Archives For monotheism

We’ve long known that Pagan and polytheist revival and reconstruction movements are a global phenomenon, and that has included, quietly, tentatively, the Middle East. While most countries in the Middle East are culturally, religiously, and demographically dominated by Islam, that hasn’t stopped a few adventurous souls from embracing various forms of modern Pagan religions. This isn’t safe, and in some cases it has led to deadly tragedy, but this thread persists, alongside the sorts of syncretic esotericism that have always existed on the margins of the dominant monotheisms. A recent article in Arab Times, notes that in Kuwait people are buying statues of pre-Islamic gods, much to the outrage of some local officials.

Statue of the goddess Anahita in Maragha, Iran.

Statue of the goddess Anahita in Maragha, Iran.

“MP Abdulrahman Al-Jeeran has recommended banning the sale of statues of the gods followed by idol-worshippers during the pre-Islamic times of paganism, indicating that he had discovered the sale of statues as works of art and gift items by some shops, reports Al-Rai daily. He revealed that statues representing gods believed by non-Muslim pagan worshippers during the primitive era are commonly seen at various shopping malls across the country. He added that the retailer sells these items under the pretext of selling accessories and fashion materials without considering the real meaning behind those artifacts.”

There’s been a school of thought which posits that polytheism is humanity’s default religious setting, which is why religions like Christianity and Islam must constantly be in a process of conversion, re-conversion, and solidifying power to maintain the massive numbers they currently enjoy across the globe. If they don’t, or if they are limited by secular governments, the “old” beliefs start to re-emerge. As scholar Jordan Paper put it in his book, The Deities Are Many: A Polytheistic Theology, quote:

The goddess Isis.

The goddess Isis.

“Given the history of homo sapiens, it may be that polytheism is inherent in human nature, not so much in the sense that is part of our DNA structure but that it arises from the human experience in conjunction with our nature. For unless we accept the arguments of the ur-monotheists that is contrary to  the above, monotheism is extremely recent, given the sweep of human history; arose in a tiny part of the planet; and is constantly breaking down.”

Of course, that “tiny part of the planet” happens to be the Middle East, and there are immense vested interests within all the monotheisms to ensure that the birthplace of their theology remains solidly in the hands of those who believe in the God of Abraham (though they also struggle amongst themselves for dominance). But, if religious freedoms were really guaranteed, could polytheism, Paganism, truly emerge in the Middle East? Right now, Egypt, which has been rocked by revolution, coup, internal fighting, and unrest this year, is currently trying to write a new constitution for their country that will be accepted by both Islamic hardliners, the military, non-Muslim religious groups (like the Copts), and a large secular-minded minority. A key point of contention is what form religious freedom will take in this new constitution, and by extension, this new government.

“One significant change, says committee head Amr Moussa, is that Article 3 which guarantees Christians and Jews the right to exercise their religious rites will probably be extended to include all non-Muslims. Article 3 currently states that ‘For Egyptian Christians and Jews the principles of their religious law will be the main source in regulating their personal status, matters pertaining to their religion, and the selection of their spiritual leadership.’ The amended version is expected to state that ‘for all Egyptian non-Muslims the principles of their religious laws will be the main source in regulating their personal status…etc’. The proposed change is opposed by Mohamed Ibrahim Mansour, the newly-appointed representative of the ultraconservative Nour Party. In a closed meeting on Monday Mansour issued the melodramatic warning that the term ‘non-Muslims’ would open gates to ‘religious sects like worshippers of the devil’.

Expanding religious freedoms beyond the “People of the Book” is increasingly seen as necessary by religious minorities and secular Egyptians, first, because faiths like Baha’i “cannot legally marry and continue to have trouble with matters such as inheritance because the law does not properly recognize their presence.” In addition, there is a growing number Egyptians who aren’t simply secular, but have embraced atheism, despite the grave social disadvantages inherent in that choice.

“‘Atheists are all around Egypt,’ said Othman Othman, pointing to a group of young people sitting at the table next to us. The number of atheists in Egypt is not less than three million, Othman claimed, but they do not label themselves ‘atheists’ as society would disown them. Those who have come out publicly as atheists have been not only isolated by their friends and families, but also society in general. However, others who turn down their familial religion have faced many worse trials than mere isolation. Asmaa Omar, 24, who has just graduated the Faculty of Engineering, said that once she revealed her beliefs to her family, they began to physically and mentally torture her. Her father slapped her in the face and broke her jaw. She was not able to eat properly for seven months.”

Once you open the door to Baha’i and atheists, it is only a matter of time before we see a Kemetic/Egyptian polytheist revival (or even Egyptian Wiccans). After all, Egypt is already a global hotspot for seekers, New Agers, and yes, Pagans, wanting to see the many ancient treasures and wonders of the country. Once the chaos abates, Egypt will want the massive tourism revenue to return, and with it will come the exchange of ideas that results from a flood of visitors. In fact, we know that there are already Pagans in Egypt, but a more open society might spark unexpected growth.

A view of the pyramids at Giza from the plateau to the south of the complex. From left to right: the Pyramid of Menkaure, the Pyramid of Khafre and the Great Pyramid of Khufu.

A view of the pyramids at Giza from the plateau to the south of the complex. From left to right: the Pyramid of Menkaure, the Pyramid of Khafre and the Great Pyramid of Khufu.

The question remains: can Paganism emerge in the Middle East? Will it be allowed to? If secular governments (or at least pseudo-secular hybrids) start to emerge, it could happen, and if/when it does, what happens next?

"God" printed in many fonts on many colors, Essex Studios, Cincinnati, Ohio.

“God” printed in many fonts on many colors, Essex Studios, Cincinnati, Ohio.

The following statements are true:

★ There is one god.

★ There are many gods.

★ There is a god named G-d.

★ There are gods that are nameless.

★ There is a God and a Goddess.

★ There is one god, but that god is broken into two gods; one is male, and the other is female.

★ Gods have no gender.

★ Gods have no physicality.

★ All of what is, is God.

★ All of what is, is god-less.

★ There are no gods.

★ The gods are imaginary.

★ The imagination is the birthplace of deity.

★ The imagination is a temple, in which deity can be honored, spoken to or summoned.

★ We are God.

★ God is love.

★ God is not love.

★ The Gods are unique persons, each with their own temperaments.

★ The gods are merely aspects of one Deity.

★ The gods are aspects of ourselves.

★ Everything is the Goddess.

★ The Goddess is in everything, but also distinct from everything that is contained within her.

★ My cat is a god.

★ We are all deities.

★ You are divine.

★ We are only human, and that is enough.

★ We are human and divine; incarnate.

★ The gods are present here.

★ The gods are both present and absent.

★ The Goddess is omnipresent.

★ The gods are not omnipresent.

★ No one can understand what the gods are.

★ The gods can communicate exactly what they are.

★ The gods are….

This list could go on. Forever, perhaps.

I say that these statements are all true, recognizing full well that they are also (depending on the statement and particular reader) equally false.

Subjectivity is a Pagan value.

I’m musing on these statements of “truth” on the eve of Beltane, and will continue to do so as I prepare for my joint-presentation on Pagan theology at the annual Beltania Festival in Florence, Colorado. William Ashton, the Organizer for Mountain Ancestor’s Protogrove in Boulder, Colorado invited me to share the stage with him and teach this 101 course as a part of Beltania’s Stepping Stones series. I gladly accepted.

During our initial planning sessions, William and I discussed the various ways that Pagans conceived of deity. We’ve covered most, if not all of the general categories:

Monotheism
Polytheism
Dualistic Monotheism
Pantheism
Monism
Panentheism
Atheism

But the more I think about it, the more I believe that it isn’t enough to tell people, “These are the categories of belief. Here’s how it looks on paper.” You have to provide them examples. They need context in order for these -isms to be relevant.

That’s where you come in.

I would like to turn the Wild Hunt’s readership into a lecture-hall of teachers, each of you explaining to the average Pagan noobie what Pagan theology is.

More specifically, what your Pagan theology is.

We’re going to crowdsource theology. That way, when I join William at Beltania I will not just come with my perspective, but I will bring all of yours, as well.

Here’s how it will work:

1. Post a comment on TWH

Explain your Pagan theology in the comment section. Use one of the “truth” statements above as a writing prompt if you like, either explaining how it is what you believe or how it is exactly not what you believe.

Write honestly. Write about your perspective, your vision and experience of “truth”. Be the teacher you wish you had when you were just developing your own paganism. And, keep in mind that there will be many differing opinions and perspectives here. No one need to feel the need to correct others – the point is to crowdsource multiple perspectives, and to hold space for those differing perspectives.

2. Tweet your Pagan theology

For every day between Beltane and the beginning of Beltania (May 9th) I will tweet from @TeoBishop the following question:

What is your Pagan theology?

Respond to this question, and include the hashtag: #mypagantheology

Your tweet might look something like this:

I honor one god, but I also believe that there are many gods. #mypagantheology

3. Write your Pagan theology on your own site

Many TWH readers write for other Pagan media sources, including blogs and other online journals. If you’re among this group of people, write your 101 explanation of Pagan theology on your site, then post a link in the comments of this post.

Then, when I join William to explain the basics of Pagan theology, I will direct our students to this blog post and to the #mypagantheology hashtag. They will find your words, read your stories, and learn – from you – what a Pagan theology can look like.

 

So have at it, friends. Unleash your vocab, unlock your mind and explain to the questioning Pagan what your Pagan theology looks like.

 

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

Herdswomen with beautiful floral cow. (Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images)

  • The altar of art: “The faithful who came to meditate on a fresco of Giotto’s or a painting by Caravaggio sought a personal experience of the divine, the feeling that they themselves were present, witnessing the mystery being represented, a miracle that was being enacted specially for them. At the MoMA show, the artist’s presence offered transcendence through communion and intimacy, in the privacy that Abramović was able to create in a crowded atrium. Watching the documentary, I thought: This is the moment in which we live. Alienated, unmoored, we seek our salvation, one by one, from the artist who brings us the comforting news: I see you. I weep when you weep. The mystery, and the miracle, is that you exist.”
  • This is awesome. So is this.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

Some people love watching the sport of tennis, but I am not one of them. This should in no way reflect on that no-doubt fine sport, the talented people who play it, and the fans of said talented athletes. I’m sure it’s a deficiency on my part, nobody’s perfect, right? Similarly, I just can’t get too worked up over the ongoing theist-atheist tennis match, the way some read so much meaning into every “point” scored by each side, how “heroes” and “villains” are created, how “experts” in the commentary box try to explain how one point was more devastating than another point, or how one player’s career is on the decline. Worst of all is when a prominent player on one “team” decides to switch teams, then things really start to heat up!

Such was the case when fellow Patheos blogger Leah Libresco, formerly on the atheist channel here, decided to convert to Catholicism. Faster than you could say “Bristol Palin” traffic to her blog went insane, and CNN dubbed her a “prominent atheist blogger,” much to the chagrin of  prominent atheist bloggers (it’s a Catch-22, if CNN is reporting on your conversion, you must be prominent, because CNN is reporting on your conversion). Now, everybody has an opinion about Ms. Libresco, with many giving interpretations as to this conversion’s importance, or lack of importance. One Catholic blogger even opined that “heaven is roaring with joy” over this conversion (which makes one wonder what sounds heaven makes when a Catholic becomes an atheist, but I digress).

"Democracy Now!" host Amy Goodman poses with Leah Libresco.

"Democracy Now!" host Amy Goodman poses with Leah Libresco.

For my part, I was just going to ignore the whole thing. As a Pagan I have no real emotional investment in atheists and Catholics debating over conversion, or the significance of Libresco’s turn towards Rome. It’s like, well, like watching tennis. I can intellectually understand why some people get worked up about it, but it isn’t my game. Indeed, Pagans, in general, don’t much care about conversions. Patheos columnist Carl McColman, author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Paganism,”still has plenty of Pagan friends, despite becoming a Catholic (the same is true of Pagans who’ve become atheists). We believe that a person’s relationship to the gods is their own affair, and it only becomes an issue for us when those converted decide to turn against us. To use their conversion as a means to sell books about our defaults, or to demonize us. Sadly that is an all-too-common phenomenon.

Carl McColman at the Hill of Tara.

Carl McColman at the Hill of Tara.

For many Pagans, when we hear that one of us has converted to Christianity, we wonder when the book is coming out. You think people love atheist-turned-believer stories? Well, there’s a certain segment of Christians that just can’t get enough ex-Pagan/ex-Witch narratives. Books with titles like “Taken From the Night,” or “Generation Hex,” or “Wicca and Witchcraft: Understanding the Dangers.” Some of these narratives have elements of truth in them, but most are exaggerated or fabricated to make for a more dramatic telling. The simple truth, you see, is far too mundane. The truth is that thousands of people, perhaps even millions, shift in and out of different religious identities every day. It’s as common as crabgrass, and it really means little to the larger trends that are driving religion.

Those trends show that the biggest growth isn’t in atheists, but in people who refuse to label their religious beliefs. The “nones,” who now comprise around 16% of the population in the United States, and a possibly influential majority in certain states. Atheists only account for around 1.6% of that 16.1%. Only slightly bigger than the modern Pagan movement here. Meanwhile, Christianity in the West is in crisis, especially in America, where it’s becoming increasingly politically polarized. In the anxiety that is created by this situation, the still-dominant but increasingly worried religious majority starts to look for signs of “winning” the ideological/theological struggle. It starts to worry that maybe their impressive numbers are inflated, that there are far more heretics in their ranks than they ever suspected. It starts to see a minor atheist blogger converting as quite a big deal.

Christian adherents as percentage of state population (2010).

Christian adherents as percentage of state population (2010).

As to this current ruckus, let me quote Stephen F. Roberts who famously opined that “I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do.” Early pagans called Christians atheists because they didn’t merely prefer their god over other gods (henotheism), they said those other gods were demonic figments of their god’s dualistic evil counterpart. Once they grasped real power, Christians went on a campaign of eliminating those other gods, actions that would make the most militant atheists of today blanch (censorship, destruction of religious property, social pressure, and when those didn’t work, killing). Those gods that couldn’t be completely destroyed were either (literally) demonized or sanctified. That some are now trying to finish off that “last” god no doubt creates a unique tension for monotheists.

Into that tension steps an atheist who converts, who says, let us add one god. Who swings the door in the other direction, towards theism. The problem with that is that it creates its own tension. Christianity is still very much in the game of eliminating all the other gods, of stressing that there is only one god. But once you say, there is at least one god, one power in this universe that is beyond humanity, you open the door to the questions that any reasonable person would then ask. Is there more than one power? What came before Christianity? Why God and not Goddess? Is the Christian conception of God the correct one? What if the moral universe Catholics like to claim was actually acquired from other religions? Why would an inquisitive person stop at mere Christianity? The answer is that reasonable people ask these questions all the time, and certain Christian institutions spend a lot of time and money to stop people from finding the answers.

I wish Leah Libresco well, and I wish her happiness. While I profoundly disagree with Catholicism, thinking it a flawed and troubled faith, I hold no ill will towards its adherents, so long as they are committed to coexisting in a pluralistic secular society with us Pagans. I hope that her faith can develop away from the tennis match that this has all become, complete with cheering sections on each side. If you ever decide that maybe your world needs more than one god, feel free to drop me a line.

In a recent editorial for the Huffington Post Josh Schrei argues that the real difference between Hinduism and other world religions is that Hinduism is an “open source” faith, and that most of the others are “closed source” in their orientation.

The logo of the Open Source Initiative.

The logo of the Open Source Initiative.

“However, the key point of differentiation between Hinduism and these other faiths is not polytheism vs. monotheism. The key differentiation is that “Hinduism” is Open Source and most other faiths are Closed Source. “Open source is an approach to the design, development, and distribution of software, offering practical accessibility to a software’s source code.” If we consider god, the concept of god, the practices that lead one to god, and the ideas, thoughts and philosophies around the nature of the human mind the source code, then India has been the place where the doors have been thrown wide open and the coders have been given free reign to craft, invent, reinvent, refine, imagine, and re-imagine to the point that literally every variety of the spiritual and cognitive experience has been explored, celebrated, and documented. Atheists and goddess worshipers, heretics who’ve sought god through booze, sex, and meat, ash covered hermits, dualists and non-dualists, nihilists and hedonists, poets and singers, students and saints, children and outcasts … all have contributed their lines of code to the Hindu string.

It’s an concept that could just as easily be applied to modern Pagan religions. Like Hinduism, Paganism is simply an umbrella term for a large number of individual faiths, traditions, and practices that happen to share a some commonalities that bind them together. Though I think Schrei might be overstating things when he initially claims that the differentiation isn’t about “polytheism vs. monotheism.” Isn’t it the theological openness of polytheism that allows both “atheists and goddess worshipers” to coexist and contribute to a religious culture? This point is all but conceded by Schrei later on in his piece.

“Western and Middle Eastern monotheistic faiths have simply not allowed such liberal interpretation of their God. They continue to exist as closed source systems.”

The similarities and shared outlooks of the Pagan and Hindu communities will be explored at the upcoming PantheaCon 2012 in San Jose, California, where members of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) will participate in a panel discussion entitled Hindus and Pagans: One Billion Strong. Perhaps the open/closed religion model idea will be discussed along with other topics.

I was recently pointed to a just-published piece at the Bryn Mawr Classical Review that reviews the 2010 edited volume “One God: Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire.” That book grew out of a 2006 conference at the University of Exeter, and once you scratch the surface, points to a far larger conversation within academic circles over monotheism, polytheism, and how the shift from many gods to one God changed the world. In the introduction to “One God” editors Stephen Mitchell and Peter Van Nuffelen note how the “prevalance of monotheism” has colored all inquiry into pre-Christian polytheistic religion.

“…for this reason the differences between Graeco-Roman polytheism and the Jewish, Christian, or Islamic monotheisms, which have dominated our own religious and cultural experiences since the end of antiquity, pose a serious challenge to our understanding of the past. We view ancient religion through a filter of assumptions, experiences and prejudice. Monotheism contains its own internalized value judgments about polytheistic paganism, and these have always influence, and sometimes distorted, the academic study of ancient religion.”

When the scholars in this book, and in other books like 1999′s “Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity,” talk about “Pagan monotheism” they are often describing what we would call henotheism, that is, the worship of one god (or goddess) to the exception of others, while still acknowledging and accepting the existence of other deities.

“[Stephen] Mitchell’s essay ends with a statement worthy of concluding the volume: “We cannot call the cult [of Theos Hypsistos] monotheistic in the strictly exclusive sense that is applied to ancient Judaism and Christianity, but it involved a series of coherent and explicit rituals and practices which were based on belief in a unique, transcendent god, who could not be represented in human form” (p. 197). The acknowledgment that Theos Hypsistos is not exactly like other monotheistic religions does not mean, as Mitchell rightly argues, that elements of monotheism cannot be found in it and in other pagan cults. But this lack of exclusivity does open up the possibility of claiming that pagan monotheism also has elements of polytheism. The fluidity in defining pagan monotheism reflects the fluidity of the religious realities in which these cults were worshipped.”

Books like “One God” seem to be asking whether monotheism as a system of religion must be inherently intolerant, or if  it was merely “concomitant aspects of religious change which are subsumed within monotheism” that caused such a shift towards religious intolerance. To German Egyptologist Jan Assmann, who released “The Price of Monotheism” in 2009, it comes down to what he calls the “Mosaic Distinction,” which created a distinction between “true” religions and “false” religions.

“This shift does not just have theological repercussions, in the sense that it transforms the way people think about the divine; it also has a properly political dimension, in the sense that it transforms culturally specific religions into world religions.  [...] What seems crucial to me is not the distinction between the One God and many gods but the distinction between truth and falsehood in religion, between the true god and false gods, true doctrine and false doctrine, knowledge and ignorance, belief  and unbelief.”

To Assmann history is full of “monotheistic moments” where this distinction between true and false religion rises up to cause mayhem and destruction.

The back-and-forth of scholarship may seem a bit too “inside baseball” to matter, but the debate over the nature of religion in antiquity and late antiquity casts a shadow on more popular works today, including in journalism, and helps shape the way we think about a topic. Whether acknowledged or not, there are competing narratives in works like Alan Cameron’s  “The Last Pagans of Rome”, which argues that paganism was a spent force that went out with a whimper, or the work of Owen Davies in books like “Paganism: A Very Short Introduction” or “Grimoires: A History of Magic Books” that looks at how pagan ideas and beliefs managed to persevere, adapt, and survive. That “in contemporary society, Paganism can be a liberating spiritual and social force [...] it is no less relevant than it was when it was redefined by Christians nearly two millennia ago. It has retained its ability to stimulate intellectual curiosity and spiritual exploration.”

The shift to reevaluate polytheism has almost certainly influenced figures like religion professor Stephen Prothero, whose 2010 book “God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World-and Why Their Differences Matter”, while no love letter to polytheism, did insert Yoruba into the pantheon of religions that “run the world”. Prothero is the go-to guy for religion at CNN’s Belief Blog, and was a main source for the PBS series “God in America,” how he thinks about polytheism today has far-reaching effects. It is also why the field of Pagan Studies is so important. Pundits, bloggers, and journalists regularly turn to “experts” for new information and confirmation of their ideas and theories, the more good information there is about the validity of polytheism and of contemporary Pagan religions, the more people like me have to reference when we make our own arguments in the public sphere. That there is a wide-ranging discussion about polytheism and monotheism within academia should excite modern Pagans, as it means there could be a seismic shift in how our culture approaches these topics as well.

Back in May I wrote an article looking at the issue of opening invocations at various government bodies. At the center of that piece was discussion of a recently enacted policy in Maryland by the Frederick County Commissioners. The new policy was modeled on the one adopted by the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors in Virginia after they successfully survived a legal challenge by Wiccan priestess Cynthia Simpson. That policy, and the Frederick County Commissioners’ new policy, called for nonsectarian prayers, but only from members of established monotheistic faiths.

“Board members voted 3-to-2 on Thursday to invite religious leaders to attend their meetings to invoke “divine guidance” for the commissioners and their deliberations. The religious leaders must be ordained and affiliated with a monotheistic religion with an established congregation in Frederick County. Their prayers must avoid referring to any particular religion, denomination or sect.”

An NBC Washington headline called it the “Wiccan-proof prayer policy” and that spin must have caught the attention of County Attorney John Mathias, because the commissioners voted to alter the policy yesterday.

“They voted Thursday in Frederick to adopt changes recommended by County Attorney John Mathias. A key revision eliminates language allowing only those of monotheistic religions to offer the opening invocation. Mathias says such a restriction would have required the county to determine which religions are monotheistic.”

This is an interesting development. In theory, they should be on solid legal ground. Back in 2005 the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided that Chesterfield County’s policy was diverse enough, meeting the standards set by the Supreme Court in Marsh v. Chambers (though the Hindu American FoundationThe Buddhist Peace FellowshipThe Association on American Indian Affairs, and The Interfaith Alliance did not agree). So either this is a public relations move, or, they think that if this policy is challenged as-is it might not stand up in court. Considering the rather rah-rah “one nation under God” rhetoric of the original press release in May, I don’t think their hearts were suddenly moved by the absence of polytheists, or that they were worried over losing the critical polytheist vote in Frederick County (though they were contacted multiple times for comment by the DC bureau of the Pagan Newswire Collective). So it must mean that there is real concern, perhaps even outside Frederick County, that explicitly excluding non-monotheistic religions could ultimately bring down the “nonsectarian monotheist invocations only” house of cards in Chesterfield as well.

Now that Frederick County is open to polytheist invocation, at least in theory (one that I hope gets tested soon), perhaps it’s time for the ACLU in Virginia to return to Chesterfield County and begin building a new case. In the meantime, I applaud the Frederick County Commissioners for doing the right thing, albeit a few months later than I would have liked.

It is far too easy to quote the (largely Christian) opponents to New York’s decision adopting same-sex marriage and use it to make some larger point. You’ve got the Catholic Bishop of Brooklyn advising his flock to shun lawmakers who voted for same-sex marriage, you’ve got the Family Research Council making some disturbing allusions about the Empire State Building, and you have presidential candidate Rep. Michelle Bachmann trying to be simultaneously for states rights and a Constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage (even Fox News said she was “threading a thin needle”). I could go on, and on, and on, and on. All the convenient haters saying all the convenient things. It’s rare to hear something new about this topic.

What’s refreshing is reading thoughtful reappraisals from conservative opponents in the wake of New York supporting gay marriage, or even hearing an interesting argument wrapped in what could have been a fairly conventional liberal pro-same-sex-marriage editorial.

When gay marriage is legal everywhere, “the opponents will be revealed for carrying water for a larger kind of orthodoxy,” Olbermann predicted. “Their church is opposed to same-sex marriage because same-sex marriage means diversity, and diversity means peaceful interactions between members of different groups and religions, and peaceful interactions means fears and prejudices are diminished, and the diminishing means those churches’ cartel in the religion business is jeopardized.”

Yes, that was a quote from the recently restored to television Keith Olbermann. I know he can be a pretty divisive figure for some, but I wanted to address the idea that gay marriage is increasing religious pluralism. That it is, in the words of Olbermann, diminishing religious “cartels” in the United States. A cartel is, according to Wikipedia“a formal (explicit) agreement among competing firms.” Which if you think about the state of things today isn’t too far-fetched a comparison in describing religion in the public sphere. Moral questions, religious questions, are all framed in a Judeo-Christian worldview. The “competing firms” of Catholics, Protestant Evangelicals, and occasionally Jewish or old mainline Protestant groups, have all agreed (whether implicitly or explicitly) to frame everything from the perspective of the dominant monotheisms. In my criticisms of the “religious left” I’ve noted the tired “lefty Jesus vs. righty Jesus” or even “lefty patriarchal sky father vs. righty patriarchal sky father” narrative, when instead coalitions should be built around issues not theologies.

Just the other day I talked about the difficult transition into post-Christianity, and the acceptance of same-sex marriage by our society certainly is a sign that the old moral status quo is being replaced by something new. It’s hard to pull back from the daily battles and chaos to see how things will develop, but I do see this as an opportunity for religious minorities to establish themselves as ahead of the curve, flexible, and pluralistic on issues like same-sex marriage. A legacy of Pagan and Hindu faiths, according to a guest post by Mihir Meghani, M.D.; Board Member & Co-Founder of the Hindu American Foundation.

“Hindus and Pagans can make a lasting contribution to the world by once again promoting pluralism as a core value of society and its individuals – something evidently lacking in the world today in which intolerance is so prominent. We need to challenge ourselves to make pluralism a value similar in respect to values such as honesty and charity. People should be proud to proclaim that they are pluralist – that they revel in and respect the diversity around them. Children should be raised with this value. For the survival of not only our traditions but humanity altogether, we must move from the motto of, “I will tolerate you though you are wrong,” to a true commitment to pluralism.”

Fighting for the equal rights and treatment of same-sex couples ultimately benefits the religions that support those rights. While the old order ruptures with debate and schism over treating gay couples with dignity, the faiths and philosophies that don’t rely on a singular revealed truth to argue over already know how to accommodate multiple theological positions under a “big tent”. The “heretic” in modern Paganism is largely seen as someone starting a new path or understanding, not as someone to be feared or attacked. Same-sex marriage is just the first in many issues that will challenge the dominant monotheisms living in secular nations. The next 20 years will see many more. Could that time see a growth of pluralism as a side-product of controversy, schism, and reactionary fear? Stranger things have happened.

As various government bodies in the United States navigate what is and isn’t a violation of restrictions against the endorsement of a particular religion (aka the separation of church and state) when giving an opening invocation, two models have emerged. The first model says you can have sectarian prayer (ie specific invocations to named deities or powers) so long as everyone is invited to participate, and the second model says that only nonsectarian (ie generic invocations to “god”) prayers are acceptable. Conservative Christians activists generally favor the first model, while secular civil liberties organizations broadly prefer the second. Between these two poles a variety of variations have been tested, often in the courts.

In many cases modern Pagans, specifically Wiccans, have been caught in the tumult of what is and isn’t permissible. For example, there’s the “include a Wiccan” gambit to protect yourself from accusations of “open” invocation models that seem to only invite Christians (though mere randomness sometimes isn’t enough), and then there’s the “we don’t want to include a Wiccan” model famously undertaken by Chesterfield County, Virgina. In that case a rotating sectarian model was challenged by a Wiccan when she wasn’t allowed a turn, the county board changed their policy to nonsectarian during litigation and that seemed to be enough to make exclusion of minority faiths permissible. This “nonsectarian monotheist invocations only” policy seems to have made an impression as it is now being emulated by Frederick County, Maryland.

“Board members voted 3-to-2 on Thursday to invite religious leaders to attend their meetings to invoke “divine guidance” for the commissioners and their deliberations. The religious leaders must be ordained and affiliated with a monotheistic religion with an established congregation in Frederick County. Their prayers must avoid referring to any particular religion, denomination or sect.”

The restriction to only “monotheistic” faiths is echoed in local coverage as well. An NBC Washington headline specifically called it the “Wiccan-Proof Prayer Policy.” Here’s what County Commissioners say about their new policy in a press release.

The Frederick Board of County Commissioners today approved an invocation policy to allow prayer at certain of its meetings, consistent with the Chesterfield County, Va., invocation policy upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. [...] “We do not believe there would be any disagreement from the majority of Americans that we are still ‘one nation under God,’ as we say in our pledge of allegiance, and that it says on our dollar bill, ‘In God We Trust.’ Our policy does not mandate a one-county religion or endorse any religion over another, but we do acknowledge our Creator.”

While one commissioner was against the new policy because it didn’t allow sectarian prayers to Jesus, he is no doubt mollified by the reassurance that no polytheist will be allowed an invocation. Since the Chesterfield County policy went all the way to the Supreme Court (who refused to hear the appeal) no doubt many will see this path to exclusion as legally bulletproof. The only reason it hasn’t been more widely adopted by conservative Christian-dominated government bodies is that they hate nonsectarian prayer almost as much as they hate non-Christian religions. Indeed, at this moment the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, who ruled in the Chesterfield case, is hearing case on the legality of sectarian prayer on a supposed open first-come-first-served model.

Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson, the senior judge among the three hearing Thursday’s arguments on appeal, at one point said that the county’s policy seemed geared to favor the “faith of a majority of residents in the county.” “The result of the policy is that the prayer is overtly sectarian,” Wilkinson later said. [...] Katherine Parker, the attorney for the residents who sued the county, said that despite the wording of the county policy, the real effect — as shown by the prayers that have been prayed — was to advance Christianity by the county government.

If the 4th Circuit paves the way for more sectarian prayer, will the Frederick County Government change policy? Is wink-and-a-nudge nonsectarianism enough? Either way, government officials seem to be ensuring that only monotheist lips utter prayers at meetings. Whether these models will ultimately remain “Wiccan-Proof” remains to be seen.

“We will not listen to the things you’ve said to us in the name of YHWH. On the contrary, we will certainly do all that we’ve vowed. We will make offerings to the Queen of Heaven, and pour libations to her as we used to do – we and our ancestors, our kings and princes in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem – because then we had plenty of bread and we were satisfied, and suffered no misfortune. But since we ceased making offerings to the Queen of Heaven and pouring libations to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by sword and famine. And when we make offerings to the Queen of Heaven and pour libations to her, is it without our husbands’ approval that we make cakes in her likeness and pour libations to her?”Jeremiah 44:15-19, translation by Graham Harvey, from the Hebrew text of the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, excerpted from “The Paganism Reader”.

I suppose it is somewhat appropriate that I mentioned a Christian sect obsessed with battling the “Queen of Heaven” yesterday, because today I’m looking at a new flurry of press about Her, or as they phrase it, “God’s wife.” The notion that the God of the Jews, and later the Christian God, was once part of a polytheistic landscape is fairly uncontroversial among scholars. Several books have been published on the subject, “The Hebrew Goddess”, “Did God Have a Wife?”,  “Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan”, and “The Early History of God”, among several others. NOVA on PBS even mentioned it back in 2008 for their “The Bible’s Buried Secrets” program. But modern journalism has a short memory, and the story has a new hook via Exeter University’s Francesca Stavrakopoulou, who’s presenting a new BBC production (coincidentally) entitled “The Bible’s Buried Secrets”. Stavrakopoulou and her BBC series have been making the rounds at The Daily Mail (sorry, I still don’t link to them), The Guardian, and The Telegraph.

“Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou has been given a primetime BBC Two series, The Bible’s Buried Secrets, in which she makes a number of startling suggestions. [...]  The idea that God had a wife is based on Biblical texts that refer to “asherah”. According to Dr Stavrakopoulou, Asherah was the name of a fertility goddess in lands now covered by modern-day Syria, and was half of a “divine pair” with God. Dr Stavrakopoulou is a senior lecturer in the Hebrew Bible at the University of Exeter, and gained a doctorate in theology from Oxford.”

Her suggestions are so startling that the story got picked up in America by Discovery News.

“In 1967, Raphael Patai was the first historian to mention that the ancient Israelites worshiped both Yahweh and Asherah. The theory has gained new prominence due to the research of Francesca Stavrakopoulou [...] “After years of research specializing in the history and religion of Israel, however, I have come to a colorful and what could seem, to some, uncomfortable conclusion that God had a wife,” she added. Stavrakopoulou bases her theory on ancient texts, amulets and figurines unearthed primarily in the ancient Canaanite coastal city called Ugarit, now modern-day Syria. All of these artifacts reveal that Asherah was a powerful fertility goddess.”

Her conclusions may indeed be “colorful,” but they are hardly new, as I pointed out above. Discovery News actually does a decent job in taking what were mostly warmed over press releases in the UK and giving the story some depth. Showing that Stavrakopoulou’s research is part of a long continuum of thought and study on this topic, interviewing other scholars to emphasize the points being made in her new show.

The ancient Israelites were polytheists, [Aaron] Brody [director of the Bade Museum and an associate professor of Bible and archaeology at the Pacific School of Religion] told Discovery News, “with only a small minority worshiping Yahweh alone before the historic events of 586 B.C.” In that year, an elite community within Judea was exiled to Babylon and the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. This, Brody said, led to “a more universal vision of strict monotheism: one god not only for Judah, but for all of the nations.”

The Discovery News report is also refreshing in that it avoids discussing her “fragrant air” and “good carriage” as John Preston at The Telegraph does. There’s a certain bitter irony in discussing the looks of a presenter on a program that touches on how the power of women was willfully erased from history. In any case, while the subject of God’s wife may not be new, reminding the world that monotheism didn’t spring forth whole-cloth, that it was artificially constructed and forcefully maintained by its early adopters is still quite needful. Especially in an age where the mere hint of a resurgent Western polytheism, and the endurance of polytheism around the world, seems to bring out irrational anger, fear, and hatred in certain corners.