Polytheism vs Monotheism: Building Bridges Between Polytheism and Atheism

Atheists bet on the wrong theistic horse

When atheists challenge religion, they pick on monotheism. Their explanations of what supernatural monotheism is really about are as follows:

  • It uses pre-scientific explanatory strategies.
  • What it describes are really seasonal phenomena.
  • The characters are prehistorical political figures.
  • It uses vague and muddled language.
  • Its sacred beings are neurotic projections.
  • Religious ideas are bugs in the human neurological programming.

However, the idea that there must be some single reality, underlying the wild diversity of gods hasn’t been challenged by atheists.  Why don’t atheists pick on polytheists as well? Most likely, they were raised in monotheism and know its weaknesses well. Since polytheists are in the vast minority in the United States, their traditions were not closely studied. In addition, atheists are likely to have bought the monotheistic propaganda against polytheists: its cosmology is chaotic; its practice is preoccupied with sex and pleasure; its reasoning is short on abstract thinking; and its gods are a reification of images. Further, monotheists complain that polytheistic gods are not ambitious enough: they not there all the time and not in space all the time. This article not only challenges these ideas about polytheism, but following John Michael Greer in his book A World Full of Gods, I explain why polytheists are much better opponents for atheists than monotheists. Greer states that atheist arguments are against Christians and Jews and have little relevance when used against paganism. Perhaps the diversity of human sacred experience is an accurate response to the diversity of divine reality.

What makes polytheism broader than either monotheism or atheism

What makes polytheists different from both monotheists and atheists is that it applies the same critical tools it uses against atheism and monotheism to itself. Monotheists say that polytheists and atheists are mistaken and have all kinds of problems, but those same problems are not applied to their own beliefs. So too, atheists criticize monotheists, but they don’t apply their same reasoning to atheism. Polytheists show the limitations of monotheism and atheism, but they apply the same criteria to their own thinking, so they accept the plurality of beliefs. In other words, polytheists admit that monotheism, atheism, and polytheism all have problems, but the fact that all three exist says something about the reality of diversity. What both monotheism and atheist have in common is there is one single truth, and they argue over which has it. Polytheists don’t do this.

Monotheism as the imperialism of religion

Many people use the word “theism” as though it inevitably implies monotheism. But monotheism is not the only theism in town. Greer points out that works on philosophy of religion are still written as though the choices are atheism on the one hand and some variant of classical monotheism on the other. The idea that there must be some single reality underlying the wild diversity of gods has rarely been challenged. Whatever “the sacred” might be, to Eliade, in his studies of the history of religion, there’s only one version of the sacred, and all the mystics and saints had to be experiencing the same things. The religiopolitical task is to deny, demonize, or at least subordinate luxuriant polytheistic growth. If all polytheistic systems are by definition false, illusions, demons, or guises behind which monotheism waits to be found, the competing field of deities is cleared for monotheists to be the only theism in town to battle atheism.

Polytheism afoot

A substantial number of people from wholly orthodox Christian and Jewish backgrounds have broken decisively with the god of classical monotheism. The history of modern pagan revival is intricate and only just has begun to receive the attention of serious scholars. Its origins reach back to the late 18th century. Wicca remains the largest of the modern pagan movements. As of 2005 a midrange estimate suggests there are between one and two million followers of modern pagan religions in America. For the history see Margret Adler, Drawing Down the Moon and Cynthia Eller, Living in the Lap of the Goddess.

Exoteric vs Esoteric theism

The more fundamentalist monotheists deny the reality of different sacred experiences and deny the existence that other gods exist but theirs. But the more liberal, upper middle-class traditions of monotheism are perennials. They say there is exoteric religion which is filled with superstition and what the masses believe. These are usually the same working-class folks who atheists pick on. However, any religion also has an esoteric wing is the core of any religion. It is not superstitious – God does not throw down thunderbolts or call people sinners. All the world religions have the same core which only the few understand. All esoteric perennialists say all sacred experience are the same, but they have different cultural meanings. Most polytheists make no such division and place ordinary religion at the center.

Polytheists also have a similar exoteric-esoteric division. Wicca is generally open to men and women without any formal training. But there are magical traditions in the West which require special study and a grading system in which mysteries are revealed. However, esoteric polytheists do not say that all people who make the grade have the same underlying experience. For example, the mystical path up the center of the tree of life is different from the magical paths to its right or left. Polytheists claim that the difference between an Anglican mystical experience, an Islamic mystical experience of Sufi dancing, and the vision of a buffalo spirit on a Native American vision quest are all different experiences because they have contacted three different spiritual beings. There can be more than one Sacred experience.

Lesser sacred presences

For polytheists there are levels of sacred beings to serve: the gods of nature who provide sustenance; the gods of the community who provide peace and atmosphere for civilized life; the spirits who provide more narrowly defined blessings; the ancestors who provide family and heritage; the genius who provides personal guidance and protection. Another example is the prevalence of ancestor worship in contemporary Japan. In Greece, each nymph was believed to be active in a relatively small area, and to have power only over a limited aspects of the natural and human worlds.  Nymphs were believed to have power surpassing human beings, but nothing even remotely like omnipotence or omniscience was ever attributed to them.

Like nymphs, ancestors cannot usefully be described in any of the terms used to define the god of classical monotheism.  It is not always easy to tell who should be counted as gods and who should not. The boundaries separating gods from ancestors and spirits is sometime very hard to draw. Many cultures make offerings to beings who are not considered to be gods. Pagans revere the presence of nature spirits, land-wights and nymphs, as well as gods and goddesses. What becomes of them? Are they swallowed up in a monothetic night in which all cows are black? Monotheism runs roughshod over competing sacred identities – earth-spirits, ancestor spirits, totems, and nymphs.

Polytheists have respect and reverence for their gods, not worship

For a classical monotheist, the divinity is infinite, humanity is finite, and the only possible relation between them is the absolute submission of the worshipper to the God. God is transcendental, a “holy other”. The core of monotheist sacrifice is appeasement and renunciation. But from what we’ve seen in the last section, there are lesser sacred presences who require attention, offerings, and persuasion, not worship.

In the lives of polytheists there is diversity of levels within a religion as well as cross-cultural differences between religions. This might indicate that the corresponding diversity of divine reality is because of a variety of sacred presences who actually exist. “Wholly other” has no place in traditional polytheism. No god is wholly other. In paganism Greer says a particular culture is given “citizen rights” in the presence of deities. Pagan gods and goddesses are superior in their might and majesty, but they live in a common world. What the gods ask of humanity is not abject submission but reverence or respect. Both exist in a common world defined by mutual relationships. The central concept of polytheist practice is reciprocity, a matter of exchange. The relationship is never one-sided. Some pagans argue that becoming involved in the ecology movement is the ultimate pagan practice. We support nature so that nature continues to support us.

Generosity is thus a central divine characteristic, but it is not limited to the gods. Greer says the pagan habit of competing in tests of strength and skill has its origin as acts of reverence to gods and ancestors. The gods are supremely powerful and skillful and to demonstrate skill in their presence is to do the honor by imitating them. Funeral games celebrated the vitality and strength of ancestral spirits.

Monotheists are too ambitious

Arguments about monotheistic theism require the highest standards of its god. They must be omnipotent, omniscience and omnibenevolent. To claim that a god is omnipotent means that not only is he merely very powerful, but that god is more powerful than anything else in the universe. Greer says that since no human being can independently vouch for the strength of every other entity, the claim can’t be justified by any possible experience. Characteristics such as omnipotence, which define a being’s relation to the rest of the universe, are harder to verify than characteristics that define the beings’ existence or nature. Monotheist worship is a one-way relationship between an otherworldly god and a submissive population. Humanity depends on God, but God does not depend on humanity. This god is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipotent. These qualities cause great problems for monotheists in their debates with atheists.

In polytheism, the gods are powerful but not omnipotent, smart but not omniscient. They are associated with specific virtues but not omnibenevolent. The gods are superhuman, but they are not without limits; They are not supernatural, but exist within a natural order, both shaping its manifestations and bound by some of its laws. Finitism means the gods do not operate within significant limits and have particular areas of concern or rulership. Therefore, they are respected or revered but not worshiped. In fact, Greer points out that the weirder entities of current physics – superstrings, bubble universes, folded dimensions – transcend ordinary matter and energy far more drastically than the average pagan god. Polytheism provides a better rebuttal to atheists because the powers of its sacred presences are less demanding. These gods are not isolated from one another or from the ordinary world. They engage in both conflict and cooperation. Engagement for them is a participatory celebration, not appeasement or renunciation. Pagans start with the world of ordinary humans. The interaction between humans, gods and goddesses does not result in a smooth, singular process. The interactions are messy, unresolved, with some degree of harmony and some degree of continuing conflicts.

Furthermore, the monotheistic teleological argument of design does not just have to battle atheists. It does nothing to exclude polytheism. As. Hume says, there could just as well have been more than one intelligent designer of the cosmos and that the designs clash with each other. This would be unacceptable to monotheists because their deity must be orderly and reassuring.  They are running for shelter and security, not for a clash and uncertainty. There is enough of that on earth.

Atheist arguments against biblical claims and the origin of evil do not impact polytheism

The vast majority of atheist philosophers have aimed at Christian and Jewish ideas from the Bible. These include the origins of the earth, the scope of natural disasters and the existence of life after death. They may also argue that monotheists are wishful thinkers and superstitious. They cannot reason quantitatively (statistically), and they have selective perception. Atheists make efforts to make the Bible internally incoherent and show how it is contradicted by modern science. They are right. For monotheists, their God is the origin of everything, and this carries a heavy burden – as we have seen.

Against monotheism, Greer says, the argument about evil is the most effective weapon in the arsenal of atheism.  If God is all good and all powerful, how do we explain all the horrendous, pointless suffering? If there exists a God who is omnipotent and omniscient and all-loving, such a God would have both the power and the knowledge necessary to prevent all extreme or unnecessary suffering. An omniscient, omnipotent an omnibenevolent God who created the universe would have known in advance what evils would follow. Greer says this problem is so deep for monotheists that its defenders have created an entire branch of theology called “theodicy” to explain why the universe is not as unfair as it looks. There are three broad types of theodicies that have played a major role in western philosophy of religion:

  1. Augustine says that suffering is caused by the misuse of free will by created beings, not by divine intervention.
  2. In 130-122 CE Irenaeus says God has to permit evil because the experience of suffering is the only way for the human species to develop spiritually and morally. The world is a place for soul making. The problem with this defense is that it conflicts with the claim of divine omnipotence. An omnipotent God could just as well have created humanity in such a way that people could achieve spiritual and moral maturity without going through the experience of horrendous suffering.
  3. God permits and causes evil things to happen to demonstrate his power over the Egyptians. Isn’t that a sign of insecurity that would hardly be present in a God who is all knowing, powerful and loving?

Polytheists have no book that claims divine inspiration

Most of this has no relevance to polytheists. Pagans have no holy book that they claim is divinely inspired. From the standpoint of traditional polytheism, gods are not the origin of everything and because of that the work of the gods is less demanding. Polytheistic gods are not seen as the grounds of being. The gods are neither infinite, timeless, spaceless, nor changeless. They have superhuman capacities of power and knowledge, but these powers are limited. This can be seen in Taoism where the Tao is prior to the one, the Yang and the Yin and the elements.

Polytheistic Myths as literary rather than revealed religion

The well-organized pantheons found in classical mythology and German sagas are literary rather than theological creations. Greer points out that the heroic struggles of Achilles and Siegfried gain much of their dramatic power from the literary device that places them at the meeting point of two clearly defined communities. The symbols, rites and myths of polytheism can most usefully be seen as the result of extended processes of interaction between gods, rather than through a revealed religion.

The argument from evil doesn’t work with polytheism

If the gods in question were not all powerful and all knowing, evil and suffering can be readily explained by limitations in the gods’ power and knowledge. If the god is not omnibenevolent, evil and suffering can be explained by the fact that the god may have no motive to eliminate them. If more than one god exists and conflicts between the gods is possible, then the argument from evil loses nearly all of its force, since the benevolent actions of one god could be countered by the opposite action of another. Traditional polytheism provides no effective targets for the argument from evil coming from atheists. Polytheism is a more straightforward explanation for the world we actually experience than classical monotheism.

Epistemology: Strong vs weak miracles

When monotheists make their case of the truth of their religion, they site as sources of evidence scriptures which they claim are divinely inspired – wonderous events, miracles, and the works of holy people within their experience. Monotheists will dogmatically deny the reality of polytheists or atheists whom they will claim are ignorant. Monotheists may claim polytheists might be delusional, hallucinating, misperceiving, or unfocused.

Strong miracles are events which have a religiously meaningful context and appear to violate the familiar patterns of nature. For example, the earth’s rotation stopping for several hours. Miracles in a weak sense are extraordinary coincidences which occur in a religiously meaningful context but follow natural pattens like a successful rain dance. Hume rejected the possibility of strong miracles, claiming that it’s always more likely that the witnesses to miracles were either mistaken or dishonest.  Greer points out that churches that defend strong miracles don’t seem to be able to produce them at all in these days, or anytime recent enough to allow for reliable investigation. Atheists have usually focused discussions of miracles on the strong type, and often as not leave the weak type of miracle entirely out of the reckoning. Polytheists don’t believe in strong miracles, but they are moved by natural patterns which overlap with a meaningful sacred context. Therefore, they are hardly subject to atheist criticism.

Religious ineffability

A very common term for this quality of religious experience is ineffability – that is, beyond words to describe. But this usually refers to verbal language. There are at least some unusual experiences that may not lend themselves to verbal description, but they can be described mathematically. For example, the realm of quantum physics might be ineffable in terms of the English language, but it can be discussed very clearly in the language of mathematics. Because most monotheists are not professional scientists, they would have no way of knowing this.

Monotheist and polytheist ethics

Christianity and Judaism are profoundly conflicted by the human capacity for pleasure. The gratification of the senses is carefully weighed, if not forbidden entirely. For monotheists, a lack of Judeo-Christian faith leads straight to immorality, and “pagan” orgies. Monotheistic rhetoric for well over 2,000 years has treated pagan religion as though it were inseparable from sex. But the sexual behavior of Christian fundamentalist pastors over the past 50 years can be seen as a projection of their own unresolved sexual problems. On the other hand, pagan art uses the unclad human body to symbolize its superabundant beauty. Pagan thought sees erotic desire and delight as expressions of divine power.

The moral teachings of western monotheisms commonly define morality in terms of what it excludes. Monotheistic traditions see morality as telling people what to do. The purpose of sacred engagement for monotheism is appeasement of God or renunciation of sin. For polytheism the purpose of sacred engagement is participation with the spirits in recreating the world.

Pagan morality is a quest for wholeness and balance, not what it excludes. For pagans there are at least four levels of morality:

  1. Intention of the self;
  2. The values of the community;
  3. The processes of nature; and
  4. Purposes of the gods

In contrast to being externally driven, moral thought in most traditional polytheist faith is inner directed, a process of a person mulling over options between the four levels above and making the best available choice.

The gods of paganism may do many things, but they don’t preach. In order to work these problems out, literature of ancient pagan cultures include a legacy of ethical writings ranging from the Norse Hávamál; the Irish Audacht Morainn, as well as the works of the great moralists of Greek and Roman pagan traditions. Lastly, the moral principles upheld by different gods would not be absolute. The moral argument can be used to least as effectively to support a belief in many gods as it would be to defend a belief in only one.

Monotheist rejection of myth for history

When the Hebrews signed on to the covenant with Yahweh, they were told that there would be no more mincing around with the plants and animals. They had a separate destiny. Their destiny was not in nature but in history. Mythic storytelling was dismissed as part of pagan superstition. Humanity’s job was to make human history according to God’s will. But the tendency to make myths wasn’t so easy to dispense with. Jews and Christians continued to live under myths but they did so behind their own backs. They continued to build up new myths as they were joined by European philosophers, scientists, and capitalists, as we shall see.

Monotheist Myth of Progress is a myth to be overcome

The name of this new myth, the myth that has gripped the imagination of Europe and Yankeedom over the last 300 years, is “progress”. Unlike people in societies that accepted myths, the Jews, Christians and the European intelligencia would see mythic narratives as nothing but illusions. but prosaics imagine themselves free from the myth and creatures of prosaic facts. However, the idea of superceding myth for history was part of another myth, the myth of progress. According to Greer, (162) progress came from two events, staggering, but temporary:

  • European people discovered three continents previously unknown to them – North America, South America, and Australia. These continents were subjected to ruthless economic exploitation.
  • Deposits of coal and oil buried within the earth in the prehistoric past were also discovered and exploited.

Greer calls the result the “Age of Exuberance” – a boom that lasted 300 years.  Today all the factors that gave rise to this age of exuberance are waning or gone. If you are one of those people who deny this you will feel the power as a living myth in your very denial of it. In fact, the extent to which myth is conscious in the minds of the West’s allegorical interpretations of myths are offered. The problem with allegories is they tend to assume that it’s the human dimension that is primary, not the whole natural world.

Polytheist myths do not suffer from such limitations. These myths are wiser and much closer to the cycles of history. First there is triumphant success, then overweening pride and folly, followed by a humiliating defeat. These myths are very common to human social and individual lives. If we use them we face the world with a wider range of interpretation patterns than those raised only on the myth of progress.

In the pagan hermeneutics of myth, according to Greer, it could be said that ecology provides he scientific, experimental, and quantitative dimension of pagan myth. Pagan myth can be said to provide the narrative, spiritual and humanistic dimension of ecology

Time and eschatology

For monotheists, the evidence supporting eschatological prophesy consists of visionary experience of guided by accepted authority such as seers and prophets and followed by passages of sacred writings. For monotheist perennialists, attempts to reconcile different prophesies with a lowest common denominator leaves it with super-thin universals.

The apocalyptic claims of monotheists presuppose that one God is able to cause spectacular violations of natural law. For example, the authors of Genesis mistakenly turned a local event in West Asia and Europe into a global catastrophe (the Flood).

For polytheists, matters are quite different. Greer says in Greece:

“The word “eschatology” means last or furthest. In Greece the “eschattai” were areas near the borders of each city-state, regions of mountain, forest, seacoast where culture gave way to nature and Pan, the goat god of herding folk and hunters and was a much closer presence than the gods of Olympus” (178)

In the pagan myth of Ragnarök is the Old Norse twilight of the gods. Ragnarök is not the end of everything. In Irish texts like Lebor Gabala, the book of invasions traces the world through a succession of ages, each ruled by its own gods, which came to power at one age, then are replaced by new gods in the next. Remove Ragnarök from Old Norse mythology and it looses some of its best literature and it takes away hope in adversity.

Likewise In Greece, Hesiod tells us of 3 generations of gods:

  1. Primal gods ruled by Ouranos
  2. Titan gods ruling by Kronos
  3. Olympian gods ruled by Zeus

Monotheists have unrealistic miracles combined with apocalyptic endings at the end of time. Polytheists claim, following Stephen Jay Gould, that besides gradual change there is punctuated equilibrium where there are qualitative leaps which explain disasters. For polytheists there is no beginning or end to nature. After a disaster there is a new cycle in which there is a new configuration of gods and goddesses.


To review, monotheism is a religion which consists at the extremes ends of fundamentalism on the conservative side and perennialism on the liberal side. Since few are perennialists outside of intellectual circles, I will concentrate on the more popular form of monotheism. Monotheists are people who are less likely to take personal and social responsibility for the world we actually live in. Instead, they project an infantile picture of an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving God who lives in a far-away place but who benevolently will take care of everything. Nevertheless, This God barks out orders and demands worship and obedience. In reaction, humans offer appeasement and renunciation of the senses. Nature is not a closed, self-regulating system, but a means to an end: to know God in a transcendental world in the hereafter, in exchange for being taken care of in this one.

In his extreme claims about his God the monotheist gets trapped by atheists who point out contradictions based on known science.  This includes the existence of evil, an afterlife, strong miracles, and apocalyptic endings. Further, insistence on a single God who rules everywhere for all time is a kind of religious imperialism, which runs roughshod over the variety of religions and the varieties of religious experience that actually exist in this world.

Polytheism also consists of various types. “Hard polytheists” are of those who believe in the ontological existence of goddesses and gods. Then there are soft polytheists who believe the deities are socio-historicalstructures which are the product of human societies. Lastly, there are Jungians who believe the gods and goddesses are psychological inventions of human beings, a collective unconscious which, when put to use, will create a more structured, hopeful life.

Because polytheistic gods are limited, they are far less subject to atheistic criticisms. Under polytheism there is room for chance in nature, society, and individual life. But there is also room for necessity since the gods have some limited power over their domain. The gods are immanent in nature and allow for responsible human intervention into ecological challenges through collective creativity and reciprocity. Furthermore, polytheists are not missionaries out to convert the world. Polytheists are happy with cross-cultural variation

Humans creatively participate with the gods and goddesses in ongoing earthly evolution with no need for promises of an afterlife because life on earth is erotic and pleasurable, rather than a reform school. There is no far-fetched expectation to believe in a God who created the world out of nothing. Instead, nature has always been here, infinite and eternal. Rather than obedience to God, polytheists claim to “do as thou wilt”, provided it harms no one. There are no apocalypses in polytheism. There are disasters within cycles, but because nature is infinitely creative, nature recovers from local disasters and keeps on spinning.

It is true that hard polytheism is on a collision course with atheism because atheists do not believe in the existence of God. But we must remember that the two kinds of soft polytheists can accommodate atheism because the gods are products of socio-history or psychology. But even hard polytheism is mostly accommodating to scientific atheism if we examine polytheist answers to the categories in the table.



About Bruce Lerro

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his five books: "From Earth-Spirits to Sky-Gods: the Socio-ecological Origins of Monotheism, Individualism and Hyper-Abstract Reasoning", "Power in Eden: The Emergence of Gender Hierarchies in the Ancient World" (co-authored with Christopher Chase-Dunn), "Social Change: Globalization from the Stone Age to the Present", "Lucifer's Labyrinth: Individualism, Hyper-Abstract Thinking and the Process of Becoming Civilized", and "The Magickal Enchantment of Materialism: Why Marxists Need Neopaganism". He is also a representational artist specializing in pen-and-ink drawings. Bruce is a libertarian communist and lives in Olympia, WA.

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