“‘As mortals pour, so do the gods’: A critique of divine reciprocity” by John Halstead (Part 1)

Note: Part 1 of this essay is a critique of one conception of divine reciprocity, where a deity gives material blessings in exchange for devotion.  The second part, which will be published next month, proposes an alternative conception of divine reciprocity, one founded on the idea of the interconnectedness of all things.


I’ve been accused by polytheists of just “not getting it”.  And they’re right.  Setting aside the whole issue of whether or not the gods exist, I don’t just get the idea of divine reciprocity, specifically material reciprocity.  This is the idea that the the gods will grant worshipers material or practical well-being in exchange for something, like worship or offerings or oaths.  This is a foundational idea for many Pagan polytheists, as well as many Christians and other monotheists.  For Christians, the reciprocity seems to usually take the form of good behavior for blessings.  For Pagan polytheists, reciprocity often takes the form of material offerings to the gods, like foodstuffs.  And often this is done in conjunction with and in the expectation of a request for some material or practical blessing.

I was prompted to write this after reading a post some time ago by a well-known Pagan polytheist on the concept of divine reciprocity.  She wrote that, if you are striving to be a good Pagan and your life is “going to crap”, then you must be “doing Paganism wrong”.  But if you are “doing Paganism right”, she writes, your life should be improving.  I can accept this, to a certain extent, if we are talking about spiritual or emotional well-being, as opposed to material well-being.  I do believe that spiritual practice is generally conducive to happiness — a deep sense of inner peace and joy.  But even the most spiritually centered individual will encounter crisis and tragedy.

But that’s not what this particular Pagan polytheist was talking about at all.  She was talking about material well being.  She went on to conclude that her recent financial and residential problems had occurred because she wasn’tt listening to the gods and the gods wanted her to relocate.  So she promptly picked up her stakes and moved across the country.  This attitude is all the more disturbing to me because of how similar it is to Christian discourse, which contemporary Paganism distances itself from in so many other ways. As a Jungian, Neo-Pagan agree that religion (whether theistic or non-theistic) can produce psychological or spiritual well-being.  But what I cannot buy into is this idea that theistic worship produces material well-being.  Here’s why:

FIRST ISSUE: The idea of theistic reciprocity relies on too many assumptions.

The notion that the gods will grant worshipers material well-being assumes certain things:

  1. that deities exist (whatever that means) in some sense independently of you (whatever that means),
  2. that your deity is aware of you,
  3. that your deity cares about you,
  4. that your deity has the power to alter your life circumstances,
  5. that your deity has more power than you alone have to alter your life circumstances,
  6. that your deity will chose to help you under certain circumstances (i.e., in exchange for offerings), and
  7. that your deity’s influence on your life circumstances will be greater than other influences working in the opposite direction.

Even if we take #1 for granted (that your god exists), I just can’t see how you get through the rest of the assumptions.  Even if you have had an experience of a powerful personal presence which you identify as a god, how do you infer the rest of the assumptions from your experience?

SECOND ISSUE: It doesn’t work.

The concept of divine reciprocity should dictate that, on average, theists (including monotheists and polytheists) are better off materially than non-theists (including pantheists, atheists, Buddhists, etc.).  If the gods could grant material or practical well-being, then we should see a noticeable difference in the material quality of life of theists overall, and that’s just not the case — despite the promises of all the peddlers of the prosperity gospel.  The fact that (mostly non-theisticUnitarians are among the wealthiest of religious people and (theistic) Pentecostals are among the poorest is sufficient to me to disprove this thesis.  For every single instance where a person has felt they were materially blessed by their deity, there are probably nine more instances where they have not been blessed — eight of which they have probably forgotten about.

THIRD ISSUE: It all boils down to personal responsibility anyway.

When their deity inevitably fails to bring the promised material blessings with any measure of reliability, then theists (both poly- and mono-) fall back on another assumption, one that I left out of the list above:

8.  If your life circumstances are still unfavorable, then you have done something wrong.

If things don’t work out for the theist, they end up blaming themselves.  They say, they petitioned their god in the wrong way.  Or they weren’t faithful enough to the god’s demands.  Or the bad fortune is a message from the god that they have to change something.  In the end, it’s always the petitioner’s fault — not the god’s — things didn’t go right.  And it’s up to the petitioner to make it good.

Here’s the thing:  I can get to #8 by skipping numbers #1 through #7 entirely.  The theist and the non-theist ultimately arrive at the same place — personal responsibility — but the non-theist does not have to assume the existence of unreliable deities that they have to placate and who will inevitably fail them.

FOURTH ISSUE: It’s regressive.

We all want someone to love us and take care of us.  It’s natural.  We want to be loved unconditionally and taken care of like children.  In brief, we all want a perpetual parent.  And so, if we are Christian, we imagine an invisible father in the sky who loves us and cares about us and watches over us.  If we are polytheists, then we imagine someone a little closer, like an invisible friend, who will love us and watch over us and tell us what to do.  But no matter how I look at it, this arrangement seems infantile and regressive.  While it’s natural, it is also something we should grow out of — not the belief in gods, necessarily, but the desire for them to take care of us.  I understand religion as a product of a desire to connect with something larger than us.  But why do we need that something to care for us?

A Greek pouring libation to the gods

Some Pagan polytheists of the reconstructionist variety might respond that this is what ancient pagans did.  It certainly was.  But why should we imitate it?  Why should we believe or act like people thousands of years ago if what they believed or did was infantile?  As a contemporary (Neo-)Pagan, I believe we should take the best of what our Paleo-Pagan ancestors had to offer and blend it with the best of what we moderns have to offer.  The ancient pagans were not infallible, after all; they were human just like us, and their religions were products of the helpful and the unhelpful, just like ours are today.

What about hope?

I ran all this by my son a few years ago.  (He who was Christian at the time. He’s now atheist.)  I asked him, what the belief in gods gets people if they can’t count on material blessings.  He astutely responded: “Hope.”  I think maybe he’s right.  Maybe theism is all about giving people hope.  Hope, when they feel that their efforts are not enough.  Hope, when the world itself is not enough.  Hope, in spite of everything.

Personally, I prefer Nietzsche’s challenge to live without the hope of this kind of divine reciprocity:

“You will never pray again, never adore again, never again rest in endless trust; you do not permit yourself to stop before any ultimate wisdom, ultimate goodness, ultimate power, while unharnessing your thoughts; you have no perpetual guardian and friend for your seven solitudes; […] there is no avenger for you any more nor any final improver; there is no longer any reason in what happens, no love in what will happen to you; no resting place is open any longer to your heart, where it only needs to find and no longer to seek; you resist any ultimate peace; you will the eternal recurrence of war and peace: man of renunciation, all this you wish to renounce? Who will give you the strength for that? Nobody yet has had this strength!”

— Nietzsche, The Gay Science

In part 2, of this essay, I will propose an alternative understanding of divine reciprocity, one rooted in the notion of the interconnectedness of all things.

The Author

John Halstead

John Halstead is a former Mormon, now eclectic Neo-Pagan with an interest in ritual as an art form, Jungian psychology, ecopsychology, theopoetics, and the idea of death as an act of creation (palingenesis).  He is the author of the blogs, The Allergic Pagan at Patheos and Dreaming the Myth Onward at Pagan Square.  He is also the author of the website Neo-Paganism.org.  John currently serves at the managing editor at HP.

See John Halstead’s other posts.

18 Comments on ““‘As mortals pour, so do the gods’: A critique of divine reciprocity” by John Halstead (Part 1)

  1. I’ve not quite stepped entirely away from the idea of deities — but I am a “polydeist” flavored agnostic. Either all or none of the gods exist, and all of them don’t interfere one way or the other with us! As you can imagine, this ticks off people of almost every spiritual stripe in some manner.
    I think it is the hope thing that makes me step further, not closer, to theism. I find that empty hope is the biggest cause of despair — it alienates worse than anything else.

    I look forward to your next essay!

  2. What can I say but “Right on!” I do indeed agree with everything you’ve laid out here. Of course, since you are offering a critical perspective this could generate some drama. Perhaps some equally strident and well-conceived polemics representing the other side of this issue will be offered. That would be interesting, and I would read them with relish. Because I think this is a crucial and defining issue. Indeed, I often think of my spirituality as one that asks nothing — except of myself, and perhaps my fellow humans. As a rule, I do not ask Mother Earth to do anything. Instead, my focus is on developing and sustaining my sense of gratitude and wonder and participation and ethics and responsibility and interconnectedness. Hm, I’m looking forward to part two as well.

  3. Yep, one of my parents is a pentecostal believer in the prosperity doctrine. Hasn’t made her any more wealthy.

  4. Assumption n°8 reminds me of when France was about to vote for or against allowing gay marriage, and there were a bunch of christians praying they’d vote “no” in Paris. A journalist asked them, “So if they vote ‘yes’, does that mean God is for gay marriage?” and the interviewee said “No, it means we didn’t pray hard enough.”

  5. I agree with pretty much all the major points, except I hesitate when it comes to the “fourth issue.” It seems unnecessarily pejorative, first of all. Second, even if there is a similarity between childhood and adult theist needs for protection, honestly so what? I don’t really see that in itself as a reason not to embrace it. I mean, we all do lots of things that are childlike, from playing videogames to cuddling in a lover’s arms. Personally, I don’t believe in a caring deity, not because it would be infantile to do so, but because I feel it isn’t in line with reality and may come with negative consequences I’m not willing to accept.

    I’m really looking forward to part 2, where you offer a new way to understand reciprocity. Coming as I do from ADF Druidry, which makes reciprocity central, I’ve always had a fondness for the notion but never quite worked out a satisfying naturalistic understanding for it. 🙂

  6. Prosperity theology can’t be understood in terms of individuals. It is a social phenomenon that needs to be examined in the light of race, culture and starting poverty level of social groups. Pentecostals may be among the poorest groups, but how do you know they haven’t all come a long way from where they started, materially, given the racial and cultural profile of the majority of Pentecostals? We need to look at prosperty theology sociologically to make any sense of it.

    • Why shouldn’t we look at it individually. Individuals pray at least as much as groups. And if the benefits are collective rather than individual, then they should be especially easy to see statistically. Numerous studies have shown that nations become wealthier the less religious they are. Eg http://www.cbc.ca/m/news/#!/content/1.1310451

      • Because it’s a sociological issue with sociological complexity. In my opinion (admittedly as a sociologist), you cannot look at religious belief in isolation from social system – *especially* not when you’re talking about economies. And while some studies have linked non-religiosity of countries to wealth, others have not. I recommend this book on the subject, which discusses how complex the socio-economics of the prosperity gospel can be. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Pentecostalism-Prosperity-Socio-Economics-Charismatic-Christianities/dp/0230338283

        • I absolutely agree the causes of wealth is a complex sociological issue. But if there is a connection between prayer and wealth, it must be a subtle one; and there is nothing subtle about the promises theistic religion makes.

      • Further evidence of the success of the prosperity gospel for individuals and communities, economically speaking: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1006/reli.1995.0011#.U80vr7Fn2iU http://uir.unisa.ac.za/handle/10500/5125 And there are many other studies if you’d like me to find them. The point is that this is a very complex topic which needs to be looked at in detail from a socio-economic perspective. You say you want to look at it individually, yet you yourself cited a study about economics and income. As soon as you do that, the issue of society and economy gets broader and much, much more complex. Beyond individuals.

        • Of course there’s also the issue of what causes what. In the case of national wealth and religiosity, it’s not at all clear that religion plays a causal role in keeping wealth down. Rather, most researchers suspect the opposite: that the lower economic situation is what tends to make religion more attractive. In the same vein, it could be that an economically impoverished situation makes the prosperity gospel more appealing, thus bringing down the median income of prosperity gospel followers.

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  8. This post kind of implied that all theists are into the prosperity-gospel-type idea, and all non-theists aren’t. I bet I could find some non-theists who believe in The Secret, or similar.

    I am a polytheist. The other day Bast helped me, so I made offerings to her. Same as if my neighbours feed the cats when I am on holiday, I bring them back something nice from my holiday, like biscuits. It’s not that I said to Bast “if you help me, I will make offerings”; it was that, because she helped me, I wanted to show my appreciation. That’s how reciprocity works; it is about gratitude and mutual obligation, not a crude idea of payback.

    I also think polytheists making offerings to deities is qualitatively different than monotheists assuming the Universe, or the “ruler” of the universe, is interested in them. Seeing as individual deities are finite, it is quite possible that they are interested in other finite beings, same as we are. Whereas the infinite divine wossname would be too big and impersonal; and the ruler of the universe would be too darn busy.

    The other day, I rescued a worm. If it thought anything at all, it probably thought a goddess had reached down to help it. The difference in scale involved is probably about the same as if a large deity helped a human. I think deities are probably qualitatively different from humans, in that they are identities rather than entities, but they have personalities. Some are more local than others, and some are more diffuse.

    • Yewtree, thanks for bringing up these issues. There is a nuance to polytheistic worship that I glossed over in the essay.

      It’s interesting that you described offerings as expressions of gratitude. If there is no expression of gratitude, I assume that the gifts would not continue. Is that right?

      Can you explain what the difference is between an identity, and entity, and personality?

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