Theism/Atheism/Agnosticism: The story of my struggle

If you visit my “My Practice” page, you will see that, in one of the paragraphs, I state that I am an agnostic that chooses to be polytheistic/pagan.

This is a pretty long post, just so you know.

This is something that for so long, has caused me much turmoil. Are the gods real, objectively? Or are they real only because we make them so? If it’s all in our heads but we experience them, doesn’t that make them real (enough)? In that case, can’t they exist as much as happiness is an emotion that can’t be “out there” in the world without a human source, and yet can be experienced by anyone and can therefore “exist”? What does “real” mean, anyway?

More importantly…why do these questions matter so much to me?

More than likely, because of my Catholic schooling and my love of reading. I enjoyed mythologies and nonfiction. My grandparents bought me Eyewitness books for holidays, my mother bought me illustrated books on mythology, and I enjoyed epic adventures and poetry which referenced or retold the stories people have retold for ages. From these sources, I heard the stories people used to explain and structure their world, as different as the lands from which they hailed. In school, and in my community, I learned that these were simply stories, and that the nature of truth was both singular and transcendent.

I also learned that belief mattered just as much as (and, in some people’s opinions, more than) one’s actions. What you believed was a big deal. And while I didn’t agree with those beliefs, they spurred my need to discover, explore, and justify my own.

Polytheism seemed so much more colorful than the parables of Christ. Most of the pantheons and myths I read about seemed to have an element of nature or humanity I could relate to, much more than the sterile Jehovah. They seemed connected to the one place I felt that I experienced what people were calling God…the natural world. What’s more is that there philosophies seemed more nuanced, and while they emphasized the natural and extant world, there was also a hint of something more…some inner world we might learn of.

****

I was probably about 11 when my maternal grandparents took me to the Appalachian Mountains. My grandfather always was and still is a naturalist at heart. He star gazes every night, watches the Discovery Channel and National Geographic religiously, and loves national parks and outdoors adventures. Through the trips we took with him, he also showed my brother and I a nature that was foreign to us…earthen monoliths that jumped to the sky, blanketed with green and pine. He brought us to air that was dry and rivers that were so clear you could see everything they housed. I remember sitting in the back of that giant silver Buick, nestled into the maroon velour and my brother’s Micky Mouse pillow, feeling slightly ill as we rounded the mountain curves but also inspired as we drove over rustling white waters and peered down into steep, sleepy valleys. All the while, my grandfather was narrating the life of the hills: how they formed millions of years ago, the animals that made a life there, the tragedy of the Native Americans that once lived there, how the American families there mined coal, and what happened to the little villages when coal ran out or was no longer profitable.

When I looked out of the window, I realized the green I saw on the mountain next to us was not the leaves of the trees but the leaves of a lush vine which covered all the trees like a sheet. I had never seen anything like it. It was beautiful, magical, peaceful, serene. I was moved, I was awe struck. I remember thinking, “This is what church should feel like.”

And that was it. I went home and started to figure out how to recreate that feeling, for aside from its intrinsic pleasure, I felt it had more to offer hidden away within it. I felt like I had found God. Whatever this feeling or presence was, it was out there, among the trees, babbling to the brooks, coating the mist that wafted from the waterfalls.

I thought about turning to all those myths I enjoyed to see what direction lay within them, because their overall narrative seemed to make sense: there were gods and goddesses and spirits of specific phenomena, and when I went to the mountains, that’s what it was like. There was a general feeling of “something big and beautiful”, but there were also all of these distinct forces. Rain was so different from wind. The sun can be so different in the summer and winter. Hollering because you are happy seems different from yelling when you become upset. What’s more, the feeling at the beach differed from the feeling in the mountains, which differed from the feeling I got sitting beneath my paternal grandparent’s pecan tree. Polytheism seemed to attempt to look at these differences and link them, explore them, see their differences.

Plus, young children, I think, like categorizing and breaking things down. It makes it digestible. And I wasn’t yet a young woman. I was only 11 (and confused in other ways than religious).

But this was still too foreign. I was still worried about hell and the devil, I think. But I knew, without a doubt, something was out there for discovering, and that it was a truth truer and more profound than what had previously been discussed with me.

I turned first to other Christian denominations, using the library and my grandmother’s brand new internet connection as my means of exploration. But it was all the same…and all lacking what I was looking for – finding gods in the world around us as well (and eventually, within ourselves). Gnosticism seem to be the closest thing I could identify with, except that it seemed to eschew the material world. However, it did offer a new insight: our wisdom and desire to learn and experience is not evil, but natural. Sins and/or hedonism can be a means of learning, if used properly. Here was something I could agreed with.

So, eventually, spurred by an absence of nature-revering and, as I got older (13, 14), an absence of philosophical congruence, I branched out into things like Hinduism and Buddhism, but never as able to reach neo-paganism on my own.

Along with this connection to nature, I was looking for something…logical. I was certainly searching for the nature of God, as I was pretty convinced at this point that Christianity did not encapsulate my truth. But I was also looking for something that reflected the ideas I had about the nature of the self, the nature of existence, and all the other thoughts I had. I had yet to learn that no peg fits perfectly into any hole…its either find the one that fits the best or forge your own. I was also looking for something that didn’t disregard science, because I thought that held the answers, first and foremost. I still think that religion/spirituality just fill in the “human gaps” that science cannot fill, for those of us that want such filling.

****

I longed for the feeling I had in the mountains. One that would come to recreate itself in the Rocky Mountains, on a trip with my paternal grandfather to his grandparent’s homestead, near the bottom of the tree in my back yard, or when my cousin’s and I ran amok in the afternoon heat. It was a feeling I was coming to connect to other experiences, too, not just”out there in nature”. I was beginning to understand that humans are a part of nature, just as much as any other critter.  I had found the feeling when I was with my mother or grandmother, watching them cook or tell a story. I felt it when I spent time at my uncles and felt the security of my aunts’ and uncles’ acceptance. Love and security can be a part of nature, just as much as uncertainty and anger.

And I was looking for that, too. I was looking for a philosophy to affirm my worth…as I think, in the end, many of us do.

What’s more, I was grappling with the idea of whether the gods were distinct from you and me and nature. The myths I’d read implied that the gods were nature – human and inhuman. The gods were love, wrath, beauty, intellect. They were the forces of nature, rain and fertility, flood and sickness, fire and heat. They were all the world around us.

Soon enough, I’d meet a friend who would be a signpost in my wondering. He would be someone that shared my feelings, and had found resources that had provided him fodder for answers. He was willing to offer these sources to me, with the caveat that his answers may not be mine. They weren’t anything too wildly esoteric by today’s standards, but they were what I was looking for.

And so did I discover Neo-Pagansim. He would eventually become a devotee of Krishna, and a very pious one at that. But he came to Krishna through Neo-Pagansim, through ceremonial magick, through tarot, through Crowley, through Shinto. He knew about Wicca and meditation and energy manipulation. He also knew about adolescent loneliness, and he knew about escape and laughter and learning to find your own way in life. And he taught me these things, while always pushing me to trust myself, to love myself, and to think for myself. He was someone to discuss my thoughts with, which I think was most important.

It’s a debt I never got to repay before he passed, but a gift that helped to make me who I am.

At this point in my development, I believed the divine existed as gods. I bordered on monistic (that all gods are a facet of one force), but also wondered if hard polytheism was more culturally sensitive and a more accurate perception. I felt the gods were conscious, in some capacity, for certainly I had felt them speak to me.

All this time, however, I was growing intellectually – eventually becoming a student of psychology and science rather than mythology, religion, and literature once I graduated high school. I had been exposed to Taoism and transcendentalism in late high school (which would impact me profoundly, and likely sparked my monism). I realized that I did feel as if there was a pervasive force that connected us, that saturated all of nature…and maybe even extended pass the world we saw into the unseen reaches of the universe. I didn’t think this force was the same as the gods, but I did think it was within all of creation, seen and unseen.

I was also learning about how operant conditioning can form superstitions, attribution bias, affirmation bias, and a whole host of there theories that have some relevance to how humans create the schema of their spirituality. Cue the cognitive dissonance, ya’ll.

These places (the mountains, the fields, around a bonfire with family or friends) made me wonder if I was picking up on a distinct, conscious force, or simply themes common to all men and women. I wondered if I was tapping into experiences that were so moving they were personified – but beyond that, had no objective existence. Were we creating the gods, or are they there without us? Are they  just a specific part of the Oneness? And in the end, are all of these things just figments of my own cognition…and more importantly…does that mean they don’t matter and hold no value? These were questions I grappled with often.

****

A few years ago, I realized I was truly agnostic. I don’t know if the gods exist as cognizant beings. Logically, I can say that its highly unlikely these sorts of beings exist outside of the human mind. I do feel there is a lack of transcendent reality. There are those things we can’t directly observe, but I think people mistake this for transcendent. Its not transcendent…it is simply that part of the universe we don’t pick up on, except indirectly, perhaps.

I definitely see the gods as forces of nature (both human and nonhuman nature). They can be energy or parts of the collective unconscious – the force of fertility, the abundance and loss of death in the harvest, the jubilation of drunkenness and wanton behavior.  These collections of ideas and energies…I do think they exist outside of me. I can die, there will still be drunkenness. Fertility will still be there, whether humans are here or not. So in this sense, they are objective.

But are they conscious? And is there an underlying force that connects us all?

As for the force: What is culture but a force? What is the love or anger between us but a force? I think these start to fit the bill, but what I look for extends past these. It connects the living to the nonliving. It connects the Earth to the void of space and the stars beyond. Is it some type of energy or shared material that runs seamlessly through us all? Is it the mere fact that we exist?

Is existence this force? 

I feel like that’s what I’m feeling when I am out in the mountains…existence. It’s how I see the Netjeru and Ma’at. These larger-than-life experiences, they feel are the gods to me. But I feel it, too, with others. In family reunions. A kiss from my beau. A conversation with my friends. In these life-sized experiences, the gods are there too.

Am I just in love with existing? 

Maybe. Is appreciation of existence and existence itself and all it entails my Ma’at? What the transcendentalists called “One”? What I think of as the Netjeru?

But is this “force” really as simple as existence? Especially since…there is still a distinctness between you and I. We are a part of creation, a part of the universe. We share in its energy and mass…but we are distinct from each other, at least in some ways. This “separateness” and the concept of “other”…its a major theme in many philosophies and cultures and religions. While we are all “One” (or a part of “One”)…there’s something more to it.

****

I want to say there’s a hum to existence, something distinct that is shared. I know that could be in my head. One could argue that existence is also in your head. But this sharedness… We exist… but we can also love each other. We have experiences. We have similarities (and differences). Our actions have consequences that affect each other and the world around us. We share atoms and molecules with the world around us. We are essentially star dust…we are made of and ingest the world around us, through food or radiation waves or culture. This sharing that’s involved in existence…it’s the oneness. THAT’S THE ONENESS!

We can affect each other’s existence (human and non human others, like plants and rocks and things), we share and trade parts, be it psychologically or physically. It’s the nature of existence, the ebb and flow of cause and effect and of sharing space and time with one another. We are connected because we can affect each other, and because we are born of the same universe and share its fabric. Finally, I felt I had figured out how I felt about something.

****

But the gods, the distinct parts of the universe, connected or separate as they may be…are they conscious? I guess that consciousness is what I meant when I said “real” earlier (you know, 3000 words earlier). I don’t think many would argue that there are forces in nature or that there are some shared human and cultural experiences. But when I reach out…I feel something speak back. To speak back, I assume one must have consciousness. Natural forces don’t have that, right?  But there seemed to be something answering when I called, something both external and internal…a gatekeeper.

WTF is a gatekeeper in this sense? I’d say, a means to make meaning…a way of imbuing something with depth and meaning and relevance to ourselves. Is there something evolutionary or spiritual that helps to unpack the meaning relevant to us?

Meaning making is a thing, so that’s not so far fetched. Archetypes help us to do this. Culture helps us to do this. I think gods can help us do this. And I recognize, at this point, that I can perceive something to speak to me when in reality, it doesn’t (it is just conjecture). But, to buy into that experience and go with it when logically I knew it wasn’t “really” happening…cue more cognitive dissonance.

Logically, I say that the gods are either personifications of nature or my own cognitions. But when I close my eyes to think or meditate or pray… When I’m reeling from anxiety or crying from joy…I want it to. I talk to it as if it is. I “let” it hold me, school me, and comfort me. I want there to be a larger force to connect to when I’m vulnerable to stay grounded…and knowing logically that there isn’t one makes that desire greater at times.

I know it can be purely conjecture, but when I call to Aset or Het-heru or Wesir or Amun-Ra or Kheperu or the trees in the friggin’ forest…I feel something answer. I know feel is the operative word. Maybe the “answer” is just me plugging into some shared experience, or a schema I’ve wired into my brain (or, honestly, me just calming down and thinking clearly). Whatever it is…it’s there. And while I know this isn’t logical or explainable…it doesn’t feel entirely internal. I feel there is an external element to it. *cue more cognitive dissonance*

I know that the mind is a powerful thing. I know that…but…dammit this feeling was nice! I’m an anxious person, and somehow this helped me to find calm.

So, even though I “know” the mind is a powerful thing that can make you think you feel all sorts of things… I allow myself to unknow this when I pray.

To allow myself that luxury..well…it took some time.

What I struggled with was if it (a god) is just these forces or a bit more than that, perhaps born of the source of those things or born of their collective energies, but also able to connect deliberately with us as we reach out to it. Is it something that can show interest, even if it is a part of a universe which is indifferent? Is it something a little more than just collected experiences and natural forces…like, the “energy” of those natural forces and experiences?

I started wondering to what extent the gods are external to us and independent of us. Is it simply as the actual forces of nature and their personification, or as actual energies that are connected to them? I wrested with whether they had a seperate consciousness from my own. This could well be my own way of validating my own experiences (when I hear the Netjeru talk to me).

I think the only reason I’ve written this long-ass post and grappled with this for so long is because, even though logically and scientifically I know there is no evidence for anything akin to a deity, there’s still part of me that wants to say yes and feels that I have experienced something of that nature. But…that makes no sense…not matter how real it feels, it doesn’t match with science.

At this point, I can admit that the gods are, quite possibly and, as far as our evidence goes, quite likely entirely a figment of humanity’s (and my own) cognition…but they’re still there in my subjective reality. Doesn’t that make them “real” enough? And if I conceive of them as not just my own interpretations of the world, but components of the world itself, doesn’t that also make them “real enough”?

I’ve come to the point where I have allowed these two viewpoints to live side-by-side. I don’t think there were burning bushes in the Middle East back in the day. I know, logically, that all of my spiritual practice gets its power from the psychological processes it taps into…

And I allow it to tap into those processes. When I pray and I get a feeling…I let it come. I take it for what it is. I’ll never act blindly on something I hear at my shrine or at an altar, but I allow myself to embrace the feeling that, while they are just natural forces, I feel that they are more than that as well.

I feel like I have a foot in both worlds…one in which the gods are re-envisioned but real, and another where they are viewed completely as archetypes and personifications. It’s both for me. My gods are real, conscious beings that I connect to. They are within me and external to me, as external natural forces, human themes, and some other bundle of energy I think I perceive (even if, when I put my scientist hat on, I can admit it may just be me feeling myself or the world around me).

****

 

The gods are larger than any one of us, as forces of nature and of humanity collectively.  Anyone can reach out and take part in the presence of the gods, because they are nature (even animals, as they can also take part in nature, even if differently than we do). The reward of honoring my gods, for me, is that it’s one thing to be surrounded by existence…its another to recognize, cherish, and honor it.

They are of my own making, and yet they are beyond me, formed also from the stories and experiences of all the ones that came before me, and maybe the source for those things, deep in the fabric of the universe and our own psyche. That collective energy, that fount of reality, it lingers…via culture and stories and other influences. And I let it guide me to peace or inspiration.

Sometimes, I ask it for help or guidance…which means, I guess, I am asking myself to connect to those forces in the universe so that I can do what must be done…but to be honest, I’m also asking those forces to help me out, if they can. I’m calling on the resourcefulness of my forefathers, the kindness of my grandmothers, that “thing” or “energy” that is a god that I can’t put my finger on (and don’t like admitting that I feel/perceive), I’m calling on myself and the inspiration in the world around me to help me get shit done. 

****

So…is this theism? Is it still agnosticism? I feel that since I admit to believing that they are a step beyond archetypes and collections of experience and natural forces that I’ve moved away from atheism proper, since I allow myself the belief in the things that answer. I may be wrong, but I feel like this sort of language may not be found in an atheopagan’s or naturalistic pagan’s narrative. In the end, though, despite what I feel or experience, I do hold science as the ultimate authority. If its all my mind, its all my mind. I’ve made peace with that…I just don’t want to kill the mood during ritual.

There are times you want a label…labels anchor you. And I don’t know how to categorize myself anymore, given that there seems to be so many nuances to the definitions.

 

After all this time, I think in the end I was looking for acceptance. I wanted someone to truly understand my side of the story and tell me, it’s ok to feel that way. We fight against the need for acceptance often in our society, emphasizing independence instead. But the need is still there.

But, I think I’ve come to learn, finally, that searching for the acceptance out there was just a way to get around my need to accept myself…including the beliefs I hold that I  know aren’t logical and thus don’t want to admit, but that I allow myself to hold because they allow me to make a life of beauty and meaning and to connect to the things, however subjective, that I feel.

I guess, I get around the dissonance by allowing myself to just…connect. I tell myself its ok to suspend being “proper” for a second to gain a sense of peace.

 

****

I don’t know if all this is what theists mean when they say “god”. I don’t really know how theists conceive of god. And I’ve only recently learned how atheopagans and naturalistic pagans conceive of god. But…I will say these folk have a grounding in empirical data and common sense that I like.

There’s a practicality I relate to in the naturalist pagan camp, to be certain.

I guess it just feels odd at times to feel like a part of a group that I am not actually a part of. But you know what? I’m ok with that.

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