Friday, February 04, 2011

A World Full of Gods: Chapter One

It has been noted over and over again that contemporary philosophy of religion is a bit one-note. It's actually gotten much better over the past fifteen years or so, but one still gets a real sense, when one reads much in the field, that it walks a relatively tiny treadmill of problems that are treated in a relatively isolated fashion. As I say, people have noted this quite often, but philosophers noting things and philosophers doing much about it are quite different things.

John Michael Greer's A World Full of Gods is an interesting attempt to do something about it. Greer is a modern Pagan associated with the contemporary Druidic movement. His goal in the book is to make a case for greater attention to polytheism and, since this is philosophy, polytheistic arguments. Greer's certainly right about that, and I think the book does touch on several reasons for thinking there is a real need to do so. I don't think the book is entirely successful in other ways, chiefly because Greer tries to do too much. But there is much that is interesting in the book, and here and there I will be posting on things Greer discusses.

Chapter One gives a basic case for why philosophers of religion should not uncritically accept the "monotheistic assumption": first, that there are still a great many polytheists in the world, and in the West they have become more visible than they have been in previous generations; second, that at least some philosophical work, albeit very scattered, has already been done, and this work shows that there are genuinely interesting philosophical issues to be discussed when it comes to polytheism. On the basis of an article by George Mavrodes, Greer characterizes polytheism as having the following features:

(1) realism about the divine: the gods are taken to be real and not figments of imagination or hypothetical constructs;
(2) pure descriptivism about the term 'god': the term 'god' is simply descriptive, and does not necessarily convey anything about one's personal worship (a polytheist can recognize gods he or she does not worship);
(3) pluralism about gods: gods are really distinct and not merely apparently distinct;
(4) finitism about divine attributes: something can be divine even if its attributes aren't infinite, e.g., a god does not need to be omnipotent;
(5) 'a common world', i.e., what we might call (Greer doesn't) interactionism about the relation between deity and world: the gods are involved with each other and with the ordinary world.

These five characteristics contrast in a number of ways with the assumptions that underly much philosophy of religion (which is usually either atheistic, and therefore lacking (1), or monotheistic, and therefore lacking (3) and usually (2) and (4), or deistic, and therefore lacking (5)), and this raises a number of philosophical questions. Greer will tackle these questions through the rest of the book; but it's important to keep in mind that his point in doing so is not to give definitive or magisterial answers to them, but to show that they may be worth raising in the first place. Chapter Two will argue that we can at least begin to answer such questions; and I'll discuss it briefly in a future post.

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