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A Pagan Perspective on God

Robin Herne's picture

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The Pagan religions of the ancient world emerged from tribal animism, belief systems that saw every animal, plant, rock, river, cloud, and so forth as having a Spirit ~ not just an abstract energy, but a sapient presence with its own dreams, goals, needs, likes and dislikes. A fundamental feature of animist religions is the drive for humans to communicate with at least some of these beings.

Polytheism, the belief in the existence of many deities, is very little different from animism, except inasmuch as some of the myriad of Spirits are seen as Gods. In ancient times just about all the religions now classed as Pagan were polytheist in character, embracing a world diffused with Spirits and a multitude of deities.

One of the practical ramifications of accepting many deities, rather than holding there to be only one true one, is that polytheists are open to the existence of gods beyond the ones of which they have personal knowledge. To the best of my knowledge there has never been an ideological war fought in the name of polytheism, simply because there is no need to refute the truth of another religion’s deity in favour of the superiority of ones’ own. It is polytheism to which I personally subscribe. An example of the urge to tolerance may be found in a quote from Quintus Symmachus, a Pagan senator of Rome arguing against the intolerance of Saint Ambrose:

“And so we ask for peace for the gods of our fathers, for the gods of our native land. It is reasonable that whatever each of us worships is really to be considered one and the same. We gaze up at the same stars, the sky covers us all, and the same universe compasses us. What does it matter what practical systems we adopt in our search for the truth. Not by one avenue only can we arrive at so tremendous a secret.”

For polytheists building relationship with assorted gods and goddesses (through meditation, prayer, offerings etc) is a vital means of spiritual growth. Each deity is considered an individual, and must be approached as such. Polytheists tend to consider their deities as enormously powerful and knowledgeable, but rarely conceive of them as omniscient or omnipotent.

Towards the end of the Classical period a number of Pagans around the Mediterranean area began writing about inclusive monotheism, the belief that all deities are simply different names for the same basic Divine Force. Some historians consider this to be a genuine conviction, others wonder if it were more of an attempt to placate increasingly militant monotheist sects within early Christianity. The above quote from Symmachus might be considered an example of the latter, though it is worth bearing in mind that some of those writers predate Jesus ~ though they may have been influenced by contact with Jewish sects or even the monotheist ideas stemming way back to the iconoclastic Pharaoh Akhenaten.

The 20th century mystic Dion Fortune echoed the inclusive monotheism sentiment with the notion that, “all gods are one God, and all goddesses one Goddess, and there is one Initiator”. This idea, which has strong echoes to Eastern belief systems, is held by many (some would argue the majority) of modern Pagans.

Animism sees spiritual presences everywhere; polytheism sees deities in practically everything; some religions labelled Pagan conceive of an all-encompassing deity. An inscription at the temple of the goddess Aset at Sais demonstrates this latter viewpoint, “I am all that hath been, and is, and shall be; and my veil no mortal has hitherto raised”.

There are some people who describe themselves as Pagan Atheists, but I have never been able to get a clear idea as to what they believe or in what way they are any different from a standard atheist.

In terms of 21st century Western Pagans, the majority probably incline to the views of Dion Fortune, whilst a significant and growing minority hark back to the early expressions of animism and polytheism.