To believe or not to believe: that’s not the question!

Last Saturday, while strolling through one of the bohemian neighbourhoods of Lisbon, a friend of mine asked me which gods I believe in, adding that he had never met a polytheist. Nothing wrong there, given that it’s been over a thousand years since polytheism had any major public expression in Europe and I welcome the curiosity, but the question he asked would not take him far in a greater understanding of the matter. The reason for that is that belief and practice are two different things and one doesn’t necessarily imply the other, so if someone asks me which gods I believe in, chances are my answer will be all. And that doesn’t say much about my religious life, does it?

We’re used to think of religion according to the terms of the three Abrahamic faiths, where one god claims to be the sole divine being and demands worship from all. In such a case, belief naturally implies practice and disbelief the rejection of worship. But this relation changes when you’re dealing with an open system where there’s no limit to the numbers of deities and humans are free to attach themselves to a particular set of gods or even just one without denying the existence of others. From a polytheistic perspective, belief doesn’t necessarily imply practice in that one may acknowledge the existence of several divine beings, but may not worship all of them, for whatever reason. To the limit, this may mean that the existence of every deity from every pantheon is generally not denied – including that of the Abraamic god – leaving worship, one’s religious practice, to define which gods each person is attached to.

There are different degrees of belief and worship. A person may actively believe in the sense that he or she has a bond with a particular god and related deities, seeks experiences with Them, or is at least interested to the point of collecting information. But there’s also what we may call passive belief, which is when someone accepts the existence of a set of divine beings, but doesn’t try to establish a connection, to know Them better, and may even see some of Them rather distantly. Practice too can be active or passive: the former is when one makes a given deity a regular part of his or her religious life, the latter when someone worships a god as a member of a community, but otherwise is not part of that person’s practice. And, once more, to actively believe in a divine being doesn’t equal to actively worship Him or Her, though this status may change in the course of time: for instance, a year ago Diana was not part of my practice, until the illness of one of my dogs led me to make a vow and brought that goddess into my religious life; one year ago, I actively believed Diana exists, but did not worship Her.

To return to the beginning of this post, the best question to make me (and others like me) would have been which gods I worship, to which I would reply with a short list: Freyr, Freya, Njord, Nerthus, Beyla, Byggvir, Janus, Vesta, Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, Diana, Saturn, Hercules, Neptune, Bonus Eventus, my ancestors, Elves, and a host of local wights. This already shows a focus on Norse and Roman deities, plus a cult to those closest (dead relatives and spirits of the land), but doesn’t say how I pay Them homage, meaning the next question should be about how I worship Them. Is it by means of a wiccan circle, a fully new type of ritual, an historically inspired ceremony, or a more or less reconstructed sacrifice? If it’s inspired or reconstructed, according to which cultural group(s)? The same gods may be worshipped differently by different cultures, so to know the type of practice one has allows you to pinpoint the tradition to which the person adheres. And this whole question has relevance not only to those who are outside modern polytheism and ask about it, but also to polytheists themselves, given that some still define their religious life according to the reasoning of Abraamic religions.

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