A recent question from a student: Can someone be devoted to multiple religions?

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kkirner

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I teach a course in the Anthropology of Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion, and at the end of the semester, I offer an online discussion forum in which students can "Ask me anything about religion." I get a lot of questions about my own religious background, beliefs, and practices as well as very good broader questions, often from young people trying to sort out their own sense of religiosity and spirituality. One question came up from a student that several polytheist practitioners thought might be good to post here for discussion: "Can someone be devoted to multiple religions at once?"

The answer is complex: yes, maybe, but...

Many people in Eastern religions are affiliated with multiple religions. Taoism + Confucianism. Shinto + Buddhism. Eastern religions aren't mutually exclusive. However, most lay practitioners do not deeply study or practice; they are supported by and support priest or monastic practitioners. Those who deeply practice, usually do so only in one. A Tibetan Buddhist monk will ask for assistance from a traditional shaman if they're concerned about appeasing the demons in the mountains. They don't try to become a traditional shaman on top of being a monk. Buddhist monks and nuns and Shinto priests work in tandem for different purposes in Japan; they don't fulfill the same functions. The Eastern religions work quite well with polytheism (some of them, like Taoism and Hinduism, are polytheist) -- and I know a lot of Buddhist + Western Polytheist hybrids, but... more on the constraints in a moment.

In the Western religions, belonging to more than one religion at once is usually (though not always) viewed as heresy. Characterized much more by devotion to one god, to specific rules of conduct (at least for Jews and Muslims), and by orthodoxy (among mostly Christians and Muslims), being polytheist is generally considered antithetical to these monotheist traditions. Some folks make it work.  There are Quaker + Pagans and Christian + Druids and Jewish + Witches, but most of the people I know who have done these hybrids find themselves rejected by their Western religious community if they're open about it and/or struggle a lot over time to maintain monotheism if they join Pagan or polytheist community.

And...

The biggest problem, as I explained it to the student, is time. We have limited time. So if someone wants to practice many religions relatively shallowly without much study, then it can work to be highly eclectic (but please, for the love of the gods, I beg you as a cultural anthropologist -- watch for cultural appropriation). If someone wants to practice several religions more seriously, but as a lay person, it can work to blend a couple of them. But it can generate a lot of time investment and some serious challenges for scheduling. Do you put Christmas first or Solstice? Ostara or Passover?

Practicing multiple religions as a priest or monastic can be very difficult, if you're looking for deep study and experience. I've managed to extensively study Christianity, Buddhism, and Druidry, but it's my profession so I get a lot of time to do it. I nearly double-majored in religious studies and became an anthropologist of religion. And I still consider myself fairly weak in all three compared to those I know who have focused only on one for the last 20 years. At this point, my goal is to go deeper into Druidry and animism. I will retain the Buddhist practices that inform my current religious practice, and I will always have a toe in the door of Christianity to support my wife, who is a progressive/radical Christian. However, my focus is on  Celtic spirituality, Druidry, and Celtic animism to deepen my practice. My one thing I hope to add is studying Sami religion, as it connects to my heritage in ways I'm feeling called by ancestors to explore.

So... yes, we can devote ourselves to multiple religions, but... in almost all cross-religious contexts, we find limitations of time (even the full-time priests and monks/nuns of other religions find they have limitations of time).  So the deeper we want to go, generally speaking, we give up breadth.
"The three foundations of spirituality: Hearth as altar; Work as worship; and service as sacrament."
~ Irish Triad

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James Miller

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The folklorist seconds this post. Its about depth.

I get questions like that from my students when we go over belief and vernacular religion.  We cant help put practice a sort of blend, especially if we consider the secular rituals etc we are also a part. I have a similar mix of background (of which I am seeing a bit of a pattern) Christianity, Buddhism, and Paganism. My wife is still EOC (Eastern Orthodox) and her spiritual Father (Priest) sees Buddhism as a sort of psychology so it is a major influence without him seeing it as an issue for his monotheism. (common in EOC ). With the wife in the EOC I will always be a part of that in some way- I will have to admit that it has influenced my understanding of liturgy, ancestors, and monastic life.

Buddhism never asked me to give up another religion but it does ask a lot of time and mental space. SO it is definitely something that shapes my practice but is no longer core- as you said I would end up spread too thin. Although there are folks who are priests as Zen teachers.  This all has to do with how much you are going to put into each.

As you allude to, even the most compatible religions will have distinctions that limit ones ability to be in both with the same depth. In  different areas or situation one or the other will win out (unless a third option is chosen) or one will be adapted.

I will say aspects of another religion or even large parts can help open up ones own/main faith esp if there is some resonance or overlap. The EOC relationship with Buddhism is a good example. Buddhism has  some ideas that are loosly shared and it fills a sort of void-  for the EOC Buddhism a contemporary yet compatible spiritual psychology and more formulated meditation practice.  The EOC has meditative practices however due to some issues they are not as accessible in the US or "west". This relation is not so accepted by the 'powers that be' but  the vernacular practice of working with Buddhist thought persists.

While  this is not intensive practice in both it is an interesting way in which having ones feet in both creates more depth than being in the one. That is to say that I agree that being on a couple or few religions and trying to practice them both (all) deeply will thin things out- we can and do find ways to also find depth in our more syncratic activity.

I also second the warning in relation to cultural appropriation.

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kkirner

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While  this is not intensive practice in both it is an interesting way in which having ones feet in both creates more depth than being in the one. That is to say that I agree that being on a couple or few religions and trying to practice them both (all) deeply will thin things out- we can and do find ways to also find depth in our more syncratic activity.

I entirely agree. I think that my Druidic practice has been very effectively deepened through Buddhist sitting meditation, and learning about Buddhist principles and monastic life has informed the way I conceptualize my own lay monasticism and work in the world, since some of the monks I have met worked as educators in their communities or worked on social and environmental justice issues. I resonate more with this type of monastic model for my own vocation than cloistered nuns and monks. Sometimes the syncretism can deepen both, but I find these are usually very specific cases, and generally speaking, it is still a bit one-sided (i.e., one religion deepens primary practice in another, but not necessarily both evenly).

Thanks for your reply; this was very helpful to hear how someone else addresses this question in similar circumstances.
"The three foundations of spirituality: Hearth as altar; Work as worship; and service as sacrament."
~ Irish Triad

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barefootwisdom

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I definitely agree about the depth vs. breadth point, in anything to do with spiritual life (or intellectual life, or frankly, pretty much any part of life).  I think this point applies even within what we might think of as a single religion, as with the trade-off between a deep and intense devotional relationship with a single patron deity, vs. a series of more shallow interactions even with a bunch of Gods in "the same pantheon."

As Kimberly alludes, even deep, serious study of different religious (or philosophical) traditions simply takes an immense amount of time and energy.  Though it's by no means the only reason, this is one of the reasons I'm getting out of academic life this summer: so that I have not merely the time, but also the mental energy, to go deeper into the study and practice of my own traditions, through immersing myself in them as fully and consistently as I can.

I would suggest that it's not about "eastern" vs. "western" religions, but rather, it's uniquely an obsession of monotheism that different religions should be in conflict at all.  Within most polytheist and indigenous worldviews, there's a built-in and natural openness and expansiveness.  When we take there to be a large but indeterminate number of deities, there's no threat from acknowledging a few more.  Consider the way that so many indigenous communities, on their first encounter with European missionaries, were happy to acknowledge Jesus as a God of these foreigners, and even to add him to their group of Gods, but simply could not comprehend why that recognition should entail giving up their own Gods and spirits.  Or (to Kimberly's example) note how in 2017, in Japan, 79.2% of people identified as practitioners of Shinto, and 66.8% identified as practitioners of Buddhism, both of which are deeply and vibrantly polytheist.  Or how the Roman legions enthusiastically adopted the cult of Epona, and were making sacrifices to a Celtic Goddess as far away as the banks of the Euphrates River!

But monotheism by its very nature is required to deny every deity except for one (either directly, or by redescribing all the other deities as "faces" or "aspects" or "different names" for the one).  The moment it failed to do this, it would no longer be "mono."  Thus it is built into monotheism---but not into polytheism---to assume that different religions must be in conflict.  It's for very good reason that the later Greek philosophers refered to monotheists as "atheists", where that term simply meant "someone who denies any God(s)."

Here, James' example of the EOC priest who "sees Buddhism as a sort of psychology" is especially interesting to me.  While I don't know the individuals involved and can't speak with any authority about these specific people, from the outside, this looks like making Buddhism "safe" by turning it into something other than a "religion," since from the monotheist's perspective there is an inherent problem in following more than one religion.  Interestingly, there are more than a few Buddhist teachers who self-describe in this same way; again, I suspect, to make Buddhism look "safe" to monotheists/atheists who would otherwise be allergic to accepting or adopting another religion.

(I should hasten to add, finally, that a fair number of Christians these days do not really seem to be monotheists, in that they do acknowledge the existence of Gods distinct and apart from their own.)

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kkirner

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These are all really good points, and yes, I would agree. There is also a link between monotheism (particularly Christianity and Islam, which seek conversion of the world) and colonialism/oppression that is deeply problematic. I just left an interesting weekend retreat on Celtic Christianity led by John Philip Newell, a priest with the Church of Scotland, and it was intensely interesting because it so reconceptualized what Christianity is, situating Jesus in a worldview that also acknowledges "God" in nature, in saints, and in every human being. Even so, while I can sort of do a mental replacement of "God" with "Divine Mystery" (the sort of Void or Abyss of Creative/Destructive Force, the Ground of All Being, etc.) -- I do not view this kind of entity/force as personal the way the gods or Spirits I Serve are. I am deeply skeptical of deities that humans think are (to my mind) rather greedy and jealous, trying to snap up every human worshiper on earth.

I think this is particularly interesting:
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(I should hasten to add, finally, that a fair number of Christians these days do not really seem to be monotheists, in that they do acknowledge the existence of Gods distinct and apart from their own.)

This is pretty much how my wife and I have a good interfaith marriage. She is Christian, but she acknowledges that there are many gods other than her god. She believes my gods are real entities, and thinks it's fine that I've been called by more than one god, even if she chooses to respond to only her god. This is also how I was raised as a solitary Christian mystic. My mother raised me without Christian doctrine; instead, it was all about experience of "my god" and sorting out what that experience and relationship entailed. I was also raised to access "my god" through contemplative prayer and through nature, so while it was an upbringing that included the Gospel stories and Jesus as a sort of spirit guide, it had none of the oppressive beliefs that standard Protestantism has (hell, belief-tests, jealous gods, etc.). I was raised to view the jealous god described by much of the Bible as a human misinterpretation of the divine based in human fears. Eventually, all efforts to connect to that religious identity sort of faded away and the mysticism and daily, integrated-into-all-parts-of-life personal relationship/devotion remained.
"The three foundations of spirituality: Hearth as altar; Work as worship; and service as sacrament."
~ Irish Triad

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Danica Swanson

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...my wife and I have a good interfaith marriage. She is Christian, but she acknowledges that there are many gods other than her god. She believes my gods are real entities, and thinks it's fine that I've been called by more than one god, even if she chooses to respond to only her god.

This is fascinating, and it makes me wonder how the monastic element works for you in the context of your marriage. Is your wife also a monastic, but in a Christian denomination?

I've received questions from people who wonder if polytheist monks and nuns could combine romantic relationships with their monastic practice. I'm interested in hearing your take on it, particularly since yours is an interfaith marriage.

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kkirner

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This is fascinating, and it makes me wonder how the monastic element works for you in the context of your marriage. Is your wife also a monastic, but in a Christian denomination?

Nope, just me. Though she is highly spiritual and organizes her life around spirituality, for her, this is not structured at all in the way it is for me. In fact, she has severe ADD, so there is really very little structure to any of her life. LOL.

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I've received questions from people who wonder if polytheist monks and nuns could combine romantic relationships with their monastic practice. I'm interested in hearing your take on it, particularly since yours is an interfaith marriage.

I think it can work, but it takes a lot of patience and willingness from the other person to accommodate the monastic's priorities. And a fair bit of patience and willingness from the monastic to ease up on what otherwise would be a much more disciplined life. In short, my wife and I work out because we allow each of us to be highly independent and support one another's spiritual development above a focus on our own relationship. Compared to most couples we know, we spend a lot more time apart doing independent things. Some of this in the home, with a lot of time spent in our own spaces. Some of it is outside the home (I travel 50% time for work and I also go to a number of spiritual retreats every year). Just as she is understanding and supportive of my need for a lot of time alone, pursuing my work and religion, I am understanding and supportive of her needs, especially as an extrovert to go out with friends and be the lay therapist for the world.   ;D  Basically, we view our marriage as a partnership to support one another in our spiritual development and in our respective work in the world, what we might say are our vocations or ministries. And while it's often sub-optimal in terms of discipline and solitude and peace, it's also pushed me and challenged me to grow in ways that I wouldn't have if I had been celibate/single.

I will say, though, this is my second marriage, and the first one totally did not work as I deepened in my religious devotion and discipline. He was often jealous of my time and really needed a more conventional relationship in which the primary focus is the marriage itself. I think it's the difference between having found a marriage that is a partnership with a mission.
"The three foundations of spirituality: Hearth as altar; Work as worship; and service as sacrament."
~ Irish Triad

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Janet Munin

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"Within most polytheist and indigenous worldviews, there's a built-in and natural openness and expansiveness.  When we take there to be a large but indeterminate number of deities, there's no threat from acknowledging a few more."

Thank you, barefootwisdom, for this comment.

I have always been a spiritual journeyer. My path has taken me through many different spiritual orientations - including atheism. Yes, I lack the "depth" of some who have been committed to a single tradition over a long period, but there is a lot of richness and different kinds of depth to be gained from the journey.

At this point I do not use the names of religious traditions to define any part of my spirituality. (I am *not* anti-religious, it's just where I am now.) Instead, I have devotional relationships with multiple deities who belong to different pantheons Who I approach in different ways.

I see this discussion as being similar to that around monogamy and polyamoury. The monogamous look at polyamoury and wonder how someone can achieve depth with anyone if their affections and time are spread around. The polyamorous look at the monogamous and pity them for not knowing the joy of sharing love and intimacy with a variety of wonderful people. Neither group is "right." We're just wired different ways. It's like sexual orientation.

My participating in different traditions and communities, and connecting in meaningful ways with deities from different pantheons, gives me a breadth of experience, language, and references with which to connect with a wider group of people (as well as deities). That's part of my vocation: to be a Link, someone who can demonstrate that different beliefs and practices don't have to divide people, and enables me to translate between different relgious worlds. I couldn't do that as well if I had remained focused on "one religion."

Mileage varies according to our individual callings.
Janet Munin

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kkirner

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That's part of my vocation: to be a Link, someone who can demonstrate that different beliefs and practices don't have to divide people, and enables me to translate between different relgious worlds. I couldn't do that as well if I had remained focused on "one religion."

Mileage varies according to our individual callings.

This is an incredibly helpful insight. It resonates with my own studies of world religions, and what I call my "ministry" in teaching an introductory course in the Anthropology of Religion to about 250 students a year. While I can't practice in all of them and I certainly can't become an adept in more than one due to the demands on me from work, I do find my background broadly trained in cross-religious studies and the time I spent as an interfaith moderator helps me articulate hope for peace across differences to my students.
"The three foundations of spirituality: Hearth as altar; Work as worship; and service as sacrament."
~ Irish Triad

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silencem

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This is a really interesting question. Although any number of religious authority figures (both self-identified and not) have said that one can't - or shouldn't - participate in or identify with multiple religions, people certainly do. Or, at the very least, they may involve themselves with practices that may fall outside the boundaries of tradition as taught by authority figures. Here I'm thinking primarily of the various healing traditions that spring up in Christian communities (and probably others, but I'm not very familiar with them). Practitioners might contextualize these practices within their specific Christian tradition even if the practices aren't really granted clear permission. I saw this sometimes in various Mormon communities and it's well-documented in Catholic communities, too.