Tag Archives: god

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.


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.

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.

Science (yes, science!) on god-concepts, god-perceptions, and predispositions thereof

Reading When God Talks Back, by T.M. Luhrmann, was a revelatory experience for me in many ways. When I picked up the book I was by and large unfamiliar with the scientific literature surrounding god-perceptions and god-concepts, and since then I’ve quickly found my way into the loop on such topics. When God Talks Back also clued me into some of the processes by which people conceive of and understand gods, such as the extension of theory of mind to perceived acts of gods like physical world occurrences, voice-like mentations, subtle visions, and other phenomena.

What truly blew my mind, in When God Talks Back, was the part about the study which Luhrmann conducted on types of prayer, in which she recruited monotheists to commune with God once a day in one of three ways: through apophatic prayer, through kataphatic prayer, or through lectures on the gospels. Her findings suggested that people who practiced kataphatic prayer, through which people actively imagine their gods, were able to grow closer to their gods by growing their god-concepts. The results weren’t what blew my mind— I suspected those results! What blew my mind was actually the idea of undertaking scientific studies on gods in the first place.

I thought, why haven’t more people done this? why isn’t this all over the news? God-perceptions and god-concepts can be studied in ways which can illuminate their underlying predispositions and behavioral characteristics. Shouldn’t this be more of a driving force in the discourse on theism?

It took me a while, but I found other studies like Luhrmann’s. I want to highlight one here: Benjamin Grant Purzycki’s paper in Cognition titled “The minds of gods: A comparative study of supernatural agency”, in which he looks at people’s gods’ (or god-like beings’) perceptions and interests of various moral and nonmoral happenings— moral happenings being occurrences like thefts and offers of assistance, and nonmoral happenings being things like sneezes and reactions to loud noises. One of his hypotheses was that all gods, even gods which societies claim aren’t very interested in moral affairs, are in fact perceived to care more about moral occurrences than nonmoral occurrences. That hypothesis held up very well, and in surprising ways. Here is an excerpt which I found particularly cool:

If there is a relationship between omniscience and concern for morality, then attributed breadth of knowledge should predict knowledge of and concern for moral behaviors. While there were no significant effects for knowledge-breadth on knowledge (F(1, 76) = 0.00, p = 0.99) or concern (F(1, 76) = 0.02, p = 0.90) of proximate moral items, attributed breadth of knowledge does in fact predict knowledge (F(1, 76) = 9.05, p = 0.004, ω = 0.31) and concern (F(1, 76) = 9.08, p = 0.004, ω = 0.31) for distant moral behaviors. This is consistent with previous findings of the positive relationship between omniscience and moral concern across populations, but these results are the first of their kind from a single population.

In other words, the more perceptual capacity attributed to a god or god-like being, the more likely that the god or god-like being is also perceived to care about moral behaviors of individuals. Given that such results aren’t unique to this study, it seems likely that god-concepts are predisposed to intermingle with moral senses.

Like many concepts prevalent throughout cultures, god-concepts seem to come with their own predispositions, both in their inherent natures and in their behaviors. That these predispositions can be discerned by scientific means suggests that god-concepts themselves have some amount of consistency.

This all matters to me because it suggests that behaviors of god-concepts can and, I contend, should be thoroughly studied. Scientific findings can serve to show how god-concepts can function in any number of contexts, and how god-perceptions can be approached for any number of practical benefits. The latter field of knowledge, regarding practical benefits of god-perceptions, is also going to have to expand through pioneering efforts of people who are willing to experiment with their own god-concepts, and to develop them in novel ways.

On filling god-shaped holes with gods

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.

Five hypotheses

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.

Apply science to gods, not gods to science

What scientific idea is ready for retirement?  “The Atheism Prerequisite” says Douglas Rushkoff.

Wait, huh?

We don’t need to credit an all-seeing God with the creation of life and matter to suspect that something wonderfully strange is going on in the dimension we call reality. Most of us living in it feel invested with a sense of purpose. Whether this directionality is a genuine, pre-existing condition of the universe, an illusion perpetrated by DNA, or something that will one day emerge from social interaction, has yet to be determined. At the very least, this means our experience and expectations of life can no longer be dismissed as impediments to proper observation and analysis.

Ah yes, the feeling that there is indeed “something up” in all of this. I’m familiar with that, the feeling of being caught up in the gears of fate as it were. Many people get those sorts of feelings, and most people also have the ability to separate the dizzying sense of purpose from empirical analysis. In fact, the sense that one is “on to something” is not always misleading in STEM-related contexts. Scientists, engineers, programmers, and mathematicians all develop intuition for how to approach and solve problems, and sometimes their intuitive senses can pave the ways to superior solutions and new discoveries.

But science’s unearned commitment to materialism has led us into convoluted assumptions about the origins of space-time, in which time itself simply must be accepted as a byproduct of the big bang, and consciousness (if it even exists) as a byproduct of matter. Such narratives follow information on its continuing evolution toward complexity, the singularity, and robot consciousness—a saga no less apocalyptic than the most literal interpretations of Biblical prophecy.

First, has Rushkoff read Revelation? Robot consciousness is not the same thing as heavenly beings with seven heads or fifty eyes and whatever else goes on in that book.

Second, serious scientists wouldn’t put forth any assumptions about the “origins of space time” with the Scientific Seal of Approval. The big bang, if I’m not mistaken, is figured to be the beginning of this universe, and some funky things happened to space-time around the big bang event. Scientists seem fairly confident in that, but why space-time exists in the first place is presently far beyond our grasp.

And finally, materialism is a likely explanation for all manner of phenomena which we observe.  Even if any given scientist is not fully committed to a 100% materialistic existence, they would be foolish to discredit the idea that our experiences are mostly the product of material happenings, especially if they ever find theirself in need of psychiatric medication.

It’s entirely more rational—and less steeped in storybook logic—to work with the possibility that time predates matter, and that consciousness is less the consequence of a physical, cause-and-effect reality than a precursor.

I don’t know what he means by the idea that “time predates matter”, or where he might be going with that thought. However, the idea of consciousness being a precursor to the physical universe is understandable, because after all, would this universe even exist in any meaningful sense, or any sense at all, were it not for us? That is truly a question for the ages.

The problem with the consciousness-first hypothesis in a scientific context is that we have no method to test it, at least not presently. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t an important point to ponder, even if only for a while, but it’s just not on the table for scientific discussion.

And here we have the conclusion to this particular musing:

By starting with Godlessness as a foundational principle of scientific reasoning, we make ourselves unnecessarily resistant to the novelty of human consciousness, its potential continuity over time, and the possibility that it has purpose.

Atheism is not a foundation for scientific reasoning; agnosticism is, and that’s the way it should be. As for the continuity of human consciousness over time, and the possibility that human consciousness has purpose, how could we possibly go about testing for such things presently?

And, furthermore, why tie any of this in with monotheism?  Because that is the most prevalent variety of theism today?  That seems like a rather far-fetched conclusion to all of this.

People who attempt to mix gods and science usually try to find ways to apply God to science rather than applying science to gods.  What Rushkoff seemed to be trying to do was to build a new foundation for science, by which science could test new sets of hypotheses based on the idea that God is at the center of all of this, because consciousness might be at the center of all of this and consciousness ≈ God. The problem is that we can’t actually scientifically test any of the hypotheses which he proposed. When people apply God to science, the result doesn’t look like science; it looks like a great deal of assumption.

What about the other way around?  What happens when we apply science to gods?

I’m not actually up on the latest hypotheses concerning the capacity of our brains to create the experiences of gods and the various sensations and thoughts surrounding divine.  When I first got into atheism I learned of hypotheses that our tendencies toward gods may actually be the result of our “wiring”— of neurons and chemicals. Such hypotheses are testable to a certain extent, if willing subjects can allow for empirical measurements of their brain activity when they meditate on their gods. I’ll bet that there is a fair bit consistency in the ways which activities like prayer and “holy book” reading affect the brain from person to person.

We can also look at population data regarding theistic activity throughout history to get a sense of the various ways in which we may be wired to approach, perceive, react to, experience, conceptualize, and commune with gods. There are a great deal of similarities in this kind of population data, more than can be explained by cultural conditioning alone. That’s not any argument in favor of objective divinity, it’s merely a suggestion that our proverbial wiring probably predisposes us to such behaviors when we get the brain-signals of divinity.

(The brain-signals of divinity? Band name going once! going twice…)

And, yes, divinities have changed throughout the ages, divinities look different across cultures, and our responses to differing divinities, not surprisingly, differ! Still, the nature of divinities is just one more variable to analyze, and if different kinds of divinities provoke different responses there are statistically significant patterns to those responses. I’m pretty damn sure of that.

The point is that we can learn a lot about the natures of gods by looking at people, because while we cannot look for objective or material divinities in the world, we can look at the effects that gods have on people. Through such research we may be able to zero in on what makes our god-senses tick, and how we may actually be able to best utilize our tendencies in this vein.

And because the only scientifically sound position to take with regard to objective divinity is agnosticism, we’re still free to hold elaborate personal understanding about the natures of gods, if we want to— if it’s at all helpful or healthy for us, so long as we don’t stamp such understanding with the Scientific Seal of Approval. That’s where personal gnosis comes in: when Rushkoff ties consciousness in with God he could be saying that, because consciousness seems so magical it only makes sense to attribute it to God. Maybe that is his personal gnosis, and if that is the case then that is fine.

Beyond the distinctions “theist”, “atheist”, and “agnostic”

I received a comment about the four-way distinction between agnostic theists, gnostic atheists, and so on, and I thought my reply to that comment would be a good way to illustrate why it’s so difficult to cleanly categorize people on messy people issues like divinity.

Here is the comment, from William:

I’ve heard of the four way distinction between agnostic atheist, agnostic theist, gnostic atheist, and gnostic theist before, and I think it’s legitimate. However, there is another legitimate way of distinguishing between these positions.

It’s based on the distinction between affirming a claim, suspending judgment about a claim, and denying a claim. Affirming a claim means you believe it, although not necessarily that you believe it with certainty. Suspending judgment about a claim means that you don’t believe either that the claim is true or that the claim is false; you’re neutral with respect to it. Denying a claim means you hold the positive belief that the claim is false, although you might not believe that it is false with certainty. If we apply this distinction to the claim that God exists, we get the alternatives of affirming that God exists (theism), suspending judgment about whether or not God exists (agnosticism), and denying that God exists (atheism).

I think both of these sets of distinctions are in wide use and have roughly equal utility, so I don’t see any way of reasonably demanding that someone who uses one set of distinctions use the other set..

While I understand that that both sets of distinctions are in wide use, I don’t think that they have equal utility, and I certainly don’t think either set is optimal! Here’s why:

People are going to use a set of distinctions that they feel comfortable with, and aren’t going to change unless they feel compelled to do so. Circumstance—what exists in the world—is the best way to determine what distinctions to use. People should be compelled to change the distinctions they use when their circumstances suggest that the change would be wise. When distinctions don’t accurately or satisfactorily describe what exists, or when a new set of distinctions would describe what exists in a way which is more accurate and useful, then it would behoove people to adopt the new set of distinctions. But, that sometimes causes controversy…

A good example of a controversial distinction is the word “cisgender” to distinguish a person as being non-transgender. People who are not transgender, but also not entirely cisgender—like genderfluid people—don’t like the word “cisgender” as the go-to distinction. By default, their non-transgender status labels them as cisgender, and they find that label offensive because they’re not comfortable being confined to a singular gender.

The impetus to create a new set of distinctions—”cisgender” and “transgender” plus potential others, like “pangender”—arises out of the circumstance in which people don’t fit neatly into the old distinctions. The right set of distinctions, in this case, is determined by its ability to describe people in a way that accurately identifies them and makes them feel comfortable.

Distinctions for describing how people perceive or relate to the divine are no less confounding, but like sexual identity those distinctions should be made based on actual perceptions and beliefs. I think the most helpful concept to come out of the four-way distinction was the idea of agnostic theism, which has come to be understood as the combination of having gods and not asserting their absolute or physical natures. It’s helpful because people have been using the phrase to mean, “I have some ideas or inclinations about this whole god thing, but I’m not making claims about the nature of the universe,” and that’s an increasingly popular stance.  (Not everyone who uses the term “agnostic theist” uses it in that way, though, which is a sign that even that four-way distinction is lacking and confusing.)

The problem with the three-way distinction is that people don’t fit neatly into it. Theism is generally accepted to be “believing in god”, agnosticism is generally accepted as “not knowing anything about god”, and yeah atheism is “denial of god”. But then you have people like me who shun belief, who don’t assume anything without evidence, and also experience gods. I can’t call myself “agnostic” because I have knowledge of gods— personal knowledge, or personal gnosis. And, despite the fact that I experience gods, I avoided calling myself a theist for the longest time because I didn’t want to give people the impression that I “believed in God” sans evidence.

It was through talking to someone else who ran up against the same problem that the word “polygnostic” was born. They mentioned that they remained agnostic despite the fact that they experienced gods and had personal gnosis, and also noted the contradictory nature of their statement. So I chimed in and said, “Time to make a new word!”

People like us polygnostic types, and agnostic theists who have inclinations toward gods but are happy to remain on the agnostic fence, need words or terms to identify ourselves. Insisting on the three-way dichotomy negates who we are. Maybe someone affirms their experiences of the divine, but doesn’t affirm those experiences to have absolute or universal significance. Maybe someone suspends judgment about absolute and material divinity, but can’t suspend judgment about the gods they experience or are drawn to understand.  If either of these are the case, then the three-way distinction causes them to have to identify as theist-asterisk or agnostic-asterisk, which gets uncomfortable and confusing.

Additionally, for people who don’t have personal experiences of divinity but trust that others do, there needs to be a term for the view that divinity is a messy people issue rather than something that emanates from an objective or measurable source that, say, created the universe 6000 years ago.