Bad Math

Posted: December 1, 2015 in Uncategorized

I often criticize the attempt to define something by what it is not. For example, it’s illogical to define “red” by saying “a primary color that isn’t blue or yellow”. However, when people keep consistently missing the point and abusing language and meaning, sometimes it’s necessary to do so.

“Polytheism” is the religious regard for, and acknowledgment of, many gods.

Polytheism is not reductive, even if paired with a cosmology or philosophy which holds to a belief in a singular substance/source of all things (e.g. a divine vat of Playdough or the Big Bang or a festering corpse from a giant llama that died before creation and from which sprang All), because Polytheism is a -theism, not a random #-ism. It isn’t Polyism, it is PolyTHEISM, meaning that it is a religious consideration centered around the gods; it is by and large disinterested in things which are not the gods. That doesn’t mean that those other considerations are null and void (such as examining other things which are not gods, such as grains of rice, agriculture, horticulture, sex with a blender, or a festering llama corpse hung from your child’s basketball net) but rather that they are not part of a Polytheistic lens of consideration and discourse. It turns out that being a Polytheist doesn’t prevent one from also drinking coffee (protip: Folgers is not a god) or operating machinery (also not gods) or going to the post office (definitely not gods). Similarly, there is room in some Polytheisms for a substance monism. But that is not in and of itself a Polytheism, nor is is particularly relevant in the consideration of Polytheistic theological or practical “things”.

Polytheist religion is also not atheistic academic banter, or debates about mythology, or post-Christian writing. Those would be, just like Folgers and festering llama corpses, OTHER things.

There may be intersections between considerations of many gods (Polytheism) and other-than-theistic considerations (such as Folgers) but that doesn’t make the one into the other. That makes them an intersection.

Similarly, that two gods share a syncretic relationship does not make them one god, although a single god may in fact spring from such syncretism… which, in such a case, would mean a third god, not the loss of the initial two (or more).

Polytheist religion is expansive and even exponential; it is inclusive, rather than restrictive and reductive. It is relational; that is, it is about relationships between things (plural, many), and not about the reduction of these relationships into smaller numbers of things. The models of the individuality of the gods — and their relationships to us, and ours to them — are similarly apart from relationships with other things (such as coffee, coffee companies, and spirits).

Polytheist religion has spirits, some of whom may well also be gods, others of whom descend from gods, others of whom host the gods within themselves, just as we humans and human-shaped-creatures sometimes do, in process of possession. Some are ancestors or wrathful dead, others are quirky personalities residing in objects the secular world might consider inanimate. In this way, Polytheist religion often overlaps, or runs alongside congruently, various animist understandings.

It is about many things. Not one things, not some things, not an ever reducing number of things.

If you don’t like math, that’s okay: you’re not required to count.

Polytheist religion cannot be counted; it is too big to count.

So if you like math? Fantastic, there’s lots of math here. Don’t like math? Great! Stop trying to count all the things. It is often enough to acknowledge that there are many of them, and that they exist, and that you may (or may not) know and count some of that many. (Example: I like coffee, but I do not like Folgers coffee. That does not mean that Folgers coffee does not exist, nor would it be sensible to assume that my coffee, being coffee, is the same as Folgers coffee, which is a different sort of thing entirely. Further, my taste in coffee may not be congruent with others, because our universe has many tastes in coffee. I do not need to know all the types of coffee to acknowledge that there are many of them; I gain little in attempting to count all of the types of coffee, and similarly, my failure to properly account for every specific type or expression or taste of/in coffee does not invalidate them, nor put them in contest with other facets of reality.) Attempts to negate the many (gods, coffees) by collapsing them telescopically into less many is bad math. Stop that.

Stop doing bad math in the name of religious discourse.

  1. It’s good to see you writing again…

    One of the main reasons this piece was a contentious one when I first submitted it to its intended publisher (i.e. the one who requested I do it) was because the “math” portion of it was too hard to figure out for the publisher/editor in question, alas.

  2. greekpagan says:

    Really good piece!

    I love this: “[T]hat two gods share a syncretic relationship does not make them one god, although a single god may in fact spring from such syncretism… which, in such a case, would mean a third god, not the loss of the initial two (or more).” Such a succinct explanation of a complex concept!

  3. DeoMercurio says:

    True story: A month or two ago I was staying at a sort of boutique-y bed-and-breakfast in Ste Genevieve, Missouri. (Neat old French colonial town.) And at breakfast they bring out coffee, obviously, and of course I drink it. And I think, huh! It’s smooth. It’s well-balanced. It’s got light acidity, not a whole lot of bitterness, but enough to keep things interesting. It’s really tasty. So we ask, “What kind of coffee is this?” The B-and-B owner says, “Folger’s Classic Roast. We get a lot of compliments on it.” I was just about bowled over.

    I still prefer my fair trade Nicaraguan dark roast. But, Theanos … I’m starting to wonder … does this mean that all coffee is really just Folger’s? Maybe on a profound, mystical, touchy-feely level, could it be an emanation from the Ur-Folger’s of the deep? Or are other coffees just a sign from the One True Brewer, left in his mercy and wisdom to show us the way? :-/

  4. Julian says:

    I have lately been thinking about Polytheism (big P) as being about potential, as well as actuality. Simply allowing for the possible presence of multiple divinities is sufficient, in my rendering, to qualify as Polytheism. The total number of Gods is both unknown and immaterial, and fussing over how many are required/actual/known Gods there are is unhelpful. A system that acknowledges a single “known” deity while also allowing for the possibility of other “unknown” or even “false” Gods could be understood as Polytheistic since it acknowledges the possibility of other Divine presences. Polytheism then is, necessarily, ambiguous and tense, possessing multiple centers of /truth production/, real or imaginary. Indeed, the imaginary and the “fasle” may even be the most powerful elements of a Polytheistic worldview.

    • I agree with a lot of what you’re saying here, and it’s part of what I’ve been trying to communicate: Polytheism, when approached in a certain way, is about a radically inclusive and exponentially expansive set of virtually unrestricted potentialities; the only requisite in this is that it is defined in the correct fashion, which is merely “the affirmed and acknowledged religious regard for many gods”, and does not necessitate worshipping any specific number of them, or naming any specific combination(s) of them. A person could be a Polytheist without knowing ANY gods, or having ANY system of divine organization (e.g. nations of spirits, choirs of agents, pantheons of gods, etc), so long as their basic core -theistic lens is one which “affirms and acknowledges with religious regard” that there [are/may be] many gods.

      In this way, “there are many gods” and “there may be many gods” are identical statements, as neither positions the agent-observer outside of the potentiality of the uncountable divine, nor prohibits them from relation in the future (or present) with any such combinations.

      The issue is not in struggling to define Polytheism, but rather, to help people to clarify when they are in fact not discussing -theistic engagements at all. For example, when a Catholic attempts to argue that their religion is Monotheistic, they are confused about what the terms mean. (Clarifying piece: I defend VICIOUSLY the rights of Catholics to -identify individually- as Monotheists, and do not see it as any person’s place to obstruct self-applied identifying language. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re using the most accurate language available, however, and in respecting identity term selection, I can still call for a critical discussion of the meanings of words.) The Catholic faith is one with many spirits and divinities, including angels (the vast majority of which are divinities and lesser-deities themselves) and so forth. It is therefore by definition NOT Monotheistic, in a literal sense. Nor is any other tradition so aligned.

      However there are some who would argue that the Monotheism of Christianity is maintained by recognizing that all of the religious and spiritual elements — god, angels, etc — are metaphors for the universe, and the “God” exists outside of such considerations. Which is of course a perfectly reasonable (and vaguely gnostic) suggestion, however, it is not actually a -theistic premise at all. It’s an “other-than-theistic” or even “non-theistic” stance. It is not Monotheism, or any other kind of -theism, in that stage of thought or regard: it’s Monistic.

      The existence of an other-than-theistic mode of consideration — such as is found in gnostic process — does not force Monotheism, nor negate Polytheism; because an other-than-theistic mode of consideration is NOT assessing theistic things. It would be like saying that a person going into the forest to study rocks is denying the existence of the trees, simply because they’re there for geological reasons not directly focused on the squirrels residing in the trees. Different lenses of consideration, examination, and engagement are necessary — and nuanced — and how we should be driving the discussion, so as to avoid all this bullshit.

      • If people got more comfortable accurately identifying what it is that is being talked about or engaged — theistic vs other-than-theistic considerations for example — then we’d really be able to “get somewhere” in theological discourse. But people get stuck in the familiarly circular trap of just dick-swinging on all of this.

        If archetypes are being discussed, regardless of whether they’re being called by the same names as gods, it is not gods who are being discussed. It is a realm of psychological theory. Not religion. Not -theism. When a Humanist is discussing “Odin as archetype”, they are no more discussing Odin the god than a boar-bristle beard brush for sale on Amazon called “ZEUS” is, in fact, the god Zeus. A hair-brush whose product model is called Zeus is not the god Zeus. An archetypal concept called Odin is not the god Odin. Discussions of archetypes are, and should be, discussions about archetypes… if only the ones having them would learn to identify them as other-than-theistic, rather than attempting to assault the fabric of OTHER conversations or modes of agencied engagement (which ARE theistic) for self-referential purposes.

        The collective conversation (from the standpoint of Polytheists’ engagement) needs, I think, to lead the charge in assessing -theistic from other-than-theistic distinctions. When some yahoo is rambling about how gods are “just archetypes”, that’s not ANY different than somebody claiming that “Zeus is JUST a beard-brush! With such luxurious boar bristles!” Which is to say, they’re having a non-sense discussion, which should not be engaged with (if one’s intention is to push Polytheistic or even just -theistic considerations and theological topics forward).

        Not every conversation needs to be a -theistic conversation, and so it is possible to discuss archetypes without “offending and insulting” Polytheists; the easiest way to do this is recognize that the conversation is not a -theistic one, but a psychological or conceptual mythological one, and establish that as the narrative framework, rather than trying to drag OTHER topics (such as theistic ones) into a framework where they don’t fit. That is like the geologist in the forest trying REALLY hard to pull squirrels into geological classification: it just doesn’t work. Squirrels are not rocks, no matter how “rock colored” they might be, or how “rock hard” their frozen corpses may become in February.)

        But this isn’t, of course, just about — or even primarily about — outward/external discussions, but internal frameworks of understanding, relations, and regard.

        It is insufficient for the geologist to merely stop talking to wildlife rescue professionals about how squirrels are actually rocks and they — the rescuers — are just confused and wrong and not trying hard enough. The geologist must strive to internalize these as divergent spheres of consideration: rocks and mammals are not the same thing, and probably are different enough to warrant distinct disciplines. Which is why there are distinct disciplines to discuss and describe them.

        Similarly, the person discussing beard brushes needs to not only stop asserting that Zeus is a beard brush, but similarly, stop looking at their beard brush as though it is a god, or at gods as though they exist to boar through a gnarly beard.

        This is a basic critical standard that I really think we should start offering up as a basic requisite for opening one’s mouth, proverbially or otherwise, in discussions which are to be taken as serious.

        • Julian says:

          Equivocation is one of the most persistent tools in the sophist’s kit, though. I do agree that so much of the what at least had been going on when I was last active in the only community amounted to the blurring of discourses and and insistence that anything was religion as long as the speaker insisted it was. The idea that there is a psychological deployment of a term like “god” which is inconsistent with a its deployment religiously has simply been ignored, because meaning is an illusion.

      • Julian says:

        It appears to me that the popular monism described here, and over which there have been multiple skirmishes with in fairly recent memory (though a year is a decade in internet time and I am well out of the loop, now), persistently requires us to “count as one” the total set, regardless of its internal composition and potential. The Monist perspective is essentially exterior, regarding the whole alone from a singular position outside of it (and paradoxically included within it, and this paradox, I suspect, is a great source of Monism’s spiritual power).

        Whereas Polytheism as we have been discussing places the perspective internal to the system, and even if it should maintain the perspective’s singularity, it sets it along side other and multifarious perspectives. Polytheism works, perhaps, as a chain of conjunctions, I and You and Her and Him and This and That and ad infinitum. The total set is an unknown and unimportant quantity since it is in perpetual motion and expansion. Delueze and Guattari might term a Polytheism of this sort both rhyzomatic and schizophrenic.

  5. […] wrote, in the comments of a recent post of mine, that he has […]

  6. […] wrote, in the comments of a recent post of mine, that he has […]

  7. Ian Corrigan says:

    I think I agree, which one question. What do you mean by ‘a god’? Obviously the poets tell us of the Olympian family and their adoptions, but also of the Titans, etc. Most polytheistic cultures have parallels, but the category is not so easily defined in the fact of polytheist cult.

    Is a mighty ancestor enthroned in his mound also the concern of polytheism? How about the spirit of a great mountain, or the local Oldest Tree? It seems to me that such spirits were also the concern of traditional polytheism – sometimes more so than the more distant Olympians.

    So how does polytheism respond to animism? Is the spirit of the oak *in my front yard* as important to polytheism as is one of the High Ones with whom I have little relationship?

    • The Thracian often uses the term “polytheanimism” to describe his spiritual practice–I think your answer is in that.

    • Thanks for reading.

      As for the first question — what do I mean by ‘a god‘ — I have a long and humble history of professionally withholding comment from this, as I do not necessarily see attempts to define the category of being called “gods” to be terribly fruitful. It is not that I consider it an impossible aim, but rather, an aim that is -popularly- problematic, only because it would require use of specialized (read: educated, correctly employed, honorably debated) discourse, which the blogging world of the internet is simply NOT the environment for. And so, as ever, I offer no distinctive definition of what “a god” is; but rather, I posit categorically that a god is *not* something which can be more readily described in another fashion, by which I mean things like psychological archetypes or hair-brushes or squirrels. A god is not a squirrel, but certainly there are gods of squirrels, and gods who appear as squirrels, and gods who eat squirrels, and indeed probably gods who hate them as bitter foe. Similar with hair brushes. It is adequate for the reasonable conversation aimed for theologically sound education, outreach, religious development and (most specifically) harm reduction which is the purpose of my writing in this platform, to refrain from defining “gods” beyond this.

      Next up, you say:

      “[o]bviously the poets tell us of the Olympian family and their adoptions, but also of the Titans, etc. Most polytheistic cultures have parallels, but the category is not so easily defined in the fact of polytheist cult.”

      The Titans are gods. So are the Giants. It is erroneous to attribute the idea of “gods” only to the popular state cult — e.g. that of the Olympians — when our own understanding of Hellenic religions (there were more than one… there was no such thing as “pan-Hellenic polytheism” in the ancient world) within our libraries and scholarship offer extant records of non-Olympian deities receiving worship, shrine, and temple. The word “god” is Germanic and means, in short order, “that which we pour libations to“, or more succinct to probable intention (but less literally) “that which is to receive worship“. The term “theism” however comes from “theoi“, a category of beings which goes WELL beyond “Olympians” in the parent culture which gave us this word, and included MANY beings, not all of which lived up on a lofty heavenly mountainous plateau. (Some were positively wicked. Gaia, for example. Hail, to the great mother’s wrath! Hail, to She who would destroy all of Creation to correct the dishonors done unto Her children!)

      Next, you say

      “[i]s a mighty ancestor enthroned in his mound also the concern of polytheism? How about the spirit of a great mountain, or the local Oldest Tree? It seems to me that such spirits were also the concern of traditional polytheism – sometimes more so than the more distant Olympians.”

      To which I say, as I have always said in my writing — which you seem to be new to, so no worries — of course these are concerns and considerations with Polytheist religion. This is why nearly everything that I write includes references to ancestor cults and local spirits. The subject I am most focused on teaching about is “regional cultus“, which includes quite specifically focus on the relationships between gods, ancestors, and local (land) spirits.

      However, not all dead people are ancestors; there are (tradition and culture specific) rites of elevation which -make- them such, and absent these rites, they may just linger on as spirits here, or elsewhere. Further still, some particularly potent ancestors are elevated beyond “ancestor” class into a category of deity: the great Antinous, for example, and (as I understand it) the Caesars. The Pharaohs, as well, are deified in cult after death, for they held the Kingly Ka in life.

      In Kongo religion there are categories of beings who were once human, cycled through and later became great ancestor spirits, and then after a while of being that, became “twice died” (meaning that there is a continuity of being after human corporeal life, and that the ancestors reside in a place or setting where they can “die” again) and elevated to an even further-up-the-chain spiritual state and realm, closer to the gods. These, in turn, could — I think — possess the spirits of ancestors at the category of being beneath it, in order to more directly influence the material world, by using that spirit’s “nearer” access to this world to aid in certain things. Greek religion has nearly identical frameworks (of successive/sequential “reach” between worlds/states).

      At the top of my blog, in the upper left corner, under the the title “Thracian Exodus”, the word “Polytheanimist” appears. I am a Polytheist and an Animist, both; it is my biased view that these are basically requisitely paired, but in recognition that others might not see it this way, I have coined a new term for it. Polytheanimism.

      Finally, you ask

      “[s]o how does polytheism respond to animism? Is the spirit of the oak *in my front yard* as important to polytheism as is one of the High Ones with whom I have little relationship?”

      This is where the disciplines of discernment I have written about so often (again, and again, and again) come into play: the tree in your front yard is probably not a god. It is a spirit of an oak, as you say. It can be venerated, beloved, and even centrally sit as focus in your local cult: but that doesn’t make it a god. It might be particularly sacred to a god, or group of gods; it might be where certain gods choose to receive their offerings, or indeed it may be a place (and a spirit) through which gods reach through into this world. Animism is about understanding the spirits in [most] things, and the relationships between them; Polytheism is about understanding animism as existing within a certain contextual sequence, order, or — unpopularly in the unwashed minds of many within modern Neo-Paganism — hierarchy. Polytheist religion is, as I have written and published my views on, most centrally “religion of relations“.

      A tree is not a god, but it has a spirit, and that spirit may be beloved of the gods. It also may be entirely irrelevant to the gods. A person may much love their relationship with a tree (and it’s contained spirit), whether or not the gods care for that tree at all; the theism of Polytheism does not override or delete or negate a person’s much beloved relationship with the spirit of a tree (or a spouse, or a child, or a neighboring pod of orcas).

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