Tag Archives: agnostic

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.

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.

I need secular theism, not antitheism

(Content warning: Detailed discussion of personal shame caused by antitheistic sentiment.)

To begin, let’s get one thing out of the way: I’m not the most emotionally healthy individual. I carry a sound diagnosis of major depressive disorder. My current doctor stopped short of diagnosing PTSD from abuse that occurred within a toxic religion. I have a modest list of triggers, but interestingly they mostly involve intolerance and pseudointellectual depersonalization aimed at people with inclinations toward divine communion. On an emotional level, toxic religious views actually bother me less than antitheism.

There are understandable reasons for this. As a young theistically inclined person I didn’t have people to help me figure out, in a sane way, how to go about this whole divine communion thing. All of the theists around me were absolutists— people who believed that their gods were objective and universal, and that their methods of communion, which always involved copious political and social baggage, were the only acceptable ways. Eventually I gave in and adopted some of those ways because they were at least seen as acceptable to a large number of people around me. Doing so led to my first experiences with toxic religion and a fear of hell that persisted for just under a decade.

I was introduced to the ideas of Secular Humanism, atheism, and Freethought as a teenager. These made objectively far more sense than the religion of creationism and hell that I escaped, but their sensibility did not erase my desire for divine communion. I still prayed, secretly. I still read the Bible, desperately. I listened to Christian radio to alleviate chronic dysphoria. I joined Christian chat rooms looking for, if nothing else, people who *felt* like I did. That’s when I began to feel shame for being who I was.

I was still a theist. There was no denying it on the inside, and that made me akin to the downfall of my species. I was dangerous, possibly mentally ill. I was stupid and irrational for wanting what I wanted. People like me flew planes into buildings, engaged in pointless, unproductive pastimes like prayer, and couldn’t be bothered to give enough of a shit about the natural world to matter. That is to say, I couldn’t honestly worship science and my great ape ancestry like all of the atheists around me seemed to do. That “divinity”, as it were, was just as innately foreign to me as the monotheistic divinity that I’d reached toward countless times in futile attempts to become myself.

I managed to bury it all for years. I adopted a cynical and antitheistic air. Of course I wasn’t silly enough to profess gods. I said derogatory things about divine communion even while craving it, and did so enough that looking back on it makes my head spin. Denial became a way of life— for the greater good, I thought. I wouldn’t become the downfall of my species.

I tried the rational spiritual paths that didn’t involve irrational gods. I embraced ideas about Einstein’s God, the god of physics and the dauntingly complex yet remarkably orderly natural world. I tried Buddhism for years, tried to let it all go. It wasn’t what I needed, but I tried to believe that it was.

I tried to believe.

I tried to believe until I got into deep, deep trouble. My second brush with toxic religion was the most devastating thing that ever happened to me. It wasn’t like that creationist bullshit; it was real. So real, so personal, so intoxicating. Many memories from that time are hazy. I vaguely remember touching the vault of heaven and fearing, loathing myself, vomiting even though I wasn’t ill, thinking that I could really *save* people, being beyond the point of help, secretly praying for an easy way out (there was no easy way out) when I wasn’t hanging on for dear life to my most profound source of meaning, and refusing to take prescribed psychiatric medication because it made me feel distant from something that I thought was real.

I won’t go into any more details about what happened. What I wonder is, could it have been prevented? Could knowing what I know now have provided me with better direction and made me less susceptible to the influence of what I believed to be my best shot at divine communion? It’s difficult to say; there were so many factors in what happened, but the need for divinity in my life and the depth of my denial as a supposedly godless individual were two of the major contributing factors to my involvement in that religion, which shall remain nameless.

That religion wasn’t the only place where I’d learned to hate myself. I’d learned that while being around Freethinkers, where I absorbed as many lies about theists and theism as I’d absorbed in monotheistic religion. I’ve already gone over those defeatist lies; no need to do that again. The point is that I was shamed away from finding fulfillment in divine communion, and denied the self-knowledge that I may have gained from such exercises. I’ve written before about how the lack of gods in my life felt very much like the lack of a foundation, specifically a foundation for self-exploration. When I consciously acknowledged who my true gods had always been—my favorite video game characters from childhood—and when I began to deliberately perceive them as gods and treat them like gods, the need for a foundation went away. Though I still wasn’t entirely sure of who I was supposed to be, I was finally satisfied with how I could go about finding out. If I’d been so satisfied years ago I may not have succumbed to a religion which promised answers; I may have already known that the answers I needed were within me.

I no longer see theism as a belief but rather as a set of drives, perceptual inclinations, and a subjective working knowledge of the extraordinary divine and how it relates to oneself and one’s life. That subjective working knowledge of divinity is called “personal gnosis”, and I believe that all theists who feel a strong connection with their faith have it. We have no evidence that personal gnosis reveals any objective physical truths or universal personal truths, and so long as people do not treat it as though it reveals these things it is a perfectly healthy thing to have.

My personal gnosis is akin to my gender identity; it’s something I know about myself. I have gods who care about me, who challenge me, who comfort me, who may eventually destroy and remake me. I have gods who talk to me, who puzzle me. My gods are greater and more emotionally sound than I am, even when they are emotional. They have faces, likes, dislikes. They sometimes provide meaning when life’s slings and arrows seem pointlessly vexing. Sometimes they give gifts. Some physical real-world events have resulted from their involvement— yes, that is a perfectly legitimate element of my personal gnosis.

Apart from my personal gnosis, I have knowledge of how to optimally interact with my gods which I’ve learned from honing my practice. Repetitive mantra-like prayers evoke their presences, which assist me in difficult times. Visualizing and talking to them over a screen full of computer code or a cup of tea is a fine way to pass the time. When they give me something that I’m grateful for I make sure to thank them, because expressing gratitude is a healthy thing to do. I pray to them about friends, not believing that they will help my friends, but because I need to figure out how to help my friends myself, and praying helps me to do that. I remember the lessons they’ve taught me, as well as the challenges they’ve issued as I continually try to become a better person.

I am a non-believer. Instead of believing, I experience. I play with my personal gnosis. Sometimes it bothers me, and when it does I willfully pursue a divine vision that may offer resolution. To some degree I can change it, and to some degree it can change me. There is a nontrivial amount of stubbornness in both directions, but it hasn’t stopped positive changes from happening in my life.

This is what healthy, helpful, fulfilling theism can look like. This is what I needed throughout those years of denial and abusive religion. I have it now, and that is something worth celebrating, because I finally feel like a whole person. I also know for a fact that I am not alone in needing theism of this nature.

To return to the point of this essay: what prevented me from discovering this, and what prevents others like me from finding safe fulfillment, does not merely amount to the kind of ignorance that comes from lack of experience. As a backlash against abusive religions preventing societal progress a strong strain of antitheism has emerged among skeptics and secularists. People who may otherwise have a decent shot at grasping the common threads present in theistic tendencies instead limit their grasp of theism so that it typifies the theists that they battle, the fundamentalists. Considering the threats posed by fundamentalist religion this is an understandable tendency.

But it doesn’t stop there. Antitheism is oftentimes outright hatemongering. Antitheists deplorably use scare words like “mentally ill” to wrongly characterize theists, or more specifically “schizophrenic” or “retarded”, further marginalizing the mentally ill while they’re at it. (As someone who is in both the theist camp *and* the mentally ill camp, this is especially distressing to me.) They characterize practices which provide real meaning to theists, like prayer, as wastes of time with no real value. They’ll joke about theists regularly, continuously reinforcing negative feelings toward theists in their meetings and circles. These behaviors can lead to complete devaluation of *all* theists’ needs, experiences, and sources of personal meaning.

Some would say that all antitheistic speech that doesn’t target toxic religion specifically is hatemongering. As someone who has been a closeted theist for much of her life, and who has always had a genuine need for divine communion, I am only on the fence about this because I know that many antitheists are genuinely unaware that people like me exist. If they are open to changing their assessments based on new data then they will reconsider their stances and their tactics as their awareness grows.

One of my primary objectives at this point is growing that awareness, not just among atheists and antitheists, but also among theists who don’t appreciate toxic religions that they may feel bound to, like I once felt bound to one sole source of divine meaning. It’s been an unnecessarily difficult road for me, and I want to spare others the monumental challenges that I had to face as a theistically inclined person.

If secularists can see the value in my needs and the ways that I’ve gone about fulfilling them, then I hope that they can also see the danger inherent in antitheism. If some portion of the population is theistically inclined then theism is something that we need to understand for the sake of everyone. We need to understand how theistically inclined people can commune with the divine to their satisfaction, and we need to understand what they can expect from their inclinations and perceptions. Developing personal gnosis should be seen as a practical skill, and exercises like prayer should be understood to be personally beneficial, not pointless.

I challenge antitheists to rethink their position, and I challenge all secularists to make space for theistically inclined people within their circles. I advocate secular theism for a reason: people like me need it, desperately. Don’t discourage theism, advocate secular theism. Let’s bridge the gap once and for all.

#SecularTheism

Hacking god concepts

This post is in reply to the following Twitter conversation:

@MichaelDavidLSWell @ardagale still uses the god concept (for me god is a controlling/rewarding/creating entity). (x)

@MichaelDavidLSAs such ‘god’ does not exist – it’s all natural. (x)

@ardagaleMetaphysical concepts being natural doesn’t mean they don’t exist or aren’t worthwhile to anyone (x)

@ardagaleSorry, “constructs” not “concepts”, but pretty much the same thing nonetheless… (x)

@MichaelDavidLSIf you can mentally ‘construct’ it then it is no ‘god’ by definition – erase the boundary! (x)

Gods, like the gods Michael has defined above, have existed for millennia as metaphysical constructs, affecting the behaviors of the people who perceive and profess them. The natures of such gods as defined by those constructs match seamlessly with the definition he provides.

If I programmed a data structure for a god, and gave it all the requisite god properties in a virtual world, one might observe the behavior of the god in its virtual habitat and say, “Yep, that’s a god!” Of course, there is a key difference between the god construct in the virtual world that I programmed and the god constructs that exist in the minds of theists who live in the physical world: my virtual god would hold undeniable god powers in its virtual world, while god powers of theists’ gods have never been empirically measured.

However, that is the only difference between the two constructs. In every other way they are identical.

I call my god concepts what I do because they are metaphysical constructs which possess qualities one would expect of gods. They possess the property of having manifested physical occurrences to either point me in the right direction or get me out of binds.* (Read the footnote; do not jump to conclusions.) They possess wisdom and an air of majesty that one would expect from gods. The methods by which I commune with them are consistent with popular methods of divine communion through the ages.

My god concepts do look a little different than many theists’ god concepts, mostly for the fact that they also possess the quality of being non-absolute. I do not profess gods with the expectation that everyone should acknowledge or perceive the same gods in the same ways as I do. I am well aware that every theist’s theism is unique to them, and I assert that is the way it should be. From personal experience and observation of other theists, it seems far healthier for people to pursue the divine in whatever way they see fit rather than forcing their experiences and practices into uncomfortable boxes.

It’s taken a long time to understand my gods well enough to conceptualize them in the ways that I have, even though they’ve always been with me. I’m not sure why I need them, but on some very deep level I do. Beyond filling that need they’ve been great help in developing my self-understanding and delving into my own personal mystery. Assertions that I should not call them gods, treat them as gods, or “grow up” by losing them are insulting and distressing.

By freely developing my god concepts I’m enabling myself to be fulfilled in a way which complies with secular ethics, which I know are crucial to a healthy society. Secularists and freethinkers should find value in what I’m doing. There’s no secular commandment that says that god concepts should not be altered to fit personal needs, or retooled to make them work better for everyone.


* Some events in my life are things that I attribute to the work of my gods. This is a personal choice that gives me further insights into their natures, which in turn helps me to understand how they might want me to grow as a person thanks to their help. It gives me valuable points to meditate on, and it contributes meaning to my life. I don’t assert that I have any empirical data pertaining to the actions of my gods, nor do I assert that everyone should agree with me. This is for me and me alone.

What is secular theism? and how can it help?

The case that I find myself trying to make to secularists most often is that theism is natural. The drives to deify, to define certain things or activities as sacred, to worship (“We’re not worthy!”), to petition the universe (even atheists will do this, say, when a basketball is teetering on the edge of a hoop), to sense subtle entities, to interpret intentionality behind single occurrences or entire courses of events— all of these behaviors which contribute to a theistic outlook are normal, and they are not, individually or collectively, signs of mental illness or even cause for concern.

Willingly engaging in these kinds of behaviors isn’t something that most secularists would readily do. Because of the stigma associated with theism in secular circles, many secularists wouldn’t even try to imagine valid reasons for engaging in such behaviors. Secularists often decry these behaviors, and theism in general, as “traps” that people can only “fall for”. They implicitly assert that people cannot rationally pursue a theistic outlook.

So what if a person has always just kind of, you know, wanted to? What if they’ve felt drawn to pray? What if they’ve secretly held onto gods their whole life? What if they suspect that they’ve sensed the elusive divine and wanted a closer look? Hell, what if they’re just curious? What can they do then?

Here are my proposed ways to foster theistic outlooks which are in line with the values of secularism:

1.) Begin by dividing the components of theism into two categories: things which we can measure, and things which we cannot know.

Things we can measure: We can observe how theism affects people on a large scale, and we can analyze individual case studies and stories, theists’ practices, their perceptions, and the course of their reported experiences. On an individual level people can observe their own thought processes and emotions as they adopt new practices, or interpret their experiences in different ways.

Things we cannot know: We cannot know if there is some objective or material divine force, or universal gods that exists in the natural world. We cannot know whether there are supernatural forces which drive these stories, these perceptions, and the changes in thoughts and feelings which come from adopting theistic practices.

By making no assumptions about that which we cannot know, and focusing on what we can observe, secular principles can be preserved in the exploration of theistic practices.

2.) Next, experiment with perceptions and practices, for science!

While there’s no way of knowing for certain whether any material gods exist out in the world, people can still experiment with theistic perspectives. They can seek out gods in mythologies or through other sources, like video games! They can also create gods in their own minds, imbuing them with properties, personalities, and other characteristics as they see fit. After finding or creating such entities they can observe how the entities affect them, whether they are inspired by them or indifferent toward them, and how they are or aren’t moved to commune with them.

Even the most shunned perceptions in secular circles are not off limits in this kind of experimentation. It’s okay to interpret life events as the work of one’s gods. It’s fine to hear the voices of gods, or to perceive gods as subtle entities, and to interact with them. Idol worship, whether it be of bronze sculptures or colorful vinyl figurines, is definitely on the table— or the altar! Try it all; see what happens.

So long as interpretations of any god’s involvement in a person’s life aren’t regarded as objective truths, and so long as perceptions of gods are understood to be subjective, there really isn’t much room for secularists to shun these aspects of theism, especially when there is valuable perspective to be gained from such interpretations and perceptions. For example, if a person interprets a certain life event to be the doing of a god, they can also consider why that god may have willed the outcome that they did. What would that god want for them to learn or deduce from such a life event? The age old art of discerning the wills of personal gods can lead to insights that may not have appeared on a person’s proverbial radar otherwise.

Beyond insights, there is also the matter of fulfillment in general. If people find that they are more fulfilled after adopting or creating gods to pray to, to interact with, or to help them glean greater insight, that’s also very important to consider.

3.) Compare the experiences of others, or look to history and anthropology.

By looking at common threads in experiences, among contemporaries or throughout history, we can deduce common behavioral and perceptual threads in various theistic outlooks. Many of these threads, like those I covered at the beginning, were things that I had to deduce for myself as I struggled to understand my own theism.

There’s another important aspect to this practice of comparing, and that is simply listening to the experiences of others without biased judgment. As I try to explain myself to secularists I run up against antitheistic walls time and time again. According to many secularists: I should not perceive gods, I should not interpret my gods as having any significant role in the events of my life, and finally I should not need gods in the first place.

It’s because of this attitude that I have to make almost pleading posts like this one, from which I quote the following:

This wasn’t delusional behavior, but rather natural behavior that inherently theistic people may exhibit. These tendencies didn’t point to any objective truths, but there were consequences for suppressing them, like never feeling in touch, at peace, or at home with the things that actually stood some chance of helping me to grow into myself. (When I finally accepted that I had gods I finally felt like I was able to achieve some sense of self-assuredness.)

My gods are not delusions, and calling them such is highly disrespectful, like calling the fact that I don’t fully identify as woman or female delusional is disrespectful. These are all things that I need, for reasons which people who don’t need them cannot fathom.

My reality is not a fantasy. I am less in denial and more myself than ever before.

Atheists may be hesitant to accept that people like me exist. People whose lives make more sense after they adopt a theistic outlook defy presumptive assertions that gods are dangerous and pointless. Same with people who find personal fulfillment by way of divine communion. I’m a much happier person now that my life feels more like an ongoing dance with divine forces than anything involving carbon atoms and laws of physics. If that doesn’t sound like heresy against rationalism, then I don’t know what does!

Many rational people benefit from adopting outlooks similar to my own, even if it’s just from the relief of mysterious dysphoria that visits people who are not well suited to atheism. If such people don’t adopt outlooks like my own, then they pursue established religions or Truth-seeking circles, trying to find that which they need.

I suggest that everyone, theistically inclined or not, look to people when seeking the truth about gods. Nobody can be certain about the nature of any objective or physical gods, but people can give you valuable insight about the gods that they themselves experience and engage. Look at their religious needs, their divine experiences, and see how their gods and their practices affect their lives. There’s meaningful data there. Trust me on this.

4.) Advocate giving theistic people room find what they need in the context of secularism.

Secularism is vitally important to society. Advocating for science- and reason-based public life has allowed far more people to become and to be themselves than reliance on tradition or dogma. Everyone should embrace secular values. Of this I am certain.

However, secularism needs to get its act together regarding understanding the natural tendencies underlying theism, and understanding theists themselves. There is room for theistic people to exist comfortably within secularism, but at this point neither theists nor secularists believe it! That’s a shame, because in welcoming theists to secularism we have an opportunity to promote meaningful understanding about perspectives and behaviors that have long vexed advocates of reason. Furthermore, in welcoming theists to secularism we can expand secularist influence and promote meaningful understanding about who we as secularists are, and why we do what we do. That outcome sounds far preferable to dismaying theists by giving them the impression that they are defective, and that there’s no point to the self-development that they’ve done within their own paradigm.

I’m asking for secularists to think seriously about theism. Don’t succumb to antitheistic intellectual laziness. Don’t mock theists for doing what comes naturally to them. (Mocking people for espousing harmful dogma is a different story, but harmful dogma isn’t an integral part of all theistic outlooks, and it doesn’t inform the greater part of all theistic drives.) Accept that this god stuff is an integral, meaningful part of some people’s lives, and deal with it a way that rational people strive to approach all manner of life’s complexities:

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”  — Marie Curie

Secular theism has the potential to bridge much of the science-religion gap, by reframing theism as just another natural tendency, by studying it in this light, and by incorporating the “knowns” in theistic perceptions and practices into the scientific understanding of what makes people tick. It also has the potential to do a great amount of good otherwise. So think about it! #SecularTheism