About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Case For Soft Polytheism


When there is only one truth, there can be no peace.  When there are many truths, peace is possible.

Many social scientists state monotheism is more culturally advanced than polytheism, and is the natural progression of human society.  On the surface, this seems to be a plausible extrapolation – after all, polytheism in the western world was obliterated (or retreated into the shadows) a millennia ago, with the absorption of the Celts.  It would seem, at least from a western point of view that monotheism is a hallmark of an advanced society.

But is it really?  Hinduism and Shintoism are overtly polytheistic, Buddhism, with its Hindu roots, has polytheistic overtones.  I dare say that no one would question Japan as an advanced society, and India is fast becoming a world player.  Although China is technically atheistic, the Buddhist traditions run deep.  None of these countries have become monotheistic as they have advanced technologically. 

Furthermore, the Greeks and Romans were more advanced than any societies that existed until at least the 1700’s.  If monotheism cemented societal advances, the Roman Empire should have reached its zenith, or at least underwent a renaissance, after Constantine.  Instead, the Empire fragmented, the barbarians sacked Rome, and Europe was plunged into the dark ages.  It could just as easily be argued that monotheism destroys societies.

However, since most anthropologists are from the west, enculturation probably plays a role in this statement of societal evolution.  There has been a long tradition in cultural anthropology to practice a rather paternalistic and superior attitude toward the societies being studied.  This is reinforced by the fact that the modern empires have all been Western, even if the cultures subjugated are millennia older than the European countries. 

The reality is that social evolution does not tend toward monotheism as it advances nor does it, in and of itself, advance society.  The two are completely disconnected; we just fall back to the natural belief of the superiority of our own culture, and consequently conflate the two.

The reality is that in order for society to advance as we move forward, we must fall back to what I term a “soft polytheism.”  What I mean by this is, an individual culture may be monotheistic, but they also recognize the validity of other religions and other deities.  This is not saying, “I accept that they worship another God, even though I know that their God is false, but I’ll allow them their own beliefs, even though I know that they are wrong.”  It is actually saying, “I worship my God, and through that God I have found my own personal salvation, but I know there are other Gods that can lead other people to their own Salvation.  No God is better than any other, except on a personal basis, and what is right for me is not right for everyone.”

This is a radical statement, as it goes even beyond what liberal theologians like John Spong espouse.  Their view is that everyone worships the same God by different names.  That may or may not be actually true, but it is better for society to take the issue entirely off the table by accepting soft polytheism.  Saying that there is only one God that we all worship in different ways is actually still pretty paternalistic toward people who profoundly believe that they are multitudes of deities.

In the ancient world, there were no wars fought over the Gods, war was for more concrete issues such as territory, money, trade and resources.  In fact, it was typical for a conqueror to adopt the pantheon of the subjugated land.  An example of this the Ptolomies converting to the worship of the Egyptian deities and building temples in their honor, such as the complex at Dendara, dedicated to Hathor.  Gods were tied to the land, and if someone went to another land where other Gods were worshiped, they typically adopted the new deities.

The Bible, written by monotheists, documents the first incidents of religious warfare.  Except for the Bible, there are few, if any, documented cases of people fighting over the validity of a God.  There are contentions between people, such as the strife between Sparta and Athens that had a religious component, but neither side was trying to convert the other to the worship of their patron deity, they were just trying to prove their God was better, kind of like modern sports rivalries. 

I would also like to note, the Old Testament does not deny other deities, it just commands the Jews to have no other God than YHVH.  The fact that they name their deity, unlike Christians who just call Him God, indicates that they needed to differentiate Him from other Gods.  It is the strict monotheism of the later Abrahamic traditions that dispense with the need for God to have a name.  And by the way, Allah just means God in Arabic.  Arab Christians (yes, they do exist) call God Allah as well.

And it is this latter Abrahamic tradition that has caused so much grief in the world.  When there is only one God, all other Gods must, by definition be false, or worse, the other Gods are actually Lucifer in masquerade.  This then leads the faithful to have to convert the Heathen to give them salvation or literally pull them from the clutches of Satan.  When you view other religions as games or satanic, you cannot hold respect for them, and by extension, for the people who follow them.  It also makes the infidel or heretic among the most depraved of individuals, as they are embracing fakery or evil.

In the end, this belief that all other religions are false will make it impossible to deal with its followers honorably.  In a way, the overt hatred of people of other faiths is better than the subtle paternalistic distain that many “enlightened” people demonstrate.  I saw this same kind of behavior in the South (and also in Boulder) among many “liberals.”  They treated other races with the same sort of kindness I show my dog.  I love him, but I know he is still a dog, and no matter how much I would like him to, he will never be able to understand Quantum Physics.  The pseudo-liberals do the same thing to people of other races and religions; they treat them well, but you can tell that they know in their hearts they are better.  I’d rather deal with overt hatred than this patronizing attitude; at least I can fight against the people who hate openly.

But to return to my point: if we all accept our deity as one among many, we can accept those other deities as good and loving, and most importantly, valid.  This does not mean that we have to celebrate those other Gods, just that we have to respect that they are as worthy of worship as our own.  Many members of polytheistic religions have a single God that they feel the strongest kinship with. 

If each one of us accepted this Truth, we will have bridged one of the greatest chasms that divide us.  If we accept that all religions are good, all of them strive to help their adherents become better people, and their followers are as profoundly devout as we are, we will see true peace on the horizon.

And trust me; this will actually bring us closer to our own individual Gods.

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