Thursday, February 1, 2018

Asatru: Some Critical Interaction on One Version of Polytheism

Asatru: Some Critical Interaction
Richard Klaus
December 4, 2017

1.     For brief summaries of Asatru beliefs see “Asatru Questions and Answers” by Stephen A. McNallen from The Asatru Alliance website as well as the interview with Vincent Enlund (at the time, the Chieftain of the Asatru Alliance).[1]

2.     When examining a worldview it is helpful to think in terms of three major philosophical components.  Roughly stated, these three components are:

a.     Metaphysics: What is the underlying nature of reality as espoused by the worldview?  This concerns the question of “what is it that constitutes reality?”

b.     Epistemology: How do we know things? What is it that can be known?  What methods bring us knowledge?

c.      Ethics: What is the nature of right and wrong?  What are the elements of a moral action?

3.     These philosophical components of a worldview should cohere together.  In other words, one’s metaphysical commitments ought not to be in tension or contradiction to one’s epistemology and ethics. 


1.     Asatru is polytheistic—it believes in many gods.  In particular, it believes and attempts to interact with the Norse pantheon of gods.  In addition to this, followers of Asatru recognize that other peoples have their own gods.  According to Vince Enlund, “Ours is not the only way.  Nor are our Gods and Goddesses the only Gods.  They are simply our Gods for us.  Others may have theirs and their Gods may have a place [hell] for them, that would be between them and their God or Gods.” 

2.     Is there something more ultimate back or behind the gods?  In answering the question, “What are the basic beliefs of Asatru?” McNallen provides the following answer:

We believe in an underlying, all-pervading divine energy or essence which is generally hidden from us, and which is beyond our immediate understanding. We further believe that this spiritual reality is interdependent with us - that we affect it, and it affects us. 

We believe that this underlying divinity expresses itself to us in the forms of the Gods and Goddesses. Stories about these deities are like a sort of code, the mysterious "language" through which the divine reality speaks to us. 

Left unanswered are questions about this “all-pervading divine energy or essence.”  Is this divine energy personal or impersonal?  Is this divine energy a fundamental unity or is it a plurality?  What is the relationship between this divine energy and its expressions in the gods?  Does the divine energy contain within both good and evil?  Is the divine energy behind just the Norse deities or is this the same divine energy behind all conceptions of polytheistic gods?

3.     Is the Asatru religion true?  Does it correspond to reality?  It would seem that Asatru is caught in a fundamental kind of metaphysical relativism.  This comes out when McNallen states:

We do not claim to be a universal religion or faith for all humankind.  In fact, we don’t think such a thing is possible or desirable.  The different branches of humanity have different ways of looking at the world, each of which is valid for them.

What does it mean to say that all the different ways of looking at world are “valid for them?”  Do any of these worldviews approximate the truth? 

4.     Is there a good reason for thinking multiple gods exist?

“[I]t seems clear that there are no good philosophical arguments for the existence of many beings of the sort classified as gods by polytheistic religions… Whenever people in polytheistic contexts have begun to think carefully and critically about the supernatural, they typically have rejected polytheism in favor of pantheism, monotheism, or naturalism.  The philosophical impulse among human beings has usually led to the conclusion that alternatives for divine reality are either one or none.”[2]


1.     Polytheism cannot provide the preconditions philosophically necessary for the scientific method.  As a historical reality it is monotheism that provides the conditions necessary for the scientific endeavor to get off the ground.

a.     “The polytheistic religion of Greeks said that there were many gods. There were as many divine plans and as many purposes as there were gods. Since the gods interacted in a chaotic fashion, people had no guarantee that the world would show any stable order. Greek religion discouraged any hope for a scientific exploration of a rational order.

Modern science arose in the context of Christian monotheism, which displaced the Greek gods and gave confidence to prospective scientists by means of three fundamental principles:

1               One rational God rules all things (Genesis 1:1; Psalm 33:6), and so we can expect universal order.
2               God made man in his image (Genesis 1:26-27), and so man is naturally in tune with God’s mind and has hope of grasping the order that God had given.
3               The world that God made is not divine, and hence is open for human investigation.”[3]

b.     "Anthropologist Ernest Gellner, a secular critic of postmodernism, pays tribute to biblical monotheism when he says that the Enlightenment emphasis on 'the uniqueness of truth' and the hope of discovering nature's objective secrets is rooted in monotheism's avoidance of 'the facile self-deception of universal relativism.'  He further sharpens his analysis by claiming this connection between the singularity and supremacy of God with a fundamental logical principle closely related to the law of non-contradiction.

It was a jealous Jehovah who really taught mankind the Law of Excluded Middle: Greek formalization of logic (and geometry and grammar) probably would not have been sufficient on its own.  Without a strong religious impulsion toward a single orderly world, and the consequent avoidance of opportunist, manipulative incoherence, the cognitive miracle [of the Enlightenment] would probably not have occurred."[4] 

2.     How does one know that any of these various gods exist?  The traditional arguments for the existence of God do not apply to polytheistic gods.  Cosmological arguments speak to a singular Creator of immense power that brings everything into existence.  Teleological (design) arguments won’t work since the created order is of a such a unitary character that is seems inconsistent with multiple gods—at least the created order would not expressly reveal any one of the many finite gods.[5]  The ontological argument argues for a singular perfect Being of which none greater can be conceived.  Of course, this conception applies to none of the finite gods of polytheism.  Typically a moral argument speaks of an objective moral order (moral realism) but varying gods within polytheism may have different moral values.  If they all share a common moral value system then what justifies this system?


1.     Polytheism cannot account for moral objectivity and tends to degenerate into moral relativism.

“So long as there is a multiplicity of gods, it is impossible to believe that the universe is profoundly ethical.  Each god has different wishes and desires, often conflicting with those of others.  An exclusive attempt to please one would almost certainly produce behavior that would offend another god.  So the best policy is not to become too radical in obedience to any set of principles.  Beyond that, since no one god originated the universe, then no one god’s character is reflected in it.  Its principles and character are more diverse than can be imagined, far too complex for anyone to spend a lot of time trying to understand.  Ethical relativism is not merely a possibility in a world of continuity but a necessity.”[6]

2.     This charge of relativism is sustained when one considers the words of Stephen McNallen of The Asatru Alliance.  In response to the question, “What do you have to say about good and evil?” McNallen answers:

“Good and evil are not constants.  What is good in one case will not be good in another, and evil in one circumstance will not be evil under a different set of conditions.  In any one instance, the right course of action will have been shaped by the influence of the past and the present.  The result may or may not be ‘good’ or ‘evil’, but it will still be the right action.

“In no case are good and evil dictated to us by the edicts of an alien, authoritarian deity, as in the Middle East.  We are expected to use our freedom, responsibility, and awareness of duty to serve the highest and best ends.”[7]

It is unclear how Asatru can philosophically define “the highest and best ends.”  Even if they do define them it raises the philosophical issue of how to ground these values.  A further issue is why one is obligated to such values.  The interplay of one’s metaphysical view and one’s ethical system are seen here.  If ultimate reality is ultimately impersonal nature then how does one develop an objectivity of ethics?  As John Frame notes, “In brief: nothing impersonal has the authority to impose ethical norms.  Only a person can do that (e.g., a mother, father, teacher, policeman), and only an absolute person can impose ultimate, universal norms.”[8]

3.     Polytheism falls prey to the Euthyphro dilemma that Plato develops in his famous dialogue by that name.  This is especially relevant in that the original context of Euthyphro was polytheistic in nature.  As Socrates dialogues with Euthyphro he challenges Euthyphro’s definition of “piety” (value) as that which is “dear to the gods.”  Socrates brings out the fact that differing gods can have different values so there must be something that is beyond the mere opinions of finite gods.

Socrates:            Then the same things, as appears, are hated by the gods and loved by the gods, and are both hateful and dear to them?

Euthyphro:            True.

Socrates:             Then upon this view the same things, Euthyphro, will be pious and also impious?

Euthyphro:            That, I suppose, is true.

Socrates:            Then, my dear friend, I remark with surprise that you have not answered what I asked.  For I certainly did not ask what was that which is at once pious and impious: and that which is loved by the gods appears also to be hated by them.  And therefore, Euthyphro, in thus chastising your father you may very likely be doing what is agreeable to Zeus but disagreeable to Cronos or Uranus, and what is acceptable to Hephaestus but unacceptable to Here, and there may be other gods who have similar differences of opinion.[9]

NOTE: Ideal polytheism

Although Asatru is not an example of ideal polytheism it may be helpful to cover this conception briefly.

1.     Ideal polytheism defined

a.     Posits gods that are at least uncreated, immaterial, and sufficiently great

b.     Also need personality (property of being a person)

c.      “The word God is not merely a descriptive term (a label for a being that satisfies a certain description) but also an evaluative or honorific term.  It legitimately applies only to a kind of being that is sufficiently great in a variety of respects.”[10]

d.     A being worthy of worship must possess an extremely high degree of greatness—perhaps excellence or even perfection—especially with respect to goodness.

e.     “Given all these assumptions about the characteristics required of something for it legitimately to be called a god, ideal polytheism can be true only if there can be more than one god possessing exactly the same degree of greatness.”[11]

2.     Philosophical problems with ideal polytheism

a.     Argument #1: Argument from conflict of wills

                                               i.     If more than one god, “then there is more than one ultimate and fundamentally distinct divine center of thought.”[12]

                                              ii.     If they have free wills, then it must be possible for them to have a conflict of wills.

                                            iii.     But to be omnipotent means to be able to get whatever one wants.

                                            iv.     Therefore, both cannot be omnipotent.

                                              v.     “As a result, there cannot be more than one all-powerful being.  Consequently, if being as great as it is possible to be, and therefore all-powerful, is required to be a god (this was argued above), then there cannot be more than one god.  If there cannot be more than one god, then no version of polytheism can be true.  If polytheism cannot be true and monotheism can be true, then, for this reason alone, it is more reasonable to accept monotheism than polytheism.”[13]

b.     Argument # 2: The argument from causal order

                                               i.     “One of the most popular arguments for monotheism is drawn from the world's unity. If there were several designers who acted independently or at cross-purposes, we would expect to find evidence of this in their handiwork—one set of laws obtaining at one time or place, for example, and a different set of laws obtaining at a different time or place. We observe nothing of the sort, however. On the contrary, the unity of the world, the fact that it exhibits a uniform structure, that it is a single cosmos, strongly suggests some sort of unity in its cause—that there is either a single designer, or several designers acting cooperatively, perhaps under the direction of one of their number.

“This evidence does not force us to conclude that there is only one designer, and the ablest proponents of the argument have recognized this. Thus, William Paley asserts that the argument proves only “a unity of counsel” or (if there are subordinate agents) “a presiding” or “controlling will” (Paley 52). Nevertheless, in the absence of compelling reasons for postulating the existence of two or more cooperating designers, considerations of simplicity suggest that we ought to posit only one designer. It isn't clear that there are any. Some have thought that the existence of evil and apparent disorder is best explained by postulating conflicts between two or more opposed powers. Whether this is true or not, evil and apparent disorder provides no reason for preferring the hypothesis of several cooperating designers to the hypothesis of a single designer. That is, having once decided that natural good and natural evil are consequences of the operation of a single system of laws, and that their cause must therefore be unitary, the existence of evil and apparent disorder is to longer relevant to the question of monotheism (although it may be relevant to the question of the goodness of the cause).”[14]
Appendix: Yahweh versus Odin
Steve Hays responds to an atheistic objector who alleged that the Christian God is like the Norse god Odin and that both should be dismissed.  Hays brings out the following differences that are relevant to this paper and is able to conclude: “Yahweh and Odin are categorically different kinds of beings.”
[W]e might briefly dispatch his attempted comparison between Yahweh and Odin. There are two considerations:

1. Sources of information

i) According to Scripture, Jesus is Yahweh Incarnate. In the NT, we have a set of 1C documents about a figure who appeared in the 1C. Contemporaneous reports.

Traditionally, these documents are ascribed to people who knew Jesus or people who knew people who knew Jesus. Either firsthand accounts or accounts based on firsthand informants.

The traditional attributions have been defended in scholarly articles, commentaries, monographs, and NT introductions. Likewise, there are various lines of internal and external evidence for the historicity of these documents.

These accounts describe Jesus as God Incarnate, performing miracles.

In addition, reported miracles aren't confined to the Gospels. There's credible evidence for Christian miracles throughout church history, right up to the present. Likewise, answered prayers in the name of Jesus.

We also have corroboration from some church fathers. Either early church fathers or somewhat later fathers with an antiquarian interest who made a point of gathering information from early sources.

In addition, there are messianic types and prophecies that foreshadow or predict the advent of a person just like Jesus.

ii) By contrast, what evidence is there that legends about Odin were written by anyone who actually encountered Odin? Is the genre even ostensibly historical?

What are the dates of the sources in relation to the first reports?

What evidence is there that Odin answers prayer? What evidence is there for continued miracles in the name of Odin?

2. Nature of the deity

i) According to Scripture, Yahweh/Jesus is the preexistent Creator of the world. According to the OT, Yahweh is essentially incorporeal.

ii) According to Nordic/Teutonic mythology, Odin is a physical, humanoid "god". A mortal being. Finite in knowledge and power. He didn't create the world. He is the son of Bor and Bestla. He has two brothers. He has affairs with human women, female giants, &c.

So the concept of Odin isn't comparable to the concept of Yahweh. Odin is a different kind of being than Yahweh. What theistic proofs would even apply to a being like Odin?

iii) Odin is not immortal. 

iv) Moreover, even if he were immortal, it wouldn't be in the same sense that Yahweh is immortal. Physical immortality is hardly equivalent to the timeless eternality of an incorporeal being. [15]

     [1] “Asatru Questions and Answers” by Stephen A. McNallen (1995) at The Asatru Alliance—online:  Interview with Vincent Enlund/Viking Jack (Saturday, November 26, 2011) at You, Me & Religion—online:
     [2] Taylor, Introducing Apologetics, 101.
     [3] Vern Poythress, “Has Science Made God Obsolete?” Available online:
     [4] Douglas Groothius, "Facing the Challenge of Postmodernism" in To Everyone An Answer: A Case for the Christian Worldview eds. Francis J. Beckwith, William Lane Craig, and J. P. Moreland (Intervarsity Press, 2004), p. 242--Groothius is quoting Ernest Gellner, Postmodernism, Reason, and Religion (New York: Rutledge, 1992), pp. 95-96.
     [5] There is both a unity and multiplicity to reality—the problem of the “one and the many.”  Christian theism which is Trinitarian in structure best accords with this unity/multiplicity.  John Frame notes that the thought of Cornelius Van Til regarding the Trinity speaks to this issue: “Van Til’s view was that because God is both one and many, he has made a world that is both one and many: that is, no unity without particulars, nor vice versa.”  A History of Western Philosophy and Theology (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2015), 18.
     [6] John N. Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2009), 89.
     [7] “Asatru Questions and Answers” by Stephen A. McNallen (1995) at The Asatru Alliance—online: 
     [8] John Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2015), 33.
     [9] Plato, The Republic and Other Works, translated by B. Jowett (Garden City, New York: Dolphin Books, 1960), 433-434.
     [10] Taylor, Introducing Apologetics, 103.
     [11] Taylor, Introducing Apologetics, 104.
     [12] Taylor, Introducing Apologetics, 104.
     [13] Taylor, Introducing Apologetics, 104.
     [14] William Wainwright, “Monotheism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy—online, (Sept. 2013).  Available online:  Wainwright lists out a number of other arguments that he argues are even more forceful.
     [15] Steve Hays, “Odin” Triablogue (January 28, 2016).  Online: