Friday, October 30, 2009
Brief Review of _A World Full of Gods_ by John Michael Greer
I have never seen a philosophical case for classical polytheism (CP) until I read this book. This is evidence of the complete dearth in the philosophical literature about this approach to the world and the divine. One could argue that CP is one of the most popular approaches to the universe that has ever existed, particularly when one considers the many religions that have embraced it, such as those of the Greeks, the Romans, and the Northern Europeans.
Classical polytheism is to be distinguished from neo-Platonic polytheism (PP) in that CP, unlike PP, does not claim that all of the gods are simply different forms or faces of one God or divine being; rather, for CP, the gods are separate and distinct from each other. In addition, there is no omnipotent God under whose authority the Gods and Goddesses operate.
The book seems to take a threefold approach. The first strategy is to show that classical monotheism (CM) is no better served by the classical arguments for God's existence than CP is--the arguments support CP at least as well as CM, and even sometimes better (as in the case of the teleological argument). The second strategy is to show that the classical atheistic arguments (such as the argument from evil) are more of a problem for CM than for CP. The third strategy is to suggest that CP is a better explanation for the diversity of religious experience than is CM or naturalism.
Regarding the first strategy, I believe that Greer's treatment of the theistic arguments is generally uneven. Some of the critiques are not entirely persuasive, but he often makes perceptive points. I won't get into the details of it all here. It would become tedious!
Regarding the second strategy, I generally agree with Greer. I think that the theist could respond successfully to some of Greer's claims about the argument from evil's force against theism, but his general point remains safe.
Regarding the third strategy, I find this to be the special contribution of his book. I am delighted to see that Greer does not fall into the common yet confused view that all of the religions are "saying the same thing." In fact, his bold recognition of the incompatibilities of the religious experiences in different religions inspires him to suggest that there really are many Gods and Goddesses, and that they are communing with humans in different ways. There is not one mountain with many paths to the top--there are many mountains. He even goes so far as to say that there may be different afterlives for different people.
The idea is that CP is the best explanation for the diversity of religious experience. I think this idea is worth some serious thought and this is the most interesting thing that Greer does. I believe that philosophers of religion should discuss this idea with some rigor. I'm not here to say whether he is right or not, but I would maintain that there are other explanations that are good enough that they could disqualify CP as the only reasonable explanation. For instance, CM could claim that some people are deluded by Satan or an evil force. Naturalism could claim that it is all self-fulfilling prophecy. CM could have an element of self-fulfilling prophecy in its explanation in addition to the idea of being misguided by a malevolent force. Perhaps the diversity can be explained by having contact with angels or metaphysical beings who are servants of the one God. I can't say which one one must accept. I encourage a discussion about all of the possibilities.
Greer goes on to give an excellent discussion about CP and its attitudes about a variety of issues including ethics, religious practice, and spirituality. This book has given me insight into CP that I never had prior to reading this book, and this discussion is well worth your time if you have any interest in religions that emphasize CP strongly (as opposed to PP) such as Druidism and Asatru.
I tend toward deism. I believe that God does not interfere with the operations of the world in which we live, but I am open to the idea that God communicates with us in subtle ways. I tend toward the idea that humans sometimes get peeks into the other side of things, and that they tend to interpret the little bits that they see in terms of their own categories of thinking. I also believe that many people are insane, hallucinating, or self deluded. Perhaps religious experience involves all of these factors and more. I don't, however, feel compelled to think that I must postulate a multiplicity of Gods and Goddesses to explain these phenomena. Nevertheless, I find Greer's approach novel and worth considering even if it is ultimately rejected.
Thank you, Mr. Greer, for opening up a fruitful and interesting discussion in the philosophy of religion.