Sunday, March 27, 2016

Between the Broad and Narrow

Polytheism is the religious regard for many deities.

Polytheism is not the spiritual regard for several archetypes, although a person can do that in addition to being a polytheist if a person does religiously regard many deities.

Polytheism is not a form of politics nor is it a system of economics, although a person can support these things in addition to being a polytheist.

Polytheism means polytheism: nothing more, and nothing less.

I’ve seen two problems which have crept up. These problems come up from opposing ends of the spectrum, but they result in the same erosion of meaning of “polytheism.” There are those who would try to use the word so broadly that it loses its meaning and its integrity--it gets diluted out of existence. There are others who would narrow the definition so tight that it no longer includes that which should be included--it gets constricted down to a point where it vanishes. Both problems can lead to the same destruction albeit through different means.

An atheist cannot open up the term polytheism to include herself because her atheism is one of a few things which is mutually exclusive to the religious regard of many deities. She cannot religiously regard many deities because she doesn’t believe that deities exist: she thinks that all deities are human-created, and thus by her own admission she does not believe that deities exist. (It should also be noted that a person can indeed be an atheist without studying, interacting, or even knowing about archetypes; and a person can indeed study archetypes without being an atheist.)

However, a person can indeed religiously regard many deities, and at the same time understand, acknowledge, and interact with archetypes while realizing that archetypes and deities are not the same kind of beings as deities. A person really can interact with two different things at the same time and be able to distinguish between one thing and another. Even if and/or when there is overlap, it does not mean that there aren’t boundaries; an overlapping edge should not be confused as evidence that two different things are “the same.” Archetypes are not deities, but a person can indeed work with both and still be a polytheist while still honoring that archetypes are archetypes and deities are deities, and the two sets of beings are different.

On a related note, when we polytheists allow for the propagation of inaccurate terms to define us and what we do, we’ve ended up diluting our meaning to allow for many other things which have nothing to do with polytheism. It’s not “devotional polytheism.” It’s just polytheism. Polytheism is a religious regard for many deities; devotion is religious regard. “Devotional polytheism” is like saying “polytheism-polytheism.” Using the term “devotional polytheism” only ends up marginalizing polytheism itself within what is polytheism’s own movement.

Then, there’s the other side of the spectrum. A person who subscribes to particular political ideology or economic systems, or both, can indeed also be a polytheist. A person who subscribes to a particular political ideology or economic systems, and who combines these with polytheistic religion is still also a polytheist. Politics and polytheism are not mutually exclusive—people can and do (and should!) vote with their values and act in accordance to what they believe is right: sometimes that includes religious values, whether those religious values originate somehow through relations with deities, or originate from the judgment and good sense of people, or come from other sources, or a blend of any or all of these different things. She can indeed carry politics and polytheism at the same time without confusing these things for one another or thinking that they must be the same thing, or that everyone who is polytheist must also operate within this overlap between polytheism and politics. Even when there is overlap (think of a Venn diagram), and even when a person chooses to operate within that space where there is overlap between politics and polytheism, it does not mean that there aren’t boundaries between polytheism and politics. An overlapping edge should not be confused as evidence that two different things are “the same.”

A person can indeed have a religion which combines polytheism and politics, and a person can indeed call it a polytheistic religion if it involves some kind of religious regard for many deities (that’s all you need to be called “polytheist”); but a person cannot claim that such an intersection between politics and polytheism is, or should be, the whole of polytheism. A person also cannot claim that such an intersection between a specific political ideology (like socialism or libertarianism) and polytheism is the whole of polytheism. A person also cannot claim that an intersection amidst specific political ideologies and economic ideologies (like socialism and anti-capitalism, or like libertarianism and capitalism,or like socialism and capitalism) is the whole of polytheism.

See the difference in size and scope? A person can have an individual specific polytheistic religion which combines a political and/or an economic ideology, but a person cannot apply that ideology to polytheism as a broad movement. What we’re running into is a confusion of subcategories for a broader category: not all plants are trees, but all trees are plants. Not all polytheists are (or should be) anti-capitalists, or capitalists, or socialists, or Marxists, or conservatives, or whatever, but all polytheists do share a quality of having some sort of religious regard for many deities.

When a large-scale general polytheistic convention takes an overall tone of a particular set of politics, there’s a problem. When a polytheistic gathering has discussions on anti-capitalism (or capitalism, or any economic system) as being a part of the polytheistic movement at-large, or if that gathering starts staging political or economic debates, there’s a problem. There’s a problem because politics and economic systems are not polytheism. A person would do well to recognize that the intersection of two different streets (i.e. Polytheism Street and Politics Street) doesn’t mean that the two streets are the same street even if you can stand in the middle of the intersection—and if a person confuses the two streets as being the same street, the person has a good chance of taking a wrong turn and getting lost. However, if a general polytheist gathering were to have discussions on specific polytheistic religions which may well be based on an intersection of polytheism and anti-capitalism (or capitalism, or another political or economic ideology) that’s fine.

Notice the difference in scope? In one situation, a political ideology is being artificially and forcibly applied onto a broad religious movement, a broad religious movement of many different individual religions. Many of those separate individual polytheistic religions may or may not be anti-capitalist (or capitalist, or socialist, or libertarian, or anarchist, or whichever political or economic ideology) and indeed some of them may have nothing to do with politics or economics at all, but they can end up being pressured into adhering to the particular political (and/or economic) ideology that is being artificially and forcibly applied onto them. This situation is not helpful and it causes a silencing and a destruction of diversity, and it even edges towards the destruction of polytheism itself. Politics and polytheism are not the same thing even if they do overlap at some points. In the other situation where a political ideology is not being artificially and forcibly applied onto a broad religious movement, it preserves the space for many separate individual polytheistic religions to flourish, some of which may or may not be anti-capitalist (or capitalist, or socialist, or libertarian, or anarchist, etc.) and some of which may have nothing to do with politics or economics at all. These religions can be what they are without being artificially forced into something they’re not, especially when that "something" is a political ideology--political ideologies are not the same thing as polytheism.

It’s also not ok to claim that those who do not automatically share political ideology in common with those particular individual religions are somehow flirting with some form of light fascism—this is a silencing tactic. Given the current climate of anger and fear (both in the US and abroad), it’s a powerful silencing tactic. And it's wrong, devastatingly wrong. It's a wrong thing to do to associate others with different political or economic ideologies with vile things such as racism, sexism, and totalitarianism, and a destruction of diversity. There's a certain terrible irony here that those who call others fascists (who are not fascists) are actually destroying diversity themselves--they are destroying the very diversity they thought they were preserving. In letting their fear take charge, in letting their fear of a perceived threat take charge, they've become the actual threat.

Polytheism is polytheism, nothing more and nothing less than the religious regard for the many deities. Politics, economic systems, and religions are different things even if they can often overlap. An overlapping edge should not be confused as evidence that two different things are “the same.”

Polytheism is not so broad as to include atheists (because honoring or studying archetypes is not the same thing as honoring deities). Although religions in polytheism cannot include atheism, specific religions in polytheism can include “a religious regard for many deities” as well as “a spiritual regard for archetypes.” But… those specific religions cannot then narrow down the definition of polytheism to claim that all polytheists must also honor archetypes as well as deities.

Polytheism is also not so broad that it can contain political ideologies as being the same thing as polytheism. Specific polytheistic religions can include an intersection of politics and polytheism. But…these specific religions cannot then narrow down the definition of polytheism to claim that all polytheists must do the same thing and adopt particular political (or economic) ideologies as well as honoring deities.

There is a middle ground to navigate between the too-broad and the too-narrow, and we must keep this middle ground ever-fixed in the forefront of our minds as something to strive toward. That middle ground is simply that polytheism means the religious regard for many deities, no more, no less; and that there is space here for individual polytheistic religions simply to be what they are.


Image Notes: Water ripples in a sea cave. Photograph by Berit, used under Creative Commons license. 

1 comment:

  1. Brilliantly stated, Tess. I run whenever I hear the saber-rattling of Political Correctness begin its march towards ignorance and destruction. It is happening in the UU Church, too (don't you dare have actual medical knowledge to disprove much of the modern medical myths out there). We do have to stand against the promulgation of the brain washed. I have always been terrified of them as they provide my worst nightmares.

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