Back in July, a member of this community named Frank wrote this letter:
"I'm in a bit of an unusual predicament here.
See, I believe that there are personality types for whom theism is the best option, regardless of its factual basis; some people just plain need a religion of some kind. There are also personality types for whom atheism is the best option,, regardless of whether or not a deity of any kind exists; i.e., some people don't need religion, or are harmed by religion.
I am in the rather awkward position of being an atheist with a theistic personality. I'm one of those guys who needs a religion of some sort, yet I'm completely and utterly skeptical of the existence of the supernatural (which, to my mind, is sort of a prerequisite for theism). I have an extremely hard time accepting any claims of supernatural encounters, the arguments all seem weak, and I have never had what I could call a "religious experience." In short, I have no reason to believe in the supernatural or paranormal, or to adopt a religious system of any kind.
And yet, I want to.
I'm looking for a reason to believe; and since this is a community for pagans who are also skeptics, I thought this would be a good place to start. If you have any compelling reasons for holding to a theistic belief of any kind, I'm all ears.
I wrote a long letter to respond to Frank, and to any other pagan skeptics that care to hear my take on this very good letter that he wrote. Here is my take on Skepticism versus Faith in Pagan Gods, or any other religion.
Here it is:
Can a frog in a bog in Ireland dream of a desert on a planet light years away?
A Study of Skepticism and Faith
Your question moved me. You are an honest person, who has expressed quite a quandary- how can I be a theist soul, with an atheist, skeptical mind? I decided to write you a lengthy response- and I promise if you read it, and try to roll with me, you might gain a perspective you didn't have before. You may laugh it off, but this is me trying to express something to you that may help you. I hope it does. Please read it carefully. I have arranged it into Eight Articles for your ease of reading and of "mentally digesting" it.
I. Order Versus Randomness
It may be that there is an ultimate "Order" for the cosmos, an Ultimate well of "purpose" or "meaning" that appears to the senses of mortals as randomness- and only as randomness. The catch is that while mortal senses will only ever "see" randomness outside of themselves, the randomness itself is the appearance of this greater order- and the "order" itself appears WITHIN mortals as a sense of hope, a sense that things are not "only this" that they see around them. This "internal" feeling, which seems, from the perspective of outward measurement and "rationality" to lack any basis in logic or fact, is the "appearance" of the Truth of the ultimate within.
You are skeptical, and yet, you feel a draw to religious systems and ancient religious icons, practises, traditions, and powers. This is because these religious "things" were not sprung necessarily from mortals observing only the world around them, but also from the "sense of the religious" that all mortals have buried deep within themselves, a non-logical "wonder" or "hope" or "intuition" that no matter how harsh, random, empty, or meaningless things may be, they serve some higher purpose.
Consider the idea that randomness is simply a name for a Law that we do not recognize- a "meta-law" that exists "behind the scenes" and very much "beyond the senses", ONLY appearing to us mortals as that familiar sense of hope and longing for the infinite within, which is not only the spark that ignites our imagination, but also the root-source of all religious expression, and the root-source of that most controversial of words nowadays- Faith. The best definition I have ever heard for "Faith" was "A great sense of trust in the universe, that all things are, at this moment, just as they need to be, and as they should be, and could not be otherwise."
Pagans are no less in need of "faith" than christians or any other religious tradition- and "Faith" is not something that began with christianity. The pagan notion of Fate demands a certain "faith" that all things, no matter how haphazard seeming or how terrible, are part of a greater plan, and ancient pagans all had a concept of "Fate" within their philosophical thinking- the "Meta Law" that stood behind all observed laws and events.
Some pagans put a Deity in "charge" of Fate; some had a Deity or Deities that embodied it; others had a deity or deities that "lay the fetters" of Fate, meaning that they did not create Fate, but carried out what Fate had decreed, themselves being a part of Fate, and unable to disobey it.
The philosophy need not get dense nor complex; just consider for a moment the simple idea that the "Meta law" of Reality may manifest to our senses as what we would call "mechanicalism" or "Randomness", and yet, those things too, may be part of a greater order that we cannot sense or comprehend, but we CAN feel and experience within ourselves, even if those feelings must remain wordless and unexpressed, only known to us in the depths of our hearts. There a good deal of peace can be found.
III. Quantity versus Quality
Consider the idea of "Quantity" versus "Quality"- outwardly, the "Manifestation" of Reality that your senses must intake seems random; science has pointed out that evolution does not (contrary to popular misconceptions) follow any set or linear pattern or plan. Things evolve and devolve; the mutations that cause evolution are not always positive, and species can evolve in terrible ways, causing their extinction. The mutations that cause evolution to occur do not seem to occur in any predictable fashion, and are as likely to be bad as they are good.
We are dealing with the total seeming of randomness, in every QUANTIFIABLE manner- when our eyes look to quantity- to what we can measure with our senses and our science, we see only shifting quantities that do not "pattern up", or when they do- when we measure them ourselves and try to make a "pattern" out of them by adding arbitrary terms (like when we say "These trees work with this ecosystem to cause this needful change to perpetuate the system) we tend to forget that we are overlaying an "order" where there is not necessarily an order. A change tommorrow in any ecosystem can destroy it utterly; a meteor from outer space can randomly crash into the planet and take all life off of it. Nothing is stable, determined without randomness, though human minds tend to long for order, and will try to read it into any and all systems that they explore with the senses.
We do the same thing with the body- but we cannot truly call the body "an order", even though billions of human bodies are alive right now. Sure, certain chemicals in the body react in certain predictable ways- but not all; there are exceptions to every rule, and bodies are all, on the most subtle levels, quite different. All of them break down and die in radically different ways and for radically different causes, And unpredictable mutations can change everything.
The world of quantity is simply not within our power to "categorize" and "predict" with the certainty we'd like to think we can find. The physical universe is in a massive state of flux; even the stars are moving apart at millions of miles per hour. The Big Bang seems to have scattered everything around the universe in amazingly random, haphazard patterns. The earth is not neatly at the center, with the stars all arrayed neatly around us; we are actually in a dust-cloud, off to the side of our galaxy, with comets and meteors all hurtling around us this way and that. There is no "Stellar order" that we can see, just the impact and shock waves of a massive bang, working itself out, with gravity attracting and sometimes ripping things apart.
And despite it all, there is a sense of meaning to things- there is, in short, a sense that there is "Quality" alongside this randomly changing system of quantity. Your very feeling of attraction to things of religion and mysticism is almost like its "voice" in you, a strange sense that should not exist inside you, if there was no corresponding reality outside of you, on some level.
Skepticism is not a bad thing at all- in fact, one might say that it is a very intelligent and rather accurate way to react when one has look around at the contents of the universe. There doesn't seem to be any greater physical "Order" or meaning to things that the senses feast upon. There isn't a shred of "evidence" that the senses can capture for "Gods" out there moving meteors or stars- gravity and inertia can do that without Gods.
But religion takes us to a new "layer" of our experience. REAL religion doesn't have to force the cosmos into some "Order" to suit its ends- it only has to have faith that what we see as random is the appearance of a greater "Meta law", and that things have a purpose. Science can tell us how a big bang occured. But religion is supposed to tell us why- science has a quantitative approach, and religion should have a qualitative.
These two things are NOT in conflict with each other. The Gods don't have to make explosions in the sky for us to know them- they have already made explosions in our hearts and in our "intuitive beings" within. We don't "see" the Gods; we know the Gods.
V. The Quandary of the Infinite
Even the physical examination of the universe, with logic applied to it, leads to some strange conclusions- like the existence of the infinite. We can rightly say that the physical chain of cause and effect leads up to everything occuring as it does- the big bang happened, (or some cosmological catastrophe/event) that set the chain of physical forces into motion, leading to the "settling" of dust clouds into stars and planets, and to the scattering of the forces and chemicals that combined to bring forth biological life, and which led to conditions randomly forming correctly in certain places to allow for life to be sustained. We can measure it all- and even though it doesn't seem to be "ordered"- it looks rather haphazard and random- we can still measure it and make some good explanations as to "how".
But the primordial "cosmological catastrophe/event" presents an issue- How can a Big Bang just "happen"? Forces and matter had to exist before it, to cause it. So where did they come from? Clearly, they came from previous forces and matter, and those came from previous forces and matter- and so on, and so on.
Even the physical chain of cause and effect seems to be endless. But how can a physical chain of cause and effect be endless, without a beginning? If something never began, how can it be happening now? If it is truly "beginningless and endless", then where in the HEL did a beginningless and endless chain of cause and effect come from? Did it just "appear"?
Has it "Always been"? That is no more a satisfying explanation than christians saying "God was always there"- which is the answer they give. "God is eternal" they say- not "in" Time; he has no beginning or end.
So science and religion sort of come back to this point- they all default, finally, to a "timelessness" for things, whether they see the ultimate reality as a beginningless chain of cause and effect, or a beginningless God.
Infinty- Timelessness- Eternity. Big words, brain-aching concepts. Have we run face to face with the true mystery of science AND religion? It is possible. I offer no satisfactory explanations, save one- what you feel inside you is the answer. You can ignore the voice in you that says "this is not meaningless", or you can embrace it. That is up to you. Neither myself nor that voice inside you can take your belief and use it to "explain" the physical universe to you, in a way that will make you feel better- even after you choose to believe that there is some "meta law" behind things, the world will still seem random and uncaring.
VI. A Rose in a Storm
And in the midst of that randomness, the human mind and heart will be sitting, like a rose in the middle of a terrible storm, enjoying beauty, dreaming, feeling hope. It will continue to express these hopes religiously, just as it will continue to measure the world and scientifically investigate things. I choose a life where I see quantity, but feel quality, and so embrace the wholeness of things. This is how the Gods reach us, because they are as much a part of things as trees or rocks or stars; they are just as real, only they exist mostly in the world of quality, instead of quantity, which is why when we experience them, it is as internal feelings, images, and even visions and dreams.
I'd say that pagan mythology was pretty clear that the gods are also partly expressed in the world of quantity- all things were sacred, and the natural world was even seen at times and in special places as "homes" for the Gods, or at least a place where they could manifest or be contacted; it seems (as the Egyptian mystery schools said) that the Gods, while existing in an "ideal" (read: internal) state, could not be "fulfilled" or "Whole" unless they "unfolded" into manifestation, into the world of quantity as well, thus energetically completing and authenticating their divine natures.
This has some pretty deep ramifications for us mortals- we can be seen as "inverse" to the Gods, in a way- where they are mostly existing in a world of quality, only unfolding in a world of quantity, we seem to mostly exist in the world of quantity, but with a PART of us in the world of quality- the part that senses the depth and meaning in things, even though we can never quite understand what that crazy "feeling" in us is- that intuitive feeling of meaning or awe.
The fight over polytheism and the like is not even a true conflict. Nature- a name I give the wholeness of things, whether those things be seen or unseen, whether they be quantity or quality- is one complete and whole system, but She is made of countless differentiated parts, from stars, to rocks, to blades of grass, to humans, and yes, even to spirits and gods- and there is no reason why the spiritual reality should not also be expressed in terms of great multiplicity. Nature herself, as a whole, can be seen as providence or Fate, or as a species of "Supreme Being"- there is every bit of evidence, such as in the PGM, that she certainly was- I recommed that the Orphic Hymn to nature be studied for some insight into this.
The point is, whether you see the Great "World Being", in its manifest and unmanifest realities as "God" (and by this I mean the God of the Philosophers, NOT the God of Revelations) as the "One Mind" or Fate, or the "Meta Law", or whether you see the manfestations of the many parts as the fulfillment of the Meta Law, and holy points of its fulfillment- (Gods and humans and all creatures or spirits) it's all the same. You are dealing with "pure" religion, outside of the stupidity of socially-corrupt religious systems that just pass judgement on temporary and moronic social customs and mores that are themselves born in politics, and care nothing for spiritual insight.
The "Unfolding" of the Gods into the world of Quantity has a two-fold power, which is vital to human religion, and to the heart of human hope:
1. It makes all physical "manifestations" of phenomenon into things of sacredness- did the Oak-God, the High Thunderer, act as the ultimate otherworldly "WHY" or "Quality" behind the Oak Tree Phenomenon? Did his strange otherworldly nature get fulfilled by the appearance of acorn and oak, and the life-cycle thereof? Science can explain how the oak tree comes about and evolved- but the God of the Oak explains WHY. These things are not in conflict, and the Oak-God allows the once-spiritually empty explanation of the Oak tree to become a miracle- the literal theophany or appearance of a God.
2. It provides the ultimate sense of "WHY", the ultimate sense of Quality, to all things that we can see, even if we can't SEE the "quality-bearing" reality. But the belief that I am discussing appeals not to sense and measurement, but to the intuition.
In this manner, the entire world, in all its glory and variety, represents the "coming forth" of a pantheon of Gods; everyday a holy day, and everything endowed with a meaning that transcends mere measurement. As I said before- even when you FEEL this meaning, the senses still report the "same world" that you always saw- but now, it has a new dimension, one that may be unseen to us, but very much felt- and one that fills us with joy. It filled our ancestors with joy, too, and with a sense of awe- some of the theophanies of the Gods were clearly destructive; the Gods had a dark side alongside their "Bright side"- but then, so do humans.
VIII. The Logic of the Non-logical
Finally, let me close by saying this- Pagan mysticism (and the mysticisms that followed the fall of the pagan world) deal with the non-logical as a reality which is every bit as real as the reality that our logical minds can dissect. I believe that there is a capacity in us to "experience" the nonlogical, because I myself have done so. Of course I can't explain it to you- for the reasons that I've made clear here in this discourse. It is not a quantifiable experience. Whatever I try to "say" about it will not be "it", and it will fall short of the internal experience that I had.
I also say that it is not necessary that I talk about any subjective experience- what you want and need is your own, and I am just writing this to tell you that you have already had one, the most important one, and you have it everyday- you have the FEELING inside you that draws you and attracts you to ancient symbols and images of holiness- and this is happening because those things have a special relationship with a nonlogical and very real, eternal Truth that exists at the heart of all things.
Don't dishonor it by saying "what if this is my wishful thinking?" While that sort of doubt is good when it comes to empirical investigations, only fools doubt themselves out of existence. If you can't trust your heart and intuitions, you are a sad case indeed; the Gods and the universe can do no more than try to reach you that way- if you ignore even that, they can only say "we tried".
To accept "That" within you, does not require you to throw away science, nor scorn empiricism. It only requires that you trust yourself. It doesn't require you to preach, to make statements of faith, or to attack scientists or atheists. Indeed, it only requires you to be unafraid of the universe, trust it and yourself, and just live life as best you can.
I would say that if a greater meaning didn't exist, you would have no way to long for it, imagine it, or hope for it- can a frog in a bog in Ireland dream about a desert on a planet light years away, when it has lived its entire life in a bog, never having seen sand, or the conditions on that planet that is outside of its senses?
You as a human have lived your whole life in this random-seeming world, with no hint of a "God" stopping by for tea. And yet, you dream of the Gods, you long to worship them, to talk to them, to feel them, or to understand some mystical thing- you want to believe in the mystical, you sense the power, the attraction. How could you, if it didn't exist, if it couldn't exist, and if you have never experienced it before in any time, place, or condition?
Because part of you is IN that condition, or somehow sensing it- the very source of the often-abused concept of "Spirit" (what the christians call "Soul") today.
Yes, I'd say the dreams of frogs could be quite fantastic. I know mine are.
You may think all this is foolish, but I said my peace, and I wish you well.