Where I stand

Several recent conversations with fellow polytheists have made clear that there are those who are not aware of my ideological positioning regarding a set of issues, despite having several years of interaction with me on numerous occasions. Which can sometimes lead to unpleasant surprises to those expecting to find me on one side of a debate and instead find me expressing opinions that are to them unexpected.

For that reason, for future reference and so that there are no doubts on where I stand on the field of ideas, I’ve decided to write the essentials of some of my ideological positioning, though a lot of what I’m about to say is public knowledge, since it’s published and freely available to anyone in this blog’s menu. But it seems a clearer and more direct approach is needed.

1. I like philosophy, but…
I like philosophy. I read philosophy, western and eastern, ancient and more recent. I tutor philosophy to high school kids. And there are philosophical doctrines of which I’m fond of and have been integrating in my theological views and religious practices. Therefore, it’s not a subject that’s deprived of interest to me, but it’s also not one I’m particularly focused on.

What I mean by that is that, generally speaking, I don’t particularly care where other polytheists stand, philosophically. So long as they believe in and worship many gods – not many as masks of a One or honour exclusively one out of many – they’re polytheists in my book, regardless of how distant their choice of philosophy is from mine.

2. I’m not in search of the metaphysical truth
As a result, I generally also don’t engage in theological or philosophical debates on who’s right or wrong about the metaphysical truth of things. I see such matters as speculative and thus, ultimately, they’re up to each individual to decide, which is why I don’t particularly care if other polytheists are Platonists, Stoics, Epicureans or of any other philosophical persuasion, western or eastern, pre-Christian or later.

At best and generally speaking, I may join conversations on the subject so as to understand other people’s worldviews, the ideas they’re comprised of, perhaps exchange notes and test thoughts, but without the final goal of arriving at an ultimate metaphysical and spiritual truth. I don’t particularly care where others stand on the principle of do ut des, the gods’ immortality, the number and nature of human soul(s), the existence or not of fate, etc. I have my beliefs, others have theirs. So long as they believe in and worship many gods as individual entities, they’re polytheists as far as I’m concerned.

Whether or not I find other people’s philosophical position interesting, enlightening, optimistic, convincing or conducive to a relationship with the gods is generally irrelevant. They’re other people’s beliefs and philosophical conceptions, not mine. It’s up to them to decide where they stand and how they feel about it.

3. My exceptions
I’ve been saying “generally”, because there are exceptions. One of them concerns basic definitions and their meaning. I therefore have no problem, for instance, disputing and correcting those who claim to be polytheists, but believe in no gods, one god, worship only one or define polytheism in a skewed manner.

I also dispute and correct erroneous ideas on History or opinions on the past that lack support from the historical record. The same applies to other modern scientific topics, generally speaking, though I’m more comfortable with some than others.

And I oppose racist, xenophobic, homophobic or supremacist ideas, whether they’re blended with religious views or not. I draw a line at basic human decency and sanity, just as I do at basic definitions.

4. My definition of Roman polytheism
The ideas above are to me fundamental and are reflected on the value I place on ritual orthopraxy and my definition of Roman polytheism as worship of many gods, Roman and others, according to Roman ritual practice.

Notice that it says nothing about belief – outside the basic concept of polytheism (see above) – nor does it mention moral values, political ideology, social organization and philosophical persuasion. And that is so because those things are to me irrelevant for the basic definition of Roman polytheism.

In practical terms, this means, for instance, that I have no problem with Roman polytheists who subscribe to Platonism and would worship alongside them, even though I’m not a Platonist myself and the more I read about it, the less keen I am on it. And in another example, I believe the gods interfere in human affairs and that there is efficacy in ritual, but I have no problem with Roman polytheists who are sceptical about do ut des, but still worship the gods, for whatever reason, and I would worship alongside them.

5. I value orthopraxy more
For me, what makes one a Roman polytheist is how one worships, regardless of one’s theology and choice of philosophy, generally speaking. The gestures, the structure of both rite and month, the basic how-to. Everything else is entirely up to the individuals, families and groups.

And yes, this is based both on the historical example of ancient Roman polytheism, which was orthopraxic and non-orthodox, and the personal conviction that its modern version must detach itself from political, tribal and social realities of a bygone period.

My approach is that of identifying the fundamental traits of ancient Roman religion – like orthopraxy and non-orthodoxy – and then apply them as much as possible and desirable to the modern context, instead of trying to replicate or re-enact the specific product of that combination of traits and context that was in existence in the past. Fossilization is not my goal.

6. I’m a conventionalist
It is for that exact reason that when defining Roman polytheism I also say nothing about moral values. If there was no orthodoxy, then there was no doctrinal position regarding philosophy and everyday behaviour. Simply put, Roman polytheism had no moral principles, just ritual traditions. And what morality it presented, it was of social origin, though it could be expressed and codified in a religious manner.

There’s nothing historically new in this. A common feature in pre-Christian cultures of ancient Europe was a full merger of the social, political and religious aspects of life, with no real distinction between them, contrary to what´s common today. They were different sides of traditional customs. As a result, tribal and civic identity was one with religious identity and the performance of priestly roles often fell on political leaders and magistrates. And hence also why religiously expressed moral values were those prevalent in the society where the religion was practiced.

This doesn’t mean that I believe that the revival of Roman polytheism should imply a reconstruction of past social, tribal and political structures, because that would be a form of fossilization. As already mentioned, my position is that one should identify fundamental traits and then apply them to the modern context. In this case, if ancient Roman polytheism had no orthodoxy nor moral codes of a religious nature, just reflections of the socially prevalent values, then the correct course of action is to maintain the non-doctrinal dynamic and let it mix with the modern world, including on moral values, instead of, I say again, replicating or re-enacting the past product of that mix of traits and context.

You may therefore call me a conventionalist: morality is the product of mutable social ideas and conventions, not of divine decrees handed down from above. It can certainly be expressed in a religious fashion – through myths, proverbs or manifestations of belief – but as convention changes, so does its religious reflection. Otherwise, either the gods were amiss in the past regarding things like the value of human life or being a Roman polytheist today means having a set of fossilized values. Since I subscribe to neither of those two views, I attach no moral commandments to the gods.

Some see in it a recipe for chaos, but I see it as something liberating and an opportunity to discuss norms, laws and values in a free and rational manner without being limited by dogmatisms or fossilized sacred scriptures. And that’s a good thing! It’s a recognition that things change, including the values by which a society is governed, and it’s taking part in that change in an open manner. It’s not about submitting to modern morals in an acritical fashion, but looking at it freely and critically, preserving it where it must be preserved, treasuring it where it must be treasured, criticizing and demanding changes where it must be changed. Without the goal of freezing it, of simply turning back the clock, of changing it for the sake of change or because the gods say so or a sacred book commands it. You won’t see me using arguments like X should be unlawful because deity A forbids it.

It doesn’t mean that I don’t think that gods inspire human action and behaviour, but different deities inspire different things (e.g. virginity or lust, war or peace, order or trickery) and that inspiration comes on a personal level, not by means of a universal decree. It is my belief that divine communities operate with their own rules, humans with theirs, and though there may be an exchange of ideas, the two work autonomously.

The only area where I admit the possibility of divine instructions are rites, the management of sacred spaces and human conduct within them, here too with elements that may be diverse depending on the deity. And even on that note…

7. How conventionalist am I?
I’m such a conventionalist, that I even propose that orthopraxy should take into account social morals and adapt itself in cases where ritual tradition clashes significantly with laws and social conventions. In other words, a renegotiation with the gods when that which traditional in their cult goes substantially against what is acceptable in the society where the religion is practiced. One can certainly try to change laws and social conventions, if there are motives, support and a real need for it, but one can also adapt religious practices.

For instance, if it’s traditional to sacrifice dogs to a given deity, I hope – indeed, emphatically defend – that there’s an adaptation of the ritual practice considering the value and protection awarded to canines in western societies, replacing the animal offering with a figure of a dog.

And also as an example, if Roman ritual tradition awards the paterfamilias a leading role in domestic ritual practices, I hope – indeed, emphatically defend – there’s a transition to a modern dynamic that’s more equalitarian and not only awards an equally important role to the materfamilias, but also goes beyond a relationship between male and female and includes same-sex couples.

8. I’m a Roman polytheist because…
In the end, it’s fair to ask why am I a Roman polytheist, even more so if, as is my case, one believes that the same gods can be worshipped in different ways and so there’s nothing compelling me to follow Roman tradition in order to honour Mercury or Minerva. I’m not interested in rebuilding ancient Rome and its civic institutions, in reproducing the values that were prevalent there two thousand years ago, not even in restricting myself to the schools of philosophy there were current among ancient Roman elites. So why am I a Roman polytheist?

The answer is threefold, starting with a theological reason, in that I genuinely believe there are many individual deities and want to worship several of them. That makes me a polytheist, but what type or of what tradition?

That’s where the second reason kicks in: culture! I’m Portuguese, born, raised and living in Portugal, and since my native language derives directly from Latin, just like my country’s culture is predominantly of the same matrix, I decided to take that to the next level and go for a religion that’s equally Latin. Ergo, Roman polytheism!

But then one needs to ask: am I comfortable with it? Do I feel at home or is it kind of a mismatch? Just because you’re a European Latino doesn’t mean you have to go for a Latin religion. After all, a lot of Portuguese pick other traditions, including monotheisms, or none, freely and legitimately, so it’s not in any way compulsory. And yet, a decade after making my choice, I can honestly say that yes, I feel at home. More than comfortable, I’m happy in a religion that embraces diversity, is non-exclusivist, has no orthodoxy and no moral doctrine, thus awarding me the freedom to worship many gods, be they traditionally Roman or not, adhere to a philosophical school of my choosing and face the challenges of the society I’m part of without dogmatic constrains of religious nature.

Other people may of course have different reasons, but these are mine. And this is who I am, religiously, ideologically. How you choose to react to it is up to you.

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Check your assumptions

No one’s an island. Unless one grew isolated in a place far away from all and any contact with people and ideas, no one is free from being shaped by the society and culture where one is born and matures in. This is true for virtually all aspects of life, including religion.

So every now and then, in conversations with pagans and polytheists or by reading what they write, I find ideas and expressions that are seen as natural or obvious in religious matters, but which can make no sense when one is discussing traditional polytheisms. They’re not used maliciously or even by conviction – though correcting them can sometimes lead to heated resistance – but mostly out of habit, because they’re ideas and expressions one hears often in everyday life. Yet, just because they’re habitual or deemed obvious doesn’t make them right, just harder to deconstruct by reason of being so deeply rooted in our thinking. And because of that, though I’ve already addressed them before, I’ll go through it once again.

Abrahamic features
I’m speaking specifically about a set of characteristics of the Abrahamic monotheisms – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – that have shaped the vocabulary we commonly use. And they’ve done so thanks to the cultural predominance they’ve enjoyed in the western world for more than a millennium, due to which it is only natural that the way Abrahamic monotheisms conceive religion is, by default, the very same that Europeans or North-Americans usually resort to when thinking and talking about the subject. It’s what is obvious to us, not because it’s necessarily true, but because it’s was we’re used to by virtue of the culture we grew up in.

Case in point: the assumption that one is a Hellenic polytheist just because one believes in the Greek gods. It’s a reasoning that works very well in religions where belief in one or in a set of deities immediately excludes the belief in other(s), so if I have a belief in them, then I’m automatically of that religion. Thus, if I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, that makes me a Christian, because such a belief is not shared by Jews and Muslims. Or if I believe in Allah and that Muhammed is its prophet, that will make me a Muslim, because that belief isn’t shared by Christians and Jews.

This is a zero-sum game that’s at home in the exclusivist nature of Abrahamic monotheisms, which, by virtue of their cultural predominance, have become a full part of how one normally thinks and discusses religion in the western world. It’s the underlying assumption in simple questions like “which gods do you believe in?”, by which one tries to uncover the religion of the person being asked. And it’s so deeply rooted – or is so common in everyday life – that even militant atheists, who fashion themselves as staunchly anti-religious, nonetheless follow the Abrahamic line of reasoning when criticizing the exclusivist posture of “every religion”: why is yours true and all others false, which is your god real and the others not, etc.

Here’s another example: the assumption that one is a Norse polytheist if one worships Norse gods. Once again, this sort of reasoning is at home in Abrahamic monotheisms, where belief in a deity by exclusion of all others easily amounts to its cult. It’s an exclusivist dynamic that says that if I want to worship a particular god, then I have to join the religion that defends his existence, upholds his commandments and pays homage to him, because all others do not believe in him, do not follow his teachings and therefore do not respect him and do not worship him. An expression of this idea that I know from personal experience is some people’s reaction whenever I say I’m a Roman polytheist: “that means you worship the Roman gods!” (which is only partially true) or “you uphold the values of the gods of Rome” (which does not compute).

Plurality isn’t just a word
Why are these and other assumptions nonsensical in a polytheist context? Because, simply put, polytheism is not monotheism with more gods! Divine plurality has consequences that result in a notion of religion that’s different from the Abrahamic one and thus requires the usage of a vocabulary that’s also different from the one we’re accustomed to.

For instance, using the word “faith” as synonymous of religion. It’s something that’s tremendously widespread in the anglophone world (e.g. interfaith) and it makes perfect sense in the case of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, because they have an orthodoxy emanated from sacred scriptures and are thus religions with declarations of faith! I believe as a fundamental feature! For that reason, and once again due to the cultural predominance of Abrahamic monotheisms that makes their conceptions natural in our eyes, it is equally common to define religions and religious categories mostly if not exclusively by belief. Take, for instance, the idea that a henotheist who believes in many gods, but worships only one, is nonetheless a polytheist because she/he acknowledges divine plurality in principle. That amounts to saying that religious cult is indifferent, that belief or faith is everything! I believe as a fundamental feature!

Though polytheism is a diverse category and not a single religion and there are therefore internal differences, it is nonetheless a category where multiple religions have an orthopraxy – correct ritual practice, ritual rules – but lack an orthodoxy. It doesn’t mean that there are no beliefs, just that they are not regulated, varying freely depending on the individual, groups, theological currents or philosophical convictions. Additionally, not only is belief free, it can also be open, lacking the exclusivism that characterizes Abrahamic monotheisms. Which means that, apart from not denying the existence of any god, regardless of whether or not one worship it, it also entails the possibility of worshipping any deity, no matter the pantheon it comes from.

This, in the end, is an ultimate consequence of the divine plurality that’s present in the meaning of the word polytheism: many gods and thus many beliefs, many cults, many forms of conceiving and worshipping many deities. Legitimately and freely. And it explains why the aforementioned assumptions, while logical in the Abrahamic monotheisms, may be non-sensical when talking about polytheisms.

One is not a Hellenic polytheist if one simply believes in the Greek gods, because that belief is not exclusive of that religion. Similarly, one is not a Norse polytheist if one simply worships the Norse gods, because they can be worshipped in different religions and in different ways. A religion that has no orthodoxy cannot be called “a faith”, because by not having regulated beliefs, but free and thus diverse ones, it has no uniform doctrine that can speak for the whole of that religion. What would, for instance, be the “Hellenic faith”? Believing in the Greek gods? That’s not sufficiently specific, because polytheists from other traditions may share that belief. A better criterion would be ritual practice – the orthopraxy – where the manner of worshipping the gods determines to which religion one belongs: Wicca if you do it the wiccan way, Roman if you do it the Roman way, Norse if you do it the Norse way, even if the deities being honoured originate from different pantheons. But in that case, we’re in the realm of religions that are defined not by an orthodoxy, but an orthopraxy – and that was true for many of the traditional polytheisms of the ancient word. Which means that a henotheist who worships a single god is not a polytheist, because even if there’s a belief in many, we’re not talking about a religion defined by a faith or an orthodoxy, but by an orthopraxy. Meaning, that henotheist lacks the criterion of plurality in worship, which is as or more important than belief in religions defined by ritual practice.

The tip of the iceberg
These are just a few examples of how, often without realizing it, we project features and dynamics of Abrahamic monotheists onto the way we speak of and think about other religions, in this case orthopraxic, non-orthodox and non-exclusivist polytheisms. There are similar issues with the notions of sacred space, for a temple is not necessarily a building where groups of worshippers enter to pay homage, as if it were a synagogue or a mosque. Or with the idea of moral codes, because we’re used to seeing religious leaders pontificating about people’s daily behaviour, stipulating what should and shouldn’t be allowed based on a moral code believed to be divine in origin. Or with the idea of scriptures, because we’re used to the practice of discerning a higher will in particular texts. The list goes on.

Deconstructing the habit of using terminology and frameworks seen as obvious for being common isn’t easy, because it demands change in how we think and a constant attention to what’s being said and done until new habits are created. But it’s something that has to be done if one is serious about reviving ancient religions in a modern world. It’s not enough to believe in or worship the same gods as in the past. One will not be doing a good job by creating, for instance, a Church of Odin where “believers” gather every week to pray, read passages from the Eddas, toast and hear sermons about faith, values and exclusive unwavering loyalty to the Norse gods. That would essentially be monotheism with more gods or with a different god: same dynamics, same ideas – the ones we’re used to – but with other deities.

One final and important note, just so I’m clear: I’m not saying this out of a view that Abrahamic monotheisms are evil and should be eliminated from our lives. They’re different religions entitled to the same tolerance and fundamental rights as polytheisms. But because they’re different, you can’t expect their features to be equally valid in a polytheist context. You have to review your thought process, check your often unconscious bias and construct a more apt terminology and framework.