Doctor Science Knows

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Polytheism and What Would Jesus Do?

There's a rather free-form discussion at Slactivist, to which I contributed:


Other people are addressing Greek/Roman polytheism, I'll talk about a couple others.

I recently asked some e-friends of Chinese background whether they thought most Chinese are atheists or not.

One said, "My parents seem to regard the gods as if they were a mildly corrupt, easily incensed government." This is IMHO very similar to ancient Greek/Roman religion: you worship the gods because it is prudent to do so. Pascal's Wager looks similar, but I don't think it is: for Pascal, you only find out if you won or lost the bet after you're dead. For these polytheistic religions, the bad consequences show up in the here and now: crop failures, bank failures, bad luck, bad water.

But my Chinese friends agreed that in general the theist/atheist distinction does not apply.

So maybe lots of Chinese don't have a deity they direct worship towards, and maybe they don't seem to carry out religious rituals or celebrate religious festivals all that often, but they live out their spirituality, if that makes any sense. What you might call "folk" beliefs are central to our lives in a way very similar to the way religious beliefs direct many Westerners' lives.

In contrast, a Hindu friend notes that

during my short stint teaching Religious Instruction, one of the main things I was told to emphasize to the students is that Hindus do NOT worship different gods. There is only One God, the Lord. He is in everything and in everyone and so his form is in thousands - Shiva, Rama, Lakshmi, Buddha, Jesus, etc. Which is why it's one of the few religions that doesn't preach converting, since my God and your God are the same 'person' (just with a different face).

So we give him different human characteristics, and different physical forms, to help in our own feeble understanding, but never one Ultimate form, because he is basically everything and nothing.


Each Hindu "god" is a Way, a path or discipline, much more than a separate god as in the usual Western understanding of polytheism. And this is despite the fact that the Greek gods and many Hindu gods are historically related -- the Hindu system has become something much wider and deeper over time, and Indra is no longer "really just" Zeus.

To dismiss either Chinese-style or Hindu-style polytheism out of hand is incredibly ethnocentric, given that between them they cover about half of all humans. But it's also incredibly *narrow*, because both types of polytheism acknowledge that not all people have the same minds and the same needs. "What Would Jesus Do?" implies that there is only one way to be a good human being -- it may be more helpful for more people to be able to have a variety of Best People to pattern ourselves after, so that some can say "What Would Ganesh Do?" and others "What Would Krisha Do?" without us having to say that only one of these can be *right*.

As an aside, this IMHO is one reason Catholicism is much more schism-resistant than Protestantism (see: Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915). The panoply of saints gives Catholics more heroes, more life-patterns to work with.

And then, of course, there's What Would Spock Do?

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