Where's the Belief? On Humans Creating Gods
Article ID: 14912
Age Group: Adult
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Posted: April 15th. 2012
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My boyfriend considers himself one of the Asatru. Several days ago, we had a short conversation about religion, the ending portion of which went something like this:
Me: “…And Christians aren’t helping their own case when they claim that Bible stories should be taken literally. That’s the first thing they’ve got going against them when it comes to them trying to carve themselves a scientifically-supported niche – they’ve got no evidence backing them up. I don’t think it’s reasonable for any religion to claim their gods are solid and real, and that their mythologies are historical fact.”
Him: “Well, I don’t know. Sometimes I think the gods are real.”
Me: “Wait, really? But where’s the evidence to back up that Thor ever fought Giants in the mountains, or that Odin hung from a tree for days at a time to gain his superpowers, or whatever they were? Where are all the Giant footprints all over Norway?”
Him: “Well, they wouldn’t necessarily be there anymore, would they? You don’t see a lot of dinosaur footprints in your backyard, either.”
Me: “But if the Norse pantheon is true and right, don’t they automatically cancel out all other mythologies by reason of clashing creation myths? These creation myths sometimes being intrinsically connected to the natures of the gods themselves, by the way. And if Thor is a real guy, why doesn’t he show himself to us? He’d be one of the most revered dudes in the world, rather than a half-remembered character relegated to comic books and video games. …These are all the same questions I would as a Christian who takes the Bible literally, you know.”
Him: “I know. I don’t know why we don’t see Thor and Odin anymore. Maybe they died.”
Me: “How do gods die?”
Him: “When an apple tree was stolen from the gods, they all began instantly to age. Maybe they lost their apple tree again.”
Me: “Huh. Maybe they did.”
This conversation has made me think. People, I have noticed, don’t seem very bothered by inconsistencies, especially regarding their religious beliefs. Some believe unerringly in science until the point where it clashes with the Bible, and then it’s down to the 2000-year-old book all the way. They don’t necessarily seem concerned that you can’t just cut big chunks out of scientific theory at will – that it all fits together like a big jigsaw puzzle. Their beliefs are their beliefs and that’s that. This is extremely common and happens in all walks of faith – even Paganism. I might dare say, especially Paganism. Allow me to explain.
When I published an article on WitchVox in September, concerning my lifelong struggle to believe in true magic in the face of little to no evidence, I received an outpouring of touching, sympathetic responses from people either offering their own ideas about gods and magic, or admitting that they, too, have had a hard time trying to believe in the magical things in life when the whole world is telling them that they are wrong or fundamentally underdeveloped. A common thread among many of the emails that I received was the idea that one need not believe in literal gods and goddesses in order to be Pagan. The earth, they said, is magical enough, and to believe in and appreciate its wonders is all you need to have a reason to celebrate the sabbats. This is very true. Another common suggestion was that I should regard magic as a form of advanced psychology, and spells as a way of convincing myself that I am capable of something. All of these are very valid suggestions, but what they have really done for me, over the course of these many months, is make me realize that I am, fundamentally, a very selfish person.
And… Yeah. Yeah, the more I think about it, the more certain about it I become: I am selfish. I cannot settle for psychology and a happy walk in the woods. I want real gods. I want things to happen without me having to touch or physically initiate them. I want to find a relationship with a divine being that is not merely an archetype, or reflection of my own psychology, but something separate from myself, which commands power beyond my own. I am not interested in mind games and self-affirmation. Anything less than true magic simply does not interest me. Anything less than true magic, I’m already experiencing in my everyday life. Where is the arcane mystery and intrigue in casting a spell to psych yourself up for the office Nerf war?
But I digress. Paganism, as I was saying, has always seemed, to me, to be a hotpot of conflicting beliefs and desires and ideologies. How many of you have altars with statues of Isis, Artemis, and Freya standing side-by-side? Isis and Artemis do admittedly have some level of fundamental connection to each other by virtue of their respective cultures being so closely linked in the ancient world, but Freya is from the other end of the continent and from a drastically different system of beliefs and morals. And what about all the different ways that these three goddesses came into being? Artemis was birthed of a pantheon that has its origins in a giant egg floating in the midst of the chaos before existence; Isis’s origins lie in whatever combination of bodily fluids the godhead was squirting out onto the desert sands ages ago; Freya… man, I don’t even know, and I cannot lie that I don’t feel like combing a Wikipedia article right now to find out. (I am absolutely certain that someone will send an email to enlighten me.) Pretty sure it has something to do with the ocean.
There are three different methods of creating a world represented between these three goddesses. Three worldviews, three cultures, and within each goddess untold numbers of different aspects, for each of the different ways they might have been seen across their respective civilizations. Artemis was sometimes many-breasted and fertile; other times she was an agile huntress. Isis may have been patron to a city on one side of the Nile and hardly regarded on the other side. Freya… Well, okay, I guess I don’t know as much about Freya as I thought I did. I could have picked a better example. And don’t even get me started on how these creation myths butt heads with conventional, highly convincing, scientific wisdom.
At least Christianity only has one creation myth and one God to deal with in the face of mighty Science, right? Poly- or pantheists seem, to me, to be in quite a mess.
…“To me, ” I said. And there, you see, is the kicker: Many Pagans actually don’t seem much bothered by this mess at all, and I find that baffling. But it does bring me back to my opening point: That people tend not to be bothered by inconsistencies in belief – in their conceptions of how the world came to be – any more than they’re generally bothered by the fact that Frodo Baggins could use a magic sword on his journey across Middle Earth, because “that’s not how the real world works!” Our attitudes toward gods are kind of like the suspension of disbelief we display toward novels. …Or, actually, they’re very much like suspension of disbelief. Almost precisely the same, in fact. You can believe in the story of the parting of the Red Sea and still not really expect it to happen in the real world, can’t you?
I think I might be on to something here!
Alright, so no more pretense: Contrary to what I may have implied or said outright up to this point, I do have my own tentative ideas about how gods and magic might exist, and it begins with one fundamental idea: That human beings’ foremost desire, even before pleasure or self-preservation, is to be part of something greater than ourselves. This desire gives us the will to do things we normally would or could not; it makes us feel, at the end of our lives, that our lives were worthwhile, and it is normally when we feel that we have failed in this pursuit that we turn to the more hedonistic vices of the world. Essentially, we desperately want to be part of a greater story.
So we create gods.
We tell our own stories of beings that are greater than us, engaged in far greater struggles than ours and who need our help to keep fighting, and who give us focus and purpose that we may not find otherwise in the world. But these beings that we create are not all-powerful. Whether they do or do not have the ability to influence the real world (and I’ll get to that later) , they are limited by human imagination. Simple family tribes in the ancient world may not have needed any god or spirit to represent the idea of evil to them, because in their world nothing so bleakly negative existed; everything had a good side. It isn’t until cultures began to come across things that truly terrified or angered them (destructive volcanoes, dangerous predators, foreigners) that a need for the idea of ‘evil’ came into being. The gods of nearly all ancient mythologies are noticeably human as far as their vices and flaws are concerned; Zeus was a shameless womanizer, and Thor was mighty, but could be a fool at times. Gods could die, too. And though whoever first thought up Yahweh tried their best to make Him the most perfect object of human worship ever seen, they were not successful; Yahweh is in no way detached from human foibles and prejudices. He was very pleased by the smell of burning goat flesh back in the day and even in modern times apparently has a strong hatred of homosexual relationships.
These man-made gods do not fall into conflict with the natural world; science still works, the Big Bang happened, evolution is real. But that universe where the entire world was once just a single egg born out of chaos exists as well. It’s just… a little off to the side. A sub-universe. A different facet on the jewel of reality. It didn’t happen here, it didn’t happen at any point in our history, and we will never find any evidence of it ever having been real, because it wasn’t. But it happened nonetheless.
In modern times, we don’t tend to be so worried about creating new gods, and the standards of storytelling have evolved in such a way as to give us an entirely new way of offering ourselves purpose: we write books and plays and television shows. And no, not all of them are concerned with lifelong struggles and the ultimate fate of the universe, but as we have grown subtler as a species, so have we also developed the ability to find deep meaning in a vignette about the smaller movements of morning dew. We don’t need epics or creation stories all the time, but every new world, every new character, that we conceive of, is to some degree or another real – depending on how much they’re truly believed in. Or, maybe, on how much meaning their creator gives their existence. A stick figure you scribbled on a piece of notebook paper, named “Bob, ” and then killed, does not have as much meaning inside of him as an archetypal hero with flaws and personal tragedy and subtle motivations.
We, as creatures of language, tell nearly everything in the form of stories. It is a fundamental part of who we are and of how we communicate. As far as planet Earth is so far concerned, to be sapient is to tell stories.
I don’t claim to have all of the answers; I don’t have a deep knowledge of how religions and gods have changed and evolved over the centuries and been able to take that into account, I don’t know how the information age has or is going to affect our perception of storytelling and meaning in the future, and most frustratingly, I don’t know how these man-made gods should be able to interact with the physical world in any way whatsoever. Didn’t I say, after all, that I want a deity I can evoke with the goal of affecting change upon the world that you, I, and everyone else exists on? Shouldn’t Coyote, by my own logic, only be able to change the form and reality of the world in which he exists, out somewhere next to or diagonal from this one? Bah humbug.
I have an inkling that this is the point in the story at which magic starts to become important. I don’t feel much temptation to try and justify the existence of magic with quantum physics like many people do; I don’t understand regular physics as it is, can’t follow the math, and any conclusions about the nature of magic that I try to draw based on QP will ultimately only be founded in hearsay. (“But Deepak Chopra said…!”) I have a feeling, though, that magic, whatever it might be, works as a kind of middle ground; the stitching around the edges of reality’s quilt; the grout between the bathroom tiles of the multiverse. If gods as I have conceived of them have any ability to influence our lives beyond making us feel good about ourselves, I’m sure magic is the medium by which it must be done.
But I don’t know yet, do I! And there is quite a possibility that I’m deluding myself and drawing completely unbased conclusions here, because it’s not like I’ve actually done any work to verify my ideas. I am more of a thinker than a doer. I don’t know how to meditate, or how to say a prayer; I’ve never felt reverence for anything other than cathedral architecture and really big trees; and I’ve never felt a connection to anything that wasn’t tangible. (Except maybe the perceived spirit of my dead cat, when I was nine. She never responded to me.)
To those who wrote to me with your own questions and insecurities and sympathies, I say: Well, obviously I haven’t thought this all out completely yet, but I hope that these ideas might help you do some of your own thinking. To those who suggested thinking of gods as archetypes and regarding the earth as worthy of worship itself (and who are now thinking, “Young pup!”) , I offer my deepest respect and admittance that I am absolutely just chock-full of youthful arrogance and thirst for some measure of control over the world that I’m trying to take my first steps out into. To all the rest of you: Blessed be, and stay warm this winter until Freya comes back out of the Northern ocean in spring and warms us all up again.
(Nah, I made that one up completely.)
Victor Frankl, creator of logostherapy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viktor_Frankl
"Sapience is to tell stories" - Mason Williams
Copyright: Article is copyright CoriOreo 2012
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