Return of the Gods: a revamped response to Palmqvist

Carl-Johan Palmqvist’s 2022 ‘The old gods as a live possibility: on the rational feasibility of non-doxastic paganism’ has opened the doors for today’s philosophers of religion to research and consider polytheism—the belief in many Gods or Goddesses. But the start of any conversation will be marked by distinctions, caution and refinement. In that vein, I aim to interact with Palmqvist’s proposal and evaluation of polytheism as well as to submit and consider an alternative theory of polytheism provided by the ancient Platonists. It will be found that the ground is ripe for philosophical work on Palmqvist’s proposal, and that there is an entire polytheist system of thought is available to philosophers of religion.

Every now and then, philosophers will publish the odd argument on polytheism. For example, Harwood explored ‘Polytheism, Pantheism, and the Ontological Argument’ in 1999. Eric Steinhart proposed ordinal polytheism twice between 2012 and 2013, insisting that it merits serious study. 2017 saw Raphael Lataster and Herman Philipse publish ‘The problem of polytheisms: a serious challenge to theism’. And of course, there are the occasional references to polytheism as a position, but which do not have it as their focus – e.g., Swinburne, 145-47; Oppy, 2-4 – or the indirect or implicit treatments of polytheism, such as in arguments for monotheism – e.g., Gel 2021, 2022. Finally, there are perhaps surprising examples of polytheists, such as David Lewis or William James.

But the times may be changing, if Carl-Johan Palmqvist’s 2022 ‘The old gods as a live possibility: on the rational feasibility of non-doxastic paganism’ can be taken as a step in a new direction. He seems to have become one of the first contemporary analytic thinkers to explicitly inquire after the rationality of polytheism in a systematic way. He does so by seeking to approximate an overall evaluation of polytheism as an explanatory competitor with the likes of Perfect Being Theism.

I say that Palmqvist may have taken a step in the direction of treating polytheism like a reasonable worldview option because his evaluations are of the right sort to determine this but come with reservations and assumptions about polytheism that end up threatening to ground the project. In the first section of this paper I hope to call these reservations and assumptions into question and, in so doing, to challenge standard impressions of polytheism, thereby inviting philosophers to join this conversation and reconsider polytheism with the same charity and ingenuity they afford respectable positions.

We will begin by looking at an apparent asymmetry between polytheism and theism that perhaps explains why today’s philosophers tend to be dismissive of polytheism. This asymmetry is one of the major assumptions taken for granted in Palmqvist (2022), and it is hoped that by bringing it under scrutiny, any other proposed inequalities between polytheism and theism will not go unchallenged and thinkers will be encouraged to treat polytheism more creatively and critically. We will then move on in the second section to consider Palmqvist’s appraisal of polytheism and find that polytheism has been underestimated in relation to three data points: propositional simplicity, cosmic teleology and evil.

As we interact with Palmqvist’s formulation of polytheism, we will compare and contrast it with an alternative theory of polytheism; one proposed by the polytheism of the ancient Platonists. This system comprises a radical and sophisticated articulation of polytheism that could be of great interest not only to philosophers of religion in general but the participants of this discussion in particular. It is hoped that by raising awareness of such informed polytheist worldviews that philosophers will be intrigued to engage polytheism once again. It is, after all, one of the most ancient and widespread religious orientations on the planet.


Palmqvist prefaces his appraisal of what he calls pagan polytheism by saying that “the rationality of all religion is standardly questioned in the contemporary West,” (1) and this is certainly true. It is also true of a deference to reason that it permits and indeed encourages all positions on religious propositions to be subjected to reason. In this spirit, let us consider Palmqvist’s arguments carefully and perhaps advance this discussion by questioning various assumptions they take for granted.

The most important of these assumptions for our purposes is that pagan polytheism does not appear rational. This impression might change if the position is modified to conform to some Western model or standard, but without any modifications, it just does not look reasonable. As Palmqvist (ibid.) puts it, “being a pagan seems more questionable than being, for example, a Christian or a Muslim.” Pagans reading a statement like that may want to know why. But he does not say. Instead, he identifies some of the beliefs that strike him as incredulous: “outright belief that the Aesir gods literally exist, that there are extra-mundane realms like Valhalla, that one can work magic with runes, etc.” Polytheism, for Palmqvist, seems hard to believe; so much so, apparently, that this impression is taken as normative. Indeed, were polytheism not of such an appearance, there would be little reason to ask whether it is “possible” for it to stay “true to the demands of epistemic rationality.” Consider asking this question of any other view whose rationality is unquestioned.

But should the prima facie rationality of polytheism seem unclear or even lacking? Palmqvist tells us that paganism “has received little attention from philosophers,” and that “there is considerable disagreement over the term ‘paganism’,” (2). However, if ‘paganism’ is so ill-defined, and has not yet been considered carefully by the philosophical community, then is it not hasty to take a dismissive attitude toward it as having been established, or at least as being secure enough to require no motivation? Alternatively, it may be thought the reason why it has received so little attention is because it has rightfully been dismissed. However, if there was never substantive engagement, one may wonder in what sense its dismissal can be ‘rightful’.

To illustrate why it is problematic to propose such an attitude without argument, consider first the examples of pagan beliefs that Palmqvist identified above as incredulous. Now imagine that he had instead listed either of the following beliefs as prima facie dubious:

  • “outright belief that the Judeo-Christian god literally exists, that there are extra-mundane realms like Heaven, that one can facilitate the transubstantiation of bread into Jesus’ body by reciting a formula, etc.”
  • “outright belief that Nature is the sort of thing that could be explanatorily ultimate, that personal being could arise out of pure, mindless matter, that life has meaning in a meaningless universe, etc.”

For some unobvious reason, these latter lists of beliefs (or any preferred version which meets the intent) are presumably more palatable than the polytheist list. But why is this not a clear instance of special pleading or a double standard? It is as if monotheism and atheism suddenly become absolved of having mysterious or problematic implications, or as if their difficulties are reflexively thought to pale in comparison to those of polytheism’s. Perhaps it is thought that there are sophisticated explanations available to established forms of Western non-theism and theism, but that none are known to be available to polytheism. Palmqvist’s above usage of phrases like ‘literally exist’ seems to support this interpretation. It indicates that there is something unbelievable on the surface about such things as Aesir Gods: surely, they could not really be as they are literally depicted.

But is it part of pagan polytheism to take depictions of pagan deities and afterlives as normatively literal? Palmqvist assumes that outright belief in paganism involves something like mythic literalism: things are or would be as a literal interpretation of their mythic depictions portray them to be. Whatever a deity or an after-life are mythically depicted like, that is how they are or would literally be, if they were at all. But where does this restriction come from, and why is it not applied to, say, Christianity, Judaism or Islam? Indeed, is it not strange to read mythic literature like it is historiography? Moreover, if monotheists are permitted to interpret their respective sacred texts in non-literal ways, especially when the literary genre is explicitly mythical or otherwise non-literal, why would polytheists be forbidden from doing so? This problem only intensifies when it is realized that pagan thinkers have long discussed the hermeneutics of myth. (See Sallustius (2013), Olympiodorus (1998), and Butler (2005)b). Finally, it may be wondered whether and if so why it is assumed that texts carry as much weight for pagans as they do for, say, Christians.

Unfortunately, glaring examples of special pleading continue. For example, Palmqvist goes on to ask, “If Zeus literally exists, how come only the ancient Greeks knew about him, and what has Zeus been doing since the Greeks converted to Christianity?” (6). But by this logic we can equally well ask what was YHWH doing before the Hebraic peoples, or before the Greeks converted to Christianity? What about Allah? And what have either been doing since the rise of secularism? That such readily available parodies do not even occur is perhaps an indication of how uncritically today’s evaluation of polytheism has been accepted.

As another illustration of why it is problematic to dismiss paganism, consider beliefs proposed by different religions. Is a plurality of divine persons somehow more palatable than a plurality of Gods? Are Trinitarian analyses more sophisticated than Polycentric analyses? Is it that reincarnation is bizarre, but resurrection is not? Is it that religious rituals are only respectable when conducted in a monotheist framework, no matter what miraculous or extraordinary events they purport to involve, so long as they are not called “magic?” Whatever the specifics turn out to be, it is imperative that no bias goes unquestioned, especially if that bias embodies any form of imperialism. For example, suppose, as it may have struck the reader, that the idea is something like that religious traditions and practices which do not conform to Western norms are primitive, unsophisticated or in need of refinement. Given how the implementation of this idea could involve such things as erasure, appropriation and confirmation bias, it is important to hold its acceptance to a very high standard.

The history of philosophy has taught us that getting to the bottom of things and coming to understand how they truly work is as difficult as it is complex, and that such a task is informed at the deepest level by philosophical assumptions whose rationality is only ever just an unforeseen insight away. In other words, the cautionary tale here is that the capacity of a set of philosophical assumptions to cohere on their own or fairly appear realistic to sophisticated minds is something that is best evaluated after careful study. Has polytheism not been afforded this opportunity?

Without a presumption against paganism around to contextualize the discussion, the issue is no longer whether one of the oldest and most widespread religious positions in the world awaits the verdict of some of today’s Western thinkers – a role I doubt many would even presume to have. Instead, Western thinkers are free to treat pagan positions with the same care and depth that they treat non-pagan religious positions, which treatments have and continue to yield flourishing discussions. In fact, given how far paganism sometimes lies outside the reigning paradigms of today’s philosophy of religion, it can be of great interest to Western philosophers to study, as it can be a source of novelty, creativity, and renewal on otherwise well-trodden paths.

To take stock so far, we have highlighted some of the assumptions that may influence thinkers to be more dismissive of paganism than they would otherwise be. Chief among these assumptions is that paganism is to be understood in such a way that it is prima facie unreasonable, such as by committing it to mythic literalism. By questioning why this assumption is held, why it is advanced without reason, and why it cannot be overcome by the same well-known mechanisms that monotheists use to address similar accusations, I hope it is at least no longer obvious to the reader that paganism is unreasonable in some prima facie way that monotheist faiths are not. Palmqvist himself advocates for abandoning mythic literalism: “I suggest that rather than taking these pantheons literally, we should understand them as culturally specific ways to apprehend and relate to the same gods,” (6).

But practicing polytheists may be confused why this is being suggested, since it implies that mythic literalism is a problem of enough significance to need solving. To illustrate this by analogy, imagine that a pagan author published a paper in which it was discussed how irrational Judaism seems because its mythic depictions of YWHW seem literal; but, she goes on to suggest, there is a solution: we simply need not take Jewish myths so literally.

As a final note before moving on, while I have thus far responded to unfavorable biases against polytheism by drawing parity between polytheism and monotheism, I should clarify that polytheists are not limited to the explanatory mechanisms available to monotheists—such as allegorizing stories. There are unique theoretical ideas, such as from the Platonic proposal I will outline in short, that available to the polytheist and which preclude such issues from ever arising. That is, as I shall allude in the next section, polytheism does not end up in the same places that monotheism does, and when it does, it has unique solutions. If it is the reader’s impression that polytheism is just another variety of theism like monotheism, I hope to challenge that that by the end of this paper. The truth-value of polytheism is not a matter of niche interest, overshadowed by the importance of theism as such, so that while it may get acknowledged as a live alternative to monotheism, the difference between the two is thought to be little more than a technical disagreement about math: it is a disagreement about so much more than just how many Gods there are. Or so I hope to suggest as we move along.

The presumption against paganism seems advanced without argument and upon blatantly fallacious pretenses. Unless there is some forthcoming reason to think there is an asymmetry in rational appearance between polytheism and theism, or indeed monotheism, it should not be assumed that there is one. Or, at least, that assumption on one’s part should not be taken as normative for others. After questioning the integrity of this presumption here in light of what else is accepted in today’s religious landscape and finding no initial or obvious reason to endorse it, we shall set it aside and consider the merits of the rest of Palmqvist’s paper without its support. Keeping these things in mind, let us consider Palmqvist’s evaluation of polytheism as a live possibility for explaining things.

We shall engage with two types of arguments in Palmqvist’s paper. The first type concerns the internal integrity of polytheism itself. For this type, we need to get clear on what Palmqvist means by polytheism. It is in that section that we shall consider the Platonic alternative. The second type of argument will concern Palmqvist’s evidential evaluation of polytheism. For this type, we need to first think carefully about polytheism’s capacity to account for the relevant data, and second, what notion of divinity paganism is beholden to.


Palmqvist describes a god as “a powerful non-human agent with the ability to influence our world in significant ways,” (4). He then suggests that polytheism affirms a plurality of gods, which he calls a ‘pantheon’. A pantheon, he says, is “an organized collective of gods in control of our world, where individual gods are associated with and in some sense control specific aspects of it,” (5). Finally, he distinguishes between general and specific polytheism. The former asserts merely that a pantheon exists, the latter which specific pantheon exists. His goal in the paper is to raise the question of whether it can be rational to give some weaker epistemic attitude to general polytheism than belief.

For clarity, then, Palmqvist proposes the following as the polytheist hypothesis:

POLYTHEISM: There is an organized collective of gods, or powerful non-human agent with the ability to influence our world in significant ways, who are in control of our world, where individual gods are associated with and in some sense control specific aspects of it.

Some interesting features of this proposal include the notion of ‘organization’ and ‘control’. We might wonder why it is important to there being many Gods that they should be organized, and in what sense they should be so. Moreover, what is it for them to “control our world?” Is this control a general sort of governance of major events, or is it a more radical one-to-one causal relation of every event? How important is it to there being many Gods that they should be in control of our world?

So stated the polytheist hypothesis can be interpreted in different ways enabling it to capture strains of polytheist thought. However, inasmuch as it limits or reduces Gods in such ways as having only local domains or influence, it could oppose the conception of polytheism developed by the ancient Platonists, maturing in late antiquity through thinkers such as Syrianus, Iamblichus, Proclus, Damascius and Olympiodorus. It is far outside the scope of this paper to develop this view, especially since it has received extensive treatments elsewhere, and so the interested reader is referred to Butler (2003, 2005a, 2008, 2016, etc.), as well as a more analytic adaptation by Dillon (2022).

However, given the understudied nature of polytheism, and so the likely unfamiliarity with this view, it is wise to outline in briefest form some of the important assumptions behind this view. For all that, much will need to be taken for granted, and so we shall attempt to be as prudent in our selectivity as we can. Following Butler (2003, 53-60), we may call this view polycentric polytheism.

Premised on the idea that each God is an ultimate individual, or the first principle of all things—what Platonists called ‘the One’, or ‘One-ness’, “each of the Gods is nothing other than the One as participated,” (Proclus, in Parm. 6.1069. 5-6)—the Platonists did not think of a God’s localization as being due to any limitation or finitude on her part; but, if anything, as a testament to the depth and extension of her causality or presence. Theirs is a constitutive model of the first principle, on which each God is able to principiate all things, not by contradictorily standing outside this exhaustive set as its cause, by being it. As Proclus said, “each of the gods is the universe in his own different way,” (in Tim. 2.38.4-5). That is, a God is able to individuate all things by being that by participation in which each thing has its identity, or is the one, countable, individuated thing that it is. A God’s character functions as a sort of ‘form’ of Self for each self.

Polycentricity describes how a plurality of Gods would need to be structured. Unlike the monocentric plurality of non-divine or natural things, wherein the unity of a group is mediated through or based on some property or feature the members all have in common, a plurality of Gods could not be unified by or grounded in anything outside of it. Otherwise, something would be more fundamental than the Gods, thus individuating them and it would be divine rather than they. As such, Gods require a different structure and logic, one in which each God has equal claim to being what unifies the members into a plurality. In other words, each God must be a unique way of being all the others. The center of this plurality, then, will not be one (mono) thing, but any or each of them (poly).

This alternate view of the Gods may be captured as follows:

POLYTHEISM*: There are many Gods, or ultimate individuals, each of whom functions as a unique way for all things to be one.

To keep these views distinct, we shall call Palmqvist’s proposal ‘P1’ and the Platonic conception ‘P2’.

The internal integrity of polytheism

With this extremely abbreviated outline, let us consider a problem Palmqvist raises for the internal integrity of polytheism: the intra-polytheist problem of religious diversity. Palmqvist asserts that polytheists need to “handle” the existence of other pantheons in other cultures. “If the gods are real,” he asks, “how come other cultures worship other gods?” (5). Immediately, one might wonder by the same logic how come cultures worship different Gods if there is really only one? Indeed, if there are exactly three persons in one God, it should be equally puzzling why cultures do not reflect an awareness of this at all. But despite this apparent symmetry, the problem is described as a ‘polytheist’ problem. Palmqvist reasons that there are two ways to handle this problem: either say there is only one pantheon or say there are many. This latter view is called the ‘ecumenical solution’, and in response, he asks us first to account for why the worship of a pantheon rises and falls with culture, and second, how Gods can personify the same forces of nature and still be distinct. Let us consider each in turn.

The tides of worship

It is initially unclear how we have arrived at this question from P1. Indeed, if Gods are by definition “associated with and in some sense control specific aspects” of the world, it seems we should expect localization. So, to be clear, Palmqvist is no longer thinking of polytheism in the general terms of P1 but wants to consider whether specific pantheons can exist simultaneously. The concern is thus how multiple specific pantheons can exist if the worship of specific gods comes and goes with cultures. P1 thus seems to have no explanatory relevance over this datum. The specific sort of localization involved here would not be predicted through philosophy for the Platonists but would be a revelation or manifestation of God. Still, P2 predicts general localization of which this is an instance in that all things on every level of specificity are participations of Gods.

Suppose a more appropriately specified version of P1 though. It seems that, for Palmqvist, a correlation between the rise and fall of worship with the rise and fall of a culture is relevant to whether multiple pantheons exist. But a more obvious question is whether such a correlation indicates anything about a God’s presence or character. Consider by analogy that it is not the existence of people that becomes unclear when their relationships come and go, but other things such as their presence or character. Nevertheless, let us consider the question of existence.

As a soft ball, suppose the idea is that if specific Gods exist, then they will be worshipped at all times by someone or other. This is of course bad news for monotheism. But why is it the mere existence of a god that should lead us to expect her to manifest or be worshipped, let alone for a specific amount of time, rather than, say, her character? Moreover, if her mere existence should do so, then for what amount of time? And is the amount of time she has manifested so far, a representative sample of the amount of time she will be manifested in total? It does not seem such information will be forthcoming from the mere fact of existence.

 More seriously, perhaps the idea is instead that if our awareness of a specific God comes through a culture, then we need to evaluate the reliability of that source: did the culture invent the deity, or discover her? Furthermore, if the deity were invented, we would expect that no one else be aware of her except through her originating culture. So, it might be thought that if awareness and worship of a deity correlate with a culture, then she is likely invented. But without any consideration of alternative explanations, this would be to commit the prosecutor’s fallacy: if some hypothesis h is unlikely given evidence e, then e is unlikely given h. In this case, if cultural correlation is unlikely given a deity, then that deity is unlikely given cultural correlation. The fallacy assumes a sort of biconditionality between P(h|e) and P(e|h). What is missing is a consideration of ~h, its relation to e and a comparison of the two hypotheses’ performances.

Alternatives for P1 can begin to appear by asking how do we know that a deity disappears, so to speak, once its worship in a culture ceases? Could it not change name, face, or cosmic significance? Do later religious experiences of that deity counterbalance dissolution of its culture? Indeed, if later religious experiences occur or are possible, then could not that deity’s worship return? Perhaps the originating culture was appropriately disposed to catch sight of that deity, like how certain advances in technology have given us windows into aspects of nature that have always been there? And aside from these and many other such questions, there is the problem of analogy: we think that people cease to be loved when their loving relationships end, not that they cease to exist.

As may be gathered from this section, there is much room for speculation, and the ground is ripe for work. What P1 needs is theory of polytheism. By contrast, P2 makes sense of the ‘ecumenical solution’ and leads us to expect general localization.

Causal overdetermination

In the next concern for the internal integrity of polytheism, Palmqvist asserts that Gods personify natural forces, and wonders whether multiple personifications overdetermine natural forces. But this thesis conceals at least two unmotivated assumptions: first, that Gods personify natural forces, and second that for a God to personify a natural force is for her to be responsible for every instance or occurrence of that force. As to the first assumption, the personification thesis does not seem to follow from P1, and Palmqvist does not explain why he asserts it. However, suppose for the moment that Gods do so personify. Then, as to the second assumption, we may ask why think of each God as personifying each instance or occurrence of the relevant natural phenomena rather than just the phenomena in general? Would this generality not be more amenable to a generalized polytheism? Moreover, doing so allows that there are ‘types’ of Gods. Membership in such a set as ‘Gods of thunder’ could then be indicative of a common species or subspecies. It need not in this case be that each God has sole and complete control over a single force of nature, such that the effect becomes causally overdetermined.

By contrast, P2 reverses this picture: Gods do not personify natural forces, natural forces symbolize Gods. Moreover, because it is presumed that there are irreducibly distinct ways for ones to be ‘one’, each God is able to have equal claim to causing or individuating all things without risk of causal overdetermination: there is, say, the Poseidonic way of being one, the Odinic way, and so on and so forth. It seems, then, not only that P2 coheres with the data of different Gods being associated with the same natural phenomena but leads us to expect overlap.

Having clarified Palmqvist’s understanding of polytheism, as well as having considered various concerns about the internal integrity of polytheism and ways for there to be many Gods over the same natural force, we can now move on to look at his second type of argument: an overall evidential evaluation of polytheism.

An Evidential Evaluation of Polytheism

Palmqvist acknowledges that it is “a huge endeavour” to assess the probability of polytheism since this assessment will be “in relation to all available evidence,” (4). So, to emphasize, he is offering us an initial approximation by briefly comparing polytheism’s explanatory performance to that of Perfect Being Theism. As such, we should think collaboratively about the project, and seek solutions to whatever problems that may be discovered. Palmqvist considers polytheism in relation to three data points: theoretical simplicity, teleology and evil. He ends with a discussion about an immanent view of divinity advocated for by pagans.


Palmqvist seems to reason rather summarily that cosmic teleology supports polytheism just as much as Perfect Being Theism. I suspect many will at least seek verification of this. The issue, it seems, is that how well polytheism predicts the data is a matter of how it is articulated. P1 does not provide any information about the relevant God’s characters or motivations. It may turn out that the relevant data is compatible with P1, but to rival Perfect Being Theism (from now on ‘PBT’) in predicting the data, P1 would need reformulation or auxiliary hypotheses. Interestingly, it seems taken for granted that polytheism is not a mere difference in quantity from monotheism, but in quality. Otherwise, P1 would be compatible, at least in principle, with PBT—differing not in the perfection of beings posited, but the number of perfect beings.

However, grant that P1 is at least uncommitted to the quality of beings it posits. Would it be more predictive with an evenly distributed moral quality, such as if each God in the pantheon is attributed ‘benevolence’, or instead mixed moral distribution, where some deities are benevolent, and others are not? Articulating a general polytheism which rivals PBT in likelihood and or in prior probability is a monumental task. However, I mention it by way of inviting thinkers to contribute to this discussion.

Propositional content aside, Palmqvist (8) informs us in line with Swinburne’s remarks that polytheism is structurally more complex than PBT, but that there are other theoretical virtues to consider when appraising explanatory competitors. But is polytheism more structurally complex than PBT? Superficially, one entity is numerically less than many entities. But, for starters, ‘one’ is also oddly specific. It seems simpler to posit an indefinite amount, unencumbered by risks of specificity.

Swinburne (55) shares some relevant thoughts on this matter. He says that while “hypotheses attributing infinite values of properties to objects are simpler than ones attributing large finite values” … “the preference for the infinite over the large finite applies only to degrees of properties and not to numbers of independent entities.” Granted, he is speaking here of ‘large finite’ amounts rather than small finite amounts such as ‘one’, but his logic seems to apply in both cases: “A finite limitation cries out for an explanation of why there is just that particular limit, in a way that limitlessness does not,” (97).

If there is a reason to posit a specific number of something, then that stipulation will have a justification. The reason offered here is that ‘one’ is the least amount needed to explain our data. But the assumption behind this is that there must be some definite number posited. In that case, we may as well posit only the amount required. Anything more is superfluous, and risky – each new positum is another way we could be wrong. But what if Gods were the sort of things that did not have a determinate upper limit?

For example, in outlining P2, Dillon (38) offers something like the following modus ponens:

  1. If Deity precedes Number, then the amount of Gods is indefinite.
  2. Deity precedes Number.
  3. Therefore, the amount of Gods is indefinite.

Recall that on P2, each God is a unique way of being that in virtue of which any given thing whatsoever is individuated as the one numerically distinct thing that it is. On this view, each God logically precedes everything else, even number which too must derive its identity as ‘number’ from the One. But, if each God precedes number, then it is not any specific number that determines how many Gods there are. As such, on accounts like P2, there is no definite upper limit of Gods, (cf. Syrianus, in Metaph. 914b3-6). But then, in regard to our earlier simplicity considerations, it follows that there is no minimal number of Gods for us to posit. P1 faces simplicity considerations that P2 does not.


On the supposition that Gods have limited powers and different moral dispositions, Palmqvist reasons that polytheism explains the data of evil fairly well. Unlike PBT, polytheism does not leave us with as much puzzlement about why the Gods do not intervene to prevent evil: some cannot, others will not; and those who wish to may be prevented from doing so. It is not clearon P1 that we should expect Gods to be preventing the evil we see, at least, not as clear as it is on PBT. This may be an avenue worth pursuing for the problem of evil experts. The ambiguity such a polytheist model as P1 introduces actually serves to alleviate puzzlement. And this is an important consideration when comparing the explanatory performance of polytheism to other models such as PBT. By contrast, P2 affords something of a paradigm shift in the discussion.

The problems of evil have long centered around why a deity would allow evil, as if (i) Gods are morally responsible entities, and (ii) evil is contingent. But, according to ancient Platonism, contrary to (i) reality is not created by the Gods, it emanates from them (cf. Proclus, in Parm. 1167, 16-18; 1168, 1-5), (ii) evil is an inevitable consequence of materiality, (e.g., Theaet. 176A5-8). The details of these positions and reasons behind them need not delay the discussion. What is important to know is that there is a polytheist model on which not only Gods are too ultimate to be faced with ‘decisions’, but on which evil arises as an inevitable feature of the material world. The phenomenon of evil will then post questions for P1 that simply will not arise for P2.


Palmqvist argues that polytheism has traditionally been beholden to an immanent view of divinity. The problem with this view, Palmqvist reasons, is that it made the Gods too present in nature. But we have in modern times discovered that the world is instead disenchanting. The world is not full of Gods, it is full of matter in motion, and we see this now. This perspective will require P1 to clarify the nature of the Gods so as to give an account of the sense in which they are visible—whether bodily, or by inference from effect, etc. But the immanent view of divinity that comes with polytheism need not be understood in such simple materialist terms. As the Platonist view sketched above may indicate, for example, the Gods are radically immanent precisely because they are utterly transcendent. That is to say, it is by principiating all things that each God is most intrinsically to be thought of as constitutive rather than as causal, as so as being even more radically present to all things than causal models of the first principle are able to allow for.


Palmqvist argues that P1 is a live possibility for rational non-doxastic attitudes in light of a first glance at its explanatory performance in comparison to PBT. I hope other thinkers continue that discussion and delve not only deeper into the specific subjects he raises, but into other areas that can illuminate the discussion as well. I hope also that other models of polytheism are considered, especially those which have already received such sustained criticism as a centuries old school of thought like Platonism. As my scattered remarks may indicate, the Platonist model has novel responses to issues raised in the philosophy of religion and for polytheism. From this brief consideration, it may be inferred that if P1 is a live possibility, then so is P2.

In conclusion, I hope that if nothing else I have made the point that there is an unwarranted bias against polytheism which hampers the philosophy of religion. The bias is that polytheism is to be articulated in uncharitable and implausible ways. This is unwarranted because there is no obvious reason to do this. In fact, treating polytheism in this way involves committing elementary errors in reasoning, such as addressing strawmen and dismissing propositions through double standards. This bias hampers the philosophy of religion first by preventing philosophers from investigating reality with the full force of critical and creative thought they would otherwise exert, as an entire worldview in all its implications is merely dismissed; and second, because of this, by conditioning nearly all their projects and investigations on the unjustified assumption that it was right to dismiss polytheism in the first place. Thus, for example, we see arguments from religious experience being rejected because of religious diversity, when polytheist accounts of religious experience predict religious diversity. Time will tell what the philosophers of religion do, but the door is officially opened.



  • (2003). The Metaphysics of Polytheism in Proclus. New School for Social Research, New York City.
  • (2005)a. Polytheism and Individuality in the Henadic Manifold. Dionysius, 23.83-104.
  • (2005)b. ‘The theological interpretation of myth’. The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, 27-41.
  • (2008). The Gods and Being in Proclus. Dionysius, 26.93-114.
  • (2016). Plotinian Henadology. Kronos Philosophical Journal. V.143-159

DILLON, STEVEN. Polytheism: A Platonic Approach. Moon Books, 2022.

GEL, E. (2022). ‘There can be only one’: A response to Joseph C. Schmid. Religious Studies, 1-16. doi:10.1017/S0034412522000713

HARWOOD, R. (1999). Polytheism, pantheism, and the ontological argument. Religious Studies, 35 (4):477-491.

LATASTER, RAPHAEL & PHILIPSE, HERMAN (2017). The problem of polytheisms: a serious challenge to theism. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 81 (3):233-246.

NOCK, ARTHUR D. Sallustius: Concerning the Gods and the Universe (English and Ancient Greek Edition). Cambridge University Press, 2013.

OPPY, GRAHAM ROBERT. Describing Gods: An Investigation of Divine Attributes. Cambridge University Press, 2014.

PALMQVIST, C. (2022). The old gods as a live possibility: On the rational feasibility of non-doxastic paganism. Religious Studies, 1-14

PLATO, and ROWE, CHRISTOPHER. Theaetetus and Sophist. Cambridge University Press. 2016.


  • Proclus’ Commentary on Plato’s Parmenides. Princeton University Press, 2017.
  • Proclus’ Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus. II. Cambridge University Press, 2008.


  • (2012). On the number of gods. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 72 (2):75-83.
  • (2013). On the plurality of gods. Religious Studies 49 (3):289-312.

SWINBURNE, RICHARD. The Existence of God. Clarendon Press, 2014.

SYRIANUS. Syriani in Metaphysica Commentaria. Edited by Guilelmus Kroll. G. Reimer, 1902.


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