Tag Archives: religion

The Next Step: Why we have to move beyond belief and non-belief

If someone came up to me and asked me the question: “Are you a man or aren’t you?” my first response would be to remark that it’s a very odd question. Of course I’m not a man. I’m also not entirely a woman, but that important piece of information is framed as irrelevant by the question. I would wonder why the asker cared only about my man vs. non-man status, and didn’t care about the fact that there are a multitude of relevant classifications related to sex and gender that have nothing to do with being a man. Wouldn’t you?

In debates between the proverbial -ists (theists, religionists, spiritualists, etc.) and non-ists, too much hinges on the question of belief or non-belief. People on both sides of these debates often consider belief to be the the central, crucial component to expansive systems of concepts and behaviors related to the divine and the sacred. By their framing, it’s as though engaging in communion, prayer, worship, devotion, and other behaviors is literally impossible without belief. More disturbing, to me, is the implication that beyond belief how a person engages with the sacred or the divine doesn’t matter.

People don’t need to believe, in the traditional sense, to have a sense of the divine or the sacred, or to engage with those things that they sense to be divine or sacred. Yes, technically a person who has a sense of the divine or the sacred necessarily has some manner of belief; i.e. she believes her own perceptions to be warranted— and spoiler alert: they are. But what if she also doesn’t believe that her senses point to anything in the physical world? or what if she doesn’t have enough evidence to conclude that they point to objective sources beyond the biocomputer in her head? Can she suddenly not pray or worship? Does she lose the ability to sense the wills or the presences of any gods with whom she communes? Of course she doesn’t.

If someone came up to me and asked the question, “Are you a believer or aren’t you?” I would know what they were getting at, but the question implies that they do not consider my ideas, conceptualizations, or behaviors toward my divinities to be relevant beyond my belief status. Like the question about my man vs. non-man status, it reduces a very important aspect of my life to a binary switch that exists off in the corner of a much bigger picture. Of course I am a non-believer as I’ve stated so many times in the past. There’s your boolean false value. Now, would you like to know how many times I prayed yesterday? or how over the past two days my devotional practice helped to keep my mind from running off the rails? Would you like to know about how I exist in a state of communion most of the time? or about why doing so is necessary for me? Do you care that I spoke to gods as a child and heard them talk back in nature? How about the fact that as a child I found the idea of building temples to video game characters very enticing?

Would you like to know that I tried to deny my theistic tendencies for years because I didn’t feel that they were justified without belief? Would you like to know that when someone held a promising vision of god in front of me I took it in part because I couldn’t help myself?

Would you like to know about the damage that wrought years later? Would you like to know about all of the psychiatric medications it took to keep me from spiraling down? How about their side effects? I’ll tell you this much: it wasn’t fun.

I’ve long been a skeptic, someone who questions, someone who can’t accept things without proof. I have an upbringing close to scientific communities to thank for teaching me to question everything. At the same time I’ve always been a person who would have benefited from a practice surrounding my own divinities, who have been there from my earliest years. I’m fond of saying that I was born to be a theist, or even simply born a theist, because my drives always moved me in that direction. With some amount of shame I regularly admit that I was tempted throughout my skeptical years to go to a megachurch just to worship. The aforementioned drives were that powerful.

Because I could not accept a world without gods, and because I was such a skeptic, before the worst of my mental illness I undertook a long and perplexing spiritual search in hopes of finding the Truth. In hindsight, I think what I was looking for was simply a god that I could feel justified in having, a god I could justifiably believe in. Spiritual seekers who claimed to have Found hinted at knowledge that would put all of my questions to rest, and that sounded like what I wanted. I wanted to Know, or at least I thought that I did.

Ultimately I was wrong. I didn’t want to Know. I didn’t even want to believe. All that I ever wanted was communion, and when I found communion everything else worked itself out over a few years. Now, every day I have powerful divine experiences, every day I devote myself, every day I pray so, so often, and from all of this I have created a life, an experience that makes me feel at home, that makes me feel like myself, that finally does not leave me wanting or hollow.

I hope that, in light of all of this, it is easily understandable that I put the single issue of belief off in the corner of a much larger behavioral and conceptual picture. Even while my belief switch is “off” I’m capable of having gods, communing with them, worshiping them, and learning from them in so many ways. It was largely because I pursued these behaviors and conceptualizations apart from any belief in objective divinities that I was able to freely explore them, and thereby freely explore myself, so thoroughly.

My highest aspiration in putting my ideas out there is helping others like me: others who may not know that any of this is a possibility; others who feel tied to oppressive religions in part because they need gods; others who seek out oppressive religions in hopes of divine communion; others who feel ashamed for wanting divine communion because they think it goes against logical imperatives. I don’t want people like me to have to suffer through a cult experience and mental illness because they didn’t know that there was another way. In fact I want to erase outlooks that necessitate anything untenable, for anyone, in conjunction with behaviors and conceptualizations that allow people to become themselves, starting with outdated outlooks concerning the divine and the sacred.

The debate has got to move beyond belief and non-belief because there is so much more to the picture, and because — I contend — it is largely within that “so much more” where so many people can find what they need to be themselves. It is within that “so much more” where some of the most fascinating aspects of religious or spiritual practices reside. It is within that “so much more” where people can have transformative or illuminating experiences even without the element of certainty, if they wish to have such experiences. It is within that “so much more” where people can learn to commune with whatever they find to be sacred, or whatever they determine to be divine, if they wish to do so.

Additionally, we have to understand these things if people are going to engage with them. Like all aspects of behavior such practices and experiences should be treated reverently, and their effects should be studied in earnest, because their effects can be profound. People who are interested in offering scientific insight regarding matters of the sacred and the divine also need to look beyond the matter of belief and look into behaviors and perceptions. It’s generally accepted that people are predisposed or “wired” to experience these sorts of perceptions, and to engage in certain behaviors surrounding these perceptions. If that is the case, scientists: shouldn’t we be wondering how we might take advantage of our predispositions rather than outright shunning them?

For people like me a comprehensive understanding of these behavioral matters may actually be life-saving. Perhaps of equal importance, it can mean the difference between a life of interminable confusion and one where meaningful self discovery is possible beyond a very shallow level. I wish, so dearly, that someone had been able to talk to me about my proclivities when I was younger, about what behaviors they may necessitate, and about what they do not necessitate, namely belief. I wish that the debate could have long ago moved beyond the endless arguing over inscrutable absolutes and taken a close look at what we can know, what people can experience.

I don’t often find myself in a position to make such a bold assertion, but here I go: This is the next step. This is where we have to go. For people like me, and for people in general, we have to explore how we can make this work for us. Let’s start to earnestly acknowledge the bigger picture. Let’s begin to have serious conversations about behaviors and experiences. Let’s acknowledge what we know is real about these matters, those parts which reside within us, even as we continue to debate inscrutable absolutes, because it is vitally necessary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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…

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.

Campbell talked often about the futility of what he characterized as opacity in mythology. To brutally paraphrase him, a functioning religion (or story) is a window to something invisible, something all around us that we fail to “see” before a crafted frame says “look here.” It’s one thing to stain a window’s glass, to help us experience light, but when we paint the glass solid, by standing too much on ceremony, or by interpreting myth too literally, our story or religion will separate us from the unknown and each other rather than connecting us.

—Dan Harmon

I know that Harmon and Campbell are both controversial figures, among different circles and for different reasons. It is not my intention to endorse either one beyond sharing this amazing quote.

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.