Polytheism

People don’t just believe that there exists a god; they also believe that there is only one. Disbelievers understandably focus on the existence claim, but the uniqueness claim can also be subjected to critical scrutiny. Why are believers so convinced there is only one God? What reason is there to make this assumption? Polytheism was the common opinion for much of human history–what with all the conflicting forces that seem to exist in the world. Now uniqueness is the dogma, with little or no supporting argument. Creationism certainly doesn’t require monotheism. In fact, of course, the uniqueness dogma is traditionally somewhat wavering, because of the doctrine of the trinity and the angels and whatnot–various godlike entities distinct from the Head Honcho. I really don’t know why theists cleave to the one-god hypothesis, unless to rule out rival gods from alien peoples. Is it just psychologically more comfortable? Is it because you only have one dad? And what are the identity conditions for gods anyway? When do you have one or many? How are gods to be individuated?

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2 responses to “Polytheism”

  1. Walter Murch says:

    Zeus, Jupiter, Ahura Mazda, Baal, Osiris and their courts and cohorts. How and why did we convince ourselves, 1400-3000 years ago, that Monotheism was correct, and that it should replace Polytheism ? Perhaps because Polytheism had gotten overly complex, with Gods, sub-gods, parenthetical clause gods, minders, assistant gods, etc. – and keeping track of it all was difficult ( The “Olbers paradox” problem of seeing an x-dimensional reality in x-1 dimensions ) And its complexity could be taken advantage of by unscrupulous priests. (As Eric Hoffer said: Every good idea begins as a movement, becomes a business, and ends up as a racket.) Perhaps that’s what happened with Polytheism, and people just got fed up. Probably the coup de grace was when the Roman Empire was collapsing and we consequently rejected the gods because we were hurt, frightened and disappointed: If those gods couldn’t help the Romans survive the onslaught from the Northern Barbarians, then they must not be gods. Let’s try something new, simpler.

    But our understanding, now, of the historical and hierarchical structure of the Universe (the evolving pyramid of complexity) and the nature of qualities that emerge at each level of the hierarchy should makes us re-examine Polytheism.

    There are hierarchical levels below us, now ‘visible’ thanks to microscopic science (cells, molecules, atoms, protons, quarks, etc) that were not visible or conceivable to Iron Age Desert Monotheists. (Although Lucretius and Democritus had the core of the idea) By analogy, as there are levels below us, there should be levels above us. But these are conceptually invisible (at least so far) because of our (necessarily) limited way of seeing/thinking/perceiving. The only thing that can bridge these realities is mathematics – especially advanced mathematics, which gives us glimpses of the “above”. And perhaps music. Leibniz: “The pleasure we get from Music is the pleasure we get from counting without realizing we are counting”

    What could Chlorine or Sodium atoms ever know of “saltiness”, an emergent quality that arises only at the molecular level in salt’s interactions with other molecules, and which does not exist even partially in either Sodium or Chlorine. Just as “wateryness” does not exist in the gasses of Hydrogen and Oxygen, and cannot even be said to exist in an H2O molecule in isolation, but emerges in the collective interaction of many H20 molecules. How would you begin to talk to Chlorine about Salt. It would be theology, as Chlorine has no (can have no) experience of Salt, even though Chlorine herself, from our higher point of view, is part of Salt.

    So we – who are at a certain level in the Pyramid of Complexity – can perceive (with considerable effort) “down” – but we cannot perceive “up” because of the limitation of our brains. By analogy, however, those presumed levels above us, if they exist, must have emergent qualities that are on another conceptual/physical dimension/plane – qualities as invisible to us as the quality of molecular salt is to Mr. Sodium and Miss Chlorine.

    By analogy also, those higher levels must be hierarchical, as are the ones ‘below’ us (nested quarks, protons, atoms, molecules, crystals, macromolecules, cells, etc). And they must therefore interact with each other in complex ways which, like our own experience with the levels at or below us, cannot be controlled by simple fiat from the top down. (If there is a “top” which is as questionable as whether there is a “bottom”)

    If we imagine ourselves, for a moment, as the equivalent of cells in a liver: What would we (preoccupied with our busy cellular activity) know of the function of the liver itself? let alone the organism of which the liver is a part, or the activity of that organism in its society, or that society in its country, or the nation, the human race, the ecosystem, planet, solar system, etc.

    The mistake is in thinking that we are at the “top” of any hierarchy simply because, with our five senses and our reasoning brain, we have not been able to see anything higher.

    And yet each of those upper levels (organism, family, society) can have an effect on the cell of the liver and its health & continued existence: eg alcoholism in the individual and tolerance of alcoholism by the society in which the individual lives. And vice versa: the liver cell can positively or negatively influence the liver, the organism, the individual, etc. etc (cancers of the liver). So as with any hierarchical arrangement, there is not one all-powerful monolithic level, they are all co-dependent in complex ways (Koestler’s holons and his Janus principle). Thus: Polytheism, where those “levels” are fictionally personalized as Gods. Polytheism may be a more accurate reflection and intimation of the unknowable levels that by analogy must presumably exist beyond our ken.

    This delivers us from the insoluble paradoxes of a single God (Solon) who must (because He is Single) be believed to be both benevolent and omnipotent, and yet who permits evil. Epicurus: “Is God willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence, then, evil?”. But a fourth permutation: is God unable and unwilling?  But then: God ≠ God.  If it is instead a hierarchy of “gods” (levels above our ken), all interacting with each other in complex ways, following their own “interests” (as protons, electrons, molecules, crystals, cells, etc. all pursue their own interests)  (Jupiter and Juno, Neptune and Uranus, Leda and the Swan, etc.) then the damage or joys that we humans (and other creatures at our familiar level) experience is a kind of collateral effect – unfortunate or not, but understandable given the circumstances.

    As the Roman Empire was collapsing, the notorious unreliability of the Polytheistic Gods, who would squabble among themselves at the most inopportune times (see HL Mencken below), was threatening to a society in dissolution, and so they (we) understandably reached out for a single “Big Daddy” god who didn’t have to deal with any other squabbling gods.

    HL Mencken’s meditation about the Universe being ruled by ‘a board of gods’ ::  “It is impossible to imagine the universe run by a wise, just and omnipotent God, but it is quite easy to imagine it run by A Board of Gods. If such a board actually exists it operates precisely like the board of a corporation that is losing money.”

    How better to describe the Polytheistic Gods of the Ancient World than as a Board of Gods.

    Or Jean Cocteau: “Mystery has its own mysteries, and there are gods above gods. We have our gods, they have theirs. That is what’s known as infinity.”

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