If you go into philosophy or religious studies thinking to find answers to questions of faith, of the divine, of those mysteries that have had so much power over human lives for at least as long as Homo sapiens has been around, you’re doomed to failure from the start. Fair warning: what you’ll find instead is several crises of faith, 2 AM bouts of drunkenness over existential why me‘s, and a hatred so deep for That Guy In Philosophy 101 that the Mariana Trench looks like a crack in the sidewalk. It got to the point that, for a long time, if it couldn’t be replicated in a scientific setting or be logically explained, I would roll my eyes at the religious sheeple who could chew on such bullshit.
And then, like Hume’s sun deciding to sleep in late one day, like the Average Kid who suddenly finds out he’s a wizard, everything changed. It occurred to me that if no one can accurately define what the divine is in any objective way, then how can it be concluded with any certainty that it doesn’t exist? And, well, why not believe?
Let me start with the disclaimer that I make absolutely no claim to being correct. I know no more truth than the kid watching a magic show. My objective truthiness level hasn’t been upgraded since about five missions and three weapons upgrades ago. I have no doubt that there are flaws in my logic that I’ve missed and that my opinion will evolve as I grow and doubt and grow around that doubt. This is for my personal at-this-stage-of-my-life edification and whoever might be interested in this kind of rationalization. That said, I have two parts to my argument, the first based on my own brand of logic and the second in our psychological quirks.
So, consider what is and isn’t possible. Not unlikely, not really almost but not quite impossible, but what is actually impossible. Let’s start with, say, the sun refusing to rise one morning. Physics and astronomy and several other departments in the science classrooms tell us that it’s impossible for the sun not to rise in the morning, not least because it isn’t a self-aware agent capable of free choice. Everything that empirical science can tell us, everything that people have remembered and passed down and experienced for themselves, tells us that the damn sun will rise and there’s nothing Superman can do about it. But as mad and ignorant as it sounds, as much as it goes against everything we’ve ever been taught, is it possible? Is it possible that one morning physics will run out of coffee and furiously throw its own rule book out of the window?
Technically, yes. (And yes, I’m one of those assholes who believes physical law is physical tendency. I’m telling you, majoring in philosophy will fuck your shit up. Fast food jokes aside, this is the real reason to do something useful, like economics or engineering or, I don’t know, puppetry.)
“Well, Hound,” you might be saying, or at least I’m pretending you are, “doesn’t that mean anything is possible?” And in my humble opinion, no. There are two things I haven’t been able to argue myself around yet: statements of personal perception and definitional logic. If you tell me that you perceive everything I’ve said so far to be the sheeple’s bullshit, I can’t really argue with that. You think you’re thinking that my thinking is erroneous, and I can’t know what you’re thinking because even the most solipsistic belief can’t make me think your thoughts.
Bear with me, I’ll get to my point soon.
Accepting the premises, at least for now, that empirical tendency does not equal empirical law and that definitional logic is a rock of objectivity to cling to, we turn to the divine. Since I’m a hard polytheist, I’m just going to say “the gods” and you can insert your own interpretation of the divine as you read along. So now we have to ask:
- Does the existence of gods violate known tendencies of the natural (empirical, materialistic, etc) world?
- Does the existence of gods violate definitional logic?
No. No, it doesn’t. Their existence has never been reliably confirmed according to modern scientific methodology, but lack of evidence is not evidence in and of itself, nor can it violate definitional logic when we can’t even agree on what the gods are. If you can’t accurately define something, how can you say it doesn’t exist with any degree of certainty that isn’t based on “because I don’t like it”? For anyone who, understandably, clings to the idea of physical laws being absolute or nearly so (despite the revisions they routinely undergo, demonstrating that they’re not perfect anyway), the rebuttal from Arthur C. Clarke and the Thor movies would suggest that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This means that it’s entirely possible the gods, whatever and whoever they may be, are actually in line with our known physical laws in ways we simply haven’t discovered yet.*
Besides, you can’t prove a negative, the negative in this case being “the gods do not exist.” So, uh…QED.
All philosophical argument aside, why would someone want to believe in anything divine when there’s no reliable evidence for its existence? And my response to that is: what’s the worst that can happen?
This is where cultural and social privilege come into play, despite the apparent innocence of the question, as logic gives way to the fluid chaos of humans. There are very real consequences in the world for people who choose to believe and practice differently than the dominant religion and for whom “What’s the worst that can happen?” is abuse, torture, and sometimes death. Sometimes others’ perception of you believing and practicing differently, whether inspired by calculated malice or just ignorance, can be enough to sign a death warrant. (Trigger warning: links lead to news reports containing graphic violence.) While accusations of witchcraft or Pagan “devil worship” are less likely to result in death in the US, there are plenty of cases in which people have been hurt, abused, or thrown out of the house. There’s little that I, sitting at my desk in front of my personal computer in a notoriously liberal town, who grew up with parents who supported my habit of bringing home books with titles like Satan: A Biography and The Idiot’s Guide to Tarot Spreads, can say that wouldn’t sound disingenuous or ignorant. So when I ask, “What’s the worst that can happen?” I mean to direct it at people whose doubt is either based specifically on the fear of being wrong or that other people’s belief is one of those sheeple things.
Some common personal cons of being a modern-day polytheist:
- Money spent on supplies. (Don’t forget that dollar and thrift stores are legit shops, too! You should never have to choose between food and a new athame or whatever. The dollar store has novena candles, btw, great for routine devotionals.)
- Personal time spent on activities like rituals and Pagan-oriented events.
- The embarrassment of being wrong.
And some common pros:
- A sense of direction or purpose, whether that means finding a comfortable position to rest in your own self-identity or finding spiritual fulfillment in a new career path.
- The sense of having a greater degree of control in your life, such as through magical practice or working with deities and other beings.
- Mental and emotional support.
- Finding community. Group rituals have the potential to be powerful shared experiences.
I know I’m leaving out additional pros and cons, but for many people, the pros of taking that leap of faith outweigh the cons. It certainly has for me, which means it’s anecdote time.
I have chosen to put my faith in two specific deities, one of which with greater focus. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter to me whether my gods are objectively real or not because of what my polytheistic practice provides me. One is a figure that, in part because I feel accountable to her in some ways, has inspired me to do things I might not have otherwise done, like volunteering and going through training at the local women’s shelter and learning ways to use the characteristics of my mental illness and PTSD as strengths rather than weaknesses. The other is one that provides psychological and spiritual support when I’m engaging in shadow work and, soon, death work. I have only forgotten to take my medication once since starting my morning routine, which is basically taking a few moments to light candles and honor my two deities and my ancestors, and those few moments make a huge difference in my ability to face a new day. If a placebo results in me feeling motivated, gives me purpose and methods of coping in a world that I struggle not to despise half the time, and inspires me to greater self-awareness, and it doesn’t result in me or anyone else getting undeservedly hurt, then hell yes I’ll take the sugar pill.
My partner once brought up a quotation associated with Penn Jillette that argued God (or gods) couldn’t exist because if all religions were wiped out and started anew, the new religions wouldn’t be the same as their predecessors; if all of science were wiped out, however, the same principles would be rediscovered again and again, unchanged. I actually really like this quotation, not the least because it appeals to the lingering traces of the atheist in me. Rather than convincing me of the illegitimacy of religion, however, it instead points out that a) religion would still exist, albeit in different incarnations, no pun intended, suggesting that there’s as much of an underlying truth in the existence of something as any scientific principle, and b) there is no one single way to know this underlying truth. Perhaps that truth is a fact limited to our neurology and how the complicated nature of our brains has us hardwired to perceive something that doesn’t exist outside of ourselves. Perhaps it’s a truth that isn’t rooted in the nature of the world around us, as scientific principles are, so much as what is inside and between us; that is, religion is a truth of people that necessarily exists as long as we’re capable of having both inter- and intrapersonal relationships. Or perhaps it’s an Arthur C. Clarke thing and a divine principle is as fundamental to the universe as the natural, we just don’t have the technology to understand it in the context of the natural yet. Edit 12/15/15: It’s possible that what appears to underlying, unchanging truths are actually consistent manifestations of quirks in human psychology, but if that were the whole case, I believe this means that religion would manifest as uniformly as scientific principles do. This suggests something that exists outside of us mere mortals independent of our awareness of it.
People ultimately arrive at their beliefs based on emotion, cultural and social conditioning, environmental experience, and the influence of innate predispositions — basically, almost anything except logic itself. Push hard enough on someone’s opinion, get as close to the root of it as you can, and more often than not you’ll find justifications like, “It’s what my parents taught me,” “I heard it from a friend I trust,” “It makes me feel superior/more educated to other people,” “It’s the law,” “It’s what our society considers normal,” etc. Even the belief in strict materialism or empiricism requires someone to take that initial leap of faith, since both theories may exclude most aspects of religion but are still themselves only theories. Materialism and empiricism make sense to cultures in countries like the US because we’re taught that they make sense since before children learn to talk, whereas they may be considered incomplete or incorrect worldviews in other places. In the end, there’s no way to know who is correct beyond a reasonable doubt, let alone an objective one.
So when people ask why you believe in the gods…well, why not?
Edit (15 Dec. 2015): A couple people have brought up some interesting thoughts elsewhere I think are worth addressing in this post itself. Both attempted to explain the square circle thing to me again, but I’m going to need some time to really sit down and poke at it and probably hurl some verbal abuse at it before I can address it. As you can probably tell, math was never my strong suit since an elementary school teacher actually used it as a source of public humiliation.
One of these people pointed out that because there’s no way to know the state of the gods’ existence, whether they’re real or not real (or what that existence even looks like), not unlike the Copenhagen interpretation/Schrödinger‘s cat situation, then the question of the gods’ existence is necessarily unanswerable by reason, only faith. I mostly agree with this, particularly when it comes to religions in which the act of faith itself is highly regarded. Faith, by definition, does not consist of evidence, so why would you attempt to use contemporary science to find evidence of something that can only be known through faith, not just for dogmatic reasons but for logical ones as well?
Or, by extension, logical derivation? For this one, at least, it’s partially because I haven’t completely shaken the conditioning that faith must be based on reason, however tenuously, but mostly it’s to get my hands into the guts of the matter and cut out the contradictions of double-think.
- Can people feel that their strength has been taken from them by the gods?
The answer is a resounding yes. It’s far from uncommon for people to find themselves weakened by their religion. Fear of punishment, whether divine or mundane, can turn what would ideally be positively fulfilling acts into ones of anxiety, self-loathing, violence against themselves or others, and a million other inflicted wounds both great and small, which is why the first post I made on this blog was about setting one’s boundaries in relation to deities. People do wonderful things in the name of religion, but they do horrific things as well. Some pay a religion lip service to justify something else, such as when devotees of Ares or other war-associated deities act like assholes with the line, “I worship a god of war, so I’m supposed to/allowed to act this way.” It’s also easy for charismatic people to set themselves up in a position of power and use it to manipulate and harm their followers, and the nature of faith — how personal it is, how viscerally it grows tied into our hearts — becomes a vulnerability. As a mod over on The Pagan Study Group Page, I see a lot of messages from people who are crying out from the hurt that was carved into them from things like fundamentalist doctrines and misinformed voices set up as authority. Ultimately, this comes down to a person’s individual choices.
- Wouldn’t people haunted by demons or such prefer to know that what haunts them doesn’t exist and thus can’t hurt them?
This question already presupposes that gods and other ‘supernatural’ entities don’t exist, but more than that, it’s rare for someone to be able to truly, sincerely change or lose their faith at will, at least partially because of the aforementioned tendency for people to come to deep beliefs on factors that normally exclude pure reason. Ideally, we would be able to make these choices based on a careful evaluation of our own needs and priorities, e.g. someone prone to paranoia may not want to put their faith into the existence of actual demons. It reminds me somewhat of an abusive domestic relationship: how many times have people asked why the abused doesn’t just leave the abuser? Unfortunately, it just isn’t that easy.
- *Entropy is often described as a move towards disorder. But actually, it’s the exact opposite. It is the universe simply moving to its lowest energy-state. A state in which everything is equal and at its simplest. But gods require energy. Especially if they must inhabit in higher-dimensions for them to exist. Which is where Occam’s Razor comes back into play for me. As far as can be determined by scientists and the like, the universe gets on just fine without gods or other beings. For me there’s no need to complicate our world.
The amount of energy required by a god to exist can be, as far as we currently know, anywhere from near zero to a magnitude that rivals stars. We get stuck again at the fact that we simply can’t define a divine being, nor accurately measure the nature of a dimension that isn’t our own and which is generally relegated to the realm of the spiritual. We get stuck again at the possibility that the gods already exist in harmony with physics and we haven’t figured out how yet. Maybe the fact that the universe seems to get on just fine without them shows us just how efficient they are at their jobs. Occam’s Razor is too easily turned to one side or the other, depending on how you characterize the “yay to gods” or “nay to gods” sides. On the one hand, adding deities may seem like unnecessary complications when a single scientific principle can work just as well, but on the other, perhaps the deities function in such a way that it would take numerous secular systems to achieve the same results. There’s also no reason which follows by logical necessity that explains why the simplest explanation must always be the correct one. The watchmaker’s analogy, for example, is meant to demonstrate why a sufficiently complicated system must have an intelligent designer, but this means accepting that our complicated universe must have been created through intelligent, divine design, which runs counter to the secular use of Occam’s Razor in the paragraph quoted above.