“If you want to see the true measure of a man, watch how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.” -J.K. Rowling
This is a post I published on tumblr a while ago, and thought it would be good to add a copy here on WP.
That said, anyone interested in this topic in general should check out these posts by polytheists far more experienced than I am:
Speaking of which, huge shout-out to satsekhem for helping me edit this to make it more coherent and make me sound like less of a dick. Thanks again!
Deities are exempt from the idea of “abuse” because their divinity either rules out the possibility of abuse, or gives them the right to do anything they want to human beings.
I’ve seen this argument framed as “gods are forces of nature, therefore the idea of applying ethics to them is obsolete” (which is a fairly weak argument because it implies that gods are non-sentient, with no more capacity for critical thinking than an animal or an ocean) and as “there’s a hierarchy that places gods above humans so it’s irrelevant what any human thinks about any god under any circumstances”. Hell, I’ve seen someone make both arguments within the same post. Well, which is it? Are they incapable of common decency, or above it?
There’s this idea that a god is beyond reproach at all times -solely by virtue of having the title “god”. Never mind the examples in old stories of gods treating humans badly and being criticized by other gods for it; never mind the basest moral understanding that something more powerful has no need or justification for stomping all over something less powerful; never mind that the same sort of behavior in any other situation would be seen as horrendous. As soon as the perpetrator is said to be a god, none of that seems to matter anymore. For this reason I’m going to go over what I am assuming, in this essay, to be the nature of gods and divinity as it applies to whether they can be said to be “abusing” a human.
“Divinity” is defined as “the state of being divine”, which itself is defined as “of, from, or like a god”. So it follows that the nature of divinity is derived from the nature of the gods in question; “divinity” will mean something different in Christianity than it will in Kemeticism, Hellenismos, Heathenry, etc. However, there are common traits that are generally shared amongst polytheistic traditions: gods are powerful, but not omnipotent; they are wise, experienced, and more knowledgeable than us, but are not omniscient; and -most relevant of all to this debate- they are not said to be morally perfect.
As can be found from the records we have, abuse has been a problem in the past and it’s no surprise that it would be a problem now. That’s when modern-day practitioners speak up and say, “Well, actually, X god did Y to me and it was abusive”. An astounding (and somewhat scary) number of people, when confronted with that sort of claim, will immediately do anything and everything to discredit the person making the claim (usually by aggressive invalidation of their UPG) rather than even acknowledge the possibility that the person is telling the truth. Unverified personal gnosis is something that is used often within the wider pagan community. I agree that there should be levels of discernment when one is expounding their own UPG within a wider discussion, however by denying the claim of abuse, you’re adding to the pain of a victim and perpetuating a culture of abuse. This culture is rife within the pagan community and we should do what we can to eliminate it as opposed to in-fighting about what sort of relationships people may or may not be having with their deities.
Criticizing the gods, or their actions, is hubris.
“Hubris” as a strictly religious idea is defined in many different ways on different Hellenic websites. I’ve seen it defined as “anything the gods don’t like” or as “putting yourself at the same level as/above the gods”. Since there seems to be no real consensus among Hellenics about what the precise definition of hubris is, I feel it would be disingenuous to just go out and cherry-pick the definition that I like the best. I will, however, provide this quote from a Hellenic writer:
“…I came across this striking description of faith by Hellenic polytheist Elani Temperance…:“[…] when it comes to the Theoi–I say ‘how high’ when They say ‘jump’, regardless of what is requested of me. It also means that I put my faith in Them. When I pray and sacrifice to Zeus the Thunderer for a day without rain as I do my rounds outside, I don’t bring an umbrella. I trust that Zeus will either honor my prayer through kharis, or will have good reason not to. Who am I to go against His wishes and stay dry, regardless? To me, that is hubris.”
Wow! That’s not just faith, but if-they-told-you-to-jump-off-a-bridge kind of faith! Who are you to go against Zeus’ wishes? I couldn’t help but respond: “You are a beautiful and incredible human being is who you are. Who is he to say you have to get wet? The polytheistic gods, as I understand them, are not necessarily “good” and they are not omni-benevolent. They are as flawed as human beings, but they just have more power. Why bow down to power, if it is not paired with virtue?”
Elani explains that she is able to maintain boundaries with human beings, but not with the gods. That kind of faith makes no more sense to me in the context of divine beings than it would in the context of human beings.”
Since I’m not a Hellenic, I want to make it clear that I’m not prepared to debate about the word “hubris” and I’m not pretending to be. I believe the quote I’ve provided proves that there is at least some people within the Hellenic community that would back me up on this; but uh, this is pretty much all I can do without running the risk of sticking my foot in my mouth.
The Western world has also defined hubris to mean “a foolish amount of pride or confidence”. People are basically saying that to protest the treatment you’re receiving from a god, no matter how detrimental it is to you, means that you’re being prideful to the point of foolishness. Why is that? This seems to imply that it’s ridiculously prideful to say that you are an autonomous human being who does not deserve abuse, or that human-deity relationships are meant to be reciprocal, or that gods could listen to our thoughts and take us seriously in even the most basic of ways.
Protecting one’s safety is not “foolishly prideful”. Putting oneself on a high enough level that one deserves a basic amount of respect for their welfare and autonomy is not “foolishly prideful”. I believe that the reason for this misconception is that, in the modern-day Western world, we use “treat me with respect” and “treat me as an equal” as synonyms, when that isn’t the case. You can respect a child despite not being an equal to them, or respect someone who you hold authority over. In the same way, a god can respect a human without necessitating the human to be on an equal level with the god in question.
Saying otherwise doesn’t encourage a healthy attitude of humility, but rather an attitude eerily similar to the Christian fundamentalist “we are all sinners who must know our place” doctrine that so many polytheists vehemently criticize. It embraces the idea that we as human beings are so lowly, unimportant, and/or contemptible that the very basest respect for our well-being and autonomy becomes irrelevant.
You’re saying our gods are abusers! That’s disrespectful and you need to stop now.
The gods are extremely experienced and have gone through years of having been forgotten, having been disrespected, having had their homes and temples destroyed by unbelievers. The idea that they cannot or will not handle the “disrespect” of being told “you know, that was kind of a shitty thing for you to do” from the people who they have approached seems like a poor argument.
The gods are too powerful to stand up to, so the appropriate response to abuse is to roll over and take it, because otherwise they could incinerate you.
The gods approach new devotees every day. The reason behind why they do this varies from person to person, from sect to temple. At the end of the day, they do seem to want something from us. In that vein, practicality would suggest that they should do what is necessary to prove that they would be worth believing in. They seem to want a diversity of followers, based on the varying backgrounds we all come from and the varying levels of belief we carry with us, so it seems much more likely that they would be willing to negotiate with us.
I kind of suspect that this is the core of the “the gods can do whatever they want without being held responsible” stance, anyways: the old “might makes right”. I kind of wonder why anyone would want to worship someone who is essentially a cosmic bully, and why people find portraying the gods that way to be more respectful than portraying them as beings capable of empathy, mercy, and basic understanding of morality. My theories as for why this is are that it stems from baggage of the Christian religion, or that it’s simply easier to believe that we absolutely at the mercy of the gods rather than take responsibility for our agency and choices.
In the Christian religion, God is said to be both Ultimate Good and Ultimate Power, which means that to oppose Him in any way is to be both categorically wrong and doomed to fail by the very nature of the act. Polytheistic gods, however, operate under a different paradigm wherein that attitude becomes obsolete. Polytheistic gods are often portrayed as being overpowered by other gods or punished by other gods for misdeeds. This implies that they are not meant to be seen as morally infallible or omnipotent.
That said, omnipotence or no, gods are still vastly more powerful than us. When we choose to say “no” to a god or to otherwise stand up to them, it carries the risk of retaliation. Because of that, people sometimes choose to just go along with what a god wants, whether they want it or not (which is a well-known method of coercion). People also sometimes choose to believe that the gods are infallible and will never do anything to their detriment -unless they have a good reason for it, say, ‘for the good of the whole’ or to achieve some good that the human in question can’t see at the time, but definitely never just because the god wants something and knows they can get it by being forceful. This allows them to believe that the only personal responsibility they have, or even can, take for the situation, is of how well they follow the gods’ orders. This line of reasoning requires that the human in question deny their own autonomy and free will.
At the end of the day, there very well may be nothing an individual human can do to get a deity to cease and desist. However, at that point it becomes a non-consensual and abusive arrangement, and should be recognized as such. If somebody in that predicament wants to complain about it online, let them. I mean, honestly -who wouldn’t?
Deities/spirits have different ethics or morals than us, so critiquing their actions is pointless or wrong.
This is, in my opinion, the most legitimate argument the other side has -when it’s not being used to excuse abuse, but rather explain why it’s happening and how one should deal with it. I think hyacinth-halcyon said it best:
“Yes, Gods have different moral codes. Guess what? Human beings have different moral code from each other. Doesn’t mean that someone with very different morals has the right to abuse another human being.
Guess what people? Sometimes gods and spirits don’t let you walk away. Sometimes people have said no, leave me alone and said deity hasn’t scrammed because they didn’t believe it was meant, they decided they didn’t have to listen, or they didn’t want to listen. When you tell someone who is saying JFC I wish my deity would treat me with a modicum of respect, don’t respond with “Deities don’t have to because their morals aren’t the same as ours.” Yeah, well, if the person has repeatedly tried to get rid of a hurtful deity all you’re doing is telling them to suck it up and deal with it or blaming them for not walking away. Yes, some folks have been able to happily walk away from shitty relationships. Other people haven’t had such luck. Sometimes people don’t feel able to walk away because they feel it won’t matter and that they’ll get hurt even worse for trying to protect themselves.
On the flipside, expecting an entity that is very different from us to always be perfectly moral by our standards isn’t feasible. Even if they “studied up” they’ll fuck up because deities are not perfect either. Sometimes, entities won’t give a shit. And unfortunately, that’s kind of a reality people have to accept when working with spirits: they aren’t human so don’t expect them to play by our rules. So yeah, complaining a deity fucked you over to teach you a lesson is understandable but unfortunately, depending on how it was done, wasn’t totally immoral either especially by deity standards. If you can’t accept that some spirits are assholes and will treat you like shit, well, make sure you’re really careful or stay out of this stuff altogether. Not every spirit is light and love. But there comes a point when deities and other entities cross the line. And even for someone who loves my monstrous deities, I will not stand for them to repeatedly cause extreme harm for someone simply for their shits and giggles. Gods matter but so do the humans who worship them.”
To reiterate in my own words: the gods’ sense of morality and ethics may very well be different from ours, which means that compromise will have to take place in a functional human-deity relationship. However, there is no justifiable reason why all compromise must be made on the human’s part. While divinity endows a being with power, it also endows them with responsibility. Gods have the capability to understand a human point of view, human systems of morality, and human limitations. They have the capacity to understand when their actions are harming a person and the basics of consent. There is absolutely no reason why gods cannot choose to take the (relatively small) trouble of getting a human’s free, informed consent to their requests. If gods choose instead to coerce, threaten, strong-arm, or trick a human into doing as they want, then it is abuse and it should be recognized as such.
Humans can easily put an end to anything a deity or spirit does by saying no/warding/whatever method you find effective. Therefore abuse by a non-corporeal entity is impossible.
Sometimes deities do not listen to the word “no.” We know from other devotees that there are deities who do listen, however that’s not always the case. After a while, as with any victim of abuse who has been coerced into something they didn’t want to do, the person gives in. In these cases, the deity just has to keep applying the right types of pressures before they get what they want out of the person they’ve been pushing.
Besides saying “no” other methods to removing a deity from one’s life have been suggested, mostly things like warding, putting up protection circles, asking another god to back you up, etc. However, what about people who can’t put up wards or take other magical means of protecting oneself? Either because they’re new and inexperienced, don’t have the resources, or just don’t have the talent for it? You’re making the assumption that people have an extensive knowledge and experience with something that the grand majority of people, in this skeptical day and age, deny completely. It simply is not realistic to say that a claim of abuse from a deity is “bullshit” because the victim in question could have just taken X means of protecting themselves.
This kind of thing is blatant victim-blaming. Period. It’s on par with saying that a woman should have carried pepper spray or known better self-defense if she didn’t want to be attacked. A vulnerable person is not at fault for being vulnerable; a victim being vulnerable doesn’t excuse the actions of an abuser taking advantage of that vulnerability.
Divine abuse is impossible because gods/spirits don’t have physical bodies.
Abuse does not have to be strictly physical. Psychological abuse is defined as: “any act including confinement, isolation, verbal assault, humiliation, intimidation, infantilization, or any other treatment which may diminish the sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth.”
Examples of emotional abuse include:
Threats of violence or abandonment
Making an individual fear that they will not receive the food or care they need
Failing to check allegations of abuse against them
Making derogative or slanderous statements about an individual to others
Socially isolating an individual, failing to let them have visitors
Withholding important information
Demeaning an individual because of the language they speak
Intentionally misinterpreting traditional practices
Repeatedly raising the issue of death
Telling an individual that they are too much trouble
Ignoring or excessively criticizing
Being over-familiar and disrespectful
Unreasonably ordering an individual around; treating an individual like a servant or child (source)
All of this is very possible without any kind of physical contact, and when one is in a position of authority and/or power over someone (like the gods are over us) all of these things only become that much easier to pull off.
Now, obviously, some of these behaviors may not be considered “abuse” in some cases –for example, many people are seen as servants or as children by their gods, and are completely happy that way. Each relationship is different, and what constitutes as “abuse” in each relationship is bound to be different; however, I provide this as evidence that even if one believes that gods can have no physical effect on our plane, the possibility still exists for an abusive relationship.
The idea that people are claiming that a deity literally appeared in a physical form on planet Earth, hit them upside the head, and forced them into chains is a strawman argument and only gets in the way of having a clear, intelligible discussion.
People claiming divine abuse has happened to them are liars/looking for attention/brought it on themselves by being whiny or incompetent/fluffybunnies who need to understand gods aren’t “hugboxes”:
All of these kinds of statements rely on invalidating the victim’s experiences, either because the victim is lying or because the victim is, in one way or another, responsible for the abuse that they’ve received. Even worse, they’re often accompanied by cheap shots at the victim’s character and credibility -all intended to defame them and make them seem less believable. These are all blatant, well-known victim-blaming and erasure tactics, and in any other context would be immediately recognized as such. The precise nature of the abuser does not make this kind of toxic abuse apologist rhetoric hold any more water than it does when it’s applied to mundane circumstances.
I have a relationship of complete subservience to my god(s), and I feel this kind of sentiment is insulting or disrespectful to me.
If you are happy, or at least willing, to have that kind of relationship with your god, more power to you. I don’t have any kind of quarrel with godslaves and the like -so long as they don’t try to force their religious philosophy on others or use their experiences to silence those who speak out about divine abuse. This essay isn’t meant to degrade or invalidate anyone’s experiences, and if I’ve accidentally done so anyway, I genuinely apologize.
TL;DR: In a community as marginalized as our own, these types of conversations are important to have. We must provide both advice and instances that newbies can latch onto when they begin to suspect that there may be an issue with the relationship they are forming. By ignoring the possibility, sweeping the possibility under the rug, and outright denying the possibility that abusive relationships can happen between humans and deities, we are doing a disservice not only to ourselves but to the people who may be scared off because it appears that no one would be willing to believe what they have experienced.