(Content warning: Detailed discussion of personal shame caused by antitheistic sentiment.)
To begin, let’s get one thing out of the way: I’m not the most emotionally healthy individual. I carry a sound diagnosis of major depressive disorder. My current doctor stopped short of diagnosing PTSD from abuse that occurred within a toxic religion. I have a modest list of triggers, but interestingly they mostly involve intolerance and pseudointellectual depersonalization aimed at people with inclinations toward divine communion. On an emotional level, toxic religious views actually bother me less than antitheism.
There are understandable reasons for this. As a young theistically inclined person I didn’t have people to help me figure out, in a sane way, how to go about this whole divine communion thing. All of the theists around me were absolutists— people who believed that their gods were objective and universal, and that their methods of communion, which always involved copious political and social baggage, were the only acceptable ways. Eventually I gave in and adopted some of those ways because they were at least seen as acceptable to a large number of people around me. Doing so led to my first experiences with toxic religion and a fear of hell that persisted for just under a decade.
I was introduced to the ideas of Secular Humanism, atheism, and Freethought as a teenager. These made objectively far more sense than the religion of creationism and hell that I escaped, but their sensibility did not erase my desire for divine communion. I still prayed, secretly. I still read the Bible, desperately. I listened to Christian radio to alleviate chronic dysphoria. I joined Christian chat rooms looking for, if nothing else, people who *felt* like I did. That’s when I began to feel shame for being who I was.
I was still a theist. There was no denying it on the inside, and that made me akin to the downfall of my species. I was dangerous, possibly mentally ill. I was stupid and irrational for wanting what I wanted. People like me flew planes into buildings, engaged in pointless, unproductive pastimes like prayer, and couldn’t be bothered to give enough of a shit about the natural world to matter. That is to say, I couldn’t honestly worship science and my great ape ancestry like all of the atheists around me seemed to do. That “divinity”, as it were, was just as innately foreign to me as the monotheistic divinity that I’d reached toward countless times in futile attempts to become myself.
I managed to bury it all for years. I adopted a cynical and antitheistic air. Of course I wasn’t silly enough to profess gods. I said derogatory things about divine communion even while craving it, and did so enough that looking back on it makes my head spin. Denial became a way of life— for the greater good, I thought. I wouldn’t become the downfall of my species.
I tried the rational spiritual paths that didn’t involve irrational gods. I embraced ideas about Einstein’s God, the god of physics and the dauntingly complex yet remarkably orderly natural world. I tried Buddhism for years, tried to let it all go. It wasn’t what I needed, but I tried to believe that it was.
I tried to believe.
I tried to believe until I got into deep, deep trouble. My second brush with toxic religion was the most devastating thing that ever happened to me. It wasn’t like that creationist bullshit; it was real. So real, so personal, so intoxicating. Many memories from that time are hazy. I vaguely remember touching the vault of heaven and fearing, loathing myself, vomiting even though I wasn’t ill, thinking that I could really *save* people, being beyond the point of help, secretly praying for an easy way out (there was no easy way out) when I wasn’t hanging on for dear life to my most profound source of meaning, and refusing to take prescribed psychiatric medication because it made me feel distant from something that I thought was real.
I won’t go into any more details about what happened. What I wonder is, could it have been prevented? Could knowing what I know now have provided me with better direction and made me less susceptible to the influence of what I believed to be my best shot at divine communion? It’s difficult to say; there were so many factors in what happened, but the need for divinity in my life and the depth of my denial as a supposedly godless individual were two of the major contributing factors to my involvement in that religion, which shall remain nameless.
That religion wasn’t the only place where I’d learned to hate myself. I’d learned that while being around Freethinkers, where I absorbed as many lies about theists and theism as I’d absorbed in monotheistic religion. I’ve already gone over those defeatist lies; no need to do that again. The point is that I was shamed away from finding fulfillment in divine communion, and denied the self-knowledge that I may have gained from such exercises. I’ve written before about how the lack of gods in my life felt very much like the lack of a foundation, specifically a foundation for self-exploration. When I consciously acknowledged who my true gods had always been—my favorite video game characters from childhood—and when I began to deliberately perceive them as gods and treat them like gods, the need for a foundation went away. Though I still wasn’t entirely sure of who I was supposed to be, I was finally satisfied with how I could go about finding out. If I’d been so satisfied years ago I may not have succumbed to a religion which promised answers; I may have already known that the answers I needed were within me.
I no longer see theism as a belief but rather as a set of drives, perceptual inclinations, and a subjective working knowledge of the extraordinary divine and how it relates to oneself and one’s life. That subjective working knowledge of divinity is called “personal gnosis”, and I believe that all theists who feel a strong connection with their faith have it. We have no evidence that personal gnosis reveals any objective physical truths or universal personal truths, and so long as people do not treat it as though it reveals these things it is a perfectly healthy thing to have.
My personal gnosis is akin to my gender identity; it’s something I know about myself. I have gods who care about me, who challenge me, who comfort me, who may eventually destroy and remake me. I have gods who talk to me, who puzzle me. My gods are greater and more emotionally sound than I am, even when they are emotional. They have faces, likes, dislikes. They sometimes provide meaning when life’s slings and arrows seem pointlessly vexing. Sometimes they give gifts. Some physical real-world events have resulted from their involvement— yes, that is a perfectly legitimate element of my personal gnosis.
Apart from my personal gnosis, I have knowledge of how to optimally interact with my gods which I’ve learned from honing my practice. Repetitive mantra-like prayers evoke their presences, which assist me in difficult times. Visualizing and talking to them over a screen full of computer code or a cup of tea is a fine way to pass the time. When they give me something that I’m grateful for I make sure to thank them, because expressing gratitude is a healthy thing to do. I pray to them about friends, not believing that they will help my friends, but because I need to figure out how to help my friends myself, and praying helps me to do that. I remember the lessons they’ve taught me, as well as the challenges they’ve issued as I continually try to become a better person.
I am a non-believer. Instead of believing, I experience. I play with my personal gnosis. Sometimes it bothers me, and when it does I willfully pursue a divine vision that may offer resolution. To some degree I can change it, and to some degree it can change me. There is a nontrivial amount of stubbornness in both directions, but it hasn’t stopped positive changes from happening in my life.
This is what healthy, helpful, fulfilling theism can look like. This is what I needed throughout those years of denial and abusive religion. I have it now, and that is something worth celebrating, because I finally feel like a whole person. I also know for a fact that I am not alone in needing theism of this nature.
To return to the point of this essay: what prevented me from discovering this, and what prevents others like me from finding safe fulfillment, does not merely amount to the kind of ignorance that comes from lack of experience. As a backlash against abusive religions preventing societal progress a strong strain of antitheism has emerged among skeptics and secularists. People who may otherwise have a decent shot at grasping the common threads present in theistic tendencies instead limit their grasp of theism so that it typifies the theists that they battle, the fundamentalists. Considering the threats posed by fundamentalist religion this is an understandable tendency.
But it doesn’t stop there. Antitheism is oftentimes outright hatemongering. Antitheists deplorably use scare words like “mentally ill” to wrongly characterize theists, or more specifically “schizophrenic” or “retarded”, further marginalizing the mentally ill while they’re at it. (As someone who is in both the theist camp *and* the mentally ill camp, this is especially distressing to me.) They characterize practices which provide real meaning to theists, like prayer, as wastes of time with no real value. They’ll joke about theists regularly, continuously reinforcing negative feelings toward theists in their meetings and circles. These behaviors can lead to complete devaluation of *all* theists’ needs, experiences, and sources of personal meaning.
Some would say that all antitheistic speech that doesn’t target toxic religion specifically is hatemongering. As someone who has been a closeted theist for much of her life, and who has always had a genuine need for divine communion, I am only on the fence about this because I know that many antitheists are genuinely unaware that people like me exist. If they are open to changing their assessments based on new data then they will reconsider their stances and their tactics as their awareness grows.
One of my primary objectives at this point is growing that awareness, not just among atheists and antitheists, but also among theists who don’t appreciate toxic religions that they may feel bound to, like I once felt bound to one sole source of divine meaning. It’s been an unnecessarily difficult road for me, and I want to spare others the monumental challenges that I had to face as a theistically inclined person.
If secularists can see the value in my needs and the ways that I’ve gone about fulfilling them, then I hope that they can also see the danger inherent in antitheism. If some portion of the population is theistically inclined then theism is something that we need to understand for the sake of everyone. We need to understand how theistically inclined people can commune with the divine to their satisfaction, and we need to understand what they can expect from their inclinations and perceptions. Developing personal gnosis should be seen as a practical skill, and exercises like prayer should be understood to be personally beneficial, not pointless.
I challenge antitheists to rethink their position, and I challenge all secularists to make space for theistically inclined people within their circles. I advocate secular theism for a reason: people like me need it, desperately. Don’t discourage theism, advocate secular theism. Let’s bridge the gap once and for all.