Freedom And Religion
What is the defining characteristic of the human species? Our bi-pedal gait? Our facility with language? Our tool-making? More than any of these, what makes us human is our capacity to choose and it is that capacity that endows us with what we call freedom. Freedom is not so much a social condition as it is a mental state. So long as we are conscious, we are able to make choices. That is, unless we impose limits on ourselves. And we do impose some limits through laws which, if violated, will result in our loss of physical freedom. Beyond observance of some basic laws, however, we still have mental freedom, the freedom to think, to question, to imagine, to learn. One of the unfortunate defining traits of our life in the 21st century is the imposition by tyrannical Theocratic regimes of arbitrary limits on our freedom to think. One of the regimes I am referring to goes far beyond the restriction of expression of personal and political views and into the very heart of human-ness – freedom of thought with regard to our spiritual beliefs. The rise of fundamentalist sects of all kinds is the greatest threat to human freedom today. By far the most outspoken of these sects are those of the monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The defining characteristic of all three is the insistence on there being one Deity – male – who will brook no rivals. “Thou shalt not put false gods before Me” is the one common stricture that Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have in common and that is the source of our problem.
Could it be that insisting on the existence of only one god creates tensions that forms of polytheism would not generate? We know from history that most wars were fought over territory and control of resources, not philosophies. The subsequent imposition of the victor’s religion on subdued populations was a side-effect of being conquered not the primary reason for going to war. Today, however, we stand at a unique point in social history: the totally wired world in which more people every day move from non-or-minimal industrialisation to cell phones in one go without benefit of the more gradual development of long industrialised countries.
I wonder whether we might have been better off when our ideas of the divine were not restricted to belief in one deity to the exclusion of all others. Leaving aside atheism and agnosticism for the moment, have we not lost something valuable by insisting that there is only one god – even when we are open-minded enough to add ‘whatever one might call him’ (sic)?
Psychic Freedom And Religion
One of the things I really like about the intellectual life of the ancient world is the plethora of Gods and Goddesses who populated the human imagination. Name an activity, a personal or national aspiration or cause and there’s a good chance that an ancient culture had a God or Goddess for it. The sheer number of ancient deities staggers the modern imagination. If you’re new to the beliefs of ancient peoples, you can explore their psychic world on dozens of websites that provide lists of deities, descriptions of beliefs of various cultures together with their mythologies, and much more. My own view is that ancient religions had a vibrancy and dynamism that is largely missing from today’s deadly serious monotheistic and theocratic world. To learn more about pantheistic religions have a look Here: www.godchecker.com/
A Polytheistic World?
Imagine for a moment living in a society that had dozens of deities whose help or protection you could seek for every aspect of life. In the ancient world each deity evolved to meet the needs of the people who believed in them. Monotheism by comparison may be tidier but it’s not anything like as entertaining or stimulating as the gods and goddesses who dwelt upon the world’s highest mountains and shared human problems and concerns on a far vaster scale that put the human world into perspective. There was no ‘one size fits all’ deity; life was far too complicated for one god or goddess to manage unassisted. Even today the survival of the cult of the saints in Catholicism speaks to this very human need to relate to a specific spiritual entity about certain aspects of existence. Saints are gods as the church will hasten to add but they nonetheless garner retinues of followers who identify with some particular trait of the saint. Protestant sects eschew the idea of saints but there has been a noticeable upsurge of interest even amongst protestants in the legends of the so-called saints that belies the Calvinist insistence on strict adherence to ‘god the father’ as the sole reservoir of divinity.
What is the appeal of polytheism in today’s world? Despite our material sophistication, humans have changed little since our distant beginnings. We still struggle with the questions of existence: Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where – if anywhere – are we going? Science provides partial answers to some of our questions but there is far more that we don’t know than there is of what we do know. Perhaps as long as mystery persists, the human need to connect with the source of that mystery will also persist. So, are we missing something by rejecting the the relationship between humans and spiritual entities or archetypes? What advantages might there have been in polytheism?
Gods and Goddesses Of Antiquity
Ancient Gods and Goddesses had families just like humans did and had to deal with the rivalries, the triumphs and tragedies, the passionate emotions and intellectual forays into the meaning of existence that each generation must face anew. What I suppose I like about pantheons is that the deities who supposedly occupied them were accessible to their people. Humans could identify with some deities more readily than others and such natural affiliations resulted in highly individual mini-pantheons. The Hindus probably had the most varied and populous of pantheons combining elements of animism, shamanic practices, and anthropomorphic deities side by side with a highly sophisticated philosophy based on the idea that the material world of our perception is only an illusion – reality being the inconceivably complex organization of all existence at the invisible level of the atom. In Hinduism the most abstruse conception of reality, Brahmana, lives side by side with the veneration of Hanuman, the monkey god, Ganesha the elephant-headed god, and hundreds of others. It is assumed that each person will identify with some deities over others and will cultivate a spiritual connection with the favoured deities. For me that favourite deity is Ganesha, the Hindu elephant-headed god of beginnings, remover of obstacles, patron of arts and sciences and of writing. He is wildly popular amongst Hindus and quickly acquired nearly a thousand names and countless artistic renderings dating back to the Gupta period (4th and 5th centuries CE). Perhaps it is the versatility of Ganesha that makes him so appealing. He has no negative qualities (unlike Jehovah, Zeus, Thor, etc.) and he is usually shown as a joyous god, often dancing, playing a musical instrument or, in my favourite variation, reading a book! It is this harmlessness, innocence, and emphasis on enjoyment and celebration that make Ganesha the favourite – and the only male deity – in my personal pantheon.
The Feminine Touch
The Goddesses I like appear in many cultures: Avalokiteshvara (Buddhism), Saraswati (Balinese Hinduism), Quan Yin (Chinese Buddhism), the Tibetan Green Tara, Hestia (Greek), Selene (Greek), all of them Goddesses of learning, wisdom, compassion, arts and sciences, and most importantly, Psyche, the Greek personification of the Soul. I guess Psyche would be the primary Goddess in my private pantheon and as such she makes an ideal counterpart to Ganesha who has a strong physical presence. The freedom to ‘believe’ in these psychic entities adds considerable dimension to my spiritual life. If, as science currently suggests, the energy of consciousness has effects in the quantum domain (molecular level), the act of engaging with archetypes is a creative act that can stimulate further creative possibilities. Suppose that this might even be what we are here to learn? That by creating mental models of certain characteristics, we are helping to balance the destructive energies unleashed by nihilism. This is not far from the Native American belief that it was necessary for them to ‘call the world into being’ each morning. Failure to do so would be to unbalance the delicate relationship between the seen and unseen realities that together make up what we – without really knowing what it is – casually refer to as reality. Since no one can produce ‘god’ on demand, we must admit that all religion is theoretical – a potentially useful way to communicate with the Source of all that is. But by removing the concept of the divine from the natural world and demoting ancient deities to superstitions, we have lost an imaginal realm that has been replaced with such shallow distractions such as computer games that appeal primarily to the atavistic instincts and dumbed down versions of archetypes like mind-numbing Manga cartoons. By releasing ourselves from intellectual as well as spiritual monotheistic bondage we free our most basic characteristic: the capacity to choose a personal spirituality that enriches our lives and leaves us perpetually open to the possibilities of an infinitude of universes.