I have read an article, entitled, “Neopaganism, Feminism, and the New Polytheism,” written by Norman L. Geisler, that infuriated me. The amount of misunderstanding that people have about the different kinds of theism and related concepts is maddening. Therefore, I decided to clear up the confusion and point out the problem with his evaluation of polytheism. This is not just important for philosophically oriented people, but for writers, as well. It is not proper to look up a name of a god in another religion, plug it into a creative work and pretend that it is a replacement for the Christian or other God.
The following are the basic terms to remember. Monotheism is a belief in one god. It is the denial that there is more than one. In western religions, this god is transcendent; meaning that, God stands outside and above his creation. God is usually referred to as male in gender. God created the world, but stands over and above it. Hence, there is a clear distinction between God and his creation. This leads to dualism, a distinction between spiritual/mental and physical realms. Also, God may or may not have a relationship with the created world. If he is thought to have a relationship, he does this usually through revelations and miracles. On the other hand, he may be perceived as having no close ties with the world. For example, the deists believe that God created the world, but does not intervene, at all.
As opposed to monotheism, polytheism recognizes the multiplicity of gods. They exist in the world either as actual beings or as symbolic representations or personifications of certain powers. Often times, these gods coexist and have similar status in their world. In henotheism, one god is often elevated above all other gods. This god is thought to be more important than the others. In Hinduism, Krishna, Shiva or Yama often achieves this elevated status. In Greek mythology, Zeus is often thought to take this position. In polytheism and henotheism, there are both male gods and female goddesses. In ancient times, people performed rituals, offered sacrifices and evoked the gods for help or for favors. In modern times, the offerings of sacrifices are no longer done. Despite the multiplicity of gods/goddesses in polytheism and henotheism, there is a belief in an underlying unity of reality. Reality is one. Basically, the system denies dualism because dualism splits reality into spiritual/mental and physical realms. Instead, it embraces the idea of oneness where the separation into multiplicity exists on the surface only, mostly argued as a result of perception and cognition. For the polytheists and henotheists, the world is both imminent and transcendent in nature. Basically, the oneness of reality does not allow the Ultimate—The One, The Ground of Being, God, Brahman, Sunyata—to transcend the world. If it is truly one, it is everywhere and nowhere in specific. Of course, with the passing of time, the interpretation of certain systems may change. For example, Ramanuja and Madhva in the Advaita Vedanta of Hinduism developed a qualified and non-qualified dualism of Brahman. Also, Baruch Spinoza made pantheism popular in the 17th century where God is imminent, identified with nature. At the end, though, the major difference between monotheism and polytheism is that while the monotheist believes that there is one God; the polytheist believes that God (the Ultimate) is one.
The reason Geisler’s article infuriated me is because he does not make proper distinctions amongst the above mentioned concepts. For example, he claims on page six, that monotheism is superior to polytheism because polytheism is in denial of ultimate unity and because it is in denial of creationism. Firstly, polytheism is not in denial of unity. In fact, monotheism is more in denial of unity than polytheism is. Monotheism leads to dualism while polytheism embraces monism. This means that the monotheist is forced to live in the duality of spiritual/mental and physical realms while the polytheist, denying this duality, is free to exist in the unity of oneness of reality. Hence, polytheism recognizes the unity of all more than monotheism. Secondly, polytheism does not recognize creationism because there is not a transcendent God to create the world. In Hinduism, the world is a facet or expression of Brahman. Since Brahman is one, the world is also Brahman. It is more appropriate to think that the world came to be much like a spider’s creation of a web where both the spider and the web are ultimately one. Moreover, Geisler complains that a pagan fails to submit to the Ultimate God. But, she actually does! A pagan recognizes the oneness of reality and admits to the fact that reality is both imminent and transcendent in nature. In fact, most pagans are environmentalists because they are aware of the importance of protection of nature, as nature is part of the harmonious oneness of reality.
It would be great if people understood and used the required concepts before critiquing a system of belief. It is important to get the different theisms and related ideas right first. This is a great lesson for writers, as well. It is inappropriate to pick, for example, Sarasvati; the Hindu goddess of inspiration of music, poetry, drama and science; and, pretend that she fills a role similar to the Christian God. Although, musicians still pray to her before a performance, she is not like a Christian God. She does not create a world and watches it from heaven! She represents a specific power of the oneness of reality that the Hindus refer to as Brahman. Therefore, it is important for all writers to research and to be careful when using theistic concepts. I hope that my venting helped to clarify some ideas. Happy writing!
M. J. Mandoki