Book Review: The Case for Polytheism

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downloadReview: The Case for Polytheism. Written by Steven Dillon. (Iff Book, 96 Pages)

As an undergraduate freshman I stumbled into a Philosophy 101 class primarily by default. It was the only class out of the list of humanities requirements that still had a space available, and I needed full-time status to keep my scholarship. I was not excited to learn about the self-indulgent musings of dead white men; Philosophy 101 usually means Western Philosophy after all.

By the end of the term, however, I was considering changing my major to philosophy. While I ultimately chose not to change majors, I took as many philosophy classes electives as possible. Why the change of heart? I realized by studying Aristotle, Kant, Descartes, et al, that I had never learned to think critically. It was exciting to learn how to deconstruct a series of premises and to weigh the merits and fallacies of arguments made.

Now that nearly 20 years have passed since my last philosophy class, I honestly could not tell you much about any of those philosophers, their assumptions, or their arguments. I found that I lacked interest in reading philosophy without a group of people to talk things out so my studies ended and much of what I knew (or thought I knew) slipped away.

So it has been years since I thought about those classes in logic, existentialism, epistemology, and ethics. Upon reading Steven Dillon’s The Case for Polythiesm, I began to wish that I could remember everything that I had worked so hard to understand so many years ago. I wished that I could be surrounded by others reading it simultaneously so we could talk about it’s content. I wished that there was time to read it a second time and third time to truly absorb and more fully consider its propositions.

In his book, Dillon engages the reader in a defense of natural theology, which is “just a systematic attempt to ‘prove or show’ to be probable the existence of God or gods, and to acquire knowledge about them, on the basis of evidence or premises that can be accepted by non-believers, such as empirical knowledge about the natural world.” While monotheists have been the primary voices in natural theology arguments, Dillon brings polytheism back into the conversation with this book.*

Dillon begins with an exploration of what a God is, and if there is a God. He proposes three conditions needed for something to be considered a God: disembodied consciousness, immensely more powerful than evolved minds, and remarkable greatness. He goes on to explore each of these qualities in turn, recognizing the problem of defining terms like “consciousness,” “immense,” and “remarkable.” He then goes on to present a formal argument for theism followed by an exploration of the assumptions within. The argument he presents is:

  1. The existence of the universe is either due to its own necessary nature or to an external cause.
  2. If it is due to an external cause, then at least one god exists.
  3. The existence of the universe is not due to its own necessary nature.
  4. Therefore, it is due to an external cause (From 1 and 3.)
  5. Hence, at least one god exists. (From 2 and 4.)

The following 8 pages are an exploration and defense of each of these premises in order to present a “reasonable case for theism.” It was at this point in the book that my recollection of my former classes came to the front of my mind, and I felt an unexpected desire to be back in those 200-year-old un-airconditioned university buildings surrounded by other lovers of wisdom.

I have problems with these propositions for which I cannot seem to find the words. I can sense a gap in the logic presented, but have no idea how to express it. In psychology, the lack of words to describe one’s emotions is called alexithymia. Alexithymia (literally, “no words for emotions”) has been linked to depression, eating disorders, and other lovely conditions. I don’t know what the word is for “no words to explain the reason for a dysphoric cognitive response,” but that word should exist for situations such as this. And I am quite sure that this condition would be linked to headaches, inattentiveness in conversations, and forgetting to eat dinner.

But that aside…

After a brief break, I moved on to the next chapter which explores the question of how many gods there are. Since I am Pagan, and therefore biased by my own polytheistic beliefs, his arguments for religious experiences of gods were not personally problematic. However, this could be a sticky argument for a lot of monotheistic and atheistic folk. To sum it up as succinctly as possible, he writes that we can trust perceptual experiences (“unless and until we have good reason not to”) that, if gods have been perceived then polytheism is true, and that gods have been perceived, and therefore, polytheism is true.

It is an endearingly simple argument, but so loaded that I would like to secure a front row seat to watch the debate ensue. He spends several pages presenting these arguments that he assumes (and rightly, I think) would be used to deconstruct his propositions. He even addresses one of several I had but had no name for (until now): the Theory-Ladenness Objection. It explains that prior theory affects observation, and that this influence makes our interpretation of perceptual experiences unreliable. For instance, if one is only aware of a single warrior Goddess, than any warrior Goddess that is experienced would be perceived to be the one already known.

In the end, Dillon concludes that he finds the objections “wanting” and that through his arguments

…we have managed to mount a reasonable case for polytheism. We have good reason to believe in the deities that have been perceived all over the world, from the Goddess experienced by Wiccans and Cernunnos by Druids, to the Hindu deities that have been experienced, and even YHWH. The gods and goddesses come in all shapes and sizes.

I finished this chapter thinking that the objections to his propositions are deserving of more consideration, and that his arguments for polytheism are wanting.

Dillon states that his goal with this book is to “inspire thoughtful individuals to discuss and reevaluate the merits or demerits of polytheism.” Despite any problems with his arguments, he succeeds in opening up a conversation in academic circles, and I feel an unexpected sense of gratitude for this. However, the book may be a bit inaccessible for people without some background or understanding of philosophy and debate. Regardless, Dillon presents many interesting points and poses plenty of questions that naturally encourage discussion and exploration.

Author Steven Dillon is a Pagan living in South Dakota. He publishes the blog Pagan Scholasticism. He “primarily works on researching and developing theoretical foundations for Pagan ideas.” A Case for Polytheism is his first book. It is currently available in electronic and paperback formats.

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* The term polytheism, as used in this book, expresses the generic meaning “many gods” within any religious tradition or practice. This is distinctly different from Polytheism as a very specific religious identifier. As such, the term ‘polytheism’ is not capitalized in the book or the article, whereas the identifier would always capitalized. For more on this distinction or on Polytheism in practice, read the Polytheism Primer or visit Polytheism.com