Saturday, November 17, 2007

comments on comments (or 'zeus', sam iii)

The creatrix of toomanytribbles and I started this conversation because of our opposing views on Mary Lefkowitz's opinion piece. For clarity, here's my original post and here is her's. Our discussions evolved in the comments section of her post. To more adequately reply, she elevated one of my comments to a post. Thanx, toomanytribbles.

Is polytheism more tolerant and multicultural than monotheism?

When different pagan cultures met, their respective Gods and Goddesses got right to work comparing notes on the strange human creatures that danced before them. Then they quickly started trying on each other's clothes. :) They did not command their subjects to wage ideological wars or chop the heads off infidels. Why is this?

Here are a few possibilities: a crowd of deities with many shared characteristics encourages numerous interpretations of the divine, making the religion accommodating to outsiders; numerous cults of contradictory beliefs tend to diverge and not unify; polytheism lacks a dogmatic and politically charged bible (such as the one of Christianity and Islam), so there's nothing for a manipulative government or clergy to latch onto; and most texts on morality and ethics are attributed to historical figures, not deities.

The characteristics above are true of Egyptian mythology, except for one glaring exception:

The Armana period encompassed the rule of the "heretic" pharaoh Akhenaten. During his infamous reign, Akhenaten forcibly instituted a strict form of monotheism. He claimed the God "Aten" as the one true God. Temples were closed and priesthoods disbanded. Images of the other Gods and Goddesses were rounded up and destroyed, even confiscating statuary from household altars. Akhenaten claimed one could only contact the Aten through him: worship Akhenaten--and you worshiped God! In Egyptian art until this time, you'd often see people bowing, kneeling, or making offerings before the divine. But in the Armana period you see citizens prostrate on the ground, groveling before Akhenaten and the Aten. Not only that, there's evidence nay sayers faced execution. All this didn't go over well with the Egyptian people. When Akhenaten was overthrown, the old Gods and Goddesses were quickly re-instituted.

Could Akhenaten's behavior have anything to do with monotheism? People should draw their own conclusions. But, returning to Mount Olympus, I'm impressed with Lefkowitz's findings about Greek mythology. I'm not entirely surprised how it dovetails with other Pagan beliefs. I'm glad there's good research supporting such claims.

As in other polytheistic religions, Wiccans don't proselytize or express their beliefs fanatically. We aren't hobbled by a concept of sin (phew!), yet trying to convince someone of the fallacy of their belief system--or persuade them of the superiority of our own--are big no-nos. We feel that everyone is on their proper spiritual path. Atheism is exactly where you are supposed to be. I'm not stating there's anything wrong with discussing important issues. But pushing opinions down people's throats, or denigrating those who hold alternative viewpoints, is just showboating and egoism. If people are happy, have good friends and family, are satisfied and lead productive lives and mind their own business--who the heck am I to take issue? Happiness is elusive. So, if someone ekes out comfort in their short lives by envisioning a blissful afterlife or casting fortunes, I'm not going to spoil their fun. There's enough suffering in this ragged-clawed world. I'm trying my best not to add to more.

(OTOH, I've been attacked. By that I mean seriously so, not just on internet forums by religionious zealots of the Xtain persuasion. In the USA, there's a movement afoot to spawn a Dominionist, "Big Brother", Right-Wing government. A small yet powerful minority pines for a country that resembles East Germany before the fall of communism, where neighbor spies on neighbor. This is not God, mythology, or the Bible doing any of these things--it's people who happen to be bat-shit crazy. I don't think I am compromising myself by taking such people on.)

There's server filling debates on the topic of Science vs. Religion. Do we really need to add more of these? Some people relish such exercises. Like Ann_C0ulter's fan base, they never grow tired of listening to her screeds. I think you and I are comfortable enough in our beliefs not to need reinforcement from soap-boxers.

Now, on to some of your comments:

...we're animals with an enormous evolutionary history...

OK, I think that's something we can agree on. :)

...even though our ability to reason is a fairly new 'trick,' it's obvious that it has done more good than harm. Think about what life was actually like for us humans 10,000 years ago -- or 500 or >even 100. isn't our moral standard changing and improving...

Of course there's great strides in science and medicine. However, we elite are the ones sucking that teat. (I don't buy Pinker's assessment of genocide and crime in the last century. He conveniently qualifies his data with " least in Western society." Of course, you realize Pinker has his critics, but I'm not interested in fighting that battle.) Since you brought up animals, I'm sure the Blue whale is very impressed with our noble standard. Mother Earth must think this Global Warming thing is a real kick! Thanx to our bone-headed behavior, our recent history has brought a global wide extinction, rivaling the effects of a cometary impact. Those are quite some accomplishments. To be clear, I feel the quotient of human suffering has not changed much over the centuries. Too few fruits of Western society are benefiting the rest of humanity.

...are you actually saying that fascism or totalitarianism is a result of critical thinking and rationality? were these dark episodes, truly, supported by logic and reason? in what way? or were they simply purported to, then and now?

Exactly my point: I'm not saying that. Our better qualities are not to blame. No Luddite arguments from me, my friend. :)

...mary lefkowitz says, '...but the poison isn't religion; it's monotheism.' i disagree.. the poison isn't monotheism -- the poison is belief in the supernatural without evidence -- i.e. religion

Yikes! Religion=Poison? If you hold the reactionary position that practicing religion is equivalent to everything anal, banal, and dread, such as slavery, human sacrifice, or genital warts, we are just wasting our time. Is there a point in having this discussion if you won't consider anything I say? Why not just blame cooking technology for the fact that people got shoved alive into ovens during WWII.

...we're 'way more' enlightened than our ancestors. we know so much more about our cosmos, our bodies, our origins and history and our place in the universe. isn't this enlightenment helping us reject slavery and racism and the burning of witches?

Who would argue against reason and enlightenment? That would be like arguing against truth and beauty. I know Atheists are capable of great truth and beauty. The sad thing is, not everybody likes science. Many people don't feel the quality of fulfillment you or I receive from it. Yet, I think we should work together on the issues facing us. Btw, thanx for throwing in the 'witch' part! :) The sad thing is, some people never learn.

...of course we act differently than we used to. not all of us, and not always -- but i think there's a definite shift towards the better, with ample evidence.

OK. We just have a difference of opinion. I feel there's evidence in support of my position.

...of course we can't know of every possible thing in the universe. scientists, in fact, don't claim to -- but theists do... and not just nebulous suspicions, but specifics as to what we can eat or how we can dress or against whom we can rub our bodies (or, as hitchens says, what bits of them we should saw off with sharp stones...

Ouch! This is a "frame" free blog! Besides, the last straw man here was burnt up at Lugh. Wicca in no way resembles what you just described. We are not faith based or absolutist. We don't enforce hurtful proscriptions. the face of not only a complete lack of evidence, but a complete lack of any concrete indication for deities (ancient polytheistic or primitive monotheistic), xenus, leprechauns, >poltergeists, fairies, etc., etc...the most intellectually honest stance is not believing in these things until we have sufficient reason to. maybe these things are not disprovable -- but are they even probable?

Heh! Why do you Atheists always bring up these weird creatures? It's as if you're in love with those things! Do you & your Atheist friends have some kinky/erotic thing going on with them or something? If you do, why not let us in on the fun! :)

Having spent time practicing my religion with like-minded people, let me assure you: leprechauns don't find their way into the conversation too often. But I fear this is arguing from the extremes. Next you'll be saying "You like to read your horoscope in the newspapers--SO YOU BELIEVE IN LEPRECHAUNS!"

I know you're aware there's considerable evidence that "little people" did exist. It's even possible the Amazons of Greek mythology existed. But Fairies, you ask? I'm just finding out about the branch of Wicca known as the Feri Tradition. Recently, I had the pleasure of being befriended by two such beings. (wink!) . Also, one of the contributors to the fine tradition posts here from time to time. I agree there's scant evidence of ghosts, but I have a horrific story that happened to me:

I came to Atheism gradually. By the time I was a teenager, I figured God did not exist. Years later, a friend who really trusted me confessed she was plagued with ghosts. She had been seeing them since she was a child. She was someone who experienced many hardships in life, and suddenly found herself thrust into a bad living situation. Once ensconced in her new place, she discovered it had a history putting the "The Sentinel" to shame! She was terrified, hearing strange noises at night and seeing things in the shadows. She was in sorry state when finally telling me all this. How did I react? Basically I gave her the spiritual back of my hand and laughed off her concerns. You could not escape the look of shock and betrayal that swept over her. It was much later that I discovered the harm I had done. Why didn't I just commit to losing a night while holding someone's hand? Would it have helped explaining it was only a creaky radiator, or those angry voices were nothing but the drunken fights of upstairs neighbors? Would this have been handled differently if I was not so full of my Atheist self? I don't know, I have not figured that out. Someday, I hope to make it up to her. Until then, I am still haunted by the look on her face. I told you this was a horrific ghost story!, back to the ancient greeks -- from what i's quite probable that theirs was amore multicultural and tolerant religion...the greek myths have a great deal to teach us, when not >taken literally, and they do lack the arrogance and narcisism present in even non-literal christianity...on the other hand, the greek gods were spiteful and petty and humanity was a minor irritant.

I'm also trying to figure these things out. Seeking people to challenge assumptions always helps. I'm fascinated that many scholars may have it wrong about the Greek Gods. Your mileage may vary.

...but you see, today we don't have to choose either. so can we just keep the tolerance and multiculturalism, insights and relevance to the human condition, and leave out the religion? can't we study and learn from them without espousing them?

Heh! Can we dance without paying the piper? Do we have to "believe in" the religion in order to learn from it? Good question. I-have-no-clue! But can we look at it like this: someone can intellectualize meditation, but won't get the benefits until it's practiced and experienced. In certain Buddhist traditions, after hours of chanting, music, and prayer, the group evokes certain Deities. If those entities can't be manifested--in all their beauty and terror--the students don't advance in training. I get the impression "believing in" is the stumbling block for you. You demand proof! Faith is not good enough. Those are reasonable demands. But instead of "believing in", what would you say to "practicing a" religion? Would that be entirely objectionable?

Could this insistence on belief and faith and diaphanous beings be a requirement of monotheism--not polytheism? In Egypt, the Gods and Goddesses rarely ask for testaments of belief. The questions from the Gods and Goddesses found carved into temples, or written in Books of the Dead, ask us to honored them, keep the Sabbats, and make proper offerings. Demonstrations of belief and faith are minor issues, compared to good intentions and encouraging justice. They don't ask us to abandon reason or intelligence, qualities they highly valued in themselves, and most importantly--in us. I'm discovering the same holds true for the Greek Gods and Goddesses.

Since the deities have never ask me to believe in them, why should I have too? It seems that's not part of the bargain. The Gods and Goddesses have given us much. Honoring them is little payment, especially when we don't have to swallow their theology whole.

...bring back the ancient greek gods? no, let's not.

I'm not so sure they ever left. :)


Anonymous said...

I'm all for encouraging "numerous interpretations of the divine"--monotheistic religions have done far more harm than good as far as mankind is concerned....

Anonymous said...

My girlfriend is a student of the Feri trad. Kudos for your mention of Feri :) - but in the interest of accuracy, I must point out that Feri does not consider itself a branch or form of Wicca. Although, as I gather it, Gardner et al were somewhat influential in Victor Anderson's development of Feri, I believe it is more properly considered a descendent of Ozark "hillbilly" witchcraft, (which in turn came from pre-Gardnerian lineages).

Nice blog, BTW. And I like your writings on monotheism vs polytheism, and the value of balancing the scientific with the spiritual.