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Pagan Atheism: a second look

posted by Gus diZerega

The apparent paradox of Pagan
atheism has prompted me to do a lot more thinking about atheism than I ever
have before.  In the process I
picked up a copy of the British philosophical journal Philosophy Now,  which had a fascinating article on “Varieties of Atheist Experience” by Paul
Cliteur. 

It turns out that atheism is a
complex term with a number of reasonable meanings beyond the dogmatic
assertions that modern reductionist science knows all we need to know to answer
the fundamental questions of life and consciousness. I recommend the dogmatists
take a look.  They may well be
appropriating a complex word to express a simple thought, just as the anything
but skeptical people today do who misleadingly call themselves “skeptics.”

The rest of us would benefit as
well.  Here I will focus on only a
couple of alternative meanings.


To be an atheist does not
necessarily deny the existence of what we term today “paranormal phenomena” nor
does it necessarily deny the existence of a kind of impersonal pantheistic
unity to the universe.  Both questions
are logically and practically separate from whether Gods exist, whether
personal or impersonal. And both questions are highly relevant to the question
of “Pagan atheism.”

A Personal Admission

I practice Pagan spirituality
towards its shamanic end rather than towards its celebratory end, if I can make
that distinction.  Wicca tends to
be celebratory, but some traditions, the Gardnerian among them, also have a
shamanic component. 

I have had a number of encounters
with deities and spirits that have convinced me it is more reasonable for me to
believe they exist than that they do not. 
But I am equally certain that absent such encounters, in my
judgment there is no very good reason to believe they do exist beyond taking
other people’s word for it.  And
that latter strategy has obvious risks.  Why some of us have such encounters and some do not is a mystery to me, but I am pretty certain it is not a sign of ‘spiritual development.’

I will soon have a post up on these
phenomena, but I mention them now so readers can see where I am coming from.  I am seeking to understand
sympathetically a position I personally do not hold.  I think I succeed, but my readers, particularly Pagan
atheists, can be the judge.

Atheism in Science

A great many scientists, including
many of the most important, have described their sense of wonder and awe at the
beauty and magnificence of the universe. 
They do not describe themselves as religious in any conventional sense,
and can reasonably be termed atheistic. 
But in a Pagan way. 
Why?  Because they perceive
the universe as intrinsically possessing qualities worthy of their awe/.  I will pick one: beauty.

The garden variety Dawkinsesque
atheist would agree with the French scientist Jacques Monod  that we live in a world of “icy solitude” and “If he accepts this message in
its full significance, man must awaken from his millenary dream and discover his total solitude, his
fundamental isolation.  He must
realize that, like a gypsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien world that is
deaf to his music, and as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his sufferings
or his crimes.”

A sense of isolation and estrangement is captured by the terms
“icy” and “alien.”

This is quite a different attitude from the atheistic attitude I
am describing where the universe in its beauty and other qualities fulfills a
scientist’s purpose and life in exploring its wonders.  As an example of this view, consider
Albert Einstein, who observed 

The most beautiful thing we can
experience is the mysterious.  It
is the source of all true art and science.  He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer
pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are
closed.  This insight into the
mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion.  To know what is imprenetrable to us
really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant
beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive
forms – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness.  In this sense and in this sense only, I
belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men.

I cannot imagine a God who rewards and
punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own
– a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. Neither can I
believe that the indifvidual survives the death of the body, although feeble
souls harbor such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotism.

It is enough for me to contemplate the
mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, to reflect
upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we can dimly perceive, and
to try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesmal part of the intelligence
manifested in nature.

Einstein is describing a universe with admirable qualities
independent of our capacity to see them whereas Monod’s universe has no
qualities that require a reference to consciousness to exist.  No beauty, no color, no nothing.  Every quality every ethic is a human
creation and so ultimately rooted in our meaningless existence, and so itself
meaningless.  To get a clear
example of the difference, imagine you are driving in the mountains and as your
car rounds a bend you see a rainbow stretched across the sky.  Do you immediately experience a sense
of discovery of beauty that was there even before you discovered it?  Or do you congratulate yourself that
the human mind can create beauty from the meaningless interaction of sun, rain,
and the diffraction of light?  Most
of us do the former, not the latter.

Such a world is worthy of devotion and admiration.  It is not alien, it is home.  We do not need to feel we are the
center of creation in order to feel at home in it, and be glad we are.  A Pagan atheist could resonate deeply
with Einstein’s views.  Indeed I
do, and I am no atheist.  But I
seriously doubt that a Pagan atheist would resonate to Monod’s description of
the world as an alien place into which we are thrown to pointlessly seek our
various purposes before disappearing forever into a meaningless void.

Sacred
Metaphors

Since, as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson demonstrate, we think metaphorically and through and with the qualities
of embodiment
 it is natural to honor this wonderful world in terms connected with the kinds
of beings that we are: through song and ritual and dance, through
“anthropomorphizing” the qualities we experience as most basic to our world,
such as gender, the stages of life, and the qualities of matter.  We create a poem of celebration and
call it our religion.  It is
anything but alien. It celebrate where we live and who we are at the most
basic.

I think all religions are of this character, and as such they are
reactions and creations in response to the meaning and beauty Einstein
described, translated through cultures and times and individual
experiences.  In sharp contrast to
the Dawkinesque/Harris view I consider religions one of humanity’s most
profoundly beautiful and human creations. 
They are easily perverted, but let us not equate the entire body with
its sometimes disease wracked form. 

In the modern world many of us have turned our view from the
transcendent conceptions of deity that describe a deity who does not speak to
us and whose followers often seem more to be benighted orcs in service to
Sauron than people in touch with what is highest in the world.  We have seen the beauty around us and
for many it is enough.  This
sensibility is extremely open to Pagan ways of celebration and acknowledgement.

I think our understanding of atheism has been twisted by equating
the spiritual only with the transcendent. 
Even Monod’s atheism, as I read him, is a view of transcendent rational
objectivity imposing its visions on the raw material of an alien universe.  As soon as we shift our attention to
the immanent, the qualities in the world, the view of spirit and value changes.

I think today we are seeing a kind of continuum from scientists
who share a perspective akin to Einstein’s through people such as Pagan
atheists and on to Pagan theists.  Indeed,
a friend of mine was a Pagan representative at the Parliament of World
Religions held not long ago in Australia. 
While there NeoPagans, indigenous peoples, and others took some time to
do a ritual together.  There were
some scientists present at the Parliament as observers.  They asked this group as to whether
they could join in, explaining they were not religious themselves, but felt
more at home with the NeoPagans and indigenous Pagans than with any other group
there.  They were welcomed.   

If our civilization has a future worthy of admiration I suspect
this developing honoring of the world in which we live will play a powerful
role in it.



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mouseytalons

posted June 29, 2010 at 3:14 pm


Hi Gus,
After reading your blog today, I had to reread parts of it to get second look at the comparisons you put up for us to understand the obvious differences in Atheism.
Dawkins/Monod theory seems abit like a “bad acid trip” to me. Like a “dream-like haze”, unreal. Also very isolationist.
I tend to like Einstein’s theory much better. It appears to be much more real. I am color blind, so I rely heavily on other people’s descriptions of what color things are, which also requires me to rely heavily on my own imagination as to what that color looks like.
I mention this because I can understand what Dawkins/Monod’s world would have looked like, however, I rather enjoy Einstein’s description better, as it requires me to imagine the beauty around me.
I am a painter (oils), as the colors are much more vibrant,and rich so I can see how dark or deep they are, which helps me put the beauty on the canvas.
My point: These are very interesting views, but I agree with Einstein.
Blessings to you and your readers today. :)



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Sheherazahde

posted June 29, 2010 at 3:57 pm


Many good points, very well put.
I am very fond of the quote I learned from a UU minister “Tell me about this “God” you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in him either.”
My feeling about Einstein’s view is that it is only semantically different from Theism.



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Apuleius Platonicus

posted June 29, 2010 at 4:01 pm


Modern scientists tend to be much more two (or even one) dimensional in terms of their intellectual interests than the scientists of yesteryear. Newton, for example, was an ardent student of Biblical numerology, Alchemy and Astrology, and even produced his own annotated translation of the Emerald Tablet of Hermes. Today, however, a scientist is considered “well rounded” if he can play the bongos:
http://kempton.files.wordpress.com/2006/11/feynman-bongos.jpg
My point being that it takes far more subtlety than the likes of Richard Dawkins can ever hope to grasp to see how atheism, in the broad sense you are talking about here, can be compatible with spiritual and even religious beliefs. To the modern atheist all such ideas are literally and emphatically equated with the tooth-fairy.



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fyreflye

posted June 29, 2010 at 10:07 pm


If you’d actually read any of Dawkins’ many books you’d discover that he celebrates the beauty and wonder of nature and the awe of scientific inquiry that you describe, unlike Monod or those “Dawkinesque” scientists you lump him in with. Your view reflects your reading of his enemies, not, say, “Unweaving the Rainbow.”
And if you read a little more of Einstein you’ll see that his words are poetic metaphors, not a profession of belief in any god or gods. When pressed he often called himself an “agnostic,” which in his own time was almost as shocking as “atheist” is today.



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Labrys

posted June 29, 2010 at 11:17 pm


I have always been uncomfortable with traditional theism.
Even as a pagan, although I clearly perceive something that certainly fits the description of pagan deities, I often call myself a “transcendental atheist.” It is not that I am certain of the non-existence of Beings that could be called Gods and Goddesses, it is that I doubt their part in our lives. I feel “They” are very likely out there….in that place we need to transcend to…because this planet is OUR ball of wax, our work, our mess. Not theirs.
My ethics and morals are definitely pagan—harking back to pagan Greek ideals of personal excellence and societal duty. And I hold to those whether or not deities exist; and those ideals make me pagan by the often fear-based ethical standards of many monotheistic religions.



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Leisa Demostene

posted June 29, 2010 at 11:56 pm


I was happily surprised to read the topic of your blog. Pagan atheist seems to sum up my spiritual belief.
I don’t believe in a higher being, but I believe in the possibility of a universal energy that connects everyone and everything on a level that science hasn’t figured out yet. But mostly I don’t believe there’s anything more, but I’m totally okay with that because this is enough when I take the time to let myself be awed. There are miracles that happen all the time that I am profoundly thankful for- even though I don’t believe there is anyone/thing to thank. I am grateful for what is. Believing a higher power was responsible would lessen the experience for me.
I don’t need a fear of hell or a hope for heaven to make me try to be good. I am good because I can imagine a world in which everyone truly tries to be good and it’s something worth striving for. It is something that could be achieved if we each did our part. It’s that simple and that hard.
Sad, to say, until I read your blog I thought I was pretty much alone in my beliefs. I’d appreciate having a spiritual community but have not yet found one. Perhaps you’ve helped set me on my path!



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Patchouli Sky

posted June 30, 2010 at 5:53 am


This is a nice follow-up to your initial essay about pagan atheism. It really seems that the term “atheism” is akin to “paganism,” as it encompasses such a wide variety of beliefs.
I do think Fyreflye has a point. After the last essay on this topic, I went back and reread much of “The God Delusion.” Though Dawkins has no belief in the supernatural whatsoever, he does not see the world as barren, or free of wonder. I think he is merely fed up with those who use God as a means of control. By that, I refer to those who use their vision of deity to judge others, or to assert their dominance over others, thinking their beliefs are the ONLY true beliefs, and all others are doomed.
And that is similar to my thinking, although I think that it is valuable to me to tap into mystical thinking. There are just too many mysteries in the world in which to attach a scientific explanation. No, I don’t think it’s a deity behind them, but it is some force of nature that we don’t understand.



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Gus diZerega

posted June 30, 2010 at 10:17 am


Fyreflye-
I was probably unfair to Dawkins. It’s been a long time since I read him. And I have. But I have heard him approvingly cited by atheists who emphasize not quite such a stark vision as Monod, but go on and on at length about the meaninglessness of existence and the brutality of life. And then there is what he said about our being “robots.” Not Monod perhaps, but far from Einstein, either.
More to the point, I was distinguishing between two types of atheism, two flavors if you will. And that, of course, you have done nothing at all to challenge. One type tended towards what I called atheist Paganism, the other type could not possibly (in my judgment) do so.
As to your claim about my getting Einstein wrong – had you bothered to read the essay rather than a quote out of context, I attend at length to metaphor. As Robinson Jeffers mentioned once, “beauty” is our metaphor for nature’s excellence. I think Jeffers would fall slightly on the pantheist side of things, but probably qualify as an atheist by many standards. His universe certainly could not give a damn about human beings.
Claiming there is always something more to read is a cheap way to argue if you make the claim without offering evidence. As you most certainly have. Why not offer some?



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fyreflye

posted June 30, 2010 at 11:14 am


Gus,
Basing your judgment of Dawkins on what some frenzied internet poster who hides behind the man’s prestige as cover for his own extreme opinions is not evidence any more than using the same timeworn Einstein quotes that theists claim makes him a believer is evidence. Your post, like most of your posts here, is opinion not fact and can’t be proved “true” by anything you’ve written. So why ask me for evidence when you provide none yourself? What opinion do you think I have that I need to support? My only opinion in this matter is that careless judgments need to be questioned.



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Joshua

posted June 30, 2010 at 12:06 pm


“I have had a number of encounters with deities and spirits that have convinced me it is more reasonable for me to believe they exist than that they do not.”
So, here is where the guy began to lose me. I, personally, have had experiences that felt in the moment 100% as if I was touching god. I’m not kidding; I’m not exaggerating; I’m not making it up. When I sobered up, I retained the memory of the experience of touching god, but I also retained my (ostensibly) rational conclusion that a theistic god is unlikely to exist. I conclude that the experience of “touching god” is a fundamental part of the human emotional and sensory experience, much like the experience of feeling hungry, cold, sad, happy, elated, despondent, etc… but that the sensation of “touching god” is insufficient evidence for the existence of deities or spirits.
What experience did this man have? What led him to conclude that experience was evidence of deity or spirits, instead of, say, space aliens or invisible unicorns? It is our cultural programming that leads us to interpret the “touching god” sensation as evidence of deity and not something else. What I hear in this guy’s statement is that he is coming from a fundamentally religious viewpoint, and so interprets his experiences from a fundamentally religious lens. Surprise! It turns out that he finds evidence for religion in his experiences.
“They do not describe themselves as religious in any conventional sense, and can reasonably be termed atheistic. But in a Pagan way. Why? Because they perceive the universe as intrinsically possessing qualities worthy of their awe/. I will pick one: beauty. The garden variety Dawkinsesque atheist would agree with the French scientist Jacques Monod that we live in a world of “icy solitude””
Is having awe towards the universe and perceiving it as beautiful a uniquely or even particularly pagan viewpoint? In that paganism is not christianity, perhaps so. But atheism is also not christianity, and many, many atheists, Dawkins included, have spoken about their sense of awe and wonder at the beauty of the world around them. This guy should listen to more of Dawkins’ speeches before he describes what a “Dawkinsesque atheist” would be like. This paragraph suggests that he has not really done his research into what actual atheists think and say. Damn near every single interview and Q&A session Dawkins does, somebody asks him about the “wonder at the universe” question, and he answers that atheism is NOT cold and sterile and withotu wonder. He says that the concrete answers provided by science are, to him, MORE wonderous than the myths and fantasy of religion.
“he lives on the boundary of an alien world that is deaf to his music, and as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his sufferings or his crimes.”
Oh, my heart just weeps at this description of the atheist viewpoint. Being an atheist means that I see myself as fundamentally ONE with the world around me. Religion, being a uniquely human experience, would distinguish me from everything else in the world. One expression of my atheism is that I look to the world, seek to hear its music, and sing along in its chorus. There is nothing religious about that, to me.
“I think all religions are of this character, and as such they are reactions and creations in response to the meaning and beauty”
That’s a poetic description of why religion arises. Daniel Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomena” is an example of a book that examines the biological and evolutionary roots of religion. So, there are lots of explanations of why religion occurs that could be considered. This article is based on the premise that religions are a reaction in response to the meaning and beauty of the natural world. Has the author considered and rejected the many, many other explanations for why religion arises? Or has he simply accepted his own premise and moved on without considering alternatives?
“[Religions] are easily perverted, but let us not equate the entire body with its sometimes disease wracked form.”
To say that religion is only “sometimes” diseased is, to me, inaccurate. Dawkins speaks at length about the harmful effects of all religious thought. You may agree or disagree, but if you think that religion is only “sometimes” harmful, then we may have enough of a fundamental difference in our premises that further conversation will not result in much accord.



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Joshua

posted June 30, 2010 at 12:07 pm


PS: My apologies for referring to you in the third person, Gus. That was a cut-and-paste of an email I sent to a friend, but I wanted to share it with you as well.



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Joshua

posted June 30, 2010 at 12:14 pm


@Patchoulli Sky: “This is a nice follow-up to your initial essay about pagan atheism. It really seems that the term “atheism” is akin to “paganism,” as it encompasses such a wide variety of beliefs.”
For the record, I was neo-pagan for about … I guess seven years, and I remember that one of the most heated topics that would come up in every discussion group and mailing list was, “What is a pagan?” So I get what you mean when you say that “paganism” encompasses a wide variety of beliefs.
I disagree about atheism, however. Just as with the term “pagan,” there are a lot of different people who call themselves atheist, and who have a lot of different beliefs. The difference is that there is one thing that atheists absolutely do not believe in, and that is deity. So, whereas the term “pagan” can be stretched to include nearly anything (I knew a person who was, quite convincingly, a “Christian Pagan”), the term atheism can only be stretched so far before it simply does not apply.



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Gus diZerega

posted June 30, 2010 at 3:01 pm


My my my – some of you guys are showing yourselves as true believers of the first order.
Fyreflye-
I did not use a ‘timeworn’ Einstein quote and sometime you should check the link I provided. You just might learn something. Your failure to point out the metaphors you claim Einstein used suggests the vacuity of your claims.
I granted I might have been unfair to Dawkins – but apparently admitting you made a point is not enough for you. You assumed falsely that I was referring to internet characters for my view of Dawkins. I have heard the man speak in person and have read him, but not recently. In some contexts he comes across as respectful and thoughtful. In others, in my view not so much. Dawkins can be quoted in several flavors. But that is not what my post was about.
The basic point I wanted to make, that most commentators seem to have grasped, was about a variety of approaches to atheism, using Jacques Monod and Albert Einstein as examples. That point stands if I had never mentioned Dawkins. I gave as evidence two statements by nontheists -I would call them atheists – Monod and Einstein. I then added Robinson Jeffers after your comment to suggest the dividing line between some kinds of atheism and some kinds of pantheism is blurry.
Until you address this issue at this point you are simply making noise to obscure the discussion. It is you who are long on opinions and very very short on facts and arguments.
Joshua-
Do you have any idea at all who Jacques Monod is? Try Googling him sometime. He was a famous scientist and atheist. A VERY famous one.
You claim that atheism denies a deity. True enough. What IS a deity? Is a sense of the universe as in some nonpersonal sense “all one” atheism or theism or something else again? Is a sense of beauty as being in some nonsubjective sense real being religious, or not? What is religion after all? Some Buddhists have no sense of any ultimate deity and in the case of Vajrayana Buddhism, argue the deities depicted on their thankas are no more ultimately real than anything else in the world of duality. Do they believe in gods? Why were early Christians called atheists by Pagans? What did Thales mean when he wrote “all things are full of Gods” and was he talking about the same thing as Moses who said there was only one? Most fundamental questions seem simple only before they are carefully examined. That is why they remain fundamental questions.
You complain I “lost” you when I admitted I am not an atheist for experiential reasons. I promised a future post “soon” on the subject. Rather than waiting for it, you attacked. Apparently your understanding of your own experiences gives you overwhelming evidence that others’ experiences, which may or may not be like yours, are in error. You suggest you were not “sober” – your word – when you had your experiences. I did not need to sober up afterwards, because I was 100% sober on the occasions I was referring to. No booze, no pot, no entheogens, not even any coffee in some cases. Your description of your experience suggests it was very different from my own. To have such a dismissive attitude towards the experiences of others is arrogant nonsense.
You say you were a Pagan for seven years – but never encountered a deity. To MY mind that is strange because I ONLY became a Pagan after I encountered one. Nothing I ever read, no person I ever met, could have made me one. I am curious about why people become Pagans for reasons unrelated to mine – but I am not dismissive of them. I do not have a litmus test on what a ‘proper Pagan’ is, and so I try and understand views and experiences different from my own, as I did in this post. I suggest you try the same.



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Joshua

posted June 30, 2010 at 5:17 pm


Gus,
Thanks for your response.
“Do you have any idea at all who Jacques Monod is? Try Googling him sometime. He was a famous scientist and atheist. A VERY famous one.”
I’m not familiar with him. How is he relevant to your response to my post? I’m sorry, but I don’t see the connection.
“You claim that atheism denies a deity. True enough. What IS a deity?”
Wikipedia’s definition is adequate to me: “A deity[1] is a postulated preternatural or supernatural immortal being, who may be thought of as holy, divine, or sacred, held in high regard, and respected by believers, often called in some religions as a god.”
The key quality of a deity is that it is seen as a “being”. This helps to respond to your subsequent questions:
“Is a sense of the universe as in some nonpersonal sense “all one” atheism or theism or something else again?”
As described, it cannot be theism because no specific supernatural, immortal being is postulated.
“Is a sense of beauty as being in some nonsubjective sense real being religious, or not?”
Now you’ve shifted from talking about theism to religion. The sense of beauty as being real is also not theistic, because it does not postulate an immortal being.
“What is religion after all?”
That’s a big question. I don’t have an answer to what is or is not religion. I’m responding to your comments about what is and is not atheism. Atheism, as I see it, has a specific definition that makes commentary about it easier.
“Most fundamental questions seem simple only before they are carefully examined. That is why they remain fundamental questions.”
All of those are questions on which a lot of discussion could be spent, but the bottom line is that if you believe in deities, I don’t think you’re an atheist, by definition. Now, we could debate on what the definition of a deity is, but when it comes to yourself specifically, you said that you had interacted with deities and spirits, so the semantics of what is and isn’t a deity seem immaterial to the question of whether you, specifically, are an atheist. If you call yourself an atheist and you claim to believe in deities, then I think you must be bending the semantics of one of those terms too far, because, again, my understanding is that the definition of atheism is a lack of belief in deity.
“You complain I “lost” you when I admitted I am not an atheist for experiential reasons. I promised a future post “soon” on the subject. Rather than waiting for it, you attacked.”
Did I attack you? I’m sorry. What can I do to make it right?
“Apparently your understanding of your own experiences gives you overwhelming evidence that others’ experiences, which may or may not be like yours, are in error.”
I note, however, that you have not answered my basic question, which was: what led you to conclude that the experience you had was evidence of a supernatural deity, and not something else? Perhaps the future post will address this.
“You suggest you were not “sober” – your word – when you had your experiences. I did not need to sober up afterwards, because I was 100% sober on the occasions I was referring to.”
Well, I don’t suppose that makes your experience superior or inferior to mine. Some people achieve insight by meditating; others achieve it by taking ayahuasca. The ingestion of chemicals to achieve transcendent states is hardly profane.
“To have such a dismissive attitude towards the experiences of others is arrogant nonsense.”
I don’t dismiss your experience, because as you point out, how could I dismiss something that happened only to you, inside the most private recesses of your own mind and person. I question the conclusion you draw from your experience: that deity exists.
“I suggest you try the same.”
Okay, that is why I am asking. My fundamental question, from early in my original post was: What experience did this man have? What led him to conclude that experience was evidence of deity or spirits, instead of, say, space aliens or invisible unicorns?
Perhaps your upcoming blog post will address this.



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Rombald

posted July 1, 2010 at 8:07 am


Dawkins, Monod, Dennett, etc., are scientific materialists. This is one type of atheist, involving the following beliefs:
(i) The only guide to truth is the scientific method.
(ii) Humans have no non-material souls or minds.
(iii) All organisms arose by Darwinian evolution alone.
(iv) There is no life after death.
(v) The only hope for the betterment of the human lot is by the judicious application of science (including human sciences), primarily by a scientific elite.
(vi) Traditional religious beliefs, practices and morals are harmful to the individual and society.
(vii) There is nothing to fear from the truth (no noble lies, etc.)
These positons are not indefensible, but they are just as much a creed as the Nicene one, say.
Atheism, on the other hand, has no creed; an atheist is anyone who doesn’t believe in supernatural God or Gods. Talking about atheists in the context of religion is like talking about non-soccer-players in the context of sport. As well as scientific materialists, atheists include non-materialists, such as people who believe in ghosts, magic or reincarnation, for example. They also include materialists who are not scientific materialists, such as Marxists or Theravada Buddhists.
Pantheism, if it holds that there is no God outside the universe, is atheist.
More controversially, it is even arguable that classical polytheism was atheist, as it seems to have held that the Gods arose from the universe (Chaos, Ginnungagap, etc.). The Gods were thus functionally rather like highly advanced extraterrestrials in a modern scientific materialist perspective.



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Apuleius Platonicus

posted July 1, 2010 at 10:46 am


“Pantheism, if it holds that there is no God outside the universe, is atheist … More controversially, it is even arguable that classical polytheism was atheist, as it seems to have held that the Gods arose from the universe ….”
Pantheism cannot be thought of as atheistic unless it views the Cosmos as alive but also unconscious. There is a certain kind of modern “pantheist” who takes this position, but pantheism is usually accompanied by both panpsychism and by the concept of an orderly, moral, purposeful (“teleological”) universe.
Personally I see little point in viewing the universe as a single living being, but one that is blind, deaf, mute, and devoid of intelligence or volition.
As far as “polytheistic atheism” goes, I think one would have provide some ancient sources to back that up. And really it would require some evidence that these sources were actually understood in this way by the ancients (that is, some sort of commentarial tradition). This is especially the case since we know that the ancient had both the word and the concept of “atheism”, and that it was seen as very much at odds with traditional religious beliefs and practices.



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Gus diZerega

posted July 1, 2010 at 11:36 am


Joshua-
You appeared to be belittling my choice of Monod as a example of atheism. If you were not, you failed to make your point clear enough for me to grasp it.
Now to the interesting issue for both of us: the nature of deity. You gave Wikipedia’s definition. It is supernatural, immortal, holy in some way, held in high regard by devotees, and called a god.
So according to Wikipedia pantheists are not theists and therefore atheists? Fine by me. There is no problem on my part and no contradiction from your perspective in Pagans who call themselves pantheists. A pantheist who believes there are ‘energies’ or ‘forces’ that provide a kind of unity to everything that cannot be currently explained by science is an atheist by your definition, yet could support ritual, the practice of magick, and the invocation of powers as metaphors without any contradiction. They might even believe in non-immortal manifestations of these things.
The same conclusion seems to be true for monism – the belief that at some very nontrivial level the universe can be considered One, everything existing being in some way a manifestation of it. The chief difference as I understand it between this belief (which I have) and current scientific orthodoxy is that consciousness is one of the basic characteristics of this One. And along with it, certain qualities of consciousness, including love. But as you and Wikipedia define the matter, this is atheism.
Are deities immortal? I wouldn’t know. That judgment goes beyond my experience. In addition, I am not sure what “immortal” means in any rigorous way given what we currently know about time. More to the point, a number of spiritual traditions (the Norse and Hindus among them) have conceptions of the Gods NOT being immortal. By the definition Wikipedia gives they do not believe in deities. And so perhaps they can be considered atheists?
When I consider my experiences with the spirit world, I have no reason to believe they are or are not immortal. Perhaps I am an atheist then? That judgment would bother a lot of people who call themselves atheists. Maybe I am an agnostic? Again, not in the usual sense, but I am according to the Wikipedia definition you endorse.
Now we get to my use of beauty in my argument. It is important because a great many moderns, and typical atheists among them, would argue that the term beauty is a subjective human judgment call, no more real than my belief that chocolate ice cream tastes good. It does, to me, and perhaps not to you, and there are no grounds for saying one view is more accurate than another. Many atheists have argued that ALL qualities of that sort are creations of our minds. They do not really exist in nature, or in the world. But as soon as we grant that such qualities might exist independently from us, and that we discover them or can learn how to see them, we move to a position that argues qualities only perceivable through conscious awareness are real, therefore conscious awareness is a real part of the universe. Granted that, the distinction between atheism and many religious positions gets very very blurry, if it exists at all.
You set the “what is a religion?” question aside, and so I will as well, save the brief comment that, for me, a person’s religion is the largest context they acknowledge when situating themselves in the world. God, the Gods, Love, the Family, the Nation, Class War, themselves, Chthulu, whatever.
Dictionaries and encyclopedias do not settle issues over complex matters because when we look closely the key terms themselves become unclear, what counts as an example becomes unclear, etc. I think every theory is nestled within a context of other theories.
As for the rest, let’s agree tol let it stand as evidence of how easy it is to misunderstand posting on the net and the motives behind them. But you ask again about my personal experiences. . .
A PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
I will post on the issue of my personal experiences, and soon, but I will give one example for the moment.
Many years ago, in the 1980s, I was invited to a Brazilian style Umbanda drumming ceremony. Never having been to one and knowing almost nothing about it, I sat on a chair in the back of the room. I was dressed in white because all who came were asked to do so.
The leader/shaman began the ceremony and went into trance with a “caboclo” spirit – a kind of South American Indian spirit.
As the ritual continued I noticed some twitching in my body. I tried to sit still, so as not to be disruptive to those around me, but it was getting difficult. The twitching was getting stronger, though I was still sitting in my chair. So far as I know, everyone else was sitting quietly, except that the experienced people were sometimes singing songs and clapping their hands.
The leader noticed me, signaled to stop the drumming, and wordlessly motioned for me to come forward. I did so, fully expecting to be expelled from the ceremony for being disruptive.
As I stood before him, the center of very unwanted attention, he touched me briefly in the forehead and base of the skull (or the other way around) and signaled for the drumming to resume.
My feet started to dance, and I was not doing it. No one else had entered into this kind of trance at the ritual, nor had I ever seen this kind of thing- though I had seen photographs of people dressed very differently who were said to be in trance. I had also read about it, and decided that the entranced people were either faking it, or simply got carried away by their enthusiasm. Now it was happening to me, I was not faking it and I was hardly carried away by any enthusiasm. I remember thinking something like “My god, this is real!”
I continued to dance/be danced alone in front of a bunch of strangers for quite some time. (Anyone who knows me knows this is unheard of behavior on my part, before or since, unless I am being “ridden” in this way, as the term goes. I’m not that good a dancer and I do not like being the center of attention. In this blog I hope my ideas and the discussions they provoke are the center of attention.) In time a few other people entered into trance and did the same. Not many. At a certain point the leader signaled, the drumming rhythms shifted, the spirits were asked to depart, and my feet stopped dancing.
This kind of experience is a central element within African Diasporic traditions such as Candomble, Voudon, and Santeria, as well as some more syncretistic traditions such as Umbanda. An experience like that makes a lasting impression. But within those traditions it is simply a first step (no pun intended).
I did not want to distract from my post by going into this kind of thing – it was about other issues: Pagan atheism. But I felt it was necessary to make it clear that I was trying to understand a position different from my own, hence my brief reference to having had experiences that left me with no personal doubt that Gods and other spirits existed.
In addition, I feel uncomfortable describing this kind of thing because it is pretty personal and I am pretty private, and also because I worry some people will get into attitudes like “I must be spiritually limited because this has not happened to me” or “Gus must be a spiritual master and I want to have him as my teacher” or “My tradition must be inferior because we do not have these experiences” or “Gus is bragging” or “Gus is lying” or “Gus is crazy.” The last is of course a judgment that everyone who cares about the issue must make for themselves and over which I have no control, but the rest is simply false/not intended/an error in my view/etc.



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Joshua

posted July 1, 2010 at 11:45 am


@Apuleius:
Regarding pantheism, I agree with you, and personally would tend to lump pantheism in with theism. The pantheists I’ve met don’t typically actually ascribe deity to the Cosmos. They have struck me more as functional atheists, but they seem to buy into the “cold and lonely” myth, and so they seem to believe that religion is necessary to have a meaningful sense of awe and wonder at the universe. It strikes me as unnecessarily contorted. If you’re not going to be a theist, then why call yourself a pan-theist?
Regarding ancient deities, whatever people did historically, it is interesting to me to think about the potential for a person or a society to explicitly state that the “deities” of their religion are poetic metaphors and myths. I wonder whether there would be a point where it stopped being deism in some real sense. On the other hand, if you call it a deity, then is it by definition deism, no matter what?



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Joshua

posted July 1, 2010 at 6:21 pm


@Gus:
“You appeared to be belittling my choice of Monod as a example of atheism. If you were not, you failed to make your point clear enough for me to grasp it.”
I’m sorry that we seem to communicate so poorly with each other at times. I didn’t mean to belittle Monod; I just didn’t see why you were pointing him out to me, in the context of our conversation.
“Now to the interesting issue for both of us: the nature of deity. You gave Wikipedia’s definition. It is supernatural, immortal, holy in some way, held in high regard by devotees, and called a god.”
You’ve dropped what, to me is the most critical component of the definition of deity: that it is postulated as a being. For example, the One-ness of the Life Force of the Universe can be all of the things you describe (save, perhaps the “god” part), but if it is not postulated to be a being, then I wouldn’t call it a deity.
“So according to Wikipedia pantheists are not theists and therefore atheists? Fine by me.”
I think pantheists go both ways. Some of them stop short of ascribing deity to the Universal etc… that they identify as God. Others don’t.
“yet could support ritual, the practice of magick, and the invocation of powers as metaphors without any contradiction. They might even believe in non-immortal manifestations of these things.”
So far so good. I agree that atheists can believe in supernatural things and still be atheists. I would say that atheists who believe in supernatural things may not be scientists, depending on their approach to determining truth or falsehood, but there’s no requirement that all atheists be scientists.
“But as you and Wikipedia define the matter, this is atheism.”
Yup.
“Are deities immortal? I wouldn’t know. That judgment goes beyond my experience.”
Herein, I think we touch on the complexity of the issue of discussing deity: in order to do so, we have to agree on what exactly “deity” means. The word can mean so many different things to so many different
people, and yet so often discussions of deity skip right over that definitional step, which explains why so many discussions about deity go awry.
“a number of spiritual traditions (the Norse and Hindus among them) have conceptions of the Gods NOT being immortal. By the definition Wikipedia gives they do not believe in deities. And so perhaps they can be considered atheists?”
I think here we may be beginning to strain the semantics a bit. If you believe in an entity that has all of the supernatural characteristics of a deity, and yet your personal mythology holds that such an entity is not immortal, can you still call yourself an atheist? Perhaps by the letter of the law, but perhaps not by the spirit. Well, let me take that back: you can call yourself anything you want, but you may confuse me and other people who have a different understanding of the word than you do.
For example, could a person who believes in fairies, dragons, and unicorns be considered an atheist, if the person did not believe that those things were deities per se, but merely fantastical creatures? I suppose that person is an atheist, but I would still wonder why the logic that led him or her to reject the existence of god did not also lead him or her to reject the existence of those other things.
“Many atheists have argued that ALL qualities of that sort are creations of our minds.”
Given the choice between one or the other, I’d fall that direction. Qualities like beauty are subjective creations of the mind.
“They do not really exist in nature, or in the world. But as soon as we grant that such qualities might exist independently from us, and that we discover them or can learn how to see them, we move to a position that argues qualities only perceivable through conscious awareness are real, therefore conscious awareness is a real part of the universe. Granted that, the distinction between atheism and many religious positions gets very very blurry, if it exists at all.”
I’m afraid you lost me there. I do agree, however that conscious awareness is “real,” but then we start dissecting what “real” means, and I start to feel like Bill Clinton when he asked for a definition of “is”.
“This kind of experience is a central element within African Diasporic traditions such as Candomble, Voudon, and Santeria, as well as some more syncretistic traditions such as Umbanda. An experience like that makes a lasting impression. But within those traditions it is simply a first step (no pun intended).”
I appreciate your sharing your personal experience, and I don’t want to dissect it any more than you care to. I am not unfamiliar with the African diaspora religions: vodou, umbanda, candomble, and so on. I am further familiar with the the drumming rituals that occur in those traditions, and the phenomena of a person being “ridden” by a spirit.
As much as I appreciate your generosity in sharing one particular religious experience that you had, I still haven’t got an answer to my question–and if you don’t want to give one, I respect that, but I’ll repeat it for your benefit.
I fully accept the facts of the experience that you describe: that the drumming occurred; that you find yourself dancing without a sensation of consciously choosing to; and so forth. Since you told this story in the context of a discussion about personal evidence for the existence of deity, I assume that’s why you brought it up. What was it about that experience that led you to conclude that it was evidence for the existence of deity (in this case, most likely the particular Orixa or Lwa that rode you), and not something else? For example, might it be the case that certain drum patterns invoke spontaneous, non-conscious movement in human animals, outside of any religious context? What is it that causes you to reject the non-religious explanation so thoroughly, and accept the religious one instead?



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Gus diZerega

posted July 1, 2010 at 8:57 pm


Joshua-
I’ll just do the last question, to a point, and I think I’ve made my point about the earlier stuff- that these are not simple issues and people who treat them as if they were are not doing the subject justice. The dividing line between a deity and not a deity is not as clear cut as Wikipedia suggests. If you disagree take up your case with the Hindus because they do have quite a number of gods, last I heard, even if they do not fit Wikipedia’s taxonomy. And yes- I believe gods are beings in the sense that they are able to manifest as centers of intentional consciousness. What they really are – beats me.
As to your final issue, I thought I answered your question. You wanted me to give an example and I did, along providing the context within which it occurred. Now you want more and claim confusion as to what I was trying to demonstrate until you guessed it might have had something to do with your asking me why I was a theist based on personal experience. Very perceptive.
That context was within a community of practitioners spanning continents who for a very long time have worked with these phenomena productively using the deity model. These experiences occur in a context of inviting powers in, having different powers respond to different invitations, do different things, and when the medium/horse is experienced or talented enough, perform healings, consultations, etc. With experience the energies speak through the medium who either has no recollection of what is said, or tries to stay out of the way and let the entity speak through them. They/we experience this phenomena as sharing their head with something/someone else. In addition, on occasion people can see these entities. I have not but I know (and trust) someone who has.
I readily grant that in the absence of a personal encounter there is no compelling reason for someone to believe they exist. But when one has such encounters – and has them repeatedly in these and other ceremonial and non-ceremonial contexts – the skeptics’ case gets a great deal less interesting. Over 25 years or so I have had a variety of such encounters. And so I get a lot less interested in convincing the skeptics because I genuinely do not care very much. There are so many more rewarding things to do and I do not believe that experiencing a deity or other entity is necessary for someone to have a good and rewarding life. I am no evangelist. You haven’t experienced a deity? Fine by me.
If someone wants to increase their chances to encounter a spirit being, I am happy to help as much as I can. If someone is interested in studying what such encounters are from the outside, as a scholar, I am willing to speak honestly to them. If someone is a skeptic trying to find a hole in my argument so they can ‘rebut’ it, I have as much interest in speaking with them as I do with a high school student challenging me to prove I am not a figment of his imagination. To that person I say- go on your way and let me go on mine.
And Joshua, you are beginning to sound to me a lot like that high school student.
You want more about that kind of entity? Start attending some well run Umbanda, Voudon, Santeria, or Candomble ceremonies.
I think that’s about it.



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Joshua

posted July 1, 2010 at 10:28 pm


“And Joshua, you are beginning to sound to me a lot like that high school student.”
Well, I think that my questions are far more relevant and less obstinate that, “Prove that you exist! Mua-ha! You can’t! I win!” but since you seem to see them that way, I won’t pester you with them anymore. Thanks for having this conversation with me. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Sorry for the miscommunications along the way, and like you said earlier, I hope we can chalk them up to the inherently brusque tone of text on a screen.
“You want more about that kind of entity? Start attending some well run Umbanda, Voudon, Santeria, or Candomble ceremonies.”
I have, thanks. And I have seen people ridden, and so on. In each case, my conclusion was that I was seeing an extraordinary phenomenon, but a fundamentally human one. Rather than convincing me of the existence of deity, it convinced me of the wondrous capabilities of the human mind and body. So, we have had the same experience and come to a different conclusion about it, and why not, given that we are uniquely different people? Best of luck with your experience, and thanks for the conversation.



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Gus diZerega

posted July 2, 2010 at 1:12 am


You’re welcome, Joshua. I was afraid that every time I described something, you would come back with some version of what you have in fact come back with: “Isn’t this some variant of what human beings are capable of?” At one level, of course. Human beings have these experiences. It is what human beings are capable of.
At another level I believe that reply misses the point. Have you been ridden? Or had the moon/sun drawn down in a powerful way such that when you opened your eyes everyone was in tears and you experience maleness sans psychic injuries? Those are not the only kinds of deity encounter I have had, but they are common ones among the Pagan community that has had such encounters.
Note that the logic you seem to use applies to every conceivable experience by a human being, and as such is irrefutable. It imports its conclusions. In a sense (and I mean this pedagogically, not as an attack) it is like conspiracy theorists who take every evidence that there is no conspiracy as just more evidence the conspirators are devilishly clever. There is no way to challenge their world view from within their world view.
What kind of evidence would convince you that deities might exist? Is there any?



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Franklin Evans

posted July 2, 2010 at 8:33 am


This is a topic both close to my own personal experience, but also to society-at-large. I helped form and currently lead a secular non-profit focused on serving Pagans.
We, the group that worked so very hard to form this group in the aftermath of a thermo-nuclear breakdown of a predecessor group, arrived at what some found to be a coward’s response. In composing the statement of what is a Pagan, we settled on this simple phrase: People who self-identify as Pagan.
This did not solve the perennial problem: People who self-identify with a group that (perhaps arguably) is defined as Pagan. Hindus, Native Americans, even some Shinto of my acquaintance have argued against the label. I throw up my hands at the “why” questions, and fall back on one of my favorite movie quotes: I don’t know. It’s a mystery. ;-)
Show me yours, and I’ll show you mine. ;-D I look forward to Gus sharing more of his personal experience, and I’ll briefly share mine here.
My first steps on my path, now nearly 35 years ago, were exciting, intense, and I don’t mind saying caused me to question my sanity. That bald, simple statement veils an internal dialogue that goes on to this day, though the sanity part — while still present — fits like a well-worn glove.
The broad category “Paganism” permits an equally broad (stipulating the exceptions on both sides) comparison: We are experiential believers. We start inside and work our way out. The revealed faiths, the monotheisms and the strongly traditional “others” — like Hinduism, as a prominent example — start outside with doctrines, structures, closely defined symbologies and in some cases rigid dogma, and work their way in.
I suggest that we acknowledge the path, and seek to avoid conflict over the differing “directions” of the journey. We struggle to fit atheists (meant as an equally broad designation) into that paradigm, and that is proper. They, themselves, criticize the path itself, if not reject it outright. The challenge, one I face every day with both my acquired-faith siblings and the revealed-faith majority, is finding and co-existing in a common ground. With that, I want to reiterate something that often gets lost in otherwise valid descriptions like Rombald’s.
Science, that abstract entity of inquiry, description and foundation for making decisions in our material existence, is not the “culprit”, not the entity of opposition. Some scientists are taking that adversarial position, and like us they are, enjoy it or not, humans. If that’s not enough of a common ground for anyone, I can do nothing but grieve. And no, I’m not condoning their rhetoric. I am challenging us, myself included, to look past it.



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Sheherazahde

posted July 10, 2010 at 12:38 am


Joshua said:”I retained the memory of the experience of touching god, but I also retained my (ostensibly) rational conclusion that a theistic god is unlikely to exist.”
Rejecting evidence because it contradicts your preconceived theories is the exact opposite science, it is faith. And it as where Atheism becomes a religion.
My approach to “gods” starts from the rational position that “god” is a word that describes a human experience. What the exact nature of that experience is, and what causes it, are separate questions. Joshua has a very specific idea of what it is he doesn’t believe in. I have a experiences that I have some theories to explain, but I’m willing to change my theories as new evidence becomes available. I reject the theories when they don’t fit the evidence. I don’t reject the evidence when it doesn’t fit the theories.
My idea of gods don’t need to be transcendent or beings. I always try to remember that “god” originally meant “that which is invoked”.
god – O.E. god “supreme being, deity,” from P.Gmc. *guthan (cf. Du. god, Ger. Gott, O.N. guð, Goth. guþ), from PIE *ghut- “that which is invoked” (cf. Skt. huta- “invoked,” an epithet of Indra), from root *gheu(e)- “to call, invoke.” But some trace it to PIE *ghu-to- “poured,” from root *gheu- “to pour, pour a libation” (source of Gk. khein “to pour,” khoane “funnel” and khymos “juice;” also in the phrase khute gaia “poured earth,” referring to a burial mound). “Given the Greek facts, the Germanic form may have referred in the first instance to the spirit immanent in a burial mound” [Watkins]. Cf. also Zeus. Not related to good. Originally neut. in Gmc., the gender shifted to masc. after the coming of Christianity. O.E. god was probably closer in sense to L. numen. A better word to translate deus might have been P.Gmc. *ansuz, but this was only used of the highest deities in the Gmc. religion, and not of foreign gods, and it was never used of the Christian God.



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Sheherazahde

posted July 10, 2010 at 12:38 am


Joshua said:”I retained the memory of the experience of touching god, but I also retained my (ostensibly) rational conclusion that a theistic god is unlikely to exist.”
Rejecting evidence because it contradicts your preconceived theories is the exact opposite science, it is faith. And it as where Atheism becomes a religion.
My approach to “gods” starts from the rational position that “god” is a word that describes a human experience. What the exact nature of that experience is, and what causes it, are separate questions. Joshua has a very specific idea of what it is he doesn’t believe in. I have a experiences that I have some theories to explain, but I’m willing to change my theories as new evidence becomes available. I reject the theories when they don’t fit the evidence. I don’t reject the evidence when it doesn’t fit the theories.
My idea of gods don’t need to be transcendent or beings. I always try to remember that “god” originally meant “that which is invoked”.
god – O.E. god “supreme being, deity,” from P.Gmc. *guthan (cf. Du. god, Ger. Gott, O.N. guð, Goth. guþ), from PIE *ghut- “that which is invoked” (cf. Skt. huta- “invoked,” an epithet of Indra), from root *gheu(e)- “to call, invoke.” But some trace it to PIE *ghu-to- “poured,” from root *gheu- “to pour, pour a libation” (source of Gk. khein “to pour,” khoane “funnel” and khymos “juice;” also in the phrase khute gaia “poured earth,” referring to a burial mound). “Given the Greek facts, the Germanic form may have referred in the first instance to the spirit immanent in a burial mound” [Watkins]. Cf. also Zeus. Not related to good. Originally neut. in Gmc., the gender shifted to masc. after the coming of Christianity. O.E. god was probably closer in sense to L. numen. A better word to translate deus might have been P.Gmc. *ansuz, but this was only used of the highest deities in the Gmc. religion, and not of foreign gods, and it was never used of the Christian God.



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