I’ve definitely gotten to like being on Twitter, at least I like the feeds I’ve chosen to follow. A few friends (most of whom don’t feel the need to tell me what they had for lunch or what particular bit of housework they’re about to attempt), a few celebrities who can actually be clever in 140 characters or less, and some news feeds. One of the pagan news feeds I’m on passed along a URL from the About.com section on atheism, which surprised me a little until I actually went to the article. (You can follow along at http://atheism.about.com/library/FAQs/religion/blrel_theism_poly.htm)
The article by Austin Cline starts out nicely enough, the writer is being polite (something I’m not used to from atheists who feel the need to debate, like Richard Dawkins or Bill Maher), and for most of the article I’m pleased at how accurate it seems to be. “Most cultures throughout history have been polytheistic”, well that’s true. “Polytheists tend to be more tolerant of the beliefs of others”, also true, though I don’t like to go around bragging about it. Yep, I was actually very happy with it – until I got to this:
If there really were different, independent gods in charge of all the different aspects of reality, then we shouldn’t necessarily have a set of natural laws which are common to all parts of reality. The laws of physics would not need to apply to chemistry and the laws of chemistry would not need to apply to biology, and so on. Scientific order would find no basis if multiple gods were working at potentially cross purposes.
(blink) Um, what? I think the author is making quite a logical leap here. I’d say “capable of helping with” rather than “in charge of”, but even going with his phrasing, “in charge of” does not mean “omnipotent”. Yes, I suppose that atheists who’ve never actually talked to a polytheist might try to apply the definition of monotheist religions to us, but they shouldn’t. Let’s be clear about this: Most polytheists do not believe that our gods are omnipotent. Powerful, yes. More powerful than us, well I sure hope so. But omnipotent? Hardly. Even the ancients didn’t think so:
“Chorus : Who then is the helmsman of Ananke (Necessity)?
Prometheus : The three-shaped (trimorphoi) Moirai (Fates) and mindful (mnêmones) Erinyes (Furies).
Chorus : Can it be that Zeus has less power than they do?
Prometheus : Yes, in that even he cannot escape what is foretold.”
(Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound)
One could then argue that the Fates were omnipotent, but we also have legends of Zeus saving men from their power (see http://www.theoi.com/Daimon/Moirai.html) so even the most powerful of the gods could be thwarted once in a while.
The About.com article concludes:
A modified polytheism might be theoretically possible, however, if we imagine a committee of unknown gods created the universe and somehow managed to agree upon a set of common standards, and then all separated to take over their respective departments. This analogy to the human experience of committees and management, however, causes polytheism to lose much of its original attractiveness – the idea of the universe being created and run in such a manner is enough to incite nightmares.
I agree on that last point, it sounds like being trapped in an episode of Bewitched. (And not even one of the good episodes!) But again, most of us don’t believe that our gods created the laws of physics or other universal constants, nor can they change them at will. We believe that they do exist in our universe, and work within the laws of nature (even if we humans don’t fully understand them – Hek, the gods themselves may not completely understand them), and that working with them brings both honor and happiness to us and them.
I don’t consider myself much of a pagan philosopher (I’ll leave that to Ian Corrigan and other better thinkers), and I don’t pretend to know exactly how the gods work. They may be as real as I am (which I guess could still be argued!), or only as real as Santa Claus (partially real because we choose to make him partially real and perform physical actions on his behalf), or they may be utter figments of my imagination. (If I don’t at least keep that possibility in mind, then I really will be the idiot that the atheists think I am.) I do believe that they have some kind of reality outside of my own head, and I enjoy working with them, and ultimately that matters more to me than what anyone else thinks of me. I do hope, however, that those who disagree with my beliefs can at least disagree with my actual beliefs instead of the ones they make up for me. As Mr. Cline points out in another part of his About.com space:
You can’t have a meaningful and productive discussion if the two of you define key terms differently. You cannot evaluate their arguments and claims unless you know exactly what they mean by “god,” so you have to start there.
Amen to that! Er, I mean, “esto” to that! Here’s hoping that we can all have a little more understanding, if not acceptance, of the thoughts of others.
Rev. Rob Henderson
Senior Druid, Shining Lakes Grove, ADF