My religion has no moral doctrine

Every now and then, I’m asked where does my religion stand on topics like same-sex marriage, homosexuality or abortion. My answer is that it doesn’t, because to me those issues are not religious, but social. Some people look confused when I insist on it and I can understand why: in this as in other matters, over one thousand years of monotheistic dominance in western societies have shaped the notion of religion to the point where people generally cannot conceived it outside the Judeo-Christian definition.

1. Pervasive influence
As I have pointed out multiple times, that is the case with the use of the words “religion” and “faith” as synonyms: if you believe there is only one god, faith easily amounts to worship; but if you believe in multiple gods, then faith is not the same as worship. Because believing in many – including those outside your (usual) pantheon – does not imply that you worship all of them and therefore to define yourself through faith – what you believe in – is nonsensical. It is who you honour and how that defines you, religiously; and yet Asatru means “faith in the Gods” or some speak of Roman polytheism as “our faith”. These are clear examples of how, despite being polytheists, many still think and speak of religion in monotheistic terms. It’s culturally pervasive and thus hard to get away from. The same is true of the assumption that a religion must have a moral code that determines what worshipers should and shouldn’t do in their daily life. Christianity has it, as does Judaism and Islam, so it must be inherent to the very definition of religion. And after all, as the modern motto of good PR and tolerance goes, all “faiths” believe in love, right? Wrong! Modern interfaith dialogue is more about unity in uniformity than diversity. That’s why it keeps producing declarations on how we’re all just worshiping the same god, that there are no real polytheists but only monists, that all religions are about love. And this happens because interfaith dialogue, just as the notion of “religious values”, is based on a monotheistic worldview. A single god, sin and salvation, a moral code, regulated belief, declaration of faith – these are traits of today’s dominant traditions, the same that virtually monopolize the public debate in western societies and create the false impression that those are the natural characteristics of a religion.

2. Faith, ritual and morality
As an orthopraxic polytheist, I’m at odds with what is normally said in interfaith gatherings, not to mention TV programmes, debates and interviews on religious topics. It’s actually painful to watch, because the entire conversation revolves around words like “god” (singular), “scripture” or “holy book”, “sin” and “love”. It’s like being a vegetarian watching a cooking show where every single episode is about meat. Part of that is because I’m a polytheist and divine plurality, as explained here, has theological consequences. But also because, simply put, it is my view that faith is personal, ritual is traditional and morality is social. They’re not one and the same, all part of a fully regulated religious system, but three separate things that, while overlapping in some degree, are nonetheless distinct. Schematically, it looks like this:


2.1. Personal faith
It is a common misconception that a purely orthopraxic religion has no belief and amounts to a sort of ritualistic atheism. In reality, it simply means that there is no regulated belief. People do have faith, but it’s a personal matter, because an individual’s consciousness is his/her own. Ergo, one is free to see the Gods in whatever way one sees fit: They can or cannot interfere in human affairs, They’re part of nature, distinct from it or a bit of both, They’re akin to platonic ideas or are individual entities with flaws, They have genders or none, two or more gods are the same or separate, etc. These beliefs may stem from an adherence to one or more philosophical schools, which is also a personal matter: you can be a Stoic, an Epicurean, a Platonist or a Sceptic; you don’t have to restrict yourself to ancient philosophy and can embrace the 17th-century Rationalism, 19th-century Transcendentalism or the ideas of any contractualist from the European Enlightenment; you can even go for eastern philosophy and adhere to Indian, Tibetan, Chinese or Japanese schools of thought. This was so in the ancient world, where people from different intellectual movements nonetheless kept similar forms of traditional worship. And it is irrelevant that Transcendentalism or Zen were never part of ancient Roman culture: Romans took and worked what was available to them at the time, so unless you’re interested in re-enacting as opposed to reviving their religion in the modern world, you can take and work what is available today, which includes but is not limited to classical philosophy. I myself, apart from being a pragmatist, I’m very fond of the Buddhist school of Madhyamaka, yet that doesn’t make me less of a Roman polytheist. Why? Because what defines me religiously is who I worship and especially how. As I said here, if Saraswati is as real to me as Minerva, why am I not a Hindu? If Inari is as real to me as Mercury, why am I not a Shintoist? If I worship Freyr, Jupiter and Anubis (and I do!), why am I not a Norse or Kemetic polytheist? The answer: because I adhere to Roman ritual and calendar, worship mostly Roman gods and generally honour non-Roman ones in a Latinized fashion. It is practice that defines me.

2.2. Traditional ritual
Of the three circles, this is the only one that’s regulated by religious tradition. Because of that, it is where the communal identity resides, especially today, when one’s religion is no longer simply that of one’s city-State. Context changes things, so while in the past being a Roman citizen amounted to being a Roman polytheist – because duties towards the family, social group and country were also of a religious nature – today’s world is different. It is much more mixed and diverse, identities are more fluid and western societies are not organized in the same way as those from two thousand years ago. And rather than trying to recreate an anachronic tribal community or micronation, pretend that we don’t live in a globalized planet or that most people’s ancestry is not ethnically mixed, one must learn to accept reality and find a new place in a new world. In which case my religious identity cannot be determined by nationality (though that can be a factor) or by faith (because it would be nonsensical), but by orthopraxy. This doesn’t mean that everyone must do exactly the same thing or that tradition must remain unchanged, yet if one aspires to revive and practice an ancient religion, one cannot simply start it anew as if there was no memory. An old house can only be restored and not newly built if the overall structure and lines are preserved, which in this case translates as bringing ancient Roman ritual into the modern world. Yes, it requires a fresh layer of paint, a new roof and a layout that’s fit for today’s life, because changes are needed: tradition is not static and a different social context will require adaptations. But it must be done in a way that preserves essential features of traditional Roman worship for it to be Roman polytheism and not something else. Similarly, in order for one to be a cultor/cultrix deorum, one must worship according to Roman tradition.

2.3. Social morality
Gods inspire people to act, they motivate us to do things, but which god inspires what? In a monotheistic system, the answer is simple, since only one deity is acknowledged and therefore what He/She says is law. There is no opposition, no checks and balances, only one unopposed voice that rules supreme. But in a polytheistic system, there are multiple divine voices with diverse agendas: some inspire reason, others ecstasy; some call of sexual moderation, others for sexual enjoyment; some inspire peace and diplomacy, others the arts of war; some call for strict order, others for creative chaos. The only principle I can draw from this is perhaps that diversity is natural, that it should be cherished and divine co-existence emulated. Granted, each god’s individual cult can be more uniform and have an ethical code, but a polytheistic religion as a whole is a sum of cults to various deities and, as a result, a polytheistic version of the Ten Commandments is virtually impossible. And if the only principle is that diversity should be embraced, the question is how?

That is the central issue of any moral doctrine: how to act, how to behave. It’s a practical matter that ends up addressing the topic of how should various humans co-exist in a functional manner. When or whether to kill, enslave, steal, wear a skirt, show your hair, show your face, have sex with someone, tolerate this, prohibit that, what’s a crime, what isn’t, etc. And being practical, it is therefore an issue that is best served from an equally practical basis. Which means that whatever moral code is in force among humans, it should come not from above, but from humans themselves. It can be inspired by the Gods, in that They too are a diverse community with rules of co-existence, but ultimately, the needs and rules of human socialization should be discussed and decided by humans. If there’s any imposition from the Gods’ part, I’d argue that it exists only when it refers to Their property – those who serve Them, Their sacred ground – but that, so to speak, are house rules. It’s the religious equivalent of someone telling what others can and cannot do in his/her property, which is different from what people are allowed to do in their home, public and everyday life. For instance, a person may not want to have a pet, but that doesn’t mean everyone shouldn’t have one. In the same fashion, a god may not want a particular object inside His temple, a goddess may prohibit people from doing something in Hers, a priest may be required to act in a certain way. Cross the boundaries of the sacred, however, and it’s a different matter.

At this stage, some of you may be asking about moderation. Isn’t it a religious virtue in Roman polytheism, a governing rule that prevents one’s relationship with the Gods from becoming superstitio? My answer to that is another question: isn’t moderation a basic rule of social life? That you can love your partner, friends and family, but not to the point of suicidal or homicidal actions? That you should respect your elders, directors and leaders, but not to the point of acritical submission? To quote John Scheid’s Introduction to Roman religion, “relations with the gods were conducted under the sign of reason, not that of the irrational, in the same way as they were conducted between one citizen and another, or rather between clients and their patrons” (2003: 28). And this was so because one’s relationship with the Gods was an extension of one’s social life: just as you have duties towards your relatives, you have duties towards your ancestors and household deities; just as you co-exist with your neighbours, you co-exist with local gods and genii; just as you deal with fellow citizens – formally, semi-formally or informally – you deal with the Gods. They’re the divine elements of the community, which is why, and again I quote Scheid’s work, Roman polytheism “was a religion with no moral code. The ethical code by which it was ruled was the same as that which ruled other ‘non-religious’ social relations” (2003: 19).

Morality is therefore first and foremost a social matter, an issue of interaction, of laws of functional co-existence in the face of multiplicity and diversity – human and divine. And if social rules are not the result of a divine decree, but a need and product of social life, then they are also naturally subject to social changes. They can evolve, adapt or be dropped. As such, the “Roman virtues” people sometimes speak of are not religious, but were either the dominant values of ancient Roman society or those upheld by popular philosophical schools at the time. They’re not the moral doctrine of Roman religion – because it had none apart from social rules – and some may not even be valid in today’s world or be particularly relevant for cultores of a different intellectual persuasion.

3. The grey areas
As with anything, the distinction between personal faith, traditional ritual and social morality is not clear-cut and there are grey areas where the three circles overlap. Where faith and ritual meet (a.), the former may shape the latter. For instance, at the start of a ceremony, you may pay tribute not only to Janus, as is traditional, but also to a host of deities in accordance with the philosophical school you adhere to. Consider this example from a Platonic cultor.

Where ritual and morality overlap (b.), the latter influences the former, as what is socially unacceptable is either removed or toned down in religious ceremonies. For instance, the sacrificial killing of dogs has no chance of being accepted today given the status of that animal in modern western societies. And in my opinion, rightly so! As a result, anyone wishing to perform a traditional ceremony to Robigus would either drop the canine offering or replace it with an effigy of a dog. Another example is the role of the pater and mater familias in domestic religion: the egalitarian nature of today’s societies, as well as the legal recognition of same-sex couples, means that women can assume the leading role and the sacra privata can have a female-female or male-male dynamics that would normally not be part of ancient society. And this sort of overlap between traditional ritual and social morality, where the latter shapes the former, is not unheard of: in the past, when a foreign cult was introduced and it wasn’t in accordance with Rome’s moral customs, the new cult was toned down or adapted in some way. Consider, for instance, what happened to the rites of Magna Mater when they were first taken to Rome.

Finally, personal faith can play a role in the shaping of social morality (c.), in that a devotee of a particular deity may work to forward His/Her agenda in the world. For instance, someone who’s close to Ceres may fight for more organic agricultural practices or a devotee of Silvanus may campaign for forest protection. But this is influencing or participating, not dictating: one person or one god does not rule supreme and unopposed over all others, especially not in today’s democratic societies.

At the centre (d. ) stands the individual cultor, which is the sum of all three circles with all its overlapping parts: someone with a personal faith, practitioner of traditional rites and member of a society with a set of laws. It can also be the religious community as a whole, either at a domestic or global level: the sum of all cultores, each with their individual faith, all following a common basic ritual structure that is also diverse in its details, all part of a social context that influences their religious practices.

4. Resulting freedom
I sometimes say that freedom is my sole article of faith. Mostly I mean it as provocation to those who expect me to have a declaration of faith of some sort, but it nonetheless expresses my basic view on religion: I’m free to choose which gods to worship, They’re free to say no and decided whether or not to accept my offerings. Of course, from the moment you co-exist with someone else, you must make room for others and one’s duties towards them, so socially, one is never absolutely free. That being said, however, the separation of faith, ritual and morality ensures a wide freedom in a traditional religion.

I’m free to see the Gods in whatever way I see fit and adhere to whatever school of thought I prefer. I’m free to adapt my ceremonies according to my individual devotions, domestic or local traditions or the philosophical current I’m part of. And I’m free to discuss the dos and don’ts of society as a whole not from a dogmatic perspective (i.e. people can’t do A in their everyday life because god X says so), but by freely resorting to science and philosophy with a more open mind, since I don’t have to accommodate divinely dictated moral norms. In other words, I can think of same-sex marriage or abortion in modern terms and not necessarily those of a text written one thousand years ago or more. Because again, to me, those issues are not religious. It’s true that being a devotee of a trickster and a worshiper of the Vanir creates or reinforces a liberal perspective. But that’s my individual stance, linked to my individual faith or philosophy of choice. It’s not a doctrinal position of my religion, because it has none. And that, in my view, is a liberating thing.

The only point where I’m not free is in the basic structure of my religious practices. But a community requires something that’s communis or common, something that’s shared with others. And if it’s shared, it’s not something I can change at will because it is not mine alone. I can adjust or adapt, even create a variation, but ultimately, it requires an essential commonality that links me with fellow cultores, both living and deceased. In an orthopraxic religion, especially in today’s globalized and fluid world, that common element is basic ritual practice, which must be replicated. And I find that to be a perfectly good deal, because it preserves the freedom to think for myself when it comes to faith, philosophy and the rules of society while still being part of a religious community. It’s unity in diversity.

A month for Freyr: day 19

It is my belief that the Gods do not impose moral commandments. They most certainly inspire people to act in a certain way and different deities will do it differently according to Their own agendas, but They do not issue mandatory rules of behaviour. The only exception refers to their sacred ground and the people who are given to Them: being Their property, They naturally assert Their will and keep Their house in order as They see fit. Yet this refers to specific areas and people, not society as a whole. Of course, if you ask for Their opinion on something, They will tell it, some of Them quite vigorously, but then again that is true for most beings, regardless of the authority and opinions they hold. Morality, as I see it, is a social matter to be discussed and determined by the members of the community. The Gods can intervene and indeed They should, since They too are part of the community, but They generally do not dictate nor write the rules on stone for all times. Considering this and yesterday’s topic, what is Ingui’s perspective on same-sex marriage?

This is tricky, because I do not dare to speak for a god. What I write is my perspective on Him based on (shared) UPG and my interpretation of medieval material. I may be right, I may be wrong or I may be somewhere inbetween. I do not claim to speak the ultimate truth or to know the Gods’ true nature and will, so other Frey-devotees may have a different opinion on the matter. What you get here is mine and nothing else.

From my perspective, Ingui appears to be more concerned with love, joy and friðr than the gender of the couple. It’s about loving your partner and those under your care, protecting and looking after them, be true to your oath (whatever the words and terms), seek common prosperity and bringing joy to yourself and your partner – including sexual joy! And this can be done by both different and same-sex couples. Reproduction is not an issue: there are modern alternatives and there’s always adoption, which adds one or more children to the bonds of friðr.

Frey is, after all, one of the Vanir. He is said to have had sex with Freya, just as Njord is said to have fathered both of Them with His own sister. Incest, so say the medieval sources, is a Vanir custom. So is seiðr, the magic craft that entails accusations of effeminacy for the men who practice it. Frey even has His emasculating moment when He gives away His sword and I would expect a phallic god to be open about the use of the phallus: if women enjoy it, why not men? As long as you do it responsibly and respectfully, go for it! There’s a lot of fun and joy to have with a cock and men who want to can take part in it. There’s actually a common assumption among heathens that Frey tends to draw the largest number of gay worshipers, though I’ve never seen an actual statistic on it. In any case, the general picture of the Vanir is that of a sexually open group of gods, which is nothing new in the world of deities associated with fertility, pleasure and wealth.

If Frey is okay with formal marriage, does that apply to other forms of union? I would say yes. For those who do not want to marry and prefer a civil partnership or even a union with no legally recognized bond, the argument stands: Ingui cares more about love, joy and friðr than the gender of the couple or the way they choose to formalize their union. Make it sincere, make it binding and ask for His blessing. You’ll notice that I’m referring to choices: if a couple can’t marry because they’re of the same sex, then there’s no choice between marriage and civil partnerships. The option should be there, but that’s me talking and not Frey. Though I get the feeling He may agree.

I’m gay and I can gladly say…

I may be an outspoken polytheist and have my reasons to feel very glad about my religious choices, but I usually keep them to myself and avoid entering the my religion is better than yours kind of discussion. For one, because what fits a person may not fit another and what makes me happy may make someone less so. And civility – not to mention History – calls for the rejection of the type of speech that claims the superiority of a religion over the rest and the resulting need for conversion. Yet, when I read things like this, I can’t help thinking that I am so glad I’m a polytheist! As glad as others who have a religion that doesn’t condemn them for their sexual orientation: the type of freedom I feel as a cultor deorum isn’t exclusive, but shared by many from other religious traditions, be they a form of polytheism or not, and even by atheists. Which makes me wonder why some people cling to institutions and philosophies that strip them of their dignity. And that, in turn, makes me want to say out loud why I’m glad I’m a polytheist.

Maybe I feel compelled to do so because I’m gay and I’ve seen my share of people who go through a rough time due to having a religion that condemns them for who they are. Some eventually abandon their faith, but it seems most of them try to fit in, either by reinterpretating scriptures and teachings or by simply hiding who they are and maybe hope for some sort of cure. Why? Really, why? It’s not like there’s only a handful of religions to choose from and they are all anti-gay. If that were case, it would make sense that one would try to fit in at all cost, but there are hundreds of options! Different communities, denominations, faiths, philosophies, and traditions with diverse opinions about pretty much everything. And if you live in a western country, you’re legally free to pick any of them, none, or even start your own religion. I can understand if someone tries to blend in a country where there’s no such freedom, but that’s not the case in the west. So again I ask: why?

To put it bluntly, why do people insist on being part of something that has no respect for their dignity or that of their loved ones? Is it because of family tradition? That’s no better than living with homophobic relatives who would kick you and strip you of all your things if they found out you’re gay. And while you may come out of the closet once you’re independent enough and there’s little your family can do about it, why would you choose to spend the rest of your life as part of a church, faith, or community that doesn’t accept who you are and for no other reason than prejudicial dogma? Is it because you don’t know what else to choose? Go to a library or, even better, search online: there’s thousands of webpages on the topic, not to mention forums, mailing lists, podcasts, and blogs. Don’t want to go through the trouble, but still feel repressed or rejected by your faith? With all due respect, that’s just another way of saying you’re too afraid to die and too scared to live. If someone tells you you’re damned for being gay, question him! If a Church strips you of your dignity because of your sexual orientation, argue against it! And if a priest walks out of a ceremony because someone’s daughter or son is gay, leave his church as soon as possible! There’s plenty of options to choose from, so don’t act like there’s nowhere else to go.

Of course, I realize that not everyone has easy access to a library or the internet, lives in a tolerant community (even in a western country), or has the strength to fight deeply rooted notions of sin, punishment, and eternal damnation. Some people just can’t cross the line and it’s not necessarily their fault. A good piece on something of the sort has been recently published here. For them, hope lies in those who have crossed the line and fight for LGBT rights, but if you have the means and freedom to make a choice, do it! Don’t humiliate yourself by clinging to a religion or church that doesn’t respect you (or your friends and relatives) because of your sexual orientation. Change! It may take a while and be a hard path, but every journey starts with one step and often the destination lies at the top of a steep hill. I’m gay and it took me several years to come out of the closet and find a religion where I felt at home. I went from Catholicism to undefined Christianity, atheism, Buddhism, Wicca, Druidry, Heathenry, and finally Roman Polytheism with a culturally diverse personal pantheon. That’s around fifteen years of my life in a nutshell and it was worth it! I’m so glad I’m a polytheist:

If a god doesn’t accept me for who I am or shows no particular interest in me, I can always try the deity next door, so to speak. Just like in everyday life, you’ll meet people who get along with you and others who don’t and that’s fine. It’s not that they’re necessarily evil, it’s just that people are different and some will enjoy your company while others won’t. In the same way, not every god will befriend you, but you will be befriended by a god.

I’m glad I’m a polytheist because diversity is paramount. There are many deities, male and female, of changeable gender or undefined one. If that’s the case with the divine community, why should I expect it to be any different and any less respectable in the human world? And why should I wish everyone to adhere to one cult if I believe in multiple Gods and They tread different paths while keeping the common ground and basic rules that allow for a community to exist?

And I’m glad I’m a Roman Polytheist because I have no scriptures or commandments set in stone to regulate my behaviour no matter how much the world changes. Not that I don’t have a theology or a moral code, but it’s born out of free will and free enquiry, not dogma! And this is something that is common to other forms of polytheism, from Europe and elsewhere, as is the feeling of being in a religion that doesn’t strip me of my dignity as a gay man. I don’t claim it to be an exclusive characteristic of any or all forms of polytheism. Again, diversity is paramount and the rainbow flag is a good symbol of just that.

Dogmas and rules

A common topic of discussion between theists and atheists is the former’s willing abidingness to a set of beliefs and rules of conduct determined by others, the assumption being that people accept it by mere tradition or blind obedience to an institution self declared to have a direct and exclusive line to the otherworld. So, for instance, some Catholics reject the use of condoms because the Vatican declares it to be a sin, some Muslim women wear a niqab or burka out of a desire to follow rules dictated by clergymen or sacred scriptures, and female children are subjected to genital mutilation by religiously sanctioned tradition. But this sort of behaviour is not universal in the world of religions.

It is my belief that a lot of what several religions present today as moral commandments is no more than old social rules crystallized under the guise of godly instructions. Women’s role, the type of clothing, or sexual conduct, things that are not directly linked to religious belief and ritual – like the number of gods one may worship – but which refer to life in society. In the past, it made sense that they were sanctioned by the divine because it gave those rules extra strength; so, for instance, hospitality was demonstrated by the Gods Themselves in a number of mythologies, which granted the practice the value of a divine model and allowed it to thrive in a far less populated and more insecure world. It should also be noted that a lot of what features in religious texts as divine speech can easily be the view of a particular fraction of society and not the beliefs of all its members, so that, for instance, condemnation of several sexual activities reflects the opinions of a groups of priests, but not necessarily those of other clergymen or women or all social groups. Today, a lot of people tend to look at sacred texts or religiously inspired poetry as a uniform work, born out of a collective and unanimous source or a single divine origin, when in fact it can be a far more complex and sectarian product. And this is something to have especially in mind when we’re dealing with a polytheistic religion.

As expressed before in this series of posts, my view is that belief is personal, ritual is traditional, and morality is social. What I believe in is by my own choice and not because I have been told to. Yes, there are texts that speak of the Gods and declare Them to be this and that, but I do not see those words as being divinely inspired dogma. They are rather the result of personal spiritual experience and speculation which have been freely preserved and transmitted in written or oral form and which each person is free to accept as truth or not. When I say belief is personal, that’s exactly what I mean: personal! And I care little if it makes sense to others or if it’ isn’t “rational enough”: the advantage of having a subjective belief is that it only has to make sense to you and whatever it is you believe in, so long as you’re aware that, as a consequence, you cannot claim your beliefs to be on the same ground as scientific theories or knowledge (as Christians do with regards to Creation and Evolution).

That morality is social also means that I have no code like the Jewish Ten Commandments and yes, that implies I recognise no authority in the modern Nine Noble Virtues. The rules of conduct I have are those required to be a good citizen by the society I live in: thinks like paying my taxes, not stealing, voting, helping co-citizens, recycling, etc. This applies to the Gods and wights, too, in the sense that I have towards Them the same basic respect and cordiality I have towards friends, relatives, and neighbours (which is basically how I see Them). Of course some of Them have particular requirements or tastes, so to speak, but that’s also true for people, isn’t it? God A prefers a certain type of offerings, looks kindly to a set of actions, has a given ethical code, and that’s a different scenario from that of Goddess B or wights C; person X likes a certain kind of food, has a given sexual orientation, may or may not ask guests to take off their shoes when entering his/her house, and sees certain actions as being better then others, while person Y will act/see things differently. And yet, they/They will generally follow a set of basic rules that allows for a common social life.

So where do I, as a polytheist, stand on the matter of dogmas and rules? I have none of the former and the latter are more the product of the society I live in and the secular philosophies I adhere to, even if there may be a degree of religious inspiration (as mentioned here, here, and here). The key here is to see the Gods and wights mostly like friends, neighbours, and relatives who influence you and take part in your social life like the people you know, meet, or simply pass by. And as for rules, they’re ritual in nature: things like which god to invoke at a given moment in a ceremony, where to turn to when presenting an offering to a given deity, and what gestures to make. And even ritual requirements have to be confronted with social morality to make sure the latter isn’t broken.

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.

Belief, Ritual, and Morality: part 6

This is the final post of this series on a Montesquieu and Religio Romana inspired threefold division. It had its intro, a look at each of the three parts and a presentation on their grey areas of interaction. What follows is a tying of some loose ends to wrap it up.

1. Even in an orthopraxic religion, it’s true that there is a community of belief; basic, yes, but still there. Different people may have different views on the Gods, the cosmos and the afterlife, but they all share the belief that the Gods are somehow real or, at the very least, the belief in the usefulness of the rituals. That can bring people together of their on free will to form religious communities, and the creation of an orthopraxy arises with the need to have a ritual common ground in the midst of a diversity of opinions or personal, family and group traditions.

2. On the matter of personal ethics and social morality, what happens if you live in a country whose dominating moral standards are in direct opposition to the ethos of the God(s) you’re closest to? Well, I guess that depends a lot on the specifics and your own sort of “moral fiber”. Take the issue of homosexuality: your religious beliefs influence you to cherish sexual diversity, but the country or State where you live in is heavily dominated by homophobic and transphobic feelings. Whether you decide to uphold the ethical trend set by your favourite Gods or to accept social morality as yours is really up to you. If there’s enough legally established freedom for it, you may fight for greater tolerance and LGBT rights; if not, the choice is between adapting to the dominating social standards or moving to greener and more free pastures.

3. Finally, the question of an orthopraxic ritual tradition. Imagine that Svartesol, Nicanthiel and I were to meet for a group ceremony for Frey. Now, Svartesol is a wiccan and I’m more of a recon; I don’t know if Nicanthiel blends heathen and Celtic material in his rituals, but let’s imagine he does for the sake of argument, and add the fact that we all have our own personal or group traditions as a result of growing up in different places where we faced different practical needs. What ritual plan would the three of us use together at a group ceremony? This is what I’m addressing: not the imposing of orthopraxic uniformity, but the creation of a ritual common ground that allows people from diverse walks of life and religious paths to worship together common Gods. Every individual and group is of course free to create and have its own settings and practices, but reaching across the isle in the midst of that diversity requires a sort of ritual protocol that can be used by different people when they meet around a common altar. And the starting point to its construction are the old ways, followed by comparative religion and shared UPG to fill in gaps, adapting where necessary and creating close alternatives when modern demands and practical needs arise.

To end as I started, this was not a presentation of a putative pan-polytheistic system. It’s mostly a personal take on ritual and morality inspired by the example of Ancient Roman religion, and two cents on some of the questions facing modern day pre-Christian religions, recon or not.

Belief, Ritual, and Morality: part 5

Belief is personal, ritual is traditional and morality is social: that’s my threefold division! Of course, it’s simplistic and there are a lot grey areas where the practical sense comes into play, with some things being toned down and others highlighted.

There’s a grey area between ritual and belief, in that what you believe to be the role, powers and nature of a deity influences the rituals you perform. For instance, if you consider Frey to be a God linked to the sun – even if not the sun Herself – you may celebrate the Lord’s birth at Midwinter; or if you see Him as the annual harvest sacrifice in August, you’ll perform a ritual accordingly at that time of the year. Likewise, personal experience with a deity may cause you to worship Him/Her in an more unusual role: imagine, for instance, that you believe Hercules to have at one occasion protected the gates of your property and, therefore, you end up worshipping Him side by side with Terminus or Janus as a guardian of boundaries and doorways. In fact, an Ancient Roman tradition says that the two-faced God was called upon to help Rome in times of war, not because He was traditionally associated with bellic activities, but apparently due to a legend that said that Janus had once helped to defend the city by causing a water spring to burst. For that reason, Romans kept the gates of Janus’ temple open in times of war, should the God wish to help once more. Finally, you may also highlight a traditional role of a deity due to your personal dealings with Him/Her and therefore honour Him/Her in that particular guise more often.

There’s another grey area between belief and morality, in that your faith on a particular deity, especially a patron or favourite God/dess, has an influence on your rules of conduct. Not every deity has the same code of ethics; They share a common ground that allows for the existence of a divine community, yes, but when it comes to specifics, I wouldn’t expect any sort of uniformity. And that’s only natural once you take the existence of different Gods with different “areas of intervention”, agendas, natures and, as such, with different rules of conduct. Odin’s ethos is not Frey’s, Heimdall’s is not Loki’s, Freya’s is not Thor’s. They think and act differently, since They’re interested in diverse things and will therefore weight the same values and actions differently on Their individual ethical scales. And this tends to pass on to Their dedicated worshippers and influence their opinions on behaviour or other topics. Take sexual matters, for instance: if you feel particularly close to Frey or Freya, chances are you’ll have a more tolerant view of homosexuality, given the Vanir’s own loose sexual morality; on the other hand, if you’re a Thorsman or woman, you’re likely to feel differently on the matter. There are of course exceptions, as in pretty much everything, but there are also trends set by a God’s own ethos. It’s not by chance that a lot of gay men get drawn into Frey’s and Vanir ranks and it’s not simply the appeal of a big cock 🙂

Finally, there’s a third and important grey area between ritual and morality, for no matter how orthopraxic a religion is, no rite can exist outside its social context. When the cult of the Great Mother, AKA the Goddess Cybele, was brought to Rome somewhere around 204 BC, Her rituals as originally performed in modern day Turkey suffered several restrictions: there were, for instance, limitations with it came to public worship and, because they would have to be castrated, Roman citizens were not allowed to enter the priestly group known as the galli (emperor Claudius ended up lifting this ban). Equally illustrative is the suppression of the Bacchanalia by order of the Senate in 186 BC, for fear of social unrest. This means that, even for an orthopraxic religion as the Religio Romana, traditional rite had to respect social morality: if the former conflicted with the latter, a comprise or a ban would follow. So Roman citizens could not become castrated priests of Cybele, but foreigners could, and so the galli were for a time imported as part of a middle way solution.

How does this translate into our modern world? To put it simply: reconstructed pre-Christian traditional ritual must conform to modern social morality. It has to respond to and respect today’s reality, so that it will neither be an empty ritual nor a crime. For instance, human sacrifice was known and practiced in the Ancient world, regardless of how often, but today’s social morality does not allow it, and so traditional ritual must either suppress that element or find a solution like the symbolic sacrifice of an effigy. The same goes for animal sacrifice if you do not wish to or do not have the means to perform it according to today’s legal requisites. And there are practices like the ritual cutting down of a tree that may be problematic today if that specific type of tree is in danger of extinction or the area where you can find it faces serious deforestation; or the pouring of certain beverages in small rivers and springs may have a detrimental effect on its ecosystem and another offering should be found, even if that means adapting or dropping the correct historical version.

Even in orthopraxic religions, ritual is not static. It mutates once it’s social context mutates too, it changes when in contact with other material cultures and it reacts to the social morality of a given time. What’s important to keep in mind is that it doesn’t mutate out of hand and it always keeps as a reference the traditional way, even if only to adapt it in a larger or smaller scale. After all, Romans didn’t replace the galli with a flower festival or a juvenile party on the beach.