The following post has been in development since about February…but, a few recent conversations prioritized it to today, and I suspect you’ll be able to guess where that’s the case. Strap in, this is going to be a long (and possibly bumpy) ride…!?!
It’s the birthdate of Alexander the Great on this day, as we recognize it, and so perhaps part of the discussion which follows here below reflects that (coincidentally!). We think of Alexander the Great primarily as an historical, military, and political figure (which is not unlike how many scholars approach Antinous, incidentally–excepting the “military” distinction, and reducing the “political” to his affiliation with Hadrian!), but he also ushered in one of the most fertile periods of intellectual, philosophical, and scientific innovation and development, along with an unprecedented level of cultural and–yes, indeed–RELIGIOUS interaction and transformation the world (yes, the world as-a-whole at the time) had yet seen. That period continued through and beyond the time of Hadrian, and it would be incorrect to suggest otherwise than that Antinous’ deification and then successful spread of His cultus would likely not have taken place at all if Alexander the Great had not laid the groundwork for it in certain important ways.
But, notice something: in describing Alexander the Great above, I did not just say “Alexander the Great ushered in a period of religious development.” It might have been fine for me to say that, because it’s true, and religious matters are the primary concern of this blog. However, philosophy, science (which would have been considered a branch of philosophy at the time), culture, and religion are not all the same thing; that was as much true then as it is now, even though all of these things are connected with one another and influence one another.
(And, while these things were more and more interconnected and even inextricable in the past, something that polytheists, pagans, certain monotheists, and most secularists and atheists agree on now is that this is no longer the case, for the better…but, it also allows people to attempt to excuse the violent actions of Islamic terrorist groups as “just politics,” or required female genital mutilation in some Islamic countries as “just culture,” and both of these things having nothing to do with the religion of Islam, when in fact those things are deeply connected…but, let’s not get off track here! The brief for the present blog post is monstrous enough as it is–and I mean “in size,” not in character, despite what some people might think on the latter as well…!?!)
There is a pernicious set of memes going about, both within the wider modern 21st century cultures we inhabit (which are largely secularist), the dominant monotheistic religious paradigms we interact with, and the extended religious communities to which many of us are connected and with which we interact and affiliate (e.g. paganism and some sectors of polytheism)–and here I mean “we” to encompass the majority of readers and subscribers to this blog, most of whom have done so because they are polytheists of some stripe or other, and that group is primarily the intended audience of what I write (though others are certainly welcome to read, comment, and so forth!). These memes are essentially mistaking the separate fields of science, ethics (a branch of philosophy), and politics for religion, when in fact none of these are synonymous, and while any or all of them can have connections to religion–and to each other–and I would never deny that they DO have these connections, mistaking one for another is as dangerous and counterproductive as mistaking a sporting event for a political rally, a scientific conference, a school of proper behavior, or religious festival (even though in the ancient world, some athletic competitions–i.e. “sporting events”–were done for religious reasons and had religious motivations; but one can’t assert the same of a Mets game these days…no offense to the Mets or to any other athlete or sports team or organizing sporting activity generally speaking!).
It might be best for me to leave it at that…but, when have you who are regular readers of this blog ever known me to do something like that? So…
Let’s take these three topics in turn and look at what they do, what their purposes are, and how these are different from religion and the central concerns of religion, even though they can (and do!) influence each other (and have done so for a long time as well!).
Something which is far too commonly thought is, essentially, that “religion is simply outdated science.” Anthropologists like Sir James George Frazer asserted ideas of this nature–namely, that the “evolution” of human thought about the world goes as follows: MAGIC –> RELIGION –> SCIENCE, with the “primitive,” “barbaric,” “unsophisticated,” “backward,” “uninformed,” “ignorant,” “superstitious,” and “foolish” (and any number of other unsavory classifications) being the end and middle of the spectrum there, with SCIENCE as the pinnacle of human achievement. Substitute “animism” for “magic,” and “polytheism” for “religion,” and “monotheism” for “science,” and you’ve got the view of this evolutionary development that still prevails in many sectors of academia, including religious studies. This has been the heart of the critique of religion by several people–among them professional scientists (coincidence? Nope!)–who are among the “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris of religion as a redundant, regressive, and now unnecessary aspect of human civilization which has been more-than-adequtely replaced by science, and leaves religion as the bastion of fear, prejudice, and ignorance (which it most certainly is in some sectors, but not all). One piece among many (though these are not known as widely as they should be) which critiques this viewpoint is that by James W. Jones, entitled “Religion is Not Primitive Science.”
I have said on previous occasions that I think religion and science need not be opposed, because they are entirely different pursuits with different goals, different methods, and differing bases for what constitutes legitimate or illegitimate phenomena. If anything, religion is a “science of meaning,” whereas “meaning” is entirely discounted from science, and in fact “meaning” is often denigrated as being childish and stupid by some of these same atheists. Of course, I disagree on the latter entirely, and I said so recently within a piece that discusses the difference between a religious epistemology based on propositional knowledge and those based on experiential/acquaintance or procedural forms of knowledge. Propositional knowledge is the basis of creedal religions, and science generally is based on propositional knowledge as well; it is no coincidence that atheism has developed from a creedal religious background, and still has some of the deep structures (like this particular epistemological focus) underlying it. Since most world religions have generally not had this epistemological focus, and instead are based on participatory practice (procedural knowledge) and relational encounters (experiential/acquaintance knowledge), there is then no need to make these different forms of knowing opposed to one another.
Knowing the benefits of exercise and the nutritional contents of the food I’m eating–both forms of propositional knowledge–do not make me toned and keep my weight under control; this is one example among many. However, I’ll return to one that I think I’ve mentioned before as well: Sogyal Rinpoche is the first person I read who made a distinction between an intellectual understanding of enlightenment in Buddhism and the experience of enlightenment itself–anyone can have the former (it is propositional knowledge!), but only some people are able to have the latter (because it is experiential/acquaintance knowledge). While many other people have made this distinction since, and long before, and perhaps have done so better or in more vivid manners, I always think back to him because that is the first time I heard this idea articulated properly. This is a message that needs to be heard and understood more widely in the context of our practical and experiential religions, because it seems a fundamental misapprehension of this fact is why too many people seem to think that reading blogs, writing comments on them, and even writing blog posts is “the same as” doing devotional work (i.e. practice) and having experiences of their Deities (i.e. experience). Sure, it can be, and it is also possible for Deities to use the means of electronic media to have encounters with humans, but They can also use apple trees, sunsets, the ocean, taking a shit, orgasms, and amputations without anesthetic to do that. But that’s another matter…
This is probably a point which needs no further explication, as the above encompasses the majority of what needs to be said on the matter. However, I’m seeing a disturbing trend in some circles that I think needs to be tackled head-on and examined further, and this seems a worthwhile context in which to do so. While anthropology and one of its daughter disciplines, religious studies, is becoming better at looking at religions phenomenologically and with fewer biases as to what is “valid” or “not valid” in constituting religion, religious practices, religious thought, and so forth, other academic disciplines are beginning to look at religion in ways that might not be as bias-free as their supposedly scientific approaches might suggest. Psychology has long delved into religion–Freud, Jung, and a whole host of others pioneered their efforts using religion as both subject and paradigm in some cases (the “Oedipus complex” is as much a myth as the story of Oedipus itself!)–but this has lead to the mistaking of psychology as the basis of religion, or the synonymizing of the two, which is a viewpoint especially prevalent amongst many modern pagans. Neurobiologists have also looked at religion, and some (like Sam Harris) write it off entirely as something only in one’s mind and a neural anomaly, while others have tried to look at it more fairly. One field that has attempted to do this both in a scientifically rigorous and responsible fashion, but also with sensitivity toward the importance of meaning within it, is parapsychology–and while that field does get a lot of flack from other “real” scientists as being a “pseudoscience,” it is often more rigorous in its application of the scientific method and good experimental models than other types of science and the “facts” they generate (and which have been taken at face value without question) often is.
One para/psychologist (he is both!) I admire a great deal, and whose work has been influential on me, is Charles Tart, who has recently called for an “evidence-based” examination of different forms of religious practice, particularly those that are said to be able to bring about healing or other beneficial effects for people. This is an interesting idea, and from what I’ve heard and read of his work on this matter, I’m fairly confident that it will produce interesting results; but the biggest hurdle here is that it is looking for tangible physical effects in certain parts of religious practice that are not the primary purpose of religion itself, and those results might get used by some people to suggest that if one style of prayer or practice over another proves to be more effective in helping people recover from cancer, for example, then it might be assumed that the religion involved is “more true” than other religions. Attempts to link various forms of scientific (and/or archaeological and/or historical) proof to the “truth” of certain religions is something that we must always watch out for, I think, since this distracts from what the central purposes of most religions actually happen to be and what they are able to accomplish for many of the people who practice them: namely, a life that has the possibility of being placed in a context of wider meaning (and in the case of polytheism, through relationship to Deities and other divine beings in ways that are appropriately reciprocal to the circumstances concerned).
One way in which this scientific pursuit can go seriously off-track can be seen in the following interview, by Jeffrey Mishlove (about whom we’ll be hearing more on this blog in the coming months), with Dr. Jeffery Martin.
If you don’t have the time to watch that whole interview, let me attempt to summarize it: what Dr. Martin is studying is how “non-symbolic consciousness” has positive benefits that can be scientifically demonstrated for those who have that experience. Ultimately, what is going on here is that the “non-symbolic consciousness” he’s referring to is a Zen-like “no mind” state, which is also favored in other forms of Buddhism, in Taoism, and in certain types of more apophatic prayer in a variety of monotheistic religions. Okay, fine…but, do you see what’s also going on here, and which is potentially a problem? This particular phenomenon is being taken as the “essence of religion” to one extent or another, and the “central core” that many religions (and thus by assumption “all the important ones”) share, and then the personal and psychological benefits of religion and religious practice are being gauged by one’s ability to successfully attain that state…and a vast number of other assumptions about religion and religious practice are also being generated by such an evaluation. What religions does this exclude? Is this the only religious practice and resulting state that the religions in question have, and would they argue that is the core of their practice, or its main and most important goals? (Zen would say no, for starters!)
This variety of emphasis on, in essence, monism and monistic conceptions as being “true” religion, thus, demonstrates a number of other things in the process: why certain religions are given the benefit of interfaith inclusion while others are not, and why certain religions are said to be “in accordance with what physics says” and so forth (which, I’d argue, they don’t!). The lack of semantic or symbolic content in these types of experience being then reified as the only valid and beneficial religious phenomenon, essentially, says that the core of these religions is NOTHINGNESS! While this is certainly one human experience, which might be valid and useful in some circumstances, to privilege it over all others is, itself, a theological choice that is far from unbiased or without sectarian influence, and it further ignores all sorts of other potential human experiences and the neurobiological states which accompany them that might be more useful, interesting, and constitutive of meaning than this particular one, which in fact has no meaning at all since it lacks any symbolic content or semantic heft, and essentially does nothing other than have people immobilized and vegged out doing nothing. As a polytheist, of course, I reject this notion entirely–there’s a huge number of valid and useful and important human, divine, religious, and neurobiological responses and experiences that aren’t better or worse than any other in any inherent fashion. But, also, look at what religions that focus on these experiences ultimately do: if this is the “essence of reality” and the core and goal of these religious practices, i.e. an experience of nothingness, non-relationality, and a complete lack of meaning, then that means that anything and everything in life is unimportant, empty, meaningless…
It’s no wonder that the interfaith movement, and wider forces in modern cultures, prefer this sort of religious conception. It then eliminates all of the possibilities of inter-religious conflict, which might be seen as a “good” thing, in many respects; but, it likewise also makes of any and all political abuses, personal issues, social problems, and even the fate of the world and the physical environment we live in ultimately unimportant and “nothing to worry about.” How very insidious and manipulative is that? How very rife for abuse and deception–both of which “don’t matter,” either!–is this preferred religious conception? Examine this possibility very carefully, dear readers…
…And, perhaps in doing so, see how unconscious bias, and even the tools of science–even when it does not verge into scientism (i.e. the belief–on a religious level–that science has all the answers, and the only valid ones to be had at that)–can be used to erase certain religions, or to argue “for religion” in a manner that favors one over others because of the demonstrable evidence that it has certain psychological and stress-relieving benefits. Even Sam Harris, in a debate with Reza Aslan and moderated by Jonathan Kirsch (and I admit all of these individuals–with the exception of Kirsch, to my current knowledge–are problematic in various ways), said that the neurological states of most humans, who under direction can achieve these states that are what Dr. Martin describes as “non-symbolic consciousness,” can be verified scientifically, and therefore we should talk about that (in other words, the “most important thing” that religion can do for anyone) rather than getting bogged down in the history, politics, cultures, and particularities–all of which are inherently divisive, in his view, and thus should be eliminated–involved in religion.
Which brings us to our next topic…sort of…
At one of the college where I teach, we have to undergo regular training on a yearly basis for workplace harassment, which takes place online; at my other college, we had to do this for the first time since I’ve worked there. While the online environment is not the best one for such a training course, I understand that it is the cheapest one for the colleges to do, and the most time-efficient manner to do so…but it’s still not ideal, and in fact might involve a whole host of other problems as well. Nonetheless, in one of the training courses, “religion”–which is a category protected from discrimination by both U.S. law and by the policies of the colleges where I teach (at least ostensibly)–was defined as:
Religion is broadly defined as an individual’s moral or ethical system of belief. Nontraditional beliefs are also protected if they are held with the strength of traditional religious convictions.
Can you see how this is problematic on multiple levels? The constitution of religion as “belief” almost entirely, and primarily as “moral or ethical,” is a creedal monotheist, and actually a very specifically Protestant, construction which eliminates and/or mischaracterizes many other religious systems, including everything indigenous. And, “traditional” is here being used not to mean “tradition-based,” but in fact as a stand-in for “majority,” meaning Christianity (or maybe Judaism or Islam). While more could be said about how pernicious these memes are as well, the one I want to focus upon here is the idea that religion is essentially all about morals, ethics, or values (and I’d argue that those are all different and separate things, but since they are being used interchangeably on a popular level, let’s grudging agree to understand them all under the heading of “ethics” for the moment and for the present discussion).
Polytheist John Beckett recently stated:
Good religion has both an internal focus (becoming better people) and an external focus (building a better world).
There is an ambiguity here in how “good” is being used–does he mean “morally preferable,” or “effective”? Whatever the case may be, what is being asserted here is that there is an ethical focus–whether exerted internally or externally–that is an essential part of religion. This is such a common assumption that it almost goes without saying, such that ethics (or morals, or values) gets understood as being synonymous with religion. Arguments along these lines often suggest that without religion, people would just kill, rape, and steal from each other, and thus religion–contra the atheists and secularists–is necessary, and perhaps should even be required. (And, of course, our religion is the best and only one which should be required in this way, since it is the only one that teaches *proper* ethics and *correct* morals and *good* values, etc.!)
My religious studies and philosophical teeth, at least on the academic level in college, were broken on questions of ethics, so these issues are never far from my mind. HOWEVER, what I ended up learning in my master’s degree program challenged some of those assumptions, in a way that I think is very useful in the current context. In one of my first courses, which was a required one in my program, I was introduced to several theologians and theological concepts I had not known about previously, all under the umbrella of “praxis theologies” (which really means “non-genitive theologies,” and not so much what it might seem to indicate, i.e. theologies based on practice or practices of various sorts), which included things like feminist theology, queer theology, liberation theology, and what is called in Christian contexts (perhaps unfortunately) “political theology” (and we’ll get into politics later below!). When we were being introduced to this latter topic in particular, my professor commented that “political theology is pretty much liberation theology for first-world white people.” The two main theologians whose work we read in this regard were the Catholic Johann Baptist Metz, and the inventor of the term, Dorothy Soelle. (It looks to me like many of the people who discuss religion and politics in the same breath within pagan and polytheist circles are borrowing from Soelle without knowing it!) However, what Metz said, and what I agree with strongly, is the following (in summary form): religion (though he said “the Church”) is not a school of ethics, it is a place for the inculcation and cultivation of eschatological hope. Whatever ethics flow from that, however, are fine and sensible and inevitable, and indeed the entirety of the world can be encompassed thereby, but it is the eschatological hope and not the ethics that are the province of that space of activity known as “religion.” While we can–and indeed must, to various extents–adapt such a formulation, we can see how it is appropriate to a polytheist framework: polytheist religious engagement is not about ethical concerns, it’s about cultivating a relationship to our Deities.
In Cicero’s De Natura Deorum III, especially III.36, he argues (against Stoicism, possibly in favor of some form of Academic/Platonic discourse–but, please feel free to correct and enlighten me and other readers on this better, Edward Butler, if you’re reading!) that virtues come from humans, not from Deities, and that it is rare for people to thank the Gods for their virtues, but instead to thank them for their good fortunes. Outside of the deified abstracts which embody the various different classical virtues–including Virtus (“virtue”)!–it is a fair point that a balance of virtues and lack thereof, from a human perspective, are found in many of our Deities. If one is looking to Deities for guides on virtuous or exemplary behavior, that isn’t always going to be something one can find, especially if one mistakes mythological narrative for always (or even primarily) being exemplary myth. To get to know the virtues of the Deities, one must encounter Them more directly, and see what They are like. Few are all-good, nor do They claim to be; but very few are all-evil either. Virtue ethics may be a very useful and important thing to study for polytheists, but at the same time, we shouldn’t expect Deities to always conform to our own notions of virtue, as these matters seem to have (at least traditionally) been acknowledged to emerge from human activity and necessity rather than from divine beings, including Deities.
It does appear, on the balance of the evidence, though, that “political theologians” like Metz and Soelle leaned heavily into outlining how the atrocities of the world and the many injustices found therein are places in which religion should be realized and examined and brought…or, indeed, they are places where religion already exists and simply needs to be perceived correctly by humans. While I do agree that religions are totalizing structures that are meant to be able to encompass everything and to be connected to any possible aspect of one’s life, that doesn’t mean that ethics is the essence of religion, nor is synonymous with it. If it were, the emphasis that Metz placed on eschatological hope’s cultivation in preference to schooling in ethics to be the province of religion would not need to have been stated.
A certain person that I’m sure many of you are aware of, Ioannes Humanismus, said the following about politics and religion recently:
It’s easy to say there should be non-political spaces when your existence is not perpetually under threat by virtue of your difference, by virtue of your conformity to white, male, hetero-, cis-normativity. But if you are female, if you are a person of color, if you are queer, or gay, or lesbian, or if you are trans, or if you are disabled, then there is no such thing as a non-political space for you. Because almost everywhere you go, you are being told implicitly, if not explicitly, that you do not belong, that you do not have the same rights as others, that the exercise of power over you by privileged others is right and justified and deity-sanctioned.
I’ll ignore for the moment that he has attended one of the rituals I held at PantheaCon, which most certainly IS a space where white male cis het able-bodied normativity is not accepted as the norm, or as what is better or right, nor what everyone should either aspire to be or feel bad about not-being, and that anyone and everyone who has any differences with these characteristics DOES have the exact same rights as anyone else. This might just be his overstatement of using “almost everywhere,” and in that he is largely correct; so, a space where those things aren’t an issue is, by [his] implied definition, a non-political space? Or an acceptably political space?
One thing I’ve noticed, both religiously or socially, is that when I’m in a space that I share with other minorities who do not have privileges and we’re doing something related to whatever our minority identities happen to be–whether that is polytheistic religious engagement and discussion, or being around queer people of various identities, or any number of other things–one thing which certainly happens is that we are suddenly freed from having to potentially face adversarial consequences for any of our identities. It is a safe space, and one in which we do not have to live in fear that our every action will be either critiqued or taken as somehow representative of everyone in whatever identity group we are in. It is what I’ve sometimes called “the freedom to talk about the weather,” i.e. having interactions with people that aren’t predicated upon me explaining (and thus likely having to justify) my existence, and having to argue for how equally human I am to the people who are looking weirdly at me (or worse). Because I’m an adherent of the Silver Rule generally as a default (and the Platinum Rule whenever possible, when I have sufficient information to be able to do so), I find it is best to not treat other people in ways that would alienate them either, and that extends to everyone, including cis het white able-bodied males. But, having those spaces where we are free and are safe is important, because in not having to constantly acknowledge the “political” nature of all the parts of my personhood which are viewed as problematic and difficult by the majority culture, and thus having that “non-political” space in which to operate, I am able to recharge my batteries and refocus my efforts so that I can face the constant difficulties I will run into outside of those spaces. Something I notice about almost everyone who is a polytheist that is advocating for these non-political religious spaces is that nearly all of them are people who are denied privilege in one area or another (and I’ll leave aside the very real fact that by the mere fact of being polytheist, many of us are denied privilege), and we’d like that to continue to be the case, so that when we aren’t in our religious spaces and doing our religious activities, and will be forced (not by our own choices) to be considered “inherently political” that we’ll be better able to do so in ways that are in accord with what we see as our proper relationships to the Deities-and-divine-beings-filled world.
While I cannot say for certain, I wonder if the cis het white able-bodied males who want to have non-political religious spaces as well might want a respite from being constantly considered evil or oppressive or privileged–even though many of them are not evil and don’t deliberately oppress and may lack privilege in certain areas (e.g. economically, etc.)–and to just exist without having to apologize and wallow in guilt for their being for a few moments. Compassionate regard requires me to consider that this might be the case, even if I don’t like the religions they’re practicing, or don’t approve of their behaviors otherwise. No, I don’t think religion should simply function as a “safe space,” either, no matter what one’s identity might be, nor should it coddle and cater to one’s vices or limitations and never challenge one to grow and develop as a person (in my own case, doing so in order to be in better relationship to my Deities is the reason for such growth and development, and is a side-effect of the engagement, not the purpose of it!). Further, I would hope that those who are of these majority identities at least begin to realize that they can’t expect to have everything handed to them by virtue of their majority and privileged status. But, just as I don’t think they should denigrate me for who and what I am, likewise I’m not going to denigrate them for who and what they are; if their behaviors are despicable, I will critique those quite freely, but that’s something else.
Whatever the case may be, I’ll say the following: no, I’ll be the first and loudest one to admit that I’m not perfect (in fact, that phrase is part of a prayer I use regularly, and thus I affirm it before my Deities on an everyday basis), and that I have, and do, and will continue to make mistakes in regards to a number of issues falling under the category of “social justice” (and I’ll have more to say on that in a moment), but I think I’m doing a pretty good job of trying to make sure that I make my spaces hospitable and welcoming and affirming of all sorts of people, because I am doing exactly that for all sorts of Deities.
The above article then also quotes Kiya Nicoll, from the comments on another post, as follows:
“When I observe someone saying ‘This is not a political space’ what I hear is ‘I have never had to think about whether or not my sort of person is welcome to show up.’”
To be honest, there is no such thing as “my sort of person” in my own case, because I know exactly no one who has the same intersection of identity markers that I do, most of which are minority, non-privileged, and to some extent or another are oppressed. So, in setting out to create spaces and events that are welcoming and accepting of “my sort of person,” I think I’ve done relatively well in terms of not only accomplishing that, but as a result making those spaces open and welcome and accepting of everyone, including (in certain contexts) atheists and people who do not have the same theological, spiritual, or religious viewpoints that I do. The first ritual I held for Antinous in October of 2002 involving other people had (including myself) four attendees: a cradle Irish Catholic (also cis het white male), an Irish atheist (also cis het white male), and a Swedish Goddess worshipper (cis bisexual white female). I’m pretty far from all of those things, but they were all welcome, and all of them enjoyed themselves, and all of them attended at least one other ritual I did during my time in Ireland.
More from the blog post already mentioned:
But if you think you’re not being political when you[‘]r[e] praying to your gods, then you’re deluding yourself. Think about it … What are you praying for? Are you asking for help to make the world a more just and peaceful place? Or are you only praying for more divine favors for yourself, to keep what you have, and get more for yourself? If it’s the former, then you’re being political. If it’s the latter, you’re being political, too — just in a bad way.
And what about our gods? Do yours gods bear an uncanny resemblance to you? If your gods are Black or queer, then your choice of gods is political, because it is a challenge to the status quo. And if you’re white, male, heterosexual, cis-gendered, and able-bodied, and your gods are too, well then, your choice of gods is also political. If it’s because you’re avoiding cultural appropriation, that’s political. But if it’s because it’s what you were drawn to, then that’s political too, implicitly. And if you tell me your gods chose you, not the other way around, and that their resemblance to you is purely coincidental … well, I would invite you to look more closely at that.
So…I have Deities and other divine beings to Whom I am devoted who have characteristics or cultural associations along the following lines: some are Nubian (i.e. very definitely Black!–like Apedemak and Amesemi), some are queer (Antinous), some are gender-variant (the Tetrad++), some are disabled (Hephaistos, Suibhne), and so forth…and I also have Deities Who come from European cultures, Who don’t have attested homoerotic relationships, always appear in one of the recognized two binary-gendered forms (thus, in a sense, “cis”), and Who are superlatively able-bodied. I am not interested in Deities that “look exactly like me” (though I’m mostly interested in Deities Who are also interested in me–thus, have They “chosen me” or have I chosen Them? In most cases, I can’t really say for certain!), which would mean…what? That I should therefore only be interested in the “usual” Deities that most mainstream pagans are, i.e. cis het able-bodied male-or-female Deities, as long as they’re not white, because those ones don’t look like me and thus challenge the supremacy of my self-interested non-religious identities? Well, I am interested in some Deities who fit that description. By some accounts, Iao and Asherah, being Middle Eastern, and Hebraic (whether that is the same as “Jewish” I leave up for debate on another occasion!), are “not white,” and thus perhaps it would be “perfect” for me to worship Them, since they “look the least like me” of any Deities…but, wait, I have Jewish ancestry as well, so I guess not. Maybe I should worship Allah and His Three Daughters, Allat, Manat, and Al-Uzza, then? Well, I already do and have, though more the three latter than the former. But is the latter “cultural appropriation,” or is it simply doing what most modern polytheists have been doing for as long as we’ve been polytheists, i.e. responding to Deities from a variety of cultures who have in some ways impacted our lives and with Whom we wish to have further interactions?
Or, to take it out of the religious sphere and into another hypothetical for a moment: yes, I’d love to date a Black or Latina transwoman or transman, and I probably wouldn’t care if they were disabled, and I might even like them despite the fact that they might have another religion from me, or no religion at all, if such an individual were interested in me. The problem is, I don’t know of any who are, and while I remain open to these possibilities, I’m also not going to spend every waking moment searching for such a person, nor am I going to be anything-but-realistic in realizing that they probably won’t traipse past my apartment given the community that I live in (which is the only one I can live in because of limitations on mobility, economics, and where I currently work–and if for one second you think I can just easily get any sort of job elsewhere, think again, because a superlatively-educated white person like myself is not any more likely to get a job in academia these days than anyone else, and I’m even less likely to get one because I’m also queer, gender-variant, vocally religious in a minority religion, and disabled). But, say that the straight white cis able-bodied Catholic dude down the street happens to meet me at the neighborhood drug store, and we get to be friends, and he decides that he might like to have a relationship with me, because he understands that I’m not the same gender as him, and thus he can still be “heterosexual” since he is in a relationship with someone of a “different” gender when he’s with me, and–most importantly–he knows me and actually likes me, and the feeling is mutual. Or, let’s say that it’s just a matter of being friends with this individual, and no romantic relationship is involved. Now, should I forego a relationship with him, because he’s not as diverse and different as I am, even if he makes me happy and we like each other and he has no problem with all the things I am and do? Should I prefer “not having a friend” to having one in this situation? This is a ridiculous and hyperbolic set of hypothetical situations, I grant you, but I think it might illustrate the point. What is better: the ideal–motivated by whatever criteria one decides are the most important–or the reality, the person one wishes one had or the person who has shown up? Something similar can be said about Deities, I think, and I think it has much less to do with politics than it does with a lot of other things, including circumstances and chance and even fate, and any number of other things that may have little if anything to do with “politics” as (not) defined by the writers above.
The concept of “social justice” isn’t necessarily bad, and the loss of this sense in the discussions thus far in some quarters by polytheists who are demeaning the concept rather than critiquing those who are pushing it, their methods, and their flawed assumptions is a very unfortunate matter. Yes, I think that some of the actions of those who say they are interested in social justice are ill-advised, ill-informed, and can often verge into the needlessly prohibitive; but, I think it is better to critique particular instances of such overreaching than to entirely discount the concept based on the bad behavior of some people associated with it. (One of the most vocally and vile critics of the concept of social justice, whose name I will not mention and who lamentably happens to be gay but is so self-hating it’s shocking, also claims to be a Catholic, and I find it ironic that social justice is at the heart of Catholic social teaching, and has been a focus of the current pope, amongst other things…but, that’s another matter altogether, too!) What I am wondering is if there is more to “politics” than this, i.e. is there a better understanding of the term “politics” than what it seems to mean in Ioannes Humanismus’ blog post, i.e. that it is synonymous with social justice?
While I could attempt to define “politics” in some fashion or other (perhaps invoking Aristotle in doing so, or mentioning how various different Deities like Zeus and Athena are Deities of the poleis, from which “politics” originates), I think there is a different issue at heart here, even apart from the potential collapse of the category of “politics” into “concern for social justice.” I wonder if the writer we’re discussing here, and the examples that he gives, is mistaking “politics” as a meta-category for things like “perception” or “priorities.” If one decides to march in the streets rather than to pray, he says that both of those things are “political”; but, are they really a question of priorities and what one decides to invest time and energy in? Some of us are good at some things and not good at others, or are interested in some things but are not interested in others, and I don’t think anyone’s prioritization based on their own interests and abilities should be denigrated or questioned. One might be sensitive to the inclusion of various groups of people who have been deprived of privilege in one’s rituals and such, or pray for justice and peace and assistance on certain matters, or one may not; but is that a matter of “politics” or is it merely a matter of perception, and either seeing or not seeing (and thus understanding or not understanding) how these matters may or may not impact others or oneself? The problem of ignorance–not only in relation to matters of social justice, but in relation to vast amounts of human knowledge and experience–is a pervasive one, and oftentimes it can be cured simply by being introduced to certain forms of that knowledge or experiences of it, but that often doesn’t do a thing to change people’s minds or hearts. (As an educator in a public institution, I know this is a fact!) While one could argue that perception and priorities are also “political,” then the whole thing comes close to being an example of infinite regression via politics. But, I think it might also be useful to ask if making everything political is, itself, political, and what the political agenda in doing so happens to be. While looking at the political angles in different areas of human endeavor is often enlightening, seeing it as the meta-category under which all other things fall is also a mistake, I think.
Or, let’s consider taking a different angle on meta-categories of this nature: what if all of these things that are mentioned by the post are not “political actions,” but instead are understood as “relational” matters? My friend, colleague and co-religionist Anomalous Thracian has written about polytheism and animism as religions of relation, and I think in this he is correct. If the primary paradigm of relationality which one employs is religious rather than political, then imputing politics and political concerns to a religious paradigm is not a self-determined aspect of one’s identity, and if it is being used to discriminate against someone or to expose them to critique or ridicule, then how is it any “better” than all of the ways in which majority mainstream privileged cultures tell queer people what they can be, tell women to keep in their place, tell the disabled that they’re too inconvenient to accommodate, and tell people of other religions that they’re deluded? If we talk about “social justice” with terminology that isn’t that phrase, which has become used and abused and over-used, and instead speak of what these issues really are–i.e. human rights issues, then saying that this or that religious activity is overly-political or insufficiently political is just as much an offense against those as it is to be a misogynist, a racist, a homophobe, a transphobe, an ableist, or anything else.
Is this concern over everything being political simply a matter of just re-defining “in-groups” and “out-groups”? Whether we like it or not, religion has always done exactly that, for good or ill (and often for both at once). This then prompts the question of whether or not one is deciding to send everyone to the sorting hat based on their particular political organization, perceptions, and priorities is all the more reason for some of us in modern polytheism to say “Nope, we’re really not like you, and we want nothing to do with you, so please leave us alone.”
There is also the issue of hierarchy within religious spaces that has been an undercurrent in many of these discussions, often favoring the denigration of clergy, spiritual functionaries, and all religious specialists, while simultaneously replacing that structure of authority with one that determines who is and isn’t “doing good religion” and so forth based on–yep, you guessed it–whether or not said individuals agree on prioritization and perception of politics in religious activities. I’m not sure this is remotely a good thing, for all sorts of reasons…but this gets into yet another area of concerns which should probably be left for another time at present!
Just to be clear: I practice several religious systems which emphasize concepts of “justice”–whether as Iustitia, or as Ma’at, or as the Irish concept of fír, which do prioritize what we would recognize as human notions of justice, law, fairness, equality, hospitality, and many other virtues in one’s dealings with Deities as well as with humans. Also for the record, I am for #BlackLivesMatter (and include it in my prayers), I pray for ends to the discrimination against queer and gender-variant people of all sorts, and for the destruction of systems of oppression that marginalize and terrorize women, the disabled, and many other groups, not only because I am in many of those categories myself, but because I think it is a good thing and is what I understand would make for the best possible world that everyone could live in with what the Deities would suggest is harmonious and peaceful. However, I also recognize that these things are not “the same” as the core of my religious engagement, nor are they the purpose of me doing it–I have been saying for several years now that I got into polytheism not because of what the Gods can do for me, or even for what They can do for the world, but for the Gods. The instrumentalization of all persons–whether they be the Deities, other humans, or the natural world–is one of the fundamental problems of the world, and I am not about to say that my religion, the area of my life around which I have attempted to organize all else, and which I prioritize the highest, and which I perceive to be the most important set of relations I have, is going to be something merely instrumental to either myself or the benefit of the larger world would betray justice, fír, and Ma’at on a fundamental level.
“So, if not these, what is the ‘point’ of Religion?”
This has already been much longer and more extensive than I had intended, so let’s see if I can summarize a few things in closing, getting to the point of this section, and of the larger post, i.e. what “the point” of religion is, as I see it.
Fundamental to my sense of what religion does is to cultivate the idea and practice of “respect,” which is part of the concept and practice of relationality as well. The word itself comes from Latin roots meaning “to look at, to regard,” and as many of you might thus be aware, the use of both “respect” and phrases like “I see you” in a number of marginalized communities is the heart of what is at stake in many of them. As I see it, respect is the basis of religion, i.e. respect for persons that are divine, human, and otherwise (e.g. the entire world of nonhuman materiality, both of biological organisms and all of what non-animists would call “inanimate matter”). Is “respect” an ethic, a virtue, a value, or a moral? Not really; it’s more of a practice, a verb, and a noun which comes from the verb. One cannot show respect without being respectful, and the giving of religious regard–i.e. respect–to persons who are very commonly not seen–i.e. the plurality of divine beings–is the very essence of polytheism, as defined (again) by Anomalous Thracian in many different instances. It is to see the Gods for themselves, and also at work in my own life and amongst the things I see in the world…uh-oh, which begins to look like what Metz said of “eschatological hope” and what Soelle said of seeing such things in the world. If you want to call that “political theology,” I guess you can; for me, it’s called “polytheism.” Thus, ethics and politics aren’t apart from the concerns of religion, but they’re not the main point, nor do I think they should be taken as the barometer of what does and does not quality as good or useful religion, as full religious engagement, or anything else of that nature.
To get back to the matters of science, and the idea that religions should in some sense “provide answers” (rather than being the primary organized human endeavor for “providing meaning,” as I would argue), is a mistaken notion. That religions can provide meaning, which is an affective and emotional quality, should not be misunderstood that all religions have an essential explanatory function, which (again) confuses the types of epistemology involved, and assumes that what was normative for some religions (the creedal monotheistic ones) is true of all religions. An answers-focused approach, like creedal monotheism and scientism, which proceeds from an epistemological focus on propositional knowledge, then tends to focus upon “the map” provided by a given religion, or a given branch of science, which as an unfortunate result often then not only replaces the actual territory, but also replaces the need to visit the places in that territory, and both gradually become increasingly non-experiential. The notion of religion as “bad science” results from the notion of religion-as-explanatory, and this explanatory project as being the essential one for the core purpose of religion.
On the other hand, religions that have non-propositional epistemologies and which emphasize practice and experience have as characteristics that they are religions of interpretive and connective or relational endeavors. These types of religions are questions-focused rather than answers-focused, and if the other sorts of religion provide “the map,” these ones instead might be thought to provide “a compass” whose shifting needle suggests directions in which one might travel, thus requiring one to actually engage and explore rather than simply deciding that all has been determined already by a pre-drawn map which one only needs to follow. From this viewpoint, morals and ethics in religion are intentionally relational, and are thus connective in their intention rather than directives or requirements, and are a by-product of attempting to have guidelines on good relations with one’s Deities, and thus are a secondary formation to a great extent. Furthermore, these are reduced in their importance greatly if the Deities concerned are not thought to be all-powerful “Creators” which are the only option out there, which must therefore be accepted and assented to without question. In a polytheist context, this simply cannot be the case.
Respect rather than politics; relationality rather than ethics; interpretation rather than scientific facts. I would argue that while some religions or understandings of them may blur many of these things together, religious systems like those which are polytheistic not only have many moving parts, but are also connected to a variety of different things (and, this is one of the distinctions that has often been lost in the monist debates: “it’s all connected” is not the same thing as “it’s all the same”!), but that the distinctions between them remain. One can be respectful without being religious or being a polytheist; one can have a sense of relationality without being religious or being a polytheist; one can have an interpretive schema without being religious or being a polytheist. Sure, being a polytheist does suggest a preference for respectful relational engagement and interpretive understandings, but the phenomenon of polytheistic religion is not reducible to any of these constituent elements or interests…and the same is also true of science, politics, and ethics in any given religious system as well, including polytheism.