Please note: As explained in my follow-up to this post, the author of the article I criticize here has since addressed the issues I’ve raised, and I’m very happy to consider this matter resolved.
I consider myself to be situated somewhere in the left-wing libertarian quadrant of the political spectrum, and I generally enjoy most of the things I read on Gods & Radicals, a fairly new Pagan liberal news website. However, I just came across their article, Confronting the New Right, and while I agree with much of what it says, I do take issue with one claim in particular. In one section of the article, the author (whose name and publication date do not seem to be included for some reason) describes how some of the different subgroups within Paganism can be susceptible to right-wing influences. He or she then has this to say about devotional polytheism:
Devotional Polytheism: Similar to the problems in Reconstructionism, but with an extra dimension. Because Devotional Polytheism places final authority in ‘the gods’ and emphasises hierarchical relationships (between human and god, priest and devotee), ethical questions cannot be challenged by concerned people because ‘the gods will it.’
I happen to be familiar with many people who consider themselves devotional polytheists – including several of my own family members – and this description applies to almost none of them. It certainly doesn’t apply to me; in fact, it only applies to a handful of individuals of whom I am aware, but have never met face-to-face (and with whom I have no interest in meeting or conversing at any point). I can tell you that every polytheist in my own family tree is pretty staunchly against the Right.
It seems like the term “devotional polytheist” is becoming a “dirty word” among some of the more outspoken Pagan figureheads, and I can’t seem to figure out why for the life of me. When I refer to myself by this term, I am using it in the simplest way possible. I am a “polytheist” because I believe there are many Gods (though I leave it for others to debate what the Gods actually are), and I am “devotional” because my spirituality revolves around praying and making offerings and keeping shrines to Them (i.e., I don’t really care about magic or spellwork, except when it comes to execration rituals). That’s all there is to it, man. Yes, I worship a Force of Nature that I consider to be infinitely greater than myself, and I believe I’ve been appointed to serve as a priest of this awesome Being; but guess what? Everyone else in my tradition is clergy as well. There is no laity in LV-426 for us to stratify. We make all of our group decisions democratically, and even when we do interact with laity – which for us means anyone who isn’t a devout Seth worshiper – we never treat them like we have all the answers or that they should just do whatever we say. Furthermore, our chief God is not the sort of God who gives commandments or who threatens to punish anyone for disobedience. I can’t speak for other devotional polytheists who are devoted to different Gods, but the idea of mixing Seth and hierarchy has never made any sense to me personally.
Granted, I can see the point this person is trying to make: it is certainly easier to enforce some kind of stratified hierarchy when you believe in a God who has absolute power over you. But here’s my problem: most polytheistic religions do not believe that the Gods have absolute power. Usually, it’s the younger and less powerful Gods who interact with human beings, while the most powerful ones have nothing to do with our day-to-day lives. And usually, even the Gods Themselves must follow certain rules (e.g., Ma’at, Wyrd, what-have-you) if They are to continue enjoying a happy existence. No polytheist religion of which I know has ever stated that the Gods are omnipotent; there are always limitations to Their power, even when it comes to the Creator Deities. And while some polytheist faiths have taught that human beings are intended to serve as “slaves” for the Gods, there are many other traditions in which we are conceptualized as Their descendants or younger relatives. There is usually some notion that we have a right to bargain with the Gods and make deals with Them (which is the meaning of the term “pact” or “covenant”). If the Gods do not reciprocate our love and good will as expressed through our prayers and offerings, we have a fundamental right to stop worshiping Them and pursue other options (e.g., other Deities, magic, etc.). So while it is certainly possible for devotional polytheists to enforce stratified hierarchies within their communities, I don’t think the potential for this is nearly so present as it is within exclusivist monotheist circles (which more often do consider their various Gods to have absolute power over their lives).
To his or her credit, the author of the Gods & Radicals article is careful to clarify that none of the Pagan subcurrents he or she discusses are “inherently aligned with the New Right.” The real point of the discussion is to identify ways in which each subcurrent is vulnerable to right-wing influence (which I think is fair). However, the author has plenty of good things to say about most of the other traditions he or she mentions. He or she clarifies that most Druids and Goddess worshipers are “fiercely feminist and egalitarian”; hell, he or she even mentions that Heathenry, despite drawing plenty of right-wing crazies to itself, “has a vibrant opposition to the New Right ideology.” But he or she has no apologia like this to offer concerning devotional polytheists; he or she simply states that we all place “final authority” in the Gods (while putting “the Gods” in air quotes), that we all emphasize hierarchical relationships, and that anything we believe about the Gods can never be questioned. While these things are certainly true of some individual devotional polytheists, they aren’t true of all or even most of us. Yet the author’s language here makes it seem like he or she thinks we are all silly quacks at best and dangerous lunatics at worst. If I had written this article, I would have phrased the statement differently; maybe like this:
While devotional polytheism can and often does exist within a socially and politically progressive context, it becomes potentially vulnerable to right-wing influence whenever an emphasis is placed on theological absolutism, clerical inerrancy, and/or the social stratification of its practitioners.
Or something like that, anyway. I guess my point here is that I too am concerned about right-wing influences creeping into devotional polytheism, but the way that Gods & Radicals has chosen to express this sentiment is extremely problematic. Making sweeping statements like the one I quoted above will only serve to alienate those devotional polytheists who, like me, side with the Left.