I’ve just finished reading the latest at The Allergic Pagan, which is a piece about what the author describes as “Jungian Polytheism”. This is a term that has come up quite a bit recently in the blogsphere, and in this instance was written as a follow-up to “Pagan Tea Time” discussions with the bright young Hellenic Polytheist, Conner O’Bryan Warren. I was very hesitant to read this blog post, but I needed to kill some time while my coffee brewed, and there it was.
Afterward I find myself sitting here, frustrated and angry. Not for the usual reasons — the misuse of the word “Polytheist”, for instance, in part because I am thinking about a very useful linguistic bit written by Rhyd recently over at Paganarch linking up the use of the term in different contexts — but instead for what I view as a misuse of psychology. Don’t get me wrong: it is clear that the author has a decent understanding of Jungian psychology and archetypalism, and more importantly, that this is a thing very important (and probably very healing and helpful) in his life. As a person with a background in psychology and mental health work, I have an emphatic support of the use and engagement with balanced psychological structures and innovations and insights, and I believe strongly in the power of well deployed psychological models and mechanics in human development. I wish, honestly, that more people — those of Polytheistic religious identification included — could find beneficial use of the various highly effective tools and processes found in the proper use of a century of psychological theory and therapeutic development. And despite the author’s clear navigation of Jungian concepts, I am struck with a resounding chord of revelatory despair, in realizing that…
He’s actually driving people away from Jungian concepts, by the continued direct (or borderline or indirect or passive aggressive) equation of its principles to those of World Religions, historical and otherwise. Psychology is not religion, even when it draws upon religious ideas to increase effectivity of deployment and use. What the author is describing is, pure and simple, highly effective psychology. However, he continues to use language and structures and ideas that link it erroneously to religion, and presents it as a religion. Why this matters is that, for better or worse, this is an author who people continue to read and turn to through his blog, and instead of guiding people toward healthy relationships with Jung, he is leading them into a blurred and distorted place existing in a fabricated gray area between religion and psychology, which I feel Jung himself was always clear to avoid, even when drawing upon religious thinking prolifically in his work. Every single Polytheist that I know has had their understanding of or relationship to these incredibly important psychological terms and structures and toolsets soured — possibly irreparably — by this author’s apparent “crusade” to enjoin Jungian Archetypalism to World Religion. (I am still unclear what he’s actually been trying to accomplish this last year in constantly assaulting and critiquing and colliding with Polytheist religious views, since his actual writing on Jungian stuff has been pretty decent… when left to stand on its own, disconnected from the drama he seems addicted to stirring up and passive-aggressively condescending at, while calling people offensive things.)
But it is not my intent now to question the author’s motives. Instead, I want to actually submit a plea to him:
Please stop. You obviously know stuff about the healing impact and the stabilizing presence that archetypal process can have in a human’s life. What you don’t seem to know a lot about is theistic religion. Just as I encourage people who are not psychologically or clinically informed to steer clear of using diagnostic language (such as calling people nutters, schizophrenics, or “accusing” them offensively of having Tourette Syndrome) I think that those without a presented background or deployment of theological or theistic terms should probably steer clear of using language derived from those things. Obviously this isn’t black and white, but there are some basic common-sense guidelines to proceed with. There is a reason that in universities across the country Jung is taught as a founding father of modern psychology, not a religious leader or theologian. Since you have an obvious understanding of the importance of healing, I am willing to make what I hope is not an erroneously leap in assuming that you actually have a preference for healing-over-harm. It is the opinion of many Polytheists, some of whom keep trying to communicate to you in a number of ways but many others of whom do not have a platform for such or the command of language the way that they perceive you to, that your engagements with our communities, our ideas and ideologies, and indeed our identifying language and descriptors, is actively causing harm, rather than promoting Jungian avenues of healing. There needs to be an understanding of things like religion and psychology as being separate from one another for either to exist at all with any intact and valid meaning.
Let me use an example, stepping outside of the realm of religion for a moment. Let’s pretend that what we’re discussing is roleplaying games Dungeons & Dragons, such as or Werewolf: The Apocalypse, or Champions. Let’s pretend that there is this group of prominent roleplaying voices, authors, developers, players, playtesters, and even artists — or the parents or spouses of hardcore gamers! — occupying a special little corner of the internet, pressing words and ideas out and generally celebrating through electronic connection our love of roleplaying games. Some of them might be writing about the mechanical aspects (d20 or d10 or d6, bitches?) while others might be throwing structured rule systems out the window altogether ala Diceless Amber and focusing on story and character cohesion, with an emphasis on the narrative side of things. Others still might be advocating for wargames as being in some way related, (but those people would be ridiculed until they started their own forums someplace else). And then there arises a topic of discussion across a number of blogs: the healthy and even life-saving qualities of roleplaying games in countless tens of thousands of people’s lives in the forty some odd years that they have existed in this way. The topic would address the transcendent quality of mere “entertainment fantasy games” into major structures of creative, psychological, sexual and social development, wherein players and storytellers alike can explore issues of moral or social consideration through the safety of a fictional environment, or even unconsciously work through real-life issues through fictionalized catharsis; battling dragons or hunting vampires or beating up space-monsters or solving sea-city Ripper style murders in a steampunk backdrop, thereby feeling empowered by their character’s exploits and successes (or learning from their failures!), when perhaps in their own lives the players are hit with the reality of unaffordable bills, a broken job market, a broken healthcare system, or chronic illness in their immediate family, issues which they are objectively helpless to address or resolve. Roleplaying games have long provided complimentary benefits to these and more, enriching the lives of gamers throughout the world.
But roleplaying games are not psychology. They are not overseen by trained professionals in safe environments. They do not have structures or controls in place to ensure the psychological or emotional or physical safety of those suffering from real and serious and imminently present psychological distress, diagnostically or otherwise. A major element of what makes the enriching and healing and empowering quality of roleplaying games so damn effective and transcendent is the very fact that they are games and are intentionally fictional in structure and flow. They are not real. And every single major roleplaying book ever published has a whole section addressing this fact: blurring the line between “real life” and “roleplaying fantasy” is a dangerous and ill-advised thing.
Nevertheless, no psychologist in the world worth their weight in Prozac could argue the positive gain of a healthy creative development, of hobbies, of stable and consistent (regularly gathered) social peer groups, and so on. Nor can they argue against the potent healing power of the act of adopting the role of a person or situation outside of objective reality, for the purposes of healing and therapeutic progress… which is why psychologists have been using role-play in therapy for fucking ever. It is important when psychologists are discussing therapeutic role-play to emphasize the therapeutic structure and purpose of the exercise, and to clearly delineate the “start” and “end” of these periods of fantasy engagement. These techniques can be used in one-on-one sessions to help a person overcome social insecurity and find their voice in addressing somebody not physically present in the room, “rehearsing” what they might say to this person if they could (whether in preparation for an actual conversation, or for purely cathartic release, as in the case of somebody who has passed away and is no longer seen as conversationally accessible.) Similarly these techniques can be employed with returning soldiers and other trauma survivors in individual or group settings, or even in therapeutic theater groups for the purposes of working through shit. Role-play can also be highly effective for resolving psychological distress in a sexual context, and there are professionals who emphasize the safety and structure of that side of the work as well.
All of these examples showcase the transformative and transcendent power of role-play. None of them, however, is an example of a roleplaying game. If a therapeutic theater professional were to join a discussion about roleplaying games and attempt to equate these two endeavors, this would be universally seen as destructive and dangerous, as it detracts from the positive offerings and integrity of each of the two things — therapy and entertainment — and encourages some to take therapeutic exercises as merely “a game” or similarly encourages some to blur the lines between reality and fantasy in intentionally fictional roleplaying games. Both therapeutic theater or psychological role-play and games like Dungeons and Dragons are highly, highly important, but they are simply not the same thing, and to engender a connection or equation between them is fucking terrifyingly dangerous.
This is no different. (And, before I am taken out of context in this, the above is an apt illustration and nothing more: I am not in any way equating religion, Polytheist or otherwise, to role-playing games or entertainment, and in fact I will be writing about that issue in the near future.)
That Jungian psychology draws from language and structures Jung himself found in studying religion and spirituality is unavoidable, and that psychology itself has been proven time and again to be highly effective in treating illness or leading to a deeper and more profoundly healthy sense of stabilized and secure Self is similarly statistically inarguable. But that doesn’t make it a religion. It makes it a psychological tool that draws upon some religious flavors for an entirely different reason. Psychology can lead to religious experience, but that is not its design, nor its structured purpose.
Religions, especially Polytheistic and animist religions, may bring about healthy change and development in a person and in their communities, and indeed may draw communities together, but they are not primarily intended to help a humans with human concerns, internal or otherwise. They are intended by their very nature to be concerned with Other-than-human communion. Any psychological gain found in religious pursuit is a bonus, a boon for certain, but these should not be considered the primary goals or objectives of devotional religious practice… which is why priests around the world are ethically (and in some cases legally) required to refer clients or community members or congregants to medical or psychological professionals when faced with severe psychiatric distress. (This is even more true in Polytheism, where often the “effect” of experiencing the gods directly can appear as psychiatric distress, in what Rhyd refers to as “Divine Trauma”; being able to acknowledge a difference between psychological distress and religious experience is paramount to healthy and continued Polytheist traditions, where mental illness is not judged with stigma and bias, nor are signs of spiritual experience labeled as mental illness, even when the two may look similar.)
Polytheist religionists and spirit-workers are faced with many obstacles in the 21st century. One of them is that things like religious/spirit-possession — which psychology in proper practice accounts for in its diagnostic criterium when assessing a patient on intake — are faced with major stigma because of how they can “appear” or seem to an outside view, and similarly that since mental illness is a very real thing, there will be the temptation for some to find religious explanation for a diagnostic state that they would be better served seeking medical counsel around. This job is made insurmountably more challenging by authors like The Allergic Pagan, who continue to blur the line between psychology and religion; it is for the safety of people, and the integrity and learned intent of each of these two different pursuits that they must remain understood as separate from one another, even when they may have some overlapping (or borrowed!) avenues of employment. Priests around the world draw from the advancements of psychological understanding in offering counsel to their communities, but they would be ethically remiss if they thought that this meant that they offered the same thing as a clinically-trained staff of mental health professionals and diagnosticians, in the case of legitimate psychological distress and healing.
The author clearly doesn’t believe that his Jungian pursuits are theistic, and so his attachment to the term “polytheistic” makes no sense. In fact, he says so directly here, while nevertheless attempting to justify his use of the term:
But why call them gods? That’s a question I really didn’t get to when talking to Conor. The reason I call them “gods” is because I can’t think of any other word that adequately describes the overwhelming influence that these powers have over our lives. [snip] And that’s the other reason why I call them “gods” — because I respond to them the way I would to a god, by honoring them in sacred ritual. And invoking these “gods” can have the same effect within me that many people experience by praying to traditional gods, such as emotional healing and personal transformation. Can they help me get a job or a lover? Of course they can: by helping me to change, so I can change my circumstances. So that’s where the -theism part of the “Jungian polytheism” comes from.
Which kind of reads like another way of saying “‘Polytheism’ is a really cool word, and it totally means important things to people, and since I can’t come up with anything applicable to what I am discussing that also means really important things, I am going to borrow it and defend this irrationally and then ‘put quotes around it’ so I can get away with it”. This argument is sort of like a medical nutritionalist deciding that since different food groups are very important in a balanced diet, the different food groups should be called nutritional pantheons, and therefore the different foods in each group are gods, creating the new-fangled religio-medical field of cross-pantheonic nutritional polytheism (CPNP!) which is just fucking silly, because the field of nutrition is in no way served by trying to reinvent itself as a religion (nor is religion overall in any way bettered by being equated to dietary discourse or calculation). Similarly it would be like saying “I really like the company and companionship of dogs, and a part of my soul is completed when I am embracing such a canid, or running with one on a trail. I don’t have a word for this, so I think I’ll call it zoophilia, even though I don’t in any way attribute sexuality to this thing at all. I’ll just call it that because -philia means something really important to a lot of people, and lacking any actual word to define my fondness for dogs, I’ll just co-opt this inappropriately applied term and then get in a bunch of internet flame wars defending it, or get misunderstood and arrested by somebody who doesn’t get that I don’t mean it that way”. (Again, not comparing polytheism to sex with animals, either.)
One reason why I feel that a lot of Polytheist religionists are seeking to distance themselves from mainstream Paganism or Neo-Paganism is that many “Big Tent” Pagans seem intent to equate their Paganism to everything but religion. Many of them seem to strive for religious recognition from outsiders but eschew any structure or behavior suggesting actual lived theistic religious pursuit internally, far more interested in equating things with psychology or with magic or with non-theistic philosophical pursuit. A large movement of Polytheists today are beginning to organize into religions and religious communities, rather than merely loose confederacies of socially-identified groups with anything-goes sentiments. These Polytheist developments are not interested in destroying or detracting from the meaning of other groups or fields (such as Jungian psychological archetypes!) but instead separate themselves as being interested in different things. These interests have been met with hostility and assault and now the basic theft of language, in an attempt to further blur the lines between religion and everything else. But this present writing isn’t about Polytheists, per se, so I digress.
I really, really wish that more people had an understanding of (and access to resources to provide guidance in) Jungian psychology, as well as other tools of incredibly helpful psychology and psychotherapy. In fact, almost every single Polytheist that I know well can attest to the fact that I am constantly advocating for an increase in psychological awareness and sensitivity and pursuit within Polytheistic circles, so that the oft-overlooked human sides of issues — whether individual, behavioral, emotional, or social-collective — can be addressed and resolved in ongoing continuum to allow for the unsullied theological and structural developments of our Polytheistic religious endeavors. I firmly believe, and regularly fucking advocate for the stabilizing of human elements in religious life (e.g. psychological considerations, sociological engagements or resolutions), as preliminary foundation work before leading up to direct theistic engagement, when such a period of time is possible (e.g. before the gods pluck a fucker up and have Their way with them). Similarly I would love to see — but do not dogmatically insist upon — people primarily interested in non-theistic, non-religious pursuits to explore where religion might fit in their lives, and what a devotional practice might bring to their lives, and to the continued relations that they hold with their ancestors, with the spirits of the land that they inhabit, and so forth.
The key thing here is that everyone has need of (or at the very least, place for!) both religion and psychology, just as a person can both play Dungeons and Dragons and dress up like a fucking Ninja Turtle for kinky bondage sex with their local pro-sub, and show up at their psychological counselor’s office to do some therapeutic role-play of a conversation that they really really really wish they had had with their deceased child before it was too late; involvement with all three of these does not in any way threaten the existence of the others, but similarly, a hard and understood-as-solid boundary between them is vital for the healthy engagement with either. (A psychologist is less likely to be comfortable with your crotchless Ninja Turtle costume as your pro-sub, and your pro-sub might be less interested in your dice than your gamer buddies from across the way, unless you have a really awesome pro-sub, in which case, don’t fuck that shit up.)
So, anyway. The point here (I swear I still have one) is that things are different than one another because there are many things, and attempting to make them all one thing is dangerous, injurious, and mathematically unsound. It doesn’t make sense, and it will always hurt somebody, and frequently it is an unhelpful shortcut in actually communicating what you are trying to promote in your pursuits. (I am guessing that it is not the author’s intent to drive people away from further engagement with Jungian concepts, for example, and yet that is exactly what is happening.) Attempting to present psychology as religion only succeeds in weakening the value and meaning of both of these things, when there is absolutely no reason why they cannot just be treated as separate and encouraged to exist together in a person’s life or framework(s) for living, devotionally and interpersonally and spiritually and socially and psychologically. Attacking the space between these things can lead to not only a degradation of meaning and structural integrity and the alienation of people on either side of the topic, but it is just senseless and trollish and as with all trollish behaviors on the internet, invariably indicates some unresolved internalized insecurities. Now as I am not in the business of calling anyone I’ve never met insecure (ha) I will not assume that this is the case with the author, and instead assume that he just doesn’t really understand how two things are not the same thing, which is why they are two things. (Pert Plus being the only exception this rule, ever, outside of syncretic polytheism.)
So please, please… think about these things, about the space between religion and psychology. It is perfectly fine (and even probably useful) to discuss that space, where there is overlap — and in fact I once spent years doing exactly that within my psychological and sociological academic pursuits — but it is an ethical imperative that we all of us strive to delineate and differentiate these structures from one another, for the sake of the very people we as authors, leaders and voices, are supposing to help with our written endeavors.
Disclaimers: I do not endorse the view that religion and roleplaying games have a comparable relationship to one another outside of abstract illustrative metaphor, and in fact, I find that (as with psychology and religion) these areas can sometimes be blurred to a dangerous and harmful extent. Further, I do not endorse nor advise sexual cruelty to animals, or any cruelty to animals, nor the sexual objectification of animals, nor do I advise or support the co-opting of linguistic identifiers which describe the sexual fetishism of human-to-animal sexual encounter for any purpose at all. I also did not intentionally mean to fetishize Ninja Turtles for anyone, or for that matter shame anyone who already does so and owns crotchless Ninja Turtle kink attire.