Polytheism: Genuine or just trendy?

A couple years ago, I was sitting with a friend when he asked about the ring that I wear on my left middle finger. It is a small silver ring with a St. Christopher emblem set on top. I explained that it is an old Christian tradition in my family to give kids a St. Christopher when they turn sixteen years old. St. Christopher is the patron saint of voyagers. Sixteen is the age when most kids begin to drive, so this tradition has become a protective tradition within my family.

My friend also referred to the Buddha figurine in my room—a figure whose belly I am supposed to rub when I need extra luck. My grandfather who had an interest in Buddhism purchased the figure for me. My friend remarked that it was interesting to note the many ways in which polytheism has manifested itself in modern day society, contrasting the Buddha with my St. Christopher ring. At the time, I thought it was a strange comment. I had never considered myself religious. Despite my family ties to these religious symbols, my parents identify as atheist and agnostic.

Coming from various cultural traditions, my family has an interesting approach to religion. We subscribe to certain Jewish family traditions. We give each other Christian symbols and Buddhist figurines. But we do all these things while still questioning the existence of a god. My family picks and chooses the religious practices and beliefs that we believe represent us. Scholars have asked whether these polytheistic trends reflect a greater interest in spiritual concerns or instead, a dissolution into what is ‘trendy.’[1]

Although research shows that most Americans are engaging in a genuine exploration of faith and spirituality, for some people like those in my family, polytheistic trends are not so much tied to spiritual concern as cultural identity expression. As more and more people treat religion with a “pick and choose” mentality, there has been a growing trend of polytheism.[2] Advertising and marketing have shown people the abundance of choice that is at their disposal.[2] Consumers have become accustomed to picking what they want and don’t want. Similarly with religion, they hope to pick the practices, beliefs, and emblems that best cater to their individual situations.

While religiosity seems to be fading from my environment, it has been important to remember the many, new appearances it has taken. Religion has been infused in various marketable goods, finding a place in everyday, capitalist society. Religious symbols can allude to your worldview, as well as represent parts of your identity.

The question arises of whether or not these commodified symbols are less sacred because of their place in the contemporary capitalist marketplace. Rather, are they understood as profane reproductions of sacred symbols? Are these commodities created out of interest in the furthering of religious exploration or the potential for profit?

My brother’s St. Christopher keychain very clearly displays my family’s protectionist tradition when he travels. Commodities with religious symbols, like the keychain, can keep religion present in contemporary people’s minds, as well as provoke viewers to ask questions about their origin and meaning.

In a capitalist-dominated American society driven by personal interest and profit, there is a stronger push for every action and idea to reap tangible material rewards. Previously a religious symbol could stand alone as an object of reverence. Now, for some people it stands out as a commodity that draws attention and raises questions. These religious symbols are part of identity expression and can also inadvertently spur religious discussion.

Not everyone will fully understand commoditized religious symbols in the context of the religion from which they derive. There are many consumers who choose these symbols for merely aesthetic purposes. Not every consumer subscribes to the religious beliefs that follow the emblems or figurines that they may purchase. While religion may be losing its fervor for some people, the commodification of religious symbols can allow for continued, yet different, acts of religious exploration.

[1] Roof, Wade Clark. Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
[2] Forbes, Bruce David, and Jeffrey H. Mahan. 2000. Religion and popular culture in America. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press.
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11 thoughts on “Polytheism: Genuine or just trendy?

  1. Having read this I believed it was rather enlightening.
    I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this short article together.
    I once again find myself personally spending way too
    much time both reading and leaving comments. But so what, it was still worthwhile!

    Like

  2. Appearances of religious symbols on fashion and other commodities often goes unnoticed or at least unemphasized by me, so it was a great wake up call to read this. Your view of the commodification of religious symbols possibly acting as a pathway to religious exploration by consumers is very optimistic, and it is nice to think that religious symbols can spark conversation on religion in everyday life. I fear that the commodification of symbols can easily stray toward appropriation rather than exploration, but your personal story of your ring inspiring discussion is a sign that many people genuinely do seek to explore and discuss religion.

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  3. The commoditization of religious symbols is fascinating in and of itself, and it was interesting to engage with how these symbols are interpreted in everyday modern society. I personally hope that these symbols lead to more conversations like those we had in class. Its fascinating to hear about the different ways religion influences people throughout their lifetimes. There is a significant amount of moral and social convictions associated with each religion, I hope the presence of these symbols encourages people to engage with the significance of religion in society across traditions.

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  4. Abby, I really appreciated your take on the commodification of religious symbols. I think it’s easy for people to assume commodification and materialism is inherently bad, so I enjoyed your perspective that highlights how without these commercial markets, some of these religious symbols might never be seen or appreciated. I think the distinction of “good” and “bad” commodification in this case is whether or not people wearing religious items are willing to explain what the symbol means. I can imagine many people buying keychains, jewelry, or other items because they are trends, without having any idea what the symbol means. I don’t think you have to follow a religion strictly to wear and appreciate certain symbols that resonate with you, but I think it’s important for anyone wearing a religious symbol to understand the symbol and be able to speak about it if someone were to ask about it.

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  5. I have been struggling to understand the concept of cultural appropriation recently and this article adds an interesting take on cultural appropriation in relation to religion. There seems to be a tension amongst liberals regarding this issue. On one hand taking another groups’ culture and manipulating it to better suit your needs is seen as a bad thing under the definition of cultural appropriation that I understand. However, in liberal circles (especially on Hamilton’s campus) it seems that there is an encouragement for individuals to both learn about and learn from other cultures. I appreciate your personal experience as an example of how taking symbols and certain ideas from various religions is not necessarily negative and destructive to the culture of origin.

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  6. Once I read this post, I realized the many ways different religions have seeped into my life. I also don’t consider myself a religious person but I still find myself saying things like “thank you jesus” and “god is good”. My father’s side of the family practices Santeria a bit and they often have me leave fruit in front of a changó statue. Apparently, this is done to let the spirits know that I am willing to sacrifice to them for protection. In other words, by dropping off this fruit I am supposedly shielded from any negative energy. I don’t actively practice any of the two religions I mentioned but it’s funny to see how I am still surrounded by religion. I don’t know where but I’ve heard before that polytheism is becoming the new civil religion which is an interesting thought. I just hope that, with this increased exposure to diverse religions, people can become more understanding and accepting of other belief systems and individuals.

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  7. This post was one that I found myself relating to in depth. I am someone who was raised Catholic, however I would not consider myself very religious. I do believe in something, I am just not always quite sure what exactly that is. There are parts of many faiths that I believe in. I also practice yoga on a daily basis which has elements of Buddhism and Hinduism that I find myself engaging in throughout practices and values that I try to incorporate into my daily life. No, I do not identify as a Buddhist, but does that mean that I can live my life according to values that I believe in? I think religion is the most intimate and personal journey a person can embark on and I don’t think it is anyone else’s place to tell them what is “allowed” or “right”.

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  8. I find the concept of commercialized religion to be very fascinating, so I am vey happy to have read your post! This picking and choosing of religious item and religious beliefs seems odd to me, however I know I even experience it in everyday life. When I wake up in the morning I’ve recently started briefly meditating (a traditional Buddhist practice) and then at dinner my family and I say grace (a traditional Christian practice). Although I enjoy the different aspects of religion I incorporate into my own life, I sometimes question the authenticity of it all. Are we, as a society, delegitimizing religious values my ‘picking and choosing’ what we want?

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  9. I’ve always had a problem with the thin line between appreciation and appropriation. Your article makes me wonder if it’s possible to not appropriate culture or religion, especially in a capitalist where the focus is individual gain. Like you say, religious symbols have become popular as commodities and not everyone who has an item with a religious symbol on it fully understands the meaning behind the symbol. However, I think that the commodification of religion does have its benefits. People come in contact with more religions and are more open to learn about them.

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