Dropping the moral criterion

How can it be a god if it’s not perfect? How can it be worshipped if it’s not good? These are questions that I’m occasionally confronted with and not just by Christians. They also come out of the mouth (or fingers) of atheists and, every now and then, even pagans and polytheists, in what is a good example of how the current religious speech, at least in the western world, is dominated by Abrahamic assumptions, even if you’re not a Jew, Christian, Muslim or religious at all.

1. One’s criteria…
At the root of those questions – and the astonishment that may accompany them – is the prevalence of a concept of divinity that’s based on a moral criterion, as, for instance, in the idea that “God is good”. Or just or merciful or perfect. If it has flaws, it’s not a god. If it has no sense of justice, if it lets bad things happen to people who don’t deserve them, if it lacks compassion or possesses a moral imperfection, then it’s not a god. Thus, if the devil steals, lies, seduces, hurts or destroys, those are symptoms of its non-divinity. He’s the anti-god and therefore the opposite of perfection and justice. And if there was a god, “this” – insert whatever tragedy you can think of – would never happen.

It wasn’t always like this and one can find a more unpleasant notion of the divine in the Old Testament. For instance, the death of Uzzah after he touched the Ark of the Covenant, in Samuel II 6:6-7, is ruthless and takes into consideration no good intentions whatsoever. But the moral criterion isn’t new as well and you can see it in places like chapter 7 of the Correctione Rusticorum, where Saint Martin of Dume denies that Jupiter, Mars or Mercury are gods based not just on a belief in a divine monopoly, but also from their behaviour: adultery, lies, theft, magic, instigation of discord, all of that is unbecoming of a deity and signs that something isn’t a god.

The moral criterion came to prevail and is presently a recurring part of Christian thought. It’s in speeches, sermons, manuals, everyday conversations. And because the European continent has a thousand or more years of Abrahamic predominance, that conception is the default perspective based on which most people discuss religion, whatever it may be or regardless of whether or not you have one.

2. …are not the criteria of others
It wasn’t like that in ancient Europe, where the divine was commonly defined as being numinous, wondrous or extraordinary, as having the power to awe, inspire, terrify, create or destroy, no matter if it was beneficial or damaging, pleasant or unpleasant. Gods in everything, as Thales of Miletus is believed to have said and Virgil wrote later on, regardless if it’s good or bad things.

To put it in practical terms, consider the case of Aphrodite. It’s true that ancient Greece wasn’t all misogynist, if nothing else because it’s hard to speak of uniformity in a territory that was divided into multiple city-States, which had traditions and cultural nuances of their own, and even more so in a polytheistic context, which by recognizing multiple gods also accepts multiple patterns, even if in a limited fashion. But it was still a place and time where there was a strong cultural current that saw female sexuality with some discomfort, if not fear.

There’s a trace of that in Euripides’ Bacchae, lines 217-25, where Pentheus accuses the women who honour Dionysus of leaving their homes and wander through the mountains, submitting to lasciviousness in isolated places. He also accuses them of placing the cult of Aphrodite ahead of that of Bacchus, using the latter as a pretext for lust. And the foreigner who introduces the Dionysian practices, who’s the god Himself and Pentheus accuses of moral corruption, is described as having “in his wine-coloured eyes the charms of Aphrodite”.

It is thus unsurprising that the great warrior goddess of the Greeks is Athena. After all, She had no mother who gave birth to Her, as said in lines 735-6 of the Eumenides, and, because She came out of the head of Zeus, She lends Herself to interpretations like coming from the elevated place of male reason instead of the lowers parts of female sexuality. And as if that wasn’t enough, She is staunchly chaste, which makes Her safe to have among men, since there’s no lust in Her. Simply put, She’s a masculinized goddess and therefore accepted in the bellic world. Aphrodite, on the other hand, as stated in Book 5 of the Iliad, is clearly out of Her depth in actual physical combat, in as much as, after being injured by Diomedes, She’s told to stick to Her realm, which is not that of war.

Artemis offers another symptom of a similar aversion to female sexuality. As goddess of the hunt, an activity that requires one to run through woods and fields, you’d expect Her to be seen as having minimalistic clothing that allows for a greater freedom of movement. Running and jumping in a long skirt isn’t easy. But that same minimalism results in a greater exposure of the body, which is not very modest, and so it is convenient that Artemis, like Athena, is staunchly chaste. In as much as, in some versions of the myth of Actaeon, he’s killed just for seeing the goddess naked. Which makes Her yet another safe female deity, because She makes no use of Her sexuality and can therefore run and wander through the mountains without fears of, in Pentheus’ words, giving way to lasciviousness in isolated places.

This serves to show that there was a clear misogynist line in ancient Greek culture, even if it wasn’t unanimous or uniform. But despite that, despite that discomfort or distrust of female sexuality and the “evils” it could bring, the Greeks nonetheless recognized Aphrodite as a goddess. She could be “dangerous”, at the very least potentially immoral, but still a deity, either because lust exerts an overwhelming power over humans and thus has extraordinary or numinous qualities, or because female sexuality has a reproductive use, preferably within the bounds of marriage, which is where the Iliad places Aphrodite.

3. Not every cult is an invitation
This open manner of seeing the divine is odd to many of us. We’re not used to consider deities without making judgements, without wondering if it’s good, beneficial or just and therefore a god or not. The Judeo-Christian principles are the common reference and thus people tend to project them on any religion, past or present, as if they were natural, obvious or universal traits. They’re not. The moral reasoning would have made no sense for many in ancient Europe, so much so that not every cult aimed at divine presence or closeness. Sometimes, the purpose was to obtain a safe distance – with respect, yes, but a distance nonetheless – which is not surprising, if you think about it.

If an entity is acknowledged as a god or goddess even if it has a damaging, terrifying or destructive nature, then not every religious gesture will aim at having said deity among us. “Let God enter you life”, Christians would say. Which at least to some polytheists makes sense only up to a point, because there are gods you may want to keep as far away as respectfully possible, even if you worship them. Gods of the Underworld, for instance, are often synonymous with terror, disease and death, though that doesn’t make Them less divine. It just means that the cult that is owed and given to Them serves less to attract Them and more to keep Them satisfied, though at a safe distance in order to avoid the presence of that which They bring. It’s not by chance that the cult of the dead could be wrapped up in taboos.

This, too, is odd to many of us. After all, how many people use or hang amulets against evil-eyes, misfortune or demons, without ever considering at the same time the option of offering something to that which is seen as bad in other to keep it at bay? Or how many people reject that possibility because, according to the Judeo-Christian principles, only god deserves to be honoured and god is that which is good, just, pure or perfect?

4. The past and the present
Unsurprisingly, even among those who try to revive ancient European polytheisms there are people who make use of the moral criterion, even if they’re not entirely aware of it. The refusal to honour Loki is a good example, since it’s often based on the argument that He’s a traitor or a liar, as described in a mythology preserved in late sources where the Norse trickster is already shaped in the image of the Christian devil. It’s interesting to note that people often neglect the resemblances with the Greek Hermes or the African-American Eshu, who are acknowledged as deities despite their mercurial personalities. Or that a god doesn’t have to be good, morally perfect or just in order to be a god. Or that a cult can also serve to keep at bay – the deity or its effects – and not to invite it to be present. To say that His moral conduct disqualifies Loki from the divine category is something that may owe more to Christian theology and less to the religious ideas of pre-Christian Europe.

The same may perhaps be said of those who honour infernal gods in domestic shrines, side by side with celestial deities. There’s certainly in that an element of poor knowledge of ancient practices, but somewhere in the middle there may also be a product of the moral criterion. Because if a god is that which is just or good, as is commonly believed in the present religious discourse, then Dis Pater and Jupiter are on a similar level, since they’re both gods, and can therefore be worshipped side by side. There is a degree of comfort in a morally-based theology, because it can assume divine goodness and purity as certain and universal.

5. Amoral is different from irrational
At this point, I must emphasize two things, starting with the fact that polytheism is a diverse religious category, even more so if one takes into account that several of its religions have no orthodoxy and therefore no uniform beliefs. What I said has thus a relative reach and it’s important to note that. But besides that, by defending an amoral concept of deity, I’m not saying that the gods are irrational beings who act randomly or sadistically. I don’t hold the idea that they are out to get you, waiting to find flaws they can punish, but instead believe there is reason in them. There are purposes and goals… though not necessarily our own. And that is where another part of the problem resides.

As I see it, we’re not the centre of things and the world or universe do not exist for our benefit. We’re the cumulative product of multiple causes and the cosmos, like the Earth, has multiple gods, not all of them friendly towards civilization. Some are indifferent to it, others oppose it and some deities are not particularly preoccupied with us or our needs, individual or collective. Many, if not most, see things in a wider fashion than we do, for which reason some are willing to harm individuals for the sake of a greater good or long term. Think of gods like Volcanus, who presides over the subterranean heat and thus the tectonic dynamics that sustain life, but which work on a chronological horizon of thousands or millions of years, much more than any human generation, and can be destructive of individuals lives. The needs and worries of Volcanus are not ours – and keep in mind that I distinguish Him from Hephaestus, who to me comes across as a god of the fire of the forge, civilized and tempered, not that of the inner Earth, which is primordial and violent.

As such, speaking from my own view as a Roman polytheist, if a deity is harmful, if it presents itself as violent and immoral, it’s not because it’s irrational: it just means that it follows rules and an agenda different from ours. One may certainly try to negotiate, obtain a truce, time, benefits or limited help, but ultimately its goals may not be our own. A god of disease isn’t evil, it simply presides over something unpleasant or tragic, but which is a natural part of a world that does not exist for our benefit. A god of chaos too isn’t evil, but participates in a universe that’s in constant change and thus has a chaotic component. None of this disqualifies them as gods. It simply means that they’re different deities with which one must deal accordingly and without denying them the divine status.

I’m aware, of course, that these examples are based on a modern understanding of the cosmos, in contrast to the science of the ancient world, which saw things like the sun or the stars as being eternal or was unaware of the microscopic world behind diseases. But it’s one thing to let knowledge shape theology, offering fresh content to the general outline and religious practices of the past, which did see destructive and harmful powers as gods nonetheless. It’s quite another to distort that under the influence of ideas that are alien to a given religious system and are acquired or accepted as valid out of inertia.

Advertisements

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:

FRM

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.