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Modern philosophy of religion seems to be "Abrahamic-centric" with all of the discussion centered around problems specific to Christianity, Islam and Judaism. In particular most arguments for the existence of God, and attempts to place faith and religious doctrine on a modern rational footing seem to be concerned only with Western monotheism and its various accompanying beliefs.

  • Have similar discussions and defenses been made in favor of any polytheistic systems and their beliefs?
  • Do any non-western religions have an active apologetics community the way Christianity and Islam have?
  • Has any modern philosopher argued that polytheism is superior in some way or another to monotheism?
  • Has anyone tried to provide and argument for the existence of multiple gods instead of just one? (In a philosophy of religion lecture I listened to, it was stated that nature and history seem to justify polytheism more so than monotheism, but that was the extent of the argument - the rest of the discussion was all about monotheistic beliefs).
  • "most arguments for the existence of God... seem to be concerned only with Western monotheism" That certainly is one interpretation. Many writers I've come across would interpret that these arguments for God point at the reasonableness of monotheism. – James Kingsbery Dec 17 '15 at 14:55
  • i dunno. some critics of Christianity assert that it is polytheistic. and when i hear how some lame Trinitarians describe their theology, i might even agree. – robert bristow-johnson Dec 30 '15 at 5:47
  • @robertbristow-johnson funny that you mention that. I was raised muslim (although nowdays I waver between deism and atheism). In my arguments with my fellow muslims I would say "Christians are nice, they have good morals" "Yeah but they believe in the trinity, and that's blasphemous..." "So what?! if it helps them then good on them" was my reaction. – Alexander S King Dec 30 '15 at 5:58
  • i am what has been dubbed a "modalist". i look at the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three classes of manifestation of God. (among others manifestations. i see nothing magic with the number 3 and i particularly dislike the concept of numerology in either religion or science. maybe i like the fact of two genders, but my lesbian daughter is trying to disabuse me of that notion.) – robert bristow-johnson Dec 30 '15 at 6:05
  • One point that raises polytheism above monotheism is that they never condemned homosexuality, AFAIK. – Rodrigo Feb 26 '16 at 16:46
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Unfortunately your question is far too common among Western philosophers of the last 25 years. There are no apologists for polytheism in Eastern religions as there is no polytheism in Hinduism or Buddhism. It is Westerners who have not studied Eastern philosophies that have this distorted view of the East. Eastern religions are either nihilistic, monistic, or monotheistic. There is no polytheism.

There are different monotheistic systems within Hinduism, but each one of these sects follow their view of God as being God; the other 'gods' they dismiss as out of hand just as a Westerner would dismiss their concept. Within the monotheistic camps the two predominant ones are the ones that see Shiva (Shavites) as the Supreme Godhead and the ones that see Vishnu (Vashnavites) as the Supreme Godhead. Shavites dismiss Vishnu as either being a manifestation of Shiva or just dismiss him, the same way a fundamentalist Christian would dismiss him. And the Vashnavites are vice-versa.

Monists assert that everything is One, and not in a pantheistic way, that the different names of God are due to different viewpoints of different people, that all the different names of God are just manifestations of the One. So Shiva, Vishnu, the Christian God, are all the same God viewed through different colored lenses.

The 'gods' of Hinduism are the Sanskrit devas. gods is a very loose translation of devas; a more exact translation is 'shining ones'. The gods are actually offices, like governor, for different aspects of the current cycle. A individual soul in a human body that aspires to be a god for a cycle can do certain karmic actions to gain the karma to become a god in a new cycle. At the end of that new cycle, however, when the karma is exhausted, the soul that became that god must come back to the earth and once more enter into the system for accumulating new karma.

Suggested reading: The Spiritual Heritage of India by Swami Prabhavananda. It is a clear summary and introduction for Westerners For a comparison of the different monistic Eastern systems, Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy by David Loy.

  • "Monists assert that everything is One, and not in a pantheistic way, that the different names of God are due to different viewpoints of different people, that all the different names of God are just manifestations of the One. So Shiva, Vishnu, the Christian God, are all the same God viewed through different colored lenses." Do you have additional resources or links regarding this? Have there been philosophical analyses of monistic view? – Alexander S King Nov 9 '15 at 18:12
  • For your first question see Swami Vivekananda's Complete Works, Volume 2, section entitled Jnana Yoga - available online here - cwsv.belurmath.org For the second question, David Loy's book that I referred to in my answer is a good philosophical analysis. It is still available in book form and also available on Kindle. – Swami Vishwananda Nov 12 '15 at 5:46
  • I'd love to get your feedback on my article "The Atheistic approach to God… or how to bridge the gap between Atheists and Theists" – John Slegers Aug 6 '17 at 13:25
  • @JohnSlegers There are misconceptions of Hinduism in your article. Too numerous to go into in a comment. First off, Western pantheism is more aligned with what is called visistadvaita - qualified non-dualism, and not advaita - non-dualism or monism. For a online reference read the link I'll put at the end its Introduction and next section titled Adhyasa or Superimposition. In the Introduction, when the commentator 'Ramanuja' is referred to, that is visistadvaita. When the commentator Shankara is referred to that is advaita. wisdomlib.org/hinduism/book/brahma-sutras/d/doc62753.html – Swami Vishwananda Aug 10 '17 at 9:22
  • @JohnSlegers The book linked to - The Brahma Sutras - is considered one of the three books of all modern Hinduism, the other two being the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. The Brahma Sutras are a summary of the main points of the Upanishads. All the founders of all main orthodox sects have written commentaries on the Brahma Sutras. This translation is Shankara's commentary, Shankara being the main source for all modern advaita. – Swami Vishwananda Aug 10 '17 at 9:29
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"polytheism" could mean either philosophers supporting the existence of multiple gods or types of animism like Shinto.

Even though I live in Japan (where you've lived before), I haven't met too many shinto apologists (though I've met people who actively called themselves Shinto).

In terms of multiple gods, Heidegger speaks about multiple gods and the fourfold in some of his later works.

I had thought Hinduism might have polytheistic defenders but others tell me otherwise. Some varieties of Buddhism look to me to be functionally polytheistic, but I've never seen a written defense of something like that (mostly because most consider these Boddhisatvas instead of gods)

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    Hinduism, contrary to popular Western beliefs is not polytheistic. Parts are monistic, parts are monotheistic. – Swami Vishwananda Nov 7 '15 at 4:06
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Nobody less than William James (he is a modern philosopher in the technical sense) has defended polytheism. For example in The Varieties of Religious Experience he writes:

Meanwhile the practical needs and experiences of religion seem to me sufficiently met by the belief that beyond each man and in a fashion continuous with him there exists a larger power which is friendly to him and to his ideals. [...] It need not be infinite, it need not be solitary. It might conceivably even be only a larger and more godlike self, of which the present self would then be but the mutilated expression, and the universe might conceivably be a collection of such selves, of different degrees of inclusiveness, with no absolute unity realized in it at all. Thus would a sort of polytheism return upon us — [...]

Upholders of the monistic view will say to such a polytheism (which, by the way, has always been the real religion of common people, and is so still today) that unless there be one all-inclusive God, our guarantee of security is left imperfect. In the Absolute, and in the Absolute only, all is saved. If there be different gods, each caring for his part, some porion of some of us might not be covered with divine protection, and our religious consolation would thus fail to be complete. [...] The ordinary moralistic state of mind makes the salvation of the world conditional upon the success with which each unit does its part. Partial and conditional salvation is in fact a most familiar notion when taken in the abstract, the only difficulty being to determine the details. [...] I think, in fact, that a final philosophy of religion will have to consider the pluralistic hypothesis more seriously than it has hitherto been willing to consider it.

Also see: The Polytheism of William James by Amos Funkenstein (1994).

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If science gave family names to "forces," we might call it polytheistic.

You are right to point out that the Abrahamic traditions are unique and problematic, to say the least. Jaspers makes a good case for an "axial" shift towards universalism in religion around 200-0 BC.

But "universal" Abrahamic, "Big Dad" interpretations are highly problematic. In my own view, the tragedy of the West was the political attachment of the Old and New Testaments, with a rich hermeneutics but no proper epistemological basis.

Polytheism can pass into "science" with little interpretive difficulty. But the Abrahamic tradition of patriarchal conceptual hierarchy was already there ...in the first texts...fostering the hermeneutical tradition, the necessity of ceaseless interpretation.

For philosophy, the difference between "polytheistic" and "monotheistic" is simply a version of ancient "one-many" discussions.

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    Gee, I don't even see 10 points made. Anyway, this wasn't a very serious answer, obviously. People have made the case that what the ancient Greeks, for example, called Gods were explanatory, not unlike personifications of what we call "forces." Many of the Abrahamic texts are clearly polytheistic, tribal, and patriarchal. You get unfortunate, often violent results when these older ideas remain lodged in the fundementalist interpretations of an otherwise "universalist," abstract teachings of "axial" figures like Buddha, Christ, Socrates. – Nelson Alexander Nov 7 '15 at 16:19
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Has any modern philosopher argued that polytheism is superior in some way or another to monotheism?

Best answer I can find for this question is here by David Frawley:

Having many names for something is not necessarily a sign of ignorance of its real nature. On the contrary, it may indicate an intimate knowledge of it. For example, eskimos have forty-eight different names for snow in their language because they know snow intimately in its different variations, not because they are ignorant of the fact that all snow is only one. The many different deities of Hinduism reflect such an intimate realization of the Divine on various levels - which non-experiential belief-oriented religions seldom even approach. It is hardly a crude polytheism.

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    Interesting point. Not familiar with Frawley, but there seems to be a big difference between many names for one Divine entity (which most monotheistic religions do have - see the 99 names of Allah, the many different names and metaphors used for God in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures) and having many different Divine entities. – James Kingsbery Dec 17 '15 at 14:51
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It depends on how you define "polytheism". As Swami Vishwananda explains, the nature of "divinity" in Abrahamic religions is very different from the nature of divinity in most other religions.

The Atman and Brahman are concepts from the Vedanta branch of Hinduism that represent respectively your individual consciousness and universal consciousness. These are fundamentally pantheistic perspectives.

And while controversial for sure, the notion of universal consciousness is not alien to modern science and can in fact be fit perfectly into a modern materialistic scientific worldview! Notions of the universe as a giant hologram or a giant quantum computer are different more at the semantic level than in their essence, really. How distinct from each other they really are pretty much depends on how you define "consciousness".

The Trimurti - the Hindu trinity - can easily be understood as mere anthropomorphic references to the three primary forces in nature that hold the universe together :

  • Brahma (order), the source of creation, can be understood as an anthropomorphic representation of emergence
  • Shiva (chaos), the source of destruction, can be understood as an anthropomorphic representation of entropy
  • Vishnu (balance), the source of balance, can be understood as an anthropomorphic representation of the laws of thermodynamics

So, once we reduce these principles to their very essence, we're left with concepts that are totally scientific.

Much the same way, Shinto's Kami, Hinduism's Devas and Ásatrú's Götter are all just anthropomorphic Animistic representations of lesser natural phenomena. These, also, are totally distinct from the "God" concept that we find in Abrahamic religon. And here, as well, we can often just reduce these concepts to their essence to be left with either scientific concepts or concepts wholly compatible with modern science!

So, unlike for adherents to an Abrahamic religion, it's actually pretty easy for adherents to so-called "polytheistic" religions to find support for their perspective in light of modern science. All it takes, really, to make sense of their religion is to look beyond folkloristic myths (often created with the explicit purpose of teaching complex ideas to simply folks) and silly superstitions (which are often later additions) and reduce the core religious concepts to their very essence.

What's left, are wholly rationalistic philosophies that can easily be mapped to concepts from or compatible with modern science. Knowing this, it's easy to completely discard Abrahamic religion in favor of any flavor of "polytheism".

See also my article The Atheistic approach to God… or how to bridge the gap between Atheists and Theists where I explain how Atheism, Pantheism, Hinduism, Animism and Shamanism are really just different perspectives on the same core concepts.

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