The (i)morality of the Gods

This topic in particular can be taken from two different perspectives. On one hand, it can be argued that immoral gods cannot inspire or determine moral behaviour, the assumption being that people need to have a divine big brother to watch and punish them, if necessary. On the other hand, some will say that moral deities are oppressive and point out as examples religiously motivated discrimination of women and persecution of homosexuals.

As a polytheist, I see different gods as having different sets of principles. The ethos of a deity of war is not that of a fertility god, just as that of a power of lustful love is not the ethos of a deity of virginity. An underworld goddess of vengeance is not bound by the same principles as a god of forgiveness or purification and a trickster does not have the same ethos as a god of unwavering sacrifice. Diversity is a core trait of polytheism and, in my case, that’s true for moral issues as well. Of course, I do expect the Gods to share some rules of behaviour: if most of Them live or act as a community, then a set of common basic principles is required, things like the binding nature of oaths and respect for enclosed areas where violence is not allowed. In that sense, there’s a similarity between Their community and ours.

Also, I don’t reject the possibility of the Gods making mistakes, though to be able to say exactly when is a tricky matter, given that, though I don’t believe Them to be perfect, I do have Them as being better and more able, so what may look like a mistake to me may well just be the right thing in the long run. And though at least some of the Gods are kind and caring in nature, They are not without dark and aggressive sides, so that even the most loving of deities may sometimes feel like righting some wrongs with a punch or two (to put it nicely).

But perhaps the most important cent I have to offer on this issue is my personal view that, while belief is personal and ritual traditional, morality is social (more on it here and here). This means that, for me, the foremost source of moral rules is not religion, whose concern is the nurturing of ties with the Gods, but human society in its needs, laws, and philosophies. Religious influence does come into play, but it will either reinforce social morality or reach a compromise when at odds with it; and exactly what principles religion will bring into play depends a lot on what deities are part of your major devotions.

For instance, the Germanic Vanir rank high in my religious life. I actually hold one of Them as my personal patron, who turns out to be quite popular among gaymen, if nothing else because Freyr’s a phallic deity, and not many straight guys feel comfortable around a huge penis – so to speak. Plus, the Vanir appear in the surviving ancient myths as a more tolerant tribe of gods when it comes to sexual behaviour, incest, lustfulness and forms of effeminacy being linked to Them. This means that, on a personal level, not only I don’t have a problem with homosexuality, but my greater religious devotions actually give me an extra motivation to accept and cherish human sexual diversity. Socially, then, this places me in line with the constitutional principle of non-discrimination, therefore reinforcing a proposed social morality derived from the debate on equality and freedom in a modern democratic State.

If it’s society that builds moral principles and not religion, the Gods having at best an ethical influence on Their devotees, does this mean that morality is changeable and therefore subject to a degree of relativity? Yes, it does! In this, some see a down side, believing changeability to equal uncertainty and a lack of serious content. But I much rather have a morality that can be criticized, debated and, if necessary, evolve, than to have rules set in stone for all time and no matter how much the world changes.

I guess you can say that the (i)morality of the Gods is largely a non-issue to me. Human behaviour depends on humans needs, and though I do not exclude a godly assistance on that and accept it on a personal level, it ultimately should be society and not religion to determine morality.

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