What Christians misunderstand about pagan religions
To this day my mom gets confused when a white person is like "I'm not Christian." She's like, "But you're either Christian or Jewish. Those are the only things you can be! There's no other option." I'm like, "No, they're saying they don't believe in Christ or his divinity." And she's like..."Oh, who cares what they believe?"
In India, if you ask what religion someone is, there's a number of possible answers: you can be Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Muslim, Parsi, Jain, Buddhist, or have an indigenous religion. And that's it, there aren't any other options. There is no atheism. It doesn't matter what you believe. Like, in India, if there's a pogrom against Muslims, nobody asks, "Do you believe in Allah?" They're just like...your name is Shah Ali and you live in Nizamuddin East so I'm going to burn down your house.
Similarly, the dalits in India are not Hindu in any sense that a Christian might understand the term--how can you be Hindu when no Brahmin is allowed to touch you or enter your home? They are governed by Hinduism, in that the faith structures their life, but they don't necessarily "believe" in it (oftentimes, unless they have converted to Buddhism or Christianity, they have local gods who they venerate. Dalits quite frequently know little of what we would call the traditional Hindu pantheon, with its Vishnus and Shivas and heroic figures). So it doesn't matter if a dalit believes that Rama was a real mythological hero or not, and before the coming of monotheism I doubt many dalits bothered to doubt the existence of their oppressor's deity, because it simply didn't matter whether or not they believed in him. To say he didn't exist would mean nothing. And, moreover, why should this particular God not exist, when so many other Gods do?
Modern Americans have a strong tendency to try and make other religions resemble Protestant Christianity. And chief amongst this is their desire to turn religion into a matter of personal conviction. But in most times and places, personal conviction is not a huge part of religion. Religion is a social phenomenon: as a people, you come together to practice a faith and enact certain rituals.
Nowhere is this more true than in polytheistic faiths. In fact, it's kind of a misnomer to even use the term "faith" or "religion" in reference to polytheism, because polytheism is not a religion. Polytheism is just the natural, logical state of mankind. It's monotheism that's the odd one!
Polytheism is merely the belief that there are multiple spiritual forces that exist, want your veneration, and are capable of providing material rewards. That's why when you look at polytheistic peoples, it's so hard to figure out what "religion" they are. Like the same person in China might be Buddhist, Daoist, and practice ancestor worship, just as the same Roman might've done rituals to propitiate their Lares and Manes and Janus and practiced some Eastern mystery cult, like Mithraism. To believe that there is a Supreme Being who you can worship directly and who will be mad if you worship the intermediate beings? That's a bit of an absurd notion!
Christians also want other faiths to have a heaven and hell. They're like, oh the Vikings believed in Valhalla and Hel, and the Greeks believed in Elysium and Tartarus, and the Hindus have the cycle of rebirth. But none of these places really resemble Hell to any particular degree. The Greek afterlife was sort of miserable for everyone, as attested to by the passage in the Odyssey where Achilles says being in Hades is worse than being the slave of a slave.
Yeah, people vaguely believed in an afterlife, but you don't really worship the Gods so you can have a better afterlife--you worship them in exchange for immediate, worldly gains. In this, Judaism is sort of a mix between polytheism and monotheism. There is just one God, but the way he relates to his people is very polytheistic. When they stray, he doesn't send them to Hell, he sends conquerors and plagues. But this is precisely how Christianity does *not* operate. Someone can be utterly wretched in this Earth (usually a sign of divine disfavor in other religions) and still be blessed in the next life.
That's the key innovation that allowed Christianity to spread: it was the religion of the losers, of women and slaves, who really had no place in polytheistic faiths.
I was talking to a friend recently about whether the ancient Romans "believed" in Jupiter and Mars and all of those other Gods. Like, did they believe those Gods were real people, who had existed and done these feats? It seems clear that the more educated people did not literally believe in these myths, but, again, unless you worship a God who demands exclusivity, it doesn't matter what you believe? In practice, there are rituals and there are rewards. I highly doubt there were many Romans who didn't believe, on some level, that praying and worship could bring rewards (they were a highly superstitious people). If a Vestal strayed, they might not believe that Vesta, the Goddess, personally commanded them to be killed, but they certainly believed there was a bad luck that you needed excised by killing her!
And I suspect that many of them *did* believe in the literal truth of the myths. As evidence I offer the recent construction of the Ram Mandir on the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodha. The Babri Masjid was a 16th century mosque that Hindus claim was built on the site of a Hindu temple commemorating the birthplace of Rama, the hero of the Ramayana (and an incarnation of Vishnu).
Now, to most non-Hindus, it is clear that Rama never existed in the flesh. That's because the Ramayana, the story in which he appears, mostly takes place in the legendary register.
Stories of the past are usually in one of four registers: mythological, legendary, heroic, or historical. Myth deals with the doings of Gods and other immortal beings, usually in worlds remote from humanity (e.g. Aphrodite emerging from the waves). Legends are about human beings who are semi-divine and intermediate between Gods and men (i.e. Hercules, Theseus, Moses, Sigurd). Heroic tales deal with men who can use magic and do mythic feats, but generally only interact with the Gods through visions and prayer (i.e. the heroes of the Iliad). And history is largely realistic, aside from a few gap areas (i.e. sometimes monsters or magic will appear at the edges of the tale, as in certain tales when Alexander travels off the edge of the map and starts encountering magical things).
We usually find very little archeological evidence to support myths or legends. There is very little evidence that there was a biblical flood, for instance (myth) or that Moses truly existed as a human being (legend). Heroes, on the other hand, are more likely to have existed: in the Saga of the Volsungs, we see appearances, for instance, by Attila the Hun. He existed in heroic time for the pre-literate Danes, but he was in historical time for the Romans. So in the Saga of the Volsungs, Attila can do magic and perform mythic feats and he can encounter figures like Sigurd the Dragonslayer, etc.
To us, it's clear Rama didn't exist. And I've no doubt that many educated Hindus also don't believe Rama existed, and they certainly don't believe a Temple in Ayodha commemorates his birthplace. To them, this is purely a matter of nationalism: a temple was torn down in the 16th century so a mosque could be built, and now it's time to return the favor.
But the truth is that lots of mosques in India are probably built on the remains of old temples, because that's just how religion works! Lots of churches are also built on pagan holy sites. But the reason the Hindu nationalists could tear down this Temple is that a lot of the locals quite literally believe Rama was born there. There are lots of people, even educated people, who believe in the literal truth of legends and even of myths. A friend of mine who's a pilot once encountered someone in flight training who wanted to be deployed to Afghanistan so he could search for Noah's Ark (which he believed was nestled in the hills somewhere).
Monotheism requires you to put a hard limit between the real and the unreal. If the Christian God is real, then other Gods cannot exist in the way they claim to exist. That means you need to create a whole sphere of knowledge that is untrue (i.e. my legends are real but your aren't). But polytheism doesn't create that hard limit. A lot of things can be true! You can, for instance, travel to another land, where they worship an entirely different God, and you can be like, hmm, this God seems powerful! You might even start to worship it yourself, or to repurpose it, as the Romans did with Ammon (calling him Jupiter-Ammon), as one of your own. It's just a much more expansive worldview. Being an atheist is akin to having a faith, in that it requires you to make a hard and fast determination that certain things do not exist. But the Romans and Greeks also didn't need to be atheists in quite that way. Their lives and worldview simply didn't require them to make concrete judgements about the physical reality of the Gods. Whether they 'believed' or not was simply immaterial, and I imagine it's a question that many of them never asked themselves.
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