Tag Archives: atheism

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.

11 things that theophobia is and isn’t

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

Theophobia is…

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

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

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

Theophobia is not…

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

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

Hypotheses on the underpinnings of my divine experiences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.