I understand that the idea of the god-shaped hole is contentious among atheists, agnostics, rationalists, freethinkers, humanists, and whomever else may be able to fit on such a list. So, before I delve into how to best fill a god-shaped hole, I understand that I have some explaining to do regarding my assertion that such a creature may naturally exist in the first place.
Because there aren’t many others like me who are willing to speak out on issues like this, to an audience like the one I’m addressing, simply saying that I had one for a long time isn’t going to cut it. Being a living anecdote has its disadvantages, though I imagine that more people like me would speak out from a rational and agnostic standpoint, if not for mainstream religions co-opting them because of their needs. In hopes of developing some kind of understanding, I’ll begin by answering some expected questions regarding my experience of a god-shaped hole.
“How did you know it was god-shaped?” Because I spent a lot of my free time pursuing gods, writing about gods, and trying to stick the word “god” on damn near every phenomenon to see if it made any difference to me. Because I wanted to go to megachurches just to worship. Because I sang praise songs to nobody in particular, and doing that helped alleviate the dysphoria, as did Christian radio. Also, I became profoundly jealous when I witnessed theists around me just being themselves and professing “God”. I wanted to understand why I would never be able to have what they had, as I found that prospect thoroughly unfair.
What did it feel like? Most of the time it felt like being lost— it felt like having no foundation whatsoever. It felt like I had no real self in addition to having no gods, as though gods were a crucial part of myself. It felt like weakness in so many ways, and shame, because I didn’t understand that I was allowed to want gods. I felt like I was weak because I needed them at all.
Could you have filled it another way? say with respect for your fellow persons or for science? No. I tried for years and wound up miserable. Furthermore, as I hope I can convince people by the end of this essay, filling a god-shaped hole like the one I had with something like science may actually be a very unhealthy thing to do.
Now, to explain more why this phenomenon may be entirely natural, I’ll appeal to a very simple observation about people the world over. People have gods, lots of gods. People have always had gods. I challenge any historian or anthropologist to point me to a pre-industrial culture without gods of some kind. (For all I know something like that may exist, because I wasn’t a student in either of those fields; I’m just now getting into them.) People conceive of higher powers, and the drive to do so arguably enables us to determine the properties of physical forces which are beyond our control. But people also have the sense to imbue those higher powers with wills— to extend their capacity to theorize about the minds of others, which they acquire around four to five years of age, to the higher powers. Theory of mind applied to the world in all of its perplexing material and experiential features may have given us primal gods—numerous spirits of animals and the landscape, as well as higher beings and the spirits of the dead, all dwelling and moving alongside people as they go about their lives—and subsequently classical gods—heroes and titans, celestial nobility and gods of the great epics. Then came the monotheisms, which stamped out a number of divine mythologies the world over.
As surely as people have gods, it is clear that people throughout history have deeply desired to connect with these gods, to know them, understand them, learn from them, and walk among them more or less. It is baseless to assert that every devout person, every shaman and monk, who freely pursued a closer walk with their gods did so out of being brainwashed.
There are drives which are often connected with conceiving of gods, and one of those is the drive to regard certain things as sacred or holy. Sacred objects and holy grounds are almost always sacred or holy, to their respective cultures or religions, in connection with some kind of divinity. However, the same drive to regard things as sacred may be applied by agnostics to brands, like Apple, or to political ideologies, like Communism or Libertarianism. People who apply such drives to mundane things can do so entirely unaware, and perhaps at a cost to themselves and others.
To bring all of this back around to the idea of god-shaped holes, these drives, and the cultural and religious trappings connected with these drives, are so prevalent across the world that one has to wonder whether some people may even be wired with an innate sense that there exists a god or gods. One has to wonder whether, for people who may be naturally driven to pursue gods, theism is more of a natural and comfortable fit than atheism or agnosticism. Even for people who don’t have proverbial god-shaped holes, the drives to deify and sanctify may well appear in other contexts, and in less-than-healthy ways. Would it be better for those drives to be applied to more suitable targets?
What gods to pursue?
There are many, many kinds of gods in the world, and even if those gods exist in the world solely by way of neuronal processes, they also affect the world by way of the people who experience them and assert their existence and their divinity. From the perspective of theists this is especially important, because our lives depend in part on our ability to comprehend our gods’ natures, and to understand how we can relate to them, and how to best do that.
When people in the West ask questions about “God”, it’s assumed that such questions concern the nature of a perfect, eternal, omnipotent creator of the universe. However, that god is but one type of god, and it is a mistake to assume that such a god is the only kind of god worth bringing to the table in discussions about theism. Talking about the vast variety of extant and historical gods offers far greater opportunities for understanding the phenomenon of divinity.
Cultures all over the world and throughout history have produced evidence that they recognize the existence of gods. Most cultures produced pantheons of some kind, but the structures of the pantheons varied in terms of which numinous entities were considered gods, and which were considered intercessory spirits. One could say that a good way to identify gods is to look for the cultural and behavior trappings that have surround gods throughout history and all over the world: things like temples and shrines, prayer, worship, devotion, veneration, offerings, and idols.
Even though these constructs and practices were and are offered to entities not considered to be gods by many outlooks, like honored dead and meteorites, the consistency with which they surround gods is astounding. It wouldn’t be off the mark to posit that these are very natural tendencies which surround people’s perceptions of gods, as they have been present throughout history unless, in the case of idols, they have been banned by religions. Perhaps in looking for gods to pursue, some people are looking for potential objects of such practices.
What do gods look like, then? From primal societies, to classical antiquity, to modern Hinduism and Shinto, many gods are highly mythologized, and can be understood through their legends. Other deities’ natures are learned by way of sources more akin to biography than legend. Most deities have personalities, or are generally anthropomorphized to some degree, and even the divinities which people perceive in natural features are not immune from some amount of anthropomorphosis. Many gods are believed to have the power to grant their followers blessings, and to smite. They’re also portrayed to be exemplary in many ways, even though they oftentimes have their infamous foibles.
Delving into the historical properties of gods can give ideas for the kinds of gods people can pursue, but historical features do not have to dictate what gods are today, and perhaps more importantly what they can be today.
My ideas surrounding the nature of modern gods are based in an objectively agnostic outlook, and arise from the many experiences in which I’ve noted my own and others’ objects of theistic veneration. Hence, I assert that gods can look like just about anything today, so long as they’re consciously regarded as gods. By “consciously”, I mean acknowledged with the word “god”/”deity”/etc., and by “regarded as gods” I mean that the same drives involved in recognizing divinities through the ages are active in recognizing them. The same drives which have moved followers to prayer, temple and shrine offerings, and other forms of worship and devotion through the ages are going to be involved in recognizing and venerating gods of the present, and even though non-traditional theists may not desire to pray or worship, their “god senses” will nonetheless heighten. I’ve heard others who are inclined toward perceiving the divine describe this heightening as “getting godfeels”. Godfeels can alternatively be thought of as the drive to deify someone or something.
With such a drive one can find gods just about anywhere: comics, video games, novels, as well as present-day and ancient pantheons. In choosing various forms of pagan worship over monotheistic religions, practitioners may remark upon feeling drawn to the deities of their pantheon of choice from an early age. Perhaps they wanted to deify their gods of choice at an early age. For people who choose have nontraditional gods, like fictional character gods, their sense of the characters’ sacredness and venerability may move them to deify the characters, and that kind of thing can happen at an early age as well.
Any source of such “godfeels” can probably be pursued as a god. However, living people, historical figures such as politicians and philosophers, and political ideologies and philosophies themselves make for dangerous gods, and I’ll go so far as to say that in the vast majority of cases it is absolutely not okay to deify them. Fictional characters and non-anthropomorphic works of art are much better choices for deification, in that their natures are not matters of historical and physical fact, nor are they assertions with potentially vast consequences; they are, rather, matters of individual conceptualization and interpretation. Natural wonders are also fine choices for deification, if one is so moved by them, because while their forms can be understood by way of the natural sciences an individual can easily choose to perceive them as works of art. Flexibility, inherent in individual conceptualizations and interpretations of fictional characters and works of art, is important to expanding one’s own understanding with the help of divinities.
I am myself, with gods
What does one do after they acknowledge that they have gods? Whatever they want! When a person acknowledges that they have gods, they may do so with the understanding that they already have have longstanding goals in mind. Perhaps they want to pursue a closer walk with those gods, or they want to become more godlike theirself. Perhaps they simply want a greater being to relate to, or to pray to. Everyone’s needs and goals with regard to the divine are different.
As for me, I needed a foundation in my gods, and my gods continue to provide a foundation of sorts— a model by which I can determine how to optimally act, and what kinds of arts to pursue. I need a natural fit for a moral code, and sometimes I need advice, reassurance, and guidance. My gods provide all of these things.
The flexible aspect of my gods’ natures—since they were originally familiar fictional characters—has gone a long way toward their evolution and optimization. My gods began as personal conceptualizations of fictional characters, and it was in those conceptualizations which I originally perceived the divine at a young age. Attempting to bend my personal interpretations to be more in line with their original canon, if anything, detracted from that perception of the divine. In fact, veering further from the original canon imbued them with more power and sagacity in my mind, so I allowed my gods to evolve. As they evolved so did the foundation and the guidance which they provided.
Through this evolution, and the experimentation which accompanied it, I gradually discovered how to fulfill those desires of mine which are tied in with the divine. I actually discovered a lot of fascinating things: how to think better, how to pray, how to dance like a somewhat quirky boss (some gods give good dance advice), and how to get off my too often troubled ass and get down to business are some examples that come to mind. (I’m still working on the last one.) It’s remarkable how many practical things I’ve learned and enjoyed, thanks to simple metaphysical interactions. I am more myself, now, thanks to my gods.
Because of my desires and needs that are tied in with divinity, I could not have found such fulfillment by substituting science, or respect for nature and my fellow persons, for my gods. I needed a very specific kind of god to be fulfilled, and by accepting my original fictional character gods and allowing them to evolve, I eventually found the kind of god I needed. In turning to science for a foundation or for advice, I could have found the consistent push to question everything, or to experiment, but I would not have gotten a good sense for how to best experiment. My personal progress would have languished for that, perhaps giving way to the same desperation and confusion I’d run up against in the past. In turning to respect for my fellow persons, I may not have discovered that which makes me particularly valuable, or that which satisfies me apart from the rest of the world.
If I had tried to continue to make those kinds of uncomfortable substitutions, which are pushed by a lot of rationalist circles, I would have still been unfulfilled, and I would have still been vulnerable to the influences of divine absolutist cults— organizations that would not have had my best interests in mind.
Now I want to proceed with the risky business of putting forth some hypotheses about what my experiences may imply for the greater population. I’m well aware of the risks of projection; I’m also confident enough that it would be better for someone to put forth such ideas that I’m going ahead with my hypothesizing.
First: as I mentioned at the outset, I’m absolutely certain that there are other people like me—people who are rationally inclined and deeply troubled by the state of religious affairs today—who are nonetheless swept up by mainstream religion because of their divine yearnings.
Second: related to the above hypothesis, if parts of our god senses tie in with our perceptions of authority, it could be that people are naturally drawn to gods with the backing of earthly authorities.
If both of the above points are the case, then it is important that I make the case here that divine perceptions are legitimate at an individual level. If people are going to turn to potentially dangerous institutions to fill their god-shaped holes, then they need to know that they don’t have to, and that doing so may actually perpetuate their dissatisfaction where the divine is concerned. Third: this is something that everyone has to figure out on their own, for the most part.
Fourth, and this will be the most controversial, for good reason: people who sanctify institutions, philosophies, living people, ideologies, and other objects which are unhealthy targets for such ideation, might do better if they consciously redirected such behaviors toward gods of some kind. They don’t have to be all-powerful, all-seeing gods; they could be gods as simple as, say, that fetching person with a mysterious allure in a hung painting, or the vinyl anime figurine on a work desk. Instead of assuming some political discourse to be Bast’s pajamas—on an unconscious level, of course—it’d be better to run a check on it against something which speaks to one’s highest ideals on a more personal level. This is just something I’ve discovered in my own experiences, and perhaps those experiences are solely my own.
What it all comes down to is (fifth): people are wired to experience the divine. I’ve experienced it in places where nobody would have told me it was possible, and from what I’ve witnessed in others I gather we’re wired to perceive the divine just about anywhere. However, that does not mean that everyone can experience it everywhere, or even experience it in the places where most people happen to experience it. Where and how a person can have such experiences likely has considerable bearing on several other facets of their life.
I would love for rationalists and agnostics, people who are steeped in the sciences, to understand the unexplored potential here, to take a critical look at the unfounded claim that there aren’t really any god-shaped holes. Take a look at history, take a look at the present population, take a look at people’s gods, and in particular take a look at how people experience their gods.
Rationalists need to ask theists they know: how do you know your god exists? Do you just believe? or do you experience your god? I bet, more often than not, they would receive the latter answer, and that would be very important to acknowledge.
This has been a part of us for as long as there has been an us. It’s in our best interest to understand it, and to understand how it can help us— to be fulfilled, to understand ourselves, and to best guide our personal courses of discovery in this vast and complicated life.