Following recent discussions with other polytheists, which made obvious a divide in attitudes and perspectives between the two sides of the Atlantic, I’ve been considering the topic more extensively, taking into account the idiosyncrasies of the United States, western Europe in general and my country in particular. Things like History, politics, social dynamics and attitudes towards the State. And the more I thought about it, the more I kept going back to three points. So in order to clarify things, I wrote this post explaining where I stand as a European polytheist and in contrast with what comes across as a significant trend in US American polytheism. Keep in mind that I don’t claim to speak for all Europeans with an identical or similar religion, if nothing else because Europe, like the United States, is not monolithic. Furthermore, my views reflect mainly my experience as a native Portuguese living in his own country, though there’s a lot in common between western EU members States. And judging from what I’ve been reading elsewhere for some time now, I’m not the only one noticing the Atlantic divide.
1. Not a counter-culture
Let’s start by getting the obvious out of the way: I’m not into polytheism as a form of counter-culture. Why would I, if it’s a part of my country’s History and hence an extension of its heritage? My native language derives from Latin and Portugal’s modern-day territory was for centuries a part of the Roman empire, which left plenty of traces, both material and non-material, religious and non-religious. To a large extent, this also applies to Celts and Celtiberians and marginally to Phoenicians and Germanic tribes as well, all of which once called this land home and left various traces, though not in equall measure.
As such, I’m a cultor not just because I see polytheism as a valid religious option, but also as an expression of my native culture. It doesn’t mean that you have to be Portuguese (or Spanish or Italian or whatever) in order to be a Roman polytheist (see here); nor does it mean that you have to be a cultor if you’re Portuguese (far from it!). But in my individual case, that was a large part of the motivation.
Of course, Roman polytheism was last practiced openly 1500 years ago, so a reviving effort is in order. Yet the point is not to counter modern culture, but to adapt the religio to it! To make it a living part of today’s Portugal, much like Shinto is a part of modern Japan, not a Renaissance fair, a protest group or an ideological throwback into a romanticized past. It’s not that I don’t have causes. Animal rights, gay rights, wildlife preservation, fighting climate change and food waste – I’m involved in all of these issues. But I do it because I believe it’s right, not because my religion tells me to. At best, devotion to individual deities and a sense of community with the gods – which include my ancestors and landwights – reinforces my motivation and adds an additional layer of meaning to my actions. And while I think the cultus deorum has a positive contribution to make, both religiously and environmentally, by virtue of being a polytheism that recognizes divinity in natural places, I don’t see that as being at odds with modernity. Quite the opposite, in fact.
2. More upbeat
While discussing with polytheists from across the pond, I was confronted with the belief that modernity has been a sort of downward spiral into a worst world. At best, it brought a façade a greater freedom and equality, but no real change. “Modernity guarantees us nothing”, Sarenth wrote in a comment to my previous post. As a Portuguese man who’s well aware of his country’s past, I wholeheartedly disagree.
Go back 500 years in European History and you’ll find a very different continent. And I’m not talking about borders, but of religion, political system, social stratification, individual liberties and legal framework. Simply put, western Europe was generally ruled by more or less autocratic and confessional monarchies with very, very limited religious freedom. In some places, Jews managed to practice their faith, provided they paid a tax and confined to a ghetto. In the Iberian Peninsula, Muslims lived under similar conditions, though it all changed in the final years of the 15th century, when Spain and Portugal expelled Jews or forced them to convert. Even when they did, they were still persecuted under the suspicion that they remained secret Jews, especially after the Inquisition settled in both countries. That’s when you started having frequent autos de fé or acts of faith, which basically consisted of burning people alive in a public square after being paraded through the streets. If you were a (suspected) Protestant in a Catholic country or vice-versa, you’d suffer a similar fate. Even more so if you were a polytheist, which by the way were virtually non-existent in Europe at the time. And these were the more judicial procedures, since there were also plenty of ad hoc massacres: take Lisbon in 1506, when hundreds of Jewish men, women and children were tortured and killed in the streets; or Paris in 1572, when thousands of Protestants were slaughtered in what went down in History as the St. Bartholomew Day’s Massacre. Simply put, either you practiced a legal religion – which was usually just one – or you had to flee for your life.
Following the wars of the 17th century, things started to change. Slowly, but surely. The Enlightenment questioned religious intolerance, even popular religion itself, proposing greater tolerance and rationality. In Portugal, in 1772, that produced changes in the Inquisition, which remained in existence, but diminished in its authority thanks to the chief minister of king Joseph I – an autocrat, but an enlightened one. Yet it was not until the French Revolution, Napoleon’s campaigns and the subsequent spreading of liberal ideas that Portugal saw its first constitution in 1822. It was far from perfect and it didn’t last long, but it was an initial stepping stone in a long and non-linear process of increasing liberties, rights and equality. One of its latest stages happened by the end of last year, when parliament awarded full adoption rights to gay and lesbian couples. But before that there were voting rights, press freedom, civil marriage for straight couples (back in the 1800s), the abolition of slavery and the death penalty, public education and healthcare and yes, religious freedom.
All of this is the product of modernity. It was because of it that my country moved from an autocracy to a constitutional democracy that awards political, civil and social rights and liberties. It is because of modernity that I can be an openly gay man without fearing for my life. That I went to a public school, then a public university and now have a PhD. That I can vote, that my mother and grandmother can vote, freely join a political party or create one. And that I’m writing this, have the liberty to pick my religion, practice it freely and be open about it. This is what modernity guarantees me. It’s not a façade, but actual change from what my country was at the start of the 19th century, before modernity kicked in. It is now a more democratic, egalitarian and tolerant place than it was.
Is it perfect? Far from it! There’s still plenty of racism, bigotry, discrimination and income inequality – of which I myself am a victim – the political system has a lot of room for improvement and there’s an abundance of environmental issues. But strange as it may sound to some, I don’t see modernity as part of the problem, but of the solution. Why? Because the freedom it awards allows me to speak publicly about my religion and change perceptions on polytheism. The democratization of the past two centuries grants the basic tools for further political change. The legal recognition of fundamental rights and of democracy as more than a dictatorship of the majority allows for a continuous struggle against racism and bigotry, which isn’t easy nor linear. And at least over here, technology is increasingly part of the solution to environmental problems: renewable energies, better and more extensive recycling, circular economy, energy efficiency, better waste management – these and other things are a growing focus of European policies, which also increasingly factor in climate change. So why would I see modernity as an enemy if it brought me hard-won fundamental rights and freedoms, greater security and a welfare State? Why would I see it as a problem if it changed things for the better, considering how they were in the early 1800s, and grants the basic tools for further change and improvements?
3. More secular, less born-again
There is an irony that separates the two sides of the Atlantic: the US first constitutional amendment, which dates back to 1791, clearly establishes a separation of Church and State, yet the same country has a public discourse where religious and political speeches overlap extensively; by contrast, Europe still has countries with State religions (the UK, Denmark or Finland, for instance), but public discourse is much more secular than in the US. Also, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, the United States is unique among the wealthier countries in that it’s more religious than the rest of the pack. Which helps explaining another difference between western European and US polytheism.
If no one is an island, then to a greater or lesser degree people will naturally reflect their surroundings. Ergo, if you live in a place where religious discourse is framed as being on faith, values and utter devotion to a god, where there’s a prevalent born-again attitude, militant and all-encompassing, then it’s perhaps no surprise that it too can be found among polytheists. And in the case of the United States in particular, there’s also the backdrop of the culture wars, which add further fuel to an extremist fire. The vitriolic speech and siege mentality that I find in a good chunk of US American polytheists is, I think, a product of that. Consciously or not, it is a reflection of the religious fundamentalism they’re faced with, either personally or through the media. They reproduce it, make it their own, even if at the same time they claim to be against it.
By contrast, the prevailing secular mentality in western Europe contributes to a middle ground where people from different religions or none can discuss and co-exist in a less heated fashion. Or at least that’s how I experience it in my country. It’s not there’s no talk of values and faith or that we don’t have religious fundamentalists, but they’re a minority, fringe groups that get little attention, while most people have a pragmatic attitude. Religion is not generally worn as if it’s the sum or sole element of one’s identity, so it’s usually not something that gets in the way of living and talking with people who believe or practice differently. And even among Catholics, which according to the 2011 census constitute about 80% of the country’s population, a lot if not most focus more on what they do, religiously, and less on what the Church says about contraceptives, marriage, sex or even faith. I know a few who have no problem saying they believe in other gods and some even see themselves as Catholic simply because they go on a pilgrimage once a year.
This, I reckon, is why a Baptist can sit next to a chair set aside for a Norse god. Or why a Catholic, an atheist and a polytheist can share a table at a restaurant and talk about their beliefs without going vitriolic. There’s little in the way of in-your-face attitude when it comes to religion, because it’s not the sum of who I am and therefore it doesn’t prevent me from being civil with a religious other. I don’t see a Baptist, atheist or Catholic friend of mine as first and foremost a Baptist, atheist or Catholic. I see them as friends. It’s a secular attitude where religion is not at the forefront of who you are. And in my personal case, this is reinforced by the fact that I’m a Roman polytheist not because I had some born-again experience or hold a moral code that sets me apart from the modern world, but because it is an element of my national identity. It’s a portion of who I am in the here and now, not the past or an alternative anti-modern reality.
Hopefully, these three points make it clear why I feel less and less connected to certain groups of US American polytheists. I don’t see myself in their constant protest or anti-modern stance because to me modernity means something else and my view of religion is not akin to that of born-again evangelicals. I’m not in this to be different, to hold up some axiomatic bible or to set myself apart from the society I live in. It’s not that I don’t think it needs to be improved, that the world should be better or that the prevalent religious discourse has to be diversified. But I see the needed changes as being a part of modernity, not in opposition to it. Because modernity is what gave me the liberties and rights I have today and which were once non-existent in my country and in Europe at large. To update and improve them is to update and improve modernity.
Granted, things may look a lot gloomier in the US. For one, because it’s a relatively young country that was born out of the Enlightenment, so it can’t compare itself with a more distant past where it had a different regime. But also because its presidential system narrows down political options, whereas European parliamentarism fosters a greater diversity of parties in both the legislative and executive branches of power. Plus, unlike many US Americans, most Europeans don’t see the State as inherently evil, but look to it as a necessary regulator and protector. And on this side of the Atlantic, “socialism” is not a dirty word, gun violence is much lower, eco-friendly policies are mainstream and public discourse is less dominated by religion.
Knowing this, however, doesn’t make the divide any smaller. It’s still there. And my awareness of it has been brewing for some time now. It makes me less interested in what some people write, because it’s so distant from the way I see and experience the world. Occasionally, it feels like I’m reading the words of a missionary who tells me to fight my neighbours or reject my past because it’s unholy. And I kind of think: but we get along fine and I have my past to thank for who I am. Best to just move on and ignore some folks, I guess.