Thursday, August 5, 2010

Bob Patrick :: Divining Divinity

On more than one occasion, I have heard the terms “polytheists” and “monotheists” used by people to describe themselves. What fascinates me is the easy way that some modern pagans identify themselves as polytheists with little understanding, it seems, of who created this term and what it implies. I have full sympathy for why modern pagans might not be comfortable using the term “monotheist” to describe themselves. I’m just not sure why they think that “polytheist” is a better alternative.

The word “polytheism” entered English from a Latin word (polytheismus) formed from Greek roots which mean “many gods”. The Latin passed into French as polytheisme. It is first used in English in the early 1600’s. This is important to note: the word comes into our language in Europe at a time when Christianity is at its height of influence, religiously and politically. In short, polytheism was a Christian word, and it was created to help draw distinctions and divisions between those who are not what Christians value — monotheists (also a Christian word). Given that this word was created by Christians to distinguish those who are not like themselves and done so for their own theological, philosophical and culturally specific conversations, I am not at all sure why someone who is not Christian would want to use it. The history and meaning of the word have their starting points in Christianity.

Without presuming to speak definitively for all Christians, I think it important to note that the Christian understanding of the divine includes, among other things, a Creator who is wholly other and separate from the creation (while still able to work through the creation); who is omnipotent and omniscient; and who is One, hence the label “monotheism.” Since Christianity created the term “polytheism” as a term to use to distinguish other religious practitioners from themselves, I think it very important to hold definitions of polytheism at arm’s length and observe how those definitions prevent us from discovering an experience of divinity that such monotheism simply cannot imagine.

The Catholic Encyclopedia defines polytheism as “the belief in and consequent worship of many gods.” The definition is not complicated, but I would suggest that it is thoroughly Christian in a way that may not serve all those who follow other paths. I am both a Druid and a Unitarian-Universalist. I am comfortable with the description of “agnostic” because, finally, I don’t always know. The definition above is useless to me for all three of its components. Let’s take a brief look.


Believing in the one divinity and believing in the correct doctrine is essential to Christianity. In my opinion, the believing is circular as well. Christians believe in a life after death that becomes each person’s final judgment, either resulting in an eternal torment or an eternal paradise. Eternal destiny is determined by whether the individual believed in the one true divinity and the true doctrines. Christianity defines polytheism, that is, others who are not like them, as having a “belief in... many gods.” That is a Christian presumption that other religious paths require belief as it does. What of those paths that do not require belief? I am in conversations very frequently with Druids, Wiccans, and those on an eclectic path, and they bristle at the idea of “believing in” their gods and goddesses. Granted, there may be modern pagans who “believe in” their deities, but my experience is that this is Christian language and that it does not always fit the experience of others. Very often I, and others I talk with, speak of “working with” one or more divinities — which leads to the next issue.


The Christian definition of polytheism includes not only a belief but the worship of many gods because the Christian understanding of divinity requires that the creation should return all glory, honor and praise to the only one who deserves it — the one true god. This presumes that people of other religious paths see divinity as totally other and superior to the creation. As I noted above, I often use the phrase “working with” to denote how I connect with a divinity. When I encounter or call on Ceridwen or Cernunnos, it is much more a horizontal relationship than a vertical one. I do not come to them to offer praise, glory and honor, but I come respecting that they embody something of the wisdom that I seek in order to walk my path. When I have received something in that work together with them, I offer gratitude, just as I do to anyone else who helps me.

Many Gods

This is really the sticky question. The Christian definition sees those on a religious path other than their own as holding belief in and consequently worshiping many gods because they must distinguish others from themselves. Unfortunately, they do so by creating a difference that is simplistically the opposite of their own approach to divinity. Monotheists believe in and worship the one (true) god. Polytheists believe in and worship many gods (which by Christian definition must be false). Those are the only choices. Or, are they?

I practice a Druidry which is of the modern, revivalist type. That means that we are not trying to recreate an ancient Druidry, but, based on what historical markers, symbols and stories we have, we are creating a modern Druid path. We make use of historical information, but our Druidry is here and now, in and for this world. We can speak of working with Danu, the Dagda, Brigid and Lugh, Cernunnos, Ceridwen, Angus Og and Hu — and we speak of Spirit. We speak of the interconnected Web of all Being. We speak of the One. We speak of the Universe. We speak of “the god” and “the goddess”. We speak of the All. I personally consider the individual gods and goddesses, so called, as names and faces that allow the Interconnected Web to step up and speak to me and I to the Web. I am the Web. Danu is the Web. We are of the Web together, and each in our own way, at any particular moment in time stand out from it, represent it, and touch deeply into it.

I do not have an experience of One or Many. I have an experience of One AND Many, and I am clear that I am part of the One myself, and that I often work with the Many. I do not bother with beliefs and almost never use the word. I am interested in experience, images, symbols and meaning. When I listen to other modern practitioners of earth-centered mysteries, of chthonic rites and wisdom, I hear them expressing a similar dynamic. I do not think that this is a phenomenon that modern Pagans have created, either. I have encountered people of Hindu faith who express their relationship to the hundreds of thousands (some number one million) divinities in the same way. They have devotions to this one and that one, but all are part of God. I have found similar expressions from practitioners of Native American religions.

All of this, finally, is for me a way of making sense of what has been called “divinity”. I find it plausible to my rational mind that we are, in fact, a part of an Interdependent Web of Existence. Subjectively, I find many ways that I connect with that Web, physically, emotionally, intuitively, psychologically and psychically. Finally, when it comes to gods, goddesses, spirits, etc, I find all of those to be verbal and sometimes imaginal representations of that Web in a subjective moment and time. I would never claim that my experience of the Web contains all truth that someone else must adhere to, but I do claim that my experience opens me to a wisdom for my path. Since we are connected through the Web, honoring that experience of mine may, in turn, affect others and vice versa so that in incremental ways, over time, through time and space, what we experience as subjective individuals has "cosmic" effect. To be honest, this helps me make sense, in a metaphysical sort of way, the current level of war and destruction in the earth at this time in our history. We are all connected through the Web, but a great many human beings who make up that Web believe that they worship a divinity that is the only true one, that is totally separate from creation, and who ultimately will destroy this world. Those of us who divine divinity more holistically find this a deeply painful time to live in. It is as if the Web itself is fighting itself.

I am a humanist, and I am comfortable with the word "agnostic" because, finally, I don't know. But, I trust my experiences, and I trust that this understanding of an Interconnected Web of all Existence. I sometimes drive the other humanists around me mad when I talk in a way that includes many gods and goddesses or the possibility of metaphysical interconnection. In some respects, secular humanists are also monists. They only allow for belief and respect for one thing—the rational mind. I agree with them in their dislike of the word "god." I find that most of the spiritual language that Christianity has used has been made difficult for us, at least in this generation. So, I struggle to find words, but I also resist simply becoming a rationalist. I find pure rationalism to be a cold, lifeless way. I love my rational mind, and I love using it, but I am convinced that mind is larger than my rational mind, and so, rationalism is incomplete.

Systems that see things in dualistic categories really reduce the adventures possible for human beings in the world. Those of us who are on modern, earth-centered-mystery paths might want to ponder whether we want to take on language created and defined by other religious systems. These words come with a price, and very often, hinder our ability to be understood. Imagine a conversation with someone who finds that you are a Druid:

A: You are a Druid? So, you are a polytheist.
B: No, I’m not. Polytheism is a Christian term, and it doesn’t describe my understanding of things at all.
A: So, do you believe in God or not?
B: Belief is not a part of how I work with the divine.
A: So, you don’t believe in God?
B: That’s not what I said. I said that “belief” is not a part of the way I work with the divine.
A: So, what do you do?
B: Well, there are a number of divinities whose names I know, and they each represent something of the Whole Universe to me. For instance, Cernunnos is a god whom my Celtic ancestors honored. He represents the forest and animals who live there. He also represents what it means to be masculine and wild and magical. So, when I need to work on or want to connect with those things in my life, I imagine him here and we talk. Sometimes, I meet him in the woods. Sometimes, he calls me to the woods.
A: So, you do believe in many gods.
B: That’s not what I said. Belief is not a part of how I work with the divine...

And so that conversation might go. It might just devolve into circuitous conversation, and I’ve seen that happen. It might leave the questioner with more of his/her own questions and some new insight into how it is that we make sense of the divine. We live in a day, as I suggested above, where a way other than dualism is deeply needed for the future of our kind and this planet. A majority of human beings believing in the ultimate destruction of the world will, finally, see to it that that happens. There are those of us who sense another way. I think it is time for us to speak that into the Web.

Bob PatrickBob Patrick has an eclectic path both in terms of spirituality and academic work. Raised a Methodist, he has a BA in Biblical Literature, an M.Div in theology, and is currently working on a PhD in Latin and Roman studies. He has worked as clergyman, theologian, teacher and massage therapist. He is currently a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association, is a founding member of the Druid Order of the Three Realms, and an Ovate in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids while working as a full time teacher in Classics. He is a partner is Earth Mysteries, LLC, which offers workshops on earth-centered topics and publishes the online journal of practical spirituality, Sky Earth Sea.


  1. EXCELLENT article. This is honestly the first time I've read something that fully described how I feel. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  2. Oh, my, yes. Thank you, Bob. Definitely sharing.

    Musings of a Quaker Witch

  3. You were very clear and very concise about an issue which can be so terribly difficult to talk about with any clarity.

    "I have an experience of One AND Many...I am interested in experience, images, symbols and meaning..."

    You nailed it!

  4. That was fantastic... hit me deeply. First thing that I've read that comes close to helping me understand me.

  5. I'm not quite sure if I follow this.

    I understand polytheism (I think). That's where we acknowlege many gods and goddess - Mars, Venus, or whatever you like.

    In monotheism there's a belief in a single cause.

    So, if we ask Tom, a monotheist, and he says, yes there's one Goddess, it's X.

    And we ask Diana, another monotheist, and she says, yes there's one God, and it's Y.

    Now, does X=Y.

    Does the name matter.

    The Ancient Egyptians worried about all this. They seemed to think that you had to get right name.

  6. Well, atheist was a term originally applied to Christians as they denied the plurality of the Divine, yet I don't see atheists bucking at the label. All of these terms are problematic in their origins. Greek and Roman reconstructionists find the word "pagan" highly offensive.

    For many of us, we are polytheists because we have a belief in, and participate in the worship of, many Gods. We don't have the sense of the One. As far as the objection regarding when it entered the English language, almost all Latin and Greek terms entered the English language through the Catholic church. The word "agnostic" dates from the late 19th century.

    I don't understand the issue with the concept of belief. If you believe in the existence of things unseen, such as your Web, then belief does comprise part of your path.

    This post just rubs me the wrong way. You begin by questioning the polytheistic identity, and then claim to use the Gods without worship or belief. It feels as if you're trying to convince a nun of the "pagan-ness" of the Catholic church, and then asking to use the chapel for a Buddhist ritual. Maybe I just need coffee. :o)

  7. Bob, why do you take the Catholic definition as your starting point?

    As you know, words are living things, and their meanings change as they move through time and between communities of speakers. If many pagans call themselves 'polytheist', I'd be curious to know what THEY thought it meant. It's likely to be quite different from what a Catholic thinks it means. That doesn't mean that the Catholics or pagans are using the word incorrectly; it just means the word has different meanings in different communities. I have heard some people call Catholicism itself 'polytheistic', saying that the hordes of saints and demons and spirits subscribed to by many Catholics are, in fact, gods.

    My two cents: the meaning of 'polytheism' is not determined by the origin of the word, or by dictionary definitions, or by its placement in an ontology of religions. A word meaning is not something that can be hammered down with logical if-thens and necessary and sufficient conditions. Ironically enough, words and their relationships are places where, as you say, rationalism is incomplete. But that doesn't mean you throw up your hands in futility. 'Polytheism' is itself an interconnected web of prototypes; and it means something to the people who use it. We should start by determining what those prototypes are, and explore how those prototypes can shed light on our paths.

  8. Wonderful article Bob. I never knew the origin of monotheism and polytheism until now. I'm just beginning to learn the Druid path, not sure where to begin. At this point in my path, I think I'd prefer to say 'agnostic' because I just don't know and have much to learn.

  9. Very interesting and absolutely clear when it comes to your beliefs.

    I can't speak for other Pagans, but I have used the terms "polytheist" to describe myself and "religion" to describe my spiritual path, not so much because that is what I am, but because at times it has made the task of defining my beliefs, to non-Pagans, a bit more simple.

    Your article makes me feel a bit lazy; thank you, and I'm not being sarcastic. I'm saying this because I'm by not means a polytheist because I believe in One Divinity with many different aspects, hence I define myself as an Eclectic Witch instead of just a Witch. And things get even more complicated when people ask me about my religion, for I would not call it that exactly. But I have allowed convenience to define my spiritual path as a religion and I know in my heart that it is not the same.

    You have inspired me to make some clarifications that will require a bit of research.

  10. I enjoyed reading this. I think you did a good job of trying to define the path of oneness. I've always thought that polytheism was not the belief in many separate god/desses but rather that they each represented an aspect of the whole, the one. I try not to use the terms god and goddess because of the codified image that that brings up in most people's minds and because that is not what I mean when I do use those terms. My understanding of existence is that the thing that gives us life is the same thing that gives plants and animals, insects, rocks, dirt, all of it, life and being and in that way, we are all one, we are all just aspects of the one. The body and we are simply cells in that body and when the flesh dies that part is reborn, used again.

    I don't do religion, don't believe in religion, don't think religion has ever done humans or this planet any good.

    And finally, I find interesting and enlightening your take on why we humans are in a state of war and tumult. We do make our own reality and if enough of us believe that the world will be destroyed, we will make it happen. However, humans have warred on each other long before monotheism, either through greed or famine. Even Native Americans, who I think had/have a good grasp on the 'divine' or the One warred on each other.

  11. Star (and Jeff),

    I very much hope Bob stops back to respond to your comments, as I think you both raise very good points about the nature of definition and self-naming. This was where I personally disagreed with Bob's post, too. For me, any time we talk about religious definitions we must make room for the way people use terms to apply to themselves. There are, whatever its origins, plenty of people today who call themselves polytheists. I am more interested in understanding exactly why and what they mean by the term, than in stating flatly that it's an inappropriate or inaccurate one. For Bob, it is. But not for everyone.

    (Star, I also think your objections to Bob's discussion of belief are worth responding to, as he doesn't seem to offer much explanation of how "working with" is different from "believing in." Personally, I wouldn't work with a coworker, let alone a god, if I didn't "believe in" their capacity to work with me in one way or another.)

  12. Here in the USA, Bob's definition of polytheism is taught in the government school system. As a result, sadly, the vast majority of our society shares the idea that a polytheist worships multiple gods in the same way Christians worship their one god. If he's correct, and this isn't the case (and for me, a Druid, it's not), then I think it's important when dealing with the larger community to consider language that communicates who we really are. I don't think we can expect the majority to learn our personal definitions. It's pragmatic to consider using different language.

    I equate Bob's use of the word "belief" to mean "blind faith" rather than a personal, working relationship with something that may or may not be "real" in the eyes of others.

    Thanks Bob and the rest of you for helping me think deeply on this and discover my strong feelings on this subject.

    - Amy

  13. Amy, I think the problems that remain are: (a) Many polytheists themselves accept the definition of "worshipping many gods" as perfectly accurate for their beliefs and practices, and Bob may need to do a better job of explaining why he thinks they're wrong. And (b) there is a basic error in thinking that all monotheists worship in the same way, that this way is fundamentally distinct from how polytheists worship, and that, therefore, asserting that "a polytheist worships multiple gods in the same way Christians worship their one god" is inherently a misrepresentation of polytheism.

    I might have believed this at one time, but the more polytheists I interact with, the more it seems to me that the biggest difference between their worship and the worship of monotheists (both groups being so diverse and complex) is that they continually insist monotheists are confused, whereas the monotheists think it's the other way around. But neither side of the debate seem to be listening all that closely to the other.

  14. Ali, I don't have enough experience to address (a). I gave the "If he's correct [that polytheists don't worship many gods the way Christians worship one god]" statement because I really don't know if he is. I feel fortunate to have a Pagan community who sees this issue as I do. I find it interesting and informative to learn that you've found a greater percentage of polytheist pagans (defined in the standard way) than god/goddess-as-aspect-of-One polytheists (defined as Bob does in this article) in your broader experience.

    (b) I agree with the first part of your statement, regarding how Christians worship, to a point. They don't all worship the same, but they do have commonalities. There are exceptions to every rule, but, as a rule, Christians worship Christ, one of three aspects of the One True God. I did not assert "a polytheist worships multiple gods in the same way Christians worship their one god," I asserted that *Christians believe* "a polytheist worships multiple gods in the same way Christians worship their one god." So we're mostly in agreement here, also.

    I've heard many good things about you and have enjoyed your articles in Sky, Earth, Sea. I'm glad to finally be enjoying you firsthand. Your intelligence and confidence are delightful.

    - Amy

  15. Thanks very much for your response, Amy. :) I think we are mostly in agreement.

    To clarify my statement (a) above — my objection is really that I disagree with Bob's assertion that this "many-in-the-One" notion is rare either among monotheists or polytheists, or that either monotheism or polytheism needs to be abandon in favor of it. My understanding of Catholic doctrine is that it states this "many-in-the-one" concept explicitly, for instance (as you point out, Catholics and other Christians who believe in a Trinity worship three "persons" within the One, which they usually refer to simply as "God"). Many of the polytheists I have met do assert a similar notion, based on the Neoplatonic philosophy (which was incidentally very influential on the early formation of Christian theology itself).

    On the other hand, I have also met both monotheists who were much stricter in their notion of the unity of God, and polytheists much "harder" in their understanding of the gods as separate beings. To me, there seems more of a difference between these "hard literalists" in both traditions and the more "soft/mystic" types of both.

    I find Bob's article a bit confusing, because he seems to assert that we should discard distinctions like "monotheism" and "polytheism," but then goes on to argue that we ought to discard such distinctions precisely because monotheists are so woefully wrong and ignorant of polytheism. I disagree with both sides of this odd argumentation. I think these distinctions are helpful, at the very least because people choose them to characterize themselves in the process of self-naming and we can learn something by asking why they do so. But I also think that, if we set aside the debate about which one is "right" (or right about the other), we would discover that monotheists and polytheists are saying much the same thing much of the time.

    And of course, while I'm on the topic... I wouldn't characterize Bob's view as a kind of polytheism at all, for he himself points out that he does not worship or believe in the gods, but "works with" them as symbols and ideas that reflect a larger whole. This looks, to me, much more like a kind of psychological monism bordering on secularism, and Bob refers to himself as an agnostic.

    Here, I agree with him. The word "polytheism" does not describe his belief system. But this is different from saying that polytheism doesn't exist or that the term has no relevant meaning.

  16. I think I see where the separation in thinking is here. I see places in Bob's article where I may have read meanings differently than you.

    He uses the term "modern pagan," which I read to mean a certain type of pagan, pagans who, like him, look at deity as a part of self and the One. This is the pagan he seems to describe and address in his article. I don’t think his article is meant for the pagans who worship many gods as distinct entities, which is a more ancient type of pagan. Although I know these pagans also live in modern times, they aren’t who come to my mind with the term “modern pagan” as applied to our culture because their practice had genesis in ancient times. If I am hearing you correctly, you’re talking about these pagans and saying that they believe their deities to be “Creator who is wholly other and separate from the creation (while still able to work through the creation); who is omnipotent and omniscient; and who is One” and therefore they should be called polytheists. With this in mind, I see why you responded to my original post as you did. I wasn’t considering this more ancient type of pagan. As for the article, Bob doesn’t deny these pagans exist; he just doesn’t seem to be addressing them. I still think the pagans he is addressing might do better to avoid using the word polytheist, and thanks to you, I will think of pagans who should use the word polytheist more. I would have guessed them to be a minority based on my personal experience, but you have now informed me otherwise.

    He uses language that acknowledges he isn’t talking about all pagans, and I don’t see language that means anything should be discarded or that anyone is woefully wrong. I see that he is exploring the language (an area in which he is an expert) and looking at where it may or may not apply. I note he tends not to speak in absolutes or in a derogatory way. Because I see his writing this way, I’m not finding the fault in it that you seem to.

    Otherwise, on the philosophical points, I agree with what you’ve said and don’t see any conflict between it and what Bob has said. They are two different pieces of the same whole.

    - Amy

  17. I'm sorry, Amy, but I think we're talking past each other.

    Your second paragraph (which starts "He uses the term 'modern pagan'...") left me completely confused and doesn't seem to reflect what I said in my last comment at all. I'm not sure, for example, where I said that the only polytheistic Pagans were ancient pagans, or where I implied that polytheism considers its deities to be "creator gods." On the other hand, I think it's clear from Bob's statement (that he appreciates "an experience of divinity that monotheism simply cannot imagine") that he considers monotheism to be ignorant and inadequate.

    I am sorry for the confusion, though I'm not sure how I can clarify it much more beyond what I've already tried.

    If you would be interested in reading thoughts from very modern (even "neo-") Pagans who consider themselves polytheistic in a way very different from Bob's description, I can point you to some blogs and forums that might help. Just let me know.

  18. I think that we must begin by acknowledging the history of a word. Words, themselves, are energy, and as lines of energy, they convey to us the energy of how they have been used in the past. If we choose to ignore the history of a word because "this is what it means to me" then we cannot be clear about the effect it has had in our genetic line, our ancestry.

    Now, if you wish to ignore your own DNA and ancestral line (so un-Druid) then you may, of course. But, I think we do so at our own peril. Ignorance causes a lot of suffering (to badly quote the Buddha). Most religious and theological words come into English through Catholicism. If we do not acknowledge their history, we cannot clear ourselves of the energetic effects. So, I would post a counter question to Jeff and Star: what is the source of your reaction to my tracing of the word's history? I understand that you want to define polytheism in your own way, and I respect that. But, long before you, it had a history, and I am willing to bet that the history is not so far away. Who are the Catholics in your immediate family story?

    There is a vast difference in "believing in" and "working with". Belief is an idea that you hold in your head, contrary to any sort of evidence, often placed there by someone else, often when you were susceptible to influence. Working with is an actual, honest, present experience that may fade in the future, but for now is as real as a callous on your hand or an aroma of a flower blooming. You know it as primary experience. Belief is secondary at best.

    So, my take on polytheism has seemed to rob you of an identification. What is important to you about that identification?

  19. I don't feel confused by any of this, so no apology or clarification from you is needed. I've enjoyed our discussion and learned from it. No worries!

    My second paragraph didn't reflect just on your last email, but on the entire issue. I'm sorry it was confusing. Upon reading it again, I see I could have done better, so I will try to clarify by coming from a different angle. The following is my perception of the article and its meaning as relevant to this conversation.

    Here is what I see as the basis for the article: “What fascinates me is the easy way that some modern pagans identify themselves as polytheists with little understanding, it seems, of who created this term and what it implies.”

    He goes into history and other things, but what seems to me to be the differentiating factor, especially considering what you’ve said, is, “I think it important to note that the Christian understanding of the divine includes, among other things, a Creator who is wholly other and separate from the creation (while still able to work through the creation); who is omnipotent and omniscient; and who is One, hence the label “monotheism.” He explains that polytheism means this same definition applied to multiple deities. So, he’s saying that if you don’t see each of your deities as “Creator who is wholly other...” he feels “polytheist” is an inaccurate label.

    In contrast, he seems to contextually define “modern pagans” as those who have “an experience of One AND Many” that includes the self, NOT separate from the self as mono/poly theist implies.

    So we have two camps established: (1) the mono/poly theists who see deity as “Creator as wholly other...”, and (2) the modern pagans who see deity as one with the self. Joseph Campbell, too, defines the world religions as being split into two major categories: (1) Those that have deity as separate from self (in his writing, this camp is made exclusively of the sons-of-Abraham religions, including Christianity, so he might benefit from your offer of web sites if he could) verses (2) those that have deities and the self as one, (in this camp are Buddhism, Native American religions, and, as best as we can tell, the ancient Celtic religions, upon which Druids are based, and many other religions). Given that your site here discusses Druidry, I’d think it was safe to assume the readers here would be modern pagans who are not in the camp with the sons-of-Abraham religions. I don’t doubt that there are modern pagans who worship like a true polytheist, which means like a Christian monotheist, but that isn’t who Bob seems to be addressing. Instead, he is addressing “some modern pagans [who] identify themselves as polytheists with little understanding, it seems, of who created this term and what it implies.”

    Well, I’ve rambled on even more this time. I hope I succeed at explaining my view. If I’ve failed again, I won’t attempt another time.

    Thanks for sharing your time and insight. - Amy

  20. Bob -- You ask, "What is the source of your reaction to my tracing of the word's history?", and then ask, "Who are the Catholics in your immediate family story?" The implication (I think?) is that I am uncomfortable with the history of the word because I am uncomfortable with Catholics or Catholicism.

    Actually, my reaction came from being a professional linguist. :-)

    To my knowledge there are no Catholics in my family at all, and I've never had any negative experiences with them, and in fact have generally found them quite open about their beliefs and generally intellectually curious and tolerant of others.

    I'm not uncomfortable about Catholicism, but I admit to being uncomfortable when people talk about language and make inferences from it without being extremely careful. I know that you, Bob, are a classical scholar and know a lot about the history of language; I studied Latin for three years myself and also boned up on Hittite, Sanskrit, and some other related languages, planning to become a historical linguist, before abandoning that and taking up dialectology, syntax, phonology, and lexical semantics. Beyond that, words are an essential part of my own druidic practice, and my beliefs about the universe and the way our minds comprehend it.

    So to me it is essential to ask, not just what medieval Catholics thought polytheism was, but its history since then, and what different people think it is today, and what they FEEL it to be today. I do think that people don't think about these issues enough, and so your article is a great start for that discussion. But we have a long way to go yet. I think it is simply incorrect to say, "Hey, you know what? All you folks are using this word wrong!" Communities of speakers have standards of usage, and those standards are based on tradition and current necessity and the creativity of poets and other wordsmiths. The Catholic encyclopedia is part of the word's tradition, and shouldn't be ignored, but it's only a tiny bit of what's going on today.

  21. Bob, I'm so glad that you had the chance to respond to some of these comments and questions! (I'm still in the process of reading through the last few, but wanted to respond to yours first and foremost, as the writer of the original post.)

    One of the Catholics in Jeff's family story is (or will soon be) me, and my large, Irish Catholic family with the heritage that it has gifted to me. I no longer call myself Catholic, it is true, but it would be foolish to deny that Catholicism has been an important and lasting influence on my spiritual life. I spent the first twenty-some years of that life studying its doctrine and theology, participating in its rituals, and exploring its mysticism. The mother of my childhood best friend was a leading member of the local church (and practically ran the place, though unofficially, as the presiding priest grew ever more ancient and senile). I have a deep familiarity with Catholicism both personally and academically. Far from leaving me with a bitter taste in my mouth, the experiences of my Catholic upbringing often provide me with inspiration and role models, and leaving the Church as a social and political decision did not lessen my admiration and affection for the many Catholics still in my life.

    Which brings me to one of my objections to your exploration of the term "polytheism." You are correct in pointing out that the word has Catholic roots, but your analysis of its meaning stops short of actually exploring what it is that Catholics themselves mean when they use it. You rightly note that it is mostly a negative term, but you provide your own version of what that "negativity" looks like and how it is expressed, instead of looking more deeply into the subtleties of Catholic history and doctrine. Your characterization of belief and worship are very different from how a Catholic would describe them, for instance, and are as likely to be offensive to sincere monotheists as they are to polytheists.

    While it's all right to raise the qualms you do as personal reasons why you do not use the word polytheism, to imply that they represent the Catholic/Christian understanding of worship and belief is misleading. In my experience, monotheists and polytheists often agree about how to define such words (though they may disagree about other concepts, such as the unity or multiplicity of deity), and their definitions tend to be in sharper contrast with secularists, atheists/agnostics, and monists who tend to define words like "belief" and "worship" much more in the way you describe.

    Indeed, your description of "working with" is very close to the active, engaged "belief" I was taught in Sunday school as a child. Worship, too, in a Christian context is often not mere groveling and self-abasement, but centers on an act of transformation in which the worshipper shares a meal intimately with god and with others. It is hard to see in these definitions the implications of passivity and delusion that you imply go along with these terms. If it is important to understand the original source of words like "polytheism," it is also important to understand the philosophical and cultural trends that have shaped the changing understanding and definitions of words like "belief" and "worship" in the meantime. Your characterization of both of these things is more clearly influenced by post-Enlightenment secularism and humanism than by anything put forward by the Catholic Church.

    And like I said, you have a right to these qualms and opinions... but it is important to recognize their source, so that you do not mischaracterize another's religious tradition or override their capacity for self-description with too many assumptions and biases of your own.

  22. Jeff and Ali,

    Not sure that there is much more that I can say here. You are drawing conclusions that I did not state. So, I'll leave them with you to ponder--since you raised them. Jeff, you say that your objections arise out of your being a linguist. That's an objection of the head. I identified words and language as energy stuff. That belongs to the entire body. Really, that gets at what I was up to in this post (and, btw, I was essentially banished from AODA for taking this very position in an AODA discussion). The words we use evoke responses and reactions throughout our entire bodies. The history of a word, whether people consciously understand it or not, counts heavily. The fact that "current usage" doesn't consciously acknowledge the history of the word simply means that people are living in their heads. "Polytheism" is a word and idea created by Christians for their own purposes. If you want to transform the word, you can, but you will never do that without acknowledging that you are borrowing a Christian word that was first coined to make some people a second class religious citizen.

    Ali, I was also a Catholic and taught Catholic theology for many years. I think I actually did address Catholic theological concerns (without going on too long!) in the definition of polytheism. As I said above, that cradle Catholics are unaware of some of those issues doesn't negate them. It just drives them into the subconscious.

    Here's the point of my guest article on your blog put as plainly as I know how: There is an experience of the divine that is so different from what monotheists identify, and many of us have acknowledged it. That experience emanates from within ourselves from a place that is deeply connected to all things. It has no name. It has no label. It is the essence of who we are. It requires us to go within. It does not emanate from somewhere out there. It often appears as many things which, when followed, bring one to an experience of oneness.

    The doctrine of the trinity in Christianity does not ever chart out such a human experience. In my experience, it leaves people bleary eyed and disconnected.

  23. Bob,

    I feel I have been remiss in my graciousness as a host to you in these comments, so I hope you understand that I did very much like your original post, and what you summarize as your main point — that "[t]here is an experience of the divine that [...] emanates from within ourselves from a place that is deeply connected to all things. It has no name. It has no label. It is the essence of who we are. It requires us to go within" — does shine through in many ways. It's obviously something that resonates with many people, as the comments quite clearly show.

    I think both Jeff and I also agree with you, whole-heartedly, about the vital importance of the history of words and their development. Though not a linguist myself, I am a writer, and have wanted to be one since before I could hold a pen — in some ways, words and language have been at the heart of my spiritual life almost from the beginning. We do not disagree about the power and importance of words, and I think we're all probably aware of the anti-intellectual attitude that would reject any in-depth analysis of language as being too "heady" and abstract and therefore not relevant. I suspect where we disagree is about where to draw the line to distinguish between what counts as relevant and useful analysis, and what really does serve to distract and distance from real and present experience.

    Your reasons for rejecting the polytheistic label for yourself are powerful and reasonable, especially because what you describe as your personal beliefs does not look like polytheism as I've seen it described by self-named polytheists. But your reasons do not explain why others still choose to call themselves polytheists, unless you assume that anyone who disagrees with you must simply be wrong, too stupid or merely too ignorant to know better. You characterize those who disagree with you as "living in their heads" — I think this is an unfair assumption that does a disservice to your more embracing and generous point.

    It is also not an attitude that I wish to foster on this blog, so I stepped in when I saw the comments heading in that direction (though now I'm still unsure of Amy's original intention and wonder if my responses were aggravating a misunderstanding rather than helping to clarify one). I also do not want to promote biases against "monotheists," as if all monotheists form a monolithic group of singular philosophy or experience, or as if monotheistic religious experiences are somehow inherently stunted or delusional. This may be your experience within various monotheistic traditions, and I can respect that, but it's important to acknowledge when your own experience may not be the whole of experience, and to allow others the space to offer an alternative perspective.

    It is true that your experience of the divine is different from that of monotheists, as it is different from that of polytheists. Personally, I suspect your perception of just how different may be a bit exaggerated, but it is hardly my place to say. Perhaps I have never moved too far away from my "cradle Catholicism" after all... but then, if this is true, then it is equally true that whatever lingering monotheism exists and continues to shape my experiences, it has certainly not kept me from a deeply powerful and personal and visceral experiential relationship with my gods. So it seems here, my personal experience provides a counterexample to your claims either way.


  24. ...

    I won't get into a battle of credentials with you — suffice it to say that, though I am no expert, my degree in comparative religious studies (supplemented by a concentration in modern political philosophy, for which I earned a couple of grants as well as distinguished honors when I graduated valedictorian of my class), I am hardly a mere "cradle Catholic" stumbling around a blind victim to my own subconscious. Also, if you are at all interested in an exploration of the Catholic Trinity that doesn't "leave people bleary eyed and disconnected," I highly recommend Beatrice Bruteau's Radical Optimism. I found it very inspiring, and her conception of the "community of divinity" as foundational to existence is something that I think many polytheists (and monistic agnostics like yourself) might find particularly intriguing.

    And finally, irony of ironies, the piece that I originally scheduled to post later today is a poetic piece that I wrote after completing my essay on Isaac Bonewits' discussion of theology, in an attempt to explain where my personal experiences as a (still burgeoning) polytheist overlap and are informed by my love of language and etymology. I hope that you have the chance to read it. I think (I hope) it can give you some insight into what polytheism looks like for those of us who do choose that name for ourselves.

  25. Amy, Thanks for your clarification (and sorry for not responding sooner).

    Though he does not explicitly state that this is his argument, you may be right about Bob's characterization of the "two camps," and his lumping together of monotheists and polytheists as both worshipping a "Creator God(s) wholly Other/separate." If you are right about Bob's view, then all I can say is that the vast majority of modern Pagans whom I have met and talked to who call themselves polytheists do not accept that definition of polytheism. They do, however, accept the definition of "the worship and belief in many gods," and they even to a large extent agree with monotheists about what words like "worship" and "belief" mean (and would disagree with Bob's analysis of them) — where they disagree with monotheists is the conception of deity and its unity and/or multiplicity. But in my experience, this disagreement is often more a matter of focus, and not as Bob implies a fundamental rejection of or ignorance about one or the other. In other words, Bob draws lines of difference much starker and stricter than I think they exist in reality (and even goes so far as to say that monotheists simply cannot even conceive of the deeply personal, experiential "inner reality" that he experiences.... despite the two-thousand years of Christian mystics writing about just such experiences from a monotheistic perspective).

    As I addressed in my comment to Bob above, I want this blog to be a place that fosters communication among people who disagree or hold different perspectives. Bob can express his personal opinions and views, and I welcome them — but I will step in when those views are expressed in terms of "everyone who doesn't agree with me is uneducated and wrong." Bob has his opinions about what the word "polytheism" implies, and clearly many people agree with him — but that does not mean that everyone does or should agree with him, or that those who disagree do not also have important and reasonable arguments to make. Bob has made his case; I think it's important to hear what others have to say before we too quickly lump them into this "camp" or that one.

  26. Bob -- Thanks for your reply. Your explanation here is very intriguing; if I understand you correctly, you're saying if current usage of "polytheism" doesn't match the history of the word, this means that people are "living in their heads"? Does this apply to any word, or just "polytheism"? If any word -- well, almost every word we use has experienced some shift in its meaning over time, so we all must be in our heads a great deal. Perhaps that's what you're saying is the case. That's a strong claim. Does it apply to your usage of "belief" and "worship"? Because the definitions you give above do not match the original meanings of those words. "Believe" originally meant something like "take to heart", "love" (it's literally "be-love"), and "worship" was an adjective meaning, roughly, "worthiness".

    I guess I'm pushing you a bit on this because I haven't heard claims quite like these before, and I'd like to hear the whole story. :-)

  27. WE are all ignorant, aren't we? I mean, really. You know things that I am ignorant of. I know things that you are ignorant of. We are all, always ignorant about many things. Who first taught us that being ignorant was a moral judgment? It's an experience in itself.

    I do think that the terms "polytheism" and "monotheism" are tossed around and used as if they are universal categories that all people everywhere always have used. That's simply not the case. I guess I thought of my piece here as a case of "let's imagine that we had never heard these terms. How, then, would we describe our experience of the divine?"

    Perhaps if I were to rewrite it, that's how I'd start. The only problem is that most of us would have a hard time imagining that for very long. In this culture, our "talk" and "thinking" about the divine is so completely defined by Christianity--even by those who have disavowed themselves from it.

    So, what would all these modern polytheists call themselves if they didn't have the word? Better, how would they describe their experience if "god out there, separate from reality in here" were not the reigning model?

    Those are my questions. I tried to write about them. BTW, I am not hostile toward Christianity at all. To some extent, I will always be "Christian". It's part of my path.

  28. I read the original post earlier, and now as I come back to it, there are so many comments, it is mindboggling! Some comments have said things along the lines of "you misunderstand my point," so I just want to say, I am not responding to the point of any particular individual, but rather, expressing some thoughts that come to my mind after reading the whole of the discussion.

    1) As a pantheist, I often feel perplexed that pantheism gets left out of discussions which reference polytheism, monotheism, atheism, and agnosticism.

    2) I believe that meanings of words evolve. Also, that the same word can mean different things to different people. The power that a word carries has much to do with its meaning to the individual person.

    When I tell people that I am a Druid, they may respond along the lines of, "But we don't know much about the Druids, so your religion is all based on fallacy." But when I say Druid, I am not using the original meaning of the Iron Age Druid. My Druidry is rich with traditions which originated only in the past few centuries.

    To some people, the word "Pagans" carries the meaning of scary devil-worshippers casting evil spells, while to others, it carries the meaning of people engaged in earth-centered spiritual practices.

    I interact with people from many different countries, and though they are fluent in English, sometimes they use English differently than I do. For example, someone from India may say, "I have a doubt" where I would say "I have a question," and they may say, "he is from my batch," where I would say, "he went to college with me." I know someone who, when he uses the word "football" is sometimes referring to the sport I call football, and other times referring to the sport I call soccer. Usually, I know which he's talking about based on the context.

    And so, I think a word's meaning depends on what it means to the person using it at the time it is being used.

    This discussion has brought out the issue that "polytheism" does not mean the same thing to all people, so maybe when people say it, we need to listen more deeply to what they mean, rather than assume a particular meaning, just as I can't always assume a particular meaning when someone says "football."

    3) I think it's very valuable to point out that not all religion means worship, or means believing in something. We should not assume that someone with a different religion from the mainstream Christianity we are accustomed to is someone who simply directs all the same attitudes that a Christian directs toward God to a different source. I've heard that some Christians think humanism is bad because humanists worship humans. But humanists don't worship humans. That's just the assumption that worship of a deity is the only form that religion can take, and that's a false assumption. But as Ali has pointed out, it's not so simple as certain religions are worship-based, and certain religions are not worship-based. There is diversity within a single religion.

  29. As a pantheist, I find it perplexing that pantheism often gets left out of discussions of monotheism, polytheism, agnosticism, and atheism.

  30. Oops, I didn't mean to post twice, and I don't seem to have the ability to delete or edit once I've posted.

  31. Picking up on this one a bit late, Bob's article totally made sense to me... I've written elsewhere why I cannot call myself a polytheist even thougfh as an animist I seem to interact with beings that others refer to as Gods... maybe it is me, but coming from within a Judeao-Christian culture I find I am more than a little wary of using the terms of reference of Christianity to describe my experiential model of the world... my beef is with the worth theist. It means one thing in "monotheist" and another in "polytheist"? Surely not... the relationship between the words is pretty explicit. And the beings I refer to are not equivalent to "many of" the deity that monotheists refer to.

    To say that one can adopt a different meaning would be to say that a unicyclist can refer to a pedal powered mode of transport with one wheel as a unicycle, while a bicyclist can refer to petrol engined mode of transport with two wheels as a bicycle... self-labelling is OK, but is surely only meaningful in the context of the greater usage. :-)

  32. Adam, You wrote: "Self-labelling is OK, but is surely only meaningful in the context of the greater usage."

    I suppose the argument, to me anyway, rests on how we understand "self-naming." The claim that self-naming is absolutely vital to take into consideration is not the same as saying that people have the option of arbitrarily decontextualizing and re-imagining the meanings of words. Indeed, I think that's what Jeff and I have been arguing against in our discussion with Bob, who seems to want to redefine words like "belief" and "worship" according to his own personal worldview without taking into consideration the meanings those words have had for others. Likewise, when you say you cannot call yourself a polytheist even though the beings you work with might be called "gods" by others - you are asserting your own right to self-naming. You are saying that simply because others might call what you do "polytheism," you disagree. And I am completely with you on that choice.

    Your example of the unicycle and bicycle are good ones in this respect, actually, because they really illustrate how our understanding of words depend to some extent on what we believe to be the "essential quality" of things (in this case, the lack of engine power as an essential quality of bikes and unicycles). We can certainly imagine a situation in which such a powered transport would still be called a "bicycle," for instance. Jeff actually just sent me an article about a detachable motor that can be fitted to a bike and which can be turned on or off depending on need - would such a vehicle still be a bike? I think so. It is certainly not, for instance, a motorcycle, or a moped, or a scooter, or any of the many other names of two-wheeled transport which have evolved to describe subtle differences in construction and use.

    And that's really the point: words evolve. The evolution of language does not mean that it's inherently meaningless or arbitrary. But it does mean that we can't refer back to the origin of the word alone and think that we have the whole story of what that word means.

  33. I get that... (evolution of words), I really do... I dislike the over eager appeal to the authority of etymology with a passion... it is often used to strengthen an otherwise weak argument in my experience (hell, I've used it myself, though it pains me to admit I could fight so dirty)... we have a comedian/actor/writer in the UK in the UK called Stephen Fry who has stated (I may not have the quote quite right) that "usage is the final arbiter of meaning".

    BUT (I've just started a paragraph with a but... is there a hell for such as me? :-) theism is a belief in (at least one) deity. And the terms regarding "deity" have been and are currently defined by Christian theology. Example... Buddhism has only recently been granted recognition under UK charity law as a religion because until recently our definitions of religion required a belief in a deity. It isn't so much an etymological issue for me, it is an issue of who defines the terms.

    As an animist I engage in debate and discussion with Christians, Buddhists, Pagans, Moslems etc... the deists among them need to understand that the beings I interact with are not the kind of being that *they* understand by the word God. To use such language is perpetuate a category error and to allow them the think that they can apply their theological geography to my spiritual experience... which I think is grossly misleading.

    On the other hand, the same conflict of understanding may well exist between me and those who consider themselves polytheists. My beings are not supernatural in nature. Someone may call what I do polytheism, but if it isn't (as in my case) directed towards deities but to different orders of living being (but part of the same family as people, animals, plants etc), then it simply isn't an anythingtheism :-) Not one, not many