A few months back, I was talking with an Atheist friend about the concept of worship. She had posted a series of tweets on the subject, most revolving around her opinion that putting anyone, human or deity, on a pedestal is unhealthy and worship is in and of itself a bad idea.
To a degree, I agree with her. I remember once telling my father (the Presbyterian minister, remember) that, in my ten- or twelve-year-old opinion, any god who required worship from its followers wasn’t a god who deserved it, and in any case, was no one I wanted to talk to. I’m afraid in religious matters, I often caused my father to fear for my fate in the afterlife.
I think now the problem stems from the connotations of the word, not the actual meaning. My dictionary defines “worship” as “The reverent love and allegiance accorded a deity, idol, or sacred object,” “The set of ceremonies, prayers, or other forms by which this love is expressed,” or “Ardent, humble devotion.” The verb form means “To venerate,” or “to participate in the ceremonies connected with a religion.” I personally don’t see anything objectionable in these definitions. However, in many modern religions, particularly those which look to a single transcendental god, “worship” also carries the connotation of some form of self-abasement. They participate in and promulgate the notion that “god” is, by nature, superior: the pinnacle of Creation and outside of it. The followers of this type of god are required to perform particular rituals and adhere to a particular strict code in order to avoid angering their deity and bringing down its wrath. In most cases, recognition of the divine in one’s self is the most heinous of sins, as is any action that might be interpreted as putting one’s self on a level with one’s god. In the Garden of Eden myth, YHWH was not nearly as ticked that Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as he was afraid that they’d eat the fruit of the Tree of Life, and become “as gods.”
In return for this kind of worship and acknowledging your place in the scheme of things–i.e., your deity dispenses rules; you follow them; god is big and all-powerful; you are nothing of the kind nor should you be–religious practitioners often receive exclusive benefits, like status as their god’s chosen people and access to a special afterlife. Hey, you want that land where a different tribe has lived for a thousand years instead of this manky desert? No problem! Your god gives you permission to drive out the infidels in his name! Are you tired of being sweaty and exhausted after a long day hoeing your fields? Check it: you can take this tribe as a slave race! After all, they don’t worship the same god, so they’re not really people, anyway.
These systems promote hierarchical thinking and what Starhawk calls a “Power Over” mentality. Everything is neatly arranged on a ladder to Heaven (or wherever your deity happens to live), with gross things like worms and mud down at the bottom, god at the top, and god’s people on the uppermost rung. If you’re closer to god on the ladder, you’re allowed and even encouraged to exert power over those beneath you for whatever reason you like–because they don’t look like you, because their customs are different, because they eat weird food, whatever–as long as you remember you’re beneath god and he can throw a lightning bolt at you whenever he likes. But woe betide you if, by failing in the proper form of worship, you slip a bit lower on the ladder!
Of course, even within this type of religion, some people are closer to god than others. Not everyone fits on that top rung of the ladder, after all! Did your god make men in “his image?” Good for them! They’re higher up than women, so they get to make the Earthly rules for everyone! Did god make adult humans to begin with? Great; adults have power over children. What about that convert who came from the slave race? Well, they’re obviously lesser than the original chosen people. So racism is okay, too. Generally speaking, the more a person resembles their god, the more power they’re granted. And it’s not only acceptable but commendable to exert this power over others. After all, you only want them to resemble god as much as a human can. And if this means using violence to bring them in line, well. regrettable, but god says it’s okay!
Yeah, I’m not down with any of that.
Obviously, not all Polytheistic and/or Pagan systems are exempt from these shenanigans. When you personify phenomena you can’t control and don’t understand, like hurricanes and droughts, you’re apt to feel small and powerless, and to want to create rituals to keep your personifications from interfering with your ability to lead a happy and productive life. Pagan and polytheistic pantheons have their own power structures. As well, the further removed your deities are from the Earth and your daily life–e.g., sky gods who inhabit some remote and inaccessible mountaintop–the more hierarchical they tend to be. This is a problem, because the chosen people of hierarchical gods, filled as they are with religious fervor, often come out on top in the short run. Religious history is full of myths about warrior pantheons conquering agrarian ones. The conflict of the Aesir and the Vanir in Norse myth and the Hellenic gods absorbing the Minoan in the Mediterranean are two of the better-known cycles. However, even in these incidences polytheism has a big advantage over modern monotheism in that, instead of destroying the older gods, polytheism tends to absorb them. So instead of having just one kind of god–a warrior, say–you can have both a warrior and a farmer. You can have both gods and goddess. Both fathers and mothers. It evens things out a little.
In my family, we practice a particular kind of Paganism that even other Pagans might find peculiar (or they might not). To give you a brief rundown of our cosmology: We focus on what we call “That Which Is.” This term means just what you probably imagine it does: The Whole Shebang. The Universe and everything that lies within it and without its bounds. Things and the spaces between them. Life, death, and otherwise. What we see and what we don’t. The known and the unknowable. All of it. To us, this is Divine. But it’s not god. I’m in two minds about whether I believe it has an individual consciousness. It’s an object of respect, yes. But not of worship. How do you worship something infinite? What does it want? Does it have wants? These are questions I can’t answer, though I think about them.
Since That Which Is includes Everything, it includes gods. And, yes, other supernatural or metaphysical entities. I don’t put a limit on the infinite. I’ve tried to explain this to people before–how I cannot personally disbelieve much. Particularly when I tell them I believe all gods Are, people don’t handle it well. Often I get some response like, “But if all gods are, then none are!” or “If all gods are, then they can’t be gods!” both of which make no sense to me. I mean, all people Are, whether they’re Chinese or Mongolian or Nigerian or North American. The existence of one doesn’t negate the existence of the rest. And calling the Chinese “people” doesn’t mean the Nigerians can’t be “people,” or that none of them can actually be “people.” Honestly, I don’t understand how other human beings think most of the time.
I suppose most of it boils down to the way I view what I call “gods:” They’re individuals–people, if you like–with different characteristics than human people: different abilities, different substance, different languages. Does this set them “above” me? Not in my belief. Yemaya may have the ability to move the ocean, but can she make a mean lasagna? In other words, sure, the gods can do things I can’t. But I can do things they can’t, not least of which is enjoy my human body for a mortal lifetime. And just as I have my faults and foibles, so do the gods. Some can have hair-trigger tempers. Some can be fickle. Some can’t dance. Do I feel the need to propitiate them? Not really. I don’t actually speak to most of them. I have real relationships with very few.
I can envision readers with more hierarchical ideas of god cringing and protesting about now. If gods are like people, then how can they be gods? If they have faults, why should we worship them? If they aren’t all-powerful, if they make mistakes, if, if, if… Plato had a lot of the same problems, by the way. It’s part of why he wanted to close the theaters–which would have made one god in particular very unhappy with him. And would that god have extracted revenge? He might have. Plato’s problem, not mine.
My “worship” doesn’t hinge on abasement and propitiation. It hinges on relationship and communication. I treat the gods the same way I treat my friends–that is, the ones I speak to. I wish them good morning. I do nice things for them. I acknowledge their presence. Sometimes, I ask them for favors, but not often. What does it look like? It might look like burning a candle or inviting them to dinner. It might look like listening instead of beseeching. It might look like asking their opinion on my writing. It might look like any number of things I do or don’t do when they enter my consciousness. And what do they do for me? Depends. Sometimes it’s difficult to know.
As for the gods I don’t have a relationship with, I don’t worry about them. They don’t bother me. Why should they? I’m not their property. They don’t have a right to me. I worry FAR more about moronic, self-centered human beings who claim to be acting in some god’s name. Maybe they ARE acting in some god’s name. I have NO obligation to fall into line and EVERY obligation to tell their god to shove it up his celestial ass. Deity gives no one the right to be a bully. And maybe a god will smite me some day, just cause. I don’t waste my time worrying about it. It hasn’t happened yet. Divine bullies generally back off when you stand up to them.
I look at other people’s relationship with their deities and I often think, “Why in the WORLD would you want to worship a god who requires you to live in a way that makes you unhappy and threatens you with eternal torment if you don’t?” Hey, if your religion works for you, great. But if not, why? Why continue to try to force yourself into a box you’re not remotely shaped to fit? Why punish yourself for not being a “good enough” member of your religion when you have another choice?
Ah, well. That’s the thing about polytheism. It allows for another choice.
I agree with my Atheist friend. When “worship” means putting another, be it a human person or a deity, on a pedestal, practicing self-abasement, and engaging in ritualized behavior out of fear of the consequences, it’s not healthy. In fact, this kind of worship is the very template for abusive relationships. And as in abusive relationships, the people most in need of getting out for their own safety’s sake are the ones least empowered to do so. I’m thankful for my more inclusive view and a way of interacting with the divine that encourages me to stand up straight, look the gods in the face, and act with both compassion and pride. I only wish more people would come to understand that another way is not only possible, but worthy. The world would, in my opinion, be a kinder place.