Pondering Polytheism

So recently I’ve been reading a book by John Michael Greer called “A World Full Of Gods.” I found this book fascinating. Its essential premise is that being a polytheist i.e. believing in multiple gods rather than one (monotheism) or none (atheism) is just as logical and intellectually defensible as other forms of belief.

The author outlines the arguments in favour of the monotheist god who is “all powerful, all knowing and benevolent” e.g. the teleological argument, the cosmological argument and so on and points out quite convincingly that all these arguments (except the easily disprovable ontological argument), if valid, could support a belief in multiple gods.

He then considers the other side of the equation and looks at the atheist arguments against the existence of god. Here he shows that really, while they are very effective reasons for not believing in monotheism, none of them really can be used to counter polytheism.

He then raises the crux of the argument – that millions of people throughout history, in many different places, from many different religions, have had many different religious experiences. That is something no one can deny. Now some religions will claim that only the experiences of those in their religion are true experiences and everyone else’s are “from the devil” but that really is just special pleading. Greer argues that it makes much more logical sense that these people are experiencing many different gods than one god because the experiences are so different and there are so many different gods believed in because of them.

Now the clear atheist argument to this is simple – you cannot trust personal experience i.e people delude themselves. I have to be honest, despite being a fundamentalist Christian for 10 years, I never once had an unexplainable religious experience, though people within my own family have. I have no way to judge for myself whether people’s experiences are real….and that is something I need to be more humble in admitting to myself. Yesterday, I was reading the blog of Druid Priest John Beckett and his post said “Religious experiences are plainly real – the question is how we interpret them.”

And that has got me thinking. Greer’s book makes a very good argument why polytheism is a much more logical fit with reason and evidence than monotheism is, but he doesn’t really address the atheist arguments for why religious experiences might just all be “in our heads.” That said, suppose these experiences aren’t just “in our heads,” suppose they are real, just suppose that the many millions of people around the world really have had true religious experiences and encounters with something more and aren’t just deluding themselves. What if their “interpretations” of their experiences are more correct than my “interpretations” of their experiences? There’s so much we still don’t know about the universe. Where does that leave things???

What are your thoughts?


27 thoughts on “Pondering Polytheism

  1. Greer conjures his argument out of this air as he completely ignores the 2500 years of Western Heritage which includes the ancient Hebrews, Greeks and Christians.

    That there can be only one God is a matter of reason. And if one accepts reason, than polytheism is impossible.

      • For God to be God he must have certain attributes.

        The first and most important attribute is that of Creator. And this attribute leads to other of God’s attributes which can be reasoned out.

        God is Creator by definition. Aristotle reasoned out that since we live in a universe of cause and effect, all causes can be traced back to an original First Cause which caused everything else. This is echoed by Newton’s Laws which states that nothing moves, stops moving or changes direction without the action of some other cause.

        As a result, other attributes can be reasoned out:

        1. God is infinite because he Created everything
        2. God is all knowing because he needed to know how to create everything.
        3. God is all powerful otherwise nothing could be created.
        4. Etc.

        If God is necessarily infinite than there can be only one God since if there existed two Gods, neither would be infinite.

        And finally, since God is infinite polytheism is impossible since one infinite, all-powerful, all-knowing God leaves no room for any other.

        The “gods” are simply man’s attempt to assign supernatural causes to all the various powerful and seemingly inexplicable natural phenomena.

      • @silenceofmind – Why must God have to be a creator in order to be god. you have defined God in a certain way but the concept of a god could be defined in many ways – god could be personal or impersonal, all powerful or finite, all knowing or limited in knowledge, good or bad. Christianity has chosen to define God in a particular way that fits with the bible’s concept of god, but there are many religions around the world that have different ways of conceiving of a god. Therefore your entire argument breaks down. Why should the first cause have to be a god? Maybe it was something else?

        God is not necessarily infinite if he created everything – if he created a finite creation, he himself might be finite too.

        Finally, within Polytheism you could have both an infinite creator god and many lesser gods – in other words polytheism could be compatible with a creator god more powerful than the others.

      • Natural,

        By definition, God is Creator. Unless, God is Creator there is no God.

        And since it is almost obvious that everything didn’t happen all by itself, it is reasonable to conclude that the universe was created.

        After studying science, especially the biology of life and how cells works, it becomes obvious that the universe was designed, also.

      • silenceofmind – no, there is nowhere that says a god must by definition be a creator or the creator. a god can be anything more powerful than us. the word “god” is a human construct and can be defined by different people in many different ways.

        Biology shows a lot of evidence of unintelligent design so no – it doesn’t suggest a creator

        It’s not “obvious” that everything didnt happen by chance – thats your interpretation. I think it’s quite obvious from the evidence that there isn’t a creator.

  2. I don’t think there necessarily has to be a distinction between religious experiences being real and being all in our heads. All experiences are processed by the brain, why should religious ones be any different? D’Aquili and Newberg did some excellent research on the brain states of religious people in prayer and meditation and found changes in brainwave activity. Thus, religious experiences are ‘real’ measurable physical activities. The only difference is in interpretation: are they created within the brain or based on some external stimuli that are mediated by the brain? I don’t know, and I suspect nobody does (yet).

    • Ryan,

      If God created man out of the same chemical elements that make up the entire universe, why would it seem strange that all our experiences have accompanying physical chemistry?

      The book of Genesis says that God created man out of clay. That means, physically, we are chemistry and biology.

      That’s an amazing insight for nomadic, tribal Hebrews.

      • Why do you need to assume that a god ‘created’ us at all? We know how humans evolved.

        Your exegesis of Genesis is irrelevant and tenuous at best. A creation myth from thousands of years ago that, when translated multiple times, says a god created a man and a woman out of clay does not mean that ancient Hebrews had significant insight into biology and chemistry.

        Anyway, long story short, I have no interest in debating you here on someone else’s blog (especially when the topic isn’t even about Genesis, creation or the monotheistic god), so I bid you a very good day and leave the conversation here.

      • Ryan,

        To understand creation we must go back in time to the very beginning just before the Big Bang.

        The Creator is the First Cause who made everything come from nothing.

  3. I am an agnostic on all this, I do not know. Personally I am inclined to pantheism, I like the idea of Tao or Brahman, an impersonal and mysterious creator: all is one and one is all. There may well be other orders of beings, existing in other realms, generally unseen to us, the more powerful and influential are what polytheists call gods. These gods would be part of the unknown fauna of the universe, not the same as the monotheists idea of God.

  4. Very interesting review! Thanks!

    I actually perform a similar exercise, on my blog, to the one Greer does in this book. I’ve been writing a series that I call “Heathen Apologetics” in which I repurpose many of the common arguments offered by theism in a manner which supports the polytheistic religion of Norse heathenry. Of course, our end-goals seem to be quite different: my intention is to serve as a sort of Reductio ad Absurdum counterargument to theism, whereas Greer is actually advocating polytheism.

    Still, very interesting, and I appreciate your review!

  5. Pingback: All in my head? | Room of Roots

  6. It’s been quite a while since I first read “A World Full of Gods,” now I’m itching to dive back into it again. 🙂

    As to religious experiences being “real” or not, to paraphrase Lon Milo Duquette, of course it’s all in your head–but you have no idea just how big your head is!

  7. Hi Naturalpantheist,

    I haven’t read Greer’s book, but it’s been in my queue of books to someday read for a while. I have read a few blog pieces here and there by modern polytheists arguing for the rationality of believing in multiple gods and my assessment was similar. Yes with a little tweaking the a-priori rationalizations for one God can also justifying the existence many gods, but neither the mono or poly versions of these arguments stand up well to skeptical scrutiny. (Sorry Silenceofmind the first cause argument has been so thoroughly dismantled by skeptics, it is not even worth discussing.)

    It just seems to me that if such beings exist it would be more obvious. Outside of private personal internal experiences, these gods just don’t seem to be a factor in the world. Like in the old argument from the existence of evil, either gods don’t exist, don’t care, or don’t have any power. If hard polytheists want to convince others (and many don’t care about this), they need to both make the case that gods exist and that they matter.

    Of course we naturalistic pagan types like me who find value and meaning in the old polytheistic gods also have a hard case to make. I can’t prove it, but I believe that the older stratum of polytheism had a more open, softer, more pantheistic view of deity then modern western polytheism. I’ve written a little bit about my views on this over at Humanistic Paganism. For the most part I feel that getting into ontological metaphysical arguments with monotheists and polytheists is just not worth the time. I’d rather just work on naturalistic pagan “theology”, which is challenge enough.

    M. Jay

    • Jay Lee,

      Simply looking at nature makes the existence of God almost obvious.

      Study a university level cellular and molecular biology class and the science simply screams the existence of God.

      During the first couple of lectures, the professor almost sounded like he was reading from the book of Genesis.

      • I dispute that big time. What biology class shows is that life is quite capable of arising on its own. and through evolution by natural selection, it is able to create a wonderfully diverse world. The fact that there is all this diversity, and that there is also a lot of redundancy and unintelligently designed aspects in nature (which proves that it hasn’t been a result of any intelligent designer) suggests that one mind alone could not have created it – either there were multiple minds or none at all.

      • Natural,

        Biology class does not demonstrate that life can arise on its own.

        Such a notion is the fundamental atheist act of faith.

        The fine tuning and intricate design of the molecules of life indicate that life happening all by itself is absurd.

  8. I’m glad you posted about this book. I’ve been thinking about buying it for my Kindle but couldn’t decide. Now I’m pretty sure I will.

    I entirely disagree with silenceofmind that the primary attribute of God is necessarily that God is Creator. What about the Rig Veda, which predates Aristotle, and argues that no one actually knows whether the universe was created, and if so who created it, or whether it arose on its own…and yet has hundreds of hymns to the gods. Hinduism has worshiped for thousands of years without needing to believe that God is primarily the Creator. That’s just one (Eurocentric) view of what might be meant by God, which goes to show that the atheists are really just arguing against this one narrow view of what God means. Dawkins dismisses Hinduism altogether as just “sexed-up atheism” which couldn’t be further from the truth, but when you define God so narrowly, it makes it impossible to understand anyone else’s viewpoint.

    • Mistress,

      Anyone can argue anything. The question is whether or not an argument is reasonable.

      The claim that there is no Creator is simply a statement of faith, not a statement of reason.

      Citing a religious scripture such as the Rig Veda as proof that there is no Creator commits the same logical fallacy as Christians who cite the Bible as proof that the Creator exists.

      That logical fallacy that you and the Christian use is called circular reasoning because to believe your proof you must first believe the scripture for which there is only faith, not proof.

      Systematic thinking developed in the Western Heritage does not rely on faith in religious scripture as proof for the existence of Creator.

      Proofs for the existence the Creator are based on reason, that is, observing how the world works and then following those observation to an inescapable conclusion.

      That same reasoning forms the basis for the scientific method and further demonstrates why modern science only developed in the Christian West and nowhere else in any civilization or at any time period in human history.

      In fact, the Christians spent centuries and centuries demonstrating how faith devoid of reason is blind.

      • Not my logical fallacy — you don’t have to “believe” the Rig Veda to see that it leaves open the issue of a Creator while still containing hymns that worship gods. You could actively disbelief in the Vedas and they’d still be hymns to gods that don’t require belief in a Creator. No belief necessary to analyze a text.

      • Mistress,

        The purpose of this post is not to analyze ancient text.

        The post and many of the comments to the post claim that pantheism makes as much sense as monotheism.

        I have proven through reason that that claim is false.

        The belief in the one true God is a matter of reason.

        Pantheism is superstition and thus, irrational.

      • silenceofmind – sorry but the idea that science only developed in the west is completely inaccurate. In the medieval times, the height of scientific advance came from the middle east and arab countries. Before that, China was at the forefront of scientific advances. It’s not just the West that has developed scientifically.

        Also, we are talking primarily about Polytheism, not pantheism in this post.

      • Natural,

        Modern science only developed in the Christian West. That is a fact.

        There were always bits and pieces of science in other places, but the measurement techniques and the mental attitude to ask the right questions were systematized in the Christian West.

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