In my bedroom, there is a statue that my grandparents gave me when they returned from Egypt. They didn’t know when they purchased it from a street trader’s stall that the alabaster statue of Bast would end up sharing a shelf of my bookcase with an offering bowl, a pentacle, crystals and consecrated salt. I have a book into which I copy information, as I find more and more of it, on the many feline Goddesses that Egypt worshipped. In my book, there are also full moon dates, herbal uses, dream interpretations and runes.
I have an active part in the atheist and humanist assembly at school. My school email inbox has a folder dedicated to the extensive discussions I had with my Religious Studies teacher, in which I argued the case for there being no gods.
Neither of these sides of me is fake. I am not a “broom closeted” Pagan who must pretend to hold up her old atheist mentality, nor am I the sort of Witch who sets up an altar in her bedroom in order to shock her parents, while having little or no belief in or regard for the real faith and philosophy.
I am writing this essay mainly so I can add one more opinion on Deity to the huge spectrum of beliefs, all the way from hard polytheism to equally hard atheism that can be combined with Witchcraft. To explain it to you, readers, I am going to start with giving you a scenario:
Every year, Years 1 and 2 at Oak Hill School put on a play for parents to watch, and the teacher has said that everyone must have a speaking role. However, Jimmy is utterly terrified at the prospect of standing up in front of bazillions of scary grown-ups and trying to remember his words. Jimmy learns his lines, and practices them a lot. But he still worries that he will forget them on the night. He finds a little Smurf figurine, and he tells the Smurf his problem. And then, in the way of children’s pretend games, Jimmy says in the voice of the Smurf: “Don’t worry Jimmy, take me with you and I’ll whisper the words to you so you don’t forget.” On the night of the performance, Jimmy feels confident that he will be OK, because the Smurf will tell him his lines if he forgets. And because thoughts like “Will I forget my lines?” aren’t taking up all the space in his head, he is able to think clearly and remember his lines.
Did the Smurf, an inanimate piece of plastic, really whisper to Jimmy? Of course not. But to Jimmy, the Smurf is a living being, who helps him when he needs it. And I, having experienced and utilized this “mental placebo” to great effect, do not want to deny its existence. I have, instead of sweeping it away as nonsense or gobbledygook in the fashion of many atheists, learned how to manipulate my psyche using deities and spirits of my own creation. I believe that they exist, in that they have real effects on my life, but at the same time I believe that they are impossible to exist outside of my mind and therefore, in the objectively viewed Universe, are not real.
Magic to me is meditation and visualization. I think everyone, or the vast majority of people on this site can identify with that. And of course, like any magic it requires mundane work to be done alongside it. But it puts me in a positive frame of mind so that I think, “yes, I can do this.” The simple act of visualizing where I want to be helps me see more clearly how to do it and that makes my goal seem more attainable.
The real conflict here is not how I can perform magic without believing in the gods as independent beings, as there are plenty of atheist Witches around if you look hard enough. The most difficult question to answer properly, but unfortunately the one I am most commonly asked is “But if you don’t believe They’re real, why do you set up an altar to Them?” After all, if the gods and spirits I deal with are nothing but figments of my imagination, a complex illusion I have set out to trick myself into being able to change my circumstances, why do I feel the need to honour Them as I do?
The quick answer is: I don’t. My altar is not a place where I “honor” Deity as such. My altar is a place where I store physical representations of my mental constructs, a place where it is easier to slip into the meditative, “mental edit mode”, if you will, because it is easier for my mind to leap from a physical object to a mental image than it is to create the image from scratch.
Once I have entered the semi dreamlike state of meditation before my altar, I can alter the world that surrounds me as I see fit. I set in motion the sequence of events that will hopefully lead me to manifest that change in my own life. Sometimes, it is too hard for me to do. Not all magic works. But if my life does take a downward turn, I have this mental arena of my ideals where I can go to relax. There I might form the Deity that permeates the psychological world into a comforting, motherly figure such as Bast who will take my troubles away. Or I could seek the counsel of war goddess Sekhmet, and her fiery strength and wisdom can inspire me to fight back against people putting me down.
So if my mind is creating these goddesses for itself, why do I use figures that have been made for me? Why don’t I create gods that are tailor-made for each situation? My answer is this: it works better. It is much easier to create and understand a character that has been described in countless myths and legends and that has statues and depictions readily available, than it is to make a new one when faced with a blank canvass.
My intention when I opened up MS Word to write this essay was to explain something that fellow Pagans, Witches, and atheists have been asking me to explain for a long time. It was simply to put one more thread into the rich tapestry of Pagan beliefs. It was not to imply that theistic Pagans or Witches are in any way inferior or definitively wrong.
I do not know that my beliefs are correct. They are simply the best I can make with the information available to my mind: that magic and talking with Deity has a tangible effect on my life, and that to my mind at least, the concept of objectively perceivable, independent gods is logically impossible. For all I know, I am living my life blind to the truth, and therefore I think no less of people who are theistic.