Monthly Archives: December 2014

11 things that theophobia is and isn’t

Theophobia is a concept that I’m *betting* not too many people are familiar with. As one can probably guess, the word means “unfounded fear of (or disgust with) gods” or “unfounded fear of (or disgust with) theists”. Theophobic can also be an adjective applied to media or communication that is used to incite unfounded fear of (or disgust with) theists and/or gods. The key word in both of those definitions is “unfounded”, meaning that the fear or disgust is based on something that either doesn’t exist or does not warrant fear or disgust.

Theophobia is…

  1. Fear of/disgust with someone simply for the fact that they profess a god or gods.
  2. Fear of/disgust with how a person relates to their god or gods in their own way, if their relationship does not clearly pose a threat to their physical or mental health.
  3. Fear of/disgust with someone if they engage in theistic behaviors publicly, speak about their personal gnosis publicly, or if they wear articles of clothing or accessories signifying their personal gnosis, unless their doing so poses a significant safety hazard (this is rare) or their expression is in some way harmful— i.e. bigoted or something that many people would naturally find disturbing. (The divine as a concept encompasses not just gods, but monsters as well, and sometimes monstrous gods. While such divine conceptualizations are normal, not all of them make for the best dinner conversations.)
  4. Fear of/disgust with followers of a particular god because of what that god represents (say, if the god signifies war or violence, like Ares) or because of what some of that god’s followers say or do. Every theist’s signification of and relationship with their gods is different.
  5. Fear of/disgust with someone whose conceptualization of the divine is different from yours.
  6. Teaching that there is one true god, or one true pantheon, or one true way to practice.
  7. Fear of/disgust with someone who hears the voice of a god or the voices of gods, or equating hearing divine voices with mental illness.
  8. Equating particular divine conceptualizations with mental illness.
  9. Equating theism with mental illness.
  10. Forbidding practices in one’s home or on one’s property, related to worship and divine communion, which do not physically or mentally harm human or non-human animals.*
  11. Outlawing practices in a country, related to worship and divine communion, which do not physically or mentally harm human or non-human animals. (This occurs most often in theocracies.)

Regarding point 2: It’s important to keep in mind just how weird theism is. I don’t say that “theism is weird” as a way to dismiss it, I say it because “rational” people often expect theists to prove their normalcy lest they be judged. When theists talk about things like making offerings to idols as a method of divine communion, or their personal gnosis regarding their “death arrangements” with their gods (and a lot of theists have such arrangements), that is no time for anyone to question their sanity with remarks like, “Do your gods physically take those offerings from the altar?” or “Why can’t you accept death without fairy tales?”

It’s also important to note that some of the most theophobic people in the world are theists. Having and professing a god or gods doesn’t mean that a person can’t look with unfounded scorn on the ways that other theists conceive of the divine, worship, and practice communion. Polytheists may dismiss monotheists as “invalid” theists, monotheists may dismiss polytheists as “invalid” theists, and both may look unkindly on Pop Culture Pagans.

Theophobia is not…

  1. Questioning the scientific validity of creationism, or the historical validity of the exodus from Egypt, or anything else along those lines, like the effectiveness of intercessory prayer as a way to cure cancer.
  2. Admonishing people who hamper scientific progress or put people in medical danger because of their beliefs.
  3. Speaking out against violence, including ritual violence, done in the name of a god or a religion.
  4. Advocating for laws which go against divine proclamations that marginalize people.
  5. Worrying about the sanity of someone who believes that if they jump off of a cliff their god(s) will make them fly.
  6. Trying to get someone out of an abusive cult, or trying to prevent someone from being brainwashed.
  7. Not wanting to set foot in any sacred space, or take part in a public ceremony, because doing so would be uncomfortable.
  8. Defending your own divine conceptualizations against people who claim that you should share their personal gnosis, or defending yourself against people who want to prevent you from speaking about your personal gnosis or practicing (privately or publicly) because they claim that it disgraces their god(s).
  9. Arguing with people who believe that creationism is scientific fact, or who advocate for marginalization of people in the name(s) of their god(s) or religions(s).
  10. Disrespecting people who advocate for marginalization of others in such a way. Calling such people “assholes” or “bigots” or much stronger names is warranted.
  11. Incarcerating or otherwise punishing people who commit crimes in the name(s) of their god(s) or religion(s).

*When I thought of this list item, I was thinking more along the lines of not allowing guests to keep idols by their bedside, or not allowing guests of different faiths to say their own prayers before a meal. I realize that this is more of a complicated matter than that, though. Nobody has to, say, inconvenience themselves to please theists if they want to perform a complex ritual in their home.

Two kinds of personal gnosis

I talk about personal gnosis a lot, though I’ve never really given it a definition beyond any implicit ones that people could formulate from context clues. That has been a shortcoming, on this site and of my expression of my worldview in general: I can’t leave something so central to my take on theism so ethereal. Time to define just what the heck it is I’m talking about.

I experience two kinds of personal gnosis which I will define below. These are my own definitions, and I don’t want to push them onto others so much I want to present them, so that they will be easily available in the future.

Personal Gnosis Type A (or PG Type A) is pretty straightforward. This is the experience of seeing fictional characters, inanimate objects, works of art, and so on as having a sacredness or a divine essence. I may relate to these things as being godly, or belonging to my gods, or as gods in themselves. In other words, this is what I call the drive to say, “Hey, that’s a god!” or, “Hey, that’s related to one of my gods!” or, “Hey, that’s sacred!” when I see something that moves me in such a way. It is also what I call my conceptualizations of the divine that result from that drive, i.e. my classification of certain fictional characters as gods.

From the time I was merely seven years old I regularly perceived godly presences in video game characters, as well as in the elements, and in natural settings. I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what I experienced; I only knew that it felt immense, and important, and that I wanted to get closer to it, whatever it happened to be. I was also aware of divine personalities (again, lacking the proper vocabulary) that my favorite video game characters possessed, which extended beyond their pixelated forms and scripted dialogue and made them awe-inspiringly larger than life.

Any kind of experience, whether it results from the senses or from the imagination, can undergo apotheosis, be regarded as PG Type A, and can become a divine fixture in a person’s life.

Personal Gnosis Type B (or PG Type B) has to do with interaction, or divine communion. For me, this is the understanding of how I as an individual interact with the divine as defined by my PG Type A. Common methods of interacting with the divine involve praying, meditating, contemplating, and sometimes include artistic pursuits or making offerings. Oftentimes this interaction is not a one-way street, and people hear their gods talk back while they pray, or they experience a sacred presence which makes them feel at ease. In some cases, people actually perceive their gods as setting up life events in certain ways, so that they can learn lessons and become better people.

PG Type B is usually where people sense intention or will as an aspect of divine figures. This is also where theists hone and utilize the practice of discernment. “Discernment” means discerning the will/words/visions/etc. of one’s god(s) from other mental signals and noise. Just like every theist’s personal gnosis is different, every theist’s methods of discernment are also different. Some look for certain types of thoughtforms as indications of divine contact, while others rely on feelings to inform them of divine presence. Some people recognize possessions (as in Vodou) as authentic presentations of gods or spirits while other people choose not to recognize them.

Both of these types of personal gnosis can be altered willfully, to some degree. Sometimes one just can’t help but see a divine figure in a certain fictional character, but if the presence of that divine figure is an inconvenience for some reason then it’s not wrong to attempt to alter that perception. Likewise, it’s not wrong to change methods of discernment mid-week or even mid-thought. Experimentation with different personal gnoses and different methods of discernment is just as legit as experimentation with styles of dress or diet. In any area of life, finding what works is a good thing.

Hypotheses on the underpinnings of my divine experiences

I’m an odd activist, trying to tell my own story in two worlds which largely don’t accept people like me: the world of religion and the world of secularism. That’s why I jump to answer writing prompts which I feel apply to me in any way. I feel guilty, like I might be speaking over people for whom the opportunity is meant, though if that’s the case I’ll likely be dismissed. That’s not a bad thing; at least I get an opportunity to put words to my experiences.

Today’s writing prompt comes courtesy of Recovering From Religion:

Hello, my name is Arda, and gods talk to me all the time. I’m also a secularist and an ex-fundie Christian. I currently identify as a nondenominational polygnostic. With that out of the way…

I’m sorry, this is tricky. I still don’t know if I qualify for the question. You see, I don’t “believe” that gods speak to me. I’m a non-believer who experiences gods in ways that people have experienced gods throughout the ages. I sense divine presences in places, in inanimate objects, and in fictional characters. I experience gods as subtle forms who interact with me, speak with me, and present visions. Sometimes they set up elaborate events in the physical world to teach me important lessons. However, all of this is part of my personal gnosis— my personal understanding of the divine as it relates to me and my own life. This isn’t something I would put forward as objective truth, or natural law; my personal gnosis is there to contribute meaning to my life and to help me to understand myself, my art, and my purpose, by giving me new perspectives on everyday matters. When other people are involved I mostly turn to secular ethics to inform my actions, save for minor influences from my personal gnosis, like considering the gift of a good meal a sacred act.

Still, confounded framing aside, in my paradigm gods speak to me. So let’s focus on that point, because it interests me greatly as a rational person. What makes the subtle experiences of my gods stand out? Why is it that when my cherished divinity speaks to me the words take on a characteristic that feels so *beyond me*?

I’m not schizophrenic. I don’t have trouble relating to reality from moment to moment. I don’t suffer from delusions. The things that my gods say to me seem sensible. So, I know that this isn’t the result of mental illness. In When God Talks Back, anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann explains at length that people who hear God speak to them, in the ways that I hear my gods speak to me, aren’t mentally ill. My experiences are also not all that uncommon. In many pagan circles it’s accepted that people have what’s referred to as a “godphone”.

Alright, so much for this being the result of mental illness or my being an outlier. Back to the main question: what do I think is going on?

I have some hypotheses here: first, my innate discernment, my sense the divine that I get from certain fictional characters, places, or things — statues, my tarot cards (sometimes), good meals — is the same sense that makes certain profound thoughts, or thoughts with certain characteristics, seem like the work of a great god. The thoughts in question also happen to be directed at me, and they usually have a conversational “tone” about them while they give sound, helpful, and enlivening advice. I don’t know why the sense of discernment seems to activate at the same time that one of these thoughts arises, though. It’s as though an “important message incoming” notice precedes the event, and my whole body takes notice. All of my muscles relax ever so slightly and I become more attentive. Maybe the relaxation makes the depth of such thoughts possible in the first place. Maybe it’s all a cycle that works to make these experiences happen, that makes them profound in the first place and recognized as divine in nature afterward.

A related hypothesis, and one I feel important to disclose here, is that this whole divinity thing may be so compelling to me because the phenomenon of divinity may be inherently related to moral being, personal morals in particular. Studies show that people perceive numinous beings like gods as being particularly concerned with morality, and that monotheists align their God’s morality with their own sense of morality. Combine this with the fact that morality is closely entwined with people’s sense of self, and it’s easy to understand why theists place a great deal of importance on their gods, the nature of their gods, and their relationships to their gods. My own sense of what is divine is very closely related with what I consider to be chief goodness, or that which is of utmost importance to me. While my gods feel like they’re astounding beings beyond me in ability and wisdom, they may in fact be more myself than I am, if that makes sense.

Because I am objectively agnostic, I don’t claim to know that my experiences *aren’t* caused by gods who exist in some form in the natural world, but I also don’t claim that they are. I identify them as divine because it helps me to understand myself more than anything. To me the question, “What are your gods *really*?” is akin to the question, “What is your gender *really*?” or, “What is your love *really*?” I could know all of the biological underpinnings for the phenomena, but it wouldn’t change what I call it or how I relate to it.

More Than Anecdotes: Pop Culture Pagans and the Fundamentally Diverse Divine

When I disclose the fact that I found long-sought-after fulfillment by honoring divinities which I perceived in my favorite childhood video game characters, people who are unaware of current trends in personal theistic practices might be tempted to dismiss me as some kind of unsubstantial outlier, as just a living anecdote, or a “weirdo”. As I’ll illustrate here, they are wrong to do so.

Even I was unaware of the aforementioned novel trends at the time that I began to embrace my video game character gods as true divinities. My decision to treat certain characters like gods arose purely from personal needs, without the prompting of any blog posts or articles concerning other theists’ similar decisions. More than a year had passed since I’d finally begun to feel at home with my gods, born of popular media, when I noticed the subject of Pop Culture Paganism being discussed on sites like Tumblr and WordPress.

Pop Culture Paganism, in its current incarnation, is very well explained in this introduction at the Pagan Study Group, written by the mod Wanderings: http://thepaganstudygrouppage.tumblr.com/post/75580019817/pop-culture-paganism-an-introduction

I’ll quote the sections of the introduction which I feel are pertinent to me, and add then I’ll my own perspective which comes from a polygnostic/secular angle.

Pop Culture Paganism is less common but gaining more and more followers each day. There is no one way to be a PC Pagan, so I’ll offer just a few methods that I’m aware of, from both personal practice and learning of the practices of others.

1. Worshiping a character as a deity: Some PC Pagans feel most comfortable worshiping their favorite character as a deity. There is no one way of achieving this, however, but the most common ways include:

  • The belief that thoughts manifest themselves and one merely needs to think a character is a deity for that character to become one.
  • Worshiping the traits of the character as a representation of divinity rather than the character itself.
  • Belief that there is an infinite number of universes and possibilities, so it stands that there are universes where the character is, in fact, a deity.
  • Believing that the character is a deity in disguise attempting to reach out in a way the receiver will more easily understand and relate to.

I am a non-believer, so I don’t talk about beliefs when I talk about my gods; I prefer to talk about experiences. The first time I felt the sensation that I was observing a pantheon rather than watching a mere cast of characters was when I played Final Fantasy IV as a child. I’ve experienced that same feeling several times since then, most recently while watching the TV shows My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic and Community. So far my experiences of fictional characters as gods-in-themselves correlate with those same characters being a part of a pantheon.

The first times that I experienced the presence of my cherished divinity, the great god to whom I’m most devoted, were also times that I had a Super NES controller in my hand. I sensed his presence in two other pixelated characters who seemed to possess divinity all their own, apart from any pantheon. Perhaps my experiences of fictional characters as “other, bigger gods in disguise”, as it were, are more singular— those characters tend to stand out more.

2. Worshiping characters as spirits: This varies depending on who you ask. Some believe the characters are angels trying to reach out. Others believe they are ghosts, ancestors, or creatures of a different dimension trapped between the veil of our world and theirs. As I said, the different paths of PC Paganism are vast and vary greatly from person to person.

I don’t really differentiate the numinous entities I interact with as spirits or faeries, they’re mostly just gods to me. That’s just my personal gnosis, though, and everyone’s personal gnosis is different.

3. Using aspects of pop culture in prayer, rituals, etc: Pretty straight forward. An example would include calling on the three Hylian Goddesses to assist you in finding courage. This particular practice sometimes includes PC Magic as well, which is why the two are often confused for being the same thing.

I intend to use figurines of my favorite video game characters as altarpieces in the future when I have an altar set up in my dwelling, since I use idol worship as a means of divine communion, and since likenesses of video game characters are the best physical representations of my cherished divinity.

4. Allowing pop culture to shape ones perspective about existing entities: This is probably the aspect of PC Paganism that annoys outsiders the most. Our heads are filled with versions of deities, angels, demons, fairies, and so many other creatures every day. Sometimes we can’t help but allow those versions to become our versions. It doesn’t matter how much canon we read or how inaccurate certain traits or actions of the alternate version are; sometimes, the alternate version will always be our headcanon.

Believe it or not, most of us are very respectful about this particular path and understand that our headcanons may well offend long-time studiers and the canon-compliant. Yes, every once in a while you’ll see a new Avenger!Loki follower rant about how much more important their headcanon is, but you’re much more likely to find Avenger!Loki followers who appreciate Loki for who he is both in the movies, the comics, and traditional Norse history. Next time you see someone who follows a pop culture version, try listening to what they have to say before insulting their practices. By jumping the gun and thinking they’re immature or bandwagoning, all you’re doing is demonstrating your immaturity.

I’ve watched some followers of Loki embrace Avenger!Loki as a divinity, more or less, or as an authentic representation of their G/god. I can’t say I blame them, though not because I’ve watched any of the Avengers movies, but rather because I perceive so many of the qualities of my video game gods in my cherished divinity. Wherever, whenever a theist senses the divine it may very well impact their perceptions and practices.

The introduction to Pop Culture Paganism concludes with a section about worshiping flesh and blood people, which is troublesome to me. Choosing to worship other people in any way that acknowledges them as divinities can leave theists vulnerable to exploitation and abuse in religious settings. In the past I’ve expressed the opinion that it is not okay to acknowledge people as divinities in themselves, though I admit presently that such acknowledgement may be more empowering than dangerous in very specific contexts. For now in my own practice, for the sake of my own safety and sanity, I choose to perceive people with divine qualities as resembling other gods, which can be worshiped, evoked, and communed with apart from those people.

I found another piece by Wanderings on her blog chaoticpaganism, wherein she talks about what made her choose her path: https://chaoticpaganism.wordpress.com/2013/12/25/why-pop-culture-paganism/

I didn’t grow up learning about Greek Gods and Goddesses. Safe for one fluffy, inaccurate book of Goddesses, I knew next to nothing about them. Their practices and mythology were foreign to me. Every time I attempted to learn (specifically in regards to a recon path) I felt that disconnect. It eventually pushed me away, as I felt uncomfortable working with deities I didn’t know enough about (and no matter how much I learned, I didn’t feel worthy of knowing them).

Now, pop culture I knew. Pop culture gripped me tight and raised my ass from perdition. My entire life was bathed in pop culture, from my first video game when I was six years old (Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time) to the tv show I’ve surrendered my happiness to (Supernatural). Harry Potter, which showed me that I was never truly alone, The Vampire Diaries, which showed me that the family you choose is just as important as the family you didn’t. All these things altered my life and made me the woman I am today. For better or for worse, I am who I am and I owe thanks to the people who brought me here. As I’ve said before, it seems only fitting that I devote my life to those who have helped me so much.

Her experiences with Hellenic Polytheism resemble my experiences with Christian monotheism. I’ve mentioned before that as a child I tried to become a Christian in spite of my Final Fantasy IV gods calling to me in the back of my mind. I had to actively push Cecil and Rydia away as I was trying to accept Jesus as my only divinity. If I’d become a pagan instead of a Christian at that age I likely would have had similar experiences, unless I’d been lucky enough to meet other pagans who could have helped me to accept myself and my perceptions as legitimate.

Another account of deity perception influenced by popular fiction comes from John Halstead, self-described Jungian polytheist and blogger at The Allergic Paganhttp://www.patheos.com/blogs/allergicpagan/2011/10/20/the-storm-king/

I have a particular fondness for the Wild Hunt legend.  When I first came to Neopaganism, and I was constructing my personal mythos from every readily available source, the first deity that I imagined was one I called the “Storm King”.  I borrowed the name from an undead “Sithi” (Sidhe) ruler in Tad Williams’ trilogy Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.  I imagined my creation to be a cross between Michael Moorcock’s Elric and Anne Rice’s Lasher, a spirit named after the wind that “lashes the grasslands, that lashes the leaves from the trees”, like the wind that blew last night.

[…]At the time, I did not draw the connection between this character and my own psychological state, but it is quite obvious to me now.  I had recently left the LDS Church and I was still raging against the perceived injustice of my situation.  I was angry, so it made sense that the first Pagan god of my heart would be a wild god ofsturm und drang.  The Storm King was my way of honoring my anger.

While Pop Culture Paganism today is focused more heavily on video games, TV shows, movies, and comics, any work of art or fiction can be a source of divine inspiration. Another brief account posted to Stranger Gods questions whether Effie Trinket from The Hunger Games is a guardian spirit: http://stranger-gods.tumblr.com/post/40991105626/muse-sort-of

I tend to identify strongly with fictional characters, but the day Effie Trinket showed herself to me while I was mid-blink while enjoying a cup of coffee (with her own cup of coffee, may I add!) was extra special. I have worked with her for almost a year now, but this is the first time she has done something like this. I’m new at this, so I could be way off course (advice would be appreciated), but I’m starting to wonder if she isn’t .. maybe not my guide, but some sort of assisting or guardian spirit. Anyway. True story.

The backlash against people professing stories like those above, and like my own, as genuine encounters with the divine* has come entirely from those who wish to dictate the means by which people can conceptualize and commune with the divine, be they religious people who want to characterize Pop Culture Paganism as impious, or antitheists who characterize all divine communion as toxic insanity. To put it succinctly, Pop Culture Paganism is a threat to cherished presumptions and prejudices, and that is precisely why it is so important.

Mainstream conceptualizations of the divine need to be challenged; they are too often presumed to be universal by both religious adherents and irreligious people alike. In fact, the divine is generally mischaracterized as something that is absolute by definition. Looking at the enormously vast number of divine conceptualizations spanning the world and the ages provides a completely different picture of the divine as a metaphysical construct. For the divine to be understood from a scientific perspective it must be considered through this lens: as a naturally occurring concept utilized by many, as both widely varied and thematic in its occurrences, and as something that is engaged on an individual, personal level. That is the picture of the divine that arises from the natural world, by way of the people who live in it.

Based on numerous personal testimonies, it is also sound to infer that people find fulfillment in pursuing the divine in ways which best compliment not only their needs, but also their innate perceptions. This is not merely a matter of finding beliefs that are the most comforting in a chaotic world; it is divine communion itself, direct engagement, that enables theists to feel alive and connected to the world. Professing the divine wherever and however one perceives it is one of the most radically self-affirming things a person can do.

As more people affirm their honed, unique divine conceptualizations and theistic practices, a more complete picture of the nature of divinity will emerge, and that in turn will assist other theistically or religiously inclined individuals toward embracing the paths that are best for them. Along with the potential secularization of theism and religion, this trend seems like unequivocal progress— like something that will without a doubt assist the greatest number of people to become and to be themselves should it continue its advance.


* I have no evidence that the person giving the account involving Effie Trinket actually classified the encounter as “divine”. It seems like something that many Pop Culture Pagans would classify as a divine encounter, and the term “divine” is usually a reasonable descriptor for such events. Still, I believe that self-identification of oneself and one’s perceptions is non-negotiable, and if the anonymous author would prefer a different descriptor I would retract the adjective “divine” without hesitation.