“If the pagan polytheisms have always lost, … it is, among other reasons, because of their exceptional capacity for tolerance…” – Marc Augé
The books you read can often illuminate patterns within the culture and society that you may not have noticed, or re-contextualize thoughts you’ve already had. Such is the case with “A Million and One Gods: The Persistence of Polytheism” by Page duBois, a Distinguished Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of California, San Diego. For the well-read Pagan or polytheist, much of what duBois says regarding the worship of multiple gods and powers won’t be all that new, but the cumulative goal to advocate for a course-correction within academia regarding the concept of polytheism underlines just how pervasive monotheism is within Western culture’s assumptions and thinking, even from the scholars who are supposed to be dispassionate observers and analysts.
DuBois writes with the zeal of someone working to right a wrong, noting that “the attempt to deny its [polytheism's] presence produces intolerant assumptions,” and that when “we naturalize monotheism, or see it as the telos, goal or end of religious development, perhaps a stage on the way to atheism, we accept the homologies that have governed Western modernity.” Monotheism as norm has been so rigidly enforced, notes duBois, that we have a hard time seeing the truth about ancient polytheisms, let alone the fact that “polytheism is always present.”
“Our residence in a predominantly and dominant monotheistic cultural setting, one that has been defensively, even militantly attempting to patrol and police monotheism for millennia, has had its effects on obscuring the nature of ancient societies.”
Seeing an academic stand up and advocate for a re-thinking of polytheism, even if it might be limited to academia, is welcome. As I’ve been reading this work, I couldn’t help but notice how many adherents of the dominant monotheisms constantly engage in the work of boundary maintenance, ever-vigilant in their quest to see polytheism remain outside the bounds of “normal” and “rational” discussions of religion and faith. Or, if polytheism must exist, it must be content to do so from the margins of society, or in distant lands far away from the concerns of Western modernity. For example, this editorial by Bryan Gray at The Davis Clipper on a 10 Commandments monument being erected on government property in New Mexico that was successfully challenged by two Wiccan residents. Gray makes sure to insult the Wiccans, and paint their beliefs as strange.
“The New Mexico lawsuit was brought by two people who practice the Wiccan religion. I’m not versed in Wiccan beliefs, but figure the religion’s precepts are somewhere between the Great Mandala and Harry Potter. Frankly, I would have no problem if the Wiccans wanted to pony up money and put their own display outside city hall. The groundskeeper would have less lawn to mow [...] Yes, we need freedom from government-sponsored religion. We also need freedom from stupidity.”
Further, Gray, seemingly forgetting that the 10 Commandments were handed down by the God of Abraham, argues that they are largely secular, glossing over the many explicitly religious rules laid down. Reinforcing that monotheistic religions are so normal that their removal from a secular public square is suspect, even in the face of non-monotheists speaking up. People like Gray have the luxury of not being bothered by these monuments, because they see monotheism as the acceptable manifestation of religion, and no rebellion (even from within their own theological boundaries) can be tolerated for long in such a system.
“Archbishop Coakley says the Civic Center is a venue where the community can experience a positive form of entertainment. He says this satanic organization has an agenda, that has no place in our society. ‘The Satanic ritual that is scheduled to be performed at our Civic Center is to invoke those dark powers, which I believe are very real and call them into our city, into our community.’ said Archbishop Coakley.”
This endless vigilance against polytheism happens even when it seems like monotheism is winning. Mere adherence to a monotheist identity isn’t enough, they must also be willing to erase any trace of what once was. For instance, Christians love the successes brought about by evangelizing their faith to the “Global South,” until that form of Christianity risks becoming the dominant form of the religion. Then, the hand-wringing over “animism,” syncretism, and polytheism begins.
“When the Church’s center of gravity has completed its transit to the Southern Hemisphere, would any Catholic alive today still recognize it? It is hazardous to predict the full effect of that demographic shift on the historical practices of Christianity. Still, we ought not discount the chance that this tectonic shift could yield a syncretic, creole Christianity more congenial to animism than Thomism. [...] Numerical growth tells us nothing about the blurring of religious distinctions among African congregations or among clergy themselves. A priest might preach Christianity by day and, under cover of the communion of saints, visit an animist divine at night to consult his forefathers.”
Here, we arrive at the deepest fear of the monotheist: That polytheism is actually natural to humanity, and when social controls are lifted, people either leave, or change the faith into something unrecognizable to the purists. As duBois puts it, there is “an inevitability to the persistence of polytheism, an undercurrent that cannot be suppressed, a popular culture that holds to its many gods, a recurrent resurfacing of polytheism within monotheism, or an exhaustion of monotheism that dialectically produces polytheism.” While Christianity still numerically dominates in the United States, the last 20 years have seen the population of those called “nones” (those who claim no formal religion) skyrocket, while non-Christian religions have also continued to grow. This, along with the ragged persistence of secularism, has caused some Christians to adopt language of being in “exile” despite experiencing mild inconveniences at best.
“The harder task is to face the fact of our lingering privilege, tarnished and dimmed though it may be, with an honest and critical heart. Harder still may be the task of reaching out to those whom we managed to drive away from the Kingdom of God all on our own, with no help from music videos or the Supreme Court.”
The invisibility of polytheism in the West is a manufactured invisibility, it didn’t just happen. Western society after the rise of Christianity was built on making sure no competing theologies interfered in the narrative. Dissidents were commodified and defanged, or villainized and mocked. This status quo is maintained in a myriad of ways, such as a mainstream religion news organization increasingly hiring journalists who came up through denominational or evangelical Christian media outlets. Think that doesn’t matter? In their coverage of the current crisis in Iraq, Religion News Service have published one story on the plight of the Yazidis, who practice an ancient pre-Christian religion, and seven on the plight of the Christian minority. Perhaps this imbalance could be waved away as them simply catering to the Christian majority in the United States, but they then also run an editorial lambasting politicians for “ignoring” Iraqi Christians.
“The Yazidis deserve protection and humanitarian aid, but so do the Christians who number in the hundreds of thousands in Iraq. While the Yazidis received air drops of food and water, nothing has been dropped to the Christians who are homeless and in dire need of food and water. Each day that passes is a matter of life and death.”
One could point out that the Yazidis can’t turn to a hugely powerful network of Christian faiths that number in the billions, control huge assets, and walk in the halls of power across the world to advocate for them, thus making the comparison obscene, but let’s simply recognize this for what it is: A reminder that one must not take the focus off the dominant monotheisms for too long. Despite this enforced invisibility, polytheism endures, all we need to do is open our eyes and it is everywhere.
“Polytheism is not primitive, an early stage of human development, to be transcended as people progress toward a more sophisticated understanding of divinity, nor do religions necessarily oscillate between polytheism and monotheism. Rather, I contend that polytheism is always present, officially or unofficially, and that the attempt to deny its presence produces intolerant assumptions among monotheists and even atheists, who claim a moral superiority to polytheists.” – Page duBois, “A Million and One Gods: The Persistence of Polytheism”
I think that no empire lasts forever, they crumble, or consume themselves, or over-estimate their powers and fail, and such, I think, will be the ultimate fate of the dominant monotheisms. The controls that once worked lose their effectiveness over time, and thus freed, the inevitability of polytheism(s) will reassert itself. I won’t pretend to know what that world will look like, and perhaps the time of transition will be a bleak time, as it often is when oppressive powers finally fall, but I can only think we will better off with an existence that acknowledges our need for interweaving and interconnected relationships as a model. I think a renewed global polytheism will provide that, but for now we need only to push back against the invisibility while we await the inevitability.