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Fatwah / December 17, 2008

Now that services have ended at the First National Church of Crawford, Texas, it’s clear America needs a new religion. Not to nitpick, but it could be argued that rule by the most loudly born-again or, as scholars call it, Screechocracy, was not a success.

That’s not to say we can hope for an improvement by veering leftward, into one or another version of softcore Buddhism, as recovering Christians tend to do. Let’s face it: Buddhism has some nice statues and incense, but it’s no fun at all. Indeed, adopting that most dismally mature of religions means giving up forever on the idea of getting any fun out of existence. That’s the whole message of Buddhism.

And a fun pantheon is what America wants right now, to get everyone’s mind off that Visa envelope sitting like an anthrax package on the hall table. That’s why it’s time to drop the whole grim monotheism narrative and go back to polytheism—because if you want fun, you need a bigger, wackier cast of characters. When Bill Murray said, in Groundhog Day, “I’m A God; I’m not THE God,” he was on the right track. We need to stop fooling with the singular, upper-case God and shop for a nice set of lower-case gods. And goddesses, because the first benefit of polytheism is, as they say, diversity.

Luckily, the one thing the monstrous corpse-dump of human history has generated in profusion is weird, interesting gods. We may as well recycle the bastards, because they’re already paid for in blood, ignorance and misery. We’ll never know how many goats, birthmark-free children, twins, clubfeet, cattle, slaves, prisoners and other surplus beings have been killed in their names, but you can be sure it’s a number big enough to ensure some good old Lord of the Flies creepiness to any god-gang you choose. They’ll do the job. It’s just a matter of picking the right crew. So here is a quick survey of some enticing, unemployed, desirable pantheons, with quick summaries of their strong points and defects as future objects of urban worship:

The Egyptian Zoo

All we really have in a cold universe are our fellow critters. The Egyptians understood this better than anyone—before they, along with many another promising civilization, were bulldozed by monotheist hicks, first Christian and then Muslim.

Just compare Greek and Egyptian art. The Greeks were good with people, in fact they were so good with male musculature you can tell they spent their lives studying up—but they couldn’t do animals. Nobody can do animals like the Egyptians. Egyptian cat statues look like they just finished grooming themselves and are about to jump off the pedestal. Egyptian dog statues are so smart they seem to criticize your wardrobe as you stare at them. They even did good baboons—beady-eyed hunched muggers waiting for the moment to spring.

The Egyptians took that delight in all life into their religion and made a pantheon that’s warmer, bigger, and more versatile than any other. Not only did they make every beast from croc to cat into a god, but they did it with remarkable range, even deifying a beetle that pushes little balls of dung across the fields, and the jackal, a beautiful beast unjustly despised by lesser critics for the sin of making a tough living by its wits.
Better still, they foresaw the possibilities of recombination, mixing jackal and man, falcon and woman.  You want inclusive? The Egyptian pantheon makes Oprah look like a Boston Brahmin. Their war god, Sekhmet, is a nubile maiden in a linen dress who has the head of a lion—and the body to make it work for her. That’s another plus here: the Egyptian goddesses are by far the hottest.

This is the top of the line in pantheons: seductive, biosphere-friendly, morally ambivalent. They play hard to get, but they’re willing to listen to mortal petitioners. Polytheism we can believe in.

Disadvantages: homeland swamped by filthy monotheists. Many magnificent deified species of the pantheon, such as crocodiles and hippos, now wiped out in Egypt. Third Mummy film said to be godawful.

The Greek Landlords

Zeus, Hera, Athena, Apollo, and the rest have built-in appeal for tweedsters who like to think they support “classical civilization,” , though the fogies would would all file stress lawsuits if they had to spend even a minute in a crowded elevator this tribe of randy, moody, vengeful and obsessive gamblers. This is a pantheon that bores easy, and when they’re bored—uh-oh!

One advantage for the contemporary market is that they’re totally gender-balanced. Athena, the brilliant, beautiful goddess of wisdom, may well be the single coolest god ever invented. She’s got a pet owl and carries a big spear, for Gods’ sake—what more do you want? For the GBLT consumer, the possibilities are endless, starting with Artemis—you didn’t know about Artemis? Jeez, she wasn’t exactly hiding it. And Zeus is a man of flexible tastes. No stickler he. No speciesist even. If it moves, he’ll descend on it in some gaudy disguise.

Disadvantages: It’s going to be tough to keep “sexual harassment” on the books if we elevate a bunch of Greeks to Olympia. That’s all we’re going to say. Oh, also that whole justice thing, forget it—they’d laugh if you mentioned . But that reminds us of the great thing about these guys vs. most gods: they actually have a sense of humor. Whether that’s a good thing in a god or not depends on who’s the punch line.

The Hindu Crowd

Many distinct advantages, starting with Ganesha, the god of wealth, who makes this pantheon a natural for urban capitalists, and a clear leader over god crews designed for warrior tribes alone. There’s no denying that these are the gods you want for your startup shrine or office. Ganesha even has the right look: a fat many-armed multitasker with an elephant’s head, complete with trunk for handling your Blackberry. And there’s something for the kiddies too: Shiva, the primal deity of pre-Aryan India, who is devoted to pure destruction.

The other great advantage of the Hindu pantheon is that there’s no snooty members-only rule on this ride. This isn’t so much a stable pantheon as an overcrowded train to Delhi that picks up new passengers, ticketed and otherwise, at every stop. You can add or subtract a god or so, or 30, at any stop without outraging your fellow believers. Anything goes, and a bigger pantheon means more business for the idolmakers. In fact, Hinduism is the only major world religion that had no record of slaughtering unbelievers or heretics. Of course that proud record was broken when rural India was besieged by American evangelicals, but that has to be considered unbearable provocation.

Disadvantages: doesn’t seem to travel very well. Need to reconstruct an artificial Ganges wherever established (though this can lead to wonderful dreamscapes, as at Angkor). Certain modern, squeamish “reform” Hindus maintain that the various gods are not actually gods, the sort of dangerous talk that leads straight back to the monotheist ghetto. This leads to the greatest disadvantage of all: unlike our other contenders, the Hindu pantheon is currently worshipped by several hundred million actual people, taking most of the romance out of it and cutting way down on our room for reinventing these gods. Nothing ruins a pantheon like contemporary adherents.

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Add your own

  • 1. aleke  |  December 17th, 2008 at 1:15 pm

    How about the Slav gods? Werewolves, weird bird women, Dragon gods. Maybe I am biased, but this is the eXile afterall. I’d love to see a followup article.

  • 2. farmer iggy  |  December 17th, 2008 at 2:35 pm

    Didn’t The Exiled canonize The Simpsons? Let’s just worship them.

  • 3. rick  |  December 17th, 2008 at 6:23 pm

    This is as funny as anything, disregarding generationally-resonant geniuses like David Sedaris and Chuck Klosterman…or, oh man, I forgot P.J. O’Rourke, when he’s making those incredibly funny points, aw shucks, about supporting the Republicans, how, ha! They intregrate the contradictions of the world and human nature into their, can’t stop laughing, philosophy!

  • 4. Rosewater  |  December 17th, 2008 at 6:54 pm

    For someone who blathers as much about Catholicism as Dolan does, he doesn’t seem to appreciate one of it’s greatest strengths: in a lot of instances it basically is polytheism. I’m guessing this is because he’s from the West Coast (they’re a little slow out there), surrounded by Protestants and their religious descendants, but over here everyone has old aunts who’ve never prayed to God but pray every day to Saint Anthony b/c he helps out finding the car keys. Take a look at the street festivals the Italians put on in New York, too, for the assorted saints’ days. Nothing meaningfully monotheistic about it.

  • 5. rick  |  December 17th, 2008 at 8:19 pm

    Oh man, I guess Catholics are awesome!

    I was once writing “religious” prose, and found bubbling up from my subconscious shit about “hanging” on a flat surface, being painfully suspended there, to death, metaphorically.

    The Catholics are brilliant, that way, but David Lynch makes them look like amateurs. Come on. That’s like saying you invented the chick with three tits from Total Recall. Or, for that matter, the Hindu broad with a thousand arms, which I also found bubbling up out of me, when writing another work of fiction.

    This is just shit that pours out of people lamely grasping for existential metaphors, it’s lost on the vast majority of the populace, and all you do is invent a hell for nonbelievers to go to, to make it mean anything. I’m not that smart, there were like 800,000 people living when the Bible were written: they were all probably idiots, and I’m not that bright either, nobody cares.

  • 6. Carpenter  |  December 18th, 2008 at 2:58 am

    Dude, Christianity is already polytheist! What is the definition of a god? Someone who stands outside the laws of nature and holds some sway over them. The angels in Christianity are by definition gods, and all those patron saints in Catholicism, oh boy, they are far more powerful gods than many smaller deitists in older pantheons.

    But if we want more, how about elevating the Washington gang to god status. All the Christians would swoon and cheer, so that part would be easy: instant backing from millions of eager believers. Make Rumsfeld the god of war, make Cheney the god of war, make Wolfowitz the god of war, make Richard Perle and Douglas Feith gods of war, make Obama the African god of war and rename Hillary as Lesbos, goddess of war. Method of worship: blood sacrifice of a million Iraqis – already done!

  • 7. Nestor  |  December 18th, 2008 at 4:24 am

    Japanese mythology can be cool too, and all the kids are into it already via Anime so it’s an easy sell

  • 8. kotek besar  |  December 18th, 2008 at 6:44 am

    But Hindus have massacred plenty of people before they started on the Bible spreaders! The 2002 Gujarat riots are a recent example. The destruction of the Babri Mosque at the hands of a Hindu mob was also pretty violent. The Hindu LTTE have been fighting a long and bloody (and perhaps soon to end) civil war with the mostly Buddhist Sri Lankan government. Religion also played a part in the 19th century Indian Mutiny, so it’s not much more peace-loving than the other major religions.

  • 9. incredible Crustacean  |  December 19th, 2008 at 5:56 pm

    If that’s the best you can do against the Mesoamerican gods, sign me up.

    I vote as well for Temple of Set brand Satanism. Uses Egyptian gods and is less fanatically social darwinist than the Church of Satan. Let’s have some fun!

  • 10. burbl  |  December 20th, 2008 at 9:42 am

    “it’s clear America needs a new religion.”

    Not sure, some are doing fine with the old one, keeping only the good parts…
    Is Hell exothermic (gives off heat) or endothermic (absorbs heat)?

  • 11. Bardamu  |  December 22nd, 2008 at 11:47 pm

    Some of the responses to this post seem to prove his point: American religion as it stands now is incapable of promoting anything remotely fun. And Americans seem to like it that way. All this ultra-serious pontificating about how angels are gods and some protestant inspired nonsense about how Catholics are polytheist (from the exiled crowd no less, who you would tend to think of as a fun bunch) is a sure sign of what a humorless country we are. I’m pretty grim myself but you people are killing me.

  • 12. Jack Boot  |  March 19th, 2009 at 11:41 am

    I recall that, sometime in the 19th Century, the US Congress passed a law granting Jesus US citizenship. Only Churchill has ever been similarly honoured. Why not do likewise for Gautama, Quetzalcoatl, Muhammad (piss be upon him) and all the rest? Be fair…

    But, the strangest of the strange is the phenomenon of gay Christians, Jews and Muslims. Worshipping a God who explicitly wants them killed – how self-loathing is that?
    Hey, poofs; go Greek!

  • 13. xxx  |  November 29th, 2009 at 12:17 am

    if one change his religion then usa award him visa??

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