How to Choose a Religion VII: Old Religions, New Religions

What is the difference between older religions and newer religions?

Ever since I posted the previous essay in this series, Languages of Spirit, I’ve had a surprising number of page hits from people putting this question into Google. I don’t know — maybe some professor somewhere issued this as a question for a take-home test, or something. In any case, since it seems to be on people’s minds, and I’m itching to write about it anyway, here we go!


In this essay I’m going to continue to build on the “language = religion” metaphor that I introduced in the last post. This metaphor starts with the observation that there are many commonalities between languages and religions, and suggests that perhaps they are even more alike than is generally assumed. Since a great deal is known about language, and religion is highly mysterious, perhaps we can learn a lot about religion by looking at language.

In this case, if the metaphor holds, we can explore the differences between older religions and newer religions by looking at the differences between older languages and newer languages.

All About Old Languages

First off, almost all languages are unimaginably old.

Let’s take a language that most of us are familiar with — English. English per se is usually considered to have begun around 600 CE, when the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes invaded England, bringing their language with them. But of course, if they brought their language with them, then English is actually older than that, isn’t it?

The language they brought was very much like the other Germanic languages spoken at the time — Old Norse, Old High German, Frankish, Gothic, etc. In fact, all of these ancient Germanic “languages” were pretty much mutually intelligible, just as the various worldwide dialects of English are today.

These ancient Germanic languages were mutually intelligible because they were, in fact, dialects of a single older language — Proto-Germanic. This language, the earliest common ancestor of all Germanic languages, was probably spoken in northern Germany and southern Scandanavia as late as 200 CE. And where did Proto-Germanic come from? It is a daughter language of Proto-Indo-European, which was probably spoken about 8000 years ago on the steppes of Russia.

Now, let’s be clear. From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic to Old English to Modern English there was gradual change. At no point can you point to a spot on a timeline and say “Here! The speakers stopped speaking Proto-Indo-European and started speaking Proto-Germanic.” The change was slow and, for the most part, barely perceptible to the speakers themselves. So in a very real sense, English is over 8000 years old.

And there is no question that Proto-Indo-European developed from still older languages, languages of which we have little inkling. Some have suggested that it developed from an ancestral tongue called “Nostratic”, which is allegedly also the parent of Semitic, Dravidian, Altaic, Finno-Ugric, etc. This language would have been spoken sometime in the middle Stone Age, possibly in the Middle East. Most linguists think that there isn’t enough evidence to say whether this “Nostratic hypothesis” is true. Regardless, it is certain that English in its previous incarnations existed tens of thousands of years ago.

But this isn’t just true of English. The same is the case with German, French, Hungarian, Finnish, Chinese, Hebrew, Xhosa, Lakota — almost any language you care to name. They’re the product of tens of thousands of years of tinkering, gradual change, linguistic contact, and human innovation.

So almost all languages are incredibly old. What does great age do to a language?

  • Complexity. What you find when you look at these languages carefully is that they aren’t just masses of arbitrary sound and meaning. There are rules and they do make sense, they’re just not simple rules, because they’ve been thousands of years in the making. People joke about how, in English, you drive on a parkway and park on a driveway. Ha ha! Isn’t our language arbitrary and ridiculous! No. The “park” in “parkway” , of course, refers to a park, a natural area through which the road goes; and, yes, one does drive on a “driveway” — and it’s called a driveway because it’s a place on your property where you’re supposed to drive (as opposed to, say, the lawn). Once you learn the (admittedly complex) rules, the language makes perfect sense.
  • Character. Old languages are also full of fossils, remnants from the distant past. Why is “flew” the irregular past tense of “fly”, rather than the more regular “flied”? Because 8000 years ago, in Proto-Indo-European, this kind of vowel change was the regular way to mark a difference in aspect; and it’s preserved for us to see today. (Yes, the verb “fly/flew” is at least 8000 years old…!) It’s things like this that give a language character.
  • Subtlety. And it’s not just a charming quirk, either. “Fly/few” is actually a useful irregularity. Sportscasters, for example, can say that someone “flied out” instead of “flew out” to make it absolutely clear that the batter did not hop on a plane. (See extensive discussion here.) The character “flaws” of an old language are frequently siezed by its speakers and used to express subtle shades of meaning. For example, because of English’s long contact with French, English has many French loan words which have very similar meanings to equivalent English-native words; and frequently these loan words are in a “higher register” than the English equivalents. For example, English has both “arrive” and “come”. “Arrive” means the same thing, but is used in more formal contexts. Thus it can communicate not only its basic meaning, but also subtle signals about the context of the speech act. If you recieve an invitation to a party, and it says “Come over here around noon, dude”, that tells you something different about the party than if you read “It is requested that guests arrive by noon.”

All About New Languages

Are there any new languages?

Sure. They are rare, but they exist; and they fall into two basic kinds:

  • Pidgins and creoles. In linguistic terminology, a pidgin is a language created by a community of adults who do not share any common language, but have to communicate anyway. Generally, the pidgin will have a basic vocabulary that all the speakers know, but their pronunciation and usage of that vocabulary will be unsystematic and deeply influenced by their native languages. Conversely, a creole is a language created by the children of the pidgin-speakers. The children communally create a systematic set of rules for their new language, and standardize the syntax, morphology, and phonology. Creoles are very easy for children and adults to learn.
  • Invented languages. This includes things like Esperanto, Loglan, Sindarin, and Klingon. These languages are created by a small number of people, usually in the space of a single lifetime, and consequently are quite simple, with easy rules that have almost no exceptions. Speakers of these languages frequently find that the language has no way to express their intended meaning, so they find themselves adding words or rules as necessary. These languages are usually fairly easy for adults to learn, but not necessarily easy for children, since their rules — as simple as they are — are not always intuitive to the mind of a child. Computer languages might fall into this category as well, although no one uses a computer language to talk to another human being (I hope!).

Summary of Differences between Old and New Languages

In short:

  • Older languages have complex rules — rules that are so complex that, at first sight, they may seem to have no rules at all, or rules with ludicrous exceptions. Younger languages have simple rules; they are easier for adults to learn, but depending on who created them, they may not be easier for children to learn.
  • Older languages have a lot of character; they have traces of their millenia of history scattered everywhere in them. Younger languages are more uniform and “fresh”; one is unlikely to find unexpected treasures hidden in the details of etymology or syntax.
  • Older languages allow for more subtlety of expression, because the complex structure and character can be exploited by the users to communicate shades of meaning. Younger languages must rely more on context or intonation to convey these subtleties.

Faithful reader, you have patiently waded with me through a huge mess of linguistics, for which I thank you. Now for the payoff: we will apply this to religion.

Old Religions and New Religions.

Most religions in use today are quite new. Christianity is probably the most popular, and it is only 2000 years old; and it has lots of offshoots (“dialects”?) that are much younger. Islam is only slightly younger than Christianity, and Buddhism is only slightly older. But the oldest religions — the pagan, shamanistic, polytheistic religions — are unimaginably ancient. Like old human languages, they have no known beginning.

  • Complexity.
    • Older religions are more complex. This is to be expected, since, like old human languages, they have been developed and tweaked and built upon for millenia, by millions of people. It’s not a simple thing to sit down and learn, say, the religion of the Lakota, or the religion of the ancient Celts, even if one has a patient teacher and all the time in the world. Just as in the case of languages, complexity is difficult to learn, and hard to make sense of, but it also confers flexibility and power. For example, ancient religions usually have a larger body of rituals and procedures for assisting a person through the various stages of life. These additional rituals are hard to learn, and sometimes don’t make sense on the surface, but if you need them, they’re there.
    • On the other hand, the newer religions are much simpler, and usually designed to be learned quickly. (You don’t get many converts if your religion is hard to learn.) Protestant Christianity, in its most basic form, is simply the injunction to love Jesus and place your faith in the Bible. (Easy to learn, perhaps difficult in practice.) Older forms of Christianity, as well as Buddhism and Islam, are a lot more complicated than that; but then, they drew a lot of material from the older religions around them in their formative stages, and they have had about 2000 years to accumulate material. The Christianity of the Catholic Church is much, much more complicated than the doctrine found in the New Testament. Still, it is considerably simpler than the body of lore, mythology, and ritual surrounding a Lakota medicine man.
  • Character.
    • Older relgions have more character, and usually this character is bound up with the character of the people who created it. There are traces of the history of the religion and the people wound into its fabric. This is evocative and pleasant for those who are part of the culture, but can be uncomfortable for an outsider.
    • Conversely, younger religions are less attached to their birth-cultures and more easily adapted to other times and places. But a younger religion also offers less to discover; once you have learned it, you have learned it, and you’re done.
  • Subtlety.
    • Older religions have more in the way of ritual and symbolism, which allows its practitioners to connect with Spirit in any number of ways, depending on their individual needs and situations. If you are feeling depressed, for example, and you are practicing an ancient natural religion, you can contact your ancestors, or the gods, or the nature spirits, or you can perform any number of cleansing rituals. Each of these options have different meanings and effects, and can be tuned to exactly what you need.
    • Newer religions have simpler symbolism and fewer rituals. This isn’t to say they don’t work; but it means your options are more limited. If you are a Protestant Christian and you’re feeling depressed, prayer and Bible study are pretty much your only options. If, for whatever reason, these are uncomfortable for you or don’t work, then you have to figure out something different on your own.

It’s not my intent here to argue that one kind of religion is better than another, for all times and in all circumstances. I am trying to show that religions have different characters depending on their history and age; that there are good reasons for these differences; and that different kinds of religion may serve you better in different situations.

I also want to emphasize the idea of choice here. Too many people assume that the major religions — Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. — are the only real kind of religion there is; they don’t know that the older religions are fundamentally different in character, and have a different kind of experience to offer.

I think it’s likely that many people completely turn away from religion altogether when a single religion fails them, simply because they don’t know what the other options are. Many agnostics and atheists I have spoken to are intrigued to learn about the older religions, and want to know more. Part of our calling as pagans must be to educate them — to provide them with that choice.

Links to other Posts in this series: How to Choose a Religion I: Intro

32 responses to “How to Choose a Religion VII: Old Religions, New Religions”

  1. This is one of the last pieces in a very complex puzzle… Thank you, Jeff. Your insights are always timely and useful.

    Unfortunately, it may be some time before anyone sees the results… Just like translating human thought out of computer code can be time consuming (but it most certainly can be done 😉 ), so is this thought going to take time to go from an abstract to a communicable form.


  2. Thanks for dropping by Adam, and I’m glad the essay was helpful for you. Good luck with your puzzle!


  3. Hmm. I don’t know that I would characterize Christianity as a “new” religion. Sure, it’s newer than, say, animism. but it isn’t new.

    On top of that, it emerged from Judaism which is anything but new. No, Judaism isn’t the oldest religion in existence, either, but it’s at least several thousand years old. And most cultural anthropologists would point to Judaism’s origins rising out of the Hebrew peoples’ polytheistic animism.

    None of the world’s major religions are new- all have complex and rich tapestries of history.

    Also, I am skeptical about calling modern=practiced forms of Paganism “old.” I’m not trying to be a butthole or rain on anyone’s parade, but it seems to me that they have the trappings of something old, but a lot of the gaps have been filled in in ways that are thoroughly modern or postmodern, simply because there are very few written records of how these religions were practiced anciently, and I simply do not buy that much of anything at all was preserved of European animism in the oral record, at least not in a way that is recognizable as a religion or that allows a person to adopt it as a belief system and call it “an old religion.”


  4. Good points, Kullervo.

    It’s true that Christianity is 2000 years old, and few people would call that “new” nowadays. Nevertheless it really is quite new compared to the polytheistic religions it replaced, the origins of which have been traced back at least to the times of Proto-Indo-European (8000 years), and are probably a lot older than that. Protestant Christianity, which is the most popular form in the United States and northern Europe, is only 500 years old. Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity, is new enough to be very different in character from these older religions, which is the crucial point.

    It’s true that Christianity emerged from Judaism, but it’s arguable how much of Judaism per se was carried forward. By the time Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire, what was Jewish about it? None of the old sacrifices (including even circumcision), none of the dietary guidelines, none of the holidays, and precious little of the philosophy. The primary things carried forward were the stories in the Old Testament and the Big Idea of monotheism itself.

    And yes, Judaism is much older — though the form created by Moses is only 3200 years old, and the religion of Abraham is 4000 (according to Wikipedia 🙂 ). Judaism shares many features in common with the most ancient religions — recall the sacrifices called for in the Torah — and I would argue that this is at least in part because of its great age. The older a religion gets, the more it comes to resemble the oldest religions.

    As for whether the modern-practiced forms of Paganism are old or new, you’ll note I didn’t address that in this article. When I mentioned the ancient religion of the Celts, for example, I wasn’t talking about modern Druidism. As you point out, there are gaps in the reconstruction — and on top of that, many practitioners aren’t trying to reconstruct anything. They want to borrow the parts of the old religion that resonate most strongly, and build on them. And there is nothing whatsoever wrong with that!

    This really deserves its own article, but I’ll say it briefly here:
    * Reconstructionist religions, like (most of) Heathenism or Reconstructionist Druidry, are like piecing together an ancient language from scattered fragments of inscriptions. You’re going to get something that the speakers of the old language probably would have understood, but your accent is going to be horrendous, and a lot of the old complexity and richness will be lost.
    * Non-reconstructionist religions, like Revival Druidism or Wicca, are more like pidgins or creoles — bits of different languages and traditions mixed together and made new.

    None of which — let me hasten to emphasize — is criticism. Each of these systems are real religions and have their own strengths and weaknesses. Older does not mean better! I may have made it sound that way in the article, because of my own personal religious taste; but I tried very hard to be even-handed, because I do believe that no religion is better or “truer” than any other, any more than I think French is better or truer than English. 🙂


  5. Fascinating article, Jeff! Very well done. I love how you worked through the discussion of language and religion and related them. I agree with your conclusions, and I would like to interject here in relation to Kullervo point that one of the things Roman critics held against Christianity was that it was new whereas Judaism was to be respected for its antiquity. Pagan Roman critics did not see Christianity as descended from Judaism except in name as Jewish tenants (the Law, the inviolability of the one God, etc) were blithely ignored or debased. As Jeff has said, not much of Judaism was carried forward. I would go so far as to argue that the term Judeo-Christian is a Christian construct and has no real meaning other than as Christian apologia.

    If we are speaking in strictly chronological terms, Christianity is a new religion. Two thousand years relative to what came before is a drop in the bucket and as Jeff points out, protestantism is only 500 years old.

    And as a brief aside, even though Judaism is ancient, monotheistic Judaism is a fairly recent innovation. Judaism was a polytheistic, then a henotheistic (all gods exist but only one worshipped) before forced conversion to monotheism in the reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah and in the post-exilic period. Therefore, Judaism as we know it is a relatively new religion as well. And even then, Pharasaic Judaism, the form we know now, is different in many respects from Second Temple Judaism, the form known during the time of Jesus. Pharasaic Judaism is only as old as Christianity.


  6. The “park” in “parkway” , of course, refers to a park, a natural area through which the road goes; and, yes, one does drive on a “driveway” — and it’s called a driveway because it’s a place on your property where you’re supposed to drive (as opposed to, say, the lawn). Once you learn the (admittedly complex) rules, the language makes perfect sense.

    Excellent post!

    I presume you are saying there is a rule that the construction “xxxway” requires that xxx refer to the location or function of the “way” in question? If so, where does that leave “highway”, where “high” in the xxx position is a relative descriptor (“high”, with the meaning of “central or important”, only makes sense in relation to other, lesser or side roads)… but I could let that slide as an exception – like Stonehenge not being technically a henge. 😀 Or is the rule simply that xxx modify “way” in some fashion?


  7. I wasn;t taking offense or anything (as you may well know from my Blog, I’m a fairly undecided guy and I haven;t written Paganism off). But it seems like you’re judging Christianity and Paganism by two different standards.

    Extending the language metaphor, it’d be like looking at English and calling it relatively new, no older than 500 years or so, and then loking at French and saying it goes all the way back to the language of the Proto-Indo-Europeans.

    Modern English is relatively recent, sure, as is modern French, btu they didn;t develop in a vacuum- they are developed from older languages over time. Even Middle English’s great vowel shift, though it meant big phonetic changes, didn;t restart the clock.

    Protestantism is 500 years old? In one sense, yes. But at the same time, Protestantism was bor out of a movement to try to turn Christianity back to the way it was practiced in the time of the Apostles, which was 1500 years earlier. Much of the logic behind Protestantism was that the Catholic church had added, changed, and taken away too much in the meantime, and they wanted a purer Christianity. You see that now too very clearly in the House Church movement.

    At the same time, yes, there are forward-developing movement in Protestantism, as times change and people change and the way we think changes, but change doesn’t restart the clock.

    Of course not all of Judaism per se was carried forward into Christianity, just like not all of the Early West Saxon language per se was not carried forward into the Middle English language, but that certainly didn;t make Middle English “new.”

    I do grant you that on the one hand, paganism looks a heck of a lot older, but I dont; think it really is. Judaism probably developed out of Hebrew polytheism, which means it has roots that go back just as far. And while modern Evangelical protestantism may not look a lot like Hebrew polytheism, it carries all kinds of assumptions and mindsets that very pecifically rose out of those people in ancient times.

    And if a modern pagan religion isn;t identical to ancient pagan practice, how is that really different? Other than that it often involves a conscious choice of what ancient fragments you adopt as opposed to accepting the time-worn ones that get handed down to you.

    Scientology? That’s a new religion.

    (I am not offended and likewise am not trying to offend, btw- just trying to further the discussion)


  8. Hrafnkell: thanks for once again backing up my wild claims with some actual historical data! I’m glad you found the article fascinating.

    Erik: Oh no! Now you’ve asked me a question about linguistics, and an area I’ve actually personally done some research in, too! You have no idea what you’re about to unleash… But I will try to keep the answer short…

    The rule is actually quite complex, and it’s one of a special sort that exploits the logical structure of human language. Any element in any human language can take two kinds of modifiers: adjuncts, which indicate things like color, weight, size, speed, and other attributes; and arguments, which indicate other elements that stand in some relation to the element. For example, in adjective-noun constructions like red ball, red is an adjunct; in verb-noun constructions like ate cheese, cheese is an argument. Furthermore, many nouns have arguments and adjuncts incorporated as part of their meaning: water is automatically wet (adjunct), and the purpose of a road (or a “way”) is to serve as the instrument of travel (argument). Following me so far?

    In a noun-noun compound, with two elements X Y, the meaning is of a noun of type Y, with X an argument of Y, or, if X has incorporated arguments, an argument or adjunct of an argument of Y. In the case of “way”, the incorporated argument is “travel”. The element X can be an argument of “travel” (e.g. bikeway, busway, motorway, footway, the one doing the travelling; accessway, the place the travellers go; parkway, the area through which they travel), or a further specification of travel (driveway, with drive a more specific kind of travel), or even an adjunct of travel (speedway, showing the speed at which they travel), or X can be an adjunct of “way” (e.g. highway, the importance of the path).

    So you see we have a big list of the specific kinds of modification that “way” can take, and they’re all derived from the meaning of “way” itself, and the manner in which modification works in human languages. It may seem like it would be simpler just to suggest that X modify “way” in some fashion, but it isn’t that easy. You have to exclude things like “passengerway” and “bookway” and “rainway”, where the meanings of the words can’t be fit together in the permitted manner. You could imagine what the words might possibly mean (a “bookway” is a path strewn with books?), but if it doesn’t fit easily into one of the predefined argument or adjunct slots, it doesn’t make immediate sense. Compare “bookway”, which is a big stretch, to “book box”, a box holding books, which is immediately clear.

    I hope you don’t regret asking the question…


  9. Kullervo, I’m glad you were not offended. You may rest assured that no offense was intended or taken, and thanks for wanting to continue the discussion!

    You seem to be arguing that the changes that took place in Judaism and Christianity from polytheistic Judaism to evangelical Christianity were slow, gradual, incremental, and shallow enough that it is comparable to natural linguistic changes, and that therefore modern varieties Christianity should be counted as old; that it is, in some real sense, the “same religion” as ancient polytheistic Judaism.

    I’d argue against that on several points:
    * Changes within the Judeo-Christian tradition were at times quick and radical enough for people to take notice and object strongly. Natural linguistic change (and, I’d argue, natural religious change) is so slow that change is barely noticed within a single generation. (The Great Vowel Shift took about 200 years and has been described as “surprisingly sudden”.) A quick, sharp change of the sort that separated Christianity from Judaism, or Protestantism from Catholicism, is, I’d argue, of a fundamentally different character, and indicates something new.
    * When languages and religions change slowly over time, they sometimes throw out some old things, but mostly they change them incrementally, and introduce new things (usually by building on the old things). Consider the way in which Catholicism aged over the past 2000 years. Starting from the very simple framework created by Jesus and his followers, they removed almost nothing, and added dozens of holidays, hundreds of saints, rituals for death, birth, marriage, etc., orders of monks and nuns, a great church heirarchy, etc. The changes were added very gradually, saint by saint and holiday by holiday. None of this is in the New Testament! Compare that kind of change to the change from Judaism to Christianity: reams of rituals and religious tradition were abruptly abandoned. This kind of change is of a fundamentally different character, and creates something new.
    * I’d agree that Protestantism represented an attempt to return to Christianity’s roots, and in that sense could be considered “older” than Catholicism. However, the oldest form of Christianity was a very new religion, very simple and very direct. By returning to this simple, direct religious practice, Protestantism took on the characteristics of a new religion. In the 500 years since its inception, it hasn’t had much time to accrete new religious practices (and when it has, it’s frequently been a point of contention and led to a schism).

    To be sure, elements of older traditions were used in the creation of Christianity and Protestantism, but that doesn’t mean that the clock wasn’t restarted. In the creation of pidgin and creole languages, words and constructions are borrowed freely from their parent languages, but they are fundamentally different in character.

    That being said, I do think that it is really impossible to draw a firm line between old religions and new religions and place each religion in one box or the other, any more than you can draw a firm line between old people and new people. Religions and languages are born, and then they age; and there’s no definite place where you can draw a line and say, “Aha! Now the religion is old.” Religions and languages are born simple, direct, and easy to learn; as they age, they become more complex, subtle, and difficult to learn.

    By the way, you mentioned that “while modern Evangelical protestantism may not look a lot like Hebrew polytheism, it carries all kinds of assumptions and mindsets that very specifically rose out of those people in ancient times”. Could you give examples? I’m having trouble thinking of any; but maybe that’s just because of my ignorance of ancient polytheistic Hebrew practice (and of modern evangelical Christianity, for that matter 🙂 ).


  10. No, I was assuming that statement was true, and thus pulling it out of my ass a little bit.

    you make good points, and have given me a lot to hink about. certainly it’s an issue about which reasonable minds might disagree.


  11. Jeff,
    Thanks – I don’t regret the question at all, I’m a language geek! I see now that my question encoded the assumption that “way” related to travel without picking apart the implications of that. Sloppy thinking on my part.

    Thanks again!


  12. Just my two cents here, but I would argue that polytheistic Judaism was not Judaism at all, but Paganism, a form of religion rejected by Judaism, which itself should date from the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah, since they’re the two kings who got the monotheistic ball rolling. Scholars now suggest that YHWH himself is not a Canaanite God but an God imported out of NW Arabia, and therefore a foreign import. The Polytheistic Jews were actually Canaanites worshipping a Canaanite pantheon. In comes YHWH and his intolerant priesthood and in time, out goes the native Gods and the customs and traditions of the ancestors.

    I’d also argue that though the Protestants thought they were going back to a pure early form of Christianity that they were doomed to failure as original Christianity didn’t exist to be found. Jesus was a Jew, James his brother was a Jew, and his Jerusalem Community (portrayed in Acts) followed Jewish praxis. Gentile Christianity (because there was no Jewish Christianity) was not established or founded, but evolved following the destruction of what some scholars call the “Mother Church” in Jerusalem led by James. The gospels themselves reveal this process as does the book of Acts.

    Obviously, we’ve gotten a bit off the mark here but I wanted to clarify my position in my attempt to support Jeff’s argument. I also agree that these changes can come about much more quickly than linguistic changes. Hezekiah and Josiah instituted anti-Pagan pogroms to eradicate polytheistic belief and practice, as did later kings. Though I have said Gentile Christianity evolved, it did so in a very short period of time. The Gospels were written from c. 70-100 CE and in the space of those thirty years, from Mark to John, the change is astounding. Jesus is pulled out of his Jewish context and turned into a Gentile spiritual and universal Messiah. He is depoliticized and even more astounding, becomes a God. I think we’d be hard pressed to find such astounding changes in language in so short a time.


  13. Kullervo and Hrafnkell, thanks for your further comments. Thanks go to you also, Kullervo, for your honest admission, which takes courage in a public forum like this.
    I do want to add, Kullervo, that you make a very good point which I don’t think we’ve addressed here: “And if a modern pagan religion isn’t identical to ancient pagan practice, how is that really different?” I take your point to be: since modern pagan movements are “new” religions, why go to them, if what you’re after are the advantages of older religions? And it is the case that modern pagan movements have much in common with the newer religions, simply because they cannot be entirely reconstructed.

    There is a good answer to your question — a good reason why the modern pagan movements can offer some of the advantages of the older religions, while other newer religions can’t — and it has to do with their structure, and the structure of the human mind. In simplistic terms, older religions fit better with the inherent architecture of the mind, because they’ve had millenia to be molded and adjusted by generations of people. And while modern pagan religions do not have the full character and complexity of their ancient counterparts, they do share the same basic structure — the pantheons, the holidays, the basic rituals, etc. Here, I’m just baldly stating my opinion without backing it up! There’s a lot more to be said, and I said some of it in my Children in Paganism post, and I’ll be saying more about it later.

    And let me say again: even though I do think that pagan/polytheistic religions are a better fit for the basic architecture of the mind, that does not mean that they’re any more “true”. All it means is that they’re easier for children to learn and more intuitive for adults. And again, these are bold statements that deserve to be backed up with evidence in later posts. 🙂


  14. OK, I’ll take that challenge –

    even though I do think that pagan/polytheistic religions are a better fit for the basic architecture of the mind, that does not mean that they’re any more ”true”.

    I disagree; I think that polytheism, in some form, is “better”/”truer” than monotheism, inasmuch as I think it more accurately reflects the nature of divine reality, at least at the level that we can interact with it. (There may well be an ultimate Unity, but even if there is, I believe we can only approach/understand it through its various manifestations, and so for all practical purposes it’s irrelevant.)

    If we don’t think polytheism is superior, then why in the world would we bother practicing it, particularly in Western cultures where it is much easier to be some sort of monotheist?


  15. Erik, I certainly see your point. My view is this: polytheism is superior, but not because it is necessarily closer to “truth”. This was what I was trying to get across in The Search For Truth and Languages of Spirit. If religion really is like language, then it makes no sense to say that a religion is “true”, any more than it makes sense to say that French or Chinese or English is “true”. It is more of a medium than a message. Of course, some media are easier to use, more intuitive, better organized, easier to learn, etc., etc. If the religion = language metaphor holds up, those are the only parameters along which it makes sense to compare religions.

    Of course, if you don’t believe the metaphor, that argument falls apart. 🙂 But then you have to explain why so many people can have valid, strong, undeniably beneficial religious experiences from religions that claim vastly different things. (Or you have to claim that, in fact, people who don’t believe as you do don’t have religious experiences that are as valid, strong, and undeniably beneficial as yours. I choose to give them the benefit of the doubt… But I could be wrong in doing so.)


  16. Actually, the strength of polytheism is precisely that it *does* explain just that point. I may disagree that the god of the Jews or of the Christians is the *only* god, but that’s just a matter of them claiming more (IMO) than anyone can actually know. I have no reason to assume that their god is not, in fact, a god.

    In fact, one of my reasons for believing that polytheism is correct is precisely *because* I have the testimony of Christians that I personally know and trust telling of their experiences with their god; since the god they know is not one of the ones I know, it actually strengthens my faith.


  17. Erik, you make a strong case. I’ve been ruminating over what you’ve said for hours… I think that many pagans would agree with you, too. And I want to believe you!

    There are a number of things that make me hesitate. I don’t want to go into them all here, since it’s so far from the subject of this post — and it would make a great post on its own! But I’ll mention one.

    Historically, within a single polytheistic culture, the number and names and characteristics of the gods change over time — sometimes merging, sometimes splitting, taking on different roles. There’s (comparative linguistic) evidence, for example, that the Norse god Tiw was once the king of the Norse gods, though that barely shows through in the myths we presently have — according to the myths, Odin was always in charge.

    What happened? Are the myths wrong? Or is the linguistic reconstruction wrong? Or did the ancestors of the Norse just have it mixed up, and Tiw was never really in charge?

    All of these options seem very unlikely to me. I think that asking these questions is like someone finding out that English calls chairs “chairs” and French calls chairs “chaises”, and then asking, “Well, what’s the real word for chairs?”


  18. Jeff,
    Yes, it would make a good post… I think I may have to actually put something up on my own blog! :/

    I think I see the problem you’re having – let me see if I can answer it. Actually, I see two issues, so I’ll address them separately.

    1. Polytheism as a religious *perspective* does not have to be tied to any particular pantheon, mythology or given set of ideas – for an excellent in-depth exploration of polytheism as a general proposition, I highly recommend John Michael Greer’s book “A World Full of Gods: an inquiry into polytheism”. Polytheism is simply the belief that there are multiple spiritual beings that are worthy of worship. Simple as that.

    2. Mythology is not scripture; it is the record of some people’s experience of their gods, and what they thought about what it meant. For instance, I mainly worship the Hellenic gods; however, I do not believe that everything in Hesiod, Homer, the Homeric Hymns, etc. is literally historically accurate (what I like to call “time travel theology”). Obviously there is *some* historical truth to *some* of it – Schliemann proved that – but that’s not necessarily the important bit. Did Zeus actually impregnate women as a shower of gold, a swan, and so on? Probably not – but there is obviously something important going on there, since there are so many stories about it. In that particular case, I see at least two important truths in those stories – on the sociological level, it plays to the constant Greek obsession with liminality and metamorphosis, and on the religious level, all those stories taken together say something to me about Zeus’ aspect as “Father of Gods and Men”.

    To look at the example you used (as best I can – Scandinavian linguistics is oddly enough not my strong suit 😉 ) – perhaps the Norse experience of their pantheon changed, perhaps once Tyr was in charge and there was some sort of revolution – or perhaps (I’ve seen this speculation before, I’m sure Bernulf or Hrafnkell can speak to it better than I) the prominence given to the All-Father is more a product of later Christian redaction of the old material. It seems to me I read somewhere that based on archeological finds, Thor was much more popular among the common folk than Odin…

    Anyway, I hope that helps clarify where I’m coming from. Thanks for a great discussion!


  19. Thank you, Eric! That was very clear. I do hope that Bernulf or Hrafnkell will comment here — I may send them an email and ask them to! 🙂 I’m pretty sure that Bernulf shares your point of view on this, and I’d love to hear him speak to the various permutations of the Germanic pantheon. I think I’ve read about the rising popularity of Thor, as well, especially towards the end of the pagan period.

    I’m pretty sure that Odin rose to prominence over Tyr prior to there being much contact with Christianity. Tyr (old name Tiwaz, I think) is cognate with Zeus and other names of king-gods in other Indo-European languages, so it is likely, but not proven, that he was considered the king of the gods. (This is all rather poorly and confusedly explained in the Wikipedia article.)

    And thanks for so gently putting me right about Tyr’s name, by the way. I see I’ve gotten the Norse mixed up with one of the Old English names. 🙂


  20. I really like the analogy of language. It is a much different approach than the ‘right or wrong’ approach. Having been raised with the mentality that the purpose of religion (in my case, Christianity) was to be right, it’s a bit more than my gray matter can handle at this time.

    How exactly does one change their religion, though. After deciding which one is ‘right’ for you, what is the next step to actually believing and following the religion?


  21. I don’t think anyone can just *decide* what to believe and then set out to believe it. For instance, I didn’t wake up one morning and say “I think I’ll reject Christianity and become a pagan today!”… 😉

    Ideally, the process involves a lot of soul-searching – before you can truly commit to a religion you have to understand what it is you actually believe, and (as far as possible) why.


  22. Some people say they chose their religion because they liked it. I’ve never understood those people.


  23. Of course, in a case like that you really have to evaluate those statements on a case-by-case basis – it’s possible that “because I like it” is code for “it resonates with my understanding of How Things Are”… and it’s also possible that the person really is that shallow *g*


  24. David and Erik, — it is difficult to change your beliefs. It’s not as easy as simply deciding what to believe. One’s logical mind can decide that proposition X (or a set of propositions, in the case of religion) is true, but that doesn’t mean that your whole mind automatically goes along with the decision. What you’ll find is that weeks or months after you’ve decided you believe something, you realize that you’re still automatically thinking and acting as though you were stuck in your old belief. (At least, that’s my experience.)

    For example, last summer I decided to try believing in Steve Pavlina’s version of subjective reality. For a couple of weeks of struggle, nothing really happened. Then one day, while I was at work, something somewhere clicked, and I felt as though I was waking up, and suddenly all the colors were brighter and the world was alive around me. My brain had finally internalized the idea that I wasn’t a physical being in a physical world, but a spiritual being creating a world of color and life. It only lasted a few seconds, but over the next few weeks I managed to get the belief back more and more frequently.

    After a while, I decided that subjective reality wasn’t for me; but it was a great learning experience.


  25. Jeff,
    Exactly! I’ve been actively involved in the Hellenic polytheist and Druid communities for a few years now, but it’s only in the last year or so that I see that the things that I hold consciously to be true are taking root in my subconscious and actually changing the way I think and react and process the world.


  26. Oh, and I forgot to add – I started a new blog!
    Not much up yet, but I have several posts in the pipeline…


  27. “David and Erik, — it is difficult to change your beliefs. It’s not as easy as simply deciding what to believe. One’s logical mind can decide that proposition X (or a set of propositions, in the case of religion) is true, but that doesn’t mean that your whole mind automatically goes along with the decision. What you’ll find is that weeks or months after you’ve decided you believe something, you realize that you’re still automatically thinking and acting as though you were stuck in your old belief. (At least, that’s my experience.)”

    Amen. This is pretty much exactly what I am dealing with right now.


  28. How to Choose a Religion VIII: Old Religions, New Religions…

    Linguist and druid Jeff Lilly gets down to the nitty gritty and explains the intricate differences between new religions and old religions – all so that we may realise that the religion was subscribe to is ultimately a CHOICE.

    Masterful writing….


  29. […] I’ve discussed at some length elsewhere, there are two basic kinds of religions (with a continuum between them): old religions and new […]


  30. […] elsewhere, not all languages are the same, and not all religions are the same. For example, in this earlier post, I tried to motivate a distinction between older, organic religions and newer, revealed religions. […]


  31. […] How to Choose a Religion VIII: Old Religions, New Religions […]


  32. […] How to Choose a Religion VIII: Old Religions, New Religions […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: