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Pagan. ‘Nuf said?
I’m an atheist. I’m also Pagan. It’s actually not that hard to reconcile.
At the very beginning, it’s worth making something quite clear — there is really no rulebook for what makes a Pagan. It’s a term that seems to encompass a rather wide and diverse set of people. Generally speaking, Thelemites and Wiccans and Heathens all seemingly share a common set of social concerns and social infrastructure, even if they don’t share cosmology or practices. The reasons for hanging together under this umbrella term aren’t within the scope of the article, nor is the history of the term. I’m not out to speak about how we got to this point. The fact of the matter is that we’re here. And what is Paganism? It is, effectively, a culture that provides a web of common reference and language for a bunch of different people with different beliefs and practices to hang together. Paganism, therefore, has no particular theological or religious test.
I actually feel like I could rest the defense there, but I won’t. It’d make for a really empty blog post, and outside of that, I’ve looked on the web and seen a lot of static about Pagan atheism. Some of it comes from atheists that, in my opinion, needlessly deride atheist Pagans for what they consider to be unacceptable levels of religiosity; most of it, however, comes from Pagans who consider belief in the existence of at least one deity to be a necessary quality of a Pagan.
Really, really there?
But let’s break some things down. Theism is generally accepted to be typified by making a claim of the existence of at least one deity. There are a series of assertions implied in the statement, “At least one deity exists.” For example, it requires a founding definition of “deity.” It also requires a founding definition of “existence.” Sitting around and indulging in a discussion about what it means to exist would, honestly, turn into a series of blog posts that would end up rehashing ontology in general. I’m not going to attempt an iron-clad definition of “existence.” Generally speaking, though, one of my rules for saying that something exists involves my ability to demonstrate that existence to others in convincing ways, particularly when those “others” may hold views that wouldn’t be biased towards accepting that the object in question exists. This actually flows forth not from some serious position of modernism, but from the pretty practical meat-and-potatoes way that I, and many other humans, handle experiencing strange new phenomena. If I see something strange, I draw others’ attention to it to see if they see it and what they make of it.
Of course, over a lifetime of taking this practical attitude to things, including an admission, upon first encountering something unusual, that I could be hallucinating or seriously confused, I’ve developed certain rules-of-thumb to help speed up my conclusions. For example, I’ve found that most things which exist can have machines built which demonstrate and exploit that existence. For example, there was a time when HIV’s role in AIDS was not as well-accepted as it is today. The development of drugs which directly assault HIV, and which significantly extend the lives of HIV+ people, has been a major nail in that coffin. Another guideline is observing the biases of those who claim a certain thing exists. There are a bunch of these other sorts of guidelines, and a lot of people who are simply being sensible use them all the time.
Putting a few of these together, I come to the conclusion that no deity exists. Now, we can make some fuzzy definitions of “deity,” and there are a few that I might semi-comfortably consider interesting and useful, but I don’t grant them the status of, as Feynman once put it, “really, really there.” They’re not beings in this universe. They’re not beings in another universe. They’re not on another “dimension” or “plane” or “level” or “realm of ideals,” and the existence of those things is also something I do not accept. If I list the properties of deities, existence isn’t among them. That alone is enough to qualify me as an atheist. But I will, for good measure, mention some other things that I don’t think exist. I don’t recognize the existence of vital life-force, or chi, or ki, or “energy,” or any of the other myriad terms used in New Age and Pagan circles. I don’t recognize the existence of spirits, of demons, or of angels. I have no reason to conclude that I have a soul that will continue on after my death, which is to say that I also don’t believe in an afterlife. There are a lot of things common to the lives of Pagans that I don’t recognize in the ontological class of being “really, really there.”
And yet, if you find yourself blanching at this, or you’re ready to fire off a comment and tell me I’m not a “real” Pagan, at least let me tell you my response up front. Stop. You’re being obsessed with ontology.
Putting on the Santa suit
A really wise friend of mine has this great shtick he does about how he’ll never tell a child Santa Claus isn’t real. It’s really a brilliant bit, and I actually love hearing him do it at dinners and parties. Essentially, it goes like this: Santa Claus is more recognizable by more people than your average real person. People know who he is and what he does. People get gifts from him all the time, etc., etc. In fact, if you walked down the street in a red suit giving out gifts, everyone would call you Santa Claus. So, of course Santa is real. He might be more real than most people!
And, of course, this is delivered with a little bit of humor, the sort that says, “Ha, ha! … but seriously!” He, of course, does leave out some really important details that throw wrenches in the works for Santa Claus. For example, we’ve never found his workshop, nor evidence of his purchasing the raw materials for toys. His employees are elves, and nobody’s found those (seriously, not even one crazy whistleblower?!). The FAA has never received a request for an air traffic corridor radioed in from a flying sleigh. Possibly most tragically of all, there are lots of good girls and boys that Santa somehow misses. Most people would agree that this compounds together with lots of other information to suggest that, at a minimum, Santa has yet to be found and his existence would be highly contradictory.
But the whole Santa thing is still a really apt way for explaining how I deal with things like deities and the other ooky-spooky subjects we lump together into Paganism. See, I remember being 13 years old, and because I didn’t feel I had any popularity to defend, I played Santa Claus when my Boy Scout troop sang Christmas carols down at the old folks’ home. I had a really freaking good time putting on the red suit, going “Ho ho ho!”, and giving out candy canes and hugs. Most of the people at that nursing home were beyond delighted to see me. I mean, they were delighted that a bunch of fresh-faced Boy Scouts came to sing for them, but if I’d been passing out candy canes wearing my uniform, it wouldn’t have been half as much fun for me or for them. I do suspect that there may have been one or two of them may have been suffering from dementia and possibly really thought I was Santa, but I have no doubt that most of them called me “Santa” because it was fun to do so. And it was fun for me. Everything was more fun for having the living symbol of generosity and happy childhood memories there. Yep. Santa isn’t real, but I was once Santa for a night, and it made the night meaningful.
Begging the question
This is generally the place where someone will invoke a sort of fall-back cosmology popular within the Pagan community: the Jungian concept of archetypes and the collective unconscious. I’ve never really been a fan of seeing things that way, either. To be honest, it feels like another attempt at making the gods (or magickal energy, or other such stuff) “real.” Hermes no longer lives atop Mt. Olympus, but now lives inside the collective unconscious. The problem is that both Mt. Olympus and the collective unconscious are artifacts of a mythology. This shifts the mythological location, but it doesn’t really structurally change things. The other problem I have is that, while we have physical science for discussing phenomena which exist in the world, there is no “science of archetypes.” Archetypes are, in a sense, their own mythology, albeit an interesting and compelling one and one that may be a little less supernatural. But as a mythology goes, I don’t reach for it often. I also must confess that I don’t experience gods or other mystic concepts as being part of my psyche, nor do I use the modality of ritual in such a heavy psychological fashion.
Of course, archetypes are handy descriptors. I will give them that. It’s hard to not think about any character without bringing archetypes in. I prefer to see my psyche as mine, full of its own funny idiosyncratic quirks, and to simply explore, as freely as possible, what a deity or a concept or a character means to me. I don’t need to hang that on an external framework to do so, at least most of the time.
Does it matter?
And that’s why I honestly feel that, although I’m the atheist, it’s everyone else who’s being really philosophically uptight. I might not think that Hermes is “real”, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t aspire to be like Hermes, make art that represents Hermes, talk about Hermes, do things and claim Hermes did them, dress like Hermes, act like Hermes, get other people to call me Hermes, or be Hermes, for myself or others, for a time. Just because something isn’t real doesn’t mean that you can’t experience it. If things that didn’t really exist had no power, I sincerely doubt that people would go to see Batman or Iron Man movies. People love connecting with those complex symbols of heroism. People just also know that you can’t shine a bat-shaped searchlight when you’re getting mugged and that you can’t trade in Stark Industries on the NYSE. Flynn does not live. “Flynn Lives!” still means at least another $15 for millions of people.
All of this is to say that I find the question of the gods being “real,” and indeed discussions of their ontological nature in general, somewhat silly. It doesn’t matter if they’re “real” if they’re meaningful. So, yes, I am an atheist because I don’t believe in the existence of a deity. I’m also, however, a Pagan, because I have a personal relationship to the same things that Pagans have relationships to. Once you get past the word games of ontology, being an atheist Pagan isn’t so silly after all.
Next Sunday, we share an conversation between with DT Strain and B. T. Newberg, “How I became a Naturalist”.
Sometimes I agree with a post too much to have a comment. What he said.
I do “believe” in God in at least one possibility of that word, and thus I find the argument here false. The falsity of the argument rests on the notion that the terms “theist” and “atheist” include all the logical possibilities in the same way that in Aristotelian logic A and not-A contain all possibilities. But theism and atheism do not work like the notions of A and not-A. In fact there are a whole range of possibilities that exist between the two terms theism and atheism, most notably, perhaps, pantheism.
The notion of “God” in Pantheism is most certainly not something that exists or does not exist in the way that Santa Claus either exists of does not exist. It has been said that the God of Pantheism exists like an infinite circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is no where. That, of course, is a metaphor — but the God of Pantheism, like a metaphor, it is not something you can logically or empirically know to really understand a good metaphor you have to experience it in the depth of your being. God is most certainly something you have to experience in the depth of your being.
Above, I put quotation marks around the word “believe” because though I find God as the center and circumference of my being, I do not believe anything that any human has ever stated about God, except (as the Taoist say about the Tao — which is one form of Pantheism) the God that can be put into words is not the real God.
I agree with your statements about pantheism, Thomas, but I also agree with the general thrust of Jeffrey’s essay. I don’t think there’s a real contradiction here. I don’t think he’s claiming to cover all logical possibilities, though perhaps I missed something. The label “atheist” is a negation of classic theism, and thus seems an appropriate descriptor of the author’s position.
I know some naturalistically-inclined folks rankle at the atheist label because a) it doesn’t fit them or b) it conjures negative emotions or c) both. But I do think it’s important to recognize that for some of us the atheist label is an accurate descriptor. Moreover, I think Naturalistic Pagans have a unique role to play in building bridges between Pagan and atheist movements. From a political standpoint, at least, we should be allies.
I would think a true atheist would recoil at rituals that call upon the gods, not join in with them. Sincerely, I can’t understand why someone who believes that there is no divine or higher power would want to participate in invocations, chants and prayers to a goddess or god. except maybe to secretly and inwardly disdain our “unevolved” beliefs?
Perhaps you are what some would call a “soft atheist”, in the sense that you reject a literal personal Deity, but entertain other notions of Process, Philosophical Materialism, or even Pan-en-theism. For me, those are just other theological possibilities for Something Greater Than Us, and I am OK with that, but I just do not think of those beliefs as atheism.
I can see you wanting to belong to a community, since there are very few atheist communities. And Pagans, in general, are welcoming and nonjudgmental. Sure, we can be friends, but most of us won’t be helping organizations that finance a “Yes, Virginia, there is no God” billboard. The bridge you want to build is not a bad idea. But it isn’t one that will lead to a lasting merger.
Speaking only for myself (though I’d love to hear what Jeffrey might say to this) I find sufficient meaning and mystery in myth to make ritual meaningful. Period.
I don’t know how others in my circle interpret the gods and goddesses, and they don’t know how I interpret them, unless we have a nice sit-down discussion about it — and when that has happened, the discussion has always been respectful. I have never felt disdainful to another’s heartfelt beliefs on this subject, nor have I felt stigmatized for mine. I tend to see gods and goddesses as deeply meaningful metaphors. There’s no disrespect there.
Pagan rituals do not tend to involve any sort of litmus-test of belief, unlike most versions of Christianity and Islam with which I’m familiar, where a creed is recited and agreement to certain doctrinal points is viewed as necessary for salvation. I cherish this openness.
Further, Pagan rituals need not reference deity at all. Calling the quarters, invoking the elements, grounding and centering — these can all be seen as connected to deity or not, depending on your perspective. The rituals I have written tend to be celebratory rather than hortatory. From my humanistic perspective, the point is to transform consciousness. By coming together and participating in ritual together, we change our perspective on the world and change our way of being in the world.
I agree most Pagans won’t be onboard with the billboard pictured here. Atheists have even used Pagan imagery to make political statements that are offensive to many Pagans. There’s a huge disconnect between these communities, which is why I think bridge-building is needed.
I actually swore that I was not going to get involved in the comment threads, but I will break with that in no small part because I was somewhat asked by Bart to come in and speak from my own experience. Since I’m planning on taking a significant amount of time off from blogging about Pagan things, I guess it won’t hurt to express myself a little bit more here.
Before I do, I want to make some things clear: I am not an FFRF member. I did not have anything to do with the billboard shown above, even if I think it’s funny. I suspect that B.T. put that image with my blog post because it goes along with the title line and because I reference Santa Claus. I am, actually, not affiliated with any atheist organization whatsoever, and only support individual initiatives when they come along.
But, I think that, to the question of why I would potentially join in a ritual involving your deities, the entire point of the article is, in fact, responding to that very question. I’ll again cite an example from more mundane parts of my life. I used to be involved with a group of people at Dragon*Con who held vast, multi-ballroom parties in celebration of Battlestar Galactica (the new one). Our social activity involved dressing up to resemble the characters of that world. We all had in-group nicknames that resembled the military nicknames of Battlestar Galactica. Some people presented themselves as being famous characters, and got addressed that way. You’d be amazed how powerful it is to hear two packed ballrooms of people yell, in unison, “So say we all!” Even now that our big days are over, we still use a lot of our in-group sayings and names to refer to one another.
And, still, all of us knew that nothing in Battlestar Galactica is real (for fairly conventional concepts of “real”). Our Starbuck knew she wasn’t really “Starbuck” or “Kara.” She still answered to that name, though. We were all investing serious amounts of time, money, and talent because we all experienced something important in that world and we all wanted the opportunity, in the liminal space of a festival environment, to have the license to explore that sense of value by embodying it deeply.
Ultimately, where my chips fall is that “real” and “important” are two different things, and that one can, indeed, incorporate a very wide Pagan practice without the deities or forces involved being “real.” Yes, there are indeed some practices which I personally do not use. I would never pray expecting anything to answer (and yet, sometimes, I pray). Asking myself what a particular deity wants from me would not have an answer. In general, I don’t have a devotional path. Practical magick, for me, carries a very different structure, since I can’t expect those “energies” to work on their own.
And what do I do in environments where there’s a strong devotional component or there’s an over-reliance on the objective reality and beingness of deities? I do what most Pagans do when they find a ritual doesn’t suit them– I participate within my comfort level (which is pretty wide), I politely pass on participation otherwise, and I consider which groups I am and am not comfortable working with. Anyone who shared my time in the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn certainly saw that my atheism didn’t stop me from holding a number of different ritual roles.
As to what you do and do not think is atheism, atheism has a very long tradition within a number of world religions, and its current popular culture use and interpretations is very narrow. There are a number of reasons for this; atheism within the West is largely in response to Christian theism and has fairly recently made strong common cause with the skeptic movement, itself initially a response to spiritualism, which was also a Christian concept at the time. Concepts of “hard atheism” and “soft atheism” are cultural kludges to try and navigate this new consensus space, but they’re kludges. Atheism is a response to theism, an idea which asserts that deity is a being. In fact, prominent Christian theologians have found themselves criticized as “atheistic” simply for questioning the “being” portion of that formula. Paul Tillich, who coined the term “ground of being,” is a stand-out example of this.
I’d further argue that the current consensus notion of atheism hides the history of atheism and pantheism; historically, pantheistic thinkers have earned the charge of atheism. In the modern West, both pantheism and atheism are responses to theism, and they both have a diverse philosophical background. Even more interesting is the loose acceptance of people who would cast concepts of deity in psychological terms, which itself is very limiting of the beingness of those deities; if someone claimed that archetypes were notational concepts and not beings, though, this is suddenly a bridge too far.
And that’s to say nothing of atheism in the East, which has a very complicated and much better-included history. All of this, collectively, is still atheism, and I’d strongly encourage this Wikipedia article as a jumping-off point– http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nontheistic_religions
If there’s anything that I would say this article and its sequel (“Care and Feeding of Your Atheist Pagan”) have as a common and over-arching theme, it’s to trust that people who come to your ritual space are, more often than not, doing so for honorable and often personal reasons, and that, rather than simply presuming why they’re joining ritual, a better course of action might be to actually find out from them what their experiences are. I’d invite you along on that, especially since, if you and I were to share a ritual space, you’d probably never have known I was also an atheist.
Concerning non-theistic religions, there is a significant difference between non-theism and atheism. Buddhism and Taoism are certainly not forms of atheism. At the popular level, Buddhism is filled with deities and Taoism also has it deities. At the more esoteric level, Buddhism and Taoism both lead to non-duality. Buddha and Lao Tze never spoke of a God because non-duality does not allow for such affirmations — theism engenders atheism, and non-duality seek to transcend such duality.
Within atheism, I think that there are both hard and soft forms, and some of the soft forms may actually be non-theism rather than atheism. Perhaps this is all a matter of semantics, but the evolution of new understandings of religion and spirituality requires new ways of speaking about these matters. Semantics is a constant stumbling block, and I’m afraid that banging one’s head against semantic issues may be the only way to break down that stumbling block.
I’m sorry, but I must disagree that the difference between nontheism and atheism is “significant.” This does depend a little bit on your semantic starting points, of course, but from where I stand, the difference between them is quite small. It is true that atheism in the West has a fairly strong historical root of response to theism, because Christian theism was a dominant paradigm and because modernism implied that reasoning about things like “God” and “the meaning of life” would lead to conclusive answers, but that does not mean that every aspect of atheistic position. But that does not mean that all atheistic viewpoints stand in active opposition to, and thus require a dichotomy against, theism. Active response to theism isn’t atheism; it’s antitheism.
Obviously, not everyone wants to use the same semantics, but I’m using a set that are not particularly idiosyncratic. In fact, while doing a little pre-reading to make this comment, I stumbled on this helpful breakdown, which you can find reflected in Wikipedia pages on nontheism, atheism, and antitheism.
And, again, regardless of the semantics sitting here, my point remains the same– there’s a way to truly know the people who don’t fit in your categories, and that’s to find out what moves them.
I think for some atheists, maybe most, atheism was a response to theism, for sure. But there are enough non-religious families around, especially in Europe, but also America, that there are plenty of people who just were hardly exposed to religion, or never identified with religion to begin with. Maybe these are the non-theists.
“Generally speaking, Thelemites and Wiccans and Heathens all seemingly share a common set of social concerns and social infrastructure, even if they don’t share cosmology or practices. ”
Could I ask what you meant by “social concerns” and “social infrastructure”? Both myself and a few others at WH are pretty thoroughly baffled by it.
I do want to note that I am not interested in getting into a long, point-by-point conversation, and that I am very familiar with the tone of conversation on the Wild Hunt comment threads in general and I disapprove of it.
That said, The Wild Hunt itself is a perfect example of shared social infrastructure, and it’s not alone. People from different backgrounds share in pan-Pagan news and blogging sites, Facebook groups, message fora, practitioner conferences, academic conferences, community pride events, etc. Generally speaking, there are also concerns that stretch across people’s backgrounds. The most obvious of these is the way in which broader society treats the practitioners of various Pagan paths, since there is a general concern that denying a Pagan of one stripe a job or child custody rights exposes other Pagans to a similar threat. Another example would be the ongoing subject of access to chaplains in prison. While it’s certainly true that many people have varying opinions on the subject, it’s something “of concern” in ways that runs across the lines of people’s various backgrounds. Again, the question of having proper access to religious facilitation while incarcerated is something that can benefit people regardless of background. I would definitely expect that people’s own backgrounds would inform their opinions on the matter, of course.
As I said, feel free to disagree. I speak only for the conclusions I draw from my own observations and experience and the traditions in which I have practiced. I’ve experienced that, over the past twenty years, it’s been quite trivial to communicate and cooperate in environments spanning very diverse groups of people and to discuss issues that also span them. Your mileage may have varied.
Yes, I do agree about the concerns faced as members of a minority religion, that’s the case across the board for minority religions, with different areas being more salient to different religions, but with the general concerns shared by all. With so much WS/Neo-Nazi “Heathenry” in prisons, getting accurate and non-bigoted information to incarcerated Heathens is an especially pressing issue for Heathens, and I think much of the intra-Heathen differences of opinion on this issue are more on how to go about it (notably, many dislike the idea of “prison outreach” by large national orgs and think it’s best done on a more ad-hoc, local level and more focused on information dissemination vs. prison chaplaincy). So yes, definitely agree on this.
“That said, The Wild Hunt itself is a perfect example of shared social infrastructure, and it’s not alone. People from different backgrounds share in pan-Pagan news and blogging sites, Facebook groups, message fora, practitioner conferences, academic conferences, community pride events, etc.”
This is where I disagree. It’s a *lot* less common now than it used to be for Heathens to spend time in pan-Pagan festivals, FB groups, etc. I go on WH (though my Heathenry is kind of arguable, I’m eclectic enough to feel somewhat uncomfortable claiming the label for myself), but if I mention it on Heathen FB groups, most present don’t have any idea what I’m talking about. Someone else on the WH comments noted the same thing I’m seeing, which is an increasing number of Heathens going straight into Heathenry without having any experience with other Pagan religions or with pan-Pagan culture. There are enough Heathen spaces, Heathen groups, and Heathen festivals that one can find Heathenry, spend their time there and never even touch on pan-Pagan spaces or belief systems, and for many of the younger Heathens, that’s exactly what their experience is. Mention Gardner, Margot Adler, Isaac Bonewits, or any other Pagan luminary in a Heathen space and the 40+ yr olds generally follow the conversation but most of the younger ones have absolutely no idea who those people are and don’t consider Paganism very relevant to what they do.
I didn’t reply to start an argument, I’m just getting the sense that a lot of Pagans (continuing to see Heathens in pan-Pagan spaces) don’t realize how small the overlap between the two communities has really become. There are a few people who pop up again and again as guest speakers/ritualists at pan-Pagan events, but when you spend time in Heathen circles you start to notice that it *is* always the same few people and that most don’t. I’m newish to Heathenry but I’ve been Pagan for ~25 years and the lack of overlap now (vs., say, 15 years ago) has really surprised me. I also think the recognizable-name Heathen speakers at pan-Pagan events also have more syncretic and Neo-Pagan practice than Heathens who don’t, and that this leads to some misconceptions about Heathens that are revealed when random Heathens, whose practices aren’t that way, comment on blog articles. I don’t think there’s any malice in it (nor would I call it privilege), one would need to spend time in both spaces to appreciate how big the divide really is.
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I have posted an article titled “Why I Am Not And Atheist” at http://hiveoftheinvisible.blogspot.com/2013/12/why-i-am-not-atheist.html
This is not meant to be a response to Jeffrey’s article, which despite my comments above I find quite admirable. It is just my response to atheism in general.
Even granting there is a God, what can anyone tell you about Him that is verifiable, or for that matter, falsifiable? This would seem to render any ontological discussion on the point meaningless. Yet, there is probably no more important decision in life than having a conviction about this one way or another. It affects, or should affect, almost every other decision we make. So, the best article someone could write on the subject would not be about whether or not there is a God, but why and how to decide whether there is or not, starting from an agnostic position. If anyone has seen such a book or article, let me know.
Actually, Kierkegaard wrestles with this subject quite heavily, especially in “Fear and Trembling.” Camus touches on these subjects in “The Myth of Sisyphus.” Sartre, in “Existentialism is a Humanism,” referred to his brand of existentialism as a summing up of a consistently atheistic position, and so most of Sartre’s writings apply.
Granted, it’s Hangover Day, and maybe I didn’t read your comment correctly, but I’d say that the tension between the theistic existentialists (such as Kierkegaard) and the atheistic existentialists (like Sartre and Camus, excusing Camus discomfort with identifying as existentialist), is very much about the subject you’re mentioning. The great writings of existentialism might be of interest to you.
Thanks for that reply. I am somewhat familiar with Kierkegaard on this, and was a theist on similar grounds before reading him. Now, I find his approach unsatisfactory, so I am kind of starting over again. I obviously missed a lot on first reading of Sisyphus, and never warmed up to Sartre as a personality, so these are two to revisit or visit. Thanks again.
Yeah, I’m really not big on Sartre, either, and I’m due for re-reading Kierkegaard because I was a bit younger at the time. But I’d definitely say that there’s a lot in the tension of theism between various existentialists that might be of interest if you want to pursue that particular question.
I’d suspect that you’d probably find plenty of other parts of Western philosophy that works with this matter, too. Certainly, apologetics dedicates lots of time to it. But consider that Pascal’s Wager, ill-structured though it is, is actually an attempt at addressing the question you posed. It argues conditions for accepting a certain deity based on the expected value of reward for doing so.
I agree Pascal’s wager is a response to my request, but that way lies insanity.