This is a two part series article on Perspectives of Modern Paganism. I have written this article to examine not only the phenomenon of our culture after nearly two millennia of monotheism, but also to examine and contrast that to what the ancient polytheists practices and believed. From this contrasting analysis, I believe that Modern Pagans, such as myself, can better understand the task of creating a real world religion and navigating the problems and pitfalls that monotheism has placed before us. The first part of this two part article looks at monotheism and how it has shaped our culture and world view.
Recently, my good friend and local living Witchcraft treasure, Steve Posch, turned me on to the author Jan Assmann, a renowned German Egyptologist, professor and author. Steve was particularly intrigued by two recent books of his, which are titled “Moses the Egyptian” and “The Price of Monotheism.” You can find them at any reputable online book store. An additional book which was written more recently by Professor Assmann (and which proposed certain ideas more clearly than the previous two) is entitled “Of God and Gods: Egypt, Israel, and the Rise of Monotheism.” My arguments and perspectives on monotheism and modern paganism will be based on Professor Assmann’s three books.
While I liked the first book, the second one was apparently written as an apologia for the first. Professor Assmann wanted to make certain that his critics and colleagues understood that he is a proponent of religious Monotheism, and he feels that the price western civilization has paid for adopting it has been far more positive than negative. The third book is by far much more an analysis of what primary pagan religions were like as contrasted to monotheism, and I found it much more useful to understand and gauge modern Paganism.
I have read these books and I am quite intrigued by what Professor Assmann has proposed as the basis for monotheism, what he calls the “Mosaic Distinction.” It is the basis for religious exclusivism and intolerance. I will define what this means further in this article, however, it would appear that the cost of monotheism in the western world is the ideology that divides the world into the faithful and the infidel “other,” which has the potential to trigger violence and sectarian based murder against a dehumanized target. If a particular religion sees itself as the only source of truth and that it’s single god is the one and only true god then all other religions and deities must therefore be false, duplicitous and heretical. Also, Judaism, Christianity and Islam function as secondary anti-religions rebelling against previous status-quo polytheistic religions that were pejoratively labeled as “idolatrous,” “pagan,” and “false religions,” they were also considered immoral, chaotic, tyrannical and unjust because they lacked sacred divinely given and enforced laws.
Each of these three monotheistic religions had a primary religion that they rejected and replaced with a revolutionary and revelatory theology. Judaism is therefore an anti-religious reaction against Egyptian idolatry, Christianity is an anti-religious reaction against Greco-Roman polytheism, and Islam is an anti-religious reaction against Arabic polytheism. They also have more or less judged each other at various times as false religions, although admittedly they do consider the one god of Israel and Judea to be their own. These are also religions that are based on holy scriptures, and therefore, as “people of the book,” they are ironically united by more similarities than differences.
In addition, monotheistic religions have sacralized the embodiment of their laws and they have made their deity the primary judge regarding these laws. These various laws, tenets and proscriptions have been written into books of sacred writing, which are also considered the “word of God.” Thus these religious laws are above the laws of humanity and cannot be either changed or mitigated because they are the provenance of the deity. Where in previous ages primary polytheistic religions sought to invest a king or ruler as the earthly representative of the deities, laws were the provenance of the ruler acting as an arbiter of the gods, which means that laws were both man-made and enforced by the ruler and his people. Only in monotheism are there specific sacred laws that transcend any human ruler or consent of the people, and only in monotheism can someone take the initiative to punish others who have either escaped, bribed or circumvented local jurisprudence. With this in mind it becomes understandable when individuals or groups commit religious inspired terrorism on others - they believe that they are acting at the behest of a higher authority. It also makes sense when groups decry and act against the secular basis of modern social and political institutions, since to them the laws set forth by their deity are above the laws established by mankind.
These anti-religions, rebelling against older polytheistic primary religions, are a recent occurrence in history although they are not the first. The monolatry of Akhenaton and his pre-eminence of the Aten disk as the one and only true god functioned as the very first exclusive religion that promoted a true religious practice (of the pharaoh) while condemning the older traditions as false and erroneous. Although Atenism in Egypt lacked many of the qualities of later monotheistic religions, it did indeed have many of the basic qualities of exclusiveness, iconoclasm and religious persecution that function as a by-product of monotheistic creeds.
The polytheistic traditions of antiquity never promoted this kind of theological exclusivity, and in fact, made an effort to establish a kind of equivalency and tolerance between all of the various faiths and practices. While their rulers made war against other peoples and their rulers, they often made peace treaties based on the deities of all parties or co-opted the deities of those who were conquered. Even in the Roman empire, people of different faiths were allowed to worship as they saw fit as long as the authority of the emperor and his cult were respected. Christians and Jews were seen as atheists because they rejected the openness and tolerance to other religions that was an important cohesive feature of the empire. Openness and tolerance also made them vulnerable to the newly emerging faiths that for the first time judged all other religions and deities as false in contrast to their own deity and creed. These new faiths represented what they passionately believed was an absolute truth. Yet prior to monotheism the distinction between true and false deities and faiths didn’t exist, but then, as well as now, it became a major obstacle for anyone practicing a different religion that did not have the same intensely declared exclusivity. When Christianity became the adopted religion of the Roman empire, the church and its authorities, with the blessing of the emperor, began to systematically eliminate the old polytheistic faiths. Religious absolutism easily trumped the laissez faire, tolerant and inclusive attitudes of the older polytheists.
Monotheism was a reaction against the polytheism of antiquity, but should the modern Pagan revival take the same approach and become itself an anti-religion that denies the truth of all other religions? Some have recently advocated that Modern Pagans should wholly reject all of the tenets and teachings of Christianity and Judaism in order to ensure a pure and exclusive polytheistic theology. They propose that monotheism is the enemy and that in rejecting the exclusivity of that creed, Pagans should also wholly reject it and all of its theological tenets. This would unfortunately create a division between Modern Pagans and adherents of modern monotheism, thereby denigrating the unbelievers as a form of “other” that could be demonized and even targeted for persecution. While the current religious environment in the West seems polarized between secularists and religious conservatives, would adding yet another division to this conflict do more harm than good in a world that is already so divided?
I believe that this approach of purifying Paganism of Christian or Jewish beliefs or practices is much too extreme and it also seems completely contrary to what we know about ancient polytheism, which encouraged religious tolerance. We, as Modern Pagans, should see the truth in all religions and respect them as such. For as long as I can remember I have believed that the foundation for all religions is essentially the same, so it has to be a case that either all religions are valid or none of them are. To deny that any one of them is valid is to deny the basis to the validity of all religions. Thus I do believe that there are fundamental truths regarding religion and spirituality, but I don’t believe that any one religion, sect or creed has a monopoly on absolute truth.
What I have done in stating that all religions are valid is to reject the exclusivity of any one religious perspective, including my own. For instance, I don’t believe that Christianity is the one true religion and that the Christian God is the one and only deity. If this were true and my beliefs were wrong then all other religions (including the other monotheistic religions of Judaism and Islam) couldn’t possibly have any authentic religious experiences to validate them. Yet it would seem that all religions can be validated by the experiences of their followers. This is to say that spiritual and religious truth seems to be relative when it comes to a specific religion, sect or individual adherent and their practices.
A Hindu worshiping Rama will have the same powerful and valid religious experiences as someone who is either a devout Catholic, Protestant Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist or even a Modern Pagan. There is no evidence for a single absolute true deity or faith. There is nothing to invalidate anyone’s authentic religious experiences as being either superfluous, erroneous or delusional. Therefore, there is no one truth, one religion, or one deity. There are, in fact, many religious perspectives, variations on theology, practices, and authentic experiences - perhaps as many as there are individual religious seekers.
I believe strongly that Modern Paganism should avoid becoming just another secondary anti-religion with all of its exclusivity, negativity, intolerance and even the potential for prejudicial sectarian violence. As a newly emerging religion we have an opportunity to revive some of the old polytheistic philosophies and perspectives of antiquity, most importantly, a form of cosmotheism and an inclusive world-view where deity and humanity are merged within the fabric of the natural world.
We should strive to adopt the particular practices, beliefs and theologies of a primary religion and thereby return to the world of our polytheistic ancestors. However, the world around us has profoundly changed since the age of antiquity, and in many respects it cannot be changed back to accommodate a world-class pagan religion as it existed in antiquity. We will have keep in mind that nearly 2,000 years of entrenched monotheism has had a powerful impact on our culture, so we will have to build a religious institution from the ground up and also, in the process, create something entirely new. I believe that it is completely impossible to thoroughly restore the polytheism of antiquity, but I do believe that we have enough knowledge and insight to create a new Pagan faith in the modern world that is deep, enduring and I might add, inclusive.
Our task in this kind of approach to developing a Modern Pagan religious perspective is to outright reject our own exclusivity and our entrenched emotional attachments to the “truth” and to the authentic experiences of our own religious practices. We must keep in mind that these truths are relative and they are the property of all human beings; therefore, all religions are valid and worthy of respect. We also have to deal with the fact that the entire psychological foundation of religion has also been irreversibly changed by monotheism.
While in ancient times polytheism was based on a strictly immanent spiritual understanding, today we must juggle both the immanent and the transcendent. While monotheism has espoused a form of immanence, in practice it is mostly transcendent. The power of transcendentalism, as promoted by monotheism, has had an impact on our culture and even our minds. It has made us perceive spirituality as being completely outside and beyond the material world, thus it has proposed a form of spiritual and material dualism.
Transcendentalism has also made us aware of higher forms of consciousness and unlocked whole new vistas of the spiritual world, and because of this fact it shouldn’t be rejected. What is required is for us to blend transcendentalism with immanence so that we once again engage with nature as the ground and basis of all spirituality. Doing this can also heal the troubling fault of duality that has so insidiously infected western thought processes. Nature, spirit, mind, soul and body are all one within a unified field of consciousness that has its center and ground in life, but it is also boundless and infinite within the transcendental and transformative processes.
These are the things that we modern Pagans need to either leave behind or modify, but more importantly, we need to avoid sectarianism and also step completely outside of the never ending dialogue of religious based differences, bigotry and persecution that seems to be so much a part of our world today. An enlightened Pagan would consider these back and forth critiques and accusations between the monotheistic faiths as the product of the dualism inherent within monotheism. What others are pointing out and condemning in the faiths of their brothers and sisters is nothing more than their own mirror image reflected darkly and in a distorted manner.
So it is also quite ironic to me when supposedly conservative Christian pundits talk about how scary, threatening and violent the followers of Islam seem to be, particularly the Salafi Jihadists who are a comparatively tiny minority, like the much hyped Islamic State (Daesh-ISIL). While it is necessary to condemn anyone who uses religion as a cover to persecute, oppress and murder people, not to mention vandalize priceless artifacts and historical sites, it would seem that monotheistic religions have been the main instruments for these kinds of crimes since their inception. I am certainly not talking about the greater majority of these faithful adherents, of course, but when an ideology divides people into two opposing groups (the faithful vs the infidel) then there is a potential for dehumanization and violence. Therefore, due to the actions of a tiny minority of individuals in history, all three monotheistic religions are deeply stained in the blood of innocents, regardless if that is just part of the legendary stories or based on actual history. Whether as martyrs or perpetrators, monotheistic creeds have a very bloody and unfortunate history driven in part by the exclusivity, divisiveness and intolerance that is part of the fabric of that system of belief.
While Professor Assman’s two books have mostly promoted the idea that monotheism was a great step forward in the history of religion, he seems to believe that the price that humanity has paid for this progressive movement was more than adequately offset by the positive outcome it produced. It is what he has called (quoting Freud) a “progress of intellectuality.” What I found peculiar is Professor Assmann's blindness to the fact that Europe, and by extension the U.S., found that the only way to truly move forward was to adopt societies and governments that were completely secular. Because monotheism requires the differentiation between the one true god and false gods (of the pagans), and that it stipulates that those opposed to its orthodoxy must be heretics (and thereby eliminated), it cannot tolerate different creeds or opposing theological perspectives.
Europe was torn apart by centuries of war because of the struggles between Protestant and Catholic Christians, the incursion and deflection of Muslims, and of course, the all too frequent pogroms against the Jews. The current modern western propensity for secular government is a direct result of this interminable conflict and warfare, and it, more than anything else, is responsible for our passage from the middle ages into modernity. Even so, Professor Assmann ignores all of this to lamely propose that monotheism is responsible for our current progress. If anything, we have progressed despite the resistence of orthodox religions. This unrelenting strife between secularism and religious conservatism is one of the more troubling aspects of our world in the 21st century.
Professor Assmann also disparages modern paganism, comparing it to the failed attempts at determining a “prisca theologia” in the renaissance and essentially writing off more modern attempts as poor alternatives. I have found Jan Assmann’s books to be both enlightening and also problematic. How do we respond to his obvious statements that modern Paganism is greatly inferior to monotheistic faiths, when these same faiths appear to be the source of unresolvable issues and conflicts that are bedeviling our post modern world today. I think that the world is very much in need of religious and cultural tolerance as espoused internally by a religious faith as opposed to enforced externally by secular states, so perhaps Modern Paganism can provide the impetus for such a movement.
However, what Professor Assmann has said about modern Paganism, although harsh, has some merit to it. We as modern Pagans haven’t really defined our religion in a concise manner and that is because it is still being formulated. Studying the polytheism of ancient times (as well as fellow Pagans in India) might provide us with some useful examples and ideas for us to explore and develop. Professor Assmann’s third book was very helpful in providing me with a working model of ancient paganism and I would like to present some of those ideas here. Keep in mind that Professor Assmann’s perspective are the religious practices of the ancient Egyptians, and that this model will diverge when we consider the polytheism practiced by Greece and Rome.