Category Archives: perspectivism

The Tree of Gender

According to Nietzsche, there are no facts, only interpretations. However you may feel about that in general, I hope to convince you that gender (in a wide sense, to include sex) is best understood as an interpretation, not a fact. For example, I behold you, and assign “female”, or “male”, or perhaps some other gender to you, or not, based on what I think of you and know about you, and based on my own perspective on gender.

But different people have different perspectives on gender, and so assign gender differently to the same people. That is, we make different interpretations of the same beings. And what’s more, we use different perspectives in different contexts, for example, social versus sexual, or private versus public.

Most importantly, there is no “one true” perspective on gender, that is, gender is subjective and not objective. Here I am going to discuss a variety of perspectives on gender, and how these perspectives each emphasise and deemphasise particular elements, particular aspects of nature and culture that are frequently considered gendered.

I want you to imagine a tree. The earth the tree grows in is nature, the cycle of fertility, sex, and childbirth, created and recreated by the evolutionary forces of mutation and selection, the purpose of gender and the reason why it exists at all. This reproductive purpose is the source of the inevitable binarity that pervades notions of gender generally, and perhaps inevitably justifies a certain amount of cis-hetero-centrism.

The roots of the tree are biological and developmental factors such as allosomes, TDF protein presence/absence, sex steroids (i.e. androgens, œstrogens).

The trunk is bodily anatomy, not only sex organs but all sexual dimorphism, including differences in brain biology. Some of this is surgically malleable, much more of it is not.

The branches are gender identity, thoughts, feelings, reactions, our sense of self.

The leaves, growing from and somewhat obscuring the branches, are gender roles, speech, behaviour, how we express ourselves, the clothes we wear, the choices we make, all things masculine and feminine.

The winds of culture blow the branches and especially the leaves.

Which of these things truly determines a person’s gender?

Leaves First

We acquire our first notions of gender at around age two or three. These tend to be based more on dress and social expectations than on genital anatomy, and may not even consider gender to be a constant fact about oneself or others. Tests on children showing pictures of babies naked and with gender-appropriate or -inappropriate clothes, show that many three-year-olds determine gender solely by social cues. This changes, of course, as we grow older.

It’s easy to think that these three-year-olds are mistaken about gender, lacking “genital knowledge”, the way kids are mistaken about lots of things. But we’ve given up objectivity: no views of gender are “correct” or “incorrect” in any absolute sense. Children merely make various gender interpretations as they learn about it. But these interpretations, though they are not facts, are still subject to criticism, based on how useful or appropriate they are in a given context. One can call children’s inconstant interpretations of gender useless or inappropriate, ones that will be replaced by better interpretations, but one cannot call them inaccurate as such — except with reference to some other theory of gender.

The Snag Radical Feminist Tree

The radical feminist view of sex and gender is today deeply unfashionable. As a result, those putting forth this view have had to be much more careful and much more charitable in presenting their arguments to be taken at all seriously.

While I have been using gender in a broad sense, the radical feminist view typically distinguishes “sex” from “gender” in a narrower sense. Roughly, the roots and the trunk of the tree are “sex”, while the branches and leaves are “gender”. Sex is natural and biological, while gender is behaviour that is a product of culture, specifically an all-pervading theme of culture they call “patriarchy”. Femaleness and maleness, as well as womanhood and manhood, apply to biological sex, and not social gender. Gender is, in this view, a wholly negative phenomenon, not part of one’s true self or true consciousness, especially not for women, and for this reason, the view is also called gender-critical.

This article gives a pretty good view of the radical feminist or gender-critical concept of biological sex:

Several of us endorse a cluster account of femaleness, according to which possession of some vague number of a certain set of endogenously-produced primary sex characteristics — including vagina, ovaries, womb, fallopian tubes, and XX chromosomes — is sufficient for femaleness, though no particular characteristic is necessary or essential.

This is what makes someone female, or male. The roots and trunk of the tree are what matters. To sever the branches from the trunk, this view typically considers that “mind has no sex”, and gendered behaviour is entirely artificial and cultural. The gender-critical project is actually to abolish social gender entirely.

In the radical feminist view, why does transgender arise? Why do men, as they say, claim to be women, and why do women claim to be men? It is an axiom of radical feminism that society privileges men entirely above women. So for the latter case, trans men are simply women who desire the privileges of being accepted as men. The former case might pose more of a puzzle, but it is generally chalked up to a kind of bottomless well of male sexual perversity, or even the specific desire to invade women-only spaces. This fits in with an overall negative view of men in general.

The radical feminist view of gender is consistent, but depends on a “blank slate” view of gender. A thought-experiment to illustrate this: let us say you had a newborn girl and a newborn boy, and magically surgically swapped their brains. Would they be more likely than otherwise to (1) grow up homosexual (relative to their genitalia)? (2) experience gender dysphoria, the persistent feeling of being in the wrong-gendered body? (3) end up preferring to inhabit the opposite (relative to their genitalia) social gender roles? I think the radical feminist answer is “no” to all three, though this leaves no answer to the question, why are some people homosexual and others heterosexual?


What is identity? There are two sides to it. Internal identity is how you think of yourself, while external identity is how others think of you, how they identify you and differentiate you from others. It’s easy to think of internal identity as prior “true” identity, and external identity as following on from that, as merely other’s knowledge of your internal identity, which may be accurate or inaccurate. But actually I think external identity comes first, and internal identity is what you want others to think about you, your desires for external identity. You can think of external identity as “identity achieved” and internal identity as “identity desired”.

Both kinds of identity are important. To disregard external identity is narcissistic, insisting that others think about you only in the way you wish. To disregard internal identity is authoritarian, forcing you to conform to the needs of others. And it is normal, not unusual, for the two kinds of identity to be in tension, this kind of struggle to achieve a desired identity is part of what it means to be human. If gender is “performative” in any sense, it is this struggle, the actions we do to encourage others to think of us in particular ways.

Natalie Reed’s definition of gender identity is an example of what I mean by internal identity:

Gender Identity – The inner conceptual sense of self as “man”, “woman” or other, as divorced from issues like gender expression, sexual orientation, or physiological sex. It is a subtle and abstract, but extremely powerful, sense of who you are, in terms of gender, independent of how you dress, behave, what your interests are, who you’re attracted to, etc.

Some people claim not to experience any such internal sense of gender. But if internal identity is understood as a desire for external identity, that’s unsurprising. We don’t typically experience desire for things we already have: at the very least, we must first reflect on the possibility or threat of their absence. So if you’re already socially recognised as the gender you want, you are unlikely to give the matter any thought. If you’re unsure whether you have internal gender identity, ask yourself, if your brain were transplanted into the body of the other sex, and were socially recognised as that sex, would your new external gender identity trouble you?

It’s worth mentioning that internal gender identity is not even necessary for a useful concept of gender. From an external perspective, newborn babies have gender, most animals have gender, even some plants have gender, without (apparently) having any internal gender identity or engaging in performative acts.

The Deracinated Trans-Activist Tree

In its simplest form, the trans-activist view defines gender entirely by internal identity, that is, you are female if you consider yourself to be female. Biological structures such as womb, penis, are not themselves gendered and their presence or absence have no bearing on gender. This view of gender is a deracinated tree, with little trunk and no roots connecting it to its origin and reproductive purpose.

In extreme form, this view wishes to entirely erase any connection between anatomy and gender in any context. So for example, a woman who identifies as lesbian is “transphobic” if she is not attracted to trans women, because lesbian can only mean a woman who is attracted to women irrespective of anatomy and genitalia, and trans women are plainly women.

Furthermore, if genitalia are not gendered, then a preference for one kind of genitalia over the other kind has nothing to do with gender either. So, logically, “gender dysphoria” has nothing to do with gender either: it’s merely a desire or need for one (ungendered) kind of genitalia over the other (ungendered) kind of genitalia. For example, a woman has a penis, but in this view it’s a female penis, because it belongs to a woman. Then the desire to replace this female penis with a female vagina has nothing to do with gender, because the genitalia are female either way. This seems to erase a common theme of transgender experience.

As such, the self-identity definition is circular. It raises the question, when you identify as female, what do you mean by female?

Transmedicalism Redeeming the Trunk

One way of avoiding this circularity is to root gender in brain biology. This view rejects the claim that mind has no sex, and accepts a sexed difference in brain development. This leads to the possibility of dysphoria, when due to occasional developmental circumstances, the brain is sexed differently from the rest of the body. Defining transgender in terms of dysphoria is known as transmedicalism.

This also admits the possibility that gendered behaviour, masculinity and femininity, are rooted in brain biology, albeit expressed in culturally-determined forms. People may tend to be, on average, biologically predisposed to inhabit gender roles. This would explain the widespread cross-cultural persistence of certain themes of masculinity and femininity.

There is a parallel, indeed, between gender identity and gender preference: some part of the brain says to the self “I desire women rather than men”, while another part of the brain says to the self “I am a woman rather than a man”.

Looking at the trunk of our tree, there are a large cluster of anatomical differences between men and women, with which we might construct a notion of “anatomical” or “biological” maleness and femaleness. Medical and surgical interventions alter some of this gendered biology, especially those affecting the social perception of gender, while much else is left unaltered. Thus, in the transmedicalist model, the body starts from one’s natal gender, but through hormones and surgery, becomes partly but not completely the other gender, redeeming the dissonance between brain and anatomy.

Transmedicalism’s focus on the signficance of transgender dysphoria (somatic or social) comes from a consistent and credible model of gender, however, its insistence on dysphoria as a necessary defining characteristic of the word “transgender” may exclude other useful interpretations of gender. The theory of mismatch between brain development and anatomy is a reasonable foundation for the concept of transgender, but it may not be the only foundation.

Public Policy

Who should be permitted in womens’ and mens’ restrooms? Who should be incarcerated in women’s and men’s facilities? Who should be permitted in women’s sports? How do we resolve gendered questions of public policy?

Rather than attempting to establish a single objective definition of gender for all public policy purposes, I believe it is necessary in each case to first establish the purpose of gender distinction, and then come up with a specific definition of gender, or more generally a policy, that best serves that particular purpose. This inevitably means that some people will be, for example, “female” in general social contexts, and “male” when competing in sports.

Sports provide an interesting case. Sporting events desire the very best athletes; when considering the population as a whole, these will almost always be young adult men. A gender-neutral policy will thus have a highly gendered outcome, just as it has a highly age-specific outcome. To ameliorate this, or at least to provide more variety of sports spectacle, it is common in many sports to create an additional league restricted to women. One could likewise create special restricted leagues for those over the age of forty, or those under a particular height, or those of a particular weight as is actually done in boxing.

For qualification to women’s sports leagues, the appropriate approach is to consider those aspects of gender that affect athletic performance, such as testosterone level both present and at puberty. However at present there seems to be no obvious single standard, leaving instead a contentious trade-off of concerns. The International Olympic Committee, for example, has set a guideline of a particular serum testosterone level, but is now considering restricting it.

If someone qualifies to compete in a women’s sports league, because of some quality of their blood, does that make them a woman? Is it, at least, an act of recognition of womanhood? Actually it is merely one more interpretation of gender for one particular purpose, relevant in that context and not in others.

Contextual Views

People already use different conceptions of gender in different contexts, perhaps using the self-identity standard (the branches of the tree) in ordinary social situations, and anatomy and signals of fertility (the trunk of the tree) when examining their own sexual desires. The former is not necessarily mere “courtesy of pronouns” but can be a genuine perception of someone as the gender they say they are, in that social context.

For sexual desire, however, the self-identification conception of gender cannot be the definitive last word in determining the genderedness of attraction. Some people are bi- or pan-sexual, but many (probably most) have a preference for one sex over the other. These preferences tend to be more or less involuntary and immutable (witnessing the failure of “conversion therapy”) and strongly influenced by anatomy, including genitalia. This should not be surprising, given that gender and its tendency towards binarity ultimately originate in fertility and reproduction.

A contextual approach to gender interpretation frees social recognition of gender from sexual desire. It permits situation-specific approaches to gender in public policy without making or relying on objective declarations of gender. It frees others to interpret you as they will, while accepting the legitimacy of your choices of self-presentation on which others’ interpretations are based.

— Ashley Yakeley

For Assmann, Against Butler

This follows on from my previous post, Polyaletheia and Monoaletheia in Religion. To recap, here’s Jan Assmann on the pagan translatability of gods:

The polytheistic religions overcame the primitive ethnocentrism of tribal religions by distinguishing several deities by name, shape, and function. The names are, of course, different in different cultures, because the languages are different. The shapes of the gods and the forms of worship may also differ significantly. But the functions are strikingly similar, especially in the case of cosmic deities; and most deities had a cosmic function. The sun god of one religion is easily equated with the sun god of another religion, and so forth. Because of their functional equivalence, deities of different religions can be equated. In Mesopotamia, the practice of translating divine names goes back to the third millennium B.C.E. … In the second millennium, this practice was extended to many different languages and civilizations of the Near East. The cultures, languages, and customs may have been as different as ever: the religions always had a common ground. Thus they functioned as a means of intercultural translatability. The gods were international because they were cosmic. The different peoples worshipped different gods, but nobody contested the reality of foreign gods and the legitimacy of foreign forms of worship. [Moses the Egyptian, p3]

Assmann refers to this common ancient pagan view as cosmotheism. Edward Butler objects:

The status accorded to “function” in the theological mode of interpretation offers a contrast between it and hermeneutic of “translation” discussed by Jan Assmann. Within the “translation” paradigm, functional equivalences between deities of different national pantheons, or even within the same pantheon, are treated as indicating that different names signify the same small set of deities, or the differentiated potencies of a single divine substance. For the “theological” mode of interpretation, by contrast, function derives from identity, and not identity from function. In this fashion the theological mode of interpretation seeks to avoid yet another form of reductionism, which we might label the “cosmotheistic” reduction, after the “cosmotheism” Assmann sees as the historical outcome of the translational hermeneutic of myth. In the “cosmotheistic” reduction, a unitary cosmotheistic philosophy effectively displaces the theologies of diverse cultures, whose particularity is treated as mere materiality. Such an approach, because it dualistically posits a substance or substances prior to or underlying the Gods themselves and external to the myths themselves, could never be regarded as the primary mode of mythological hermeneutics, if indeed it is even to be regarded as a way of interpreting myths, and not rather as a method of demythologization.

Actually, Assmann is describing ancient pagan polyaletheia. It’s straightforward: the Greeks had a perspective on the divine, and the Romans had a perspective on the divine, and one can translate between the two perspectives on the basis of the functions of the gods, in a way that rather implies that the identity of the gods derives from their function, and indeed this is exactly what the Romans and Greeks did, as well as many other pagan cultures.

Butler reveals his monoaletheia here, asking the monoalethic question, roughly, regardless of any “perspectives” or points of view or whatever, what’s the actual objective truth? Surely this translation approach implies that the underlying objective truth is atheistic and demythologising, positing some substance that is separate from and, worse, prior to the Gods?

But in the polyalethic mode, there is no one “underlying objective” truth; there are only more perspectives. It’s perspectives all the way down. This point can be difficult to get across to people who are used to thinking monoalethically, so let me make a comparison. Assmann’s perspective on religion is an anthopological one, and in that perspective one can ask, how and why do people believe in gods? Likewise, a developmental psychologist might ask, how and why do people believe in other people? In both cases, there is no proof, and Occam’s razor suggests atheism in the one case, and solipsism in the other. In these perspectives, the answers lie in the psychology of belief: we’re simply predisposed to believe in the real existence of other people, and (albeit much more weakly and variously) predisposed to believe in the real existence of gods.

In both cases what actually matters is presence: people are present in our lives as beings like ourselves, so we enter a perspective in which people in general exist. Likewise, for those of us for whom gods are present in our lives, we enter a perspective in which gods exist.

If we come across an atheist, or if we come across a solipsist, there is no argument we can make with them to change their minds. There is simply a difference of perspective and that is all. In this way, the presence of gods can be as well-founded as the presence of other people: there is no implied “underlying atheism” anymore than an “underlying solipsism”. Our ideas, our truths, are always within a perspective. The monoalethic mistake is to look for the one singular objective underlying truth against which perspectives can be measured, but such a thing is not meaningful, rather it becomes… one more perspective.

In Assmann’s case, his anthropological perspective does not deny or displace the religious perspectives of the cultures he examines, and does not therefore demythologise. Likewise, the Sun is both the god Helios and a hot mass of “metal” larger than the Peloponnese1, the one perspective does not deny the other.

It’s worth noting here that Assmann is pretty much just doing anthropology, reporting on interpretatio as a phenomenon apparently common to many different European and Near-East pagan cultures. It’s this observed commonality, only, that is the basis for the wide applicability of his cosmotheism.

Butler is defending an intricate philosophical/theological system, albeit one rooted in the ideas of philosophers of late antiquity. As a perspective, Butler’s Neoplatonism would need no justification: it can be one more way of thinking of the gods, and indeed the world, among many others. But as a claim to objective truth, statements about “units” and “dyads” seem arbitrary and unfounded as a starting point and difficult to justify against opposing statements.

Butler calls his main theology polycentric polytheism:

We see this inclusiveness of each God in the practice of many polytheists. A polytheist does not call upon a God merely for concerns relating to a narrow function. Aphrodite’s most intense devotees do not call on her merely as “Goddess of love,” for example, but as Goddess of everything, at least potentially. At the cult centers of ancient deities, we often find the Gods and Goddesses worshiped in this expansive manner. We also see this pattern in modern day Hinduism, although it is often misinterpreted by Westerners under the influence of hegemonic monotheism as “monism” and denying the reality of the many Gods.

We can rescue Butler’s “polycentricity” from its absolutism by treating it as polyaletheia instead. In this view, a god may be associated with a particular perspective, within which one may view all other gods. It is precisely as the Goddess of Love that the intense devotee of Aphrodite can see the whole world, and all the other gods, in terms of erotic love. It is the function itself that has expanded, and the intensity of devotion brings one closer to, not further away from, Love as a human and natural phenomenon.

— Ashley Yakeley

  1. Anaxagoras’ description. The great god Helios is actually composed almost entirely of hydrogen and helium (his namesake element), not metals even in the astronomical sense, but not a bad guess.

Polyaletheia and Monoaletheia in Religion

Many things are said about the gods–

  • that there are the many gods described by the ancient Greeks,
  • that there are the many gods described by the ancient Romans,
  • that there are the many kami described by the Japanese,
  • that there is one God that is everything,
  • that there is a God and a Goddess, as described by Wiccans,
  • that there are no gods,

…and so forth. There are two approaches to reconciling this multiplicity of accounts.

The theological approach seeks the correct account. If there are many gods, there cannot be only one God. If there is only one God, there cannot be many gods. For example, Christianity insists there is one God, though not specifically the pantheism described above. Truth excludes falsity, so all other theologies are in error. Atheism insists there are no gods, and all talk of gods is worthless “woo”. And so on.

The mythological approach considers all such accounts to be stories, any of which may be valuable (or not) in particular contexts. These stories might contradict each other in small or large part, but do not thereby exclude each other, they are all merely “different ways of looking”, each of which may be useful or not to different people, or in different situations.

The heart of this difference is two different approachs to truth, which I call polyaletheia (“many truths”) and monoaletheia (“one truth”). “Theologists” are monoalethic: they consider truth to be one, absolute, objective, albeit not necessarily known or even knowable. “Mythologists” are, by contrast, polyalethic: they consider truth, at least religious truth, to be plural, contextual, subjective, just as a myth can have many variations yet still be true. This is a kind of perspectivism, which I discussed earlier: since truth is a product of thinking, and people think slightly differently, even the same person in different contexts, then there are many truths.


The theological approach typically defines religion in terms of belief. Thus, theologists fault mythologists either for believing the wrong thing, or for lacking belief altogether. Theology eventually excludes mythology, since it wants to know which religious account is really true and which is false. Eventually the theological approach makes what Jan Assmann refers to (in his book Moses the Egyptian) as the Mosaic Distinction, that is, the distinction between “true” religion and “false” religion. And error, logically, has no rights.

In the mythological approach, belief is more of a side-effect of ritual, story, and experience, so beliefs tend to be loose and contextual. What would otherwise be theology takes on a mythological flavour. Ideas about the nature of the gods are stories rather than doctrine: fluid, contextual, admitting variation and contradiction, responding to particular religious needs and situations, more concerned with what’s situationally appropriate than with what’s definitively true. No one story requires creedal commitment from the believer. Denis Feeney (following Paul Veyne) refers to this self-contradictory/compartmentalised/contextual structure of belief as “brain-balkanisation”:

[Veyne’s] marvellous phrase ‘balkanisation des cerveaux’ (‘brain-balkanisation’) captures the capacity of educated Greeks and Romans of the post-classical era to entertain different kinds of assent and criteria of judgement in different contexts, in ways that strike the modern observer as mutually contradictory. These people are involved in very different activities when they sacrifice outside a temple, talk to the custodian of a temple, read the aretalogy inscribed outside the temple, read the scholar Apollodorus’ book On the Gods, listen to hymns, read Homer allegorised or Homer rationalised, read an epic on Heracles, or read about Heracles the supreme commander in a history. Expressions of scepticism are always potentially part of the procedure, for the participants’ assent may be provisional, self-consciously in tension with dissent. [Literature and Religion at Rome, pp14-15]

Alain de Benoist remarks that paganism is not about believing in the existence of gods, but awakening to their presence, illustrating the difference between theological and mythological understandings. The gods exist in the exact same way that their mythology is true — via immediate experience of them. That is, one experiences the presence of gods, and one experiences the truth of myth.

Natural Religion

Polytheism that grows out of culture, what we might call organic polytheism, tends to be polyalethic. People have a natural tendency to create stories and rituals, that become folklore, that eventually becomes what we might recognise as “pagan religion” — if it is not restrained by official monoaletheia, as much folklore in Christian countries has been. Here’s an example:

Let’s say Alice is an ordinary woman, perhaps American, of no strong religious belief or disbelief. Her husband Bob dies, and after the funeral, Alice starts visiting his grave. Typically, she talks to him about what’s going on her life and tells him that she misses him. Sometimes she brings some of his favourite Scotch and shares a little with him, pouring his share on the ground beneath which he’s buried. After awhile she does this less often, but still occasionally visits especially on his birthday or their anniversary. This sort of thing is very common.

Alice knows very well that Bob is dead, that Bob is no longer a person. And if you asked her whether she believed in the real existence of Bob’s spirit, she’d probably say no. Nevertheless, when she’s talking to him, she remembers him, she feels his presence.

Alice is doing the beginnings of ancestor worship, or rather veneration of the dead. She has a special place, special times, makes offerings of special drink and prays, more or less, to a particular spirit — a spirit she does not “officially” believe in. But maybe she kind of does believe in his existence, in the context of talking to him. Maybe she just doesn’t worry too much about whether his spirit “really” exists — it’s just not a big deal. It helps her grieve.

In this way, belief follows ritual and experience, and is tentative and contextual. Alice perceives the presence of Bob’s spirit, rather than abstractly formally believing in his continued existence.

In Japan, Shinto is an example of folklore that has become religion — though as it happens, the Japanese do not consider Shinto to be shukyo, but more like folklore. Shukyo is the usual translation of “religion” but is actually closer to “religious doctrine”, and applies to Buddhism, Christianity, and even certain Shinto-ish sects. Shinto has stories and mythology about the many kami, and shrines to them, where people make offerings to them. But Shinto itself has no creed or official belief system.

Shinto does not generally separate the “natural” and “supernatural”, and natural phenomena such as mountains and rivers may be recognised as kami, naturalistically, because they provoke great awe and wonder. In this way, kami might be better understood as an interpretation of the (natural) world, rather than a belief about the supernatural.

The Association of Shinto Shrines directly links the multiplicity of kami to the multiplicity of values and the multiplicity of truths:

In the case of Monotheism, which worships one absolute god, it seems that the concept of the absolute truth is dominating. If there is any conflict between two people or groups, one of them is considered to be right and the other is wring and untrue. On the other hand, polytheism which is based on pluralism does not consider the existence of the absolute truth, and accordingly there is distinctive difference between the two. If there are two things which contradict each other or cause a conflict between the two, both of them are wrong and right at the same time. Any quarrels or disputes are not judged by the one-value orientation. As the result, both sides will be punished equally. Also it can be said that people who believe the absolute truth tend to think that coexistence is possible only among those who share the same value. People who stand on the pluralism, on the other hand, consider that coexistence is possible even among those who have different opinions or ideas because each individual has a truth in its individuality, so they have to give tribute to each other. It is coexistence by harmony. Shinto based on the pluralism takes up the plural-value orientation. It can be said that Shinto – in this case, the Japanese – had accepted foreign religions such as Buddhism, Confucianism and Yin-Yang thought, as the Japanese always have followed according to this plural-value orientation.

Even in Christian countries… Christianity is a theological rather than mythological religion. Most forms of it, at least, are firmly, even violently, monoalethic, and heresy is a constant concern in its history. But it’s not so simple: there are many people who identify as Christian who nevertheless take a more or less polyalethic fast-and-loose approach to Christian belief, believing in God or in angels in response to particular situations, and leaning towards more polyaletheia-friendly notions such as universal salvation.


The ancient polytheist pagan religions were generally polyalethic, and this made it easy for them to build connections with each other. When those familiar with one mythology came across another, they typically adapted the bits they liked, interpreting them in terms of their own mythology. For example, the ancient Greeks interpreted gods from other cultures in terms of their own gods (known as the interpretatio graeca), as did the ancient Romans and the ancient Germanic peoples. This is how Jan Assmann describes this:

The polytheistic religions overcame the primitive ethnocentrism of tribal religions by distinguishing several deities by name, shape, and function. The names are, of course, different in different cultures, because the languages are different. The shapes of the gods and the forms of worship may also differ significantly. But the functions are strikingly similar, especially in the case of cosmic deities; and most deities had a cosmic function. The sun god of one religion is easily equated with the sun god of another religion, and so forth. Because of their functional equivalence, deities of different religions can be equated. In Mesopotamia, the practice of translating divine names goes back to the third millennium B.C.E. … In the second millennium, this practice was extended to many different languages and civilizations of the Near East. The cultures, languages, and customs may have been as different as ever: the religions always had a common ground. Thus they functioned as a means of intercultural translatability. The gods were international because they were cosmic. The different peoples worshipped different gods, but nobody contested the reality of foreign gods and the legitimacy of foreign forms of worship. [Moses the Egyptian, p3]

It’s important to note that this translation is identification, not mere analogy. Herodotus refers to Mylitta (Assyrian), Hathor (Egyptian), Ashtarte (Syrian) as simply “Aphrodite”, Onuris (Egyptian) and other fighty gods as “Mars”, Thoth (Egyptian) and Zalmoxis (Thracian) as “Hermes”, and so on. Other writers made similar identifications.

This translatability of the gods can be found even within a particular culture. Many Greek and Roman gods were known under epithets, for example, Venus Genetrix and Venus Kallipygos were both worshiped in different places. Are these different goddesses, or different aspects of the same goddess? Scholars have argued which one of these two options is the correct one, but Henk Versnel is having none of it:

Contrarily, I would propose that one might, just might, consider a third option. This implies venturing for a moment into the Greek ‘interconnected cosmology’, which does not compulsively avoid ambiguities, and accepting that (the) Greeks had to live with two (or more) indeed mutually exclusive realities and yet coped with the inherent paradoxes and inconsistencies. There cannot be any doubt that mythical and (local) cultic personae of a god might diverge dramatically. While attending a tragedy, admiring a mythical scene in visual art, or listening to a mythical tale, one would (in fact one was contextually forced to) identify with a world of mythical identities that were ingrained in everybody from early childhood. This temporarily determined the focus and wiped local identities off the screen. When confronted in cult with the local and functionally specialized—and, through their nearness, more familiar—gods with their surnames, the focus shifted and temporarily pushed the imagery of the mythical god to the background. Indeed as Veyne wrote: “a mental cleft separated gods as mythical figures from the gods as objects of the piety of the believers.” Yet (the) Greeks managed to cope with these two religious realities, both stored in their mental stock, by shifting from one to another and back, whenever the context or situation required it.

The fact that e.g. Zeus Meilichios is not the same god as Zeus Olympios is inter alia corroborated by aspects of his iconography; that in other respects the gods may have been understood as having the same identity is suggested by the common name. Different and the same. We have seen it before and will see it time and again. In the domain of religion (the) Greeks had no insurmountable problems with double identities up till the moment that they were questioned on it. The questions, however, are ours. [H.S. Versnel, Coping with the Gods, pp 84-86]

One might say, ambiguity, paradox, and inconsistency are hallmarks of mythology, of polyalethic religious thought in general.

Once you start looking for this translatability between world-views, you can see it everywhere, among modern paganisms too. For example, Wiccans have picked up this ancient pagan principle, to interpret the gods of many cultures by gender, as God and Goddess. As they say, all goddesses are the Goddess, all gods are the God.

Listen to the words of the Great Mother, who was of old also called Artemis; Astarte; Diana; Melusine; Aphrodite; Cerridwen; Dana; Arianrhod; Isis; Bride; and by many other names. [Doreen Valiente, The Charge of the Goddess]

Going a little bit further, Jungian pagans speak of gods as “archetypes”, a purely psychological explanation of the gods, that nevertheless does not deny their power. In this way they translate between a “religious” perspective full of gods and a “psychological” perspective absent of gods, neither perspective denying the other.

Even the Christian concept of the Trinity of God is a tiny bit of polyaletheia, squished into a “divine mystery”, the precise details of which are monoalethically fixed in creed. There are three Persons of God, which are not identical. But they are all the one God, etc.

— Ashley Yakeley

The Identity of the Gods

Note: I no longer fully endorse this. I’ve updated my view in the comments; please also see Polyaletheia and Monoaletheia in Religion.

In July/August this year I attended Many Gods West, a polytheist gathering in the nominatively appropriate city of Olympia. It turns out many polytheists are making an effort to distinguish themselves from (other) pagans somehow, though the distinction isn’t all that clear at the moment. Common themes seem to be reconstruction of pre-Christian polytheistic religious cultures, and a curious insistence on the “reality” of the gods as individuals — this latter is known as “hard” polytheism. Morpheus Ravenna gave the keynote speech at MGW exemplifying these themes. It seemed to be a shot in a war against the wrong kind of pagan, “humanistic” or “non-theistic” pagans who somehow snuck into the scene to claim that gods are Jungian archetypes. This polemical tone came as a bit of a surprise to me, as I had not been paying that much attention to the arguments back-and-forth in blogs and the like, and had no idea how big a deal it was for the folks involved in presenting the thing, or for efforts to distinguish polytheism from paganism generally.

As a polytheist I would describe myself as animist rather than humanist or non-theist, and I don’t know much more than the popular conception of Jung and could not precisely specify what an archetype is. Nevertheless, the hard polytheism side seems to me plainly flawed, replicating some of the problems of Christianity, as well as likely being ahistorical inasmuch as it claims to reconstruct European polytheisms.

Belief is not part of polytheism

Like Ms Ravenna, and many other polytheists, I have a vision of what polytheism ought to be. Mine is much influenced by Shinto, the native religion of Japan, as a polytheism still around in the modern world, as well as pre-Christian religions in Europe, which are like me European. I like to say that Shinto is not my religion, but it is my kind of religion.

In Nelson1 there’s an amusing exchange between two Shinto priests concerning what happens to the “impurities” collected by the purification wand during their purification ceremonies. One priest feels that impurities collect in the wand, and therefore the wand ought to be broken into a river so that they can be washed into the sea. The other reckons that they are scattered onto the rocks during each ceremony and eventually washed away by the rain.

What’s the correct view, according to official Shinto? There isn’t one. Shinto has no orthodoxy. Belief is not a requirement for Shinto. Shinto priests are not trained to believe anything. It’s not even a disagreement for the two priests, in this case. What matters is behaviour, beautiful correct behaviour and the attitudes that go with it…

I only wish our own polytheists had such wisdom. Unlike Christianity, for polytheists belief is not necessary for a relationship with the gods. As Alain de Benoist says2, it’s not about believing in the gods, but awakening to their presence. It is the presence of the gods, preceding any belief in or reflections on their “true nature”, that is all that is necessary to establish a relationship with them. Indeed the same is true of the presence of anyone or anything: babies are aware of the presence of their mothers, and establish a relationship with them, before they are even capable of belief as such.

Ms Ravenna captures some of this notion of presence by speaking of encounter:

Thus, the Gods as we know Them are something more like processes of encounter, rather than fixed forms. That is to say, the presence we experience is always a mask or manifestation of that God, shaped in such a way as to translate into our more limited consciousness and frame of reference.

But from an animist viewpoint, the god is the thing itself. For example, on the drive down to Olympia I was struck by the presence of the mountain (Mount Rainier), which impressed upon me a sense of divinity. That presence I experienced was a manifestation of the mountain, an appearance different that day than on a rainy day, or from a closer or further distance, a perception in my consciousness and frame of reference. The mountain itself is not a manifestation of some god, the mountain is itself the god.

Many gods, many truths

As I said earlier, there are no facts, only interpretations, and truth is only meaningful in the context of a particular perspective, and perspectives vary slightly (or substantially) from person to person. Thus, many different names are given to the Sun, for example, and many different stories are told about it, that reveal its nature. And yet for the most part, the stories match up in a way that we find ourselves referring to a single “thing”. Here are some stories told about the Sun, from different perspectives:

  • The Sun gives us day and night. For the daytime, the sun rises in the east, moves slowly across the sky around to the south, and sets in the west. It’s plainly visible in the sky except when hidden behind cloud (or vary rarely, the moon). Even then its light is usually enough to make daytime.
  • Sol is a yellow dwarf, that is, a G-Type star on the main sequence, around which the Earth orbits. It’s about 4.6 billion years old, is about 1.4 billion metres across, has a mass of about 2×1030 kilogrammes, and radiates about 3.8×1026 watts.
  • Helios rides his chariot, he shines upon men and deathless gods, and piercingly he gazes with his eyes from his golden helmet. Bright rays beam dazzlingly from him, and his bright locks streaming from the temples of his head gracefully enclose his far-seen face: a rich, fine-spun garment glows upon his body and flutters in the wind : and stallions carry him. Then, when he has stayed his golden-yoked chariot and horses, he rests there upon the highest point of heaven, until he marvellously drives them down again through heaven to Okeanos. [Homeric Hymn 31 to Helius]
  • Amaterasu, in her fury, hid herself in a cave, making all the land a constant night, and so all the gods assembled to lure her out. They made a huge mirror from stone and iron, and the goddess Uzume stamped on an upturned bucket and sang and strip-danced upon it, making the assembled gods laugh. When Amaterasu peeked out and asked what they were doing, Uzume said there was there a goddess superior to Amaterasu, and the gods brought out the mirror. Entranced by her reflection, Amaterasu emerged from the cave. One god pulled her out by the hand while another pulled a rope behind her, preventing her from returning. And the land became light.

All these names and stories refer to the same phenomenon: the Sun is the star Sol is Helios is Amaterasu is Saulė is Sunna is Álfröðull “glory of elves” is the Sun. The ancient Greeks, the ancient Germans, the Japanese, the astronomers, and the “ordinary person” in Seattle all tell stories about the Sun that reveal various aspects of its nature. And all of these stories are true, each in its own perspective. Each story will make sense to you to the degree that you share its perspective.

Some of these perspectives reveal the sacred, that is, what we have unconditional respect for (de Benoist again3), and that reveals the god or spirit or kami of the thing, the god that is the thing. To see the Sun as sacred, as a god, is to have unconditional respect for it, and It is that sense of unconditionality, rather than the intensity, of respect that makes something sacred. Different cultures express this respect in different ways, telling different stories.

The Sun, then, is not a job that Helios performs: rather, Helios is the Sun. Likewise, smithcraft is not a job that Goibniu performs: rather, Goibniu is smithcraft, among other things. But the gods do not correspond to single English terms in a simple way: quite often they are multiple “things” all at once, or a single “thing” is multiple gods, each standing for multiple perspectives on it. Helios, for example, is also eyesight, or some aspects of it, and a number of stories reveal the role of Helios as Panoptes, the one who, being above it all, sees all on Earth, everything under the Sun. And his mother, Theia, is also sight, while his father, Hyperion, is also the light of the sky. In this case, the parental relationship between these gods reveals their connections and associations as parts of the world.

Even mythological cosmologies are the world. For example, the Nine Worlds of the Norse are each part of the Whole World, the Infinite World, the Unknowable World, a world with gods everywhere, that is, the present world.

Theology is useless and will hurt you

Gods are not persons (except, of course, for those that are, such as certain Roman and Japanese emperors). They are the world. The proper starting point for relationships with the gods is the immediate presence of the world. For this mythology is sufficient; theology is unnecessary and unhelpful. Theology makes statements, statements that logically exclude other statements, statements that must be universally true for the theology to be valid. By contrast, mythology tells stories, stories that can accommodate variants and disagreements, stories that each listener and each storyteller may judge on their value or their appeal or their appropriateness to their needs at that time.

It is not actually a problem for us animists if we do not happen to feel the presence of every god in every moment. The texture of the experience of life should vary. But for polytheodoxists, as for Christian believers, belief must be constantly maintained to avoid cognitive dissonance. Any doubt generates a “crisis of faith” and much unnecessary anxiety, or else a state of make-believe where one pretends something one does not truly believe. This is no way to live.

Presence, not agency

The gods are present, and they have their own own history, context, and ways, independent of our own, just as every part of the world does. And they influence us. But agency is a concept from the wrong perspective, which if followed, leads to some very silly ideas…

Do the gods have agency? Do they have qualia? What would it be like to be one of the gods? Can they converse with more than one mortal at a time? Do they have trouble dividing their attention when they are called on by multiple devotees at once? If they’re annoyed with one devotee, does another one have to deal with their bad mood? Can they pass on messages from altar to altar across space? (This could have been useful in ancient wars.) Do they still get up to their old mythological tricks? For example, the stories tell of many mortal women that Zeus seduced. Does Zeus still actually do that, and if so, who was the last real woman he really had sex with? And given that, for example, Danae was a mortal woman, does or did she really exist the way the gods really exist? Meanwhile, if Zeus and Thor are not the same being, but are both in charge of thunderstorms, do they have a duty roster, or do they divvy up storms by region, or what?

These questions have no serious literal answers. At most some may have mythological or ritual answers, that is, stories that reveal truths about the world. For example, Zeus’ seductions could perhaps be used in ritual. Instead, since agency is part of the world, perhaps there are gods of agency, that is, agency itself as gods: this could be an interpretation of the genius and juno that the Romans imputed to every man and woman.

The gods are not individual

“Individual” literally means “cannot be divided”. A person is individual: if you cut a person in two, you do not get two people. If you glue two people together, you do not end up with a single person. A community, on the other hand, is not individual. Communities can split into smaller communities. Communities can lump together into larger communities. Indeed, a larger community can be composed of smaller communities: the larger and smaller both existing at the same time. What of the gods, are they individual in this literal sense?

A cursory glance at any mythology reveals that they are not. The gods, it turns out, can be divided, just as the world can be. There are many examples of gods that have multiple aspects, multiple faces, that are sometimes considered part of one god and are sometimes considered separate gods. For example, the Celtic goddess Brighid has two sisters, also called Brighid. Are these three separate goddesses or all aspects of the same goddess? The former approach is known as “splitting” while the latter is known as “lumping”. Likewise, the many epithets of Venus can be seen as separate goddesses or as one goddess in many roles, depending on context and needs.

The only approach that acknowledges the whole of the mythology is to accept all of it, understanding that lumping and splitting are appropriate in different contexts. (Indeed gods seem more like clades or taxons than like individuals.) Whereas Christians have their received dogma on this matter for their “Trinity”, for polytheists no fixed answer is universally appropriate.

The response from hard polytheists, or those who insist that gods are individuals, is largely to insist on always splitting all the time. This would seem to declare consideration of the “lumped” god as heretical, as if one cannot make offerings to Venus, since that is not one individual.

And the situation only gets worse when we consider the mythologies of multiple cultures. (I suppose the “hardest” approach here would be to insist that one’s own mythology is True and those of other cultures are False, but I’ve not heard of anyone take it, perhaps because it is so obviously ahistorical.) If the gods are individuals, are Mars and Ares the same individual, or are they different individuals? They have somewhat different mythologies and other differences, yet the Romans and the Greeks both said they were the same, as they did routinely for matching gods. Each name is simply a translation of the other, “different names employed by different nations” in Pliny’s somewhat disapproving words.

The animist view is straightforward: the gods actually are the world. Mars is war (and possibly other things), and so is Ares. Those names stand for different interpretations of (roughly) the same thing, and of course there can be great variety in interpretation. There is no doubt that war really exists, so there is no doubt that Mars and Ares really exist: there is no need for belief or faith. For the ancient Roman or Greek soldier, the immediate presence of war demands respect unconditionally as a matter of victory and defeat, of life and death.

Likewise, their is no doubt that the Sun exists: Helios is a god physically located in space, a god I can literally physically point to on any sunny day. The Sun provides almost all the Earth’s energy, the energy necessary for all life, as well as establishing the day and the year, the essential cycles of nature. For me there is never a reason not to respect that.

It is for this reason the ancient polytheists sacrificed to their gods.

— Ashley Yakeley

  1. John K. Nelson, A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine, University of Washington. p. 117
  2. Alain de Benoist, “Thoughts on God”, TYR: Myth – Culture – Tradition 2
  3. Alain de Benoist, On Being A Pagan, ULTRA. p. 18

Perspectivism and Post-Rationalism

On her blog Darcey Riley plans to delineate postrationality. To get started, she posted a list.

Here are some other things that seem to be true of postrationalists:

  • Postrationalists are more likely to reject scientific realism.
  • Postrationalists tend to enjoy exploring new worldviews and conceptual frameworks (I am thinking here of Ribbonfarm’s “refactoring perception”).
  • Postrationalists don’t think that death, suffering, and the forces of nature are cosmic evils that need to be destroyed.
  • Postrationalists tend to be spiritual, or at least very interested in spirituality.
  • Postrationalists like (and often participate in) rituals and magick.
  • When postrationalists are trying to improve their lives/the world, they tend to focus less on easily quantified measures like income, amount of food, amount of disease, etc., and instead focus on more subjective struggles like existential angst.
  • Postrationalists enjoy surrealist art and fiction.

I think I match all the points, and perhaps this:

  • Postrationalists are playful in the face of the absurd.

In short, postrationalists dance. This is a great relief, as I had been toying with an “irrationalist” identity as rationalism annoys me in that way something does when it’s rigorous but misguided. But post-rationalist (with or without the hyphen) is in every way better.

However, the core of my post-rationality is perspectivism. I think this is very loosely Nietzsche’s perspectivism, so credit him but don’t complain if I’m not expounding him correctly:

Truth is only meaningful in the context of some perspective. Truth is a product of thinking, a feeling we get about ideas, and thinking is a human activity, not an abstract activity. Since people think in slightly different ways, which we’ll call their perspectives, they end up with different truths, and these truths can only be understood within those perspectives.

Perspectives have depth. Within a perspective one can find not just rational “beliefs”, but attitudes such as aesthetics and ethics and the like, and there isn’t necessarily a clear categorisation: all of these things are “truth”. This allows people to say this is beautiful and that is ugly, or, this is right and that is wrong, as if they were simply facts. Darcey writes, “actually, intuitions and feelings are really important, let’s see if we can work with them instead of against them”. I’ll go further: intuitions and feelings are inseparable from the texture of truth.

Perspectives have plurality. We adopt different perspectives in different contexts, even as they are part of a larger perspective. Culture is by-and-large commonality between perspectives. This is why cultural difference is so difficult and yet so interesting.

Not even “mathematical truth” can escape this subjectivity. For example, back around the early 1900s there was a debate between two camps, known as the intuitionists and the formalists, on the foundations of mathematics. There were deeper reasons to the debate as the names suggest, but the easiest approach starts with the Law of the Excluded Middle:

  • For any proposition P, either P or not P.

The formalists admitted this rule, while the intuitionists rejected it. To the latter camp, the only way to prove a proposition of the form “P or Q” was to either prove P or prove Q. So what happened? Neither camp “won”; everyone said pretty much everything that can be usefully said, and the two perspectives were transcended into a larger perspective; for example, mathematicians now study proofs themselves as objects. (In particular, proofs that don’t rely on the Law of the Excluded Middle are called constructive.)

All this is not to say that all perspectives are equal: certainly some are better than others. However, exactly which ones those are also depends on one’s perspective. There is no escape…

So if we cannot evaluate perspectives on their truth, without already having a perspective, how do we evaluate perspectives? That is to say, how do we end up with them anyway?

Well, by and large people inherit perspectives from their culture, and evolve them to suit their needs and desires. This might even be a useful approach to mental health: healthy perspectives are those that make people stronger, more effective, more attractive, more powerful, perhaps more successful at reproducing in some Darwinian sense. Really, we humans are more naturally lawyers than scientists, advocates for our interests rather than neutral seekers of truth.

Post-rationalism has space for (pagan) religion in a way that rationalism doesn’t seem to. This is important to me not because religion is “accurate”, but because it is broadly healthy. We know this because of its ubiquity: people naturally tend to be religious, though as Blake pointed out, no one particular religion is natural.

Alain de Benoist says that pagan religion is not a matter of believing in the gods, but awakening to their presence. I consider this awakening as the gaining of a new perspective, one that admits the presence of the gods. For example, the Sun is a god, known by many different names (Sunna, Helios, Saulė, Amaterasu etc.), that one can literally point to on any sunny day. A religious perspective can allow and value all of these without dissonance:

  • The Sun is a ball of hydrogen and helium plasma (per TMBG)
  • The Sun is the source of all energy and life on Earth.
  • The Sun is sacred.
  • I shall give thanks to the Sun.
  • I shall pray to the Sun, and at the right time.
  • It is said, the Sun sulked in a cave until she was lured out by a stripper with a mirror. (for example)

This may seem strange or trite to us, but the development of perspectives is a collective, social process as well as an individual process, and living in a deeply un-pagan culture it’s difficult to enter such perspectives in a genuine way (despite much effort from some quarters).

— Ashley Yakeley

On Being A Nietzschean Pagan

Alain de Benoist, Comment peut-on être païen? (1981)
English translation On Being A Pagan (2004)

The book was written in 1981, but only published in English in 2004, and a number of Anglophone reviewers on Amazon and in blogs have complained about the proportion devoted to discussing the Judeo-Christian tradition (about 80%) rather than paganism. This is surely a reflection of the state of affairs at the time: the neo-pagan revival was pretty obscure, so perhaps those with pagan-ish inclinations, those more likely to be interested in the book, would be more likely to be then struggling with a surrounding Christian culture.

Alain de Benoist has a history of involvement in nationalist “New Right” groups, and the folks who are most interested in his stuff tend to be of the Radical Traditionalist Folkish anti-liberal anti-modernist sort, into Julius Evola and the Heathen Front and so on. Searching through this territory for ideas has been, for me, like walking on the edge of a cliff, one footfall away from crashing on the hard rocks of European exclusionary nationalism. At the same time, I cannot avoid it: the importance of the ancestral connection between a given people and their land is something one finds in every ancient pagan tradition. My safety line has been this: I may have certain roots in this place and this culture that you don’t, but I do not deny what roots you may have, nor your right to belong here. De Benoist’s extensive reliance on Nietzsche is also helpful, as Nietzsche was always suspicious of nationalism.

My experiences of paganism are in England (before 1994) and in the American Pacific Northwest. It’s my view that contemporary paganism, particularly in the latter, is enmeshed in unhelpful attitudes and concepts inherited from the largely Christian surrounding religious culture, which it is slowly learning to overcome. I would like to advance that process, and I believe de Benoist’s ideas can help. The book shows perhaps a rather particular vision of paganism, and while much of it strikes me as obviously the Right Thing, I am of course aware of the prickliness with which most pagans respond to suggestions from outside their traditions regarding what they ought and ought not be doing.

There are some issues. It’s not clear how well his description of paganism really matches with Norse, Celtic and so forth paganism as it was practiced in Europe before Christianity took over. Also, de Benoist doesn’t say much useful about sex, even though this is one of the more obvious differences between paganism and Christianity. Apparently he thought it was a little too obvious: he complains that the popular understanding of paganism (circa 1981) was little more than a kind of sexual excess with little actual religious content. He also barely mentions gender, in contrast to its importance to Wicca and its derivations, but this might be a good thing.

More worryingly, since writing the book de Benoist seems to have since turned away from Nietzsche towards Heidegger (see a ten-years-later interview and his article “Thoughts on God” in the traditionalist journal Tyr). It’s a disappointment, as he no longer seems to be saying anything of as much value. He reveals that he has never had experience of the divine but does at least feel the presence of the sacred in certain locations. In the interview he complains at length about the state of the pagan scene at the time; while there is some credibility, these complaints would certainly have more if he actually practised paganism in some way.

Anyway, here I take the ideas in On Being A Pagan and run with them, possibly to places he would not go, and possibly skipping over parts that make no sense to me. I identify four themes that characterise his view of paganism and how it differs from Christianity and Abrahamic religion in general: paganism attends to the immediate world (rather than a heaven); it is tied to geographic place and particular culture (rather than being universalist); it is broadly tolerant of other values (rather than insisting on a universal law-code); it calls us to great creation and achievement that surpasses the gods.

This World Is The Source

Christianity, and perhaps the Abrahamic religions generally, draw a line between God and the world. God is perfect, infinite, absolutely powerful. The world is flawed, finite, limited. This division is absolute. Humanity can never approach or share the same category as God. We cannot become perfect, and we can never choose our values: all values come from God. God alone has chosen what is good and what is bad: these are the true values and all other values are in error. However, Christianity offers a substitute: through Christ, we can instead become acceptable to God, even in our inevitable imperfection. And then perhaps we can join perfection… once we’re dead.

Furthermore, as created beings, we have an absolute, total obligation to God, the source of all values, and therefore guilt when we inevitably fail. We are also all equal before God, since the centrality of the division in power between God and humanity renders all the latter equal by contrast.

European paganism, says Alain de Benoist, rejects all this. It does not draw a line between what is the world and what is divine, rather, the latter originates in the former. The cosmos, whatever it is, is unitary, not divided into heaven and earth. The divine is something that is present in the world because it has arisen from it. This gives a continuity and fluidity between the mundane and the divine, between the sacred and profane. We are also free to create our own values, collectively and individually, and find our own meaning in our lives. De Benoist calls this play: and since they are our own values, this play is the only thing that is truly serious to us.

Furthermore, we are born innocent. Indeed we are not born for any purpose nor for any defining obligation. And though it may place its own obligations upon us, guilt is not a state of the soul, rather, it is a feeling like any other, one that in healthy people arises only from one’s own actions and responsibilities.

Paganism also rejects absolute equality, not for an immutable hierarchy, but for difference and diversity. Since we make our own values (again, individually and collectively), we are not obliged to value everything or everyone equally. This is just as well, as the notion of equality logically rules out the possibility of self-improvement: if one is always equal to everyone else, one can never become better than one is. To be what one truly is is to create oneself, to surpass oneself.

The Sacred

To paganism, the sacred comes from immediate reality as it is present and experienced and understood through culture, and not from its status as God’s creation.

Pagan mythology tells the stories of how the divine arises from the world, revealing the world as sacred. Thus by naming them, we call gods into being. Mythology is fluid, frequently with multiple changing interpretations and versions of any given myth, and a myth may rise or fall in popularity and importance. Because mythology is fundamentally oral in character, pagan books of mythology are more like rough descriptive snapshots and never absolutely definitive. But Christianity nails down its mythology as written scripture: unchangeable in meaning and even in word. It desanctifies the world by erasing its natural mythology, otherwise, the sacred world would compete with Yahweh by offering its own values.

Art is the creation of meaning, including the creation of the sacred. Art reveals truth. Thus by representing them, we manifest the gods. The pagan gods are the exaltation of human creativity, the human ability to create meaning, to create the sacred.

De Benoist says the Judeo-Christian tradition tends to be suspicious of visual art, considering it to be lies. Art imperfectly represents God’s creation. Furthermore, as an act of creation it glorifies the artist and threatens the reservation of creativity to God. As for Christian art, he claims it is a kind of “unconscious heresy” within Christianity, though this point struck me as having a slight “no true Scotsman” flavour. Certainly Judeo-Christianity prefers the written word, and extols the humbleness and especially the fidelity of the scribe of the holy texts, and in fact the more extreme Christians are even suspicious of other books and secular learning generally.

Sacrifices and offerings to the pagan gods are akin to those made to friends in a spirit of generosity. For example, eating together. In this way pagan gods are the Other, and pagan religious practice creates a space in which Self and Other exist together.

In Christianity the soul is a creation, not an emanation, of God. The soul is not of the same substance of God, it is on the other side of Yahweh’s chasm. In paganism the soul is itself of divine essence. “The doctrine of the partially and, especially, potentially divine character of human nature is in fact the basis for all man’s existential meaning.”

Culture Rooted to Place

Paganism is more than a nature-religion, because the world is more than nature. While we are “made of nature”, it is also we that give meaning to it. Paganism is also a culture-religion, a religion of human ideals, endeavour and achievement. In fact, it is a world-religion. Viewing paganism as strictly nature-religion focuses on nature’s influence on humans and ignores human influence of nature, which, says de Benoist, is just as important. What defines a pagan religion is its world-view and not the natural world. For instance, differences between Celtic and Germanic religion cannot be reduced to differences in the natural features of their respective lands.

By giving meaning to, or finding meaning in the world we thereby create the gods. And we participate in them when we surpass ourselves by the standards of our ideals. In fact, it is only through challenging the binds, including the binds of “nature”, that we grow to become who we truly are. By choosing our ideals, our gods, and expressing them through our actions, we change our destiny. This is the standard of honour and dishonour, and a theme in heroic mythology.

Pagan traditions were not universal to all people and all places, rather, they were rooted in particular cultures and in particular places. This rooting can occur at any scale: a nation, a tribe, a subculture, a profession, a family, an individual. A love affair, even. And also: a land, a region, a forest, a city, a village, a hill, a building, a courtyard, an oak tree. The recognition of places as sacred is based on the depth of history of cultural involvement. Naturally, for us this recognition is easier in Europe than in America.

I might add: the importance of place is, like much else in paganism, a recognition of something already powerful. People have always found meaning attached to place. As an extreme example, consider “Jerusalem syndrome”, a kind of temporary psychosis that afflicts occasional visitors to that city, almost all evangelical Christians. Or consider Stendhal syndrome, associated with not just Florentine art, but Florence as place associated with art. In a culture where the only religious understandings are Abrahamic, such phenomena are given no place to mature and end up in the bucket marked pathology.

De Benoist claims that paganism is focused on place while Christianity is focused on time. I don’t think it’s so simple. Paganism has times that are sacred of themselves: solstices, equinoxes, new and full moons, as well as times set purely by tradition. Christianity has both places and times set aside for God, but they are all understood to be fundamentally human conveniences, not sacred in themselves. One can perform Christianity equally at any time or place. The Christian year is liturgical, not itself sacred. For instance, the precise timing of Easter, the most important Christian feast, is more or less arbitrary, and the discrepancy between Eastern and Western timings is purely a matter of tradition, not doctrine. A church can be placed anywhere.

What is important to Christianity is a great scale of time: prelapsarian times, the Fall of Man, the time of Christ, the Second Coming, the End Times, according to Yahweh’s great plan for humanity. Paganism does not share this. Time for pagans is generally considered cyclically: while it might have some sort of beginning, it doesn’t have any particular necessary end. History simply is, it does not have a purpose, nor does it have one absolute meaning, nor is it bound to lead to a final end. (But what are we to make of Ragnarok? Though it is at least cyclical.) At the very least, paganism is centrally concerned with this world, rather than one after death.

These roots to culture and place are, primarily, ancestral. For instance, to the Norse the souls of the dead became the landvaettr, land-wights, that is, spirits bound to particular places. (Valhalla is a later creation.) To the ancient Romans, religion was a civic duty that connected one to family, society and nation. But ancestry does not have to be understood genetically, nor does this imply any concept of “purity” or exclusion: this is not Blut und Boden.

Since it is not universalist, paganism is tolerant of other religion. Judaism by contrast is averse to any kind of “mixing” from the cultural Other, while Christianity and Islam actively seek to convert all humanity. (But what about Buddhism, which has universalist teachings but is frequently tolerant of cultural influence?)

There is no universal human culture. De Benoist is so averse to univeralism he claims that no universal human teaching is possible: what unity humanity has is strictly biological in nature. I can’t go that far, but certainly I share his emphasis on the importance of particularity, the particularity of cultures, the particularity of places and of times. This is what we have lost by and large today, where, borrowing from Christianity, any place is held to be as good as any other to practice pagan religion. For instance, having ignored the particularity of place when deciding where to hold some ritual, it is thus impossible to build a relationship with the place one does end up at.

Which lead us to…


Since gods also stand for ideals and norms, polytheism is not only tolerant of outside culture, but represents our freedom to choose our own values. Polytheism is a polytheism of values, which one might call polyidealism. Different gods may represent different concerns, different values, different perspectives, different truths.

This does not mean that pagans themselves are necessarily tolerant of values that oppose their own, just as polytheism does not imply worshiping every deity and spirit one might encounter. Equally, the polyidealistic vision does not insist on some “overall” value subordinating the diverse values of the many gods. Such a requirement would be be another form of universalism, and therefore of intolerance to competing values.

Instead the proper state of affairs includes contradiction, conflict, and struggle between the gods as the various stories frequently tell. These struggles do not have a singular moral interpretation. One’s adversary is strictly situational and not pre-judged as dishonourable. Instead, adversaries are more often complementary, leading to some greater union and harmony. “As brothers fight ye.” This applies to politics too: public disagreement is an essential sign of political health. De Benoist criticises Marxism for envisioning a future in which all political disagreement has been resolved.

And this is not to say there cannot be pagan concepts of “one god” that represent the commonality of the many gods. For instance, the world soul of the Stoics, or perhaps the numen of the Romans. But these do not have their own values attached: they are impersonal forces or spirits that subsequently express themselves as the many gods.

Balance of plurality is a key pagan concept, balance between competing viewpoints, perspectives, values, desires, concerns. But balance is not about the 50-50 point, or calculation of some median. It’s always about the whole spectrum. When it comes to practical decision-making, in situations when a balance of concerns must be forced to a point, that point will vary from person to person, again exhibiting plurality. Often, questions simply don’t have single definitive objective answers. Instead of claiming objectivity, pagan morality is strongly bound to aesthetics: what determines good and bad is not conformance to a written code, but a sense akin to an aesthetic sense. This does not deny the necessity of clearly-defined agreed-upon law codes (“the necessity of the police” in Nietzsche’s snipe) as a civic matter.

Christianity draws an absolute line between good and evil, leading to the problem of the origin of evil, which lacks convincing answers. For paganism, the divine is not one thing against its “devilish” opposite, but the union of opposites, and then transcendence of the opposition, solve et coagula. In paganism evil is not an absolute value (because there are no absolute values and perhaps even no absolute truths), but arises in different ways in different cultures. It is a distinctly human thing, so it causes no particular theological problem.

This does not, by the way, imply that nothing is evil. Some things certainly are evil, but exactly what those things are will vary among people and among cultures. Just because values are not absolute does not mean they do not exist. And don’t think that that means we get to pick all our values to suit our immediate selfishness. We are by and large embedded in our cultures, and our values are not something we can always “escape” for our situational convenience. It’s better to think of our values as looking out for us to a long term not necessarily obvious to us. This is how our gods guide us. I think this is what de Benoist means by “faith”: trust in how the gods guide us.

As for the future: the “moral absolute singular God” of Judaism and Christianity is already a ridiculous, alien concept to pagans today. We may have gods, spirits and wights that have a moral or teaching dimension, but they are not the absolute. We may have conceptions of the absolute, but they do not bear values to us in that form. De Benoist quotes Nietzsche: “Could it be that with morality, the pantheist affirmation of a yes to all things has also become impossible? Fundamentally and in fact only the moral God has been refuted and surpassed. Wouldn’t it be wise to think of a God beyond good and evil?

Endeavour & Creation

The gods are, among other things, gods of endeavour. For instance, Venus represents endeavouring to love; Hestia to make a home, Jupiter and Mars to achieve political power and so forth, Loki to succeed through cleverness. Thus they exalt in our success. In this sense they serve us, individually or collectively.

Yahweh, by contrast, is a “jealous” god, jealous of the pagan gods and therefore actually jealous of human achievement. For instance, it is told that after the Great Flood, humanity set to build the great Tower of Babel to maintain their unity. But Yahweh feared their power: “now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them”. Even though humanity had done nothing evil, Yahweh confounded their speech to confound their power. For instance, when Yahweh first created him, Adam was immortal, alone, complete, challenging his creator in perfection. It is not Adam’s complaint: rather, it is not good for God that Adam should be alone…

Genuine pride is the real sin against Yahweh. This is not, by the way, the pagan Greek concept of hubris, which implied using one’s power to humiliate another rather than for achievement for its own sake. Again, the Old Testament draws a categorical divide between the Creator and the created. Humans, being in the latter category, are not capable of this kind of Creation, that is the creation of meaning and of the sacred, only of a lesser “making”. Yahweh has abrogated to himself all true creativity. Humans as creations cannot challenge their creator (or rather, must not), and to attempt to do so is the sin of pride.

The pagan gods engendered humanity rather than created us, and therefore we are unbound: we may excel and exceed them just as children may exceed their parents. And indeed this is exactly what the gods call us to do. (But what about Prometheus? Marsyas?) And pride is a virtue, or a sign of virtue, because it is only humanity, individually and communally, that gives meaning. We may create ourselves as we wish, we are not subject to external moral obligation. We may choose our own values, our own ideals, our own gods.


Good = noble = powerful = beautiful = happy = beloved of the gods: de Benoist calls this the classic equation of paganism. Beauty is a sign of goodness.

Christianity teaches the opposite, most notably in the Sermon on the Mount. To Christianity, it is not just that power corrupts, but that goodness actually comes from weakness and from suffering. Power is considered to be evil. But in fact, following Nietzsche, power is a good thing. Lack of power is a bad thing.

What about the powerless and the weak? They should struggle to become strong, whether that be through collective means (as the political Left might suggest) or individual means (per the Right). Even “by any means necessary”. And those who care should help them, or perhaps just get out of their way. The problems only start when they get resentful, normalise their powerlessness, and declare the power they lack to be morally suspect. This is bad for everyone. Nietzsche argues that “ressentiment”, a moral system created by resentment of power, is the foundation of Christianity. In truth there is nothing morally worthy about being oppressed, such a state has no compensating value at all. For as long as they stay meek, they shall not inherit the Earth. One can also see this moral suspicion of power, perhaps, in the “privilege” concept in the social justice movement. In fact, inasmuch as oppression causes damage, it makes the oppressed less human, and that is the horror of it. Healthy paganism, says de Benoist, wishes to lift the oppressed and the weak as it wishes to lift everyone.

What Now?

Paganism is centred on reality, that is, this world, this life. The gods are gods of this world. Christianity is centred on a God external to the world, and on the afterlife. Since these things do not exist, this ultimately leads to nihilism and “the death of God”. De Benoist claims that Christianity’s demise is self-caused.

We cannot simply return to the religion before Christianity, not properly, because we no longer live in those cultures and cannot meaningfully identify with them. We’re not hunter-gatherers or even (most of us) agriculturalists. We are not the same ethnicity as our remote ancestors. We each have lives and have culture, quotidian culture we swim in every day, and meaning in our lives can only be found from… our lives. Paganism is not a fantasy of living in a different situation or at a different time.

Instead, we stretch out the old paganisms, draw out threads from them, reinterpret them, and mix them with our cultural inheritance. In fact, pagan streams have persisted into the present, in music and in art and frequently expressing in Christian language and symbols. De Benoist traces early heresies, pantheism identifying God with the world or with the depth of the world, the Romantic movement and so forth. We cannot ignore Christianity, we must instead surpass it.

De Benoist is not, with his rejection of all things universalist, advocating for what we would now refer to as a particular pagan tradition; and I want to stress that his ideas match what, I believe, can already be found scattered amongst various traditions.

For instance, modern druidry as practised in England and Wales has some of the rootedness in place and culture: these are the various obods and sods that Ronald Hutton devoted two books to. Their roots are in the eighteenth century (not the Iron Age) and are attached to the sacred places of the land, which tend to be those where the ancient depth of connection between culture and land is at its most evident, most notably, the various megaliths dotting the landscape particularly in the west. Of course, by definition this kind of rootedness cannot travel well, so folks living in Seattle won’t necessarily be familiar with this even though they might be members of the same orders, unless they’ve spent a lot of time practicing it in its native country and enmeshed in the native culture. On the other hand, there are some reasonable questions concerning the Celticness of what these “druids” do and who they are culturally.

And for instance, the Iron Pentacle and some other concepts of Victor Anderson’s Feri tradition seem to have the more Nietzschean aspects of freedom from externally-imposed moral obligation, possibly; but it’s difficult to tell from the outside what’s going on with these oath-bound groups.

My own thoughts: when considering any part of any paganism (seidh, for instance), our first question should be, is there any need or use for it in the quotidian society that we live in? Of course, we might be better off if we lived in the kind of society that did have a need for such things. But that’s not the same thing. Historical reconstruction for its own sake is mere curiosity. Instead ask, what is there a need for? This depends on who you are and where you live. If gods really carry values, then ask, what do you care about? If gods really are gods of endeavour, then ask, what are you trying to achieve?

Unanswered Questions

If you look to the culture you grew up in and that of the place you now live, you’ll probably find they aren’t pagan and haven’t been for centuries. So how can one practice a paganism rooted in culture rooted in place when those roots no longer exist? I look to Japan to see how paganism can flourish organically in a prosperous modern state, but Japanese culture is quite different from my own.

What was the role of mythology to pagans before Christianity? We have literature now, does that substitute? How is it affected by the importance our culture places on authorship and copyright? Tolkien, for instance, might have written mythology for the English, except he didn’t, because his works remain under copyright making it difficult for anyone else to layer on their own work and meanings. This would be necessary for mythology to acquire the cultural depth to be worthy of the name.

For those of us who live in regions where the history of our own cultures does not run very deep, where are the sacred places?

Do we need a “theory of the gods”? A theology? I mean, what are the gods really? Such a theology would have to account for the way gods can be lumped or split, the way gods are not really individual. For instance, the Irish goddess Brighid has two sisters, also called Brighid. Are they three separate beings, or three aspects of one being? And for the cultural lineages of gods, is Ares the same being as Mars? Both the Greeks and the Romans thought so, and extended their systems to other cultures they came across. The gods tend to be gods of something, are they just those things “personified”?

In my opinion, understanding of the gods only happens “at the altar”, that is, only in the states when we are open to them in a particular way. De Benoist remarks elsewhere that he has never had a religious experience, which is troubling, especially as there is a simple three-step formula for this which I will sell to him for €2000: pick a deity, build an altar, make an offering. (I’ve also heard good things about mushrooms.)

— Ashley Yakeley (originally published here and here)