Now, these answers tend to generate reactions that range from the confused to the curious, almost always based on the assumption that a religion must naturally have a moral doctrine that accepts or condemns daily human behaviour. Because it’s assumed that that’s the role of the religious or the nature of a god, who somehow can’t help being a sort of Big Brother. Yet that’s nothing but a preconceived notion whose actual value depends on which religion one is referring to.
1. Deep-rooted influence
The large monotheisms are characterized by a creed that sums up their essential beliefs, which emanate from scriptures seen as universal and expression of the will of a deity believed to be the only one. In the particular case of Christianity and Islam, there is also a strong proselytizing impetus and the certainty that they hold an absolute truth that denies the validity of other religion, in part or fully. And there’s also a moralistic side, since they contain rules believed to be of divine inspiration or origin – and as such excellent or irrevocable – that affect multiple aspects of daily human life, from eating habits to clothing, all the way through to social and sexual interaction between people. In today’s western societies, this is what is normally thought of when one speaks of religion, because this is what most people know or are used to by virtue of the predominant examples in their culture or country. But as common as the traits above may be, they’re not universal, let alone natural.
For instance, from a polytheistic point of view, which frequently claims no monopoly of the divine and thus lacks a militant exclusivism, it makes no sense to define a religion as a creed. Roman polytheism is not the faith in or of the gods of Rome, just as Hellenic polytheism is not that of the gods of Greece. To claim otherwise and say that yes, it’s the faith in something, that’s defining a polytheistic religion in monotheistic terms, where the acknowledgement of single deity who’s seen as absolute means that belief can easily, if not necessarily, amount to worship. But when one accepts the existence of many or all the gods, regardless of pantheon or culture, then believing in them is not the same as worshipping or practicing a religion.
Example: I do not deny the existence of the Judeo-Christian god, just as I do not deny that of Amaterasu, Shiva, Manjushri, Eshu, Huxian or Allah. But that doesn’t mean that I worship them and no, I don’t believe them to be mere manifestations of a single supreme entity. Just as I don’t deny the existence of seven billion people on this planet, though I never met most of them, but nonetheless maintain a friendship, family or work relationship with some of them. And I don’t believe those seven billion are aspects of a single individual or high entity called Humanity. What’s more, the fact that I’m Roman, religiously speaking, doesn’t prevent me from honouring gods from other cultures and traditional pantheons, in as much as I actually do worship Iberian, Norse and Egyptian deities in whom I trust or have faith in. And I’m not alone in this nor without a historical precedent, because this type of openness is common in European polytheisms, both modern and ancient. It’s a religious category where you cannot define things by way of the question “which gods do you believe in?”.
What’s true for the notion of creed or faith in the present days is equally true for the definition of religion as something that must necessarily have a moral doctrine. Simply put, that’s merely a product of the social predominance of a very limited number of religious traditions and of how they’ve come to shape our thoughts according to Judeo-Christian parameters, which are neither universal nor natural.
2. Faith, ritual and morality
If that is so, how do things work in a system where there’s no exclusivism, divine monopoly, orthodoxy or moral doctrine? The answer I’m about to give is that of one Roman polytheist and thus may not be identical to that of other individuals, but I’d say that the answer lies in a threefold dynamic where faith is personal, ritual is traditional and morality is social. They’re not one and the same thing, all part of a religious system that’s fully regulated by a book or central authority, but three different elements that can certainly cross and overlap up to a point, but which are nonetheless distinct. If I wanted to illustrate the idea by way of schematics and explain it point by point, the result would be as follows:
2.1. Personal faith
It is a common misconception to think that a solely orthopraxic religion has no belief and thus amounts to a sort of ritualistic atheism. In reality, it simply means that there is no regulated belief. People do have faith, but in a free format where each individual is the owner of his/her consciousness and may, for instance, conceive the Gods in whatever way one chooses: as entities without the ability to intervene in human life, manifestations of natural forces, identical to Platonic ideas, individual beings with virtues and flaws, entities with or without gender, anthropomorphic or formless, goddess A as being identical to goddess B or different from C, etc. These and other options may be chosen or worked when constructing an individual or family theology and be derived or intersected with philosophical schools one is equally free to subscribe to. A Roman polytheist can therefore be a Stoic, Epicurean or Platonist – as was the case in the ancient world – but it is equally legitimate to go beyond the classical options and freely pick currents like 17th century Rationalism, 19th century Transcendentalism or even eastern philosophy from Indian, Tibetan, Chinese or Japanese schools of thought. And this is well within the historical precedent, since the commonality of religious practices that existed in the ancient Roman world – where different individuals, families and communities followed similar or even identical ritual traditions – coexisted with philosophical diversity.
Partly, that was due to the fact that religion was an extension of one’s tribal, social or political identity and therefore of one’s corresponding duties, allowing for different individuals to share a set of status-inherent customs while being able to diverge in matters of opinion. But that dynamic was also rooted in the inexistence of a regulated faith akin to the Christian orthodoxy and a focus on common ritual practice, rather than common belief, awarding individuals the freedom to speculate within the limits of traditional orthopraxy. That dynamic must remain true in modern Roman polytheism if it’s to preserve fundamental features of its ancient version. The difference, of course, apart from it no longer being tied to a single national identity, is that today there are a lot more philosophical options to choose from. Now, some argue that one must stick to the schools of thought that were founded up until the 5th century, because those alone are “genuinely Roman”. But that is a mistake that amounts to an imitation or re-enactment of a fossilized religion, unable to grow beyond what existed in the ancient world. If the goal is to revive it to be a part of the modern times, then I have to have the freedom to explore the philosophies that are known today, just as in the past one had the liberty to consider those that were available then. It doesn’t mean that all of them are equally compatible or adaptable to Roman polytheism, but that is an exercise that should be carried out first and foremost by each person’s individual consciousness.
In my case, I’m much closer to the Indian Madhyamaka than any European school of thought. It wasn’t part of the philosophical “menu” of Greco-Roman civilization, but I’m an inhabitant of the modern world, not of an empire that vanished over one thousand years ago. And the fact that I take ideas heavily from a Buddhist school does not diminish me as a Roman polytheist, because what defines me religiously is ritual praxis and not belief.
2.2. Traditional ritual
A group is defined by what is simultaneously common and different, i.e. that which binds its members together and distinguishes them from other groups. In the case of modern Roman polytheism, there isn’t much to choose from: the inexistence of an orthodoxy means that the “I believe” varies depending on individuals, families or communities; the absence of a link to a particular State eliminates citizenship as a criterion and the same is true for language, since Latin produced various tongues now official in multiple countries and spoken throughout the world; culture is equally insufficient as an identity trait, not just because there are several of a Latin nature (e.g. Spanish, Portuguese or French), but also because romanitas is one of the components of western culture; and the emphasis on ethnicity, apart from being prone to racism, has a very sparse value in a globalized world that’s as fluid and diverse as today’s. So rather than ignoring reality, creating walls that isolate ourselves from modernity or attempting to go back in time to a romanticized past, one has to accept that things change, are altered by context, and that one cannot redo the past, only build on it. Which means that modern Roman polytheism will naturally differ from its old version in various aspects.
Without the criteria of doctrine, citizenship, language, national culture or even a universal hierarchy, what’s left as an identity trait is ritual praxis: the calendar used, the monthly celebrations and gods linked to them, the gestures, the ritual instruments, the structure of the ceremonies, etc. That’s where you’ll find the simultaneously common and different element, for when you believe in all the gods or identical deities can be worshipped in different religions, it’s how you do it that distinguishes one tradition from another. Otherwise, I’d be a Hindu for believing that Saraswati is as real as Juno, a Shintoist for holding that Inari is as real as Mercury or a Kemetic polytheist for worshipping two Egyptian deities. If I’m none of those things, that’s because what makes me a Roman, religiously speaking, is not which gods I believe in and not even which ones I honour, but the way I do it – the ritual praxis I follow! Someone who worships the exact same gods as I do, but resorts to pentagrams, cups, daggers, magic circles and eight yearly festivals will not be a Roman polytheist, but a wiccan. And that’s okay! There’s nothing wrong with being different, but words have meaning and there are practical criteria that distinguish one religion from the other.
That’s why ritual is the only of the three components to be regulated and mandatory if one is to be a Roman polytheist. Belief is free and dependent on individual consciousness, whereas morality emanates from socially established rules and ideas or the philosophical schools of one’s choice. But rite, by virtue of being the orthopraxic nucleus that defines Roman polytheism, cannot be entirely left up to personal will or localized customs. If one wants individuals, families and communities to be more than groups separated by ideas, languages and nationalities, they have to have something in common that is kept or regulated as such, in this case by the traditions inherited from the past. The same that establish the covering of the head during Roman rite, the role of Janus as an opener of ceremonies, the use of the right or left hand according to the type of deity, the marking of the Calends, Nones and Ides, etc. If we ignore that out of a belief that nothing can be above individual will or that a person can call him/herself whatever he/she wants without any criteria, then we’re not reviving an ancient religion. Rather, we’ll be inventing something entirely new that has no meaningful connection to the past, even if the gods are the same, all out of a childish refusal to recognize any form of authority and producing something that’s Roman in name only. A bit like someone who claims to be Norwegian just because it owns a Norwegian flag, but then has no connection to that country, doesn’t speak its language or share any of its customs – because “you’re not the boss of me” or you don’t want to do those things.
This doesn’t mean that ritual practice has to be reproduced by all to the smallest of details, but merely that there’s a basic praxis that serves as a minimum common denominator and thus establishes the wide limits of a non-orthodox religion. Or to put differently, that in order to be a Roman polytheist, you have to worship according to Roman tradition. You’re free to open your ceremonies with more gods other than Janus, carry out other monthly sacrifices apart from the Calends, Nones and Ides, use different languages for ritual purposes, focus on this or that philosophy, etc. But if underneath that diversity is a set of common and traditional practices, then all will still be Roman polytheists. Simply put, the need for a common and minimum orthopraxy based on historical tradition is a matter of unity in diversity in a revived religion.
2.3. Social morality
In the world of religions, it is a commonly held belief that the Gods inspire or motivate human action, but which god makes someone do what? In a monotheistic system, the answer is straightforward since only one deity is acknowledged and his word is law. There’s no opposing view, no alternative, no form of check-and-balance. But in a polytheistic system, the gods are many and varied and hence there are different sources of authority with distinct worldviews: some focus on reason while others inspire ecstasy; some prefer prudishness, others elevate sexual pleasure; there are those that call for peace and diplomacy and those that emphasize the value of conflict; some uphold rigid boundaries while others prefer fluidity and creative chaos. The sole lesson that can be drawn from all of this is the importance of diversity, which is naturally present in the divine realm as it is at a human level, producing an impulse towards coexistence which may or may not be embraced by us.
It’s true that the cult of a particular deity will have its own ethical code, ritual rules and even philosophy, but what is true for the worship of one may not be true for that of others. To give a few historical examples, the virginity of the Vestals was not required of those who led the cult of Ceres, just as the castration of Cibele’s galli was not needed in the case of priests of other goddesses. And this happens precisely because polytheism is a system of many and various gods, each with its own focus and ethos, making it harder if not impossible to have an equivalent of the Ten Commandments. There’s just not enough ideological uniformity or unity for that, because what is right or wrong from the perspective of one deity may not be so from that of another. Divine plurality has theological consequences. And if diversity and hence the need for coexistence is the sole common value, how should it be applied in practical terms?
The question is one of concrete action, which is at the core of moral doctrines. Answers differ depending on one’s matrix or hierarchy of values and the guidance drawn from it, which have practical consequences: to kill or not to kill, to eat or not to eat something, to wear trousers or a skirt, short or long, expose or cover, tolerate this, prohibit that, question or merely repeat and so forth. Of course, one can go for plain theoretical considerations on morality, but if they’re to be of any use in everyday life, they need to be considered from a practical point of view. Which leads to another question: are the needs of the divine community those of the human one? As I see it, they’re likely not, because even when one doesn’t believe that the Gods are omnipotent, all-knowing or actually immortal, they may still be wiser, more powerful or live a lot longer than any of us. Their needs are therefore different from ours, which means that the question on the correct action between people is best answered not by way of divine commandments, but by our ability to reflect on things. The Gods can certainly inspire and counsel, not just due to their greater experience and knowledge, but also because they themselves are confronted with the challenges posed by diversity and the need for coexistence. But ultimately, the questions on the functioning of human society are best answered by its own members.
This doesn’t mean there are no divine decrees or impositions, but they generally refer to what may called “contact areas”, i.e. the rites, the sacred spaces, the people who work or worship in them. It’s basically the religious equivalent of house rules, the dos and donts in someone’s home or how a person prefers to be addressed, which is obviously different from the rules in other houses or actions permitted on public property. So, for instance, I may not want people to smoke inside my house, but I do not have the same authority outside my home; similarly, a god may not want a given object inside his sacred space, a goddess can restrict certain types of clothing in her temples or prohibit her priests from doing several things. But cross beyond the limits of divine property and it’s a different matter. This too is a consequence of plurality: if only one god is acknowledged and he’s seen as absolute, the creator of all and thus he to whom everything belongs, then his rules are universal. But if there’s a system of multiple deities, then what one does and what belongs to who is naturally diverse. And this applies to the value of god-given rules or instructions.
By now, anyone who’s reading this and is familiar with ancient Roman religion is probably wondering where does this leave moderation and rationality, which at least among the elites were seen as central in opposition to superstitio, i.e. religious excess motivated by fear of the Gods. But to that I answer with another question: isn’t moderation a fundamental piece of modern social life? That you’re to love your partner, family and friends, but not to the point of suicide or homicide? That elders and elected leaders should be respected, 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, but never between slaves and their masters” (2003: 28).
As such, morality is a social issue, of functional interaction and coexistence within and between communities. There are rules that apply directly and exclusively to sacred space, as well as to those who act within it, which may be the object of divine instructions. There are other rules that are valid in both the divine and human realms because both are diverse and must function in a plural context. And then there are rules that refer exclusively to people’s everyday lives and therefore are best debated and decided at the human level.
2.4. The grey areas
As with virtually anything in life, this threefold division isn’t clear-cut, for there are grey areas where they overlap and impact on each other.
Thus, where personal faith meets traditional ritual (a), the former influences the latter as in the case of someone who, out of a preference for a particular philosophical school, honours deities other than Janus in the opening section of a ceremony. At the same time, rite in itself influences belief, for while orthopraxy is open to interpretation, that liberty is nonetheless limited by the ritual structure and gestures, just as the freedom to interpret a text is framed by the words in it. For instance, Vesta’s and Janus’ roles already indicate their connection to fire and beginnings, respectively.
Where traditional ritual and social morality overlap (b), the latter has an impact on the former by determining that what is socially unacceptable be adapted or removed from acts of worship. A good example of that is the sacrifice of dogs, which has no chance of being reintroduced today (fortunately!) due to the status those animals have acquired in modern western societies. This means that someone who wishes to worship Robigo within traditional parameters must either drop the canine offering or replace it, for instance, with a clay figure of a dog. Another good example is the role that was awarded to the pater and materfamilias in ancient domestic religion. The more egalitarian nature of modern societies, together with the legal and social recognition of same-sex couples, means that women can assume a much greater role than in the past and today’s household practices can have a woman-woman or man-man dynamic that would be normally absent in Classical Antiquity. And this sort of social impact on traditional rite has historical precedence, as in the case of the goddess Cibele, whose cult was at one time subject to limitations and adaptations in Rome, precisely because it had elements that went against the moral code of Roman society of the time.
Finally, personal faith can also influence one’s contribution to social morality (c), in that devotees of a particular deity may strive for the implementation of their god/goddess’ agenda. For instance, someone who focuses on Ceres may fight for better agricultural practices or a greater support for organic farming, just as a devotee of Silvanus can organize reforestation campaigns or protests for forest protection. This is what most people associate with religion – telling that something is right or wrong according to the perspective of a deity – but with two important nuances: divine plurality and the absence of an orthodoxy. There’s inspiration and even religious motivation, yes, but without being universal and codified into a mandatory doctrine that’s seen as valid regardless of place and time.
At the centre (d) stands the individual, the complex sum of a personal faith that is manifested through tradition-based rites and in a context marked by the values of the society one lives in. The wider community too is at the centre, be it domestic, local or even modern Roman polytheism as a whole, which is as diverse as the people who practice it or the places they live in, but having a form of unity in traditional ritual.
3. In the end, there’s freedom and community
This system can be the object of various critiques, starting with the idea that the lack of a moral doctrine or god-given rules leads to chaos. But one only has to look at past and present history of Humanity to realize the limitations of that argument: the existence of a Judeo-Christian commandment saying “thou shall not kill” failed to prevent wars, often with active participation, if not instigation from deeply religious Christians; the fact that the Bible says that Jesus turned water into wine (John 2:7-9) doesn’t stop evangelicals from speaking of alcohol consumption as immoral or a sin; and the atheism of people like Daniel Radcliffe, Keira Knightley or Ian McKellen doesn’t make them savages or less intelligent.
Simply put, there are no guaranties that an individual will be good because he’s religious, just as the existence of sacred scriptures doesn’t necessarily amount to a clear distinction between correct and incorrect behaviour. Human beings are complex creatures. In fact, not only is an orthodoxy insufficient to ensure peace, justice or good actions, it can actually produce the exact opposite, either because people feel safe in their righteousness just because they believe a scripture is true – even if they commit the greatest atrocities – or because the texts have a fossilized value. That is to say that, despite having been written in a given context and thus reflect chronologically-bound knowledge and values, the fact that they’re believed to be god-given awards them a timelessness that allows them to control human actions in whatever context, because they’re seen as eternal divine law. Take Leviticus 20:13, which condemns homosexual practices and is amply used to argue for the end or limitation of gays rights today. For many Christians, it’s irrelevant that modern western societies are not that of Israel in the centuries BCE or that the present understanding of human dignity and happiness is different from the past’s. For them, Leviticus is as valid now as it was then because it has a sacred value that makes its content timeless. Or when the shock with modernity is too great to ignore or fight against – as in the case of other passages from Leviticus – people often opt for hermeneutical acrobatics that allow them to turn the literal value of the texts into a metaphor, thus circumventing whatever incompatibilities it has with today’s world without taking away the religious value of the text.
Personally, I much rather have the fluidity awarded by the absence of a moral doctrine than the rigidness imposed by scriptures. I prefer the freedom to discuss and analyse ideas without being tied to dogmas or commandments from bygone ages; to think critically resorting to science and philosophy in an open manner for not having to bow down to biblical-like anachronisms or justify them with sophisms. The liberty to debate topics like abortion, same-sex marriage or euthanasia in present terms and not necessarily those of a text written over a millennium ago, in a different society from another time and place. Because to me, those topics are not matters of religion. At best, my devotion to one or more deities in particular may influence my opinion, as in the case of my sexual orientation, given that Mercury is a trickster and liminal god who isn’t bound by rigid roles, like those of the traditional heterosexual man and woman. But that is my individual perspective in accordance with my personal faith; it is not the doctrinal position of a polytheistic religion with no theological or moral orthodoxy. Which frankly is an incredibly liberating thing!
The only point where individual freedom is limited is the basic structure of formal and semi-formal ceremonies, which have to follow a traditional orthopraxy inherited from the past. But a community, in order to be so, must have something in common, i.e. something that is shared by its members. And if that’s the case, it cannot be altered by individual will alone. It can certainly be adjusted, adapted and even have variations, but in order to be common, it has to be an elementary denominator that is shared by and binds together all the members of the group – living and deceased, past and present, of this or that country, culture or theology. And in an orthopraxic religion in a diverse and globalized world as today’s, that common denominator is basic ritual practice.