The words above were written by Galina Krasskova in this post and it’s a spot-on sentence because it goes straight to the root of the problem that polytheists often face when joining interfaith groups. It’s something that I’ve come across multiple times, both actively, whenever I engaged in some form of interfaith dialogue, and passively by reading and listening to what people say about religions other than their own. And after several years of it, I’ve come to conclude that the problem boils down to a matter of comfortable unity versus uncomfortable diversity. Allow me to explain.
The two biggest religions of our time are monotheistic. They overwhelmingly have the greatest number of followers and enjoyed centuries of undisputed dominion over large parts of the world. Even today, they determine a lot of the public discourse about religion, including that of those who are anti-religious: try debating with an atheist and you’ll probably hear arguments based on Christianity or Islam, from dogmatic scriptures to sexual repression and the exclusive claim to truth. And try tuning in to TV or radio shows on religion, where chances are that the entire conversation will be on God (singular), scriptures, love, sin and morality (e.g. gay marriage or abortion). For better or for worst, the common perspective on all things religious today is monotheistic. Even the very notion of faith as a synonym of religion is a product of that: if you believe that there is only one god, then faith and practice are indistinguishable; but if you believe in multiple gods – indeed, in all! – while worshiping only some – those closest or more significant to you – it is your ritual practice and not your faith that defines if you’re basically a Norse, Hellenic, Celtic, Kemetic or any other type of polytheist.
Of course, today it is also true that intolerance is bad PR, as any moderate Muslim will tell you. A world where many countries have fortunately enshrined religious freedom and diversity does not look kindly to persecutions and fundamentalisms. That’s what the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s was all about: opening up the Catholic Church to a diverse and modern world that is fundamentally different from the one where it had grown and ruled. As a result, the principle of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus was softened, the Inquisition was renamed and the Good Friday prayer for the Jews was edited (among other things). And this, my friends, is where comfortable unity kicks in.
How do monotheistic and exclusivist religions fit in with the diversity and tolerance of the modern world? They can’t accept the existence of other gods and truths, as that would go against their most basic principle, so they take the only way out: monism! In other words, if you can’t eliminate other religions nor acknowledge their value (at least not entirely), you’re left with the option of arguing that all gods, all religions, are really just a manifestation of one true entity. This actually goes well with Christianity, Islam and Judaism, since they trace their origins back to Abraham, so all they have to do is to generalize the notion of a common denominator to every other religion in the world. That way, they can be at peace with diversity without having to compromise their monotheistic philosophy. This book from 2010 by a Portuguese Catholic priest named Anselmo Borges, who’s active in interfaith dialogue, actually claims, and I quote, that “it cannot be said that there are really polytheistic religions. (…) Polytheism is the assigning of the Divine Force to divinities that appear as its ‘personifications'” (pp. 49-50). In other words, we don’t exist – we polytheists are really just monists. How easy it is to eliminate the problem of diversity with one theological stroke!
This, I think, is also a problem in modern Paganism. Not that there are no people who believe that all Gods are one out of true philosophical conviction: it’s something that existed in the ancient world and there is no reason why that shouldn’t be the case today. But while some are monists by free thinking, others believe in a “One” or “Source” because it’s comfortable. It’s so much easier to fit in with the prevailing religious and interfaith discourse if you believe that all gods are really just one, that all religions are mere manifestations of a single source. No need for theological debates, no use for arguments, no point in focusing on the differences: it’s one long happy song around the campfire of the lowest common denominator. What’s worst, some actually join the monotheistic sing-along that there are no polytheists, just monists. It’s an erasure of cults and traditions by the pen after centuries of doing it by the sword. And it’s the comfort of being accepted and not having to deal with the awful topic of difference, because it’s far easier to tolerate and be tolerated on the assumption that it’s all the same.
As a polytheist, I view things differently: diversity exists, it’s natural and it’s good. The Gods are real and individual entities and while some are different forms of each other, not all of Them are one. As a rule, I do not deny the existence of any god and it does not scare or confuse me one bit that, as a result, I have to accept the existence of millions of deities. Why should that be a problem? There are seven billion people in the world, most of which I’ve never met or even seen, and yet I do not deny their existence or feel compelled to have a meaningful relationship with all seven billion of them. I’m close to my family, friends, neighbours and co-workers, just as I’m close to the Gods and spirits with whom I have a connection of some sort. I don’t need to believe that all of them are one so I can be tolerant, just as I don’t have to believe that all people are one person for me to be respectful and helpful towards a fellow human. I also don’t think my family, friends et al are the only real people in the world and neither do I believe that the deities I worship are the only true Gods.
Polytheism to me is about acknowledging diversity and differences and acting on that basis. Which gives me a hard time when I choose to take part in interfaith dialogue that is based on the notion that it’s all the same and, as a result, won’t even recognized that I exist. Because diversity is hard to deal with when you’re an exclusivist or just want to fit in nicely. And because polytheists are really just monists…