I realize that I am at the risk of turining my whole blog into just a House of Vines mirror site, but this is really, really good.
Posted in Religion, tagged Evangelism, Fear, Germany, Law, Mission, Missionaries, Mormon Missionaries, Mormonism, Neighborhood, Police, Proselytizing, Soliciting on September 4, 2013 | Leave a Comment »
Someone posted the following to our neighborhood message board last night:
Missionaries Knocking at Door
Tonight at 8:54pm, I heard a knock at my door. When asked who was at the door a man answered, ‘We are missionaries.’ Who ever heard of missionaries coming to your door at 8:54pm after dark? After refusing to open the door, I immediately went upstairs and looked out of my window and saw two people with very short hair dressed in long pants and long sleeve shirts with backpacks on (I assume they were both men). Can anyone shed some light on this?
Fair enough, right? I know who they were, obviously, but this lady doesn’t. I know that their curfew is 9pm, and that, while knocking on doors at 8:54 is an impolite exercise of bad judgment, it happens sometimes (I did it myself a time or two, but usually when it was still light outside in July in Germany). The lady’s concern and question are reasonable–strangers are knocking on her door and she wants to figure out who they are and why.
But the first response on the message board was this:
[T]his is extremely suspicious. I think you were wise to do what you did. Solicitors are allowed by County law only to approach homes before sunset or 5 PM, whichever is earlier. Moreover, church groups who engage in door to door proselytizing typically make the rounds in the morning hours, and I have never known any group of this kind to approach homes this late in the evening. In addition, I would be extremely suspicious of anyone identifying themselves as a missionary going door to door in this area, as missionaries typically work in underprivileged areas and underdeveloped countries. I suggest you call the police to report this so they are aware and can investigate.
Sigh. I’ll admit, I had a laugh. And then I did my best to set the record straight, clear up peoples’ concerns, and ask them to please not pester the police about it. But I don’t think I did any good: sadly, my neighbors seem intent on being scared even when there’s a perfectly good explanation for why they shouldn’t be.
Posted in Religion, tagged Adaptation, Ancestor Worship, Atheism, Birth Control, Body Mutilation, Cermony, Change, Charity, Christianity, Community, Culture, Dance, Economics, Education, Endorphins, environment, Euphoria, Fear, Gods, Greco-Roman Paganism, Greek Mythology, Health, Hellenic Polytheism, Holidays, Idiosyncracy, Initiation, Kate Douglas, Learning, Life, Localism, Modernism, Mystery, Mysticism, Myths, Nature, Nature Spirits, New Scientist, Pacifism, Paganism, Philanthropy, Polytheism, Progress, Reason, Religion, Ritual, Rodney Stark, Roman Polytheism, Saints, schism, School, Science, Secularity, Sex, Sexuality, Society, Therapy, Tolerance on April 4, 2011 | 12 Comments »
What form would the ideal religion take? Some might argue that instead of redesigning religion, we should get rid of it. But it is good for some things: religious people are happier and healthier, and religion offers community. Besides, secularism has passed its zenith, according to Jon Lanman, who studies atheism at the University of Oxford. In a globalised world, he says, migrations and economic instability breed fear, and when people’s values feel under threat, religion thrives.
Jacobs lists off four categories or basic functions of religion (sacred party, therapy, mystical quest, and school) and describes how most of the existing world religions do one of these very well and ignore or fail to excel at the others. Jacobs’s ideal religion would excel at all four:
While each appeals to a different sort of person, they all tap into basic human needs and desires, so a new world religion would have a harmonious blend of them all: the euphoria and sensual trappings of a sacred party, the sympathy and soothing balms of therapy, the mysteries and revelations of an eternal journey and the nurturing, didactic atmosphere of a school.
Numerous festivals, holidays and rituals would keep followers hooked. “Rites of terror” such as body mutilation are out – although they bind people together very intensely, they are not usually compatible with world religions (New Scientist, 19 December 2009, p 62). Still, highly rousing, traumatic rituals might still feature as initiation ceremonies, because people tend to be more committed to a religion and tolerant of its failings after paying a high price for entry.
The everyday rituals will focus on rhythmic dancing and chanting to stimulate the release of endorphins, which Robin Dunbar, also at Oxford, says are key to social cohesion. To keep people coming back, he also prescribes “some myths that break the laws of physics, but not too much”, and no extreme mysticism, as it tends to lead to schisms.
With many gods and great tolerance of idiosyncratic local practices, the new religion will be highly adaptable to the needs of different congregations without losing its unifying identity. The religion will also emphasise worldly affairs – it would promote the use of contraceptives and small families and be big on environmental issues, philanthropy, pacifism and cooperation.
I’m not sure about downplaying the value of mysticism or the necessity of pacifism, but the interesting thing (as pointed out by Sannion over at the House of Vines) is that Jacobs has basically described ancient Greco-Roman pagan religion.
As Apuleius Platonicus pointed out, Jacobs’s description is lacking in a few other areas as well. Such an ideal religion ought to honor human sexuality and celebrate reason and learning.
But these are honestly quibbles that could be worked out in the long run, or better yet, there would just be room within this kind of big-tent religion for different viewpoints. Most importantly, however, as pointed out by paosirdjhutmosu is that this kind of article and this kind of thinking undermines the notion of religions progress that people like Rodney Stark sell so hard, and that so many people seem to accept as a given, the idea that the course of human religious history has somehow been a linear progression from a darker mirror to a clearer one, and that therefore modern religions are necessarily better than older ones. Like all notions of progress, this is an extremely suspect assumption, with very little to back it up other than plain-old-fashioned massive bias in favor of the current status quo. Now must be better because it’s now. That’s nonsense. Social and cultural change happen for a host of reasons, and there’s nothing in the process that makes sure that the end-product is more functional or healthier for human beings.
I don’t think articles like this are going to turn people towards the old gods in massive numbers or anything, but I like that we see this kind of thinking more and more.
I also definitely want to point out that while this “ideal religion” describes ancient Greco-Roman polytheism fairly well, it wound not specifically have to be Greco-Roman polytheism. I for one would gladly welcome an open, mystical, transcendental, green Christianity with room to give proper honor to saints, angels, ancestors and local kindred spirits of the earth.
I had a dream when I was in high school, I guess fourteen or fifteen years ago, that I still remember more clearly than almost any other dream from that long ago.
I was walking home in the Knoxville neighborhood I grew up in–if you’ve ever been in a slightly run-down lower-middle/working class neighborhood in the South, you know exactly what it looks like. I was with my best friend at the time, and maybe with a few other people (my brother?), and we were walking around to the back of the house. I was aware that there was warning of an imminent nuclear attack. There might have been an audible siren, or it might have just been the impression of an audible siren.
But we walked around to the backyard, and there, laying in the back yard, just outside the window to my father’s studio, was an atomic bomb.
The bomb was made of wood, some light kind of wood like balsa or just a rotten log, and it looked like it had been roughly carved. It was about 15-20 feet long and 3-4 feet wide, roughly missile-shaped. A panel was open on the body of the bomb, with sort of a generic instrument array inside. Maybe flashing lights.
I remember the dread in the pit of my stomach–the world-shatteriing terror of coming dface to face with an armed atomic weapon. We all dove to the ground, aware for some reason that the only way we would survive this thing was to not look at the bomb, under any circumstances It was not clear or even important in the dream whether not looking at the bomb would actually prevent it from detonating, or if we would just survive the explosion. It was only crucuially important that we did not look.
Of course, I looked. I couldn’t help it. I looked, I peeked, I watched.
The whole world had gone still, but what I saw was a dog. A black dog. In fact, I saw a talking black dog, in the middle of a conversation, standing next to or maybe even on top of the armed atomic bomb. And I could not hear the conversation, but I knew the dog was talking about me.
Although I could not see dog’s conversation partner, I was also deeply andf unquestionably aware that the dog was talking to God.
Like I said, I couldn’t make out the conversation, and I could not hear God’s voice talking back to the dog. The only thing I caught was the dog saying, referring to me, “this one has his eyes open. This one can see.” It was not angry. The sense of it was more like a discussion about what should be done about me, because I was looking at the bomb when I was not supposed to, and I was seeing things that I was not supposed to see.
It was the kind of dream that you wake up from and feel changed by it, like it was profound and meaningful, even if you are not entirely sure what the dream meant. And I had the dream a long time ago, but I remember it as clearly as if I had it last night.
Posted in Spirituality, tagged Beauty, Brotherhood, Courage, Death, Divinity, Fate, Fatherhood, Fear, Forever, Friendship, God, Goddess, Gods, Greek Mythology, Hellenic Polytheism, Hellenic Reconstructionism, Honesty, Identity, Immortality, Joy, Kosmos, Life, Love, Loyalty, Manhood, Military, Mortality, Motherhood, Mysticism, Passion, Polytheism, Prayer, Reconstructionism, Relationship, Reputation, Sadness, Spirituality, Temperance, Terror, Universe, Values, Virtue, Virtue Ethics, Virtues, Works on December 19, 2009 | 3 Comments »
I am a Hellenic polytheist actively working out my spiritually while keeping a balance between reconstructing the ancient ways and moving forward boldly in living faith.
I believe that the gods are alive, that they take interest in the affairs of mortals, that they are approachable, personal–they hear our prayers and are capable of responding with infinite might and ultimate softness. I believe that by entering into relationships with them we can let their divine passion into our lives and be changed forever. I believe that we live in a world full of gods, and that when we wake up and see it for what it is, then only can we begin to fully understand and experience its beauty and terror.
I believe that virtue is eternal. I believe in honesty, loyalty, courage, and temperance. I believe in the the significance of fatherhood, motherhood, sisterhood, and brotherhood. I believe in friendship that transcends affinity. I believe that what we do, what we accomplish, our reputation, our deeds–these things matter; these things can live forever.
I believe in meeting my fate boldly and unafraid, in walking the path that the Kosmos has laid out for me without reservation or trepidation. I am not afraid to love, to fear, to feel joy and sadness, and I am not afraid to hate. I am unafraid to live life to the fullest, and to meet death when it comes.
I am a father, a husband, a son, a friend, and a brother. I am a soldier. I am a mystic. I am a man.
Posted in Religion, tagged 2008 Presidential Campaign, Belief, Bible, Blogging, Catholicism, Christianity, Church, Conservative Christianity, Conversion, Description, Discrimination, Dishonesty, Evangelicalism, Evil, Faith, Fear, Framing, God, History, Interfaith Dialogue, Jehovah's Witness, Jesus Christ, Latter-day Saints, LDS, Lutheran, Missionary Work, Mitt Romney, Mormonism, Persecution, Politics, Presidential Campaign, Protestant, Protestantism, Public Relations, Reading, Religion, Religious Discrimination, Roman Catholic Church, Roman Catholicism, Salvation, Semantics, Slander, Sociology, Soteriology, Southern Baptist, Teaching, Theology, Truth, Uncategorized on August 19, 2009 | 15 Comments »
The question of whether Mormons can be considered Christian is fairly central to interfaith dialogue, and is significant enough to have garnered national attention during the 2008 presidential campaign. It comes up every now and then on Tim’s most excellent blog, and as an ex-Mormon non-Christian who is nevertheless widely read and confident in his basic grasp of the world of religion and religious belief, I thought I would take a stab at untangling some of the mess. Fundamentally, the question and ensuing argument is an issue of semantics/framing: both sides are talking about something different when they talk about whether Mormons are Christians, and both sides feel like they have something extremely important–but again, totally different–at stake with regards to the answer. the resolution to the dispute is probably not as simple as forcing one or both sides to re-frame their dialogue, since the way it is framed is not arbitrary. But an awareness of the semantic mismatch and an understanding of why it matters to both sides would go a long way into at least setting the issue aside and reducing its potential for causing a ruckus.
From the individual Mormon’s perspective, I think there is a pathological fear of being misunderstood. I believe that a large number of Mormons, fed on Mormon historical accounts of mistreatment in the early days of the church and anecdotal hostility since then, fear that they will be discriminated against or that they will encounter hostility because of misinformation about Mormonism that has been perpetuated. In other words, a significant number of Mormons believe that 1) they face potential or present persecution, because of 2) lies, misinformation, and twisted truth about their religion. Thus, if they could get people to accurately understand who they are and what they were about, they would not be in danger. I think there’s also a belief that a large number of potential converts to the Church refuse to consider Mormonism as an option because of misinformation about it: indeed that the single biggest obstacle to the missionary effort is misunderstandings about the Church.
So, for the Mormon, it is important to promote accurate, descriptive picture of their religion for their safety and for the success of their missionary program. This is underscored and reinforced in the individual Mormon’s mind by the Church’s intensive and explicit public relations efforts over the last three or so decades. If the Church itself has been engaged so desperately in promoting a positive image, then it must be not only important and beneficial, but God’s intention for His Church.
So when the Mormon encounters a conservative Christian that says “Mormons are not Christians,” alarm bells go off. The Mormon, in this encounter, wants first and foremost to be descriptively understood: he wants to correct misunderstandings because he believes misunderstandings lead to persecution and prevent the missionaries from touching the hearts of the people they contact and teach. The Mormon believes, descriptively, that he is a Christian: in fact, he believes that his Church is actually the Church established by Jesus Christ, and from a dictionary/encyclopedia-standpoint, that makes Mormons Christians. To say otherwise is to spread damaging lies such as that Mormons do not believe in Jesus Christ, share Christian values, or believe in the Bible. And if those lies get (further) spread, individual Mormons will be persecuted because they are misunderstood and the missionaries will not be able to reach the people who are looking for the Truth.
(Lurking here is the presumption that if Mormons were correctly understood that they would not be persecuted except at the hands of the truly evil, and that the missionaries would be able to teach and baptize exponentially more people).
This also means–and this is crucial–that when the Mormon confronts someone who still insists that Mormons are not Christians despite being exposed to an accurate description, the Mormon is likely to conclude that the person is being aggressively dishonest, and intentionally slandering the Church.
Now, there may be some people out there like that, but most of them are well-known heads of countercult ministries, or pissed-off ex-Mormons who (whether they are justified or not), are angry enough to lash out by saying anything bad about the Church that they can. whether or not it is true (though they are usually not also conservative Evangelicals, so they are not really relevant to the topic). But most theologically conservative Christians who insist on the non-Christianity of Mormonism despite an accurate picture of what the Church believes and teaches do not do so because of an evil motive. There is a misunderstanding here, because when the Mormon and the Evangelical talk about the question of whether or not Mormons are Christians, they are not really talking about the same thing. The Mormons are talking about “Christianity” from a descriptive, historical, and sociological point of view, whereas the Evangelical is talking about “Christianity” from a theological point of view. I shall attempt to explain.
Conservative Protestants, as a general rule, do not believe that denomination matters. They do not believe that salvation is found in the Lutheran Church, or the Southern Baptist Convention, or in their Evangelical Free Congregation. Conservative Protestants believe salvation is found only in the person of Jesus Christ. Mormons believe that salvation is only available through Jesus Christ too, but they believe that the road to that salvation (or exaltation, whatever, semantics) is only available through the Church’s teachings and sacraments. To a conservative Protestant, a denomination has other meanings, but very few if any would try to claim that any one denomination is the “one true church,” because the one true church is Christianity, in other words, those followers of Jesus who have embraced his gospel and have found salvation through faith on his name. Mormons (and other exclusive denominations like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and, more often than not, the Roman Catholic Church) do not fit into this category because their understanding about the nature of Jesus Christ and the means of salvation are radically different: just the claim that it can only be found in fullness in one organization is enough to completely disqualify Mormonism.
In other words, Mormons don’t understand why Evangelicals won’t acknowledge Mormonism’s Christianity because Mormons do not realize what is at stake. Evangelicals do not think of themselves as Lutherans or Presbyterians or Nondenominationals, at least not in terms of their primary spiritual identity. They may recognize that as a matter of history they are members of a specific denomination (if they are) and that they have been designated “Protestant,” but their primary way of thinking about themselves religiously is as a Christian. Again, to a conservative Protestant, specific denomination does not matter. What matters is whether you are a Christian. This means a Protestant is free to move between denominations as much as he wants without worrying about it, as long as the denominations are teaching Christianity. Not Christianity in the sense of “a religion about Jesus,” but in the theologically significant sense of “the way to Jesus.” Mormons may talk about and believe important things about Jesus, enough for sociologists and librarians to categorize them as Christians, but what they teach and believe about Jesus is significantly different enough to make it a different religion than the one that conservative Protestants are practicing. I know of no Mormon that would dispute this. What the Mormon thus fails to understand is that the conservative Protestant calls his religion “Christianity.”
So when the Evangelical meets a Mormon who claims that Mormonism is Christian, the Evangelical hears the Mormon claiming that they have the same religion. That is flat-out not true, and it’s obvious by even a fairly cursory examination. So the Evangelical concludes that the Mormon is trying to be deceptive: trying to claim to be theologically compatible so as to lure converts into a religious organization that is actually an entirely different animal. It looks like a bait-and-switch, using the Evangelical’s faith as the bait. Understandably, this irks the Evangelical. Furthermore, the Evangelical is justifiably concerned about his friends and family and assorted loved ones: as conservative Protestants they operate in a religious environment where, provided the denomination is Christian (in the Protestant theological sense), one is free to switch from denomination to denomination without necessarily jeopardizing one’s salvation. When the Mormon Church claims to be Christian and insists that Evangelicals agree that it is, the Mormon Church creates a situation wherein Evangelicals may be lured into something they never meant to get involved in. And with Mormonism’s “milk-before-meat” missionary policy, it is not an unreasonable fear. And eternal salvation is at stake.
The Mormon may ask, “why do the Evangelicals get to decide what Christian means? Why can’t they just call their religion something else? Then there wouldn’t be a problem.” But that’s a particularly disingenous claim from a Church that sets a great store by the name of their religion. Like Mormons, conservative Protestants believe their religion is the one true religion. However, unlike Mormons, Protestants do not set theological significance by the organizational boundaries of a denomination. So the conservative Protestant’s religion is not the same thing as his denomination. He may be categorized historically as a Protestant, but he, like the Mormon, believes that he is in fact a true follower of Jesus Christ, a designation which he shares with people who have a common understanding of doctrine and practice, and since they believe they are the only true followers of Jesus Christ, they call their religion “Christianity.”
Posted in Spirituality, tagged Actaeon, Aktaion, Anxiety, Aphrodite, Apollo, Artemis, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Children, Deer, Destruction, Diana, Divinity, Euphoria, Fear, Female, First Slayer, Forgiveness, Full Moon, Gnosis, God, Goddess, Hunt, Huntress, Luna, Malevolence, Meditation, Moon, Mysticism, Neo-Paganism, Neopaganism, Paganism, Prayer, Primal, Primordial, Revelation, Sacrifice, Savage, Sexuality, Sineya, Slayer, Spirituality, Stag, Unverified Personal Gnosis, UPG on June 5, 2009 | 6 Comments »
So the following experience seems entirely appropriate given that the moon is basically full right now. Also it just occurred to me that the last time I went on a kind of pilgrimage to the wilderness, I kept encountering deer: they kept suddenly jumping up from nearby and running away, scaring the shit out of me.
I have been thinking about Artemis and Apollo a bit lately, and I have been wrestling with Artemis quite a bit. For some reason, I find her terrifying: there is something primal about her, sexual but untouchable and untouched, something about her as a goddess of the hunt but also the protectress of babies and children that just puts her close to the jugular vein of human existence, frighteningly close to our primordial origins. Maybe it’s the story of Aktaion, but to me, Artemis is fearsome and panic-inducing. She reminds me of the First Slayer, from a particularly weird episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: primal, destructive, female, savage, and above all a huntress.
I prayed to Artemis as I was putting my children to bed two nights ago–the night before I had my forgotten revelation from Artemis and her brother–and I felt a brief presence, malevolent and disapproving. It made me feel tight inside and frightened.
Last night, I was thinking about the experience, and feeling a bit anxious about it–I prayed to Artemis to ask for her forgiveness if I had done something to wrong or slight her, but the panic I felt became almost a tangible thing. I didn’t really know what to do. I will admit that I am no stranger to anxiety, and the dark and twisty fear I was feeling was not unlike other times I have felt varieties of anxiety attack, so I decided to use a meditative trick I have learned, and try to embrace the panic and feel its roots instead of trying to run away from it. Only I visualized it in terms of the goddess: instead of trying to run away from Artemis, in fear for my life, I decided to turn and face her, to be present to the goddess not in spite of my fear, but fully embracing my fear.
The panic went away immediately, and I was overcome by a powerful kind of euphoria–of the same general category of experience as I felt when I first experienced the divinity of Aphrodite, but of a different flavor. It was milder, lasted shorter, kind of a mini-mysticism. It was brief, more like a mini-contact than a full-blown spiritual euphoria, but it was warm, and it was good. Like for just a moment I was being touched by some incredibly powerful spiritual conduit–just a taste, nothing more. And the fear was completely gone.
I am resolved to make a sacrifice to Artemis, to thank her for her presence and to acknowledge her power.
Posted in Religion, tagged Apollo, Atheism, Athena, Athens, Autocracy, Christianity, Death, Demeter, Democracy, Dionysus, Divination, Divinity, Editorial, Family, Fear, God, Gods, Greece, Guilt, Hellenic Polytheism, Hellenismos, Hera, Heracles, Hercules, Heroism, Hindu Nationalism, Hinduism, Horus, Humanism, Humanity, Humility, India, Intelligence, Isis, Islam, Job, Judaism, Monotheism, Morality, Mortality, Multiculturalism, Newspaper, Old Testament, Omen, Pantheon, Paradox, Philosophy, Polytheism, Religion, Rome, Science, Secular, Skepticism, Socrates, Thales, Theology, Violence, Vishnu, Zeus on March 9, 2009 | 6 Comments »
Mary Lefkowitz wrote an excellent article for the LA Times a little more than a year ago about the Greek gods that’s well worth reading.
Bring back the Greek gods
Mere mortals had a better life when more than one ruler presided from on high.
By Mary Lefkowitz
October 23, 2007 in print edition A-27
Prominent secular and atheist commentators have argued lately that religion “poisons” human life and causes endless violence and suffering. But the poison isn’t religion; it’s monotheism. The polytheistic Greeks didn’t advocate killing those who worshiped different gods, and they did not pretend that their religion provided the right answers. Their religion made the ancient Greeks aware of their ignorance and weakness, letting them recognize multiple points of view.
There is much we still can learn from these ancient notions of divinity, even if we can agree that the practices of animal sacrifice, deification of leaders and divining the future through animal entrails and bird flights are well lost.
My Hindu students could always see something many scholars miss: The Greek gods weren’t mere representations of forces in nature but independent beings with transcendent powers who controlled the world and everything in it. Some of the gods were strictly local, such as the deities of rivers and forests. Others were universal, such as Zeus, his siblings and his children.
Zeus did not communicate directly with humankind. But his children — Athena, Apollo and Dionysus — played active roles in human life. Athena was the closest to Zeus of all the gods; without her aid, none of the great heroes could accomplish anything extraordinary. Apollo could tell mortals what the future had in store for them. Dionysus could alter human perception to make people see what’s not really there. He was worshiped in antiquity as the god of the theater and of wine. Today, he would be the god of psychology.
Zeus, the ruler of the gods, retained his power by using his intelligence along with superior force. Unlike his father (whom he deposed), he did not keep all the power for himself but granted rights and privileges to other gods. He was not an autocratic ruler but listened to, and was often persuaded by, the other gods.
Openness to discussion and inquiry is a distinguishing feature of Greek theology. It suggests that collective decisions often lead to a better outcome. Respect for a diversity of viewpoints informs the cooperative system of government the Athenians called democracy.
Unlike the monotheistic traditions, Greco-Roman polytheism was multicultural. The Greeks and Romans did not share the narrow view of the ancient Hebrews that a divinity could only be masculine. Like many other ancient peoples in the eastern Mediterranean, the Greeks recognized female divinities, and they attributed to goddesses almost all of the powers held by the male gods.
The world, as the Greek philosopher Thales wrote, is full of gods, and all deserve respect and honor. Such a generous understanding of the nature of divinity allowed the ancient Greeks and Romans to accept and respect other people’s gods and to admire (rather than despise) other nations for their own notions of piety. If the Greeks were in close contact with a particular nation, they gave the foreign gods names of their own gods: the Egyptian goddess Isis was Demeter, Horus was Apollo, and so on. Thus they incorporated other people’s gods into their pantheon.
What they did not approve of was atheism, by which they meant refusal to believe in the existence of any gods at all. One reason many Athenians resented Socrates was that he claimed a divinity spoke with him privately, but he could not name it. Similarly, when Christians denied the existence of any gods other than their own, the Romans suspected political or seditious motives and persecuted them as enemies of the state.
The existence of many different gods also offers a more plausible account than monotheism of the presence of evil and confusion in the world. A mortal may have had the support of one god but incur the enmity of another, who could attack when the patron god was away. The goddess Hera hated the hero Heracles and sent the goddess Madness to make him kill his wife and children. Heracles’ father, Zeus, did nothing to stop her, although he did in the end make Heracles immortal.
But in the monotheistic traditions, in which God is omnipresent and always good, mortals must take the blame for whatever goes wrong, even though God permits evil to exist in the world he created. In the Old Testament, God takes away Job’s family and his wealth but restores him to prosperity after Job acknowledges God’s power.
The god of the Hebrews created the Earth for the benefit of humankind. But as the Greeks saw it, the gods made life hard for humans, didn’t seek to improve the human condition and allowed people to suffer and die. As a palliative, the gods could offer only to see that great achievement was memorialized. There was no hope of redemption, no promise of a happy life or rewards after death. If things did go wrong, as they inevitably did, humans had to seek comfort not from the gods but from other humans.
The separation between humankind and the gods made it possible for humans to complain to the gods without the guilt or fear of reprisal the deity of the Old Testament inspired. Mortals were free to speculate about the character and intentions of the gods. By allowing mortals to ask hard questions, Greek theology encouraged them to learn, to seek all the possible causes of events. Philosophy — that characteristically Greek invention — had its roots in such theological inquiry. As did science.
Paradoxically, the main advantage of ancient Greek religion lies in this ability to recognize and accept human fallibility. Mortals cannot suppose that they have all the answers. The people most likely to know what to do are prophets directly inspired by a god. Yet prophets inevitably meet resistance, because people hear only what they wish to hear, whether or not it is true. Mortals are particularly prone to error at the moments when they think they know what they are doing. The gods are fully aware of this human weakness. If they choose to communicate with mortals, they tend to do so only indirectly, by signs and portents, which mortals often misinterpret.
Ancient Greek religion gives an account of the world that in many respects is more plausible than that offered by the monotheistic traditions. Greek theology openly discourages blind confidence based on unrealistic hopes that everything will work out in the end. Such healthy skepticism about human intelligence and achievements has never been needed more than it is today.
I’m not going to claim that the article is flawless: a quick Google search for “Hindu nationalist violence” will demonstrate pretty easily that polytheists are just as capable of violence in the name of their gods as monotheists are. However, I think you can make the case that Hindu religious violence is a primarily cultural rather than specifically religious affair–they’re not lashing out because people refuse to accept the truth of Vishnu, but because they perceive their culture as one that is under siege by a long history of encroachment by Muslims and Christians into India.
At the same time, I think editorials like Lefkowitz’s are important, if for nothing else than to make us think about the plausibility and, well, the utility of polytheism. In modern civilization, polytheism gets a bad rap, honestly. Most people would discard it as completely implausible, even ridiculous, but the only reason they think that is because monotheistic religions–religions that have had a privileged place in western culture and society for over a thousand years–ridicule them.
Even atheists who discard polytheism out of hand do so not because they have dealt with polytheism on its own terms. Instead they’re rejecting a monotheist caricature of polytheism. Polytheism is frankly not treated fairly.