Keeping the Polytheists at the Front

This entire blog post is in rebuttal to John Beckett’s “The Future of Polytheism: Keeping the Gods at the Front“, and more importantly, the central theme that Polytheism is all about worshiping gods. I said before how this isn’t so, and leads to elitism. But with bloggers still stating that the baseline for Polytheism is that Gods come first…I guess I’ll address it directly, head-on.

There are other issues in this article, such as the idea that Polytheism has a set of virtues and ideals (which isn’t true. My values as a Gaelic polytheist aren’t the same as the values of a Kemetic polytheist.) But that’s another article.

For this, I’ll put forth that the future of Polytheism needs to focus on the needs of polytheists–not the need or worship of the gods. First I’ll deconstruct John Beckett’s article, then I’ll assert my position that Polytheists need to be the forefront of polytheism.

John Beckett writes:

I do know what we need to do to insure that polytheism will thrive in the future:  keep our focus on our spiritual and devotional practice as polytheists.  And at the top of that list of practices is honoring the Gods and keeping Them at the front.

This is the thesis statement that Beckett is arguing for. This is a statement I can’t help but cringe at. And his article didn’t justify this ideal to me.

Beckett then writes, “Our this-world concerns are enormous. They’re here, in front of us, right now. They demand our attention, they demand our time, they demand our effort. And they never end. If we are not mindful, if we are not – dare I say it – devout and pious, it is all too easy to let our this-world concerns become our gods and take Their place in our lives.”

This type of rhetoric brings me back to Catholic Church on Sundays, that giving energy to something makes it God of my life. The example often given is money. If we spend too much time thinking about money, it becomes a God in our life and we lose sight of The True God (Yahweh, in the case of my Catholic Church). But that’s not how people operate. I spend a great deal of time thinking about money so I can live comfortably, even devoting large portions of my day to earning money so I can appease the capitalistic society I dwell in. But that wouldn’t make money a god in my life. And maybe this is because I’m approaching theology under the belief that giving thought and actions to something doesn’t make it a deity.

I am also going to clarify that I’m not pious. I don’t think the Gods are above me. I don’t do things for my Gods. I might be devout, but Lugh does not want me on my knees. This might be different for how John Beckett or others view their gods, which is okay. But I’m a polytheist, so when polytheists are supposed to be “pious” and “devout,” and I’m not, I’m going to speak up about it.

As I’m reading, John Beckett decides to interject in his own article: “I have no desire to argue over who is and isn’t a polytheist. I support the right of self-identification.” Then why do it? This entire article is reading to me that I am going to Polytheism-Hell for not putting my Gods at the forefront of my life.

Moving on.

John Beckett writes,

“What I’m very interested in doing is pointing out that a practice with the Gods at the front is going to look and feel different from a practice that puts something else at the front, be that personal growth, political reform, social change, or anything else. It will also produce different results. […] A practice with the Gods at the front will build a foundation on Their virtues and values that will support us as we attempt to achieve personal growth, political reform, social change, or anything else.  And that foundation will be there in good times and in bad… if we keep the Gods at the front.”

First, there are a lot of problems in assuming that all polytheists share similar values. But that’s another issue for another day. But secondly, how is having devotion to the gods meaning that we have their values? In Gaelic Polytheism, our virtues and values aren’t derived by the necessity of the Gods. They are derived by the necessity of the community. Things like Honor and Truth and Justice are all values that are core to Gaelic Polytheism I believe, and while they can be exemplified by deities, they aren’t there because deity willed it so.

I believe firmly that anyone can be a Gaelic Polytheist without being devoted to the gods. In fact, it’s truer to history that the Gods aren’t the forefront of our religion. Ancestors and Nature Spirits (and sometimes the Good Folk) were the leading forces of devotion for Gaelic Polytheists of yore. Not Gods.

This might be different for, say, a Kemetic Polytheist or a Hellenic Polytheist. But therein lies the problem, eh? The different branches of Polytheism have different virtues.

Back to John Beckett:

When we don’t keep the Gods at the forefront of our practice, we put something else there.  That something else may be helpful or it may be a distraction, but whatever it is weakens our relationships with the Gods, lessens our understanding of Their values and virtues, and hinders us from developing a deep, intuitive polytheist identity.

I agree that if we don’t have the Gods at the front of our practice, there is something else we put there. That’s where I end agreeing, though.

To begin, I don’t see my relationships weakening because I choose to focus on other things in my life. Maybe this is coming from someone who almost died because of a co-dependent relationship, but I can’t unsee the dangers of putting someone in front of yourself 24/7. This includes deities.

Then there is the issue of seeing the polytheist identity strictly tied to the active worship of gods. I know plenty of people who aren’t devoted to gods who live intuitive polytheist lives, because to be a polytheist one needs to believe in multiple gods. Not worship, but believe. And once you believe in multiple gods…the worldview will come to you.

John Beckett then ends with this:

The future of polytheism will be many different traditions honoring many different Gods.  That’s not much of a prediction – we’ve already got that today.  Some of these traditions will flounder, while others will grow and prosper.  Those that do well will do all the things healthy organizations of all types do, but they’ll also keep the Gods at the front of their practice.

There is room in our many ethnic and regional traditions for people for whom the Gods are secondary to community, Nature, or their own better selves.  There is room for people who simply want to honor the Gods and live ordinary lives.  Our polytheist traditions are not all or nothing propositions and I hope they never will be.

But the future of polytheism will be built by those who keep the Gods at the front of their practice.

So, spoiler, but I’m building part of the future of polytheism. And you know what my focus is? Polytheists, not gods.

And here we circle to the point I want to get across: Polytheists make Polytheism. We can’t move forward unless Polytheists are taken care of, in whatever needs they have. That may mean a lot of different things to different people. To me, it means activism of all sorts: environmental activism, social activism, political activism. Activism to promote the betterment of this world, because polytheists exist in this world. And when polytheists can thrive, then so will polytheism.

And it won’t be because of the deities necessarily. Sure, they can help. But unless polytheists can be valued in and of themselves, where polytheists don’t have to be “devout” or “pious” to be considered good people, where polytheists can worship no gods whatsoever…Then what future is there to look forward to? It isn’t a future I want, and it isn’t the future I’m creating.

This entire response feels like a rambling mess. But I hope the crux of my point is clear: that polytheists are important. If worshiping Gods is John Beckett’s ideal form of religion…then good for him. But it isn’t for me. It isn’t for a lot of polytheists I know. It just isn’t practical for most people either. And building a future around the Gods and not around the people who believe in the gods is futile.

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14 thoughts on “Keeping the Polytheists at the Front

  1. Thank you so much, I’m not eloquent enough to argue with that article but it was so disturbing to read, I am so glad you wrote this in reply to that post.

  2. You definitely were very concise! And I have to agree: when we don’t take care of the community, and put forth taking care of polytheists, then there is no “glorious future” – especially not the kind that John Beckett envisions, with public festivals, etc. While I *do* consider myself “devout” and would like to put the gods first in a lot of things I do, I realize that a) it’s more of an I-would-like-to, not an I-can and b) I couldn’t even dream of asking others to partake of that lifestyle or telling them that if they don’t practice like I do, they won’t be able to shape our future. From my experience, attempting to do everything in order to please the gods is intense and nearly unsustainable. Polytheists are mundane human beings, not monks, hermits and druids wandering around in billowing robes, blind to the needs of the community here on earth. Your points definitely added to the conversation and gave me lots of things to think about, as well!

    • Yes, I agree. I love my partner very much, but I don’t do everything in my life to please him. I also hold down a job, love my family, friends, and cats, and so on. The same applies to my deities. I love them, but not everything in my life is arranged to be pleasing to them, any more than it is for any of the other people in my life.

  3. I tend to fall into that devout, putting the Gods and Spirits first category, and I very much agree with this! There are some, perhaps even lots, of people for whom putting the Gods first is a good and healthy decision. But that doesn’t make it right for everyone, and that doesn’t make someone less of a polytheist, or even less of a leader.

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  6. I just wanted to say Thank You for breaking down the problems with his essay, important details are often all too easy to miss in the oceans of drama.

    I believe in the Gods, but there are many aspects of magical practice in where they aren’t relevant for me, even though I will probably need to work with a few of Them for council-but it will probably take me awhile to learn discernment in these matters.

  7. The most g assumption, to me, is the fact that people assume that those who identify as Polytheist worship Gods in the first place. I’ve said it again and again that Theism is an outlook on how and in what forms the Gods exist. It places no default stipulations that you must worship them all because you believe they exist (no that you have to do so in a specific way- that is what religion is for in the first place).

    I’m a Polytheist. Am I a Polytheist as a religious identification? No. ButI am a Hard Polytheist that believes all Gods are unique and distinct, separate beings. I don’t worship a single God, so saying that I must put Gods I don’t worship at the forefront of my religion (which focuses on the Spirits of the Human Dead) is ridiculous.

    • I think some people are trying to make capital-P Polytheism a specific thing of worshipping gods (as opposed to small-p polytheism, which just means ‘believing multiple gods exist’).

      However, we all know how well small-p versus big-P went with pagan/Pagan… so having a classification of devotional polytheism and relational polytheism (and any other qualifying adjective you want) might be easier… much as I have resisted the classification of hard and soft polytheism (because I don’t believe that “soft” polytheism is polytheist at all).

      • “Soft polytheism” is indeed still polytheism, as is the middle ground “plasma polytheism.” The qualifier is really more or less how those multiple deities one believes in manifests, but the core is still multiple deities.

      • Allec is very aware of my own opinion on the subject of using theistic identification as a religious title- and my opinion is that it’s just not suitable for multiple reasons and new terminology needs to be found.

        However, I’m not sure exactly what you are critiquing with my statement, necessarily?

  8. Great post, interesting to read someone else’s reaction to John B’s post.

    Yes, if you are trying to build community, a community is built out of people.

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