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.