Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

  • Home
    Home This is where you can find all the blog posts throughout the site.
  • Tags
    Tags Displays a list of tags that have been used in the blog.
  • Bloggers
    Bloggers Search for your favorite blogger from this site.
  • Login
    Login Login form

Fighting the Good Fight: Steven Dillon's Case for Polytheism

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

In his new book, The Case for Polytheism, philosopher Steven Dillon sets out to prove that belief in the existence of multiple “disembodied consciousnesses” (i.e. gods) can be rational, logically coherent, and intellectually credible.

And, for the most part, he succeeds—for one already inclined to belief, at least. Though this diehard polyatheist (= non-believer, but culturally polytheist), for one, remains unconvinced, Dillon is hardly to be faulted for not achieving the impossible. To have attempted the impossible in the first place in itself constitutes heroic endeavor.

Dillon's argument, however, is handicapped by an unexamined premise that he shares with John Michael Greer, whose World Full of Gods is also a notable contribution to the field of what the late Isaac Bonewits was wont to call “polytheology.” This is the premise that all gods ever worshiped by anyone, pagan or non-pagan, have the same ontological existence.

Now, to contend that many gods exist is by no means the same as contending that all gods exist. Is the polytheist to be permitted no skepticism whatsoever? Is to love the Many necessarily to be party to everything that the human heart has ever dreamed?

I wish that pagans would stop attempting all-inclusive comprehensiveness. When we define “ritual,” for instance, we try to formulate a definition that can cover every known instance of ritual in every known culture. Better that we should first ask: What is pagan ritual? This is a question that we can answer because we have access to the necessary information and, having done so, we will know ourselves better thereby. Only then can we profitably compare what we know of pagan ritual with non-pagan ritual and see what commonalities emerge.


From the very beginning, Dillon admits the existence of two (as it were) modalities of pagan god: “material gods” (Earth, Sun, Moon, etc.) and non-material ones: what he would call “disembodied consciousnesses.” Having done so, he then proceeds to ignore the former, whom we know to exist, and flies off into an abstract Aristotelian stratosphere in an attempt to prove the existence of the latter, who may not exist at all. En route, he encounters the usual intellectual turbulence that theist thought always comes up against.

Let me admit at the outset that I myself would have preferred a book about the material—what I would call the Elder—gods. Largely eschewed by non-pagan religions, these are gods distinctively (although not exclusively) pagan and so (by the criterion mentioned above) more profitable to discuss. For a comprehensive treatment of the subject, I suppose we'll just have to wait until Posch finally gets off his butt and finishes Lost Gods of the Witches. Meanwhile, for those interested in such things, watch this blog.

To his credit, Dillon is not afraid to take on the big issues. Are the gods good? Yes, he would say, but here again his essential Aristotelianism plays him false. Goodness he treats not as a contextual quality descriptive of actions and their consequences, but as something in se, and so the usual philosophical difficulties pertain. Myself, I would agree with his conclusion while disagreeing both with his premises and with his definitions of “god” and “good.” Ain't life strange?

A few minor quibbles. The book is brief: with notes, 85 pages. Unfortunately, in conjunction with the title, this can only imply that the case for polytheism is a slender one. Likewise, the cover photo of a single candle flame, while beautiful, also works visually against Dillon's contention. (Better would have been a entire field of flames.) While such things can hardly be said to affect the coherence of Dillon's arguments, it's always best when symbolic accords with conceptual.

Likewise, it is disconcerting to pick up a book purportedly dealing with polytheist theology to find ideas and examples drawn from non-polytheist religions—notably the Christianities—on page after page. Surely a theology that draws on polytheist examples from polytheist religions would have more to tell us about operative polytheist theology.

Like his colleague Greer, Dillon makes the questionable decision to posit that our knowledge of the gods derives largely, if not exclusively, from claimed direct personal encounters, and that such encounters need to be taken at face value. Here too, it would seem, skepticism is to be denied the polytheist.

While paradigmatically true of the material gods, when applied to the non-material ones this decision embeds us in a philosophical quagmire of a very distinctively neo-pagan (I use the term advisedly) sort, in which our paganism becomes a matter of personal belief rather than (as the ancestors would have said) of tribal identity.

That people have religious experiences of encounter I do not deny. One must, however, distinguish between experience and interpretation of experience. That someone attributes an experience to some non-material god or other actually says very little about the experience itself.

What both Dillon and Greer overlook is the central importance of Received Tradition to the polytheisms. No one has an experience and then says “Ah, Deity Y” out of a clear blue sky. We do so because the inherited, cumulative wisdom of the ancestors has given us the information by which to recognize in the experience the qualities of a particular god. It is from Received Tradition that we are given to apprehend “god” as a category of being in the first place.

With all my caviling, one might think that I misliked The Case for Polytheism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Dillon's book is beautifully and concisely structured, and his arguments convincingly marshaled. His clarity of expression is praiseworthy, as is his ability to make levels of abstraction to which a concrete thinker such as myself rarely climbs both accessible and pleasurable. Agree or disagree with what he has to say, this is not a book to miss.

Modern pagans have tended to embrace a paradigm of paganism as religion of praxis rather than of logos. This false dichotomy is both unnecessary and, in the long run, damaging. It is not enough merely to have experiences; we need to think about them, too. The unexamined religion, as Socrates would say, is not worth practicing.

When I first set foot on the Old Way, there was one lone book of modern polytheist theology on the shelf. Now David Miller's landmark The New Polytheism (1974) is joined by dozens of studies written by thoughtful, informed pioneers like Steven Dillon. Thank you, gods, that I should live in such a time.

Give Case a chance. Reading it will make you a better pagan.

Whatever “good” may be.

Steven Dillon, The Case for Polytheism (2015). Iff Books.






Last modified on
Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Lizzy Hood
    Lizzy Hood Sunday, 11 October 2015

    I will be looking forward to reading your book, sir.

  • tehomet
    tehomet Sunday, 24 January 2016

    Lost Gods of the Witches! Bring it on.

  • Please login first in order for you to submit comments

Additional information