Monday, 26 September 2011

Book Review: A World Full of Gods

Another review today - I've had this book for over a year and only just got around to reading it in the last week or two. It's a good meaty book and it's been taking up most of my free time in the mornings to get through it, but I've also had the chance to tinker away at another page on the website - this time, the introductory article on Irish Mythology. Most of the additions are links to the various myths links, with a bit of reformatting and a few tweaks here and there.

A World Full of Gods
John Michael Greer

There aren't many books out there (that I've seen) that take on the task of providing a good, meaty, philosophical discussion of polytheism - especially one that comes from a polytheist point of view. This is very much a book that is aimed at the polytheist, rather than the Wiccan or neo-Wiccan/Wiccanesque pagan, and that in itself is refreshing for me, because it's not something I come across often.

I got off to a bit of a bumpy start with the book because much of the introductory stuff in the first few chapters were kind of obvious to me and I wasn't sure if the book was going to offer much for me to chew on - which is not to say that I think I know everything there is to say about polytheism, just that it's something I've had plenty of opportunity to think on over the years, and I'm pretty set in my ways by now. I was happily proven wrong, though, and once I got into the meat of the book I found a lot of good stuff (and to be fair, the more experienced polytheist or scholar of religion is invited to skip a few chapters near the beginning, to get on with it, but I wanted to read it from start to finish).

The first few chapters certainly help introduce the beginner to a good understanding of polytheism, and as much as I had some reservations about where it was all going I did appreciate seeing things being spelled out clearly, and in a way that helped me appreciate where others might have questions and confusions about certain things. I can see this being a good book to point people to, if they have some questions about how polytheism actually works.

I found the middle of the book more challenging and enlightening, and one chapter in particular helped solidify a few thoughts on something that had been bugging me for a while (chapter 8, dealing with offerings and reciprocity; the next one was interesting too).

For the most part the book is very straight forward, well-written and clearly thought out. There is a heavy emphasis on philosophy and logic in the way the subject is approached, and Greer does a good job of introducing the big words and concepts that the average reader probably won't have much familiarity with (and there's a handy glossary at the back in case you get lost).

Because of the philosophical focus of the book, it's not a how-to sort of tome, with ritual suggestions or an encyclopaedia of gods tucked in at the end so you can pick your favourites and invite them round to lunch. Nor is this the kind of book that I could really pick up and put down, or pick at here and there. This is a book that needs to be read from start to finish to appreciate it at its best, I think.

Over the course of the book, subjects like the different types of polytheism, and the ethics, myths, spirituality, ways of worship and the logic of polytheism are dealt with, as well as the question of why people might be polytheists. Greer keeps the focus of the book as general as possible, calling on various different cultures and polytheistic religions to illustrate his points - mainly Norse, Celtic, Shinto, Greek, Roman, with a few others mixed in - along with some analogies that help explain where he's coming from. Inevitably that means there has to be generalisations here and there to accommodate as broad a view as possible, but given the purpose and focus of the book I think it worked well. Both the commonalities and differences of polytheistic views and religions are taken into account, so it's pretty thorough. It would be nice to see something that focuses solely on Celtic Polytheism (though of course I'd say that), but as an introduction to polytheism in general, Greer has the right of it here.

One thing in particular that I appreciated is the emphasis on 'traditional polytheisms', which Greer stresses tend to be hard polytheisms. While generally I would say the arguments Greer presents are well done, there are some aspects that I think might be slightly lacking, and this lack mars my feelings towards the book in general. Inevitably in discussing polytheism there is going to be some comparison to the major monotheistic religions (especially Christianity) as well as atheism, and I think the author's own bias towards accepting a polytheistic viewpoint means that certain elements are glossed over when presenting all the various different arguments. For example, at one point the argument was made that the widespread belief in the afterlife - or various forms of the afterlife - is itself evidence that supports its existence. I don't think this is the kind of argument that stands up to objective examination, really, and this type of fallacious argumentation is all too common.

In addition to this, concluding that alternative viewpoints rely on 'special pleading' - and are therefore weak or invalid - is a common refrain throughout the book, while ignoring the fact that Greer himself does exactly the same thing. It comes across as hypocritical and lacking in any true objectivity or honest insights. If you're totally on board with Greer's own views and you're not interested in weighing up the arguments and examining them, then it's probably not a problem, but if you look at the arguments objectively, as he seems to think he's doing, then I'm not so convinced. I can imagine my atheist husband would say that Greer's argument in favour of polytheism, for one, relies on special pleading as much as anyone else's beliefs.

In some ways, perhaps, agreeing with Greer's arguments are beside the point; if anything, whether you agree or disagree it helps finish your own train of thought about these subjects, and helps you make up your own mind. Greer's apparent assumption that his conclusions are 100% logical and watertight can grate a little, though, and at times it does get a bit repetitive.

More and more as I've come back to this book, the faults become glaring and far outweigh any of the positives I originally saw. In particular, as much as I enjoyed the middle portion of the book, and appreciated the novelty of the book itself, the last couple of chapters weren't as good, to my mind. The chapters on myths and eschatology in particular weren't so much about polytheism, I felt, as they were arguments against monotheism (or, ultimately, any religion that claims to be the True Religion) so the book seemed to lose focus a little towards the end, and frankly, it felt unnecessary and somewhat prejudiced.

I'm not sure this is a book I could read again and again. I originally thought that I could see myself referring back to the more helpful parts now and then, but ultimately I haven't. Even from the start I was unable to give the book a resounding yes! as a recommendation, but felt that an outright no was unnecessary. However, as time has worn on I can't help but feel that the more I've learned about the author himself has perhaps made me feel even more negatively towards the book than I originally did. Ultimately, I can't in conscience recommend something that benefits a racist, and a known associate of racists and abusers. It's a shame that a good book on the subject has yet to come out, but I'm still looking...