The diversity of religions

There’s a common (mis)conception that says all religions are exclusivist, i.e., all claim a monopoly of truth and divinity. And atheists sometimes take that and use it as an argument, asking how can all be religions be true. And if they’re not, the reasons a believer points out as the basis of his/her religion’s claim to truth can be used almost word by word for the exact opposite. For instance, a Christian may claim his faith to be the real thing because the Bible says so, but an Muslim will say that’s false based on… the Koran. Just switch the name of the books and the same argument can be used both to prove and disproved Christianity’s claim to absolute truth.

As a polytheistic, I accept the existence of multiple divine beings. It doesn’t mean I worship all of them, but I acknowledge their existence or, at the very least, I don’t assume they don’t exist just because I don’t pray or present offerings to them. It’s called inclusive polytheism, which is in the exact opposite of the exclusivist monotheism that’s usually used to characterize religion as a whole. Although not part of my religious practices, I don’t deny the existence of Egyptian, Canaanite, Hindu, Chinese, Japanese, tribal African, or American deities. And yes, that includes the Abrahamic Yahweh.

This, of course, poses a problem: how do I reconcile different views on the universe? Every pantheon has its structure, family ties, functions and association with the natural and human worlds, and they come with a variety of realms, from the godly to the that of the dead. Do I believe the pantheon I’m closest to to be right in these things while the others are wrong? Is Hades the ruler of the underworld and not Osiris, Hell or Yama? Who’s King of the Gods? Jupiter, Zeus, Amon, or El? Was it Odin, Khnum, or Zeus who created the human race? By worshipping a set of gods, am I accepting their stories as true and those about other deities as false?

It should be noted that even among the ancient peoples that had the same pantheon, stories about the origin of the world and species were not universal. In Greece, there were different accounts of how things came to be and the same was true for Romans; an identical situation may have existed among other European pre-Christian cultures. Part of this is because their religions were to a large extent orthopraxic and not orthodox, meaning that the emphasis was on correct ritual practice and belief was left with the individuals and the groups they were part of. Ancient polytheists also made use of syncretism and monism to solve the problem, therefore considering different gods as basically different cultural takes on the same deities: the Egyptian Bastet was a form of Aphrodite, Zeus the Greek Jupiter, Lugh the Celtic Mercury and Tiu the Germanic Mars.

My own stance on it is to take the Gods as They come. I don’t assume Them to be different versions of each other unless I have good reasons to think so: I believe Minerva and Athena to be the same Goddess, but I’m not sure about Neptune and Poseidon; I’m inclined to consider Cybele and Nerthus as avatars of the same Earth Spirit, but that doesn’t mean I see Freyr and Zeus as family. Others may believe otherwise, but, as said, belief is personal and I don’t claim to know the ultimate truth or that others are wrong in their faith. How do I reconcile different cosmological views? Well, to be honest, I’m increasingly taking the notion of diversity that’s inherent to polytheism to a new stage: not only to I believe there are multiple divine beings with different perspectives and takes on things, I’m starting to think that there are multiple otherworlds. And this is actually a small step once you’ve been a heathen, given that Old Norse cosmology speaks of nine realms with different divine, human, semi-divine and other sorts of inhabitants. Why shouldn’t that hold for different pantheons and godly families or tribes also? The only world that needs to be shared is ours, which also explains how one thing – the sea, the weather, trading, war – may have more than one deity influencing it. It actually gives a whole new meaning to the notion of miðgarðr: Middle Earth, middle ground indeed!

So, for short, I don’t claim to know the ultimate truth, that only my gods are real, and that my religion is the only true faith. I actually worship Norse and Roman deities and may include divinities from other pantheons into my religious life in the future, each according to their own ritual traditions. And the diversity I believe to be true for divinity may also hold for the otherworlds.

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4 thoughts on “The diversity of religions

  1. If I could make one small correction. Inclusive polytheism is not the belief that all Gods exist regardless of whether one worships them of not. Inclusive polytheism does believe there is a multitude (I prefer the word multiplicity) of Gods, but that there is only one pantheon of God, which has been interpreted by different cultures through different names and myths. It is the belief that Zeus is Jupiter is Amun. It is similar to inclusive monotheism (often called ‘soft polytheism’ in the Neopagan community), which believes all Gods and Goddesses are simply different interpretations of a single Deity. Inclusive polytheism can be called a softer form of ‘hard polytheism’. However, modern ideas of hard and soft polytheism really don’t apply to traditional religions. Most traditional ancient religions fall within the range of inclusive polytheism to exclusive polytheism.

    • Thank you for your comment, Timothy. I do, however, have a doubt: if inclusive polytheism is the belief that there are many Gods, but one pantheon, what’s exclusive polytheism?

  2. No, I’m sorry, but you are mistaken. It is inclusive because it is the theological opinion that all pantheons are representations of a single pantheon, in a similar fashion that inclusive monotheism is the theological opinion that all Gods and Goddesses are representations of a single Deity. Exclusive polytheism is the theological opinion that there is one true pantheon and all other pantheons are false, in the same way that exclusive monotheism is the theological opinion that there is only one true God and all others are false.

    Inclusive polytheism resolves theological disputes by chalking up different names and myths to basically cultural filters and perceptions. Other polytheistic religions are not false. They are just different perception of divine truth.

    Exclusive polytheism does not resolves theological disputes because it interprets the Gods of other cultures and religions as false. Therefore, like Christianity, all other religions are false.

    Hard polytheism, which is actually what you are putting forth with the theological opinion that every single God and Goddess ever perceived exists, or at least not disputed to exist, as an individual entity, also fails to resolve theological disputes. However, it allows for a sifting paradigm.

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