Paganism, Monotheism, and the Architecture of the Mind

Everyone would agree that the languages people speak are good fit for the structure of the human mind. After all, they were invented by people, they are developed and maintained by people, they are used every day for hours on end by every single person on the planet, and their essentials can be mastered by children who don’t know how to tie their shoes. (Conversely, their essentials have not yet been mastered by any computer program, despite decades of earnest attempts, and the vast fortune that would belong to the creator of such a program.) They’re easy to use and in many ways reflect the way we think. Languages are the product of the human mind, and you can learn a lot about how the mind works by studying them.

interviewfrankmaceowenIt stands to reason, then, that if a system of belief can be shown to be similar to lingiustic structure, that that system of belief is a good fit for the human mind.

In this post I’ll look at the two fundamental architectural underpinnings of language — what I’ll call the Dictionary and the Rules — and show how Paganism has essentially the same underpinnings, while monotheism does not. In the sections below, I’ll present the linguistics first, and then the comparative religion.

The Dictionary of a Language.

The Dictionary of a language is its set of words, their meanings, and the relationships between them.

Languages have thousands and thousands of words, obviously. There are nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, adpositions (which include prepositions and postpositions), determiners, arguments, adjuncts, open- and closed-class words, conjunctions, disjunctions, complementizers, particles, clitics — they come in all kinds. Each word is separate; each has its own meaning and its own characteristic way of interacting with other words. They may be grouped, as in the grammatical categories I listed, and they may even be hierarchically organized (you can imagine a great Tree of Nouns, for example, with “thing” at the top, and “animal, vegetable, mineral, idea” at the next level, and on down, all the way to things like “Siamese cat” and “Fred”). And words can have complicated relationships with one another — intricate interactions of co-occurrence and meaning. Two quick examples:

  • “The” and “a” are members of the class of “determiners”, a small set of words that also includes “some”, “many”, “most”, and the like. They serve to sort of introduce nouns and place them in context. Generally, “the” indicates a noun that’s already been mentioned somewhere (“the man I was telling you about yesterday”), or is so well-known that it doesn’t need introduction (“the sun”), while “a” serves to pick a new noun out of a set (“a yellow cat”). But this isn’t the whole story: “the” can appear with just about any kind of noun at all (even names: “You’ve changed, Bob! What happened to the Bob Smith I used to know?”), but “a” can only appear with individual things, countable things: compare “This is a dog” vs. “This is an oxygen”. Oxygen is not a countable thing, it’s a substance; so “a” can’t appear with it.
  • The verb “budge” basically means “move”, but it really, really likes to appear in sentences with “not” or “won’t”. You have to say “this couch won’t budge”; you almost never hear someone say “gosh, this couch sure budges easily!”. Or “could you please budge the garbage out?”

The Dictionary of a Religion.

The Dictionary of a religion is the set of spiritual entities it defines, and the relationships between them.

In strict monotheism, there is one spiritual entity: the God. Everything else that might seem to be a spiritual entity — angels, devils, human souls, etc. — are reflections or expressions of this ultimate unity. In more relaxed forms of monotheism — usually older farms, that it had a chance to spread out and get comfortable — the big God creates hosts of angels, demons, souls and whatnot that are independent entities; but ultimately they serve his will, either directly or indirectly. Slightly less pure forms of monotheism have the main Godhead broken up into multiple parts — such as the father / son / Holy Ghost version of Christianity — in which God is a single entity, yet a multiple entity at the same time, whatever that means.

In Paganism, you have a lot of gods, spirits, guides, Earth guardians, sprites and fairies, kitchen gods, you name it — anywhere from a dozen to thousands of spiritual entities, each of them separate, each of them with their own sphere of influence, with their own character and powers. They may be grouped in in a hierarchy, and there may be internal power struggles. The relationship between them is often complex but always meaningful.

Given the above, it should be pretty clear that the “dictionary” of Pagan religions is much more like the dictionary of a language. Languages obviously don’t have one single word which “underlies” all the others — all the different verbs are not “aspects” of some Great Verb out there. Nor is there a Great Noun that is both a single unity AND broken up into a trinity of Animal / Vegetable / Mineral. The body of conceptual entities in language is a pantheon of thousands of individual words, each with its own domain, habits, and relations.

The Rules in Language.

Every language has rules about how words, and parts of words, combine to produce meaning. Sometimes these rules are completely invariant (e.g. add -ing to an English verb to create the progressive form), but more often there are classes of exceptions (e.g. add -ed to an English verb to create the past tense form, unless the verb is irregular, in which case there is a memorized vowel change, e.g. drink-drank, sing-sang).

There are two aspects to every language rule:

  • Where does the rule apply? (i.e. which words / constructions / sounds does the rule apply to?)
  • How does the rule apply? (i.e. what actually changes when you apply the rule?)

In both of these aspects, similarity plays a central role.

Let’s stick to the English past tense for an example. As noted above, the English past tense has two forms: a suffix “-ed”, found in walked, talked, communicated, studied, etc.; and an irregular memorized word-specific vowel change, found in drink/drank, sing/sang, run/ran, buy/bought, wear/wore, etc. We can ask two questions:

1. What determines which verb takes which form? That is, how do you know which verbs are regular, and which are irregular?

In the old days — in Proto-Indo-European times, and perhaps early Germanic as well — all the verbs were “irregular”; so they weren’t irregular at all. All verbs had multiple forms, and these different forms were marked with different vowels. Over time, as vowels changed and merged and split, the system became more complex and difficult, until at last it sort of fell apart; and now, in English, there is no a priori way to know which verbs take which vowel changes. (You can read all about it here.). Nowadays, the irregular verbs are slowly changing into regular “-ed” forms — take for example “shined” (2,040,000 ghits), which is even now taking over from “shone” (6,030,000 ghits). (Note: ghit is a technical term in linguistics, a measure of internet frequency. It means “Google hits”.)

But the human mind doesn’t really like irregularity; it tries to find systems in everything. Many speakers of English are subconsciously trying to reformulate the irregular verbs into a system again. You can see it in examples like this:

bring/brang/brung (from sing/sang/sung and ring/rang/rung)
think/thank/thunk (from drink/drank/drunk)
bite/bote, wipe/wope (from write/wrote)

What’s happening is that verbs are dragged over into the irregular pattern because of their similarity in sound. Speakers are creating a new pattern based on sound similarity.

2. How does the rule apply?

For this example, we’re going to look at the regular past-tense suffix, “-ed”. Notice that it’s not always actually “-ed”; pay attention to how it’s pronounced.

  • In “adjusted” and “wetted” and “wedded”, it’s pronounced “-ed”.
  • In “flipped” and “slept” and “kicked” and “riffed” and “pronounced” and “wished” and “kissed” and “birthed” and “witched”, it’s pronounced “-t”.
  • In “gabbed” and “gagged” and “bored” and “boweled” and “loved” and “loaned” and “lathed” and “singed”, it’s pronounced “-d”.
  • In “split” and “quit” and “bet”, it isn’t pronounced at all.

Is this another irregular pattern, hidden in the “regular” past tense suffix? No, actually; there is a pattern (a very simple one, once you know the trick), and it also plays off of similarities.

First you have to know about voicing. Voicing refers to vibration in the human larynx. Hold your hand to your throat and hum; you can feel the vibration. When you whisper, you can’t feel the vibration. Whispering is just talking without voicing.

In human languages, some sounds are voiced (e.g., almost all vowels, plus consonants like r, l, m, n, b, d, g, v) and some are not (s, sh, ch, p, t, k).

Now, notice in the examples above that the “-d” variant of the past tense always appears after a voiced sound, while the “-t” always appears after a voiceless sound. Notice further that “-d” is voiced, and “-t” does not. Now the pattern is clear: verbs with voiceless endings take the voiceless “-t” suffix, and verbs with voiced endings take the voiced “-d” suffix.

What about the “-ed” ending, and the one that’s not pronouced at all? Here, similarity also plays a role, but with a different result. The suffixes “-t” and “-d” are actually *identical* to the endings of verbs such as “split”, “bet”, “adjust” and “wed”, and having two identical sounds next to each other can be problematic. English solves it either by placing an “e” between the verb and the suffix (giving “adjusted” and “wedded”), or by merging the suffix into the verb itself (as in “split” and “quit”), or sometimes optionally by doing either (both “quit” and “quitted” are actually acceptable forms).

So the great theme of rules in language is similarity. If you want to get something done, like put something into past tense, look at how similar things do it; and when you apply your rule, make similarity part of the formula.

The Rules in Religion.

The Rules in religion are primarily about ritual — when you do them, how you do them, and what they’re for. For my purposes, “ritual” also means long-term activities like fasting, celibacy, and meditative practice.

Rituals in monotheistic religions can be quite varied. In general, however, they have three main sources:

  • Borrowed or slightly modified rituals from older Pagan traditions (e.g. putting up evergreen at Christmas time, eggs at Easter, etc.).
  • Celebrations or commemorations of events in the history of the religion (Passover, Hannukah, Lent).
  • Celebrations of, and exhortations to, the god (Muslim *salat*; evening prayers).

Rituals in Pagan religions are also varied; in fact, they can have rituals of all three types listed above. Interestingly, however, the most common rituals are all primarily of a different kind: sympathetic magic.

Sympathetic magic is a ritualistic act which is similar in some way to the purpose of the ritual. The idea is that if you want to get something done, like heal a disease, or assist the rebirth of the sun (or your spirit) at the solstice, or grow spiritually, or pass into adulthood, then you look at similar things in nature; and when you apply your ritual, make that similarity part of the formula.

The association of evergreens with the winter solstice is emblematic of the sun’s rebirth, because it recalls the green of summer. The association of eggs and rabbits with the spring equinox are also emblematic of rebirth in an even more obvious way. The tradition of stepping through a woven hoop at Imbolc recalls doorways, as well as the exit from the womb. One makes medicine for, say, the lung, by boiling the leaves of a plant with lung-shaped leaves. One takes the name (or wears a feather, etc.) of a totem animal in order to bring some aspect of the animal’s character onto oneself (speaking simplistically).

The common theme in all this diversity, of course, is similarity. Similarity is the great theme of Pagan ritual, just as it is of the rules of language.

Of course, one could imagine a monotheistic religion where sympathetic magic was the basis for ritual. But in fact this almost never happens (except in cases of rituals borrowed from Pagan religions, as noted above). After all, if you have just one god, and He knows all and sees all, then He knows what you want ahead of time — probably before you even know it yourself. There’s hardly any point in even asking for it through prayer, though people do it anyway. There’s certainly no point in going to the trouble of a full ritualistic magical ceremony.

So! The upshot is:

  • Language is made up of thousands of separate parts that are deeply interrelated; it is not a monolithic unity. In this way it is much more like a Pagan belief system than a monotheistic one.
  • The rules of language are based on similarity: they respect the principle of sympathetic magic. Rules are applied based on similarities, and the result you expect to get is based on similarities as well. In this way, again, the rules of language are much more like the majority of rituals you find in Pagan religions than the rituals of monotheistic religions.
  • As I said in the introduction, human languages are designed by humans for humans, are learned extremely quickly by human children, and are used by humans almost constantly. Over millenia, they’ve been molded to fit the contours of the human mind.
  • Thus, Paganism, a system of belief that closely matches the structure of language, is a better fit for our mental architecture than monotheism.


None of this means, necessarily, that Paganism is “true” and monotheism is “false”. But you gotta wonder: if there’s just one god who created everything and is in charge of everything, why did he design us to be Pagans?…

I want to thank Nio of “Solidly Average” for our conversation last Thursday, which planted the seed of this essay, and gave me some hope that people might be interested in hearing about these ideas.


  1. Well thought-out post, and a good presentation of tricky linguistic concepts for the layperson without using a lot of jargon (I counted phonology, morphology, and syntax at least!).

    I don’t know that your conclusion necessarily follows. I’m not saying it’s an untenable conclusion, just that it seems more like something you find because you want to find it than because it logically follows. A conclusion that is possible, yes, but not necessary.

    Some of your conclusions, the one about multiple words = multiple gods, for example, seem forced. No, the words we speak don’t derive from one great uber-word, but they are all subdivisions of language, and when I speak them they all come from the same source, made of the same substance (my thoughts, and vibrations I form in the air with my voice and throat). That’s not a bunch of fully independent concepts floating around in a void.

    Anyway, just my opinion.

  2. Jeff Lilly says:

    Thanks for wading through all that linguistics, Kullervo!

    While I do think that the conclusion here is fundamentally sound, I definitely agree that the argumentation needs work. It took me a lot longer to write this post than I expected (I wanted to post it Monday!), and it’s because I had to do a fair bit of side research and rewriting.

    To specifically address your words = gods point — yes, naturally, exactly as you say, all the words do come from the same source; they’re made of the same stuff, so to speak: modulated breath and thought. 🙂 And it may well be that the gods are all made of the same “sprit-stuff” as well. After all, you and I, Kullervo, are pretty much made of the same stuff; but we are naturally still individuals.

    And words are certainly are not independent concepts with no interrelation; that was not the point I was trying to make. In fact, I tried to make the point that they are intricately interrelated, while still being quite separate entities. The same can be said of individual people and (I’d argue) individual gods.

    Did that make my argument a bit clearer?

  3. Sure.

  4. I think I need a linguistics 101 class: I only kinda got this post.

    I too enjoyed our conversation and look forward to more. Lunch again?

  5. Everyone needs a linguistics 101 class.

  6. Fascinating argument.
    I wonder about Adam’s Task – what I call man’s god-given role in co-creation of the Universe – the job of Naming everything, from the Genesis creation story…
    Adam’s task originated with assigning names to all the animals on earth. Is there a connection between the taxonomy of nature and pagan intellect?
    I’m also recalling a conversation I had with my mother last night, about how all the children we personally know – myself included – speak “Daddy” as their First Word. Her conclusion is that it is easier to say than “Mama.”
    An informal poll of all the baby books I have access to also reveals the word “Dog” as the winning Second Word.
    I’ve spent my life wondering how the Mother has been programmed out of Her obvious primary creative role. Is it perhaps that the Heart is the Mother and the Mind is the Father?

  7. Jeff Lilly says:

    Kullervo & Nio: I wish everyone could take a ling 101 class. Some people find linguistics very difficult, because really it’s a lot more like taking math than taking, say, English or Russian. There’s a lot of abstract symbol manipulation.

    Which is all the more strange and wonderous! Nio, all the linguistics I described in this post are tiny facts about English that your mind knows about and works with completely effortlessly and subconsciously. Your mind works with language the way your stomach works with acids and proteins. Gods help me if I ever took a chemistry class, but I can digest beef with the best of them. 🙂

    When I say the “architecture” of the mind, I mean deep architectures.

    And yes, Nio, absolutely, lunch!

  8. This Adam will take the easy way for now…

    I name it all “Good.”

    As for the second point, on a child’s first words not being mom… That is an interesting observation… Perhaps it is because of the traditional role of Mom being ever-present, so there’s really no need to get her attention… It’s a sign of that role being done well, if that was the mother’s aim.

  9. Jeff Lilly says:

    By the way, Kullervo, what is your background in linguistics? I think I heard a rumor that most LDS missionaries receive extensive training in linguistics and language before they go into the field; is this the case?

  10. They’ll get the linguistic training if their mission’s primary language is different from their own… It isn’t so much training in linguistics in general as it is a crash course in that one language with full immersion just as the missionary is getting their feet.

    At least, that’s what most return missionaries say about their experience… I didn’t go on a mission, although I did get a place on my ward’s mission plaque for my service in the military. 😉

  11. Jeff Lilly says:

    Slade, as usual, you’ve planted the seeds of about a book’s worth of reply.

    Yes there is a connection between the taxonomy of nature and the pagan intellect, at least according to some major theorists like Steven Pinker. Pinker suggests that just as our brains are wired for language, they’re also wired to organize the natural world in certain ways. Native peoples all over the world have organized the plants and animals around them in magnificent detail, frequently matching or surpassing the knowledge of the Western botanists poking around outside their villages. And of course, these taxonomies consist of individual plants and animals — and types of plants and animals, grouped along various dimensions of similarity — interacting in complex relationships.

    As for “mama” and “dada”, this is something I intended to mention as a comment to your post about Numerology. These two words are part of just about every language on Earth; they’re hardwired into infants somehow. The “a”, “m”, and “d” sounds are very nearly universal in all languages. (I think “m” and “a” are universal; “d” not quite so — though “t”, a very similar sound, is universal.)

    In fact, in my linguistics courses at least, “mama” was always cited as the first word, and it was certainly the case with our own kids. What we found was that, when an infant is crying because she wants milk, she frequently “roots” as well — stretching out her neck to find the breast, and making sucking motions with her mouth. And — surprise! — what you hear is “maaamaaa!!”

    For my oldest daugher, the most common word of her first year was “dada”. But that didn’t mean “father”, it meant “You! Adult! Come and Attend to My Needs!” (Now that she’s eight, she’s stopped ordering us around so much. She orders around her brother and sisters instead.)

  12. Our little boy says dadadada all the time, and rarely a “ma” syllable, but I’m certain that he isn;t using it referentially. It’s just a sound he can make. Probably the way we reinforce it is how he turns it into a word.

    Missionaries get a crash course in their language, and they do independent study for the two years, but no linguistice per se.

    I was an elementary education major before law school, and I took several classses on applied linguisitcs (and teaching reading, which is closely connected) as a part of that curriculum. And I’m just nerdy, so I ate it up with a spoon. I was like the one person who saw our AL classes as a treat instead of a horrible chore.

    I very nearly applied to graduate programs in applied linguisics, but then I settled on law school instead.

    So I’m no expert, but I am at least conversant in the vocabulary and the basic ideas of linguisitcs.

  13. Jeff,
    Finally had a chance to go back and reread this as well as the “old vs. new” post… I have to say that while I was initially somewhat skeptical about the usefulness of your analogy, the more I think about it the more I see in it – as long as I bear in mind that, like any analogy, it can only go so far. This second post, and your initial reply to Kullervo, have helped me both to see the value in your theory and to pinpoint the source of my initial resistance.

    You said, the most common rituals are all primarily of a different kind: sympathetic magic; that is certainly true of most Wiccan ritual that I have experienced, and also in much of my Druid experience… but I have to say that in my Hellenistic experience, this is pretty definitely not the norm. The main thrust of modern Hellenistic ritual (and spirituality in general) is not necessarily to effect change in the world, but to establish and maintain kharis (relationship or reciprocity) between the Gods and Their worshippers. Whatever particular benefits flow from that, whether material, psychological or whatever, are great and appreciated as blessings, but they are secondary to the benefit of being in right relationship with the Gods and thus participating in the proper ordering of the Cosmos.

    And now that I read *that* over again, I think I may have just added another layer to the analogy. Proposition: just as the true purpose and value of language is communication, so the true purpose and value of religion is relationship. Your thoughts?

  14. Jeff Lilly says:

    Erik, these are excellent points.

    One thing I should have made clearer in this post is that there is a crucial distinction to be made between the purpose of a ritual (establishing a relationship with a god, asking for assistance, etc.) and the form of a ritual (using certain colors of candles, doing it in the moonlight, kneeling when praying…). My intent was to say that regardless of the purpose of the ritual — whether you want to effect change in the world, or solidify your relationship with a god — the form of the ritual reflects the purpose of it. Perhaps this idea is so self-evident that it’s hard to see why I would belabor it, but let me give an example.

    In your wonderful post on “Why Hellenism?”, you mention pouring a libation into the sea in order to give respect, honor, and thanks to Poseidon. This is completely right, proper, and intuitive. As you say, you’re not asking Poseidon for anything, or trying to change your circumstances; you’re maintaining and building on a relationship you have with him, just as you would with a friend or honored relative. But notice: you’re pouring a libation into the sea. You’re not, say, standing in the desert lighting a match; you’re not sacrificing a goat on the top of a mountain; you’re not cooking a turkey in your kitchen. (Those might be things you do for other gods.) If you did any of those things, it wouldn’t be honoring Poseidon; in fact, it might be insulting to him! The ritual you do perform recalls Poseidon because it involves his domain; and thus it is a ritual based on similarity.

    The same is true of the other rituals you mention in your post: Hestia’s shrine is in the kitchen (and you say “naturally“, and it is natural!), your prayer to Hermes is on your hard drive…

    These seem perfectly intuitive and straightforward things to do, to honor the gods in their realms by performing ritual actions that recall or are similar to their symbols and domains. They seem perfectly intuitive and straightforward because that’s the way we think — that’s the architecture of our minds.

    I’ll go one step further. People try to do the same kinds of things in monotheistic religions; but since a single god has no particular domain or association — He’s Everywhere — then their rituals stop making sense. For example, they build church steeples that point at the sky, and frequently look up when they address him, even though their god is in the ground, too. Some of their rituals are intuitively and intellectually satisfying (such as placing a hand on the Bible when making an oath, since the Bible is a symbol of their god’s promises to them). Others are intuitively satisfying, but intellectually confused (like baptism — the intuition is clear (sympathetic magic metaphor: “cleansed of sin”), but what, exactly, is its purpose and effect? After all, water doesn’t actually wash sin away; only God can do that! Different sects have different answers.)

    Finally: I agree with you; the highest purpose of religion is to establish a relationship with Spirit. Religion is the communicative tool that allows that relationship to be fostered.

  15. Jeff,
    Thanks, that clears it up nicely. I think the problem was the term “sympathetic magic”; what you’re actually talking about is simply the application of appropriate symbol sets, which is what all good ritual is about. And yes, I absolutely agree that we are wired to respond to the resonance between symbol and referent, although I’d hardly classify it as magic – but that might just come down to a difference in interpretation.


  16. Jeff Lilly says:

    You know, Erik, I think you’re right — I was using “magic” inappropriately here. I should have stuck with the more general “ritual”. Thanks!

  17. Hi Jeff,

    Just found your blog (thanks to Sara), and this post has earned it a spot on the favorite blogs list on my page 🙂

    I really like what you’re saying here, although I’m not sure most people would ‘get it’ if I tried to talk to them about it. Linguistics, which I know very little about, is nonetheless a fleeting interest of mine. This makes me want to take that Intro to Linguistics class and see if it’s something I’d like to pursue further.

    Thanks for your thoughtfulness.


  18. Jeff Lilly says:

    Jonah, thanks for coming by! I’m glad you enjoyed it. And thanks for the link!

    I agree that this post isn’t the easiest read in the world (!), and probably wouldn’t be a good thing to put on a flyer and hand out on the steps of a monotheist church. Maybe eventually I’ll figure out a better way to communicate it. 🙂


  1. […] (I also talked about ritual with Jeff in the thread for this post at Druid Journal.) […]

  2. […] also talked about ritual with Jeff in the thread for this post at Druid […]

  3. […] at DruidJournal is continuing his religion/language exploration with a really thought-provoking post that I don’t have my brain fully wrapped around […]

  4. […] comfortable to the human mind and instinctively learned by children […]

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