Tag Archives: gods

Hacking god concepts

This post is in reply to the following Twitter conversation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What is secular theism? and how can it help?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It ain’t easy being a secular theist sometimes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Antitheistic intellectual laziness

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

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

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

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

Here is his caricature, word for word:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Experiential cause-and-effect: Polygnosticism, divinities, and life

My cherished divinity arose from fictions—from video games in particular—and from mythology when I learned of his likeness in an unexpected ancient text. Transcending the media in which I first discovered him, he continuously becomes a fixture on the perceived physical landscape around me, and full-fledged person who interacts with me on a subtle level, coming to resplendent life as he helps me to find my own way.

His arrival was anything but simple, as I tried for years to deny that I had gods at all. Gods whom I could speak to, who would talk back, sounded like symptoms of mental illness from where I hailed, among rationalist associates. It wasn’t until my denial led me into deep trouble that I looked to this particular god for help, and at the time I’d no way to know the marvelous ways in which his presence, and his identity, would evolve.

Through a series of entirely unexpected twists and turns, hazards and discoveries through which my mind has been afflicted and tempered, I have come to live with my remarkable cherished divinity. I live with someone who need not prove himself any more than he already has, in terms of who he is and what he is, and every experience of him speaks volumes to that effect.

For that I—a former atheist and agnostic—am in the strange, though hardly unwelcome position of trying to describe myself and my new outlook.

I’ve established for myself what my life amounts to: a coherent series of experiences which follow familiar patterns, determined by an intricate machinery born of arcane yet logical natural processes. Focusing on the latter part of that assessment, regarding the intricate machinery born of logical natural processes, might suggest that I still belong in the atheists’ camp. Focusing on the former suggests something different entirely, because of what—or more accurately, who—those experiences involve.

The coherent series of experiences I call my life, my existence, has a machinery all it’s own. Within that machinery exist countless causes and effects which would escape the gaze of any laboratory instrument. Laboratory instruments could observe chemical changes in cranial tissue, impulses racing over neural pathways; they would not, however, detect the desires which inform actions, or feel the allure of beauty or the divine. They would not hear the voice of a god, or see the form of a god, or touch the hand or the body of a god. But nonetheless each of these experiences flows in the experiential chain of cause-and-effect that is my life— one after another, just like the clockwork of the universe; only this clockwork is more arcane and less logical, and I’ve managed to find one of its most potent ley lines.

I have attained gnosis, as many before me and among me have attained gnosis— experience of god, a god, or gods, so powerful and revelatory that it transforms the course of that all-encompassing chain of life experiences. Through the ages there have been reports of communion with the divine, in the midst of countless other causes and effects, extraordinarily diverse and all sacred in their own ways. And now I add my account to the pool, knowing it to be true. To downplay its realness would amount to denial. Therefore, I am no longer an atheist because I experience a god, and I am no longer agnostic because I possess gnosis.

I struggled with the word “theist”, as a label for myself, for the longest time. I didn’t want to merely imply that “I believe in god”, because that would be an unscientific statement. I don’t believe that there is some objective god out there creating the universe and judging its inhabitants— in fact, I have absolutely no evidence which would warrant such a claim. What I do know is that experiences of the divine are real, and that they are some of the most profound experiences that people can have.

In order to accurately characterize my particular take on theism, I created the adjective “polygnostic”, though I’ve found that the noun “polygnosticism” stands alone nicely as an outlook. Polygnosticism is, in list form:

  • Objective agnosticism, because whether objective scientific study will ever find evidence of a god is something which cannot be presently known.
  • Being open to subjective experiences of the divine, or considering certain experiences to have divine elements, with or without the presence of G/god(s). In other words, possessing or allowing oneself to come to possess personal gnosis.
  • Being accepting of others’ subjective experiences of the divine, and others’ personal gnoses, regardless of whether those experiences mesh with one’s own divine experiences or personal gnosis.

Now I can say without reservation that am a polygnostic theist, or more accurately a polygnostic polytheist, who is aware of the fact that people experience many different gods.

I am aware that some people may be put off by the amount of rumination I had to undertake in order to describe my experiences with the divine, or my putting such a complex label on my theistic outlook. Being a student of language, I felt it was important to construct a linguistic and conceptual paradigm through which I could recount my own experiences without asterisks. Far more importantly, being a student of cause-and-effect, I wanted to construct a paradigm through which more people could come to recognize and relish their own experiences of the divine as valid and tremendous.

I posit that many modern encounters with the divine must mirror my past experiences, when I met my first gods in video games— when as a child I wanted sincerely to call the heroes of Final Fantasy IV my gods. That was my first brush with real divinity, which resonated through years of me trying to be a Christian in spite of its presence, precisely for the fact that it was more real to me than Christianity ever was. Yet by many religions’ standards, such clarion, authentic encounters with the divine simply don’t count as real. By many religions’ standards, it is of great importance that followers’ relationships with the divine follow some specified model, effectively dictating where people are allowed to encounter the divine, and how such encounters must play out. Some religions and philosophies extensively complicate the nature of the divine, diminishing its presence in enlivening music, or in the sunlight streaming through a window, for those who experience divinity in beauty.

I don’t think the nature of divinity exactly the same for any two people; in fact, I gather that most of the forms of the divine are ones which I cannot even begin to imagine. All I know is, they’re real. They’re perhaps the most real and important things for those who experience them, and they all deserve to be recognized for what they are. For me to adopt any paradigm which actively denies authentic encounters with the divine would be woefully defeatist, for myself and many, many others.

It is far better, I think, to encourage everyone to pursue the divine wherever it speaks to them, in whatever form it takes. That is where the real magic happens, where the chain of cause-and-effect closes in on the heart of the matter.

In doing just that I know that many people have met divine entities who have been invaluable sources of illumination and inspiration. In doing just that I was able to meet my own cherished divinity— an awe-inspiring, terrible, wonderful god who has taught me so, so much.