06 December 2012

Atheist Pagans and the ontology of the gods

Stifyn Emrys has a blog post Pagan Atheists: Yes, We Exist going around Facebook and getting a some traction with Pagans in my circle.

In fact, a survey I conducted online last summer found that the vast majority of respondents identified the most important element in Paganism as “reverence for nature.” Given three possible responses, a whopping 87 percent chose this answer. In second place, with just 10 percent of the vote, was “worship of the gods.” (The third option, “practice of magic(k),” received a paltry 3 percent.

That's interesting but unsurprising.

Emrys doesn't call up pantheism by name, but he does blur the lines between pagan and pantheistic sensibilities in his post. That's not a knock against what he's saying at all; I think that he is describing a blurring which is common in modern Pagan culture worth talking about. One Of These Days I need to write something sharpening the distinction between the pagan and the pantheistic, but mostly in service of solve et coagula — so that one can talk more precisely about what it implies when they get tangled together.

Emrys' piece resurfaces an old favorite of mine, Rhett Aultman's Yes, Virginia, I am an Atheist Pagan, a piece which parallels my own conception of deity (and not just because he borrows from my rap about how I believe in Santa Claus).

All of this is to say that I find the question of the gods being “real,” and indeed discussions of their ontological nature in general, somewhat silly. It doesn't matter if they're “real” if they're meaningful. So, yes, I am an atheist because I don't believe in the existence of a deity. I'm also, however, a Pagan, because I have a personal relationship to the same things that Pagans have relationships to.

I was a hard atheist for a good long time, and that perspective still has a key place in my epistemic toolkit, though I'm now a couple of notches closer to “believing in” the gods than Rhett is. But I share with him a radical disinterest in the question of to what degree the gods are materially “real”.

To borrow an analogy from the natural sciences, I still “believe in” Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation. If you know your physics, you know that Newton's understanding is very close to correct in its predictions, but not quite, leaving the space into which Einstein's relativistic physics slips. And the quest for a unified field theory — a Theory of Everything — reflects how even relativistic physics is a tiny bit incomplete.

I love Einstein's famous comment that the most incomprehensible thing about the Universe is that it is comprehensible. I'd add that the sciences are predicated on the baffling and amazing pattern that the Cosmos offers a kind of ladder of better and better near approximations of how it works for us to discover. There's no particular reason why the relationship between the Universe and the human capacity to apprehend it should work that way, but it does.

Though the ladder does make me wonder if a true Theory of Everything is available to human understanding; it may be that Einstein's quip is wrong, and that the Universe is ultimately not comprehensible, but that we can get a wrong understanding of it that is very, very close to correct. A ladder without a top end. And a strange one, since each rung takes us to a seemingly very different place. Newtonian dynamics and relativistic dynamics describe worlds that are radically different in their fundamental structure, saying different things about the fabric of space and time themselves.

That leads me to a kind of doubled consciousness: Newtonian physics is wrong but still true. You can conduct an experiment in which Newton's theory gives you the wrong answer. But for most things that actually happen, Newton's theory is so very close to right that you may as well treat it as the truth. You can launch a probe all of the way to Jupiter and hit your planned mark within a few yards using Newton's theory, and most of that drift will be from the limits of your engineering abilities and not the inaccuracies of Newton's mechanics.

So too the gods are patterns in the world as apprehended by human experience. The god I call “Hermes” is one such pattern, and the underlying reality is no doubt radically different from Hermes as I apprehend him. But he's still as real as Newton's Laws.


J'Carlin said...

The problem is the prevailing definition of atheism. It is not a rejection of Gods, or even rejection of the reality of Gods. It is just a refusal to worship any of them. Learn from them all? Of course. They weren't created by idiots, save one. Some are much more useful than others, but even the one created by an idiot has useful things to learn if only how to lose ones humanity by belief.

Kat Tanaka Okopnik said...

Non-worship is not the same as non-existence. Surely that would be some form of a-[worship] rather than a-theos.

Jonathan Korman said...

Carlin, I suspect that many, if not most, atheists would hold that their atheism is an assertion that the gods do not exist. And at least some of those would grant that even if nonexistent, the stories of those gods have valuable lessons to teach us.

Following on Kat's point, I would say that many Pagans make an often-unspoken distinction between worship the gods and honoring them. A Pagan may worship some gods, but will honor all gods.