Faith, rites and morals


Every now and then, I’m asked where does my religion stand on topics like same-sex marriage, homosexuality, gender inequality, racial discrimination 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 say that and I can understand why: over one thousand years of monotheistic predominance in western societies have shaped the notion of religion to the point where people generally cannot conceived it outside the Judeo-Christian definition. So back in January 2015, I wrote a blogpost on the issue of faith, rites and morals, a post which I now republish here in a revised version, addressing each of those concepts and their intersection from the perspective of a Roman polytheist. While not unanimous, what follows is how I and many others see and live the cultus deorum, based not just on how it was in the past, but how it needs to be today in order to fully integrate into the modern world, not set apart from it as an exercise in historical anachronism or fossilization.

1. Pervasive influence
A good example of how Christianity has shaped our understanding of religious matters is the use of the words “religion” and “faith” as synonyms: simply put, 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 thus defining yourself through faith – what you believe in – is nonsensical. Even if you speak of faith as trust in someone or something, that too can be nonsensical, because the same god can be trusted by people from different polytheistic religions. It is who you honour and especially how that defines you, religiously, even though 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 lives. 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 a single divine force or love. And this happens because modern 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, a 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 intersecting and overlapping to some degree, are nonetheless distinct. Schematically, it looks like this and works as follows:


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 chose to 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. They could be from different or even opposing philosophical schools, but they were nonetheless seen as having the same religion. Part of that was because religious identity was an extension of social and political status, but another reason was the lack of a regulated faith that told people what to believe in. Rather, they were free to have their own beliefs within the framework of traditional orthopraxy. And it is irrelevant that Transcendentalism or Zen were unknown in ancient Rome: 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 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 turn back the clock, to recreate an anachronic tribal community or join a fossilized 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 basic orthopraxy. This doesn’t mean that everyone must do everything the exact the same way 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, new furniture 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. 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 Roman polytheism as a whole is a sum of cults to various deities, making a polytheistic version of the Ten Commandments virtually impossible. And if the only principle is that diversity should be embraced, the question is how?

That’s the central issue of any moral doctrine: how to act, how to behave. It’s a practical matter that addresses 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 others what they can and can’t do in his/her property, which is different from what people are allowed to do in their own 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. But cross the boundaries of the sacred 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; 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 customs, dynamics and mentalities mutate. 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. They’re not the moral doctrine of Roman religion – because it had none outside social rules – and some of those values may not 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 intersect.

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. A reverse process where ritual influences faith is also possible, for Roman religious orthopraxy is a sort of gestual liturgy, in that if you honour Janus first or Vesta as the fire, then you are conveying the belief that He’s in some way connected to beginnings and She’s linked to the ritual flame. How or why exactly, in theological terms, is a different matter that’s up for the individual, households or philosophical schools to speculate on.

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 and a chosen philosophy, a practitioner of traditional rites that make him/her a part of a wider religion and a member of a society with a set of laws and values. It can also be the religious community as a whole, either at a domestic or global level: the sum of all cultores, each with an individual faith and intellectual persuasion, 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 decide 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 not from a dogmatic perspective (i.e. people can’t do A in their everyday life because book or 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 discuss same-sex marriage, racial discrimination or abortion in modern terms and not necessarily those of a bygone age or 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 Roman polytheism as a whole, 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 since it’s 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 wider religious community. It’s unity in diversity.