By Mathew Goldstein
An internet publication called LA Progressive recently published a moderately long article “Polytheism Versus Monotheism: Building Bridges Between Polytheism and Atheism” written by Bruce Lerro, an adjunct Professor of Psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area. The article defends polytheism and criticizes monotheism and atheism. Mr. Lerro repeatedly cites, and appears to heavily borrow from, John Michael Greer and his book A World Full of Gods which likewise advocates for polytheism (I have not read that book).
Unsurprisingly, I did not find his arguments for polytheism convincing. After all, this is an ontological question and such questions need to be addressed on a best overall fit with the available empirical evidence basis. Yet, as is often (but not always) the case on the theistic side, there was no meaningful engagement with what the overall available empirical evidence tells us about existence of deities.
He instead starts by observing that atheists often target monotheism, yet they fail to criticize the assumption underlying monotheism that “there must be some single reality”. He asserts that there is instead a “diversity of divine reality”. But where is the empirical evidence for a “divine reality” of any type? Scientific progress is built on naturalistic methods and conclusions because those are the methods and conclusions that are successful. Supernatural methods and conclusions get us nowhere. Ipso facto, the empirical evidence that we have overwhelmingly favors ontological naturalism. And without supernaturalism, what remains to justify elevating divinity to a non-fictional status? It makes no difference if deity is single or plural, without supernaturalism there is no divinity and no deity.
Bruce Lerro then argues that polytheism is self-consistent because, unlike atheism and monotheism, it applies the same critical criteria to itself as it applies to atheism and monotheism. He basis this on what he calls “the reality of diversity” in contrast to a “there is one single truth” fallacy underlying both atheism and monotheism. This is post-modernist gobbledegook. The earth is oblate, the equatorial diameter is about 0.3% longer than the arctic pole diameter due in large part to the earth’s rotation around the arctic axis. A count of the number of ignorant or deluded people who, through history to the present day, mistakenly believed the earth has any other shape does not qualify as legitimate evidence that earth actually has a corresponding plurality of shapes. There is a single truth regarding the close to spherical shape of the earth.
And there is likewise no reason to think that there is a diversity of truths regarding whether our universe operates within the material, mechanical, physical constraints of naturalism or without such constraints. Indeed, one of the essential differences between factual ontological truths and personal subjective truths is precisely that the former are singular while the latter are personal and therefore plural. This is a relevant distinction that the arguments for polytheism in this article conveniently implicitly denies. Theisms are ontological claims and therefore the former type of truth, not the latter type of truth. An example of the latter kind of truth is a preference for some styles of clothing or flavors of ice cream over others. Our universe may potentially operate with a combination of natural and supernatural components. But the mere possibility of such a mixed status, combined with many limited deities and other super-human or spiritual beings, does not elevate the possibility to the status of a fact.
Bruce Lerro then claims that liberal monotheists argue that the sacred experiences of people vary due to cultural differences that obscure the underlying common monotheistic core behind those experiences. He asserts that polytheists, in contrast, claim that different groups of people have different sacred experiences because “they have contacted different spiritual beings”. He fails to address the secular perspective that different groups of people have different “sacred” experiences because their sacred experiences are products of their religious beliefs. The experiences are different because the underlying beliefs are different with the beliefs preceding and shaping the experiences and the experiences then reinforcing the beliefs in a closed, self-referencing, circle.
A persistent and fatal flaw in these arguments for polytheism is that they jump from people’s beliefs and the consequences of those beliefs to ontological facts as if the mere fact that people have ontological beliefs establishes those beliefs to be non-fictional facts. That flaw is, in turn, a result of eschewing empirical evidence. Without anchoring the argument in empirical evidence, what remains to anchor the argument other than people’s beliefs? Never mind that humanity has a history of mistaking fictional entities for non-fictional entities. Never mind that deriving facts from people’s beliefs is an unreliable epistemology. We are supposed to ignore those highly relevant facts because they inconveniently undermine the arguments for theism. A primary goal of the article is to justify polytheism, but constraining ourselves to relying on empirical evidence does not get us to polytheism. Since good epistemology is an obstacle to realizing that goal its absence is no surprise. Arguments for theism are often formulated on a conclusion first basis. After reaching a conclusion the arguments to defend that conclusion are subsequently devised.
Bruce Lerro asserts that there are “a variety of sacred presences who actually exist.“ There are “gods of nature who provide sustenance” and “gods of community who provide peace and atmosphere for civilized life”. The boundary separating “gods from ancestors and spirits” can be difficult to determine. Under polytheism “gods are powerful but not omnipotent, smart but not omniscient.” There are also “lesser sacred presences” that “require attention, offerings, and persuasion, not worship.”
This all sounds somewhat unhinged. Is Santa Claus one of these “lesser sacred presences”? Why should such sacred presences correspond only to those experienced by adults? From this polytheistic perspective, are children’s experiences equally valid? If not then why are adults, unlike children, uniquely immune from at least sometimes also being impressionable, gullible, and mistaken with their beliefs? How can anyone reliably untangle fictional characters from those “who actually exist” with this circular and super-promiscuous, belief-influenced-personal-experiences-reveal-the-facts-about-how-the-universe-operates epistemology?
Bruce Lerro then claims that what gods ask of us is reverence and respect, not abject submission. He argues that polytheism is less tribalistic and more tolerant of a diversity of beliefs than monotheism. He claims the relationship between gods and humans is more reciprocal under polytheism than the “one way relationship” of monotheism. It is plausible that polytheisms may, to some extent, in some respects, have some advantages over monotheisms in terms of how they influence human behavior. The topic of influences on human behavior is details and contexts sensitive. There will very likely be tradeoffs, particularly given all of the pluralities of monotheistic and polytheistic beliefs. While people’s behaviors are obviously important, that is a different topic. We need to walk before we can dance. The available empirical evidence needs to favor polytheism first to justify walking as polytheists. Humanity would arguably be better off if our behavior was not dependent on made up ideologies rooted in an unstable and unreliable reliance on elevating fictional entities into actual facts, using highly dubious epistemology that on closer inspection lacks integrity.
Bruce Lerro’s sacred experience based arguments for polytheism appears to conflict with his rejection of monotheism. How does an accounting of the diversity of sacred experiences as a central justification for polytheism fit comfortably with simultaneously ignoring the significance of all of the monotheistic based sacred experiences? Isn’t the failure to recognize the factual, “actually exists”, “truth” derived from the sacred experiences of monotheists a double standard? He claims polytheism is self-consistent, but insofar as it devalues, to the point of rejecting, assigning an equal epistemological weight and merit to the experienced presence of monotheistic deities, it is epistemologically inconsistent.
Bruce Lerro says that the polytheistic gods “are not supernatural, but exist within a natural order, both shaping its manifestations and bound by some of its laws.” This sounds like a fly in the sky and swim in the lake at the same time type of assertion. There are such things as mutually exclusive dichotomies. A fly is ipso facto not a kangaroo. And an entity that is not fully bound by the laws of nature is therefore either partially supernatural or operating within laws of nature that are currently unknown to us. Which alternative is more likely depends on the technical details regarding the degree of incompatible with the current known laws of nature and the constraints imposed by naturalism for the phenomena at issue. The kind of double talk gymnastics we encounter here is all too common among advocates of theism, both the mono and poly varieties. If you value self-consistency (as we should) then it is atheism, not polytheism, that is the winner. Atheism relies on the same method for determining what is true and false about how the universe operates that everyone relies on every day when we wake up and go from the bedroom to the kitchen to make and eat breakfast: Best overall fit with the available empirical evidence.
Bruce Lerro then argues that “superstrings, bubble universes, folded dimensions – transcend ordinary matter and energy far more drastically than the average pagan god.” That is an apples and potatoes comparison. Much of science takes us to non-intuitive and counter-intuitive places, but it consistently remains within the constraints of naturalism. Defending supernaturalism requires more than confusing and undermining the distinction between supernaturalism and naturalism together with citing how counter-intuitive modern knowledge has become.
Bruce Lerro argues there are substantial differences between monotheism and polytheism. He claims there are no holy texts undergirding polytheism. He says that the polytheistic pantheon of superhuman, yet still limited, spiritual beings are literary creations, not theological creations. Polytheistic beliefs are the “result of extended processes of interaction between gods, rather than through a revealed religion.” He then claims that as a result of all of the substantial differences between polytheism and monotheism, the atheist arguments that are effective against monotheism, such as the argument from evil, are inapplicable to polytheism.
For example, in a section titled “Epistemology: Strong vs weak miracles” Bruce Lerro delineates miracles that “violate the familiar patterns of nature” as “strong miracles”. Whereas miracles that “follow natural pattens like a successful rain dance” are “weak miracles”. He claims that polytheists don’t believe in strong miracles and therefore escape atheist criticism against miracles because the atheist criticism focuses on strong miracles. However, atheists actually argue against both strong and weak miracles. Weak miracles are, by definition, inconsistent with the known laws of nature that have been empirically evidenced to be persistently universal. If it were otherwise then by definition the alleged events at issue would not qualify as miracles, and for that reason alone substantial skepticism is the proper response against all attempts to elevate the status of alleged miracles to facts absent hefty and firmly grounded supporting empirical evidence for the miracles.
There is far from sufficient evidence to justify belief in the real presence of actual deities, spirits, ancestors, or super-humans that are partially exempt from the laws of nature. If anything, the polytheist perspective that these deities, spirits, ancestors, etc. reside and interact with us here on earth renders even more damning the lack of supporting empirical evidence. The evidence we have instead favors the opposite conclusion. The conclusion favored on the available evidence is that all fully or partially supernatural entities, regardless of what they are named or how they are defined, are human created fantasies. We are prone to fantasies. From our weakly constrained imaginations humans have, over the millennia, invented thousands of spiritual beings and super-humans with a wide variety of supernatural powers, limited and unlimited, weak and strong. They are all no more than that, our fantasies. Endorsing all of them as factual except for the monotheistic variety is not progress.
Bruce Lerro, again citing Greer as usual, argues that progress is “a myth to be overcome.” Does he visit a dentist? Does he visit a doctor? Does he live in heated and air conditioned house with a refrigerator, plumbing and a toilet? Does he buy food from a grocery store? Does he travel multiple miles quickly in a vehicle driving on a road or tracks? Does he read and write? If there is no such thing as progress, why does he, and all other polytheists, not abandon all of those modern things?
In his conclusion, Bruce Lerro distinguishes “hard polytheists who believe in the ontological existence of goddesses and gods” from “soft polytheists who believe the deities are socio-historical structures which are the product of human societies.” He acknowledges the former are in direct conflict with atheists. Under his second definition most atheists are soft polytheists, yet most atheists reject applying the polytheist label to themselves, and most theists also reject applying the polytheist label to atheists. That is clearly not a standard definition of polytheist. It is a counter-productively confusing, overly broad, misuse of the polytheistic label that lacks integrity because it includes non theists.