A few weeks ago, Fareed Zakaria interviewed Jonathan Weiler, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina. He asked him about the root of the support for Donald Trump in the current US political cycle, which Jonathan Weiler placed not on social-economic hardships, as is so often argued, but on differences in the personality of the voters. Simply put, some people are drawn to authoritarian figures because, and I quote, “they believe very strongly in a need for social order as traditionally defined and (…) feel very fearful and resentful towards groups and social norms that challenge that traditional order”. This is an issue related to upbringing and, because of those personal traits, some people prefer “leaders who speak in clear, simple, direct terms about imposing order in the world around them”. They have “a strong need for order”, “want to ensure that people who are not like them are sort of put in their place and want clear, simple solutions for complicated problems”. You can watch the video here, which includes a brief look at survey results on parenting and personality types.
While the interview was about the whys of Trump supporters, its content can be applied to other groups of people, such as polytheists who are on either end of the ideological spectrum. Because often, they’re the ones who are uncomfortable with diversity, mixture, nuance and social modernity. They tend to see difference, change and grey areas as chaos and anarchy, an unnecessary complication of what should be straightforward, preferring instead well defined groups and categories where people can be organized in a simple manner, with everyone and everything in their proper place. On one end of the spectrum are the radical leftists who are unable to separate religion from politics, even if just thematically, and see anyone who is not as “progressive” as no more than fascists or minions of the new right. For them, there’s little or no room for nuance, middle ground or large differences of opinion, but only a simplistic view of us versus them, a zero-sum game where a brave new order stands against a capitalist chaos that can be found across the dividing line. They long for uniformity, a time and place where everyone can think and do as they do, because that’s how it should be. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the more folkish polytheists, who have a deep suspicion or outright disdain, if not disgust, for ethnic or cultural mixture and also for the modern values of equality and inclusion. They long for traditional order, sometimes (or often?) to the point of wanting to go back in time, to an ancient society where people weren’t pacifist sissies, equal rights campaigners, sluts or perverts and everyone knew their proper place. For them, anything that resembles ideological, sexual or racial ambiguity is an invitation to chaos. I’ve come across both types of people, one of them quite recently in an online discussion on orthodoxy, the lack of which a certain person equated with anarchy.
Here’s the thing, though: because its basic definition implies the religious regard for many gods, polytheism is inherently diverse. There are differences within the category – since that’s what polytheism is, a category and not a single religion – but if you let divine plurality run its course, instead of trying to curb it through politics, monism or henotheism, you’ll find that it will naturally generate an outrageously diverse theological dynamic. And it can be summed up thus: different gods have different agendas and hence equally different goals and sets of values. You think sexual promiscuity is wrong? Vesta, Minerva and Hera may no doubt agree with you, but the same can’t be said of Aphrodite, Pan or Apollo. There’s value in war and physical violence? Ares or Odin are likely to wholeheartedly agree, but don’t be so sure with Pax, Concordia or even Freyr, who has a bellic side, but not as a primary function. Ma’at, Heimdall or Terminus might say that you should always be honest and stay within accepted boundaries, but you’ll hear a different story coming from Hermes or Loki. This is how it goes in a polytheistic system. There are many voices, many worldviews, many directions, precisely because there are many gods. The only common thread you can take from all of it is the need for co-existence, for some form of unity in diversity, not uniformity. This is not so in monotheism, where there’s only one divine player in the game and hence what he says is law. There are no opposite voices, no counter-opinions, no competition, just a let it be written above and a let it be done bellow. Which is fundamentally different from the ocean of plurality that can be found in polytheistic religions. As I said before, diversity has theological consequences.
Perhaps it’s not by chance that Odinism and Odinist are popular labels among folkish bigots in Heathenry. It is, after all, a choice of terms that expresses a focus in a supreme god, almost like a heathen Jehovah, and hence a figure of authority in a “confusingly” diverse pantheon. In other words, it simplifies the complexity and hence perceived chaos of divine plurality, as if a more general name that better reflects a polytheistic religion would imply the existence of multiple sources of authority and hence anarchy. And thus it matches the taste for traditional order that Odinists often have with regard to other areas of life, like race and gender.
These polytheists are our equivalent of the Trump supporters. They may not vote for the man nor have the exact same ideas as he does, but their thought process and motivations are very much the same. It’s a similar dynamic, an equal fondness or desire for simple, straightforward order where differences can create a mess and should therefore be quickly sanitized. To be clear, I’m not saying that there are no limits: words carry meaning and they should be used accordingly, so for instance, if you don’t believe in gods or in more than one god, then you really shouldn’t be calling yourself a polytheist. Clarify your ideas first and then pick the corresponding label, not the other way around. But there are different types of limits or rather a spectrum, where on one end you have a narrowness that allows only for what’s fully identical and on the other you have wide limits that permit unity in a large diversity. A good example is the issue around orthodoxy and orthopraxy, for whereas some like me accept as fellow Roman polytheists people whose exact practices, beliefs and choice of philosophy are different from mine, so long as they retain a basic orthopraxy, others desire an orthodoxy that narrows down that diversity and sends people off in different directions depending on what they believe in. Because while I’m perfectly comfortable with seeing coreligionists in people who don’t share all of my beliefs, but just a basic set of practices and mutual respect, others see in that a form of chaos.
So listen up, radical/folkish kids: you should probably reconsider whether polytheism is really your thing. There’s nothing wrong in being different, mind you, and you know it, since many of you regularly tell others that they should be elsewhere. It’s just while you do it because people don’t fit a very particular square, I’m okay with sharing my religious label and space with people who fit in different shapes and colours within a basic framework. But that framework has limits, even if wide ones, and they include the very diversity that’s inherent to polytheism. Simply put, if you’re uncomfortable with plurality, if you think a lack of orthodoxy amounts to chaos and anarchy and if you’re unease about different gods having different agendas and values, then perhaps you’re better off in monotheism, where only one voice gets to call the shots and that can make things a lot simpler, orderly and authoritarian, thus better reflecting your preferences. And if your answer is that you have a right to practice the religion of your ancestors, then go deeper on why you’re a polytheist: does it have anything to do with a love for diversity or is it born out of a disgust for ethnic and cultural mixture, leading you to prefer a native religion that feels less prone to what you perceive as chaos? Because if it’s the latter, then 1) you probably have the wrong motivation, as wrong as the leftist radicals who are unable to distinguish their religion from their politics, and 2) you may be in for a surprise when you realize that native isn’t an exclusivist category nor the same as closed, pure and uniform. Like I said, not everyone is the same and some things aren’t made for everyone. And if you prefer uniformity or simplistic order, you may be better off in a less diverse system.