Sometimes, I fantasize about people who are utterly unlike myself being able to draw from their religious practices in ways that are unremarkable, not avant-garde.
I think about the kids of polytheists today two decades from now waking up for a day of work and praying at a wall shelf shrine held up with command strips for two minutes before rushing out the door; the social media influencers of tomorrow posting hilariously unrealistic morning routines that show them in their pastel chunky sweaters with a mug of white tea reading the Hávamál, Proclus’ hymns, or Ovid’s Fasti, instead of the Bible; or the inevitable moment when two people of the same religion (let’s say Religio Romana) are on opposing sides at a negotiation table and neither of them is feeling religiously betrayed or questions whether the other is truly a devotee of Jupiter or not.
Those thoughts are often at the root of worldbuilding approaches in my speculative fiction, which isn’t about Earth at all, but centers polytheism as normative. However, the same muscles are useful for thinking about new religious movement (NRM) polytheist communities now. I can hold personae like the ones above in my mind and ask myself what needs to happen to get there, as if creating a reflexive SWOT analysis.
There has been conversation around the Internet about fusing polytheism and paganism to specific sociopolitical movements for a while now, often a passionate response to things that are happening in the immediate present. This is sometimes accompanied by a call to arms for a compelling religious vision.
I don’t think we lack a strong vision. It’s common knowledge that the fastest way to build a community is to establish an us vs. them mentality and run with it, which the right wing did; it always ends ruinously. We are not that. We focus on the Gods, and we build connections that are grounding, centering, and empowering.
In the best case scenario:
- Religious practice, even for a few minutes a day, is a time to actively engage with the Gods, who are wholly good and harmonious, and the practice trains our minds to come into alignment with their goodness. The symbols, offerings, and prayers we use are like establishing a network link between us and them.
- Our polytheisms put people in touch with ethical systems that do not call people intrinsically sinful and bad, but ones that establish a growth mindset — virtue can be cultivated, and even when we have setbacks, we can always grow back stronger.
- Our religions are usually hearth-based, meaning that most ordinary rituals take place in the home; this makes them maximally accessible, available to anyone willing to learn how to do them.
- Polytheisms are inherently pluralistic and additive. In their best manifestations, they enable us to give due respect to others and to ourselves, which is crucial in today’s multicultural megacities and global Internet landscapes.
Of course, we can add to this if someone acclimates limself to a philosophical school — like, there’s a reason (Iamblichus) I wrote empowering — but I wanted to start with the bare basics.
It should be no secret at this point that I am a normative and mainstreaming polytheist. While my religious convictions inform my political beliefs — I’m a social democrat — I have never felt like there is a political litmus test to be a valid polytheist. Building my religious practice around a political faction or ideology would be like trying to put a foundation down in shifting sand. Centering my religious practice in the Gods, and bringing these preexisting religious (and doctrinal) convictions into dialogue with my politics, creates a more resilient foundation.
One of the issues that comes up for people who hear calls to make NRM polytheisms tied to a sociopolitical movement is a fear of being shunned and driven out unjustly. We have social instincts — we are, without exception, social animals. It’s important for us to see and acknowledge these instincts when they arise so that, when we experience them, fear doesn’t control us, and we can correctly identify what is happening in our bodies and find ways for our concerns to be voiced without being reactive (and hope that others will listen). I know polytheists and pagans who voted for Clinton in the 2008 and 2016 primaries (including my mom), and they’re just as valid as those of us who didn’t. Adherence to a specific sociopolitical movement is not the answer. Proper communication about who we are and being authentic about our mess is. And, OK, maybe we do need a few compelling sophists.
Acknowledging that our existing polytheisms have extant sociopolitical dynamics is important, though. When we begin from the Gods, and when we consider that the world is full of Gods, spirits of place, and itinerant daimones, with literally no gap, there are consequences for how we view the natural world. Human-caused climate change is deeply rooted in Christianity and materialism’s iconoclasm and hubris; speaking out for trees and rivers is the right thing to do. For those of us descended from European colonizing powers, our ancestors committed heinous acts of sacrilege, subjugation, and genocide that require redress. We should push back against (and ostracize) Neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups. Values, ethics, and moral guidelines are crucial, and at their best, they allow for diversity of perspective while deterring toxic growth. Principles allow for positive identity development, not a reactive or unhealthy one, and enable coreligionists to set healthy, respectful boundaries and to engage in civil discussion and active listening when things get heated.
As the Maxim says, μηδὲν ἄγαν.