The appeal of popular divinities: why secularists need to embrace and understand theists

I am a god-having, god-worshiping theist. I was very likely born this way. As someone who has had to live with being a lifelong theist and a lifelong rationalist, I can assure everyone who has never had to reconcile the two that the kind of innate theism which possesses people like myself has major quirks.

People like me can’t anticipate or control that which we will end up perceiving as having a divine nature, and the resulting experiences can be surprising to even us. One time when I was in high school, a passing beam of golden hour sunlight on a brick wall screamed “GOD” at me. (Not literally, for the record.) Because I didn’t really understand myself and my theism at the time I wondered for weeks at the significance of that seeming revelation. Before my high school years I had long been deeply embarrassed by my prayers said to a few video game characters, and I was even more embarrassed that I perceived them to be gods in the first place. Another very early memory of divine perception involves staring out a window at swiftly retreating low clouds and thinking that some god must be moving them.

Despite the facts that my perceptions of divinities were very unique to me, and that I always secretly considered my favorite video game characters to be my truest gods, I was nonetheless drawn to the traditional forms of the divine espoused by the culture around me. This is how I became a Christian, for example. I was moved by this God that everyone around me professed, and because everyone around me professed this God I felt like I should jump on board.

The other day I had a peculiar flashback to that kind of feeling. I was in a place where Catholic lessons were taught, and listed on a blackboard some names of Catholic saints alongside notes on what those particular saints were all about. I think it was solely for the fact that these were people with a divine air about them, lent by the culture that revered them, that suddenly I felt a great interest in learning more about them. It reminded me of countless times as a lost teenager and ex-Christian that I wanted to proclaim again the divinity of Jesus Christ rather than give in and worship my personal gods.

How strange that something so personal to me, my theism, could be so easily affected by professed divinities of others. I still maintain that theism is inherently highly personal to all theists, but I can’t ignore the fact that so few people break from all traditional divinities and profess their own gods. Either this is the result of active suppression by religions who shun “idol worship”, or it points to a quality of god perception itself: god perception greatly favors the professed divinities of the masses. I suspect it’s a fair amount of both.

It’s important that secularists understand that natural theists like me exist, and that they understand what it’s like to have the experiences that we do, because while it is possible for us to come to a sound and helpful understanding of ourselves and our gods we’re also at risk for exploitation and manipulation. Religions that profess prominent or convincing visions of the divine may hold more sway over us because of the natural mechanics of god perception, and they may not have our best interests at heart. I learned this from painful personal experiences.

The solution for assisting people like me is not to shun our gods, or our other personal experiences of the divine. Believe me when I say that antitheism is an enormous personal affront. Theism is a natural state, and naturally theistic people should not be derided because it can cause a great deal of psychological harm, which I also learned from painful personal experiences. Rather than causing such harm, it would be greatly beneficial for secularists to make an effort to understand the mechanics of god perception, as well as the significance of divine communion to our mental health. This will both foster understanding and bring more naturally theistic people to secularism.

So long as secular circles do not dismiss or invalidate theists’ experiences and drives, and so long as secularists make an effort to understand the quirks and complexities of god perception in the same way that they make an effort to understand other behavior patterns, secularism could serve as a safe place for theistically inclined people— safer than many religions that are loaded with harmful beliefs. Furthermore, if secular circles would embrace that theistic drives and perceptions are natural, they may be able to give theists like myself a good idea of what to expect, and even advise us on how to explore the world with the help of our divinities.

In future posts I will outline framework that can create a safe and helpful space for theists within secularism.

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