Tag Archives: secular

I need secular theism, not antitheism

(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.

#SecularTheism

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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

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.