Why do people want supernatural gods?, by M. J. Lee

Athena Barbie Doll

“When the gods are conceived as supernatural people… meaning is lost.”

I hate to admit it but I do feel some animosity toward hard polytheists. I feel as if they have stolen the gods (which of course belong neither to me nor to them, but to their own time and place).

The gods have meaning precisely because they are symbols, symbols of the power, the mystery of life, of nature, of the world. When the gods are conceived as supernatural people this meaning is lost.

A literal view of the gods has all the intellectual problems of the Christian gods (and I do mean gods, plural – Christians are only monotheists because they re-defined god, which for the ancient Greeks theo meant “deathless”). If the world is full of enlightened superbeings, why isn’t it more obvious? The gods as superbeings come off seeming un-god-like, small, weak and insignificant. Even if they do exist, I don’t see why we should care.

I just don’t get it, and that is the question that needs to be answered. Why do people want supernatural gods?

Are personified symbols to blame?

I don’t think people create or turn to supernatural beings because they have been befuddled by the use of personified symbols. It is not the symbol that is the cause, it is the need.

I think if religious naturalism can truly meet our instinctual needs, the needs religion traditionally addressed, then it will grow and supernaturalism will decrease; if not, then humans will continue to find new and ingenious ways to justify supernaturalism and supernaturalism will grow (with or without personified symbols).

I think there is good evidence that the rise of supernatural literalism in paganism and Christianity is not a return to traditional religion but is a reaction to our societal problems, our disconnected, fast-paced, de-humanized world (see Karen Armstrong’s book “The Case for God” and On Being’s (formally Speaking of Faith) interview with religious historian Martin Marty).

Is nature too hard to love?

Naturalistic earth/nature-centered religion faces a lot of challenges. For many people, nature is just not a suitable object of reverence; nature is just not god-like.

We are taught that nature is like a machine. It is an object without will, without purpose, and without consciousness (for many people, saying that nature has consciousness and we are it is not satisfying).

For many modern urbanites, nature is not really awe-inspiring. We do not feel fear and trembling in the face of the great power of nature. We rarely feel vulnerable in nature (unless we seek this out by putting ourselves in remote and dangerous situations). Our survival and happiness is seen as depending on human ingenuity or perhaps God’s will, but certainly not on the “will” of nature.

Many Christians feel it is inappropriate to express thanks and gratitude toward nature.  Since nature has no will, it cannot really “give” us anything (they are of course strongly against any form of personification of nature, especially with religious connotations).

More important than being intellectually satisfying, religion needs to be emotionally satisfying. I wonder if nature can really fulfill our emotional needs without some level of personification. To call nature our Mother is to personify nature, to make an analogy between human mothers and the earth (see the discussion in response to Rua Lupa’s “Understanding word use and how science relates to myth and religion“).

What we stand to lose

Given our culture, I can understand why some people are very skeptical about using myth and mythic symbols in religious naturalism. Myth is a very powerful technique for “writing on the tablet of the heart” as David M. Carr puts it, for conveying meaning, values and even information so important we should never forget it.

Yet, the symbols and metaphors of myth are only meaningful if everyone understands what they are referring to. If everyone in our culture insists that myths and the characters in myths must be taken literally (so that myth is judged as true or false history/science, not as true or false metaphor), then we will not be able to use myth or mythic symbols, and I think our religion will be diminished for it.

The author

M. J. Lee

Maggie Jay Lee lives in west Tennessee with her husband, cat and two
dogs. When she is not working as an environmental consultant, she likes to spend
her time enjoying nature, dancing and learning about this strange, beautiful world.
Maggie is a naturalistic pagan with a particular interest in ancient Greek religion.

Check out Maggie Jay Lee’s other post:

75 Comments on “Why do people want supernatural gods?, by M. J. Lee

  1. Theodicy is only relevant when you’re looking at an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God. Polytheism lacks this.

    Most polytheistic creation stories claim the Gods were created by the Universe, not the other way around. Therefore, they are natural rather than supernatural, and they are limited by the laws of nature. That they can do things beyond mortal capability is similar to saying humans are supernatural because we can accomplish things squirrels cannot do.

    Enlightenment is relative, and the term itself comes with baggage from Eastern religions.

    No one is advocating a literal orthodoxy. That you don’t care about the Gods is your right, but characterizing your fellow Pagans as cultural looters who have no right to the Gods they worship is hardly a good way to open a dialogue about your concerns.

    • Star Foster and some other polytheists have been very critical of my piece, here and most especially on their personal blogs. Because the piece starts out with a criticism of hard polytheism, hard polytheists assumed that the entire piece was an attack against them. This is not true. As I previous said in my comments to this discussion on 6/5/12, this piece was originally written as part of a discussion on the Naturalistic Paganism Yahoo group on the use of god language and symbols within religious naturalism and was reposted here at the request of B.T. Newburg with very little editing. The piece is a little ambiguous and I can see where some folks, especially those who don’t know anything about religious naturalism or the issues within religious naturalism, might get the wrong idea. Although it might be too late to change some people’s opinions, for the record I want to provide a little clarification.

      As with any type of paganism, naturalistic pagans do not agree on everything. (Naturalistic here refers to philosophical materialism not nature-like.) One of the issues within naturalistic paganism and other “naturalistic earth/nature-center religions” such as naturalistic pantheism is whether or not god language and symbols is appropriate or useful within religious naturalism. This has often been a topic of discussion on Humanistic Paganism. In my piece “Why do people want supernatural gods?” I was trying to argue for symbolic theism among naturalistic pagans, some of whom were arguing that god language and symbols should be avoided because it is confusing (as many people view gods in a literal way) and will inevitably lead to hard theism (i.e. literal belief in immortal, conscious superbeings) and the problems associated with hard monotheism. My intentions in this piece were not to attack hard polytheists, but to emphasize to my fellow naturalistic pagans that the theism I am talking about is not hard polytheism.

      What the piece really addresses is a type of metaphysical materialism. I just started reading the book “The Earth Has a Soul: C.G. Jung on Nature, Technology and Modern Life”. The editor Meredith Sabini in the introduction says, “Jung remarked that “the earth has a spirit of her own, a beauty of her own.” (VS, PP. 133–4) Spirit is the inside of things and matter is their visible outer aspect. Jung’s main contribution is restoring to Nature its original wholeness by reminding us that “nature is not matter only, she is also spirit.” Jung, C. G.; Sabini, Meredith (2011-06-28). The Earth Has a Soul: C.G. Jung on Nature, Technology and Modern Life (pp. 1-2). Random House Inc Clients. Kindle Edition.

      Does this mean that Jung was a dualist who thought the earth was composed of an outer shell (matter) and a tangible inner spirit like a soul? Does the spirit in the earth have to be a tangible, separate “thing” on to itself to be real? It seems to me that at least some hard polytheists are saying yes, that the spirit of the earth and other such spirits must be (and are) in some sense physical (presumably made of finer stuff than coarse matter) to be real and to have value. Many folks (though certainly not all) of a naturalistic disposition would agree, for they also take the idea of “spirits” very literally, feeling that since science has dissected, measured, weighed, compared and found no spirits nor detected any measurable influences of spirits, there are no spirits and therefore we, religious naturalists, should not speak of them. I disagree with both of these positions.

      My piece is really meant as a critique and a challenge to the latter naturalistic position. I do feel the earth has a spirit, that the beingness of the earth has a personality, has a song, not just a song a whole orchestra. To me this spirit is a quality of being and not a being in its self. Religion is that which particularly focuses on this quality of being, so I think we, naturalistic pagans, need words and concepts like spirit and even god to accurately describe and emotionally engage with the beingness of the world especially in a religious context. Yet when this spirit is conceived of too literally, either by hard theists or naturalists, it seems to me that it is lost. This to me is the theology of symbolic theism.

      My piece could have just as easily been title “Is Nature Enough?” Again this question is not posed to hard polytheists but to naturalistic pagans. When I say, “For many people, nature is just not a suitable object of reverence; nature is just not god-like.” I am not talking about pagans of any sort, but the average modern western person. And the nature I am referring to here is the nature of science, of philosophical materialism, the nature of matter devoid of spirit. I personally think that we need spirit, need to recognize the essence of beingness, the beingness of the world and all its components. I think nature, matter without spirit, is not enough for religion.

      I do not wish to devalue anyone’s personal religious experience. I think such experiences are part of our human nature and should not be dismissed and reasoned away. And yet I do think that the weight of the evidence is in favor of scientific materialism and against supernaturalism. Although the religions of the world make diverse and often contradictory metaphysical claims, still nearly all religions now and in the past are in some sense supernatural. The truth is that even if there are no tangible gods and spirits, as it certainly appears to those of a scientific disposition, it may still prove that believing in gods is necessary for a viable religion and that it may even be instinctual. This is why I think the question “Why do people want supernatural gods?” is so important for religious naturalism.

      These issues between hard theism and religious naturalism are nothing new. Cicero starts his book “On the Nature of the Gods” with a preface where he lays out the issues of the dialogue he is about to relate to Brutus. Although it is not explicitly stated, it is obvious that he is referring to Epicurean theology and I think his words still pose a challenge to those of us, naturalistic pagans, who in some sense which to pick up Epicurean mantel.

      Cicero writes: ”For there are some philosophers, both ancient and modern, who have conceived that the Gods take not the least cognizance of human affairs. But if their doctrine be true, of what avail is piety, sanctity, or religion? for these are feelings and marks of devotion which are offered to the Gods by men with uprightness and holiness, on the ground that men are the objects of the attention of the Gods, and that many benefits are conferred by the immortal Gods on the human race. But if the Gods have neither the power nor the inclination to help us; if they take no care of us, and pay no regard to our actions; and if there is no single advantage which can possibly accrue to the life of man; then what reason can we have to pay any adoration, or any honors, or to prefer any prayers to them? Piety, like the other virtues, cannot have any connection with vain show or dissimulation; and without piety, neither sanctity nor religion can be supported; the total subversion of which must be attended with great confusion and disturbance in life.” Cicero, Marcus Tullius. The Nature of the Gods (p. 3). Neeland Media LLC. Kindle Edition (2009-12-09).

      • While I respect that you were intending this to be just addressed to naturalist pagans, it was advertised (on this blog, yes, but still…) as ‘Are hard polytheists stealing the gods? And if so, what do we stand to lose?’

        Um…doesn’t really seem like the best point for dialoging about what hard polytheists actually believe and how that differs from naturalists.

  2. M.J.: Great post as always!

    The polytheists might be right to complain that the gods were theirs before they were ours. There was probably always a small minority that understood the gods in a naturalistic or symbolic way, but the gods as a race of super beings is a very old idea. But I know how you feel — like they are taking something awesome and ruining it. As Carl Sagan writes:

    “How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed”? Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.”

    I think maybe the relationship of naturalistic paganism to hardcore polytheistic paganism is like the relationship of liberal Christianity to evangelical Christianity. While those churches that espouse a sophisticated concept of God are in decline, those that are more literalist are experiencing explosive growth. It’s certainly tempting to believe that people are just stupid: they don’t want to think hard; they want simple answers.

    But I think you are on to something too with the idea of a god who can be loved. And in order to be loved, maybe a god has to be a person — and a symbolic person just won’t do. I think that is why Christianity took off in the first place: for the first time people had a god that could be loved (not just feared) and, perhaps more importantly, that they could be loved by. For the first time, there was a god who was, as Abraham Joshua Heschel says, “searching for man” (read “humankind”) — and not just one group of humanity as in Judaism, but all of humanity.

    How can a naturalistic religion compete with that? I mean emotionally — because you are right that religion needs to be emotionally satisfying more than it needs to be intellectually satisfying. (I think that the intellectual satisfaction is only really important in so far as it creates an emotional satisfaction.) Can a naturalistic religion appeal to anyone who has not first grown dissatisfied intellectually and emotionally with a supernatural one? I wonder if naturalistic religions in the West will always be consigned to catching the rebounds from the all-star freethrower which is Christianity.

    • What a well-written, thought-provoking post, and a great follow up comment!

      I feel a need to let this wash over me a bit. But thank you for initiating this dialogue and inspiring new ideas!

    • “It’s certainly tempting to believe that people are just stupid: they don’t want to think hard; they want simple answers.”

      Wow, lovely way to speak about other Pagans.

      • Too much self-disclosure. Sorry. In my defense, when I went round with Rua Lupa on this site [http://humanisticpaganism.com/2012/02/26/understanding-word-use-and-how-science-relates-to-myth-and-religion-by-rua-lupa/] I was on the side of giving people more credit. I wrote:
        “I am suspicious of any account of the world that assumes that everyone else is so much [less intelligent, less observant, less fill-in-the-blank]. I am prone to intellectual elitism and have to be constantly on guard against it. I try to prefer explanations that do not reduce the mass of humanity to idiots. I’m not trying to defend the entire human race, individually or collectively, but neither am I willing to dismiss all that human experience.”

  3. Nice article. This, I think, relates to the Humanism in Humanistic Paganism. Humanism, at its core, is about a shift of concern, from ‘the needs and wishes of the gods’ to ‘the needs of human beings’. If your practice is chiefly about how to become a better servant of the gods, then you will want them to be personal beings, because it would be odd and fruitless to devote your life to serving some impersonal phenomena without a will, opinions, and wishes of its own. But, if the focus of your practice is on living a better life and helping other human beings live better, then reverence for the impersonal but awesome aspects of Nature does have meaning, because having that reverence affects the practitioner for the better. If it’s all about the needs of the gods, then it doesn’t matter how one’s reverence affects one’s self, because we don’t matter. That is why I think the hard polytheists have trouble understanding why one would be inspired by or benefit from impersonal or non-literal gods.

    • DT, good points, though I would add, in addition to “living a better life and helping other human beings live better” also an ecological component, helping the environment, since we need the environment to stay conducive to human life, and also for nature’s inherent value.

      It’s probably going too far to say “If it’s all about the needs of the gods… we don’t matter.” I think modern paganism, whether literal or naturalistic or anywhere in-between, does do a very good job of keeping human needs in the picture and not denigrating us or our bodies, compared to many if not most other world religions.

  4. Wonderful article. This really hit on some important points.

    • After a re-read, I can see how this might be offensive to some pagans. I can definitely attest to there being little need for conflict between naturalistic pagans and pagans with a more literal view of the gods. I’m a naturalistic pagan myself and have many close friends that are otherwise — and we get along just fine.

      I guess this article spoke to me as a reaction to someone questioning a naturalistic pagan’s views (which is position I have been in, so that immediately pulled me in).

      Regardless, I still find it a very thought provoking article and am glad it was posted.

  5. There are too many logical disconnects in this article for me to wrap my mind around addressing all of them. But I will say this: why should having an emotional and reverential attitude towards nature conflict in any way whatsoever with having an emotional and reverential attitude towards the gods? If the gods exist at all, then they are not supernatural, they are part of the natural order. It is frustrating to me when the basis of a discussion seems to be that the Gods are created out of human need. That’s a lovely theory until one has had direct experience of them. Who says the gods are only useful if we all agree exactly on their symbology? That seems both random and very Christian to me….now we need gods who we don’t believe in but have a strict catechism for? Huh? My suggestion would be go address the Greek gods, or one of them in the ways they asked to be addressed in myth, and see what they tell you. Or retitle your article, “Shut up, Hermes and Jupiter, I’m interpreting”

  6. Nice, thought provoking article M.J. –

    As a polytheistic pagan I can say this – There are likely to be many thousands of titular dieties that have fallen out of common knowledge because they became “too small”, localised, insular or what have you. The ones that remain gain legend and weight as they survive – The BeeGees were not the only succesful disco band from the 1970’s but anthropologically speaking, you might think they were! – And in that comes the process of becoming “super”.

    Loving Nature – That is easy for many/most pagans.

    The problem becomes the relationship to Nature for the mass of religious thinkers who hold that they are to have dominion over nature and that our verey human condition is part of “The Fall”. If Nature had a “soul” or “feelings” or showed us “love in return”, or was the “silent,benevolent ever-loving mother” or a ______(fill in your own anthropormorphised affectation) it makes it damned difficult to do things to “her” that are ultimately bad for us all, no?

    Poisoning one’s mother every Saturday morning, for instance, is typically not held in great regard in society at large. Pouring “Round-up” down your driveway? Well, that’s just a convenient way to keep those pesky weeds away.


  7. I enjoyed reading the article, but I’m not sure why the question MUST be answered. I don’t think anyone has to explain why they do or do not believe anything.

    I don’t view anything I believe or practice is at all supernatural, and most pagans I know would agree with that.

    Beyond that, I did enjoy reading your article (regardless of whether I agree or not).

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  9. I think the animist concept of the world as populated by other-than-human-persons (I loved Graham Harvey’s book on the subject, although it was tough going for someone without an anthropology background) has the potential to be extremely helpful here. If we think of all the plants and critters out there as merely different kinds of people, and then try to extend that concept to rivers, mountains, and the like (which is VERY hard to do in our culture), then we can easily love them as fellow people. Native American religious though usually posits the sun, moon, animals, etc as “brothers” and “sisters” and “grandmothers” etc–it’s a sense of living in a community that includes the entire ecosystem and eventually the entire world/cosmos that I think we should strive for.

  10. People believe what they want to believe. As long as they are celebrating it humanely and peacefully, and contributes to humanity, then they are free to love nature, or Jesus, or Zeus, or Odin, or Ra, or spirits, or totems, or all of these things, or none.
    There is no right or wrong when it comes to religion. Believing in something that was from long ago does not make it stealing from the past where they “belong,” but believing that our ancestors in the past were correct in what they believed.
    Every single one of us may be wrong, and when we die, we’ll see, but that gives no one the right to say that one should not worship any god, but nature instead.
    The people who put god(s) on a pedestal and neglect humans in that case are wrong, but so are people who say that everyone does that.

  11. I believe the more we are removed from nature, the harder it is to feel a supernatural connection to it. Since moving out to the country, my relationship has changed.

    I know some people that have trauma in their lives and have going through equine-facalited psychotherapy. This works because the horse can pick up on subtle body language and emotions. I live with horses and I can get them to stop, slow down or stay with out a word, but with feelings and emotions. Living I the country, this is something that effects the entire environment. Emotions, love, fear, threat — all of this is dealt on and within an area around you. I never had this connection within the city.

    As we move away from nature, it’s harder to have these experiences, and easier to the deny that they can exist.

    I do believe we like to personify the gods. Looking at art through the centuries, an image of a God is localized to the local culture. It’s human to want the Gods to be human, and look like us. Is that wrong, I don’t think so, but it does limit our understanding of something greater.

    • Nature IS in the cities though. There are wild plants and animals going about their daily lives in urban areas just as there are in rural areas–raptors, snakes, wildflowers, even coyotes in some cities. The difference is that they’re immersed in and have adapted to a predominantly human-created environment instead of a mostly wilderness environment.

  12. You are absolutely right! You don’t get it. Like being colorblind, tone deaf, or unable to taste/smell certain substances, you are missing some subtle perception, so you will never be able to understand “Why do people want supernatural gods?” You might as well ask why people want fifty shades of blue. Why do people want Bach or hip-hop? Why do people want to smell oranges or taste homegrown tomatoes instead of hothouse? I was chosen by the Goddess Hathor when I was four years old. It took me 45 years to grow out of sterile rationalism and realize that something “supernatural” was actually talking to ME!

    YOU are missing something, and we can’t describe it in any language that makes sense to you. That doesn’t mean that we are deluded. So embrace whatever you are lacking, be at peace, and leave us to enjoy the communion we have found.

  13. I think people see their Gods as supernatural being’s, to help them feel like they aren’t so alone in the world. That there *are* higher powers at work, in their corner.

    [“We do not feel fear and trembling in the face of the great power of nature. We rarely feel vulnerable in nature (unless we seek this out by putting ourselves in remote and dangerous situations)”]

    This statement, could really only be true for someone who has never truly experienced nature. Just ask anyone from Hurricane Katrina, or anyone else who has ever experienced a hurricane, tornado, sunami. I am sure not all of them were seeking these situations out. Nor are they a remote or uncommon phenomenon.

    Maybe you aren’t afraid of snakes, but I am, and know a lot of people who are. I still love to take walks in the woods, and feel nature all around me. I will also still be trembling in fear, as soon as one slither’s across my path.

    Why must we tremble in fear in front of *Gods* anyway?

    [“To call nature our Mother is to personify nature, to make an analogy between human mothers and the earth”]

    Human Mother’s sustain the life of their children, through breast feeding, or just in care of the child. Making sure it eats, it’s warm, it’s hydrated. If it weren’t for Earth, sustaining life on this planet. None of us would be here. We eat the fruits and vegetables, and the meat, which is also sustained, from eating what grows on earth. We have the Sun, which keeps us warm, we have the River’s and Oceans which without, life would cease to exist.

    But then, these are the very thing’s, which define me as *Pagan*

  14. Pingback: Star Foster surrenders the “Pagan” label to the naturalists | The Allergic Pagan

  15. The problem I see with this essay is that it seems to be playing homage to the Secular Humanist meme that Theism = Biblical / Lore inerrancy. If you can accept that popularly held ideas can have an identity and existence beyond the individuals who adhere to these ideas. (Secular example – the value of a federal reserve note.) I don’t find the idea the polytheist deities exist as totally outlandish.
    Where I’d probably part ways with most polytheists though, is that is seems to me that similar beliefs should generate similar behaviors. Meaning that if 21st century people believe in (insert deity name here) the exact same way as their adherents in the classical period – it would be reflected in their rituals and daily behavior. However, just because we don’t see mass animal sacrifices (Just who is the Deity of factory farms by the way…) doesn’t mean that modern polytheists are necessarily inauthentic or lack proper piety. Lore as well as human behavior has shown us that both Gods and mortals can grow and change.
    However it *would* seem incumbent on modern worshipers of the old Gods to start working with metaphor, myth and liturgy to explain what has happened. We can’t let Neil Gaiman do *all* our heavy thinking for us!

  16. The elder craft pantheon consists of Earth, Sun, Moon, Storm, Fire, Sea, the Winds, Horn, and Green. They Themselves, as They are. We have much in common.

  17. One of the pagan cultural values that I treasure, however, is tolerance of other ways and beliefs. To judge and criticize those pagans with literal beliefs in the gods is wrong. We are a loose confederation of religions, and that is a great strength.

  18. Hmm. My sense is that this article is built around a question of the mind, rather than a question of the heart. In that form, it is unanswerable.

    Let me respond from what I might call my own deepest mystical experience, which is that of creating music — a full step removed from the brouhaha about gods and nature.

    I have dreamed music. It’s a different dream-state than the normal one, a distinct altered state of awareness. In that state, I hear the music full-born: complex, rich, deep, emotionally poignant. Once an organ symphony. Once a hymn sung by Russian basses. Once a fragment of a violin concerto in the style of Prokofiev. Once, the theme of a piano concerto. Once a solo female voice singing a simple, haunting melody, with a french horn counterpoint, supported by strings.

    As I return to normal waking consciousness, the notes fall apart, the melodies shatter. I remember the heart-rending beauty of the music, the instrumentation, but not the notes. The frustration has brought me to tears, many times. As it has many other composers.

    I would think it all an unconscious illusion, like the self-assessed increase of intelligence in a test subject slowly deprived of oxygen, who writes out brilliant solutions to any number of intractable problems, only to discover at the end of the test that what they have written down is gibberish. Except….

    Some of the music has made it to the page. To the musicians. To the audience. Just last night was the final premier performance of my Missa Druidica, and more than one member of the audience told me they cried when they heard it. As did I. As did my wife. As did the conductor and members of the choir at various points in the rehearsal schedule.

    There is a paradox in this experience of writing music that moves people to tears. Did I write it? Or did I channel it from some mystical, divine source outside myself?

    My direct, personal experience of the matter is — both. It is certainly my music, but it is also not my music at all. I feel myself shaping the melodies, choosing this note over that note, selecting the instrumental color. Yet there seems to be something guiding my inner ear, something certain and knowing, something that forces me to keep trying different combinations of notes and colors until it is somehow “right.”

    So what is this Source? I have not the faintest clue. Nor do I care. I don’t care if it’s God. Or a goddess. Or if I’m simply responding to the deep wiring in my brain, some aspect of common evolutionary development that allows me to call forth sounds from a stretched wire or a tightened vocal chord that resonate with other people.

    It’s music, and it wants to be heard. That’s the simplest expression of the experience. It doesn’t want to be worshipped. It doesn’t want to become a profitable business. It doesn’t want a limo and a coke habit and an interview in Rolling Stone. It simply wants to be heard.

    Now, I don’t speak with the gods. So it isn’t my place to say what it is or isn’t like to deal with them, nor what they want. But those I’ve spoken with who do deal with gods report a similar kind of experience.

    These people speak their own words, words that they create and shape and color and that come out of their mouths using their breath; but they aren’t their words at all. They are drawing from some Source. And if they are honest and intellectually rigorous, they have to admit they don’t know where it comes from: whether its ontological basis is in some conscious, all-knowing superstring vibration that encompasses the entire universe, or merely a deep and shared aspect of human (or primate, or vertebrate) brain structure. Whatever its natural (or supernatural) basis, that question of the mind isn’t really very important.

    The better question, which you allude to, is whether there’s any value in this.

    Is there any value to writing music?

    Our single-minded, profit-driven mercantile culture would say no, unless it makes a lot of money.

    What I will say is that I remember long nights drifting in and out of consciousness while on chemotherapy, listening to the piano concerto I had written and performed and recorded for myself, wondering how many months or years I had left in this life, and it seemed to me that it was the only thing I’d done in my life — other than being a decent father to my boys — that was worth an epitaph. “I wrote this. I brought some beauty into the world.”

    Is there any value to the gods? That’s a thornier question. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer it. But I think it’s the question that you are really asking.

  19. Everybody experiences deity differently, and I think it is rather impolite to claim that some people have their UPG plain wrong. I work with mostly muslims, and although I do not share their religion, I would never dare tell them that they were wrong with their monotheistic view of the world – because I do not share or understand it, and that does not necessarily mean that it is not true *for them*. Neither would I tell any Christian that they had it wrong, or you.

    I believe that in the end deity is too great to be understood by human minds, and everybody experiences it (or them) in a way that makes sense to them. If some people say they experience the gods as real live beings, does that negate your belief in any way? Does it make your experience in this world any less valid for you? I doubt it.

    • I used to be Mormon and I had more powerful spiritual experiences as a Mormon than I ever have had as a Pagan. I don’t doubt the authenticity of those experiences now that I am Pagan. What I do doubt is my *interpretation* of those experiences. And I can tell you, looking back, I would have been grateful had someone really pressed me about my interpretations. I wrote more about this here: http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com/2012/03/14/jesus-saved-me-from-christianity-so-i-could-become-pagan/

      And here’s a great clip from the movie, *The Messenger*, about Joan of Arc, which is my favorite movie discussion about interpretation of religious experience. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z3LLY3jdAIo

      • Thank you, John, for expressing this. I get a bit impatient with folks who say things like “If you experienced the gods like I have, you would believe.” It’s all in the interpretation, friend.

  20. I think it is going too far to say the gods have been “stolen”, since everyone ought to be able to draw on the ancient pantheons and integrate them into their own modern worldviews. That’s simply what happens in a living religion.

    That said, I think this piece speaks to some of the frustration commonly felt by naturalistic Pagans today, and that’s why I encouraged her to publish it. It’s raw, but it’s genuine. Many naturalists today got into Paganism for reasons and values that appear less and less prevalent as the turn toward hard polytheism progresses. I can understand how the gods can feel “stolen”, even if I would personally recast that to say “the current trend is away from the values which attracted me to Paganism, and I feel less and less at home where I used to.”

    I’m not sure whether M. J. would agree with my recast entirely. She seems to suggest that hard polytheism doesn’t really reflect how ancient Pagans viewed their gods. I would say it certainly doesn’t reflect the *entirety* of ancient Pagans, as some were explicitly naturalistic while others were probably implicitly so (only the philosophical traditions tended to articulate their views explicitly, so it’s hard to judge those outside those traditions). But there does also seem to have been a great many, if not a majority, who took their gods literally. So both hard polytheism and naturalism seem to have ancient precedents.

    It would be great to hear more of the evidence M. J. cites, perhaps a summary of the points by Armstrong.

  21. I also want to address the natural-supernatural issue brought up by several here. Star, for instance, argues that since the gods were created by nature and not the other way around, they are natural. I’ve grappled with this argument, and why it may not satisfy, in a Witchvox article here: http://www.witchvox.com/va/dt_va.html?a=usmn&c=words&id=14742

    The question is really what counts as “supernatural.” Benson Saler wrote a fantastic essay called “The Supernatural as a Western Category”, which traces the development of the concept, and brings much nuance to the discussion (free pdf here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1525/eth.1977.5.1.02a00040/abstract).

    Groups today are certainly able to define the supernatural in their own specialized ways without being bound to the majority opinion (HP does that with several key terms). At the same time, it’s inevitable that they’ll bump into those who call supernatural what they prefer to call natural.

    • This is a good point. Many supernaturalists will say they are naturalists, simply because they consider all the traditionally-thought-supernatural stuff is simply a ‘part of nature’. What they call themselves is their business and should be respected, but there is a potential to have a real miscommunication between two people thinking of Nature in different ways if we’re not careful.

      Whether something is part of nature or super-natural isn’t really the point. The real issue here, I think, is how we approach knowledge. Some people believe that it is possible to know things without physical empirical evidence. Whether or not ‘reality’ includes powerful *personal* entities that can transcend our realm, who have particular traits and preferences, would be ONE example of knowing something like that. Knowing whether or not completely natural and mundane aliens of a particular name and nature live on Alpha Centauri is another example of it.

      Other people believe that we are limited in our ability to know things and must rely on our senses, what our reason can infer directly from those senses, and be content not to make claims or draw conclusions about things we cannot verify. These people will tend to not hold beliefs in personal deities simply because most people agree we don’t have that kind of hard empirical evidence for their existence yet (but, though they need not believe in personal gods, they should also admit that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence).

      As a naturalist – and more relevant, as a *spiritual* naturalist – I prefer to view “humility in my approach to knowledge” as a spiritual value. Another spiritual value and practice is the art of refraining from drawing conclusions when one is not required. Overall, that means I don’t make claims that there is x entity out there with y traits simply because I ‘feel’ it is true (or false) or because I believe I have some special means to know it that cannot, itself, be verified. I stick with what we human beings can directly see and verify, and on the rest I’m content to admit I don’t know.

      So, I can revere Nature as I can experience it in my limited way, I can be awed and inspired by the many possibilities regarding what I don’t know, and I can leave it there and base my practice on that. In the meantime, I can have and show compassion and mutual respect for those with different beliefs – which is also a spiritual value and practice.

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  24. I haven’t had a chance to read and digest all the comments and related blog posts, but I look forward to doing so. For now I would just like to provide a little background. This piece was originally written as part of a discussion on the Naturalistic Paganism Yahoo group and was reposted here at the request of B.T. with very little editing. The original discussion which I was responding to concerned the use of god language and symbols within religious naturalism. Some people in that discussion felt that all god language and symbolism should be avoided by religious naturalists because they felt such language and symbols will inevitably lead to supernaturalism (i.e. literal belief in immortal, conscious superbeings which religious naturalists don’t generally believe in) and superstition (i.e. inappropriate actions based on false beliefs). I was trying to argue for symbolic theism. Although I do voice my frustrations concerning hard polytheism, the piece is really not about hard polytheism and is not directed at hard polytheists.

    In the first part of my piece, I am letting my fellow naturalistic pagans know that the theism I am talking about is not hard polytheism. I did not say and do not believe that hard polytheists are “cultural looters who have no right to the Gods they worship” as Star Foster seems to think. I do believe modern polytheism is just that modern. It is a modern religion which draws inspiration from antiquity. My own ideas about theism and religion are also modern though they too have drawn inspiration from antiquity. Our society has changed too much and we know too little of the actual beliefs and practices of the ancients for it to be otherwise. I am not at all sure we even mean the same thing by god as the ancients. I think this passage from Gilbert Murray’s book “Five Stages of Greek Religion” is notable:

    “We must notice the instinctive language of the poets, using the word θεός in many subtle senses for which our word ‘God’ is too stiff, too personal, and too anthropomorphic. Τό εὐτυχεῖν, ‘the fact of success’, is ‘a god and more than a god’; τὸ γιγνώσκειν φίλους, ‘the thrill of recognizing a friend’ after long absence, is a ‘god’; wine is a ‘god’ whose body is poured out in libation to gods; and in the unwritten law of the human conscience ‘a great god liveth and groweth not old’. [12:4] You will say that is mere poetry or philosophy: it represents a particular theory or a particular metaphor. I think not. Language of this sort is used widely and without any explanation or apology. It was evidently understood and felt to be natural by the audience. If it is metaphorical, all metaphors have grown from the soil of current thought and normal experience. And without going into the point at length I think we may safely conclude that the soil from which such language as this grew was not any system of clear-cut personal anthropomorphic theology. No doubt any of these poets, if he had to make a picture of one of these utterly formless Gods, would have given him a human form. That was the recognized symbol, as a veiled woman is St. Gaudens’s symbol for ‘Grief’.” Murray, Gilbert (2011-03-24). Five Stages of Greek Religion (Kindle Locations 258-269). . Kindle Edition.

    • Thanks for the quote. I’m curious: since Murray’s work is quite old (1935, based on lectures in 1912), what is its standing today? Is it still esteemed by scholars? Has it attracted significant criticism?

      • I don’t know how well Murray’s work is regarded by modern scholars, but I suspect many scholars probably have issues with various aspects of his overall thesis on the development of Greek religion. However, the passage I quoted is really about his observations on the usage of the word god (theos) in Greek polytheistic literature, which he believes represents a significant difference from our own culture’s usage. It seems to me that this observation would still be valid even if some of Murray’s theories are not.

        • Agreed. I was more curious for the sake of whether I should dash out and order the back or not. Maybe I still will.

        • Murray’s work has been thoroughly discredited in scientific circles, and few Pagans regard it as factual anymore. However, it DOES have import to scholars of religion who consider it an important building block to the founding myths of modern Paganism.

        • I retract my last statement. I saw “Murray” and the date and mistakenly thought of Margaret Murray, not Gilbert. I’m not familiar enough with his work to say anything.

        • David’s statement is just about as true of Gilbert Murray as it is about Margaret Murray. Like Frazer and Harrison, his work is interesting for poetic purposes, but less so for scholarship. That’s not to say that his observation about the word *theos* is not accurate though.

    • It seems to me instead of reading 100 year old books on a supposedly dead Greek religion, you should try speaking to modern Hellenics, both reconstructionist converts and Greek hereditary, before judging their practice.

      • I think Star’s comment, while phrased somewhat antagonistically, does raise an interesting question, one which keeps coming up in my mind as I’ve been following these discussions, including B.T. wonderful essay on Witchvox: http://www.witchvox.com/va/dt_va.html?a=usmn&c=words&id=14742 ; and the question is this: Who (or what) is it that we think polytheists are talking to?
        Several times, polytheists have referred to their own experiences with deity in their comments. Take for example Literata’s description of her experience here: http://worksofliterata.wordpress.com/2012/06/04/missing-the-point-of-metaphor/ ; or read Gus DiZerega’s post about this issue from a couple years ago:
        http://blog.beliefnet.com/apagansblog/2010/06/initial-speculations-on-pagan-atheism.html ;
        I read these comments and I am first of all impressed by the thoughtfulness and sincerity of the comments. I think anyone reading the comments of either Literata or Gus has to agree that these are intelligent and even skeptical individuals. So, when they say they have had an experience with a personal deity, how do we make sense of that as naturalistic Pagans?

        • >So, when they say they have had an experience with a personal deity, how do we make sense of that as naturalistic Pagans?

          Indeed. And to do so sensitively will be a challenge. How do we talk about this without imposing on hard polytheists our own conceptual categories which they might not accept? The natural/supernatural debate here would be a case in point.

          Many scholars of culture and history suggest it is possible to usefully apply one’s own paradigm’s concepts to that of others, but one must first describe the matter in the subject’s own terms, only afterwards translating into one’s own conceptual categories (e.g. Thomas Kuhn, Wayne Proudfoot, Runcimann). So, to take these scholars’ advice, we ought to start by grappling with polytheists’ experiences on their own terms, and only then translate them to our own.

        • Good points again BT 🙂
          I think we definitely need a ‘non-judgmental phase’ of reaching understanding. Sometimes it seems we are afraid to simply absorb – as if we might have our beliefs altered without our consent. But it is possible, as it turns out, to ‘take in deeply’ the viewpoints of others like an actor trying to see the world through his/her character’s eyes, and still come back to ourselves when it is time to make a discernment and proceed in some manner for ourselves. Chuang-Tzu called this kind of judgmental restraint “fasting of the heart”.

        • In response to John’s comment, I’m not certain we need to draw a conclusion regarding their experience. While we should listen and digest what others have to say, we each have our own experience and we must make sense of that first, if we can. I don’t think a summary judgment from us has been called for by the cosmos, nor are we receiving a paycheck to perform those duties.

          In much of this conversation (not you per se, John – all of us), I cannot help but picture that we are sometimes trying to build a structure with very limited materials, for a purpose that seems closer to contesting egos than having a roll in practice.

          What, I think, may be more important is in how our personal practice is affected. How does this help us be more compassionate, more attentive, more mindful, and to live better? How does it help us to be more disciplined, more virtuous, and to treat others better? How does it help free us from the prison of the ego and achieve non-attachment to circumstance as the only qualifier to our contentment?

          We will all form ideas and suspicions about the nature of ‘true reality’, this is inevitable. But let’s first be humble in our approach to knowledge and claims, focus on our own beliefs and actions, respect those of others, and not make the task more difficult than it is.

          This is not to discourage dialog or asking questions about what others precisely believe and think, but just a hope that I will remember my focus and priorities – proceeding humbly, patiently, and compassionately.

        • I don’t think it has to be contesting egos though.

          I think understanding how you view others’ experiences is essential to compassion, as much as is understanding how others view their experiences. For example, I’ve talked to many hard polytheists about their experiences and the majority seem to point to a felt awareness of a presence of some kind that does not seem to be coming from them. I can relate to that feeling, as I’ve certainly felt it or something like it myself. I would describe it as coming from outside the conscious “me” but still from within myself, and might be tempted to think of others’ experiences the same way, yet it is significant to note that is simply not how hard polytheists see it. Being mindful of that tension is the only way to be both sensitive to the other and true to yourself. Clear awareness of both commonality and difference is the very basis of compassion.

          What we definitely should not do is treat anyone like a bug under a microscope, or assume things about them without actually listening to them. Instead, we need to keep it human, sensitive, and honest.

        • “What, I think, may be more important is in how our personal practice is affected.”

          That’s a great question. I find myself wondering through all this if I am not in fact missing out on a whole range of experience, either by temperament or closed-mindedness. Some of the comments of the polytheists in this discussion would suggest so. But the follow-up to that question (which must also be asked) is, assuming I am missing out on an experience, then is it an experience I want to have? And that is what drives my inquiry into the nature of these experiences.

      • I think there is wisdom to be gained from understanding our ancestors’ beliefs carefully, and this shouldn’t exclude also listening to the views of our modern neighbors.

  25. You have layed a stumbling block on the path of interpagan relations. Congratulations on this staggering feat of arrogance.

  26. I came here because of an article that was complaining about your blog post. I like your blog post better.
    I also have a theory.
    People want supernatural, superpowered gods, for the same reason that people like the Justice League, or Spiderman, Or even Superman.
    The craving for a Parent, someone with all the answers, the power to make things Right.
    Like a Nanny, or a Babysitter.
    But that’s just my opinion, and I prefer to keep my fiction and my reality in two separate bookshelves.

    • The comparison threatens to devalue the experience, since gods are taken as sacred and superheroes are not. Superpowered characters might have a few things in common with the deity experience though, if we do not let the one devalue the other. Research on supernormal stimuli (see for example Deirde Barrett’s Supernormal Stimuli) and modestly counterintuitive memes (see Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained or Robert McCauley’s Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not) might best explain what they have in common. There’s a great deal that also separates the experience of gods and superpowered characters though. Some of it can be seen in an article I wrote called “In defense of ‘gods'” here on HP.

      Personally I think such biological explanations don’t detract in any way from the experience, but lead me into a state of awe at how our human biology works to create our perceptions.

    • This is the kind of from-the-hip judgmentalism that some of the polytheists responding to this post (here and elsewhere) are accusing us all of — unfairly, in my opinion. I think it would be best if we naturalists did not live up to the worst image that polytheists have of us. Comparing deities to Superman (or Santa Clause), and reducing polytheists to naive children, is not conducive to a constructive discussion. As I said above, we should beware of any explanation for other people’s beliefs which reduces the majority of humanity to idiots while placing ourselves on an intellectual pedestal. I agree with B.T. that the experience of polytheists cannot be so easily discounted. We need to take seriously the proposition that many polytheists have experienced something which may or may not fit easily into our naturalistic explanations, and then build from there. There is something to be learned here (by us), and we miss out on the opportunity with premature judgments.

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  29. for the ancient Greeks theo meant “deathless”

    Actually, for the ancient Greeks, “athanatos” meant “deathless”.. 🙂 But it is true that this was one of the more important descriptors used of the theoi.

    …A small quibble in an interesting and thought-provoking article.

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  33. Why the need to define gods at all? I get kind of tired of hearing this discussion and article after article trying to box gods into this or that paradigm. Thinking this through is good, but are we really going to answer this question..and can there be an answer…?
    Also, Theodicy can and does work in a polytheist context. People still need to place tragedy and the reason for it within the context of their chosen religious life.
    If one polytheist says that Theodicy is rational within their religion, it works and functions.

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  36. I just stumbled upon this blog post and feel the need to reply even though it has ben many months since it was first posted. First off, let me get this straight: NP’s such as yourself embrace the power of pagan traditions and myths to affect psychology and human action. Essentially, paganism is a mind game you play on yourself so you can feel more empowered. When you state that “I hate to admit it but I do feel some animosity toward hard polytheists. I feel as if they have stolen the gods (which of course belong neither to me nor to them, but to their own time and place).” My first response is, “Funny. I look at people like you and am perfectly happy to admit that I feel animosity toward atheist pagans. They have clearly stolen my religion and are happy to tell me that I am practicing it wrong.” If it wasn’t for spiritually connected people throwing off the shackles of Christianity and reviving the worship of the Gods of nature during the 1940s & 1950s, you wouldn’t even HAVE a religion to steal. It’s like you crashed the midsummer’s eve gala AFTER the circle was cast and then threw out everyone who’s there out of a feeling of spiritual connectedness to the Godhead rather than the desire to cosplay as a druid.

    Moreover, your characterization of the Gods as “superbeings” who “come off seeming un-god-like, small, weak and insignificant” is pretty hateful. Yet your follow-up comment, “even if they do exist, I don’t see why we should care.” is where your arrogance really shows. There can be very practical reasons for caring that the Gods exist and building relationships with them. For example, perhaps like myself you want to become a better organic food gardener. If none of the research you’ve done, and none of the techniques you’ve used or advice you have gotten has been working, on your sickly berries, a relationship with Azaka or Demeter can be literally fruitful. I don’t need to worship these deities from a position of subservience and groveling obsequy. I can engage them as holders of the agricultural wisdom I need to successfully use completely organic means to get my strawberries and blackberries to grow without succumbing to pests or bouts of fungus. So they can’t materialize and strike down the slash-and-burn operations. Azaka and Demeter hold the key to the mysteries of agriculture and humanity’s dependence upon it in their flawed, human-scaled hands. But the power of Their knowledge and understanding can be shared with anyone who approaches Them with respect and love. In answer to your question of who needs supernatural gods?” I am happy to answer “I do.” My spirit has been enriched by my experiences with Azaka and Demeter, and my garden has been never been more delicious. Good luck getting that result from an imaginary dialog with your symbolic archetype of “Agriculture.” You have indicated your belief that a religion should be intellectually and emotionally fulfilling. At no point have you acknowledged that for most of history, religion has been concerned with spiritual growth and fulfillment. If you don’t want spirit, go join a social club or go find a Rainbow gathering. Don’t hijack a religion and then be hateful to the people who made it possible for you to have it in the first place.

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  38. Why do atheists and pagans still vomit up Christian moral tropes? I’d say because most people are unreflective, unsubtle and will believe whatever makes them feel good. Believing in a magical being who will solve your problems is a lot easier than taking personal responsibility for what a shitty job you’ve done living your life.

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