One of the Roots of Our Conflicts?

January 25, 2014 — 21 Comments

So.  I rarely get really, really excited about an observation I make about something, but fuck, everyone–I think this is kinda fucking profound. 

John Halstead wrote a bit about why he doesn’t call himself a polytheist, in response to what seemed like he had been, and in response to Sannion and Galina’s posts about what polytheism actually means.

On my way home from work, thinking about being exploited (long story, but suffice it to say I’m getting a write-up for not making lobster sauce on a 9 hour prep shift without a lunch or breaks) (and I’m all like, Fuck off, I’m someone’s Rhino) (long story on that, too).  I’ve been really contemplating spending a lot of time writing on Capitalism from a Pagan perspective, and one of the things I realized I’ll have to do lots and lots of defining because of the peculiarities of American discourse on, well, anything.

And so I’m reading J0hn’s essay, and thinking about why I, too, feel like people are appropriating a term to make it mean whatever they want (which happens  with many, many other things, not just Polytheism), and it occurred to me that this is a horribly American problem (one doesn’t have this problem when discussing such issues with my German or French friends, for example).

So, I…I think I’ve put it all together.

Here’s my comment on John’s post about this.  Please bear with me, here, as I get all  Critical Studies geek (I talk remarkably “bro” in real life, by the way).

As an interesting question related to this matter, I wonder if all of Paganism itself is suffering from the same problem that American discourse seems to suffer; that is, the difference between a label that denotes ascribing to a belief or tendency, and a label which denotes a practice.

Let’s move it out of the realm of religion altogether for a moment, if you don’t mind. Consider “Capitalist.” I run into this quite often when speaking about Capitalism, as many people who identify themselves as Capitalist actually are not.

How can I say that? Because “capitalist” (as a noun, not an adjective) specifically denotes a person who engages in capitalist accumulation and re-investment. That is, a person who hires (exploits) labor on behalf of his or her capital. I’m not a Capitalist because I do not hire any workers, nor do I possess any capital. The small, single business owner without employees is, likewise, not a capitalist.

On the other hand, Capitalism as a system functions as an adjective (Capitalist exploitation would be an example), and people who think Capitalism is a good idea might identify themselves as Capitalist, even though they (according to the specific denotation of Capitalist) they are not.

See how this may apply to Polytheism? If Polytheist, as the denotative form, describes someone who worships multiple gods, then Sannion and Galina are correct in suggesting that it shouldn’t be used by those who do not engage in the worship of multiple gods.

If it functions on the other level as well (as merely a modality of belief, or an adjectival description of another form of belief), then anyone might describe themselves as such.

But the secondary (adjectival, intangible definition) definitely functions as a way of muddying discourse, at least when speaking of Capitalism. In order to talk about the activities of a Capitalist, I often have to weave back to a more primary level of semantic agreement just to begin a conversation with many people, because on a more general level, “capitalist” has come to mean anyone living in a capitalist country, just like “American” might.

As a matter of fact, I think this is probably the root of many, many of the conflicts about words. What constitutes polytheism to the “devotional polytheist” is practice, not only ascribing to the idea of many gods. One can be a Monotheist, for instance, while still acknowledging the existence of many gods–what matters is the practice.

Consider: When a “hard” polytheist or a “devotional” polytheist speaks about Polytheism, they are speaking on a concrete level similar to the same denotative understanding of Capitalist.  That is (to borrow Judith Butler’s terminology on gender), Polytheism is “performative.” 

When others speak of it, they might be meaning more the level of “acknowledgment” or “association;”  that is, a Polytheist is someone who believes in the existence of multiple gods (with no further definition inherent or implied).

Out of the Mire of Imprecise Language

My suggestion is that we all go with the concrete definition, because the second is messier.  Here’s why.  One could (as I mention in the comments), believe in the existence of many, many gods and yet still worship only one (that is, be a Monotheist on the performative level–such a thing isn’t as odd as it might seem, as the Bible itself is replete with references to the Canaanite gods really-existing but being less trustworthy and less powerful and less “true” than the Hebrew god).  One can also believe in the existence of many, many gods and worship none of them at all, as in common amongst many witch practitioners.

And I mean no judgment here, by the way.  In fact, we’re not even at the level of discourse where we can accurately judge the statements of belief because we still don’t even know what we’re all talking about.

Consider another example: Democracy.  Is America a Democracy?  On the level of political/philosophical/practical discourse, no.  It’s a Republic, a representative form of government with Democractic traditions.  But on an “everyday” level, we describe it as such as a shorthand, and it is described as such by politicians and the media to very ill effects.  Forgetting that we use “Democracy” as a shorthand makes it difficult for us to even speak about the fact that it is not, under most definitions, actually a Democracy, but try starting up that conversation with strangers (especially if they are already very pro-America) and you won’t get anywhere.

When people talk about the watering-down of language, this is part of what they mean--the shorthand eventually subverts the actual denotative level of words, making it awfully difficult to speak about things.  This is why American civil discourse is an utter train-wreck, and also, I think, why we’re having so many very, very frustrating arguments about the meaning of theological terms.  We aren’t quite even speaking the same language when we say the word Polytheist.  Until we can acknowledge this, these arguments are going to continue, and no one will get anywhere.


21 responses to One of the Roots of Our Conflicts?


    I’ve actually run into a similar problem when talking to people interested in the Otherfaith, and it took me a while to realize I had to be proactive about what we mean when we say we’re polytheists.

    Because so, so many people wanted to come to the faith and worship one of our gods. Oh, they believed in the rest, but they really only liked ‘that one’. I lost a lot of interest when I put my foot down (immediately) and said, “No, we’re polytheists, you can’t just worship one of these gods.” Some people just wandered off, no problem. Others got /really/ angry. They wanted to do whatever they wanted, without rules or restrictions, even though that’s one of the biggest things about the gods they were supposedly interested in…

    But having to describe to people that, yeah, polytheism doesn’t just mean you believe in more gods, it means you’re doing something for multiple gods, was an eye-opening experience. Now I just assume people won’t realize that and start from the ground up.


    I think this is connected to the issue many Polytheists have with the concept of belief-an issue that many Neo-Pagans might find intellectually interesting but not quite so critical.

    Great post. Thanks Rhyd for continuing the discussion in an intellectually engaging and non-combatative fashion.


    Although I’ve been known to occasionally apply -ist labels to myself, for the most part I feel like those labels belong as adjectives modifying beliefs or practices, not as identity labels on a person, who is inevitably more complex than any label implies. I don’t know about y’all, but my theology has changed steadily over the course of my life, and I doubt it will stop as I grow older and learn more.


    > One can be a Monotheist, for instance, while still acknowledging the existence of many gods–what matters is the practice.

    That’s called “henotheism,” actually. In religious studies, it’s often used to describe a transitional phase between polytheism and monotheism, historically. Most Christian, Jewish, and Muslim theologians would not consider henotheism to be the same as monotheism. In fact, quite a number of them would be violently opposed to the idea.

    A second complicating factor in your analogy is that in Christianity and Islam, two of the major monotheist religions, belief is itself considered a kind of act, a practice, and additional practices may not actually be required for one to be considered legitimately a monotheist (though one might not be considered a very *good* one).

    I appreciate your insight, though. And actually, “devotional polytheist” sums up the idea that practice is essential pretty well.

    The reality of the situation is that “polytheist” is defined in dictionaries and religious studies textbooks around the world as “*belief* in many gods.” One can certainly condemn this as being a result of Protestant influence on language and culture, but unfortunately that is currently both the academic and the common meaning of the term in English, and has been for hundreds of years. I fear that if you insist on asking people to interpret it as a practice-based term, you will be continually frustrated and will be required to give your definition over and over again, until all the dictionaries have been rewritten. Adding a modifier, though, is fairly straightforward and more likely to take.


      If people are using it as a belief or faith-based term…then I’m really confused how ‘atheist polytheist’ or ‘polytheist atheist’ works. In all totally honest – completely baffled. It seems like people are using polytheist to just mean ‘many things’ rather than ‘many gods’ which…is definitely muddling the term.


        I don’t know who’s using those terms (“atheist polytheism”), but maybe we should explore “polydeism” as a way to distinguish certain forms of what is being called “polytheism”.


        Yeah, that’s an oxymoron. Anyone who wants to be an “atheist polytheist” is probably either trying to say that they’re an atheist who is also a pluralist (person does not believe in god/s, but believes there is value in other religious paths), or they’re a humanist / nontheist who believes there’s merit in the idea of many gods as metaphors.

        All this would be easier if everyone familiarized themselves with existing theological terms before trying to make up new ones; if we’re not using remotely the same definitions for things, there’s no way for us to talk to each other.

        I made a glossary of theological terms. It’s at the end of this document:


      Yes, but allow me to complicate something briefly for you, and elucidate why we need philosophy in order to understand this question.

      Our conceptions of what constitutes belief have actually changed through the mediation of the Western Secular (Democratic, Capitalist) Hegemony. That is, we’ve recently (I’d suggest since the Enlightenment along the lines of Foucault’s tracing of the changes in The Order of Things, though others trace it a little bit farther back to the birth of Capitalism or the Reformation) separated the notion of belief from action and have created these things as separate categories.

      The best way to trace this change, actually, is to go through an OED and note the differences in specific metaphysical words, particularly Imaginary and Real. “Real” became an entirely different category in the 1700’s, and thus allowed us to say such things as “Realizing the value of our assets” or, even “Real Estate.”

      This deserves a book, not a blog post, but in essence, along the lines of Anti-Capitalist and Post-Colonial thinkers, Pagans suffer from the same problem as the rest of Western society; that is, separating belief into “acknowledgment/recognition” and “activity.” Though I hesitate the use the example of Fundamentalisms, one can say that they do something apparently bizarre that appears to be “reactionary;” that is, they make a connection between belief in action.

      A frank discussion of someone who “Believes” that, say, abortion is murder of humans, who then ignores such conceived massacre, can be said merely to have an opinion, not a belief. In the same way, someone who believes, like Alley Valkerie, that the homeless should be able to live anywhere they want and does something towards that end, can be said to believe, rather than merely have an opinion.

      This category problem likewise relates to all sorts of other issues within Western society, particularly in regards to Capitalism itself. Paganism and its debates regarding the meaning of polytheism seems to be reflecting inherited ideas from the (non-Pagan, “post-Christian”) in which we live.


        Definitely. I don’t disagree; that’s what I was referring to with my comment about Protestantism. I’m just saying that this kind of redefinition is a massive uphill battle, and term drift is gradual in any case; if you want to redefine a word in culture as a whole, it’s best to make small moves. Like, I think there’s not much hope of the field of religious studies adopting “the belief in and veneration of multiple Deities as distinctly independent Beings external to the human mind” as its standard definition of polytheism. That would exclude some of the religions that, in religious studies, have been definitionally polytheistic, like many forms of Hinduism. But if you advocated for a definition of polytheism as “the *worship* of many gods,” that’s a smaller step, the new definition is recognizably similar to the previous one, and it even addresses the Protestant bias in religious studies that thinks of religion as being *about* belief (which religious studies scholars already harp on to their undergrads).

        Of course, then you have to define worship. Eheh. Slippery, slippery language.


      I agree. For better or worse -ism/-ist connotes belief today. This is particularly unfortunate in the case of “polytheism”, because as I understand it, classical polytheists cared much less about belief than practice. Todat I get mixed messages about “belief” from devotional polytheists: I repeatedly have heard that “it’s not about belief, it’s about experience”, but then *my* beliefs become an issue for those same people. Maybe “polytheopraxy” is worth exploring?


    I think you do well here in putting an emphasis on belief in action, on polytheism as something that is done, is performed, over something merely “believed in” and “acknowledged”. I however don’t believe that this clarifying definition does much to help this discussion out, because when you put the emphasis on worship of many gods over the “belief” in many gods, then most Pagans still *are* polytheists. That’s one of the things that has baffled and frustrated me about this whole discussion that I’ve witnessed (not really participated in since I’m not a blogger, but rather kept up with as much as I can). There has been a whole lot of issues that have been brought up because of this discussion, but the part that has focused on the “real” definition of polytheism has just been bizarre since, with the possible exception of Humanists, Naturalistic Pagans, and Goddess worshippers who are avowed monotheists (all of which fall under a relatively small proporition of those who comprise Paganism), Pagans worship multiple gods and are thus polytheists. Period. How they think about and understand their gods may differ from devotional polytheists, and there are certainly religious differences between the two camps, since one’s polytheism is steeped in the Western esoteric tradition whereas the other places more of an emphasis on the traditional religious aspects of ancient polytheism. However, that has nothing to do with the fact that they all worship multiple gods.


      > … possible exception of Humanists, Naturalistic Pagans, and Goddess worshippers who are avowed monotheists … (emphasis added)

      Um, what? My vows are to multiple individual Beings. In Western monotheistic terms, I’m quite proudly an idolator (less so in Eastern thought, where there’s less of a conflict between unity and multiplicity.)


        Then I obviously wasn’t referring to you. Notice, for instance, the word “possible” preceding that list, and the exclusion of a comma after “Goddess worshippers,” thereby *not* suggesting that all Goddess worshippers are monotheists, including only those that are.


        It’s not true in the specific case. It’s also not true in the general case to say that movements that explicitly reject monotheism are “avowed” monotheists.


    I don’t know. There’s a lot of ideas in here, and this argument makes my inner linguist twitch with frustration:

    > When people talk about the watering-down of language, this is part of what they mean–the shorthand eventually subverts the actual denotative level of words, making it awfully difficult to speak about things. (emphasis not added)

    We create denotative meaning of words as a sociopolitical phenomenon, one that’s usually local to within a community of linguistic practice rather than global. There is no idealized denotative meaning to subvert. In fact, subversion of of the denotative meanings of the dominant culture is often a good thing. See queer language as an example. Appealing to an idealized etic objective meaning obscures the historical fact that language standardization in the United States (and elsewhere) was the political work of a dominant culture with an anti-immigrant agenda (anti-First Nations as well in the US).

    These things are difficult to talk about because they’re complex involving fundamentally different assumptions across communities and cultures. Polytheism (capitalized) as described by Betkowski is a different thing from the multiplicity of gods described by a lamrim text. I’m not going to take a position that one is right and the other is wrong. I can’t because as an outsider to both, I don’t fully understand both. Likewise, I’m not interested in saying that Halstead is correct, because he’s an archetypalist while I’m explicitly a tree, animal, and wind worshiper.

    The “tea time” is likely a good idea because I think that computer-mediated communication is profoundly dysfunctional for developing the emic understandings necessary to have these conversations.

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