyamorous model. It was in “Caprica”, the short-lived “Battlestar Galactica” prequel series. We see Sister Clarice Willow (portrayed by the wonderful Polly Walker) at home with her polyamorous family. She is in bed with two husbands and one wife, and there are multiple others in the household. It’s not fully defined. It is just presented as a normal part of the culture – which happens to be a pagan culture. Sister Clarice is, at least on the surface, a priestess of the pagan pantheon and a school headmistress. She appears to be the height of respectability, and this family structure is a part of her respectable life.

I think that there is a certain sense that paganism, and polytheism in particular, are congruent with a polyamorous way of thinking. As we can be devoted to many gods and goddesses, we can be devoted to multiple partners – without diminishing the value of any. I have been observing lately that many Pagans do embrace polyamory.

It seems to be a value to polyamorous people (of this more modern type) that honesty, consent and respect are necessary to make relationships function.

There are multiple structures of relationships with this new kind of polyamory. It may be couples who have open relationships in which each can pursue other partners. It may be a couple that sometimes has a third sex partner with them both. It can be two couples that switch partners. It can be two or more partners involved with one person at the center, as with the traditional polygamy, but without the strict gender definition. It can be a full triad, where each partner is involved with other two. Or, like on “Caprica”, it can be a larger and more complicated structure.

As I follow these possibilities to their logical conclusion, I have to say that I see a definite value and potential in all of these types of relationships if they are handled with respect, compassion and consent. Families with children may be a complication, but frankly having multiple parents in a family seems like it would be a benefit to the children. Child care responsibilities can be shared in a more flexible way. Although I think that most places recognize only two legal parents and that can be a limitation. The moralistic judgments of outsiders can obviously be a problem. Children could be taken away from homes where unusual family structures could be considered “immoral”.

I ended that previous post about consent with a reference to a slippery slope about same sex marriage, and that if we take consent seriously, there is no slippery slope toward pedophilia or bestiality. I do, however, think that polyamory does challenge definitions of marriage in a way that is conceptually similar to same-sex marriage. If a marriage contract is between two consenting adults, is there a compelling reason that it cannot be between three or four consenting adults? Wouldn’t the inclusion and legal acknowledgment of such relationship and family structures provide more security for children and stability for surviving partners?