By Amy Symes
(Published Samhain 1995)
I've just spent the last three years running around the East Midlands interviewing a variety of Pagans and asking them a number of annoyingly probing questions. One of the most difficult questions I asked people was "Do you believe in a deity or deities, and if so how do you visualise it or them?" This question was often perceived as difficult because although most people were comfortable with their own perceptions of deities, few were able to verbalise these perceptions in ways which could then be translated into routine descriptive terms. Without exception, every one I spoke to did believe in deities, although one deeply introspective individual debated whether or not he actually believed in anything, arguing that what he knew was considerably different from what he believed. To paraphrase his remarks, he suggested that "What I know is true for me, whereas what I believe is what I would like to be true for me, but have no conclusive proof of yet." I think many others I spoke to would have echoed this view had they been as self-analytical. Yet no-one suggested at any time that they doubted the existence of deities or of some sort of "wholly other" that was divine in nature. This response surprised me. I supposed I expected a more sceptical response.
I am not a theologian, so I do not presume to understand theological arguments about validity, truth and other hermaneutical debates. I proceed from a sociological/anthropological perspective, and tend to rely upon observation and personal experience. This approach becomes tricky, however when discussing gods and goddesses. You can't ask people to whip out their personal deities for inspection, and sometimes it's not even very nice to ask them to describe their personal visions of these mysterious entities. Many people, I have found, are reluctant to reveal what goes on in their minds (or in other states of consciousness, or on other planes? - you choose) during rituals, and often resort to joking about gods and goddesses with generously endowed anatomies in order to get out of answering such questions. Or in some cases descriptions are abandoned because the deities "tend to look different at different times" or can only be described as "forces" or "aspects of nature that occasionally possess human characteristics". Others don't visualise deities at all, but rather "sense that they are present". How frustratingly theoretical!
Ultimately, however, most of the responses I received from the local Pagan community echoed a similar division in perception of deitiesto that which Julian Vayne found (Pagan Voice No 38:4) when he discussed the difference between what he termed "weak theism" and "strong theism". Responding to an earlier Talking Stick article (No 17:10-11) written by Yvonne Arburrow, he noted that within the Pagan community there appeared to be a debate emerging over whether or not the gods are "Real". Whereas some Pagans tend to view deities as external beings, separate from human consciousness and existing independently (strong theism), others insist that deities are more likely to be part of human consciousness - what Jung called "archetypes" - and therefore projections which reflect individual perception of reality (weak theism). Vayne proposed that those who supported the former view of strong theism did so in order to allow Paganism "to become an accepted religion"by "making Pagan deities closer in their conception to Christian notions of God." Never one to avoid controversy, Julian.
But I wonder how thoroughly this argument has been thought through. Do you believe in the external reality of your gods in order to be more acceptable? I rather doubt it, particularly if your gods have generously endowed anatomies. In fact, the foundation of this entire line of reasoning seems, to me, to need radical reassessment. Pagans - who are notorious for their sceptical approaches to gods, the universe and everything - should, according to their own self-definitions, question the very existence of everything unknown, especially deities. Conversely, however, my research suggests that deities (as compared to a number of other "unknowns" such as spirits, ghosts, UFOs, demons, etc) are the one thing that most Pagans seem unquestionably to accept, whether they have had direct experience of such phenomena or not. Does this suggest a fear of not believing in something "bigger" than oneself, just in case it really does exist? Once respondent told me that he believed in demons because "if I say I don't believe in them I'll be scared!" But generally I don't think this is necessarily the case. After all, most deities are pretty wonderful creatures who look out for and protect their human creators/creations. And few paganswill admit to "looking up" to deities as bigger, better super-beings, preferring instead to view them on a more egalitarian basis.
So why the tendency towards belief then, be it strong or weak? How about a reductionist psychological explanation, based upon the human need to share the burden of responsibility in an increasingly stressed-out world? (I don't mind controversy either.) Why take responsibility for what happens to you and your loved ones (or hated ones) when you can pass it off to some unknown "force" in the universe that "works in mysterious ways"? You get fired: the gods must have had other plans
And yet Pagans love the idea of personal power. When somebody is healed, she has healed herself. In fact, bodies are often credited with the intelligence to heal themselves. When somebody succeeds or triumphs, it is that person who is responsible, not the gods. It is only to point out how perhaps human consiousness is not completely ready yet to take full responsibility for everything that happens. We still need to the gods when time gets hard. We still need our "mother" and "father" to be there when we are hurting. We are still very much the children of the gods.
Yvonne Arburrow argues that there is a difference between "faith" and "belief", suggesting that the former is based upon "blind trust in something for which one has no evidence" whilst the latter is "something which you have good reason to believe, but for which you have no first-hand evidence (No 17:11). I ask, what's the difference? I have as much "blind" trust in the existence of atoms as I do in the existence of magic, but according to Yvonne I have better reason to believe that atoms exist than I do magic because we currently have the technology to "prove" the existence of atoms. Well, I personally do not have an electron microscope in my living room, but just upstairs I have have experienced what I believe to be the working of magic on numerous occasions, and therefore have more faith in its existence than in that of atoms. I can count the numbers of experiences I would define as "psychic" or "religious" that I have had on about seven fingers, and that's including drug-induced experiences. This has not, however, stopped me from believing in just about anything.
Some people will argue that if you can imagine something, it must have some validity, and that all our imaginings exist independently in parallel "multiverses" where they have their own realities. If that is the case, then somewhere there is a plane of reality absolutely swarming with deities that will continue to exist whether we believe in them or not. I kind of like that idea, but I still haven't actually seen or talked to or touched a deity yet in the same way I can see or talk to my local pub landlord or postal delivery person. I have only imagined deities in my mind. If your experience is different, of if you think there is more to heaven and earth than can be found within the parameters of this argument, I would like to hear about it, and would welcome open or confidential replies to this article. A mind, after all, can't be proven to exist either, but I've always found the pessimistic Cartesian approach of "doubt first, believe later" to be as ass-backwards as the Ghostbuster's approach of "we're ready to believe in you". The theism debate will not be solved overnight, or even if George Burns did appear tomorrow in a flash of light, smoking a cigar and declaring himself "god", I don't think that most of us would be particularly convinced. But if Paganism really is a "religion of mystics", as it has so often been called, then I believe that it is likely that sooner or later some sort of individual breakthrough will occur - perhaps many breakthroughs simultaneously, if you're a Rupert Sheldrake fan - which may shed greater light on one of the biggest questions of all time. Until then, I must continue to question, without doubt.