To all the gods I loved before

Towards a theory of anarchotheism


I used to talk to plants. I have a distinct memory of when I was about seven, holding the leaves of a flowering bush at school, talking to them. I would imagine that the plants would have emotions or even sentience, would hurt when they were plucked or harmed. This might sound a little silly, the sensitivity of a child that didn’t know better, but that is also the point: what lives and moves and has its being beyond our empirical world, beyond the grasp of cold rationality and naturalism, is also often what is lost in our induction into modern society. As a part of our social contract, we agree that the ghosts and gods that live with us and others conform to a narrow selection of orthodoxies and heresies. The remainder—the bodies, the beings, the dreams—that do not fit are exorcised, repressed, or starved. Those who retain the same level of imagination and wonder in adulthood are labelled misfits or mentally ill. Among these, the ones that are still able to “function” as “productive members of society” are celebrated in capitalist society.

            This is a letter to all the gods I’ve loved before. Whether the nature of my childhood, or Gautama Buddha introduced to me by my father, my deceased grandfather introduced to me by mother at the temple, Jesus Messiah introduced to me by my friends, Allah introduced to me by my school textbooks, and all the other gods I’ve read and heard about but never quite got to know, I write this to mark the way in my journey so far. If the last few decades of my life are anything to go by, I expect my relation to the world and beyond to continue changing, growing, maturing, and I hope this can be helpful to others who are searching, too.

Towards liberation (theology)

Most of all, I spent a lot of time with Jesus. Growing up in what some might call a Buddhist or Daoist household in a majority Muslim country, I didn’t have much exposure to begin with. But I was introduced by a friend in high school and learned from books my brother owned by C.S. Lewis, Max Lucado, and others. I learned about a foreign god who made a lot of sense, but also a god who loved me, who walked with me, who died for me. It was all very personal, very moving, very dramatic. For a long time, I took this evangelical “personal relationship with God” very seriously. This Christian god and I, we would talk almost every day, go on walks, laugh, cry, worry about all things big and small. It was a very sweet relationship with I don’t know, the ceiling above me, the wall in front of me, the air I was breathing. This isn’t to say all that was bullshit, or at least to me it wasn’t and still isn’t, but rather that I’ve come to a place where I know things aren’t exactly what I used to believe, but also I don’t quite know what things are, if they should be anything at all. For the time being, we were really close, and it was really nice. Moreover, throughout this entire period I was surrounded by faith communities that I deeply loved, with whom I share many cherished memories.

But somewhere along the way, things changed. There wasn’t any watershed moment of disillusionment or loss of faith. In fact, I would argue that I have more faith now than ever before. It was a slow process, beginning somewhere between Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and reading the Mahabharata[1] for political science class a decade ago. I wasn’t much conscientized in those days, nor did I see myself as a stakeholder in the US racial and capitalist order, being an international student, so I found myself more a spectator of the deadly circus that is US politics than anything else. But by the time Trump had been in office for some time, I realized that somewhere along the way my politics had radicalized, and my theology needed to catch up. (Becoming housemates with an anarchist Muslim by accident probably helped.)

Without quite knowing what it was, I reached towards liberation theology, which instinctively felt like the right path to take from where I was. Theologians from outside the fold of white normative theology forged their own ways: Black, feminist, womanist, Latin American, Native American, Asian American, Third Worldist, and so on, absorbed the righteous zeitgeist of the mid-to-late twentieth century, drawing inspiration from the Black power movement, second-wave feminism, and anti-colonial movements around the world. The world seemed to be throwing off its chains, waking up from the nightmare of colonial domination. Liberation theology was theological reflection on praxis, characterized by the mutually reinforcing cycle of praxis and reflection. It was grounded in the faith and suffering within its own communities. The same that is needed today, fifty years on.

At the same time as I was attempting to forge an updated Asian American theology of liberation[2], I found certain points that I could not quite resolve. Liberation theology is generous in its approach to people of other faiths, be it a matter of coexistence or syncretism. But this is hard to accept for a mathematician like myself: one is either wrong or right. The competing claims of many religions are often mutually exclusive: they negate each other in their truth claims. Baháʼí supersedes Islam, which supersedes Christianity, which supersedes Judaism, for example. We may have calm interfaith dialogues with each other, but at the end of the day we still think we’re right and they’re, well, let’s just say less right. Secondly, in the heat of the George Floyd rebellion, the world learned about abolition. But if the Christian god were an abolitionist — and they’d better be — there definitely can be no hell. And eternal or not, the Jesus of the canonical gospels definitely talked about suffering in the afterlife. Can abolition make sense on earth if not in heaven? Could I be forgiven for loving too much?

This was all very disconcerting. And as it happened, God and I hadn’t been talking much for a while, at least not verbally. Not that we’re not on speaking terms, but more that I have not found a faith community I could truly feel comfortable in anymore, and that deeply affects my private practice. While my politics is advancing ever onward, looking for the most authentic and revolutionary ways of being in the world, my faith is still playing catch up. It is to that end that I propose anarchotheism as a way of making sense of where I find myself.

Anarchotheism: After liberation

Anarchotheism makes room for all the gods I’ve loved before to remain in my life, as full of contradictions as capitalism or socialism, some of which I may be able to resolve because I just needed to know more or live longer, and some which are inherent contradictions that precipitate crises of various kinds, like holy wars, perhaps. Anarchotheism is not only a horizontal, nonhierarchical approach to spirituality and religious practice, but it is even more also a deep consideration of the immaterial in the present — an immaterialist analysis. We can hold both these things. It allows for us to carry the richness of other dimensions, ranging from the metaphysical to the psychological, into revolutionary politics and praxis. An immaterialist analysis is necessarily dialectical, because it must take into account the passage between worlds material and immaterial, an incredibly busy two-way street.

I remember sitting in class on the first day of a course on Islam, being completely scandalized when the professor established the following ground rule: there is no orthodox Islam. Having grown up in the backdrop of Sunni Islam, enshrined by the state and prevailing racial order, and as a practicing Christian then, I had not quite come to terms with it the entire semester as we discussed communities like the Nation of Islam and punk Islam. But now I understand better: orthodoxy is a power relation. As with the construction of white and hetero-normativity in the United States and “the West,” more broadly, so is orthodoxy constituted through power and hegemony in interpretive communities. Anarchotheism, on the other hand, as a horizontal approach to both politics and religion or faith, easily naturalizes this rejection of orthodoxy. And, importantly, the lack of orthodoxy also implies the lack of heterodoxy.

Whereas other theisms like pantheism or polytheism or monotheism regard one’s belief in the existence of gods, anarchotheism situates one’s (anarchist or anarchist friendly) politics in the frame of the existence of gods and other beings. It points to the blurred boundary between religion and political ideology, as Alexandre Christoyannopoulos and Matthew Adams describe in the context of anarchism.[3] Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that ultraleft folks long for revolution like the second coming of Christ. More than a political theology, anarchotheism is liberation theology par excellence. And of course, by ‘gods’ here I also mean djinn, devas, ghosts, nature, spirits, ancestors, and all manner of things that no eye has seen nor ear has heard. Anarchotheism takes seriously every spectre that haunts us, every spirit that visits us. Indeed, as John Currid points out in Against the Gods, the theology of the Old Testament was not a strictly monotheistic one: it understood the existence of other gods that belonged to other peoples, and the Hebrew god only demanded absolute loyalty from the Hebrew people: you shall have no other gods before me. How petty would the Hebrew god have to be to be jealous of made-up gods that are not gods? It is easy to see that the cosmology of the Old Testament is far richer than that of the New, and also that of orthodox Islam, populated as they may be with angels and demons and djinn.

Parallel to dialectical materialism, which interrogates the social relations between objects, dialectical immaterialism allows for an accounting of social relations between metaphysical objects: how do gods and other beings relate to one another, and how do they mediate relations between humans?  

The real and the immaterial

In T.M. Luhrmann’s recent anthropological account of “real-making” in How God Becomes Real, Luhrmann observes that the post-Enlightenment “faith frame” of the Western world stripped the natural world of agency, leaving a real and material world to be freely despoiled, whereas in most other cultures this duality is collapsed into a continuum between the multiple realities. By an immaterialist analysis, therefore, I mean less the unlocking of the door that separates the real and non-real, but rather the opening up of this continuum, where the real can exist with multiplicity. A similar ontological turn is taking place within the realms of cultural studies, where the categories of human and nonhuman are interrogated, which at its best represents a return to Indigenous cosmopolitics, an approach not far removed from the one I am proposing here.

This reminds us that our grasp on reality reaches only so far as our ability to interpret it, and a horizontalism of the immaterial is not so much an assertion that all gods are equal — far from it, if the spiritual were as rich and wild as the natural — but rather that we ourselves can make no absolute claims of supremacy. A radical agnostic theism, perhaps.[4]

            Perhaps then the expansiveness of the nonhuman world of my childhood is not so strange. As children we sat in the dark in lonely places and told ghost stories to scare each other, and at other times we listened to adults talk about fengshui or angels or shamans. So all the gods that we’ve loved before can still inhabit our world. There is no exorcism or demystification necessary, though perhaps a perpetual revision and recalibration of our beliefs and practices as one is led. We are always in process, lest we forget. In the present time, it is perhaps more urgent than ever to seek to ground spirituality in politics that does not lean to the far right and ask how it might be in harmony with radical politics. The deep questions remain, to be sure, as to what all lies beyond what the eye can see, but perhaps these thoughts can begin to validate our searching and loving, perhaps our hearts will not lead us so far astray, and we can be together in love and struggle.

[1] A Sanskrit epic poem


[3] Christoyannopoulos, Alexandre, and Matthew Adams. “Anarchism, religion, and the religiousness of political ideologies.” (2020).

[4] Further afield in the study of consciousness is the proposal that all of life is simply “dissociated alters of  cosmic consciousness,” wherein the universal consciousness manifests itself multiply in each conscious being in a manner similar to dissociative identity disorder. See Kastrup, Bernardo. “The universe in consciousness.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 25.5-6 (2018): 125-155.

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