Tag Archives: cultural relativism

Do the Gods really call us? My thoughts on a recent controversy

This question was recently raised in a post by John Beckett (and elsewhere), wherein he argues that the Gods call and choose whomever they will, regardless of ancestry or cultural affiliation. Although (as always) his post is well expressed and well-meaning, the notion that Gods generally call or choose individual people for worship is a mistaken one. The general argumentation, from my observation, is usually reduced to these three points: 1) The Gods are individual powers able to do whatever they will, and thus some people can’t prevent them from choosing others 2) The Gods are interested in and care for people and therefore they will reveal their will and inspire people to their service directly by approaching them 3) Excluding certain Gods from certain people is unreasonable because their worship spread historically and dangerous because we don’t “own” the Gods.

Before comments to each of the foregoing, the context must first be understood. It is not difficult to see through the premise upon which these points are founded. The prevailing modern worldview is a globalized middle-class one, shaped heavily by capitalism and colonialism, and overwhelmingly Western (most especially Protestant and Anglo-American) in character, in which individualism and all manner of choice is glorified, if not sanctified. We are all affected by it in various degrees, even in polytheism. These matters can be examined at great length, but for the present purpose, it is enough to bear them in mind. Some polytheists embrace this situation of the modern worldview and others oppose it. It is best, however, to find a middle way whenever possible, selecting the good from each side while avoiding the bad. If the aim is to develop a more harmonious world, it’s high time we find methods to connect various peoples and cultures, yet without force or intimidation, because there will always be relativism, at least in a free world not dominated by an imperial and global power.

The first point above seems to carry anthropomorphism too far, in such a way that the argument defeats itself. The Gods can do anything, is it not so, and who can say otherwise? Well, if they can do anything, they can also choose to do the opposite- how would it be ascertained either way? The problem here is that this logic mischaracterizes the question entirely: we are not dealing with a matter of ability but suitability. The question of “Can a God eat ice-cream?” is rather foolish for this reason as is any other that addresses divine choice and individuality- this is not our concern at all. Insofar as it concerns the relations between Gods and mortals, our knowledge is limited (and rightfully so) to what is suitable from tradition. Religion in the traditional sense of “religio” is about correct practice and clear thinking (as passed down), as opposed to the “superstitio” of malpractice and fear. By rephrasing the question then into one of “Would a God …?”, it becomes proper and reasonable. So if it were asked “Would a God choose an individual to worship them?”, the answer would be no, because the Gods need not do so while they (still) watch over their respective peoples and cultures where they at first arose as well as their own divine families and tribes. The Gods would not choose individuals except for very, very few people who have extraordinary gifts such as those we see in myths and such as whom we find absolutely nobody today.

The thinking associated with the second point is unfortunately derived either from helplessness or hubris, sometimes both. There can be a great deal of loneliness, unfulfillment and misery in the world and some rely on the Gods to help them be better. While this is not at all to be scorned as something silly, it is not a suitable relationship. A God does and should not substitute for a family, a friend, a companion or even (I must add reluctantly) a therapist, nor should (directly or indirectly) be expected or believed to act in such an intimate capacity. Zeus is called father and Demeter is called mother only metaphorically for the Greeks, and literally only in the sense of mythical ancestry. Then comes hubris, disguised as piety, sometimes knowingly and other times unknowingly. Let’s ask the question “Would a God really stoop to approach and call someone in particular, merely to be offered worship?”. This is a rhetorical question that I’m afraid does not deserve answering. And it is a notion that originated with malpractice and monotheism. It is we who must be approach the Gods and call offerings for their service! Even the most senior priests and priest-kings, if really pious, would not dare to state that they were specifically approached by a major God (it is different for ancestors) and called to action. It is not only grossly unsuitable, but also unfair in the sense that it can attribute to the Gods something they never intended or never sanctioned as right. This is why human sacrifice and imperial conquests, as two important examples, were carried out, undoubtedly coming from ambitious individuals who thought too highly of themselves and at the same time wished to disguise their hubris as piety. There were others like Akhenaten, Buddha, Socrates, the constructed Biblical figures and Mohammed who had a very grand image of themselves that led them to hunger after followers, and their individual innovations are directly responsible for monotheism and imperialism, i.e. the decline of polytheism.

As for the third point, I have already briefly made two sub-points concerning the relation between Gods and their respective peoples. I have said, boldly and consciously, that Gods “first arose” in certain areas, and that Gods share mythic ancestry with their respective peoples. The latter is known and accepted, but the former has rarely been addressed, to the detriment of this argument. How did the Gods first arise is a question that may well be raised by an outsider or indeed an insider, and for which we ought to be prepared. The answer is usually a mythological one, with genealogies, but we can’t overlook these were compiled later and don’t account for the changes in religious thinking and socio-cultural practices that have always been part and parcel of “religion”. A previous post of mine proposed four classifications that account for the historical developments in polytheism, after its own rise from animism. I did then justify my logic to avoid misunderstanding.* In the monotheistic and globalized (both terms are necessary) world we have been living in, the diversity and distinctions in polytheism can become difficult to understand. There’s a tendency either to simplify this multiplicity like some neopagans do, or to throw it all open for everyone to partake of. Both are imperfect and lead to mistakes- the first recasts the Gods in a new shape as if they were clay, and the second commodifies them (as globalization always does) as if they were dishes offered on a menu. This is preceded by the problematic notion of divine universality, where it is believed that the Gods can exist anywhere, but it overlooks that people choose to do so (i.e. take cultic images & practices along with them), rather than the Gods themselves, and this “spreading” is mostly happens under some form of colonization and imperialism**. The Gods, since we all know they originated in particular areas, are inseparable from the peoples and cultures that they influenced and who placed “mantles” upon them***. Simplifying the Gods undermines them and opening them to all peoples cheapens them. There is a reason why certain Gods share mythic ancestry with some people and not with others. Why can’t this diversity, that already exists, be embraced? Why do we need to get into disagreements about exclusion at all, when every single people and culture has its own Gods? I blame this confused and toxic discourse on the inequality created by European empires, which is causing European polytheism to be over-represented (thus attractive) and causing “Whites” to feel guilty about their recent ancestors at the expense of their ancient ones. I respect John Beckett greatly for explaining the importance of closed traditions and how membership differs from worship, but why not address the heart of the matter also even if it is uncomfortable? A better world is one in which peoples exist free with self-determination and live harmoniously and equally among themselves, not one in which the powerful invite the weak to partake of their empire and constantly apologize while hypocritically maintaining their power. Let me adjust a well-known saying for this purpose: Teach people how to fish in their own lakes and stop giving them fish from your own or (worse) giving them fish from their own.

In conclusion, I hope in all sincerity the world can become better, stronger, more harmonious and happier with the blessings that polytheism has to offer, and which differ from the wrong path the world is in now. We will disagree how this is done, but,  since it is such a momentous topic, let us be conscious not only of what we say but why we are saying it as well as the consequences it will have for all peoples present and future, not merely for our immediate audience. I am beginning to fear that this age we live in is ironically the best for the rediscovery of polytheism (what with all the archaeology and scholarship that is being produced) but perhaps the worst for the proper revival of it.

* This is what I say: “I hope it will be understood that this is not an attempt to account for the development of Gods in material terms. Gods are real, but the earliest conceptions of them (before a tradition is made) depended on the nature of the experiences and lifestyle of those who first established the connection, as dictated by the natural environment and culture. The Gods, theoretically speaking, are not fully known to us. Animism is probably the closest we can reach because the natural and supernatural are equivalent, leaving little room for uncertainty as far as divine presence and experience is concerned. But polytheism later added new ideas and practices (mirroring changes in society) that can be compared to a mantle or cloak which covers the God, giving that God a more particular appearance or function for the convenience of distinct cultic practices and purposes, but simultaneously (because the God is covered) making that God somewhat less accessible to our conceptual understanding (hence the development of monotheism and later atheism).”

**It is tiresome to hear the examples of Isis being in Italy and Apollo being in Britain over and over, with its deliberate or dismissive short-sightedness. It’s unfortunate also that the argumentation should go so far as to say “Perhaps the most majestic temple to a Greek God is in Tennessee” which is insensitive and offensive both to Greeks and Native Americans alike. Should it not occur to us that these spread with conquest, during the Roman Empire, when armies moved constantly and colonies were established? Is it any wonder Roman imperialism commodified Isis and Apollo just like it commodified people (gladiators, workers, soldiers, subjects, etc)? If cosmopolitan diversity is good in itself, it should never be the result of a bad system; the reason why I prefer regional diversity is because it results from internal freedom, not hegemony disguised as inclusion!

***Applying the notion of suitability above: “Would a God care more for his or her own people or others, especially if other peoples have their own Gods?” This is another rhetorical question that doesn’t require an explained answer.


Polemical topics for polytheists (part 14): Moral & cultural relativism

First view: Moral and cultural relativism are consistent with polytheism’s diversity and should apply at the level of the individual.

Second view: Moral and cultural relativism are wrong because they divide polytheists and hurt their reputation.

Balanced view: Moral and cultural relativism, much like pluralism, apply far more to the distinct community and tradition than the separate individual, but this occurs mostly with details rather than broad principles.

The variety of traditions in polytheism and the historical distance between them, attended by several differences in customs and morals, lead us to reflect on the topic of moral and cultural relativism. When universalism was discussed previously in part 11, it was shown how promoting one standard for all usually results from imperialism. Here we are brought to the very fundamental question of what is right and what is wrong, a topic that has occupied the minds of many philosophers throughout history. As usual, polytheism can provide us with a rather simple and powerful answer that we can examine further: each tradition has both similar and differing cultural and moral principles, that is to say, its own yardstick to measure right and wrong by. It is not surprising that most philosophers of Western Civilization, drawing from the tradition of Plato (emphasis on the word tradition), always tried to apply moral and cultural universalism, in order to arrive at what is the “best” for all people. This narrow-minded fault and futile attempt (however well-meaning) was attended by another one espoused by a minority of radical philosophers, beginning with Protagoras: that the individual only is the judge of what is right or wrong*. It was only after many centuries following the decline of polytheism and the loss of tradition that a reasonable academic reconciliation was arrived at: the terms “moral relativism” and “cultural relativism” were first used by archaeologists in the early 20th century who sought to explain without bias the differing traditions and beliefs they encountered during their study of various indigenous peoples who had not yet become modern**. The terms have since become well established in archaeology, but are still misunderstood in both philosophy and its other dependents like international law. In the current universal interpretation (which follows Epicureanism and materialism) of what is right and wrong, right is often confused with pleasure and wrong is confused with pain. This is why, for example, some people frown on blood sacrifice and cannot understand (I don’t say approve of) the reason many of our ancestors practiced (though rarely) human sacrifice as part of their rituals. Once again, this attempt at objectivity (another word for universalism) fails in view of the distinct traditions in polytheism, because it is not for outsiders to judge nor can they judge fairly. Indeed, in all cases where outsiders take it upon themselves to correct a perceived “fault” in another tradition, it is a sure sign of imperialism and colonialism. While it is too well-known that this was done and has been done always by monotheists towards polytheists (recently by Indonesian monotheists against indigenous peoples), we must be aware that polytheists did it too. The Romans exaggerated the human sacrifices of the people of Gaul and used it as a pretext to colonize the region, and again afterwards to exterminate the druidic tradition that was promoting resistance to the Romans. Who were the Romans to judge the Gauls? Weren’t there enough Gauls to judge other Gauls? Certainly. But the Romans desired to conquer and used their hypocritical self-righteousness to justify it. The monotheists likewise never ceased to repeat that trick. The conclusion is easy to make from here: Humankind shares a set of broad principles and behaviors we call cultural universals (another archaeological term), but the details are left and must be left to distinct traditions and relativism. This does not divide us, but distinguishes*** us.



*Protagoras is known to have said “Man is the measure of all things”, a statement that carries several meanings, but falls largely within the interpretation above, as Plato understood it. It was certainly a radical thing to preach (because it challenged customs, traditions, and even the Gods themselves) and therefore it afterwards caused, among other untraditional beliefs he held, his banishment from Athens.

**An obvious synonym for “modern” is “western”.

***Pun intended.