Totalising systems

A totalising system is one that seeks to subsume all other paradigms within its paradigm, rather than accepting that other paradigms exist alongside it. It regards itself as a complete and universal system which can explain all experience and needs no supplemental systems.

A non-totalising or pluralist system recognises its particularity to its local culture and sees that different philosophies emerge out of different cultural contexts and local histories. A totalising system ignores local contexts or seeks to explain them through its paradigm.

A totalising system assumes that its style of religion / philosophy / theology / culture is best for all humanity, and it may seek to convert others or impose it on them; the most egregious example being Christianity (at least Islam recognises other religions of the book as valid, although it does seek converts). Ironically, atheism is also a totalising system when it assumes that all religion is wrong, or that all religion is the same, or that it is all literalist. Buddhism is also mostly a totalising system, in that it views itself as a potential overlay to other systems, but replaces their core beliefs with its own metaphysical and philosophical assumptions.

Wicca is not a totalising system. It does operate as a framework within which local folklore and stories and festivals may be inserted; but it doesn’t seek to impose itself on the whole world, or assume that everyone should be a Wiccan.

Judaism is not a totalising system because it views itself as a religion of a specific people; other peoples have their own religions.

Most Pagan traditions are not totalising systems because they view themselves as emerging from a specific cultural context (they are usually open to people from other cultures but they don’t seek converts), and they recognise that other perspectives are possible.

Totalising system religions are not compatible with each other; but they are also not compatible with non-totalising religions because they seek either to convert others to their paradigm, or to subsume others within their paradigm.

Pagan and occult traditions are usually compatible with each other because they are pluralistic, viewing themselves as one possible perspective on the world – not as the only valid perspective.

Whether a totalising system sees itself as an overlay on local autochthonous traditions, or a replacement for them, it is still largely incompatible with a worldview that says “this is my perspective, but other perspectives are possible”.

Hence, Pagan and occult traditions (e.g Freemasonry and Thelema) can be practiced alongside each other, and so can indigenous traditions (including Judaism, Taoism, Shinto, Hinduism, African traditional religions, First Nations religions): none of them seeks converts or regards itself as an universal system or explanation of how the world works.

Individuals (or even whole sub-traditions or denominations) who are members of a totalising system religion may have adopted the perspective of particularity, localism, and an acknowledgement of other possible world-views, but at a system level, these religions don’t recognise other paradigms as valid. They may permit some, most, or all of the cultural and spiritual practices of the autochthonous traditions that they have replaced or overlaid, but they regard the autochthonous religions’ theology as either subservient to that of the totalising system, or invalidated by it.

Individuals within pluralist religions might have adopted a totalising view; but at a system level, these religions are pluralist.

If a member of a totalising system joins another tradition, they need to make it fit within the world-view of the totalising system. The syncretic approach that they adopt will be one where the core of their belief (drawn from the totalising system) is likely to remain unchanged, and only the practices of the other tradition are followed.

A member of a non-totalising or pluralist system is more likely to be able to practice dvoeverie or dual-mindedness, where they regard their two practices as equally valid paradigms, but different perspectives on reality.

Many paths. Photo by Silvia Rita on Pixabay [Public Domain, CC0]

Many paths. Photo by Silvia Rita on Pixabay [Public Domain, CC0]

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4 thoughts on “Totalising systems

  1. A good point about atheism being a totalising system. My experience with the atheist community has led me to see them as being the mirror-image of the religions they oppose.

    In terms of dual-faith practice, how do you feel about Christopagans, Christian Druids, etc.? It seems that they are both members of a totalising system (Christianity) and a non-totalising one (Paganism). Is this a move to non-totalising Christianity by subverting the dominant paradigm or a religious power-grab by claiming Paganism and subsuming it into Christianity?

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    • Let’s even expand this concept further and discuss liberal churches such as the Universal Unitarians,where totalising and non-totalising traditions are worshiping together. It seems to me that all UUs have in common are liberal politics, yet ..

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      • In reply to Woods: I am not sure whether UUs (Unitarian Universalists) are totalisers or not.

        Some of them are, in that they regard all religions as essentially variations on a single ur-religion, and UUism as an attempt to syncretise or synthesise the most rational aspects of that, or a return to the ur-religion.

        Some of them recognise that UUism is one religion among many different varieties that are available, and they seek to form links with like-minded religious liberals. These UUs are not totalisers.

        Nor can one say that Christian UUs are totalisers and humanist and Pagan UUs are not. It is definitely not as simple as that. Imho the Christian Unitarians that I have met tend to be more interested in a non-totalising version of Christianity, whereas the humanist-leaning ones tend to be more of the “all faiths are one” point of view (which comes with a lot of issues baked in, like a lack of respect for others’ specific perspectives and rituals).

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    • In reply to Wrycrow: It depends on how the individual syncretises their two faiths. Some people de-totalise Christianity and make it a particular thing that can exist in harmony with other worldviews. Others rip out the Pagan core of Druidry and replace it with a Christian worldview. (Though it must be admitted that the Druid revival of the 18th and 19th century was basically universalist rather than Pagan.)

      I object to forest church because I think it is a power-grab that attempts to subsume Paganism into Christianity, not to mention blatant cultural appropriation.

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