Friday, January 18, 2008

The Appeal of Polytheism

Let's be clear. I don't believe there are many gods and goddesses. In fact, as most atheists are fond of repeating, we're all atheists these days. The only difference between actual atheists and monotheists is that monotheists have denied all gods but one. Atheists simply go the extra mile. They reject all the other gods, plus one.

But I am a fan of fantasy literature in the style of Neil Gaiman or Guy Gavriel Kay. In that literature, you find an unapologetic appeal to something I think is a universal human desire; namely, the attraction of many gods and goddesses. Gods in the air. Gods in the sea. Gods wandering among us. Gods that come and go, like the weather. Gods of trees. Gods of sexual desire. Gods of food and drink. Gods of the afterlife. And so on...

Most who avidly read these novels don't have any difficulty separating reality and the world of fiction into which they immerse themselves. But there is something about the fantasy of many larger-than-life figures - representing the good, the bad, the ugly, and the merely unusual - that captures the imagination and the attraction. In fact, I would suggest that a lot of what we call celebrity watching is really just a variant of the natural appeal of polytheism.

We aren't that different from our predecessors. We might be more secular, more sophisticated, even more rational and logical. But at the emotional and imaginative level, the place where we create and consume stories, is the deeply embedded predilection for gods and goddesses.

When we go to the movies, we almost always want to see characters who are bigger, stronger, faster, meaner, uglier, smarter than we are. Otherwise, why bother? When we play video games, it's the same thing. When we watch our favourite sporting events, our top TV drama or comedy series, when we listen to music, go to concerts, visit a gallery, or even when we read the paper, we're searching for meanings and patterns that almost always seem bound to something outside the ordinary.

Gods are attractive, whether we worship them or not.

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