Thursday, May 9, 2013

Understanding some religious 'isms'

          When I speak to people about Pagan and religion I am always talking about terms with 'isms' as I call them. Many times people just look at me like I am intentionally trying to confuse them. Really I am not. So I figured I would do a post covering some of the religious 'isms' I talk about in these lectures and classes.

          First let us talk about monotheism. Monotheism is “Belief in the existence of one god…” (Merriam-Webster : monotheism). The primary modern monotheist religions are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Judaism is the original religion which Christianity and Islam branched from. In these religions there is one single god, which in Judaism and some sects of Christianity is referred to as Yahweh while in Islam the god is called Allah.

          Next we come to polytheism. Polytheism is defined as “belief in or worship of more than one god” (Merriam-Webster : polytheism). Many Pagan and non-monotheist religions are classified as being Polytheism. However, polytheism can be very misleading when a closer look is taken of those within the Pagan community. When we look at a few other terms in this post the differences will become a bit clearer. Some examples of polytheist religions are those of the ancient Asian, Celtic, Norse, Roman, Hellenic, and Vedic cultures to just name a few. Within a more modern context examples would be many of the Neo-Pagan such as the Asatru, the Heathens, many of the modern Paleo-Pagan reconstruction religions some Witchcraft traditions and Druid traditions. There are different forms of polytheism as well. There is hard polytheism and soft polytheism. One may think there is not much of a difference but there is. Hard polytheist believe that all the gods and goddesses are complete individual beings. Any similarities between cultures and their gods mean very little to a hard polytheist. While soft polytheist are more likely to believe that there are archetypal gods which are the same the same beings in every culture. They do not see the Roman gods as being separate from the Greek gods. 

          The next is a modern term for a form of religion that has existed for ages, dualism. There are several different definitions for dualism but the most fitting for our discussion is “a doctrine that the universe is under the dominion of two opposing principles one of which is good and the other evil.” (Merriam-Webster : dualism) Now the only part in this that I think does not fit is the good and evil part of the definition. Let me explain why. There is a symbol which most western cultures are aware of. It is the Yin-Yang. It is the side of two opposing forces, each which contains a part of the other. Now this can be seen as female/male, positive/negative, light/dark, living/dead, etc. The point is that the forces do not have to be good and evil. With this in mind let us look as some examples of dualism within ancient and modern religion. In the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism there are two gods, Ahura Mazda (the god of light and wisdom) and Angra Mainyu (the god of darkness and destruction). These two are opposing forces. Though there are two gods, traditionally Ahura Mazda is main god who is worshiped  The line of dualism begins to blur a bit in this area into monism, which we will discussion shortly. A more modern example of this is the Neo-Pagan religion originally created by Jerald Gardner, Wicca. In the Wiccan belief system there are to main forces; the force of the goddess and the force of the god. They are regularly termed the Lady and the Lord. In the majority of Wiccan traditions all goddesses are the one goddess (the Lady) and all gods are the one god (the Lord). This is also an example of a modern Pagan tradition that is not polytheistic.

          Now we come to monism. A monism believes that even if there are other gods and goddess, they are dedicated to one single deity. They do not necessarily believe that there is only one god or that all gods are one god (though they could and still be a monist). One primary example of this is the cult of ancient Rome dedicated to the god Mithra. Mithra did not require his believers to think all other gods were false. He only required that they dedicate themselves to Him. This can also be seen in the cults dedicated to Aphrodite. Her priestesses where dedicate to serve Her and only Her.

          So we come to pantheism, which a bit more difficult to nail down. To me pantheism is just a modern term for animism. The definition of pantheism is “Doctrine that the universe is (g)od and, conversely, that there is no god apart from the substance, forces, and laws manifested in the universe.” (Merriam-Webster : pantheism) There are many times pantheism crosses the lines with different religions. It seems to be more a philosophy than a religion; a philosophy that can can find a home any many if not all religions 'isms'.

          One of my favorites is animism. The complete definition according to Merriam-Webster of animism is "1: a doctrine that the vital principle of organic development is immaterial spirit. 2: attribution of conscious life to objects in and phenomena of nature or to inanimate objects. 3: belief in the existence of spirits separable from bodies." (Merriam-Webster : animism) Now there are aspects of most religions that can be said to be animistic in nature. But more primitive religions, such as those of tribal peoples, are said to be truly animistic. So what does it mean? Well in short that all things such as plants, animals, minerals, etc have the essence of conscious life. It means that all things are filled with the divine.

          So I hope this gives you a bit of an idea about religious 'isms' and that it helps to clear up a bit of confusion out there in the world of many faiths.


Works Cited

Merriam-Webster. "Merriam-Webster." n.d. http://www.merriam-webster.com/. 26 4 2013.
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