This essay was originally published at Pagan Pathways.
Pagan theology can be extremely complex. Many Pagans recognise a variety of independent deities, known as polytheism. Others subscribe to henotheism, which is rather similar to polytheism, except the focus is only on a singular and supreme deity – a sort of chief god above other gods. Other Pagans subscribe to pantheism, a belief system that perceives God and the universe as one and the same. Other Pagans are monistic, a non-dualistic approach that is not dissimilar to pantheism, and which places no distinction between spirit and matter. Some Pagans perceive God as immanent, rather than transcendent in a monotheistic sense, with lesser deities and spiritual beings believed to be aspects or emanations of the One. In other words, there is said to be a continuity of “Divine Substance” (for want of a better term) from the top to the bottom. There are also Goddess worshippers who identify only with a female deity, said to be the Earth or the natural world, and who have little or no interest in transcendent-based theology, although there are exceptions to this approach.
But what all these various systems have in common is a belief in Deity, or deities, in one form or another. A cursory glance at the complexity of the issue with its conflicting interpretations reveals that any attempt to make reliable sense of the universe and the world in which we live by theological reasoning or mythological explanations presents profound difficulties to those who are inclined towards rationality and scepticism.
Our distant ancestors, all credit to them, were equally fascinated and intrigued by what they saw when gazing skywards, and attempted to explain the cosmos and its origin within the restrictions of their own understanding. It seemed perfectly logical and rational to them that an intelligent Creator must have designed the universe and all it contains, for how could existence be explained otherwise? In European culture the idea of a Divine Architect eventually developed, predictably resulting in an image of God equipped with a celestial drawing board upon which the Grand Plan was drawn up.
Modern research in cosmology and quantum physics, however, reveals an entirely different sort of universe to the orderly, mechanical, and relatively parochial one envisaged by the Newtonian world-view. Modern science tells us that the universe is a very strange place indeed, and all educated individuals nowadays are aware that it is huge. But even so, a realistic perception of its size is extremely challenging for most humans to comprehend. According to current estimates, cosmologists tell us that the universe is approximately ninety two billion light years in diameter. In other words, if we could travel at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) it would take us ninety two billion years to cross from one end of the universe to the other. But even if that were possible, we might never reach our destination because observation suggests that the universe is expanding. But what it is expanding into is the big question. Can the universe expand indefinitely and therefore potentially be infinite? On the other hand, if the universe eventually came up against an impassable barrier restricting any further expansion what would constitute such a barrier and what could lie beyond it?
It should readily be appreciable from this data that the traditional idea of a pre-existing, transcendent, and anthropomorphic creator/designer – one who made us in his or her image – is no longer tenable. Such a human-centric “Being” cannot possibly be responsible for the complexity and diversity of the natural world. Fortunately from a Pagan atheist perspective, the concept of deity in any shape or form is not a prerequisite to acknowledging the sacredness of Nature. In fact, such deity concepts are nothing more than human constructs – graven images, so to speak, and which constitute a major handicap in our quest for genuine enlightenment and esoteric understanding.
What then, are we to make of a deity to whom gender is attributed? Nowadays many women have turned exclusively to Goddess worship because the concept of a male deity, they claim, fails to meet feminine needs. An example of this is expressed in the following quote from Mary Daly: “If God is male, then male is God. The divine patriarch castrates women as long as he is allowed to live on in the human imagination.”
The flaw in such reasoning quickly becomes apparent simply by swapping the gender bias in Daly’s statement, as paraphrased: “If Goddess is female, then female is Goddess. The divine matriarch castrates men as long as she is allowed to live on in the human imagination”.
Focus on gender, therefore, whether male or female, is clearly a recipe for conflict and exclusivity. But no matter how objectively, rationally, and sensitively we try to approach the issue of gender-based spirituality it is potentially provocative and controversial. This is because much emotion is invested in the feminist belief that women are victims of patriarchal dominance and this tends to find expression through a sense of the “other”, resulting in the demonising of men, rejecting their male god and replacing it with one made in the likeness of females. It is true that throughout history men have exploited women – but men have always exploited their own sex as well. It is a flaw in the human condition, rather than the result of gender, that has led to such a deplorable state of affairs.
To the atheist Pagan, however, the issue of gender in “spiritual” matters should be irrelevant because Ultimate Reality transcends biological differences. This does not mean that, in dispensing with god and goddess concepts, the atheist Pagan also dispenses with, for lack of better terms, feminine and masculine energies. What it does mean is that feminine and masculine energies are recognised as intrinsically a part of every human being, regardless of one’s biological sex. In this context that which is described as either feminine or masculine simply relates to polarity, which is also a feature of electric current, for example. A car battery functions by polarity. It is self-contained – gender neutral, if you like – and possesses both negative and positive terminals. Disconnect any one terminal, negative or positive, and the battery cannot function. Consequently a person of either sex who seeks to become a fully integrated human being must develop and harness the negative (feminine) and positive (masculine) energies within all of us.
It cannot be stressed enough, however, that in this context the terms negative and positive are not qualitative; they do not imply either inferiority or superiority. They are as equal as Yin and Yang. Nonetheless, one can readily see why women are offended when the description “negative” is applied to that which is feminine and the term “positive” applied to that which is masculine, and assume the classification is the result of male chauvinism. But the real reason has less to do with patriarchal prejudice and more to do with simple mathematics, as strange as that may seem.
The Ancient Greeks regarded the nine primary numerals as either feminine or masculine, and the reason for this was not arbitrary; it was based on the fact that when an odd number of pebbles or dots, for example, are arranged symmetrically one is left over. To maintain symmetry the additional pebble or dot was placed in the centre of the formation, and the Greeks saw this as symbolic of the phallus. Consequently the odd numbers were described as male. On the other hand, the even numbers when arranged in the same symmetrical pattern leave a space in the centre of the formation and this space was equated with the womb. Furthermore, odd numbers were considered active because when added to even numbers the result is always another odd or active number: 1+4 = 5, and 1+6 = 7 etc. On the other hand, adding a male number to another male number simply produces a female number: 1+1 = 2, 1+3 = 4 etc. and likewise adding female numbers together results in the same: 2+2 = 4, and 2+6 = 8.
What the Ancient Greeks extrapolated from this is that odd numbers, unlike even numbers, possess specific active and male generative qualities that reproduce more of the same when added to female numbers, and these so-called masculine and active qualities have tended unfortunately to imply superiority. Number 1, for example, is equated with being first (a winner or leader). The passive, so-called feminine numbers, on the other hand, easily lend themselves to be seen as less desirable and even inferior. Number 2 is secondary and equates to a runner-up. It also relates to second-hand, second-rate, second class, and represents duplicity, hence the term “speaking with forked tongue”. Number 2 also is associated with the Devil where he is frequently depicted with two horns and cloven feet. Although the Devil is said to be male, it once was believed in some Christian cultures that women were more predisposed to temptation by the Devil than were men, which indeed is an example of chauvinism. One can see, therefore, why various number descriptions exacerbated prejudice when attributed to human gender.
The nature of living things, of course, is not that simple in practise. Although one’s birth certificate will be clear-cut as regards one’s sex, individuals are a varied combination of both male and female influences and this is perfectly natural and should be recognised as such. Like the aforementioned car battery, we cannot function normally otherwise. In addition to that, some men are fairly “feminine” in nature, whereas some women are more “masculine” in nature. But feminine and masculine energies are indeed subtler than that. When a female is being assertive or taking control of her life, then she is displaying features that correspond to active qualities. Conversely, when a male is nurturing, empathic, or intuitive, then he is displaying features that correspond to passive qualities, which illustrates that human behaviour cannot be gender categorised in the way that the Greeks classified numbers. From an esoteric perspective, this means that no person should feel a need to manufacture a deity in his or her own image because every man and woman already possesses masculine/feminine qualities as a consequence of being human. How we seek to recognise, integrate and balance these polar energies within each and every one of us is, of course, all part of life’s demanding and challenging quest.