Pragmatic polytheism, pragmatic polytheism or polytheistic pragmatism is a religious methodology that exists in contrast to both polytheistic reconstructionism and common varieties of eclectic paganism more generally. For the purposes of contrast, I feel that it is valuable to first describe the other two religious methodologies in a concise manner, and detail the issues with these approaches that have necessitated a pragmatist methodology. In the context of contemporary polytheism or modern neopaganism, the reconstructionist methodology is an approach that seeks to faithfully reconstruct ancient polytheistic religions in a manner that is agreed to be feasible in modern times by those who practice it. The eclectic methodology – most typified by pagan religions like Wicca or Druidry, as well as various occult traditions like Thelema or Chaos Magick, is an approach that seeks to build polytheistic practice in a manner that serves the revealed and often esoteric insights that are deemed important by a given tradition. Though eclectics are regarded as individualistic, their practices overwhelmingly favor collectivist tradition just as much as among reconstructionist traditions.
With respect to reconstructionism, there is, unsurprisingly, a tendency towards rigid adherence to whatever material is preserved from the ancient past within a given culture – often from a specific time period. Many reconstructionists treat these limited survivals as completely universal – with little regard for practical concerns, or the value of innovation. Some reconstructionists have a strong attachment to a particular culture – often because of heritage, so they can be especially protective of their chosen tradition. Whether for intellectual or cultural reasons, often times the only things that are left in the past are things that are universally objectionable, or impossible to perform in a modern context. This attitude also creates unnecessary requirements for certain rituals, and extends into the way that groups are organized. A significant amount of reconstructionist groups have endeavored to create quasi-governmental or tribal organizations as a necessary requirement for engagement with other polytheists, and this has also opened the door for groups to become not only overly bureaucratic, but deeply partisan and even blatantly extremist on either side of the aisle. The cultural aspect can make this particularly toxic.
In much the same way, more common iterations of pagan eclecticism often produces spaces for superstitious or otherwise tribalistic adherence to religious dogmas. But instead of dogmas centered on complex and bureaucratic reconstructions, eclectics often treat the new religious philosophies of their given faith as unquestionably true, and frequently get into fights with militant, orthodox reconstructionists, who try to forcefully establish more historical polytheistic beliefs in an unproductive manner. But despite how open and egalitarian many eclectic claim to be, they often form a lot more rigid social hierarchies than the reconstructionists do. This often manifests as infighting over status within covens, groves, orders or other organizations, and can be just as petty as any squabble within a mock government or tribe. Born out of romantic ideals, it’s also unsurprising that many eclectics, and the groups they belong to, foster a culture of rebellion. On it’s own, this rebellion has great value, but such a focus has also devolved many communities and produced a lot of the same kinds of radicalism that certain reconstructionist groups suffer from.
Polytheistic pragmatism, in a broader polytheistic context, sets itself apart from both reconstructionism and eclecticism, but greatly values elements of both approaches. In pragmatist polytheism, great value is placed on understanding the historical context of ancient polytheistic practices and culture, but also the philosophies of contemporary traditions in equal measure. That said, pragmatism places a strong emphasis on personal experience or gnosis, as long as it is not collectively enforced, and endeavors to synthesize modern polytheistic practices that focus on what is relevant in contemporary society. Pragmatists often start with historical survivals, but do not limit themselves to it – freely incorporating ideas from contemporary traditions. Pragmatic polytheists form personal household cults or localized ritual groups with their own adapted, modified polytheisic practices. Whereas reconstructionism emphasizes the structure of ritual and eclecticism often emphasizes what they deem to be the hidden meaning of those practices, pragmatism focuses on the spirit of polytheistic practice, and incorporates whatever rituals or doctrines that serve that purpose – on both an individual and local group level.
Pragmatic polytheism is an inherently eclectic religious philosophy, but it is untethered to the historical formalities of reconstructionism just as much as traditional occult doctrines. Though traditions like Wicca and Chaos Magick are often considered eclectic, their eclecticism is just as much in service of ideology as world religions or reconstructionist polytheist traditions. Pragmatic polytheism seeks to strip away all the unwieldy, unnecessary elements of polytheistic practice and direct their spiritual focus towards meaningful, useful experiences – all with a devotional approach. Pragmatic polytheists do not seek to reconstruct or revive pagan traditions – nor do they believe in revealed polytheistic traditions. To a pragmatic polytheist, polytheistic practice is a neutral, timeless practice that has simply experienced dormancy and only requires studious, observant and open-minded seekers to develop cogent, practical polytheistic rituals. Pragmatic polytheists look at all of the information provided from both history and modern practice and derive their own traditions based on both study and direct experience.
The main guiding force in pragmatic polytheism is what works best. Historical elements can be maintained if they are useful – as can modern innovations from traditions that have emerged since ancient times, but the loyalty of a pragmatic polytheist is to the practice that allows them to best serve the gods as an individual. Pragmatic polytheism in groups – when it does occur, is flexible and democratic by nature. Pragmatic polytheism favors minimalistic rituals with few tools, frills or ornate phrases. Pragmatic polytheists are free to worship any deities – whether they are historical, syncretic or contemporary in nature. Pragmatic polytheists favor polytheism in the first place in large part because polytheism itself is the most pragmatic theological approach that exists. Pragmatic polytheists are free to adjust their practice as they gain new experiences – often changing how they understand deities they worship and the underlying philosophies they adhere to.
Pragmatic polytheists develop core virtues that reflect their own unique experiences and the religious practices they cultivate. Pragmatic polytheists exist in contrast to both recons and eclectics because they regard those camps as deeply collectivist. Whether their concerns are historical accuracy or revealed tradition, recons and eclectics value collective truth over direct experience. No matter how much an occultist says otherwise, they are still adhering to collective doctrine when they call themselves a Wiccan, a Druid or a Chaote – just as much as a Reconstructionist. Even so-called individualist traditions like Satanism are just as tribalistic as the traditions they oppose. Ultimately, a polytheistic pragmatist is loyal to their direct experience of the gods first and others second. This is what separates us from other polytheists.
Though pragmatic polytheism or polytheistic pragmatism has a very open methodological approach, there are certain guiding principles that I think are of great value to its implementation – for all inclined polytheistic practitioners drawn to this alternative.
The most fundamental principle of pragmatic polytheism is the concept of gnosis or personal gnosis. Unlike with the concept of UPG among reconstructionists, the unverified nature of personal gnosis is not viewed as a social ill that needs to be done in moderation like food or drink – nor is it something that must conform to the esoteric precepts of a given eclectic tradition. Gnosis is something that is formed through every factor of religious practice and devotion, and focusing on this prevents us from succumbing to rigid dogmas.
One of the notable aspects of the pragmatist approach is the concept of religious synthesis. Whether or not a pragmatist focuses on one culture, separate cultures, or a syncretism of many, pragmatists value the synthesis of ideas that are not strictly defined by history or esoteric doctrines. Most importantly, synthesis values the combination of the old and the new. Pragmatists are not shy about incorporating anachronism into their practices – both in service to devotion and in service of the unique, practical, everyday necessities that a polytheistic lifestyle presents.
Vitally important to pragmatic polytheism is the concept of metamorphosis or personal change. As an extension of personal gnosis, revivalist polytheists are concerned with whether or not their rituals and related beliefs help further personal growth – both for themselves, and for the people they share spiritual fellowship with. How this is defined varies from person to person, but it is the principle that most reflects the value of personal autonomy and wellness that has come to define modern discussions of spirituality. This is something that should be embraced.
Pragmatist polytheism greatly values personal religious expression, and the tendency towards ungainly, bureaucratic or tribalistic spiritual groups are considered to be a direct and fundamental hindrance to pragmatist polytheists. What is preferred instead, when groups are formed, is balanced, decentralized, local and egalitarian ritual groups that are focused on the unique, granular circumstances of the people who are a part of it. This focus, in large part, extends to online communities – which are often most in need of a more balanced framework.