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Posted Under Paganism & Witchcraft

God Is Dead, Long Live the Gods: Polytheism in a Living World

Stairs to Above

Most people describe American culture as a combination of Christianity and secularism, one deeply divided today by the tensions between them. Our choice, as individuals and as a society, seems to be between science and "religion." If polytheism is considered by either group, it is considered a way-station in humanity's journey towards worshiping one God, or none at all.

Both perspectives are mistaken.

What we loosely call polytheism is the natural experience human beings have always had of the world of spirit, and is a much more accurate understanding of the world within which we live than the secularism usually considered monotheism's alternative. Polytheism is not only more in keeping with human experience, unlike monotheism, it is also comfortable with modern science.

Monotheists claim everything was created by a supreme divine personality, one with its own likes and dislikes. This world exists to further His divine plans, which include making demands people must obey, or suffer divine punishment. This deity claims it is omnipotent, omniscient, and good, and demands precedence over all other entities. Superficially, monotheism sounds coherent. It may or may not be true, but it makes sense. After all, we are personalities with likes, dislikes, and plans. Might there be an ultimate one?

But these generalities break down as soon as we apply to actual issues.

For example, Christian monotheists agree that their God is both just and loving, but in 2000 years have never agreed on what that means in practice. They also agree their deity is perfectly good, but as soon as we apply this claim to concrete issues, what counts as good dissolves into disagreements. Some claim their deity is completely separate from this fallen world, others say God is everywhere. Some claim we are separated from God by an insurmountable gap rooted in original sin. Other Christians deny this, arguing original sin is a human construct. Some say we need a personal relationship with God through Christ for salvation, others that the church is an essential intermediary. Some argue we are saved by faith alone, others that good works are necessary as well. And on and on, endlessly on. These disagreements are not simply over fine points, for Christians have frequently killed one another over them.

Muslims and Jews are similarly divided as to the nature of their deity, and like Christians have fought and killed one another over such disagreements.

There is no coherent version of monotheism and never can be. This inner incoherence prevents any particular deity from winning support among all monotheists. But this confusion dissolves when we recognize monotheists worship different deities, all claiming supremacy under the same name. In practice, monotheism is polytheistic. Its superficial unity has always depended on political power crushing other points of view. Once religious freedom exists, monotheism always fragments.

Science and Spirit
It is a commonplace today to say science is the enemy of religion, and that modern science has "killed God." But what science killed was monotheism, and the religions based on it.

Most early modern scientists considered themselves monotheists, and that scientific discoveries would confirm scripture. By gaining an understanding of the principles that supported the material world, many hoped that we could gain an insight into the mind of God.

Without intending to, these scientists brought something new into the world while hoping to support what they thought they knew by other means. Unlike scriptural religions, these scientists' project was one of discovery rather than interpretation. And any claimed discovery must be able to stand up to tests. What sets science off from other ways of making sense of the world is that it emphasizes how errors can be discovered and abandoned, rather than assuming what truth is in advance.

As science advanced by eliminating error after error, it abandoned nearly all scientists' original assumptions rooted in monotheistic dogmas. The world is almost unimaginably old, but far younger than the universe as a whole. The first life was biologically quite simple, and evolutionary processes gradually enabled far more complex entities to arise. Far from being special creations, we are part of this fabric of life. And more. The scriptures were wrong and so could not be divinely inspired.

These findings led many people to argue that religion is an artifact of the prescientific past. Atheists, in particular, claim that as science advances, religions will shrink to ever more backwards parts of the world, making their last stand in the fantasies of humanity's weakest minds.

Another Problem
But people believing religions are based on pre-scientific ways of thinking confront a serious problem. Supposedly, religious experience should be declining in numbers and increasingly confined to society's least educated, but recent studies report the more educated a sample of people is, the more likely they are to report such experiences. They may call them spiritual rather than religious, but, there does not seem to be any diminishing of people's reports of religious experiences of different kinds. This is the opposite of what secularists and atheists would expect.

The Puzzle of Consciousness
One scripturally based assumption has survived among most scientists, even those professing no religious belief themselves. Human consciousness appears to be an anomaly in the world of matter. As monotheism was increasingly discredited, the split between being human and the rest of the world remained a central problem. Scientists in general agree our world is intrinsically meaningless. Any meaning comes from us. But we impose this meaning on the world, and it vanishes when we die.

The world's meaning is intrinsically connected to the nature of consciousness, but consciousness seems distinct from the physical world. Supposedly, a deep divide separates objective reality from subjective experience. What, then, is consciousness and how can it fit into an objective world?

Scientists have long hoped someday, somehow, science will discover how consciousness arose from nonconscious reality, reducing consciousness ultimately to the laws of chemistry and physics. But that promised discovery is no closer to being realized today than at any earlier time.

Panpsychism
Most scientists who study the issues have held either that consciousness somehow emerged from nonconscious physical processes, or that it is in some sense an illusion giving the impression mind matters in a world ultimately able to be explained in physically deterministic terms. But some important scientists and philosophers have argued for a third possibility: that consciousness is somehow a basic quality of reality at every level. A rock is not conscious in our sense, but its components share qualities that, in a suitable form, can emerge as human awareness. This view is called "panpsychism."

Scientists sympathetic to this view have often argued people's experiences of a mystical oneness are compatible with what we know about physics. This experience is not of a monotheistic personality, but reportedly transcends all personality. It has occurred worldwide, in many cultures, and across thousands of years. The reality of such experiences helped support many Classical Pagan philosophies. While science disposed of all arguments for a monotheistic deity, it does not undermine reports of mystical oneness.

However, this insight brings another problem. If consciousness is a fundamental property of the world, how does individuality and our sense of separateness arise?

Individuality
How does Oneness explain the individuality of people when they are not having such experiences? If All Is One, how can there be so many? It is here that discoveries in biology are shedding a provocative light. My argument for polytheism starts from the bottom up, rather than from the top down.

Biologists are discovering individuality is real, but not in the way we traditionally think it is. Recent research demonstrates individuality arises from fusions of still simpler individuals, beginning at the level of the simplest cells, and continuing up to ourselves. Biological individuality first arose in eukaryotic cells, that is, cells with a nucleus, mitochondria, and in plants, chloroplasts.

Eukaryotic cells exist because at some point prokaryotic cells fused together, creating a new organism. Prokaryotes, such as bacteria and archaea, lack a nucleus and are not individuals as we think of the term, for they are continually exchanging elements of themselves with other prokaryotes. When two prokaryotes fused, rather than one absorbing the other, each maintained to some degree its distinctness even as, together, they formed a new organism with new capacities, the eukaryotes.

Eukaryotic cells made multicellular individuals possible, and the emergence of ever greater complexity and individuality is demonstrated in the evolutionary record. Individuality is rooted in relations between at least two simpler individuals. Even today, what we regard as an individual mammal can become a different more competent individual once it incorporates other individuals, as when sterile mice incorporate bacteria common in dirt, and become more intelligent. Their intelligence declines once the bacteria are removed.

Biological Panpsychism
Until recently most scientists assumed it would take sophisticated neural structures to make consciousness possible. These claims have begun to be abandoned.

Recent research on the abilities of simpler life forms support the panpsychist claim that consciousness exists "all the way down." For example, plants not only react to stimuli, they can remember what kinds of stimuli were proven harmless, and learn to ignore them. They can even remember what they learned. Single-celled organisms can remember what they learned as well, but not for as long. Experience, memory, and learning does not depend on nerves and biological complexity. Evidence it exists can be found in the simplest organisms, once we figure out how to test for it.

If consciousness is a basic dimension of reality all the way down, and can manifest as a holistic Oneness in mystical experience, this still does not prove the reality of religious experience beyond an individual's subjective awareness. Perhaps we are the acme of individuated conscious development. On the other side is Oneness, and in individual terms, upon death, our personal extinction.

Consciousness Outside the Body
Is consciousness enclosed within an organism's boundaries, or does it extend outside them? Modern science generally argues the former, we polytheists argue the latter, backed by thousands of years of religious experience. But is there evidence for this beyond our experience?

If consciousness is a fundamental property of reality, as biological complexity increases, this also appears true for psychological complexity. We are more complex in both sense than a slime mold cell or a plant. If individuality is related to the complexity of relationships shaping an organism, it also increases with complexity.

If this is true, taken-for-granted terms such as "culture" and "society" take on a new depth of meaning. They are not individuals in our sense, but neither are they simply frameworks within which individuals live. We are cultural beings as well as biological ones, and our individuality reflects both our biology and our culture. And culture exists in the realm of ideas and mind, and we are who we are as much because of this as from our biological existence.

It is here that we find a crucial link, addressed differently in biology and occult thought. What some evolutionary biologists call the "meme," is an idea existing separately, in culture, distinct from any individual using it. What occultists call a "thought form,” is a psychic entity created by focused attention by adepts. Both exist independently from individuals and both depend on focused mental energy for their existence. Whether they point to the same kind of thing viewed from different perspectives depends on whether consciousness exists only within organisms, or throughout existence.

God Is Dead, Long Live the Gods discusses fascinating evidence for the latter. This includes research in remote viewing and dowsing, psychic healing, and creating psychic personalities, both deliberately and a side-effect of mass attention. The complex mental realities of culture, and its subtler manifestations, arise from complex biological organisms able to create it.

Polytheism
If consciousness can take on individuated forms independent of physical individuals, a spiritual world of unimaginable variety and quality becomes possible. And this world is in harmony with the much of extraordinary diversity of religious and spiritual experience extending back as far as we have records that our world is in some important sense alive "all the way down.

The same process by which biological individuality emerges from simpler forms of individuality seems to apply within the world of consciousness as well. The enormous variety of polytheistic experiences is as natural as the enormous variety of life forms that enrich this world. This variety enriches the spiritual world as much as nature's diversity enriches our physical one. Exploring these connections helps make the case for individuated more-than-human consciousnesses that many of us have encountered."

A thought form is not a deity, but shares with a deity an existence distinct from physical reality. But whereas a thought form is dependent on psychic energy provided by human beings, deities are often experienced as something far more than this. I am not the only person to report that encountering a deity involves experiencing something more real than we are.

From this perspective, deities are the most complex and inclusive of all individuals. They incorporate our consciousness into themselves, and much more. Given that consciousness pervades all of reality, a sufficiently complex center of consciousness might be able to incorporate this energy rather than requiring to be nourished by focused attention. My argument is speculative, of course, but fits the evidence from further down. Deities are the highest connection between individuals and the ultimate One. And they can take many forms.

Polytheism resolves the internal problems of monotheistic arguments, is compatible with modern science, and is continually reflected in people’s spiritual experiences, from the distant past to today. If, in Friedrich Nietzsche's words, the modern world killed God, in doing so we wiped away the fog of theology that obscured a deeper spiritual reality. Hence the final part of this book's main title: "Long Live the Gods."

I am not claiming to have solved the mystery of who and what the Gods are. We experience at least some of them as super-human, because they are super-human. It is hubris for a human to claim to understand the super-human.

I do present a view in keeping with modern science, that respects both science and our experience, in which our experiences with divine encounters are not illusory and our attempts to enter into relationship with the gods are not wastes of time. Far from being a hold-over from a more primitive understanding of the world, polytheism remains as relevant and as true today as when it graced the practices of our ancestors. To say "the Gods exist" is no more primitive than to say that people exist.

At a time when this country is riven by a cultural schism between backwards looking, and often brutal, monotheisms, and a secular scientific outlook denying any deep meaning to spiritual experience, a revival of a polytheistic spiritual sensibility and all that it touches, may contribute to the healing our society needs.

And that is the ultimate purpose of this book.

Most people describe American culture as a combination of Christianity and secularism, one deeply divided today by the tensions between them. Our choice, as individuals and as a society, seems to be between science and "religion." If polytheism is considered by either group, it is considered a way-station in humanity's journey towards worshiping one God, or none at all.

Both perspectives are mistaken.

What we loosely call polytheism is the natural experience human beings have always had of the world of spirit, and is a much more accurate understanding of the world within which we live than the secularism usually considered monotheism's alternative. Polytheism is not only more in keeping with human experience, unlike monotheism, it is also comfortable with modern science.

Monotheists claim everything was created by a supreme divine personality, one with its own likes and dislikes. This world exists to further His divine plans, which include making demands people must obey, or suffer divine punishment. This deity claims it is omnipotent, omniscient, and good, and demands precedence over all other entities. Superficially, monotheism sounds coherent. It may or may not be true, but it makes sense. After all, we are personalities with likes, dislikes, and plans. Might there be an ultimate one?

But these generalities break down as soon as we apply to actual issues.

For example, Christian monotheists agree that their God is both just and loving, but in 2000 years have never agreed on what that means in practice. They also agree their deity is perfectly good, but as soon as we apply this claim to concrete issues, what counts as good dissolves into disagreements. Some claim their deity is completely separate from this fallen world, others say God is everywhere. Some claim we are separated from God by an insurmountable gap rooted in original sin. Other Christians deny this, arguing original sin is a human construct. Some say we need a personal relationship with God through Christ for salvation, others that the church is an essential intermediary. Some argue we are saved by faith alone, others that good works are necessary as well. And on and on, endlessly on. These disagreements are not simply over fine points, for Christians have frequently killed one another over them.

Muslims and Jews are similarly divided as to the nature of their deity, and like Christians have fought and killed one another over such disagreements.

There is no coherent version of monotheism and never can be. This inner incoherence prevents any particular deity from winning support among all monotheists. But this confusion dissolves when we recognize monotheists worship different deities, all claiming supremacy under the same name. In practice, monotheism is polytheistic. Its superficial unity has always depended on political power crushing other points of view. Once religious freedom exists, monotheism always fragments.

Science and Spirit
It is a commonplace today to say science is the enemy of religion, and that modern science has "killed God." But what science killed was monotheism, and the religions based on it.

Most early modern scientists considered themselves monotheists, and that scientific discoveries would confirm scripture. By gaining an understanding of the principles that supported the material world, many hoped that we could gain an insight into the mind of God.

Without intending to, these scientists brought something new into the world while hoping to support what they thought they knew by other means. Unlike scriptural religions, these scientists' project was one of discovery rather than interpretation. And any claimed discovery must be able to stand up to tests. What sets science off from other ways of making sense of the world is that it emphasizes how errors can be discovered and abandoned, rather than assuming what truth is in advance.

As science advanced by eliminating error after error, it abandoned nearly all scientists' original assumptions rooted in monotheistic dogmas. The world is almost unimaginably old, but far younger than the universe as a whole. The first life was biologically quite simple, and evolutionary processes gradually enabled far more complex entities to arise. Far from being special creations, we are part of this fabric of life. And more. The scriptures were wrong and so could not be divinely inspired.

These findings led many people to argue that religion is an artifact of the prescientific past. Atheists, in particular, claim that as science advances, religions will shrink to ever more backwards parts of the world, making their last stand in the fantasies of humanity's weakest minds.

Another Problem
But people believing religions are based on pre-scientific ways of thinking confront a serious problem. Supposedly, religious experience should be declining in numbers and increasingly confined to society's least educated, but recent studies report the more educated a sample of people is, the more likely they are to report such experiences. They may call them spiritual rather than religious, but, there does not seem to be any diminishing of people's reports of religious experiences of different kinds. This is the opposite of what secularists and atheists would expect.

The Puzzle of Consciousness
One scripturally based assumption has survived among most scientists, even those professing no religious belief themselves. Human consciousness appears to be an anomaly in the world of matter. As monotheism was increasingly discredited, the split between being human and the rest of the world remained a central problem. Scientists in general agree our world is intrinsically meaningless. Any meaning comes from us. But we impose this meaning on the world, and it vanishes when we die.

The world's meaning is intrinsically connected to the nature of consciousness, but consciousness seems distinct from the physical world. Supposedly, a deep divide separates objective reality from subjective experience. What, then, is consciousness and how can it fit into an objective world?

Scientists have long hoped someday, somehow, science will discover how consciousness arose from nonconscious reality, reducing consciousness ultimately to the laws of chemistry and physics. But that promised discovery is no closer to being realized today than at any earlier time.

Panpsychism
Most scientists who study the issues have held either that consciousness somehow emerged from nonconscious physical processes, or that it is in some sense an illusion giving the impression mind matters in a world ultimately able to be explained in physically deterministic terms. But some important scientists and philosophers have argued for a third possibility: that consciousness is somehow a basic quality of reality at every level. A rock is not conscious in our sense, but its components share qualities that, in a suitable form, can emerge as human awareness. This view is called "panpsychism."

Scientists sympathetic to this view have often argued people's experiences of a mystical oneness are compatible with what we know about physics. This experience is not of a monotheistic personality, but reportedly transcends all personality. It has occurred worldwide, in many cultures, and across thousands of years. The reality of such experiences helped support many Classical Pagan philosophies. While science disposed of all arguments for a monotheistic deity, it does not undermine reports of mystical oneness.

However, this insight brings another problem. If consciousness is a fundamental property of the world, how does individuality and our sense of separateness arise?

Individuality
How does Oneness explain the individuality of people when they are not having such experiences? If All Is One, how can there be so many? It is here that discoveries in biology are shedding a provocative light. My argument for polytheism starts from the bottom up, rather than from the top down.

Biologists are discovering individuality is real, but not in the way we traditionally think it is. Recent research demonstrates individuality arises from fusions of still simpler individuals, beginning at the level of the simplest cells, and continuing up to ourselves. Biological individuality first arose in eukaryotic cells, that is, cells with a nucleus, mitochondria, and in plants, chloroplasts.

Eukaryotic cells exist because at some point prokaryotic cells fused together, creating a new organism. Prokaryotes, such as bacteria and archaea, lack a nucleus and are not individuals as we think of the term, for they are continually exchanging elements of themselves with other prokaryotes. When two prokaryotes fused, rather than one absorbing the other, each maintained to some degree its distinctness even as, together, they formed a new organism with new capacities, the eukaryotes.

Eukaryotic cells made multicellular individuals possible, and the emergence of ever greater complexity and individuality is demonstrated in the evolutionary record. Individuality is rooted in relations between at least two simpler individuals. Even today, what we regard as an individual mammal can become a different more competent individual once it incorporates other individuals, as when sterile mice incorporate bacteria common in dirt, and become more intelligent. Their intelligence declines once the bacteria are removed.

Biological Panpsychism
Until recently most scientists assumed it would take sophisticated neural structures to make consciousness possible. These claims have begun to be abandoned.

Recent research on the abilities of simpler life forms support the panpsychist claim that consciousness exists "all the way down." For example, plants not only react to stimuli, they can remember what kinds of stimuli were proven harmless, and learn to ignore them. They can even remember what they learned. Single-celled organisms can remember what they learned as well, but not for as long. Experience, memory, and learning does not depend on nerves and biological complexity. Evidence it exists can be found in the simplest organisms, once we figure out how to test for it.

If consciousness is a basic dimension of reality all the way down, and can manifest as a holistic Oneness in mystical experience, this still does not prove the reality of religious experience beyond an individual's subjective awareness. Perhaps we are the acme of individuated conscious development. On the other side is Oneness, and in individual terms, upon death, our personal extinction.

Consciousness Outside the Body
Is consciousness enclosed within an organism's boundaries, or does it extend outside them? Modern science generally argues the former, we polytheists argue the latter, backed by thousands of years of religious experience. But is there evidence for this beyond our experience?

If consciousness is a fundamental property of reality, as biological complexity increases, this also appears true for psychological complexity. We are more complex in both sense than a slime mold cell or a plant. If individuality is related to the complexity of relationships shaping an organism, it also increases with complexity.

If this is true, taken-for-granted terms such as "culture" and "society" take on a new depth of meaning. They are not individuals in our sense, but neither are they simply frameworks within which individuals live. We are cultural beings as well as biological ones, and our individuality reflects both our biology and our culture. And culture exists in the realm of ideas and mind, and we are who we are as much because of this as from our biological existence.

It is here that we find a crucial link, addressed differently in biology and occult thought. What some evolutionary biologists call the "meme," is an idea existing separately, in culture, distinct from any individual using it. What occultists call a "thought form,” is a psychic entity created by focused attention by adepts. Both exist independently from individuals and both depend on focused mental energy for their existence. Whether they point to the same kind of thing viewed from different perspectives depends on whether consciousness exists only within organisms, or throughout existence.

God Is Dead, Long Live the Gods discusses fascinating evidence for the latter. This includes research in remote viewing and dowsing, psychic healing, and creating psychic personalities, both deliberately and a side-effect of mass attention. The complex mental realities of culture, and its subtler manifestations, arise from complex biological organisms able to create it.

Polytheism
If consciousness can take on individuated forms independent of physical individuals, a spiritual world of unimaginable variety and quality becomes possible. And this world is in harmony with the much of extraordinary diversity of religious and spiritual experience extending back as far as we have records that our world is in some important sense alive "all the way down.

The same process by which biological individuality emerges from simpler forms of individuality seems to apply within the world of consciousness as well. The enormous variety of polytheistic experiences is as natural as the enormous variety of life forms that enrich this world. This variety enriches the spiritual world as much as nature's diversity enriches our physical one. Exploring these connections helps make the case for individuated more-than-human consciousnesses that many of us have encountered."

A thought form is not a deity, but shares with a deity an existence distinct from physical reality. But whereas a thought form is dependent on psychic energy provided by human beings, deities are often experienced as something far more than this. I am not the only person to report that encountering a deity involves experiencing something more real than we are.

From this perspective, deities are the most complex and inclusive of all individuals. They incorporate our consciousness into themselves, and much more. Given that consciousness pervades all of reality, a sufficiently complex center of consciousness might be able to incorporate this energy rather than requiring to be nourished by focused attention. My argument is speculative, of course, but fits the evidence from further down. Deities are the highest connection between individuals and the ultimate One. And they can take many forms.

Polytheism resolves the internal problems of monotheistic arguments, is compatible with modern science, and is continually reflected in people’s spiritual experiences, from the distant past to today. If, in Friedrich Nietzsche's words, the modern world killed God, in doing so we wiped away the fog of theology that obscured a deeper spiritual reality. Hence the final part of this book's main title: "Long Live the Gods."

I am not claiming to have solved the mystery of who and what the Gods are. We experience at least some of them as super-human, because they are super-human. It is hubris for a human to claim to understand the super-human.

I do present a view in keeping with modern science, that respects both science and our experience, in which our experiences with divine encounters are not illusory and our attempts to enter into relationship with the gods are not wastes of time. Far from being a hold-over from a more primitive understanding of the world, polytheism remains as relevant and as true today as when it graced the practices of our ancestors. To say "the Gods exist" is no more primitive than to say that people exist.

At a time when this country is riven by a cultural schism between backwards looking, and often brutal, monotheisms, and a secular scientific outlook denying any deep meaning to spiritual experience, a revival of a polytheistic spiritual sensibility and all that it touches, may contribute to the healing our society needs.

And that is the ultimate purpose of this book.

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About Gus diZerega

Gus diZerega (Taos, New Mexico) is a Third-Degree Gardnerian Elder. He spent several years studying with Brazilian shaman Antonio Costa e Silva and with other teachers in Native American and Afro-Brazilian traditions. Gus is ...

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