Life as Video Game and the Necessity for Polytheistic Practice

In my recent post I stated that “the movement [towards polytheism and paganism] is necessary for so very many reasons”. A reader commented and asked me to unpack that. Why is this shift so needed? And furthermore, why is this something we need to live instead of study? This is my answer. As always, YMMV.

Polytheism and its revival are necessary if we’re going to survive and thrive as a species. Which is somewhat dramatic, I’ll admit, but the sentiment stands. What we are doing now to build our world and support people isn’t working, and polytheism (and Paganism, to a lesser extent) contain the tools we need to do a better job of it. Methods may differ, but Pagan and polytheistic practices almost always reflect these core ideas: We are all in this together, and “All” is made up of more than you might think.

  1. We are in this together.

Most people base their lives on the idea of hierarchy. Our value as a person is based on our place on the hierarchy, and the only way to figure out where we are on that hierarchy is to compare ourselves to other people.

Think of it as a video game. To progress to the next level we have to unlock specific achievements. In a game this is usually done by killing a certain number of enemies or beating a level in a specified amount of time. In life, though, the achievements range from “makes 100k+ a year” and “owns (insert high-priced item here)” to “has a wonderful spouse” and “meets certain attractiveness requirements”. With each level we beat the difficulty goes up, there are more and different achievements to unlock, and you’re always on the bottom of the level’s hierarchy because the only opinions that really matter are those of the people above you. There are an infinite number of levels, so you can’t ever really win, but you’ve only got one shot even so. You’re pretty much locked into one path – which means you can move along, mill around aimlessly until you figure out how to unlock the next thing, or die before you progress further. To make it even more challenging the way to unlock the achievements is constantly changing and there aren’t enough achievements to go around.

It’s not that life is seen as a video game that’s a problem, necessarily. It’s that life is seen as a multiplayer First Person Shooter pitting you against every other person on Earth – and your value as a person is solely based on your current position on the Leaderboard.

This view puts us in a state of constant war: with ourselves for not “winning” and thus not earning worth/dignity, with every other person playing the game for taking what we need to get to the next level, and with the game developers – Society, God, Patriarchy, any “-ism”, the vague amorphous “Them” – who keep changing the rules.

Pagans and polytheists don’t just play the game differently, we play a completely different game. It’s not a First Person Shooter with infinite levels, it’s a sprawling RPG world with infinite quests. We’re not playing Call of Duty, we’re playing Darkfall or Rift. That changes everything.

We know that every person on the planet has inherent worth/dignity – it’s not something we need to earn – so we earn experience instead of achievements and stories instead of Leaderboard standing. Instead of being locked into one path by the developers and resenting them for it, we know the Devs by name and they can help us change the game based on our feedback. They’re not screwing with us for the thrill, they’re trying to help us develop as players and create a better gameplay experience for everyone. Since we’re all working our own quests there are an infinite number of achievements and goals, so we don’t have to fight over them. Other players are fellow travelers on their own grand adventure, and as long as they’re not going out of their way to screw with our quest whatever they decide to do is cool. Even more than that, just like in a RPG helping fellow travelers out can often help us complete our own quests. By helping each other we all benefit.

In short, we know that we’re all creating a world together, and by helping each other out we make our own world a better and happier place. Changing the viewpoint – changing the game – makes it possible for us to conceive of cooperation instead of opposition, and that is critical if we’re going to avoid living in some sort of post-apocalyptic hellscape 50 years from now.

  1. “All” is made up of more than you might think.

I touched on this above when I mentioned Devs, simply because this point is so wrapped up with the “We’re all in this together” idea. There are more “people” to consider than just humans when we make our choices and live our lives, and those following earth-based faiths know that.

To continue the video game metaphor, we humans are all playing the game. The Land is the hardware we play with, the Ancestors represent everyone who has ever and will ever play the game, then the Gods are the ones who continue to develop that game by making us better players.

At a base level we recognize that we can’t live on the earth if we just consider humanity. There are other species that live on the earth too, and we’re connected to all of them. All the people, all the animals, all the plants, the very dirt and water and air. All of it. This web of interconnection is often summed up as “Land” or “Earth”. When Pagans/polytheists use “earth-based” as a catch-all, we’re referring to that interconnectedness. We have to balance our lives and needs and priorities against that of the rest of the species that share the planet with us, because all of us are dependent on each other. In this age, when we seem to fetishize the idea of the individual above all, the idea that we could possibly be dependent on others is one we often try to ignore. We can’t continue to do that and survive.

The Ancestors are a tangible reminder of time. It’s a collective term for everyone who has ever lived, who has ever played the game. It’s the Ancestors who contribute to and moderate the forums, helping newbies like us out with difficult monsters or rough patches on the quest. We who are currently playing this game are not the be-all and end-all of humanity. We came from somewhere, inheriting our social structure as much as our eye color. We will also eventually pass, leaving a legacy to our descendants. Nothing is static, and that includes us. How will the past inform our present, and how will our present shape the future? Simply acknowledging the Ancestors means that Pagans and polytheists are always learning better ways to balance living in the now with what has worked in the past and how it could work in the future. Without that kind of long view we’re screwed before we start.

The gods are the game’s developers, working together (and sometimes against each other, according to who you talk to) to create the game that we all play. They are also the ones who give us maps by which we navigate and NPC’s to help us along our personal quests. They share their vision with us, and we share our game experiences with Them. We help each other build a better world. Whether that alone is the goal, or it’s something beyond even that, I couldn’t say. I’m eager to find out, though!

Those two ideas are why I say that the movement towards Paganism and polytheism is so critical. We need these ideas, and we need to live them every day. Because, looking around? The world we’re living in could be so much better, if we started cooperating with each other and including E/everyone in the process.

Syrian Martyrs and Wake Up Calls

Today on The Wild Hunt I learned about Yana, a Syrian Pagan tortured and killed for her faith.

For so long now we modern Pagans and polytheists have been somewhat sheltered. The move to revitalize the faiths our Ancestors followed before Christianity systematically destroyed them started in the First World. The more-secular-than-ever First World. There has been harassment and prejudice, and isolated instances of violence, but nothing systemic in the way of faith-based violence aimed against us.

But modern practitioners are no longer isolated in the First World. People all over are hearing the call, and many “lost” traditions are being found.

It is a cause for rejoicing. It is a cause of sorrow. Because while the movement is necessary for so many reasons, those hearing the call in places like Syria are not in the First World, and they have no protections.

Yana was publicly tortured, raped, and killed for her faith. She is one of the first of a new – and likely growing – wave of Pagan and polytheistic martyrs.

I worry that the location of Yana’s death – the Middle East – will make people in the US briefly acknowledge her passing and move on. Will allow people to tell themselves that “it couldn’t possibly happen here” without thinking it through.

It could happen here. Fundamentalists Christians hold a lot of power in the US, often they equate the worship of pre-Christian gods with Satanism, and they are not adverse to discrimination or even violence in pursuit of their viewpoints.

I admit to some bias here. I’ve seen anti-Pagan violence first hand, escalating from dead animals left in the mailbox and ending with the utter destruction of my group’s Covenstead in Louisiana. That’s hard to get past.

However, this viewpoint has also manifested in other ways against Americans, leading to everything from retaliation against serving Pagan soldiers and the destruction of their temple (here and here) to forbidding Pagan students from wearing symbols of their faith to school.

I think we are incredibly conscious of how much of a minority we really are. We just keep our heads down, trying to not make waves, preferring to simply live our lives and consider these blatant acts of discrimination and violence isolated events. We feel that being American entitles us to a life without fear, and for the most part we as a group have actively avoided anything that could threaten that view.

I was recently introduced to a monograph written by a Sgt. Major in the US Army about the need to consider Christian extremism here in the United States a genuine domestic terrorist threat that continues to grow unchecked. These are the people who bombed the Olympics in an anti-abortion protest – do you think they would be shy about attacking individuals who hold spiritual/religious beliefs they consider demonic and anathema? Putting our heads in the sand is no longer a viable option.

As the faith-based discrimination and violence grows along with our numbers, our protections are shrinking every day. In Kentucky it is illegal to not believe in one almighty God, and while the 2006 law is aimed at atheists it could easily be aimed at those of us who follow many gods instead of none. The Christian ethical code is being placed in front of courthouses in Florida and Oklahoma. Alabama has once again re-elected a judge who openly uses his Christian faith to make legal decisions on the bench, up to and including granting custody to an abusive father because he felt that was a better situation for a child than trusting a lesbian mother to parent. Do you think the “justice” would have been any different if the mother had been a straight Pagan? Absolutely not.

Yana died for her faith. We cannot dismiss this as happening “over there”, and above all we cannot be complacent. This is something we in the First World have to prepare for, for as long as there is a push within our society to turn the US into a theocracy like the one that killed Yana.

Politics in the US seem to be teetering on a knife’s edge. No matter which way it goes we have to be prepared. Should the Christian-based political groups gain control we can expect to see more school boards forbidding the wearing of pentacles, more judges ruling as if the US were a theocracy, and more of a struggle even within the government itself for rights and recognitions for Pagan and polytheists. Should the Progressives begin exerting more control in government, extremist groups who already consider us demonic and begin to feel disenfranchised could easily decide to target those of us who live publicly.

Yana is one of the first of a new wave of Pagan martyrs. However, I cannot help but feel that she will not be the last. I sincerely hope that what happened to her is taken to heart by everyone, even here, because her fate could be ours if we don’t wake up, connect the dots, and make our voices heard.