Ryan Benson when closing his blog over at Patheos sent a challenge out to his religious readers: “convince me God exists.” Benson is an atheist. Star, who is doing wonderful work for us Pagans at Patheos, suggested Pagans respond, and I sent one in. Afterwards I thought it might have insights worth sharing on a broader scale than some atheist’s blog. In the process I have also expanded it a little.
Why demand a proof?
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, especially since a number of religions make similar claims in this respect. Many forms of Christianity and Islam make similar demands while denying to the others in this crowd legitimacy. Proving that God exists is a reasonable question to ask those whose religion claims that in the absence of belief the unbeliever is injured in some way. Usually for ‘eternity.’ Further, if such a God existed, and the penalty for getting it wrong were as severe as His followers claim it to be, and He is not a demon, He would make it easy for His existence to be proven. Really easy.
I think it safe to say that no religion making such claims has succeeded in backing them up through the force of their arguments or the evidence they amass. This is why their followers so quickly turn to the sword and the mob when they have the power. Here the atheists are on very good ground, and are doing all of us a service by asking these people to back up their claim. They have not and can not.
But not every religion believes in such a God, and some, including my own Pagan one, suggest that a wide variety of spiritual paths (broadly defined) exists, and each constitutes but one thread in a magnificent tapestry that exceeds them all. No religion adequately expresses the more-than-human in all the ways human beings can express and honor it.
From such a perspective as this whether or not a person is atheistic or believes in one deity or another is not particularly significant. What is significant is whether a person is in touch with his or her heart, and acts on it. How far can a person expand their sense of self to include others through love or care or empathy or compassion.
In my personal experience these qualities seem most fundamental to the spiritual/conscious dimension of All That Is. The packaging a given understanding of these qualities is wrapped in is not important. The qualities are. From this perspective many atheists are in better harmony with All-that-is than many theists.
A Pagan Perspective
From within a Pagan perspective on the one hand the ultimate is beyond human conception, and so in a complete sense, no one can “believe in God/the Gods,” in the sense of knowing what reality lies behind these words. We can believe that mystery exists, and that we call it God or the Gods, depending on how we have experienced it. We can be brought to tears by beauty without really knowing what it is. We can feel the meaning inherent within nature or celebrations of natural cycles, but ultimately there too is mystery.
We get only a small view, Even if we encounter a deity, as I have. I know that a particular deity or manifestation of a deity exists, but I also know I have a very incomplete picture of the superhuman.
From inquiry with others it seems that many Pagans who, like myself, have encountered a deity, say we experience them as more real than we are ourselves. I think this is a meaningful clue as to what they are and what we are, but it certainly does not give me a clear idea of what a deity is. For those who have not experienced such deities this description likely sounds absurd. It would to me as well if I hadn’t had the experience because for most of us all of the time our experience defines reality. But that does not change the experiences of those who have powerfully encountered deities, for whatever reason.
But many Pagans have not had such experiences, and still rightly regard themselves as Pagans. For a while I wondered what that meant – why some of us and not others? – but not so much any more. Ultimately I do not think it matters a lot, and to the degree it does matter, those who are Pagans without having had sich an experience might be less spiritually “needy.” Again, we encounter mystery.
To my mind those who have not had a up-close-and-personal encounter with a deity are not spiritually behind those who have. A great many such Pagans (and more than a few ‘atheists’) experience the world as intrinsically beautiful, mysterious, and valuable. They are fulfilled when immersed within it and experience it as in some sense sacred. The world and its basic rhythms open their hearts and fill them with gratitude for its beauty. The pain and suffering within life are redeemed within a larger context of meaning. (I would call this another way to experience the “more real.”) From a Pagan perspective this seems enough.
Some Pagans call their position with respect to all this panentheism, others pantheism, and some identify as atheists. Among atheists there are those who call themselves pantheists, treating the “theism” as a simple metaphor for the world’s beauty and intrinsic excellence. Again, what I think matters is not the abstract belief but the personal relationship.
A recent study if American scientists sheds some light on this issue. Science Daily reports that over 20% of atheistic scientists queried report they are “spiritual.” The article reports
“’Our results show that scientists hold religion and spirituality as being qualitatively different kinds of constructs,’ said Elaine Howard Ecklund, assistant professor of sociology at Rice and lead author of the study. ‘These spiritual atheist scientists are seeking a core sense of truth through spirituality – one that is generated by and consistent with the work they do as scientists.’”
Science Daily quoted Elizabeth Long as observing “’the terms scientists most used to describe religion included “organized, communal, unified and collective.’ The set of terms used to describe spirituality include ‘individual, personal and personally constructed.’” All 275 respondents who used these terms identified the collective terms with religion and the individual terms with spirituality.
The distinction between this view and some forms of Paganism is getting thin. If I had to define a distinction, I would suggest it is that Pagans have experienced a degree of reciprocity between themselves and Nature, whether or not they have encountered deities. But even here I imagine there are some for whom beauty and mystery are enough. But aren’t we a religion? Yes and no. We are religious in the sense of doing some things together as a community, whether it be an occasional Sabbat or meeting more often in covens, groves, or other small groups. But we rarely if ever focus on getting a unity of belief and we rarely have anything like a permanent organization. Most have nothing resembling a professional group of priests and priestesses. Other groups seem equally far from any strong religious model, such as the Quakers, so we are not alone in this respect. But we are far from what most people in America think of as a religion when examined in detail.
From a Pagan perspective everything around us, including ourselves, are immersed within/emanations from the Ultimate. Therefore what matters is not our theological framework, not the labels we put on things, not even the groups with which we work, but the degree to which we can embrace what is around us as intrinsically worthy of respect/care/love and awe.
Within each basic religious and philosophical perspective there are those who fail to enlarge their hearts or expand their selves beyond the most narrow, and there are those who do. Within each tradition, including those that are secular, there are ways to expand one’s heart beyond its current size and ways to justify remaining unchanged. So from the perspective of my own spiritual path, whether you believe in some deity or not is not very important, but the quality of your heart is very much so.