The God Graveyard – The problem with Polytheism as an object example

There was recently a “God Graveyard” display put up on a public university lawn, saying:

“Here lie the graves of thousands of dead gods.
Once worshiped by entire civilizations, now only myths.
How much longer will the gods of today last?

Join Us
Question Everything

Atheists, Humanists, & Agnostics”

At first, I was taken aback. How incredibly rude is this? And in the name of being hospitable to fellow “questioners”, even! As usual for the internet, some of the comments in the replies were even worse.

It is breathtakingly arrogant to assume that people of faith are not questioning, that were everyone simply to question their beliefs, they’d agree with you. Evangelism that marginalizes people with different beliefs is no more acceptable coming from Atheists than it is from Christians. No amount of a firm belief in your own opinions justifies making a blanket insult to thousands, even millions of people you don’t even know, and aren’t bothering to include in your dialog.

My second response was bemused – no doubt countless Neo-Pagans would be up in arms at the insult to our Gods, but I felt no such upset. The Gods endure whether people choose to believe in Them or not. If these folks wanted to reject that, it’s their loss.

No, what upset me the most was the implications: Western culture has hundreds of years of using the divide between polytheism and monotheism to marginalize people of color and justify colonialism. For years, Western scholars have considered it obvious that Animism and Polytheism are “less evolved” philosophies, signs that a culture is inferior. During the “Age of Reason”, Atheist philosophers carried that the final step to say that Monotheists were merely the next rung on the ladder in the evolution of civilization.

That is the essence of this argument so frequently used in the fight between Atheists and Monotheists for the top of their ideological pecking order, and it includes a tacit agreement that Animists and Polytheists are so inferior in their ignorant beliefs that they are not even worthy of consideration in the argument.

I have a huge problem with watching university students use that argument all over again without any respect for the underlying racism, classism, and colonialist privilege embedded in its history.

To be clear: I don’t care which or how many gods you do or don’t believe in. 1, 50, 5 million, or negative two. What I care about is that people behave with respect and compassion towards each other.

I know countless Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics (there are plenty of them in Silicon Valley), who do exactly that – behave with respect and compassion, care about fellow human beings, and extend hospitality to people of all kinds, regardless of their differences in views. My primary partner is Atheistic. One of my best friends for the last decade is Humanist (what I’d call Spiritual Humanist). Heck, I was Agnostic myself for most of my teenage years, while I questioned the Monotheistic model of divinity. I like to think I treated people of faith and skeptics alike with respect even as I indeed questioned everything.

So no, the fact that this group is one of non-believers is NOT what bothers me. By all means, ask good questions, and find the answers that mean the most to you.

The fact that they are using polytheists of indigenous and non-Western cultures from all over the world as a mere tool in an argument against Monotheists, erasing their existence as living people with thriving practices by declaring that their gods are “dead” and thus irrelevant, that these gods no longer having any relevant living followers in the modern world – especially while including Hindu gods, Afro-Diasporic powers, deities from Asian folk practice, and so forth in their display – is what bothers me.

I might be a touch less bothered if the only gods they put in that graveyard were from non-continuous traditions, although it’s very difficult to actually be certain a deity has no continuous traditions in its name, and wow, are the people who still follow any European gods in a continuous tradition about as marginalized as it gets. But even if somehow it’s truly just a bunch of Westerners arguing with other Westerners in a way that doesn’t even involve non-Westerners, it’s still really damned tacky, disrespectful, erasive of Neo-Pagans, and built on colonialist justifications. It’s perhaps not also massively classist and racist in the modern age.

If it includes god names from monotheistic traditions, that also shifts the context slightly, in that it no longer places Monotheists above all others of faith in such a way as to erase other faiths, although it does still invoke the colonialist arguments that underly the whole discourse. But since the underlying point of the argument is that belief in deity is itself a fallacy of logic by empirical standards, that, at least, is a fair argument, however immaturely presented.

Some people have argued that it’s a matter of freedom of speech that they be allowed to make this statement, and thus I should not be upset by it.

I absolutely defend the right of these students to not be arrested or punished by the federal, state, or local justice systems for having put out this display. I know of no riots it has started, nor physical harm it has caused. Ideas are indeed dangerous, but that’s exactly why freedom of speech matters so much.

But to say that I should therefore not be offended? No.

Freedom of Speech is about what the government can do to stop people from voicing their needs and views. Nothing about it says that nobody should be bothered by those views. Nothing about it removes us from being responsible for the results of our speech and actions. Nothing about it signifies freedom from social consequences.

Nothing about Freedom of Speech makes offensive speech not offensive.

However, this is only half of what that God Graveyard brought to my attention in the last few days. But that’s another post.


About EmberVoices

Ember Cooke has been a member of Hrafnar and Seidhjallr for more than a decade, where she trained to be a Seidhkona, Galdrakona, and Gythia. She founded the Vanic Conspiracy and made ordination vows to the Vanir and her congregation in the summer of 2013. She has contributed to several publications on Heathen and Northern Pagan subjects and regularly presents rituals and workshops at festivals. Her personal practice is more diverse, as the Vanir have lead her into cross-training and service for the wider Pagan community. This has including medium and servitor training in American Umbanda, clergy training with the Fellowship of the Spiral Path, and jail ministry for local counties. She holds a BA with honors in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University. Ember has lived all her life in the south San Francisco Bay Area, and is intimately bound to the valley of her birth.
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10 Responses to The God Graveyard – The problem with Polytheism as an object example

  1. Oh the joys of militant atheists… I don’t mind if people don’t believe in any kind of deity (I went out with one for a while), but I do mind when they try and tell you that because you do, you are therefore being stupid (as said ex-boyfriend did occasionally).

    As for your comments on freedom of speech, my attitude can be summed up in two quotes, one from Evelyn Beatrice Hall regarding Voltaire: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ and one I heard most recently from my friend Ian, which can be paraphrased as ‘freedom of speech means you can say what you want, and other people are just as entitled to call you on your bovine manure’.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Defining the Divine – Gods, Spirits, Powers, etc. | EmberVoices: Listening for the Vanir

  3. EmberVoices says:

    To call myself on my own shit:

    I used “totem poll” in a colloquial way that wasn’t respectful to the source culture. I winced back when I wrote it, but couldn’t come up with an alternative at the time.

    Having given that some thought, I have changed it to “pecking order”.

    No one expressed any upset, but I apologize nonetheless.



  4. karyyl says:

    My previous comment was not aimed at Ember, it was a rhetorical question for strict empiricists, and really, I believe God does call (some of the) Atheists, Humanists, Agnostics, etc. Just as She calls (some of) everything else that She needs — monotheists, Deists, panentheists (me), Quintarians (I wish!) etc.


    • EmberVoices says:

      I wouldn’t.

      Actually, that’s a very similar analogy to the one I’ve made when militant atheists (again, acknowledging that not all atheists are militant about it) have referred to faith as a crutch:

      My faith is part of me. The fact that you have no legs does not make mine crutches.



    • EmberVoices says:

      Oh, I know.

      And there IS a problem with embracing empiricism to the point of rejecting direct experience as a valid source of meaning.

      I get it that a lot of people who do that don’t have the kind of direct experiences that would prompt some other conclusion, and that’s fine. But to require that everyone to reject their own lived, direct experiences strikes me as either ignorant, arrogant, or jealous, depending on the context.



  5. karyyl says:

    I believe empricism is one of the greatest brain-tools humanity has ever found.

    If you found the greatest hand-tool ever created, would you have it surgically implanted in your hand? Would you call anybody who wanted to keep their original hands, that can pick up tools and put them down to do a different task, ignorant?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I have found the Angry Dawkins-ite type “New Atheists” mostly annoying and insulting. I tend to ignore them anymore but have found that the conflate all religion with certain interpretations of the major Abrahamic faiths without actually trying to understand anything.


    • EmberVoices says:

      Maybe it’s because I’m a religious scholar, but that particular kind of utter laziness paired with deliberate rudeness offends me.

      If you’re going to make a big statement about how smart you are, do your damned homework first.



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