In many respects, the above question may be one of the easiest I’ve ever tackled here–and the simplest and most brief answer would be “Yes!”–but since this is me, we’ll have to say more about it.
And before doing that, I’d like to spend a few moments mentioning why I’m talking about this now.
I just found out that someone that was important in my childhood religious upbringing, and that was very important to my family, died. “What’s so weird about that?” people might ask, “People die all the time that aren’t from our religions!” True enough. What makes this situation different is that the individual who died was the parish priest. Even though the “officially” Catholic parts of my family (i.e. all the people who went through the sacrament of confirmation–which is everyone except for me!) have not gone to church of any kind for more than a decade now outside of an occasional one-off event, accompanying their friends on some special instance, or what-have-you, the priest in question remained a very important part of some of their lives. It’s a long and complex and rather fraught matter in many respects, the details of which I won’t get into, but suffice it to say, this brings up some childhood issues…
And, honestly, I still have dreams on a semi-regular basis (at least a few times a year, sometimes more) involving being back at that parish, but as an adult, or at least as an older teenager (some of the last times I was there…I was there once in my 20s, but I think that was the last time), but things have not been “quite right” or the same, and I know I’m “not supposed to be there” and so forth…and not so much in my own mind, but instead in the minds of others who might object to having an “apostate” in their midst and so forth. These religious things have a deep impact on us, whether we like it or not, and it is very hard indeed to completely “escape” aspects of one’s religious upbringing. Even consciously trying to do things to counteract negative monotheistic viewpoint-shaping isn’t always successful, and the role these have had in shaping our experiences of the world and our vocabularies and such is not something that can be done away with easily or with just a bit of consciousness brought to the matter. We see this at all times with how a lot of modern polytheists deal with particular issues, and even think about them and talk about them, all the while being unaware that their dealings and thoughts might not be appropriate nor applicable to what is going on in their polytheistic lives.
I do believe one can leave one’s bitterness over these matters behind, and not be too resentful of all the damage and negativity that such experiences might have had for one’s own development, and I’d say I’m fairly well “advanced” in that regard in terms of some issues…in others, not so much, but luckily they may not come up as often. But I’ve encountered this frequently when, for example, I discuss the fact that some Christian sources may have valuable insights for particular polytheist matters, and some people are resistant to this and say “I’d rather just see what our Polytheist Ancestors would have said on these matters than to read what a Christian thought of them.” Well, we don’t always have the luxury of such sources directly from polytheists surviving, and if the matter-in-question is something found nowhere else, it might not be a bad idea to take a look at it and hold one’s nose to the unsavory bits of the source under consideration, yes? I certainly think so…but unfortunately, not everyone agrees on that.
While this is not the place to go into this matter fully, the simple answer I gave above is something we can talk about on a scientific level, and I mean that quite literally and entirely deliberately. The fact of the matter is, the science is in (!?!), and not only does religious practice and participation in a religious community (of ANY organized sort!) have benefits for people’s physical as well as mental health, but prayer, blessings, healing intentions, and many other such things (again, from ANY religion or tradition!) does have beneficial effects as well for people, even if all they do is make someone “feel better” or “feel happier” in some matters. That is not nothing, and reliable science has demonstrated this over and over again. “Prayer” may not actually change things or make particular matters happen (and I’m not saying that is the case, so don’t get me wrong here!), and it won’t stop a tsunami from sweeping your house away or turn aside a tornado in most cases, but it can have potential useful impacts on mood, outlook, affect, and so on that can, in turn, be useful overall for particular being that benefit from such actions.
So, whether the atheists and nay-sayers want to disregard that actual scientific finding or not is up to them…but that’s not the main reason I wanted to write about this, and it is not the reason why this is an important question to consider.
As this blog is about “Theological Questions,” there is a theological question lurking behind this matter that I think a lot of people have not properly considered. In fact, this is something that I think a metric fuck-ton of pagans are entirely obstinate about, and while there are a decent number of polytheists who have a better and more accepting approach to these particular matters, there are still many that engage in what I’m about to mention.
As polytheists, we acknowledge the existence of many Deities, and that is pretty simple and not much under question (some would prefer to say, or even insist on phrasing it as, “believe in,” but I don’t like that phrasing for a variety of reasons I have discussed previously, if I am remembering correctly). Transcendence is not so much a matter of these Deities being entirely beyond human comprehension, as is the case for monotheists by default, but in the fact that there are always more Deities than one can personally account for, and as Thales of Miletus said, “The world is full of Gods” to a much greater extent than anyone can account for.
Understanding that, it is entirely dumbfounding to me that a huge number of pagans, and no small number of polytheists, seem to do one or more of the following things:
- They assert that all of their own Deities are real, but that the Deities of monotheism are not real and do not exist.
- If they allow that the Deities of monotheism exist, they then also think that those Deities are exactly what monotheists believe about Them rather than considering that if those religions have various other things wrong with them in ethics and other matters (and, let’s face it, they do!), then they may also be wrong about how they’ve portrayed their Deities.
- Part of #2 can also involve assenting to the belief of some monotheists–generally those who are involved in interfaith work, or Muslims (for whom this is a matter of required belief)–that the monotheistic Deities are singular, and represents a synonymous, unitary “Abrahamic God” rather than the very different theological formulations and histories of the Hebrew God (a.k.a. Iao Sabaoth), the Christian Deities (Jesus and the Holy Spirit at very least, if not others), and the Muslim God Allah, amongst other Abrahamic religions and their own formulations, which instead suggests that there are multiple Deities behind these apparent attempts to claim that all of these are “one,” and thus by doing so some pagans and polytheists are assenting to monism rather than being thorough-going in their polytheism.
- And sometimes in collaboration with #2 and #3 above, using a quasi-Gnostic idea, they may assert that such a unitary Deity who is ostensibly a “Creator God” is just as those various religions describe such a being, but the only part they got wrong is “It’s evil,” and is directly behind all of the evils throughout the history of said religions perpetrated by the followers of those Deities.
On the first point, I think it’s pretty simple that such an idea is an obvious hypocritical double-standard, and one that is inherited on the monotheistic religion’s frequently preferred model, i.e. “My God exists, yours doesn’t,” just with the numbers jigged differently. If it is stupid and wrong when the monotheists do it, then it has to be stupid and wrong when we do it, lest we look like gigantic assholes, after all.
On the second point, not only is that inconsistent with polytheist theological formulations about Deities in most cases, the larger question in my mind is: why grant these religions that sort of legitimacy to make authoritative theological formulations when so much that flows from these is responsible for what is wrong with the world today, and are among the reasons why polytheism exists in the ways it does now (i.e. hardly at all), is disrespected without a second thought by “most intelligent people,” and so forth. As one example amongst many, Christian theology’s influence on a variety of fields in premodern periods, including what we might generously have to call “natural science” and so forth has demonstrated repeatedly that just because church authorities have stated something as dogmatic, doesn’t mean they may not be objectively wrong about it…and thus, if that is the case with talking about how the physical world works, why might they not be flawed in discussing how the invisible and non-corporeal worlds work, either? More could be said about this, but I think you all get the point!
On the third point, again, why would one take one of the foundational theological assertions of particular monotheist viewpoints as “true” and “unquestionable” when they are so clearly wrong about so many other things? It isn’t a matter of “being disrespectful” to them to say that there are other ways of thinking about these matters which are relevant and meaningful and useful from our own religious viewpoints; one can acknowledge that there are differences and speak from one’s own viewpoint authentically without disrespecting someone else. The idea that one has to take all that others think, feel, or believe hook, line, and sinker without any question or critical thought is an idea that is far-too-prevalent in overly-wooly supposedly “liberal” thought these days which can do a lot of very illiberal things like excuse a lot of very bad behaviors in the name of religion. “Oh, if [XYZ monotheists] want to believe that, that’s fine–let’s all be cultural relativists because that’s the way to peace in the world!” Okay, fine, but then don’t complain when those people come to your house, tell you they’re the majority population, and demand that you perform female genital mutilation on your daughters and sisters and mothers.
That may seem like an extreme example, but think about how entirely de rigeur it is to have all AMAB children circumcised at birth in the United States, and that such a view comes not from concerns on hygiene and so forth, but instead from religious assumptions that are so ingrained into the culture of the U.S. that the marked linguistic term for this particular characteristic is actually the unnatural state (i.e. someone is “uncircumcised” or “uncut”–in other words, NORMAL!), we assume it is the default and is better and healthier, and then we wonder why some of our notions of sexuality are as fucked up as they are, for starters…And if we are pagans and polytheists, and are supposed to be in favor of “nature” and so forth, then why is this unnatural and brutal practice something that we have just accepted quite often with little to no question when it only comes from a limited number of cultural-religious contexts that may not be in-line with what we’re doing now, nor what our Ancestors did in the past? That’s one example among many of how these things can have very real impacts in the world…but I digress (as I usually do!)…
That we would assume that the very different character of these divergent monotheistic Deities as conveyed in the words of these varying traditions’ prophets really just hides an underlying unity is, to put it mildly, something that flies in the face of all the actual evidence when seen from outside of a monotheistic viewpoint. The only reason these contradictions and vast contrasts between the different Deities have to be entertained is because monotheistic assumptions dictate that it must be so, and not because of anything in the evidence itself which demands such an interpretation. So, being that we are polytheists, why should we thoughtlessly follow in those patterns when they are not only against our own theological integrity and best social interests, but also simply because they are the unquestioned norms and preferences of the people who are often using (weak!) theological arguments to oppress, marginalize, and persecute against us?
On the fourth point, let me just put it in this manner. I think we’ve all dealt with people who, say, identify as Loki-worshippers who excuse some very bad behaviors and personal preferences of theirs by saying “Well, I have to, I worship Loki!” In these instances, we have no difficulty saying “That’s that person, not Loki.” (Unless one is invested in the movements in which Loki is considered an “evil” Deity and is not honored in their official rituals…but that’s a whole other topic that stems from some pretty poor monotheistic-influenced dualist assumptions that are never questioned!). If someone you met was a devotee of Hermes, and after interacting with them you caught them trying to pick your pockets, you would rightfully be angry, but if they tried to justify their behavior by saying “Hermes is the God of thieves, so I’m just following what He teaches!” you’d call the police, sock them in the face, and get your iPhone and wallet back, right? (Well, maybe not exactly like that, but you know what I mean!) Or, what about the people who think that the sexual ethics of the Deities as exhibited in Greek myths are models for how humans should interact? We all know what we think about those sorts of people, and we think such things about them quite correctly.
So, could it be possible that the “all-powerful, all-knowing” but also “entirely transcendent” and “utterly unknowable” monotheistic Deities that some people profess their faiths in, and Which thus cannot communicate directly with the majority of human devotees (lest at least one of the only four theological superlative attributes mentioned in that earlier part of this sentence is wrong!) has a lot of followers who come up with entirely idiotic and foolish viewpoints based not on what their Deities are instructing is best, but instead are doing so based on often selfish and power-hungry motives of their human leaders? And that, thus, in such cases, the Gods “behind” such behavior are in fact not behind that kind of behavior at all? (And let’s not get into the idea of “Well, then those Deities should have stopped them!” Only if They really are all-powerful as well as all-benevolent [at least according to preferred human standards of “benevolence”!] could they do that, and as They haven’t, that kind of puts those theological assumptions into question, doesn’t it?)
So, working from those established critiques of these viewpoints, there is absolutely no problem with a polytheist praying for a monotheist, hoping the best for them, and even asking one’s own Deities to intercede with the Deities of the monotheist-in-question. “I will ask my Deities to protect you and likewise myself; I ask you to do the same for your own Deities” may not be what some monotheists might like to hear, but it would be a good and useful way to phrase the matter when it comes to issues of this nature.
I still have a backlog of a few other questions I have yet to address, but if you think of others, please feel free to send them, either in the comments here, via the Contact form on this website, or via e-mail otherwise! I hope all of you are doing as well as possible in these difficult times, and as stated above, I will pray that my Deities protect and bless each of you, and I hope you will ask your own Deities to do the same for me!