Author Archives: ardagale

The Next Step: Why we have to move beyond belief and non-belief

If someone came up to me and asked me the question: “Are you a man or aren’t you?” my first response would be to remark that it’s a very odd question. Of course I’m not a man. I’m also not entirely a woman, but that important piece of information is framed as irrelevant by the question. I would wonder why the asker cared only about my man vs. non-man status, and didn’t care about the fact that there are a multitude of relevant classifications related to sex and gender that have nothing to do with being a man. Wouldn’t you?

In debates between the proverbial -ists (theists, religionists, spiritualists, etc.) and non-ists, too much hinges on the question of belief or non-belief. People on both sides of these debates often consider belief to be the the central, crucial component to expansive systems of concepts and behaviors related to the divine and the sacred. By their framing, it’s as though engaging in communion, prayer, worship, devotion, and other behaviors is literally impossible without belief. More disturbing, to me, is the implication that beyond belief how a person engages with the sacred or the divine doesn’t matter.

People don’t need to believe, in the traditional sense, to have a sense of the divine or the sacred, or to engage with those things that they sense to be divine or sacred. Yes, technically a person who has a sense of the divine or the sacred necessarily has some manner of belief; i.e. she believes her own perceptions to be warranted— and spoiler alert: they are. But what if she also doesn’t believe that her senses point to anything in the physical world? or what if she doesn’t have enough evidence to conclude that they point to objective sources beyond the biocomputer in her head? Can she suddenly not pray or worship? Does she lose the ability to sense the wills or the presences of any gods with whom she communes? Of course she doesn’t.

If someone came up to me and asked the question, “Are you a believer or aren’t you?” I would know what they were getting at, but the question implies that they do not consider my ideas, conceptualizations, or behaviors toward my divinities to be relevant beyond my belief status. Like the question about my man vs. non-man status, it reduces a very important aspect of my life to a binary switch that exists off in the corner of a much bigger picture. Of course I am a non-believer as I’ve stated so many times in the past. There’s your boolean false value. Now, would you like to know how many times I prayed yesterday? or how over the past two days my devotional practice helped to keep my mind from running off the rails? Would you like to know about how I exist in a state of communion most of the time? or about why doing so is necessary for me? Do you care that I spoke to gods as a child and heard them talk back in nature? How about the fact that as a child I found the idea of building temples to video game characters very enticing?

Would you like to know that I tried to deny my theistic tendencies for years because I didn’t feel that they were justified without belief? Would you like to know that when someone held a promising vision of god in front of me I took it in part because I couldn’t help myself?

Would you like to know about the damage that wrought years later? Would you like to know about all of the psychiatric medications it took to keep me from spiraling down? How about their side effects? I’ll tell you this much: it wasn’t fun.

I’ve long been a skeptic, someone who questions, someone who can’t accept things without proof. I have an upbringing close to scientific communities to thank for teaching me to question everything. At the same time I’ve always been a person who would have benefited from a practice surrounding my own divinities, who have been there from my earliest years. I’m fond of saying that I was born to be a theist, or even simply born a theist, because my drives always moved me in that direction. With some amount of shame I regularly admit that I was tempted throughout my skeptical years to go to a megachurch just to worship. The aforementioned drives were that powerful.

Because I could not accept a world without gods, and because I was such a skeptic, before the worst of my mental illness I undertook a long and perplexing spiritual search in hopes of finding the Truth. In hindsight, I think what I was looking for was simply a god that I could feel justified in having, a god I could justifiably believe in. Spiritual seekers who claimed to have Found hinted at knowledge that would put all of my questions to rest, and that sounded like what I wanted. I wanted to Know, or at least I thought that I did.

Ultimately I was wrong. I didn’t want to Know. I didn’t even want to believe. All that I ever wanted was communion, and when I found communion everything else worked itself out over a few years. Now, every day I have powerful divine experiences, every day I devote myself, every day I pray so, so often, and from all of this I have created a life, an experience that makes me feel at home, that makes me feel like myself, that finally does not leave me wanting or hollow.

I hope that, in light of all of this, it is easily understandable that I put the single issue of belief off in the corner of a much larger behavioral and conceptual picture. Even while my belief switch is “off” I’m capable of having gods, communing with them, worshiping them, and learning from them in so many ways. It was largely because I pursued these behaviors and conceptualizations apart from any belief in objective divinities that I was able to freely explore them, and thereby freely explore myself, so thoroughly.

My highest aspiration in putting my ideas out there is helping others like me: others who may not know that any of this is a possibility; others who feel tied to oppressive religions in part because they need gods; others who seek out oppressive religions in hopes of divine communion; others who feel ashamed for wanting divine communion because they think it goes against logical imperatives. I don’t want people like me to have to suffer through a cult experience and mental illness because they didn’t know that there was another way. In fact I want to erase outlooks that necessitate anything untenable, for anyone, in conjunction with behaviors and conceptualizations that allow people to become themselves, starting with outdated outlooks concerning the divine and the sacred.

The debate has got to move beyond belief and non-belief because there is so much more to the picture, and because — I contend — it is largely within that “so much more” where so many people can find what they need to be themselves. It is within that “so much more” where some of the most fascinating aspects of religious or spiritual practices reside. It is within that “so much more” where people can have transformative or illuminating experiences even without the element of certainty, if they wish to have such experiences. It is within that “so much more” where people can learn to commune with whatever they find to be sacred, or whatever they determine to be divine, if they wish to do so.

Additionally, we have to understand these things if people are going to engage with them. Like all aspects of behavior such practices and experiences should be treated reverently, and their effects should be studied in earnest, because their effects can be profound. People who are interested in offering scientific insight regarding matters of the sacred and the divine also need to look beyond the matter of belief and look into behaviors and perceptions. It’s generally accepted that people are predisposed or “wired” to experience these sorts of perceptions, and to engage in certain behaviors surrounding these perceptions. If that is the case, scientists: shouldn’t we be wondering how we might take advantage of our predispositions rather than outright shunning them?

For people like me a comprehensive understanding of these behavioral matters may actually be life-saving. Perhaps of equal importance, it can mean the difference between a life of interminable confusion and one where meaningful self discovery is possible beyond a very shallow level. I wish, so dearly, that someone had been able to talk to me about my proclivities when I was younger, about what behaviors they may necessitate, and about what they do not necessitate, namely belief. I wish that the debate could have long ago moved beyond the endless arguing over inscrutable absolutes and taken a close look at what we can know, what people can experience.

I don’t often find myself in a position to make such a bold assertion, but here I go: This is the next step. This is where we have to go. For people like me, and for people in general, we have to explore how we can make this work for us. Let’s start to earnestly acknowledge the bigger picture. Let’s begin to have serious conversations about behaviors and experiences. Let’s acknowledge what we know is real about these matters, those parts which reside within us, even as we continue to debate inscrutable absolutes, because it is vitally necessary.

Notes from the field

To be a scientist, through and through, is to cherish What Is when What Is reveals something unexpected. At least, that is what it is to me. It is not unlike my relationships with my gods: alongside the experience of divine communion there is the opportunity to glimpse.

Look at what is happening. Just look.

My divine dance partner stepped aside. What Is glided seamlessly into awareness, and the divine stood back patiently and watched What Is along with me.

So many times in high school and college I imagined what I would say to others, fantasizing conversations in which I made my points and won the day. It was always so riveting in my head, to me and all around. All those times. I was reliving all those times, except in a different realm.

I bargain with the divine. I say that not expecting understanding, and I don’t say it to preach. It’s just something that can happen with theistic gods because of how theistic gods are perceived, as agents and wills working with or against. Joseph Campbell experienced this too, the feeling of being helped along, the feeling of some other guiding wills alongside his. Just a feeling. It’s fine to feel feelings. It’s often fine to feel feelings all the way to their final consequences if one wants.

Faced with challenges, I sometimes find myself asking, “What do you want?” It is also fine to think thoughts, and to think thoughts as questions directed at forces which follow you because you are you— because you have a mind that says that they are they.

“I need help. What would tempt you to bend the rules just a little this time? Please. You know what’s on the line just as much as I do. You know…”

There was no immediate answer, only more thoughts.

Gods care about what we do, at least in our heads. Studies have consistently shown this. The perceived moral desires of gods shape the thoughts of theists, and for those who balk too much at that word, gray area polygnostic freaks like me. So as in high school, and in college, and sometimes recently, the pretend began.

I imagined temptations, great temptations that I would have to refuse. I imagined getting down to business, being an obedient devotee, cracking open files and debugging like a champion with no distractions. I imagined being better in my relationships, and in my correspondence which suffers when my mind suffers even slightly. In each of these imaginings there was more than one person, more than just me, and I was winning the day by making sure this other was satisfied.

Then scientist-me took over. “Look! Look at what is happening!”

How often had it happened in the past? How often before now had I been unaware? The connection was made, “I’ve been here before, and now I’m here with you (god).” Except this time the imaginings seemed far less egotistical. They looked like growth, and maturity. They looked like me at my best, the me that my gods want to see actualized.

I stopped to write down the data in my virtual notebook. Notes from the field: gray area unapologetic polygnostic freak edition.

Answers eventually came, answers that weren’t my imaginings… or would *you* call them imaginings? That is fine if you would, but they didn’t feel of my will, so I will call them something different.

Will I heed them? No telling yet, but if I do it might be interesting.

Gods, Gnosis, and Gray Areas: Essential Reading and Watching

People often have a difficult time understanding how I could espouse personal gnosis, personal knowledge of gods and the divine, without belief. Stating that I am a “non-believer who has gods” is my (admittedly inefficient) attempt to convey a foundational aspect of my being, something central to my life. I don’t believe that I should present any of my gods, or experiences with the divine—hearing the voices of gods, feeling the presences of gods, or the attribution of physical events to the wills of gods—as anything that happens outside of my brain, and yet these concepts and experiences are crucial to my identity, my sense of purpose, and to my overall psychological health.

I’ve written a great deal about my own experiences up to now. Though there will be more of that to come, I presently want to direct people to others’ stories. I present the following stories because they provide helpful perspective for people who are unaware of what it’s like to struggle with reconciling theistic beliefs and tendencies, religious needs, or any personal needs which happen to be fulfilled by religion, with the lack of evidence for the existence of gods beyond the realm of the mind.

First, please read “A Report from the Journey to Meet the Gods” by André Sólo. This piece is important because Sólo states plainly in it, “More and more, I’ve come to feel that the greatest sin a religious person can commit is to act as if they know the answer,” and also presents colorful personal accounts of interactions with spirits— which he would still call spirits, and would honor even if they were restricted to the realm of the mind: “It doesn’t mean that religion is pointless, or that Vodou is canceled. The experiences are just as vivid. Even if I knew for a fact that it was all in our heads, I would still want to dance at the temple and Papa’s blessing would still make me soar.” It is a stellar and commendably honest testimony.

Second, please watch the Portraits in Faith interview with Lene Andersen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5yir1k9lghg*
(See footnote for content note.)

Andersen describes herself thusly: “Intellectually I’m an atheist but emotionally I’m a believer.” Her story is intriguing to me because she studied theology in college with the intent to become a pastor, and later converted to Judaism. She describes feeling like something was missing before her conversion, so between that and her earlier interest in theology I gather she may have been innately drawn to understanding and possibly communing with the divine, kind of like I’ve been for my entire life. At the end of the interview she talks about her intellectual awareness of behaviors related to her faith, and I encourage all of my readers to listen to her assessment of such behaviors. Her theories about the nature of God, in relation to her personal values and faith, are also lovely.

Third, *PLEASE* read “I contradict myself” by Nat Case. This entire piece hits the nail on the head regarding why I call myself a secular theist instead of an agnostic or liberal “spiritual” person. Case uses the words “non-believer” and “non-theist” to describe himself, but he also states that he is, “not a non-theist first,” which I think is a very important point. The ways that he related to the stories of his childhood strongly reflect the ways that I related to the Final Fantasy games, and other role-playing video games, that I played in my childhood. Like me, he connects the power of these stories to the divine, and the stirring ways in which he describes this connection… WOW. Just stop reading my rambling here and go read it, now. I *still* get misty-eyed thinking about it.

All three of these people would not use the language I use in my writing to describe themselves, but I refer to their stories in part to suggest that we do need a new language, or new labels, for such people, whose experiences and identities would be widely seen as contradictory to their perceptions of the world around them. This is why I’m pushing for the adoption of labels like “polygnostic” to relate personal gnosis—or the possession thereof—while abstaining from claims of objectivity or universality, and “secular theist” to describe a person who engages in theistic behaviors and cognition while eschewing supernaturalism.

As secularism becomes more widespread I gather that stories like these, stories like mine, will become more common. However, even presently I think they provide crucial examples of finding spiritual or religious fulfillment relating to theistic tendencies in particular, and doing so in a world where such tendencies can be dangerous. I think that it is so important for people to realize that theistic tendencies and behaviors are not dangerous in themselves so much as they are dangerous within present societal contexts. If people were given better ways to engage with such tendencies and behaviors, the dangers associated with them would be greatly diminished.

Antitheists, take note.


*Anderson does say, at one point, that there is only one god, but it’s a statement of her personal monotheism rather than a denial of others’ religions. Later on she states that religious people must treat people of different religions as people, and I’m certain that doing so, in her mind, includes honoring their respective theisms.

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.