Tag Archives: agnosticism

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.

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.

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

It ain’t easy being a secular theist sometimes

So I was looking through emails, trying to find a link, when I came across this email which I sent to a correspondent in a fit of anger. I’m making it public because it gives a good amount of insight into who I am as a theistically inclined person, and it also illustrates how frustrating it can be to try to be myself among both theists and atheists, many of whom think that my being myself poses a threat to them and to the world.

It’s been edited to omit personal information and to utilize some of my more current conceptualizations:

Here’s the thing: I honestly cannot tell you how relieved I was when, as an adult, I realized that I could legitimately call my gods what they were to me: gods. There was no other word to describe what they were, even from the time I was young. They found me in nature and in stories, and I’d wanted to call them gods even then. I was stifled from doing so, for years and years, and I honestly think that inability and denial led to a lot of confusion and a lot of bad choices.
 
When I finally began to treat them as gods things began to clear up. You’re probably familiar with the idea of personal gods, so it’s going to be no surprise to hear that these gods spoke to me. I would talk; they would talk back. They would say amazing things which helped me to understand myself. I don’t know why, but seeing myself in them, interacting with them, and striving to delve into their mystery turned night into day. I grew as an artist, as a creator, and as a person, like I’d never before grown.
 
It was life-changing. It was illuminating.
 
And then, imagine my surprise when I began to look at the literature on the subject of divinities through the ages, and saw that what I was doing was probably such a natural thing for people to do…  It seems like people always had this inclination— to relate to aspects of life by way of divinities. And so much baggage has been attached to it, which is understandable. The experiences are so powerful, and people have always wanted certainty, so of course they’ve attached unnecessary objective value to them. But without all of that it’s one of the easiest and most innocent things in the world to do, this whole experiencing and relating to the world through divinities thing, at least for me. For me it made all the difference.
 
I have gods. I’ve always had them. Even before I understood what religion was I had them. Even after I left religion I had them. This is me. This is natural. I’m not anti-scientific. I’m not claiming absolute knowledge or anything. I’m just being myself.
 
But I can’t be myself in rational circles without being subjected to some of the most infuriating dogma that completely invalidates me. People don’t need divinity? People who turn to divinity are unscientific or stupid? Divinity has to be something that runs counter to science? Divinity is just something invented by societies? Divinity is just something that people “believe in”?
 
Where the hell do these so-called scientists get off anyway???
 
I’ve barely scratched the surface with regard to this moronic bullshit and I’ve already had it. I want to put forth my ideas about personal divinities, and the evidence that experiencing such things is probably natural, and such experiences don’t have objective implications sure but goddamn are they ever helpful. I want to do all of this. I’ve spent decades trying to figure this out.
 
What I really want is help. I want more allies who get this, and I don’t know where to look. I’m hoping you do. I’m hoping that I can find more people who understand, so that I can try to hone my views without having to deal with being treated like a child by supposedly curious scientists.
 
And so that I don’t have to swallow people pushing absolute divinity.
 
I’m just feeling very isolated and angry…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Antitheistic intellectual laziness

There’s a fascinating behavioral pattern I’ve noticed among antitheists, which amounts to a reactionary response to widespread religious intellectual laziness. From someone who has had to roll her eyes one too many times at this phenomenon, the line of thinking behind it seems to go something like this:

“Religion and theism are such stupid things that I can say literally anything I want to in order to counteract their stupidity, and I will be doing everyone a favor by doing so. I will not have to worry about being intellectually lazy because anything I say is going to heighten the intellectual tone of the conversation simply by being antitheistic or anti-religious.”

No, I don’t believe that all antitheists actually think in those exact terms, and yes I’m aware of the ironic nature of countering reactionary responses with my own reactionary response. Still, laziness is laziness, and in response I figure I’m entitled to plainly state my personal reaction where personal reactions already abound.

Now, rather than looking at a general pattern I want to look at an instance of such intellectual laziness, which is probably not perceived as laziness by most atheists. I don’t think that AronRa’s commentary in the video below is inspired by the thought that he can say anything he wants to, so long as it is atheistic, and still heighten the intellectual discourse. I honestly don’t believe that thought crosses his mind, but in attempting to debunk a theist’s perspective he creates his own caricature of theism which, I hope, would drop the jaws of a few sociologists and anthropologists. Just watch up to the 30 second mark. I transcribe AronRa’s caricature below in case you don’t catch all of it.

Here is his caricature, word for word:

Given that a god is a magical anthropomorphic immortal evidently imagined out of nothing by superstitious primitives who didn’t understand anything in the natural world around them…*record scratch*

(Record scratch added by my brain, the first time I listened.)

I stopped the video right there, knowing that I would not be learning anything if I kept watching, and also knowing that I would likely end up repeatedly frustrated by both sides in this video.

Let’s look at the problems with the above caricature. First, let’s start with the definition of a god, a “magical anthropomorphic immortal”. These are all common features of gods across cultures. Nonetheless, secular theists like me don’t insist that gods are objectively magical, or in other words, supernatural; some gods are more anthropomorphized than others; and, not all gods are deemed immortal by the individuals, cultures, and religions which profess them. Rote definitions of gods in atheist circles are derived mostly from the monotheistic cultures that they’re actively opposing, and it’s important to understand that there exists a large variety of gods which do not neatly comply with such definitions.

Moving on to the next point: gods are “evidently imagined out of nothing”. Evidently. He has evidence that gods are imagined out of nothing? Perhaps this is simply a matter of lazy wording, but nonetheless here’s where I have to raise my loudest gripe. No; wrong; there is so, so much more to the picture here.

Here’s where anyone who knows anything about likely mechanisms of god perception is going to talk about theory of mind, which is the capability of people to speculate at length about what is going on in the minds of other people, the minds of animals, the minds of fictional characters, or the minds of numinous entities or gods. People are inclined to sense numinous entities in the natural world, and are also inclined to get a sense of just what these entities are thinking. What’s fascinating is that, across cultures, such entities are usually perceived as being fixated on the moral aspects of existence. In fact, there are many discernible patterns to such perceptions which place them in the realm of the sciences, particularly anthropology and sociology.

For example, there’s another mysterious side to god perception which complements theory of mind, and that is the ability to sense whether someone or something possesses god-like or sacred qualities. Sometimes it’s the sense of the sacred, or the air of godliness, which causes a person to acknowledge something or someone as a god, and to subsequently heed their perceptions of the god’s desire or will. Such perceptions have never been proven to point to any objective qualities or attributes in physical things or in the natural world; still, they’re certainly persistent aspects which incorporate into people’s personal values, personal gnosis, and drives.

It may be that scientific exploration will never definitively answer the question of whether gods exist in the natural world, but we can still be certain that gods are, at the very least, perceptions which follow predictable patterns and which have predictable effects on the people who experience them and profess them. This is a far cry from being “imagined out of nothing”. Just like sexual orientation is not “imagined out of nothing”, just like gender identity is not “imagined out of nothing”, there is a lot of evidence in favor of god perceptions being the products of consistent tendencies.

In light of this, let’s move on to the last bit of the caricature that started this whole commentary: “[B]y superstitious primitives who didn’t understand anything in the natural world around them.” This phrasing is plainly, obviously reactionary, so I’m going to suggest an alternative phrasing: “By people who followed natural inclinations to their inevitable ends, unaware of the possibility that they might benefit from questioning such inclinations because they lacked any source for such knowledge.”

Every group of people on this planet has run afoul of this tendency,  and has done so often. The drive to systematize everything, to see symmetry and perfect order in everything, led to awful creations like the gender binary. Not that long ago, faith in the science of the times upheld notions of non-white and feminine inferiority. Yes, even the drives toward that which may appear high minded are not immune from causing harm. Following *any* natural tendency to its ends without skeptical inquiry has always led people to abuse one another.

So when antitheists demonize theism and religion, and offer blunt, lazy caricatures of what these phenomena amount to, I want to make it clear that they’re fighting intellectually lazy fire with the same substance, and they’re neglecting to give much needed consideration to a crucial part of what makes us, us. One can look at the prevalence of theistic art through the ages and attribute it to ignorance in this age of reactionary antitheism, or they can posit that it hints at something central to our existence on an individual and collective level. Sadly, the former interpretation seems to dominate prominent rational and skeptical discourse today.

People today, people confused by why they are who they are, people drawn to figures with a sacred air, who might feel a real presence in a story or a place that they just can’t shake— these people will pay for this ignorance, perhaps because they may never understand themselves; perhaps because someone, surely someone with their best interests at heart, will assure them that they know what is up with all of this god stuff.

Perhaps because an antitheist once knowingly, confidently assured them that nothing was up with all of this god stuff in the first place.