Two debates between pagans and monotheists

These debates are drawn from a British program called “The Big Questions”. Although somewhat dated, they provide an interesting insight into interactions between pagans and monotheists. The pagans don’t necessarily represent polytheists, but more or less they do offer words of wisdom that sets our movement in a good light. Note how uncomfortable and intolerant the monotheists usually appear, in contrast to the pagan confidence and serenity. The first debate is entitled “Are many Gods better than one?” and the second (which consists of two parts) “Is Paganism more relevant than Christianity today?”. The total length for each debate is about 15 minutes. 

DEBATE 1

 

DEBATE 2

8 thoughts on “Two debates between pagans and monotheists

  1. K

    Only looked at the first one so far. I think I have actually seen these before. Probably, they have been around a while.

    I have had a talk before with a Christian about polytheism vs monotheism. One thing Christians with any learning do is start the debate with a very weighted definition of what a “god” is. A god will be defined as a “necessary being”, usually the sole necessary being since for some reason there can only be one of those(an Aristotelian argument is often used). A god must be eternal, impassible, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and so on. Usually dogmas like omnibenevolent, judge, creator of the world, completely separate from creation, three and yet one(trinity), and so on gets snuck in somewhere(I think of it as the William Lane Craig trick). Get even further, and they will go on about god’s attributes not being able to be differentiated from each other(Thomism) or being unknowable in essence but not in some other sense(Orthodoxy). Somehow, this being is inscrutable, even nonsensical, but they know all about it, its personality, its motivations, its attributes, its stance toward humanity, and its moral opinions. They even insist on attributing a gender to it even though it is disembodied and indescribable.

    If asked, how would you define what a god is?

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    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      You are correct in pointing out the Christian tendency (among others) to define “God” in absolute and superlative terms. This aids their narrative of a moral improvement of monotheism above its predecessors, paving the way for a more global sense of humanity and justice. They will usually do all they can (as you see in the debates) to avoid mentioning anything negative about their system of religion and concept of divinity (drowning you instead into all sorts of philosophical jargon and tropes), and will dismiss polytheism/paganism mostly for what they perceive as problematic inconsistency and relativism, or indeed (as one of them put it) amorality. If I were to define what a God is, this would be my attempt according to my traditional/indigenous theories and understanding. At the most fundamental level, a God is a phenomenal being whose power and essence is above human; here I am following part of the definition used by Roy Kenneth Hack (see his work God in Greek philosophy) to describe pre-philosophical concepts of divinity, such as those found in Homer. Power is the essential (and neutral or indeed double-edged) term here, and “phenomenal” refers to something perceived by the senses (mostly through nature or the natural world in general) although not always directly. And yet it is important to indigenize and culturalize the term “human”, thus: a God is a phenomenal being whose power and essence is above human within a particular land according to a particular culture. In time, the continual worshipping and reliance of distinct peoples entrenches distinct Gods into ruling over distinct areas, either sacred or natural spaces, together with the people inhabiting them, while also mating with them. This is the complex relationship between human and divine; nothing is absolute here nor dualistic. I do not know if Gods can die or whether they merely disappear when nobody worships them; to me this seems unlikely unless the land itself and nature (along with its phenomena) is destroyed. Perhaps then the cultural aspects, rituals and mythology we associate with Gods don’t so much constitute a living body, but a mantle (of authority & function) that can be worn or lost.

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  2. K

    I am thinking about making my own blog or website. Some sort of repository to post things. I have a bunch of notes on different topics, so I could probably make them into a lot of posts right from the start. I thought about what you said about community building. I may as well put the hoard of knowledge I have gathered to some use. So far I have only made limited efforts.

    If work on Indo-European linguistics is used, “god” as a word derives from the word for invoking/calling or making a libation or offering. These ideas were probably so closely connected that one always implied the other. A strict definition for me would be that a god is any being that you make offerings to in worship. The Aesir, for instance, are gods. So are the Vanir, the ancestors, wights, elves, and even some jotnar. These types of beings do not necessarily equate to each other even if they have an overlap in being defined as gods. A goði is one who invokes and offers to powers in the otherworld for the community. Power is definitely an important part of this, as we worship partly in hope for favor from powerful beings.

    In my view, the collection of phenomena we call nature derives from the gods, not the other way around. What we see around us all the time is the power of the gods(or other beings, depending on what distinctions we make). But not just what is defined as “nature”, but even things like concepts, mental states, and the rudiments of civilization are also derived from or connected to mysterious powers, some of which are worshipped in cult and others that are not.

    I see mythology as a way for humans to relate gods to a cultural context and to make them more understandable. The stories and motifs passed on originated from firsthand experiences of gods and their power from the past(probably by shamans and ecstatics under various names), but the stories have naturally changed over time. Other myths are symbolic of the gods as power interacting with other powers. Still others are astrological in origin. Many are of historical and political importance, or are etiological myths to explain a particular social order.

    I have noticed over the course of cross cultural study that many cultures have a term signifying some kind of energy or substance fundamental to existence or life. Gods have a lot of it, but the elements in general, animals, plants, special locales, humans, and even man-made objects also have it. This term and type of thinking tends to be more obscured as time goes on. A popular anthropological term for this is “mana”, derived from the concept found in Polynesian cultures. I have found similar terms in cultures that have the active practice of shamanism today(Central Asian and Siberian cultures, parts of India and Nepal, parts of East Asia, parts of North and South America, and Africa), or are not far removed from a past of shamanic practice(Finno-Ugric cultures, Inuits). In heathenry, there are terms like megin and regin. Regin(powers) is the basic form of several terms relating to or referring to gods. I think another term like this called Asu was inherited from the Indo-Europeans. Aesir is the plural form of áss, which is related to this term.

    Another way to think about it is in terms of hierarchy. The cosmos unfolded from a state of chaos to greater and greater complexity. Various gods were involved with this process, even as they also emerged from this process. Why this began can only be speculated on. Not even the Abrahamic religions that fixate on “creation” can explain how a never-changing entity created everything, or for what purpose it was done. Why must there even be a purpose? Maybe the gods know why, maybe even they don’t. With each stage of unfolding complexity, something is lost. The gods are prior to humans in this process, and so have more power and knowledge than humans.

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    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      Thanks for all the information.
      1- Please do set up your own website (wordpress is the easiest) as a repository of your extensive learning. I would be the first to support and post comments to your site. One can hope (as I do here) it can contribute to community one day. The more engagement we have online, perhaps the more we will be inspired that real communities are needed, not to mention the fear it will strike in the hearts of monotheists.
      2- If I am not mistaken, the Indo-European term for God is “Diwos” and it is connected to words relating to day, the sky and (this one is ancient Egyptian) the mountain. This is all related, as I am sure you know, to the chief head of the Indo-European pantheon, a sky God whose name “Dyeus” is quite similar to Zeus. On the other hand, it seems the Germanic term “God” is more specific in its ritual use.
      3-Concerning natural phenomena, you raise an important point about whether it came from the Gods originally or the opposite. This is unknown to me, but if it is true that the Gods are generations, perhaps the Gods we know and worship are only the latest generation/form aware to us. Did the mountain Zeus and the other Hellenic Gods inhabit exist before him? Did Artemis create the forests and animals she rules over? I don’t know, and honestly, that sort of theology doesn’t matter for me beyond a certain point of reflection. Association is far more important to causation here; rituals and continuity are the essence.
      4-You are right about mythology, and the last sentence in particular is indeed true. However, as I take it, sometimes mythology acts in the other direction: i.e. as attributions to Gods, in the form of the mantle described earlier. The people/ethnos participate collectively in “dressing” Gods in native “colors” according to their experiences, languages and understandings.
      5-Yes, divine energy is a concept of importance that is sometimes overlooked by more complex societies. Homer sometimes uses θεος in the general sense of mana, as for example when he describes a fierce warrior.
      6- The universe being created and then growing in complexity may also be described as “tradition” in the original Latin sense, i.e. continuity from one stage to another. There is no grand centralizing purpose to this whole scheme (as the monotheists laughably believe), but rather purpose exists in the decentralized parts and sub-parts which evolve to become separate & distinct wholes in themselves.

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  3. K

    Why must they always bring up morality? I have yet to see them prove their morality is anything more than a phantasm.

    Polytheism is a very broad term. There is not much to say generally about polytheism as such vis a vis morality. There are very moralizing polytheisms out there. People often forget the long history of Chinese and Indian religion. Lots of moral discourse, some of it quite puritanical even by Christian standards, and all from polytheistic cultures. Mozi, Laozi, Mencius, Confucius, Gautama, Yajnavalkya, and any others you might think of were polytheists. Some of the earliest written moral discourse we have is from Egyptian priests, also polytheists. I have left out the Greek and Roman writers, but we also have moral discourse from polytheists among them.

    The main difference between us and them seems to be that polytheists do not generally see morality as something handed down by the gods as a big revelation. I don’t see it that way. Morality is mostly a human construct, though I don’t see the gods as these purely amoral beings. They are just different from us, our mores and theirs don’t always line up. For the most part, we don’t need to appeal to gods to “explain” the presence of morality in even the most basic human social structures. That is something I can find common ground with atheists on. Basic morality is there because it is useful for the group to survive and flourish. Morality arises from the natural order of things, it is not superimposed on the natural order by some special revelation. However, the gods can teach us things, and can be appealed to as guarantors of mores.

    Christians often use a kind of excuse for Yahweh’s actions in their Bible. For example, Christians moralize about killing babies(abortion) all the time, and yet Yahweh often gives orders for infants to be killed, pregnant women to be killed, and even gives directions for inducing an abortion if a husband suspects infidelity in his wife. The common Christian excuse is that Yahweh can do what he wants because he is Yahweh, and we humans as “creatures” have no right to sit in judgement of “the creator” of the world. Besides, as Augustine and Aquinas put it, Yahweh can kill anyone for any reason and it will be considered just because anything he does is automatically just and righteous. Augustine argued for infant damnation on similar grounds. These same hypocrites wring their hands over things like the affairs of Zeus, or in one case I have seen, Loki’s habit of shapeshifting and the incident where he gave birth to Sleipnir. I have countered these Christians a few times with “Zeus can do what he wants, he is the father of gods and men, who are we to judge him?” and they would not accept that as an argument. I pointed out that they had just told me the same thing about the local deity that they worship, and after that they just stopped. Maybe it caused them cognitive dissonance when they realized that I had just used their argument against them.

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    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      Morality among ancient thinkers was a pluralistic affair, in which some of them claimed divine inspiration (as with Confucius from Tian, Socrates from Daimones and Buddha from various forces) and put forth teachings accordingly. The chief problem with monotheistic morality is that its thinkers construct it in absolute terms that seemingly embody perfection, as you point out. This soon leads to many contradictions and hypocrisy. Yahweh seems to have been a polytheistic deity at first, on whose behalf tribal wars were waged, much like in other cultures. There must have been some sort of human sacrifice of prisoners here, as among the Celts, Thracians and Aztecs. But in process of time, ambitious (or in some case fearful) kings and priesthoods extended the “tribal war” too far to include totally unrelated peoples. By this means, the newer peaceful side of Yahweh (Christian) provided a cyclical dualism to the older warlike side, and this proved very useful to the imperial plans of Christendom later. Historians tend to say the “Roman Empire” reached its greatest extent under Trajan, but I think in effect the greatest extent was in the Middle Ages, and it could very well be argued that the flame of the Roman Empire is still kept kindled by the Catholic Church to this day.

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      1. K

        There is human sacrifice of enemies all over the Old Testament. Also, there is sacrifice of those who violate religious taboos. I have a lot written down about it. If I get that blog started, those will likely be among the first things I post. The only reason it is not more well known is that people don’t read the Bible critically, and the terms and type of thinking are concealed by translation choices and the cultural gulf between our time and West Semitic tribes 2800 years ago. I think that parts of the Old Testament discussing things like this are derived from genuinely old sources, even if they ended up part of a Hellenistic period final redaction of the text we have now.

        One of my ideas for a series of posts is to tackle to idea of “devotio” and similar concepts across different cultures. I could probably link it to other places to. For example, if you look at the actual Hebrew, when it says something like “let those who worship gods other than Yahweh be utterly destroyed” in Exodus in translation, it actually has a very different meaning than most think. “Utterly destroyed” is the Hebrew word cherem, a concept that has given translators some trouble. The laws in Leviticus define “cherem” as something(animal, land, valuables, people) as meaning something offered to Yahweh. Something that is “cherem” belongs to Yahweh and is qds(sacred). Literally, what is said in Exodus is “let the one who worships an elohim other than Yahweh be sacrificed to Yahweh”. I have numerous examples from the Old Testament alone to back up my point. What I also found is that the Mesa Stele(I mentioned it recently) actually uses the same word “cherem” to describe the thorough destruction of the Israelite town and its shrine that the Moabites inflicted. It says that they made it cherem to Ashtar-Chemosh, their god. The behavior was the same as what the Israelites were described as doing because it was the same idea and even the same word. Some of the actions of the Assyrians also make me wonder if they did this sort of thing for the same purpose(not just for brutally suppressing resistance). I have been on the look out for linguistic evidence from Assyrian linked to cherem, but I have yet to come across anything.

        Concerning the laws of Numa Pompilius, one statement that stuck out to me, since I was thinking about it, is that one who moved a property boundary stone(sacred to the god Terminus) would become “devoted” to Terminus and would be killed. Not much difference from the Old Testament usage for violating certain taboos. There is also the “devotio” performed by early Roman generals in desperate times. The Roman leader in an instance we have well described called upon Tellus and other gods, as well as the Manes, and devoted himself and all the enemy army in exchange for victory. Germanic tribes are described doing something like this, in one case devoting an enemy army to Mercury or Mars, and not only killing the soldiers when they won, but their livestock, horses, they even destroyed all the captured weapons and armor, and threw any loot taken into bogs. In later Norse sources, starting a battle by tossing a spear and shouting “Odin owns you all” is common. We also have the battle of Bravalla where King Harald Wartooth devoted to Odin all who would die in battle that day, along with himself(he was intending to die there rather than of old age). After Harald died, the fighting stopped, it was not meant to be a complete massacre of the enemy. I have further examples from Hawaii that I plan on using. Violating a severe kapu was often met with a ritual execution of the offender, with purifications of the community and all the religious trappings of a ceremony. I probably need to stop though, or I will end up writing the thing here.

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      2. Melas the Hellene Post author

        Excellent references here. It seems that the original Hebrew sense of “cherem” is rather polytheistic but there was a shifting of the meaning later by Hellenistic “philosophers” following Orphic and Platonic influences who must have been horrified by the idea. A similar thing occurred with such terms as αρετη and virtue, as we once discussed before. On the other hand, if the Assyrians didn’t share the notion of cherem in the same manner as the ancient Jews (there must have been a few sacrifices), it was probably because they were a more complex society (i.e. empire) that valued slave labor. Taboos matter far more to tribal societies with a shame/honor culture. A unique example of a society occupying a middle position between complex and tribal in this respect would be the Aztecs. They had frequent wars, but took many prisoners (rather than killed them) for the sole purpose of ritual sacrifice.

        I encourage you to go forward with a website. It won’t be an undertaking from what I hear but only a series of transmissions already in store. It is only right that you provide others with all the knowledge you have gathered for so long.

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