This is a question that I and many polytheists have been asked ad nauseam, doubtless because it is taken as a default assumption of the modern materialist paradigm, but also due to the post-Christian situation in which we now exist, which applies just as much to hardcore atheists, secularists and the non-religious and non-religiously-interested, and likewise all of the Christians and other monotheists. Atheists often state that they disbelieve in only one more Deity than Christians do as their opening gambit, assuming that anyone who isn’t “stupid,” “backward,” or is being “ironic” with any notion of reality behind the existence of a non-Christian Deity would be amongst their audiences.
While much could be said about that, let’s not go in that direction just now!
But sometimes, the assumptions to the negative behind such a question often take me by surprise. One of the best examples of this I can think of is the following occasion, caught on film for posterity, so to speak (along with other things that were not caught on film and have their own significance for other questions!)…
I think, toward the middle of this interview, when Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove began a line of questioning in which he was discussing archetypes in terms of C. G. Jung’s ideas on them and how these being psychological projections may account for the diversity of Deities in polytheism, that he was not expecting me to speak of Deities as individual volitional non-corporeal beings, or what some people would call “literal” beings or entities. (The matter of archetypes returned later in the conversation in discussing Jean Houston’s ideas, but that’s another subject!) I’ll return in a moment to why I think this is intriguing.
I’ll take a short diversion here just to comment on why I think the matter of “literal belief” is so often demeaned, misunderstood, and mischaracterized, not only by Christians, atheists, and secularists, but also by some pagans and even an occasional polytheist of one sort or another. We have seen repeatedly that “literalism” in terms of biblical fundamentalism is a scourge within culture and history, and often does not turn out well for those who disagree with it, particularly if those who wield such literalism have the apparatus of government and cultural hegemony on their sides. As a result, an allergy to literalism of any sort as a kind of side-effect of being anti-fundamentalist is very understandable.
The major difference I see in a polytheistic “literal belief” in a Deity and a fundamentalist Christian’s literal belief in the Bible is that very few modern polytheists believe that “every knee must bend” to their particular Deity, or that their own way of devotion to that Deity is the only way allowable (which doesn’t mean that there aren’t established traditions with norms and practices that, if such a tradition is being followed, should not be observed!), and that anyone who disagrees will be consigned to a hellish torture in a damned afterlife at which the biblical fundamentalist mentally delights in sending their ideological adversaries. Maybe there are some polytheists who think that likewise…but I haven’t met them personally, and am pretty sure I’m not one myself (no matter what some people might try to suggest about me in some circles!).
But to return to the matter of my interview above with Dr. Mishlove, and the circles in which he runs, which is the circle of parapsychology, I find that within that context, there is an active allergy to talking about Deities. There is a great deal of parapsychological interest in, research upon, and discussion of a variety of ideas that fall under the heading of “consciousness,” and in particular the notions of “survival,” i.e. the survival of human consciousness after death and outside of the human body, as well as the ability of humans to tap into wider forms of consciousness to retrieve information through different phenomena under the heading of “psi” (whether remote viewing, mediumship, etc.). In these different arenas, there is no question that human consciousness exists, and that it can persist after the death of the body or external to embodied existence is a default assumption. Likewise, a wider “universal” or “non-local consciousness” is likewise posited in all discussions of remote viewing and other forms of psi, in a manner that is highly suggestive of some discussions of monism, and which often draw upon the texts and vocabulary associated with religions like Hinduism (especially of the Advaita Vedanta schools of interpretation), Buddhism, and occasionally of monotheistic religions’ discussion of mysticism that replace “God/Allah/etc.” with terms like “source,” “awareness,” or just simply “(pure) consciousness.” As much as some of the commentators and researchers in these fields often reject strict monotheistic religions in their various forms, and often religion-in-general due to its association with dogmatism and such (along the lines of the anti-literalism thought patterns described above), there has been an unconscious assumption that is entirely post-monotheist in its origins which then insists that such a higher consciousness must therefore be singular, unitary, and universal if it is something that all humans have access to in psi situations.
If human consciousness can exist on a non-physical level, why might there. not be non-human forms of consciousness (that are also non-animal or non-formerly-living!) that are possible as well? (Especially since some of those consciousnesses are very definitely formerly human, like Antinous…but that’s another matter!) If there is a universal consciousness that is spread about across the cosmos, which goes by the name of panpsychism these days but is really just animism stripped of its connection to indigenous cultural forms and the potentially pejorative connotations of such that existed when that term was introduced in anthropology a few centuries ago, why can’t particular parts of it be individual and to various degrees limited (even if still infinitely larger than an individual human’s capacities)?
These are not just philosophical or methodological questions, they are theological, and I think that parapsychology doesn’t want to embroil itself in them at the moment, for reasons that are very understandable. However, in order to do good science and to control for bias, one must ask such questions, especially when they reveal underlying assumptions that are unconscious and often unquestioned. But that’s another matter entirely, too!
So, if one understands Deities as entities that are non-corporeal, volitional, and individual consciousnesses that have existed at various levels and lengths of time, that might interfere with or upset some polytheists’ ideas about the origins of their Deities or the length of their existence…but it doesn’t absolutely have to do so. That would still qualify as Deities having a “literal” existence…
But there is still the matter of “belief,” and it is always a word that I have serious problems with in theological discussions, not only because it gets very over-used as a result of living in a post-creedal-monotheist culture, but because belief can have some impacts on things that are studied by parapsychology (which is a topic, perhaps, for another time, and may in fact have some bearing on the present question in its own ways!). However, the idea that “belief” is all about assuming the existence of something that cannot be objectively proven is a bad one, and yet it is assume that this is a sine qua non of all religious activity throughout all of human time and space. If such individual volitional non-corporeal consciousnesses exist, however, and humans can access them, then it is no longer a matter of “belief” in the sense just described, but instead acknowledgement. One need not “believe in” gravity in order for it to impact every waking moment of one’s existence; but (and this is a fair point) likewise knowing it exists and understanding it doesn’t necessarily give one a preferred position in dealing with it–having a degree in physics will not prevent you from falling off a building, for example, so one cannot push such a conceit too far where devotion to Deities (being predicated upon acknowledgement of Their existence) is concerned. Nonetheless, I think it is useful to at least look at what this means and how it might work, in however limited a form as the present blog post has done, in terms of what it means to actually have an acknowledgement of “literal Deities.”