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In defense of “gods”

March 18, 2012
No Gods Image-Zeus

Should religious naturalists ban Zeus and all other “gods” and “goddesses”?

- 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:

  1. variance across and within cultures
  2. contested meaning
  3. rich associations
  4. absence of objective-world referent
  5. anthropomorphism
  6. sense of the unpredictable
  7. narrative

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.

5.  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.

Mithen's mental modules

Mithen’s map of mental modules

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.

7.  Narrative

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.

Conclusion

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.

References

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.

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26 Comments leave one →
  1. March 18, 2012 3:03 pm

    excellent article!
    You got me thinking about a couple of things.

    First, I have long felt it important for humanists, naturalists, and the like keep a language of the sacred, such as god. If we do not maintain meaning of such words for ourselves we inadvertently allow others to frame the religious/ and philosophical conversations for us.

    Secondly, your thoughts on anthropomorphism and the role of narrative has the hamster in my head doing all kind of acrobatics. I am thinking gods are a unique product of human narrative to explain, connect, and communicate with the greater cosmos. I am wondering if the gods are born from the power of story. I am going to think about this some more.

    Thank you for such thoughtful discourse on a complex subject.

    • March 18, 2012 5:40 pm

      Thanks, Glen.

      >gods are a unique product of human narrative to explain, connect, and communicate with the greater cosmos

      Yes, though I would narrow that to just “connect” of the three. The explaining part is best done by science, and the communicating part is mostly a human activity that fosters a sense of connection.

      I agree we need a language of the sacred. It doesn’t have to be “gods” for everybody, but for those for whom it works, lets keep exploring it. :-)

      Good to see you here. Welcome!

  2. March 18, 2012 6:23 pm

    It’s clear to me that we’re coming from different places. :)

    I don’t know that invoking anthropomorphic gods is uniquely powerful. I wonder if there aren’t other methods of self transformation that are just as powerful (at least for some people) and which don’t suffer from as many problems as anthropomorphic gods.

    I’ve recently been wondering about our culture’s emphasis on the quality of our experiences. Maybe we’d be better off if we focused on doing great things instead of experiencing great things.

    “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.”

    I don’t share your faith in human control or rationality. I see rationality as a delicate flower that must be nurtured and protected in order to blossom and bear fruit. I’ve seen otherwise intelligent, rational people duped by religion. In fact, smart people who think they can’t be duped are the conman’s favorite mark.

    I wonder if you feel it appropriate to teach little children to invoke gods. Do you think they would understand the distinction between myth and the physical world?

    I realize that you’re not saying that everyone should use god language, but I think you’ve overstated your case a bit. If gods and goddesses are what works for you, then that’s great for you. To be honest, I’m hoping that humanity will relegate anthropomorphic gods to the same station as fairies, bedtime stories, and archetypes like Lady Justice. In other words, I aim to avoid ever treating them as objectively real people, even if I’m just temporarily suspending my disbelief. I believe we’ll be better off in the end, but I admit that’s an article of my faith. :)

    • March 19, 2012 6:23 am

      >I don’t know that invoking anthropomorphic gods is uniquely powerful. I wonder if there aren’t other methods of self transformation that are just as powerful

      I didn’t mean unique in being powerful, I meant it produces a unique effect that can be powerful. Other methods may be powerful too, but they’re not going to achieve a different effect.

      >I wonder if you feel it appropriate to teach little children to invoke gods. Do you think they would understand the distinction between myth and the physical world?

      From a very young age, children understand the difference between imagination and reality. They don’t need to understand what a metaphor is till later, but if they can understand that gods are on the imagination side (but still valuable!) then I would have no problem with that. IMO it’s more responsible than teaching them that Santa is real and then one day dashing their hopes when they found out you lied! :-)

      • Rua Lupa permalink
        March 22, 2012 4:45 pm

        I was raised with the teaching that Santa was a person who gave to children and when word spread the story got out of proportion. Which is technically true as the person who inspired Santa Clause was Saint Nicholas. And still enjoyed the festive feeling of the season with this version.

        While I had cousins who were raised believing these figures and when they found out that their dad had been dressing up as the easter bunny while hiding the eggs, had hated him for over a month.

        I had trouble trying to convince my significant other not to teach these stories as real. We now just have to say that it is a story when explaining that something isn’t real and they get it right away. I do feel that kids deserve to know the stories, just not as real and should avoid approaching them as real. Example, the Christmas Parades, when Santa goes by, we say that person is acting out the story of Santa and they can still have their fun with it.

        I do agree with Jonathan Blake and share his views. That maybe we’d be better off focusing on doing great things instead of experiencing great things. Or at least have less emphasis on the experiencing part otherwise it is kind of self indulging. Have the narratives, just don’t treat them as real. Because as much as people are in control, I’ve seen enough people who previously claimed no belief in the supernatural end up telling me later on that they now worship (insert deity) or now believe in fairies. *shakes head* This is something that I can’t brush aside as uncommon. Not that I don’t wish them happiness in their pursuits, its something that is still a factor in how deities and myth are approached. That the imagination can cause the belief of something being real and can do so highly effectively past the context of “suspending belief” in narrative is not something to turn a blind eye to, and I think it detrimental to ignore. Like Jonathan said, smart people who think they can’t be duped are the conman’s favorite mark.

  3. March 18, 2012 7:02 pm

    B. T.,

    There is a great deal of congruence between this post, and a recent series of four posts on my site, titled “The Idea of God.” You’ve done a cleaner job of articulating your ideas, though.

  4. March 18, 2012 9:01 pm

    B. T., wonderful essay. There’s so much worthy of further discussion. I agree that the combination of the lack of an objective referent and a web of rich associations is what makes the word “god” so powerful. For this reason, it is a word that can calls us to be open to new experiences (while for others it obviously is used in the opposite way, to control and limit experience).

    I especially enjoyed your discussion of the role of suspension of disbelief. You wrote: “We have to want to be enchanted by it [the word 'god'].” The idea of letting ourselves be “enchanted” by a word is great and worthy of an essay in itself. And I appreciate that you distinguished a willing temporary suspension of disbelief and a permanent literalism. I agree with you and with Thomas that it’s important not to surrender terms to literalists.

    I also think the role of narrative is worth exploring further, and I wonder if there are any insights to be drawn from Christian narrative theology (something I know very little about).

  5. March 18, 2012 10:05 pm

    You know, I just thought about how a similar discussion is going on the UU generally about what the former UU President Bill Sinkford and others have called the need for a “language of reverse”. He had argued that UUs have abandoned religious language to others to define and thereby surrendered a powerful resource. I like how you described the need to “subvert the literalist dominance”.

  6. March 20, 2012 4:09 pm

    I wish I’d had this reference handy yesterday, when my four-year-old daughter asked me if the Tooth Fairy was “real.”

    Seriously, though, I appreciate all the thought, and heart, that went into this.

  7. Rua Lupa permalink
    March 22, 2012 5:06 pm

    The third point on Rich Associations of sacredness, ultimate questions (e.g. why are we here), and a relation to moral values (how we live our lives) automatically puts me in mind of religion or folklore/myth instead, and have a difficult time associating ultimate questions and moral values with gods – especially ultimate questions. Gods have little to do with ultimate questions, and are virtually only involved in moral values if they decreed a certain behaviour or thing is moral or immoral. The god speak doesn’t make these particular associations automatic unless speaking of a specific deity that has them.

    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.

    Or a disassociation with the real world (not inferring that is the only outcome, just one possible outcome)

    I don’t understand the sixth point.

    The relations between humans and the rest of the world is part of what I volunteer doing. I’ve done educational workshops to help people relate to creatures that they otherwise find no value in, or repulsive for one reason or another. Most of the time it is because they just don’t know much about them.

    The hardest is when educating on a species that people are determined to annihilate – usually ranchers or farmers vs wolves and other predators, because their investment in stock is threatened.

    To learn that these creatures have families and life concerns, just go about it a little differently, helps us relate and bridges that gap. They begin to learn and respect these creatures and even become inspired by the way they do things. Relationships develop with respect to who they are, and learn to work with the creature’s different way of doing things can help us live in co-existence.

    Anthropomorphizing is anthropocentric, no matter how you slice it (yes it can cause a psychological response from humans, not denying that – still human centered). There is so much lost when doing that, people begin to think of these creatures as human instead of respecting them as their true form. There grows an expectation for them to relate back to us as human, and that is a problem. Too many people come to harm when thinking powerful creatures are able to relate to us on a human level. And likewise, too many vulnerable creatures get hurt because they can’t relate to us on a human level.

    This way of relating to other lifeforms is one of the hurdles I have to face when educating people that doing so causes more harm than good. Another hurdle is symbolisms – ‘trickster’ ‘death bringer’ ‘bad luck’ and so on. They are not these things and to portray them as such gives them a bad name and a reputation they don’t deserve. The same for positive symbolisms, because that means we relate to them for only that reason and ignore the other things they require acknowledgement of for their well being. Or just because you only associate them with good luck, you can try to bring that creature in to your home to that creatures detriment. Either being habituated, or becoming ill, or both. Example: people giving humming birds Splenda because we think that because it is better for us, it should be better for them. Humming birds began to die because of lack of what they require for nutrition.

    In my experience it is better to relate to earth and other lifeforms as they are so they receive the proper treatment on the level that they require. Vets and other professionals whose work involves proper care of life share the same message.

    The best way that leads you to a loving, grateful, and responsible relationship with the earth may not be the easiest or exciting way. But it works.

    The term ‘god’ does not automatically make it anthropomorphized. I know of many gods and goddesses that are purely in a form of a different animal. God simply implies beyond natural or normal. Wolf gods for example are able to do things beyond normal wolves and can have different roles from typical wolves. Such as Teacher, Protector, Path Finder and so on.

    That said. The seventh point is what draws me. I wish to understand this phenomenon more and am wary of of its use in ritual, as I feel ritual is the easiest way to cause literalist beliefs. It is a bag of mixed feelings and can see, and have seen the benefits that narrative has. This is where I don’t object to the use of “god” – in narrative.

    In ritual I feel it can be tricky to navigate. As when someone steps from the theater and speaks of a movie we all know it is a story. Yet, when people step out of ritual and speak of their experiences with it, it is wondered if you mean that you were speaking with or received a message from a literal being, and not just a story. In ritual you are not just receiving the story as an audience, you are acting it out. It is more powerful that way, which can be good and bad. For example, when a chant is lead, who ever is leading the chant can lead the line of thoughts. It is a form of mob mind. It is easy to see in protests when a leading voice shouts something, and all members repeat it. Because of social pressure it can cause people to act in a way that they would not normally, as they are already saying something that they may have not agreed with. Depending on how ritual is conducted it falls in a spectrum of results between really good and beneficial to really bad and harmful. In that time of suspending belief in ritual, you are always in charge, but you also have more social pressure.

    How does a naturalistic ritual use gods then? From what I see, it can always be done with people reenacting a story as “actors” and thats great. When it steps outside of a narrative role, that’s where it can easily fall out of being a naturalistic ritual. For movies and plays you always see the credits or bowing after the play of who played who. So in a naturalistic ritual a program or a bowing introduction at the end can do that. If a ritual were to be conducted, and the actors always referred to as their ritual role, then it can cause a continued suspended belief outside of narrative.

    Lets use an example of playing a video game and you are in control of what your character does which affects the outcome. When you speak of the game you say that while playing (insert game) you went and did all these things. That is all true in the context of the game. When you do a ritual and speak of playing this character in (insert ritual) you went and did all these things. Which is also true in the context of the ritual. Yet, when speaking of being affected by the characters in the ritual outside of the context of ritual would fall into literal belief. When this character guides your thoughts and actions for example as opposed being inspired by this character’s narrative. Like saying the story of Avatar inspired you. Not that Jake Sully guides your thoughts and actions. Praying would fall into literal belief, as it is outside a narrative context, as would other sorts of activities. So long as the ritual is telling a story, it can be naturalistic, outside of that it is falls out of naturalism. It helps to ask yourself if you could do the same thing with a unicorn or leprechaun without coming off as worshiping it and believing them to be real. And that maybe it has less to do with God-speak and more to do with myth or folklore speak.

    You don’t always need anthropomorphizing, you can just use the same things you care about to relate to things, like having a family to care for or defending yourself – folklore/myth is great at doing that without requiring anthropomorphism. I find anthropomorphizing is most useful for more abstract thinking and relating. Yet, I think that there is too much focus on this particular matter when it comes to having a naturalistic religion. Perhaps there should be more focus on folklore/myth in general. How it is made and effects people. Vladimir Propp’s book Morphology of the Folktale is something I look forward to reading that could greatly aid HP and its goal of mythology for the 21st century.

    • March 25, 2012 4:15 am

      MODERATOR’S NOTE: Copied and pasted material from previous comments will be considered spam and deleted from here on out.

      Rua, I know you are doing it for a reason, but come on… don’t you think this was long enough without the copied and pasted repeat material?

      And a comment by you on your most recent article “Understanding word use…” was completely copied and pasted. This is downright insulting. Do not waste our time. If your previous comments sufficiently answered our questions, we would not ask the questions we ask.

      Further copied and pasted comments will be deleted automatically.

      • Rua Lupa permalink
        March 25, 2012 11:03 am

        I find it difficult to see how it is insulting. That was posted a long time back and on an entirely different article. I don’t expect people who haven’t seen past posts to know it, and this may be the first time they’ve come across it. I can understand the copy and paste problem on the same article which isn’t whats happening here. Again, that post was made a long time after the article was posted. There was no response to it and I’d be essentially saying the exact same thing here, and would ultimately be repeating myself just not the exact same sentences. If there were responses to the original post (that was only a part of it) then I can see how bringing it up again would be a problem. It is still relevant and hasn’t been discussed in any way. So how is it then a waste of your time?

        Just because a post is long doesn’t make it any less valuable. Sure people may be less inclined to read it, it doesn’t make it something to out right dismiss.

        “If your previous comments sufficiently answered our questions, we would not ask the questions we ask.” There were no responses to it, that is why it was brought up again.

        That is why I did it the Moderator’s Note has been noted – won’t happen again :)

      • Rua Lupa permalink
        March 25, 2012 1:21 pm

        Perhaps instead of having blog comments treated as a forum, why not make a forum as that is what is being done?

  8. Maggie Jay Lee permalink
    March 23, 2012 2:31 pm

    Great piece B. T. When you think about it, the “human” in one form or another is the central object of reverence in all traditional religions. Religions typically either focus on gods or spirits that are portrayed as possessing human-like consciousness, if not also human-like form, or religions focus on a human prophet or guru like in Buddhism. In my opinion even in naturalistic pantheism, there is often a weak anthropomorphism. When pantheists talk about being a part of nature or being the consciousness of nature (nature can think because we think and we are a part of nature), I think they are making the analogy that nature is like an organism, that we are part, product and participant in a living, dynamic immortal being, the Universe. One could just as easily say we are a part (a rather small, insignificant part) of a machine, a thing that operates on unconscious mechanical laws, and the only reason we even have a consciousness is because it helped our ancestor’s genes to replicate. There is a reason we find the former more compelling than the latter, and I think you made that case very well

    I definitely agree that we should not abandon the rich, invocative symbolic language of religion. But I don’t think we necessarily need the word G-O-D or Zeus or Thor words. A lot of the original god names where descriptive names. What makes a name the name of that which is divine is how it is used.

    • March 23, 2012 6:28 pm

      >”invocative”

      Nice coining of a word. I like it!

      >But I don’t think we necessarily need the word G-O-D or Zeus or Thor words. A lot of the original god names where descriptive names.

      Fair enough. The traits of the words are the most important. Other words may serve. :-)

      P.S. By the way, for some reason your comments always need moderator approval. Normally, after a person comments once they are automatically posted. But for some reason, WordPress asks me to approve yours every time. Maybe it’s something to do with how you are logging in when you post? It’s no matter, but if you are wondering why your comments take so long to show up, that’s why.

    • Rua Lupa permalink
      March 24, 2012 3:21 pm

      I love your posts Maggie Jay Lee! They are always so thought provoking :D

      I agree that it is more how the word is used that makes the impact. So my thought is that it is not necessarily god-speak, but religious-speak, or sacred-speak. I like the point on that a lot of original deity names were descriptive, and I’ve found a lot more appeal to those names.

  9. April 12, 2012 1:12 am

    BT, all I can say is this is an article I will be bookmarking and frequently referring people to read. Thank you my friend.

  10. July 1, 2013 11:01 pm

    I found this post to be very interesting, but I think the portion about how suspension of disbelief persists much longer in myth than in art hit home for me.

    Our New Media class in my last college semester made a similar contrast between the narratological immersiveness of film and the ludological immersiveness of games and virtual worlds. Film, as an example of passive media, is limited by the sense of “authorship”, the linearity of its direction, the internal duration of time in the story world, and the ultimacy of its enjoyment at the roll of the credits. Games and virtual worlds, on the other hand, are the exact opposite of films’ traits: hyperlinear, player-controlled duration, player-controlled contribution and expansion to the internal space.

    Games and virtual worlds are increasingly immersive to the senses and enjoyable on an indefinite basis; myth, as applied in one’s life, also has these qualities, and is also just as hyperlinear, IMO, in how it is applied and extended to one’s life in order to fill narratological gaps (rich association?).

    Perhaps this is where ritual (myth) and gameplay intersect? And is this a classic example of lacking that border between the natural and the imaginative, except that we have better tools to make that blend happen for more people?

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