In defense of “gods”
- by B. T. Newberg
Why would a naturalist speak of goddesses and gods? What do these words offer that other terms do not?
Whenever a naturalist pulls out the “g” word, there is always the danger of misunderstanding. Others may suppose a supernatural meaning, though naturalists disavow any such thing. Instead, naturalists point to aspects of nature, existence, or the mind. So, why not speak of these things directly? Wouldn’t it be better to use some other word, like “nature”, “being”, or “psychology”?
This essay attempts to show that the word enjoys advantages not enjoyed by competing terms such as these. While some naturalists may use a different term, categorically denying all naturalists from using it throws the baby out with the bathwater. A careful analysis of the word’s traits reveals its unique virtues.
First, the context of discussion must be made clear: we’re talking about use of the word as part of a living religious or spiritual path. If precision of meaning were the only criterion, it might be better if naturalists chose some other term. But in religion, experience counts as much as precision, if not more. Both head and heart must be considered. Thus, words must be evaluated for their potential to shape a person’s responses to ritual, meditative, and mythic activities. The goal, then, is to find words that offer maximum potential for religious experience while still maintaining a reasonable amount of semantic precision.
In order to demonstrate how “goddess”, “god”, and “gods” (hereafter just “god”) offer a unique balance of head and heart not offered by competing terms, we must consider seven of the word’s most pertinent traits:
- variance across and within cultures
- contested meaning
- rich associations
- absence of objective-world referent
- sense of the unpredictable
The following is an intellectual argument, but it is motivated by personal empirical experience. I have been agnostic and more or less naturalistic since high school, but upon discovering Druidry I was surprised to find ritual with deities creating powerful experiences. “This is working,” I thought, “but why?!” I believe it has to do with the specific traits of a word like “god”, with its cultural context and anthropomorphism. It plays on the strings of human nature to conduce toward a certain kind of experience not easily accessible by other means. The following argument may be abstract and intellectual, but it is meant to explain a concrete, empirical experience.
1. Variance across and within cultures
First, it is a culturally contingent term, varying across cultures and even within cultures. Some words, like “two” or “circle” are more or less universal, but “god” is highly variable across cultures. This means precision of meaning is going to be a hairy matter no matter what. The word can only be understood within the context of the speaker’s culture, subculture, and personal beliefs. Absolute precision is a lost cause, though it is still very possible for two people to understand one another by defining their meaning. Naturalists can formulate working definitions to improve precision.
2. Contested meaning
Second, since the word varies across and within cultures, it is a contested term. Myriad cultural traditions vie to determine its meaning in different ways. It cannot be said to have a single authoritative meaning, and the most common meaning must not be construed as the most authoritative. Supernatural definitions have no greater claim to it than naturalistic ones. The latter enjoy a venerable lineage, traceable through Santayana and Spinoza all the way back to Stoicism, Neo-Confucianism, and other ancient traditions. This shows that naturalistic definitions are not imprecise deviations from supernatural ones; rather, they are precise definitions with their own precedents.
3. Rich associations
Third, the word “god” is embedded in a complex web of associations. Considering its proven ability to inspire powerful emotions and myriad creative interpretations over the centuries, we might say that it is particularly rich in this regard. It is critical to note that among its associations are a sense of heightened importance (sacredness), ultimate questions (e.g. why are we here), and a relation to moral values (how we live our lives). These grant it a unique power to evoke experiences of profound importance and moral relevance. When the word is invoked within a ritual, the mind is signaled to take the message seriously and consider it in relation to how life ought to be lived. Using the word thus prepares the mind for a potentially life-transforming experience.
4. Absence of objective-world referent
Fourth, it is a word that may or may not have a referent in the objective world, depending on one’s ontology. Some words, like “unicorn”, refer to something recognizable and real (the idea of a unicorn) but not to something that can be found in the objective world (unicorns don’t exist). They can be found in the subjective world (in the mind’s eye, courtesy of imagination), and the inter-subjective world of representation (in art and literature), but not the objective world of nature. Those who believe literally in gods consider them to exist in the objective world somehow, but naturalists do not believe that to be the case. If the word has any objective-world referent, it must be allegorical, like Thor referring to thunder or Artemis to untamed wilderness. Yet it must not be overlooked that even in the absence of a real-world referent, the word still refers to something “real” – an internal experience in the mind’s eye.
As a word with no objective-world referent, it might be expected to lack a certain oomf. Yet the tradeoff is freedom from objective constraints. The individual is able to read a wide variety of meanings and connotations into it, which makes it an extremely flexible mental tool. With a bit of interpretation, it can be brought to bear on the current problem or situation with relative ease. None of this detracts from the “realness” of the subjective experience. Rather, the insight it inspires and feelings it evokes are very real. This reality is made especially palpable by the next trait to be considered, that of anthropomorphism.
Fifth, the word is anthropomorphic. That is, it suggests person-like associations, though in the naturalist view it does not refer to objective persons. This critical trait means the word enters the realm of sociality, which the human brain handles differently than inert objects or abstractions. This is a controversial claim, so some elaboration is in order.
Some of the most popular theories about why human intelligence evolved propose that the driving factor was sociality (Whiten, 2007). In an environment where the greatest threat was other humans, interpreting others’ intentions was at a premium. Large groups competing for mates and other resources gave the advantage to those who could guess what others were thinking, and whether others knew that they knew what they were thinking. Thus, it is not an exaggeration to say that the human mind is designed for sociality. Furthermore, the brain seems to handle language differently than other tasks. It seems to have evolved not as a single general processing unit, but as an amalgamation of connected sub-units or “modules” with different purposes. Mithen (1999) proposes different modules for natural history, linguistics, and other tasks, including sociality. This suggests that the brain responds in a fundamentally different way to persons than to things. Given these two facts, it is reasonable to assume that an anthropomorphic term activates different brain functions than a non-anthropomorphic term. It activates a special module that has been designed by evolution with particular care. This does not mean the brain is necessarily better at dealing with persons, but it does mean that it deals with them differently and with special relevance (as an aside, this might explain Martin Buber’s dichotomy between the I-It experience and the I-Thou, the former comprising an objective, analytical stance and the latter a subjective, social stance). An anthropomorphic term will therefore stimulate a different range of physiological responses than a non-anthropomorphic term. Those responses will be similar to those evoked by social interaction, and may therefore stimulate such social emotions as empathy, compassion, love, gratitude, etc. It matters little that the term does not refer to an objective person, because recent neurological research has revealed there is no difference in activated brain regions between imagining a thing and objectively experiencing it (Schjoedt, et al., 2009). So, in sum, anthropomorphic terms stimulate physiological responses specific to sociality that are not necessarily accessible via abstract terms like “being”, “nature”, and so on. We are biologically biased to treat anthropomorphic terms differently.
6. Sense of the unpredictable
Sixth, as an anthropomorphic term “god” connotes a certain unpredictability. Persons are assigned the power of will, which makes them complex decision-makers. Whatever tendencies they might exhibit, they may always act contrary to expectations. Thus, there is always an element of unpredictability in the word “god.” In contrast, abstract concepts are considered to have meanings that are relatively fixed and predictable. This allows them to be taken for granted, freeing up processing space for other cognitive tasks. Persons cannot be taken for granted in this way; they cannot be reasoned about like objective things. Persons are ever variable, and therefore ever at the forefront of consideration. This means an anthropomorphic term will occupy more of one’s attention; it is privileged in working memory and may thus exert greater influence on the decision-making process. Thus, if one’s goal is to influence one’s decision-making process toward, say, enhanced empathy or compassion, an anthropomorphic term can be a powerful ally, if only because it commands more attention through its sense of unpredictability.
Seventh and finally, as an anthropomorphic term “god” is also a narrative term. Persons act in ways that we naturally describe in terms of story (she said this, then I did that, then this happened). So, “gods” are naturally known through myths (essentially narratives of divine actions) and rituals (essentially enacted narratives). This is important because narrative is universal among humans. Storytelling is known in every society, from the simplest to the most complex. It is common among all classes, races, genders, and ages. Whereas abstract thinking requires a certain level of maturation, narrative thinking comes easily from a very young age. It continues to be favored by all types of people throughout life, whereas highly abstract thinking may appeal differently to various occupations, subcultures, and levels of education. Thus, anthropomorphic terms are effective across diverse populations.
There is one more crucial point about narrative. More than any other mode of communication, narrative invites suspension of disbelief. It might be argued that many of the qualities of anthropomorphic terms mentioned above depend on believing literally in their objective-world referents. Yet this is not the case, because we are endowed with the power to suspend disbelief. By this power, we can bring imagination to bear and thereby experience a physiological response without necessarily assenting to the reality of the stimulus. Art moves us. Poetry moves us. Myth moves us. Thus, we can be moved to love or gratitude even by a word with no objective-world referent. The only limit is the degree to which we can learn to temporarily suspend disbelief. If one’s goal is to train the empathic response, anthropomorphic terms can be valuable by virtue of their narrative quality.
Temporary suspension of disbelief in a word like “god” allows it to come alive for the period of a ritual or meditation, just as it allows theatrical characters to come alive for the length of a play. There is never a moment when we don’t ultimately know the characters are really actors, but we allow ourselves to take them as if they were real. This enables us to experience powerful responses not readily accessible by other means. We say “Hamlet” instead of the more technically precise “actor portraying a Danish prince” because the latter takes us out of the play. The former maintains the personhood of the character, and thereby lets us relate to him as if he were a real person for the duration of the drama. The same is true of “god”, “goddess”, or “Zeus.” By preserving a sense of personhood, invoking “Persephone” in ritual lets us relate to her in a way that we could not by invoking “being”, “nature”, “psychology”, or other such terms.
It should be emphasized that the power of a word like “god” operates by our consent – we must willingly suspend disbelief in order to take it seriously. Art may entice us, but it cannot compel us against our will. Thus, there is no chance that the word may dupe, deceive, or brainwash us. We have to want to be enchanted by it. Control remains firmly in our grasp.
Yet the word is dangerous. There exists a crucial difference between the suspension of disbelief in art and myth. In art, the disbelief is temporary. Movies engross us in another world for an hour and a half, but then we return to objective reality. Myth has the potential, if we allow it, to maintain its sense of reality beyond the narrative’s conclusion. This is the essential difference between a naturalist and a literalist. The naturalist temporarily suspends disbelief; the literalist chooses to do so permanently. This is a genuine danger involved in using a word like “god” that must not be understated.
For this very reason, it is all the more important that naturalists not give up the word. It has been shown to have powerful advantages, and relinquishing the term to literalists hands over exclusive control of a potentially destructive weapon. Instead, naturalists can continue the age-old tradition of contested meanings by affirming naturalistic definitions alongside supernatural ones. Naturalist usage subverts literalist dominance, reclaims the word, and evolves it in directions compatible with modern scientific discovery.
The words “goddess”, “god”, and “gods” are not simply replaceable by other terms like “being”, “nature”, or “psychology.” Even a term like Brendan Myers’ “Immensities”, which seems able to evoke a sense of awe and inspiration, does not enjoy the advantages of anthropomorphism (and in any case, Myers makes clear in his interview that “gods” and “Immensities” may overlap but are not identical).
The specific traits of the word “god” make a significant difference for those who invoke it. The difference involves both culture and biology, calling up cultural associations as well as biological predispositions. The anthropomorphic quality of the term is particularly decisive, activating brain modules designed for social interaction. This may explain the distinction between Martin Buber’s I-It and I-Thou experiences, as well as why Druidic ritual with deities somehow work for me. In light of these observations, it seems justified to allow a place at the table for “gods” within naturalism.
There is no need for all naturalists to speak of “goddess” or “god”, of course, but it is unjustified to categorically deny use of these words by those who respond well to them. Such would be tossing the baby out with the bathwater. It would be unnecessarily iconoclastic, and would diminish the richness and potential of religious naturalism.
These terms function to evoke positive experiences not easily accessible by other means. Those who respond well to them, and seek those experiences, ought to be able to use them. In sum, they offer an appealing combination of semantic precision and potential for shaping religious experience. They balance head and heart.
Mithen, S. J. (1996). The prehistory of the mind : a search for the origins of art, religion, and science, London : Thames and Hudson
Schjoedt, U.; Stodkilde-Jorgensen, H.; Geertz, A. W.; and Roepstorff, A. (2009). “Highly religious participants recruit areas of cognition in personal prayer.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, doi: 10.1093. Note: The study compares prayer to a God considered “real” to prayer to a figure considered unreal (Santa Clause), but does not consider prayer to a figure treated as “real” for the purposes of prayer.
Whiten, A. (2007). “The evolution of animal ‘cultures’ and social intelligence.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B(29), April, Vol. 362, No. 1480, pp. 603-620.