The virtues of polytheism

By | August 16, 2018


All cosmological frameworks, including those postulated by human science, are models – simplified representations of a Universe of underlying ultra-complex phenomena. These models are never “true” or “false”; only more or less useful. However, the more a model is scaled up in scope, the harder it seems to be to remember this.

Polytheism is a simplifying framework in which human-scale personality is attributed to various portions of the cosmos, in the interests of attempting to exert some form of human control over an essentially uncontrollable universe. Polytheism is actually probably the default value for human civilizations, being believed almost everywhere in the world. A lot in the universe is explainable by a system in which you have a large number of beings with extreme superpowers running around not only building up their own things but trying to rear down those of their rivals, forming weird alliances to achieve these ends, and generally having a great old time indulging their own interests and pleasures.

Monotheism centralizes the point of human appeal to the Universe in one Big God, but the cost of this simplification is more remoteness from the source. This is overcome only by expanding the powers of the deity to include omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. But we now have to account for why the same being will allow opposite phenomena (e.g., good and evil) to co-exist. In polytheism, we can have good gods and evil gods, which is a much easier thing to comprehend. Monotheism typically handles this problem by shifting the blame off god and back onto individuals – hence, original sin, free will, and a bunch of other complex explanations. Simplifying the number of gods shifts the complexity of the Universe onto theology. Complexity doesn’t go away; it just gets relocated and made more abstract.

The more a cosmological model embraces the notion of infinity, as monotheisms have to do, the harder it becomes to define the characteristics of the Divine.  makes for tricky mathematics. If we let Y represent what we know about the Universe and x represent an additional characteristic that we have identified, then . That is, we cannot meaningfully build the whole up from components. On the other hand, if we try to apply “negative theology” by starting with the whole and identifying characteristics that do not describe it, our equation becomes , which is no more satisfying. Of course, this has never stopped true believers from identifying characteristics of the Divine that they see as requiring social action to, oddly enough, benefit themselves. Even the most abstract Universe can be made personal.

Part of the eternal appeal of polytheism is its anthropomorphism applied on a cosmological scale. In a polytheistic worldview, the “gods” can be seen as extended metaphors for human intentionality applied globally or system-wide. Different gods are almost always assigned different responsibilities for various parts of the world and human activities, with accompanying local powers. There is seldom a polytheistic god with the kind of omnipotence usually attributed to a monotheistic god. It’s very much human-scale universe management, administered through a recognizable hierarchy.

In terms of predictive power, polytheism is a much more supportable hypothesis than any form of monotheism that doesn’t allow for a Big God with multiple personality disorder or the peculiar property of “omnivolence” (willing all things at the same time). The gods in a polytheistic system may war against each other and use humans in these conflicts, but they don’t generally try to destroy each other or encourage their respective worshipers to go to war purely to support such destructive efforts.

The current scientific view of the Universe – something built up of fields and forces, without personality but regularized by mathematically definable “laws” – is also a model. It seems to be somewhat more useful in practical terms than any personalized theological model; calculating the position of the sun according to Newton’s Laws of Motion is more consistently reliable than prayers to Apollo or even to Yahweh. As a result of its ability to generate technology, the scientific model has achieved fairly wide acceptance. But it’s much less satisfying than more personalized cosmology, so we see the persistence of both institutional models like organized Christianity and Islam and more individualized models.

Usually, it doesn’t matter too much what any individual believes about the nature of the Universe. But human beings have an innate need to organize themselves along with others who believe as they do toward common effort, and organizations can incredibly multiply the consequences of such beliefs for others. These consequences are independent of the “truth” of “falsity” of the beliefs. I doubt that it matters much to someone killed by a bomb or being burned at the stake whether they are being killed in the name of a being that exists or a being that does not exist – they are equally dead in any event.

I’m still trying to fold my brain around the issue of how one decides to adopt one or another theology as a working hypothesis to govern one’s life, let alone govern the lives of others and/or inflict great bodily harm upon them, when, as we said, each one can be no more than a simplifying model of an impossibly complex Universe. But then, I was in fact brought up as a Unitarian-Universalist (in the days when we were just Unitarians), which predisposes me to a degree of skepticism about any such models. I don’t mind living in a universe that requires me to obey the Law of Gravity, but giving equal weight to behavioral prescriptions and proscriptions generated by human organizations is unjustified by anything but the exercise of raw power. Personally, I find any model that entails or leads to blowing things up or burning them alive to be less than satisfying or acceptable, but maybe that’s just me.