This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart, Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University.
The first way to think about the god and goddess is realistic. This is theological realism: the god and goddess are both real things. They exist. A Wiccan who thinks like this is ontologically committed to the god and the goddess. Wiccan theological realism says that the god and goddess are spiritual persons existing in the natural universe.
This way of thinking about the god and goddess is not contrary to atheism in the most narrow sense. Atheism, in the most narrow sense, is the denial of any theistic deity. A theistic deity is a personal being who transcends the universe and who also acts within the universe. The Wiccan god and goddess are personal and are typically represented as having human-like bodies. However, they do not transcend the universe – on the contrary, they are entirely immanent. If transcendence is an essential aspect of theism, then the god and goddess are not theistic deities. The god and goddess are not said to be super-natural; they are said to be parts or aspects of nature. But so what. An atheist in the wider sense rejects all gods and goddesses, and rejects the Wiccan god and goddess.
An atheist who is committed to rationalism is bound to reject the existence of the Wiccan god and goddess. There is no empirical justification for the thesis that there are spiritual persons existing in the natural universe. Of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. All that can be said is that there is no evidence for the existence of any spiritual people in nature. Hence it is irrational to believe that they exist. To affirm the existence of the god or goddess as spiritual people in nature is to make a profound cognitive mistake. It is also to violate the Wiccan insistence on naturalness. Here Wicca contradicts itself. Wiccan theological realism is self-contradictory; it is absurd.
And not all the objections to Wiccan theological realism come from rationalism. Another objection is also theological (or, perhaps better, it is atheological). It seems clear that the god and goddess are the result of erroneous personification. Wiccans incorrectly project human male and female forms on to natural objects (such as manhood or womanhood, which are immanent universals). But the atheological error happens when Wiccans treat these projections as sacred, holy, or divine. The error is the elevation of human forms to the level of divinity; it is the deification of that which should not be deified.
This erroneous deification is idolatry. An idol is an object of perverse worship. The perversion is based on the false projection of a higher degree of sacredness or holiness to something that has a lower degree of sacredness or holiness. For some religious naturalists, these degrees of sacredness are based on degrees of universality. The religious naturalism presented here recognizes the existence of a scientifically justified genus-species taxonomy of types of objects. And it further affirms that these types are immanent universals; they are universals in nature. So the genus-species taxonomy is a hierarchy of immanent universals, with the most generic universal at the top and the most specific at the bottom. The levels in this taxonomic hierarchy correspond to degrees of sacredness, so that higher universals are more sacred. Thus humanity is more sacred than manhood or womanhood; life is more sacred than humanity; and being-itself is maximally sacred.
Idolatry happens when an incorrect degree of sacredness is assigned to some immanent universal (to some natural power of being). Every human animal does indeed have some degree of sacredness; manhood and womanhood have higher degrees of sacredness; but humanity, animality, life, and being-itself have higher degrees. To say something is a god or goddess seems to be to say that it has the same degree of sacredness as being-itself. And that is an axiological perversion; it is immoral. Worse, this perversion is based on an idol that the worshiper has made in his or her own image. Worship of a idol whose form is human is self-worship. It is the elevation of the self to the status of being-itself. This is the worst type of idolatry. It is a profound moral or axiological mistake.
An alternative to Wiccan theological realism is to treat the god and goddess merely as myths. On this interpretation, they are merely symbols for aspects of natural creative power. They are not objects of worship. Cunningham reports that “some Wiccans probably wouldn’t even say that they worship the Goddess and the God. We don’t bow down to the deities; we work with them to create a better world.” (2004: 19)
At a very high level of abstraction, Sabin characterizes the god and goddess as symbols for two aspects of natural creative power (natura naturans, being-itself as the power to be). She says that “The God represents, among other things, power unmanifest; the spark of life. The Goddess gives this power form” (2011: 117). We experience these two aspects of natural creative power within our selves as will and reason. On this interpretation, we experience the god as will and the goddess as reason. The will is formless power while reason gives that power form; power unmanifest is formless while power manifest is formed. All power necessarilyl manifests itself and thereby takes on form; all form necessarily seeks actualization and therefore becomes invested with power. These ideas appear in Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Peirce. They are a way of building an atheistic metaphysics (which will have to be discussed elsewhere).
An untrained mind, working at a crude level of intelligence which demands that all things be personified, thinks of will and reason as people, as spirits. But that is idolatry, which is easy enough to overcome. More mature minds can see will and reason as entirely inhuman and impersonal aspects of natural creative power. The will is the dynamic aspect of natural creative power while the reason is the structural aspect of that power. The will is found in the truth of abstract axioms and the energy of physical systems, while the reason is found in the logos (the axioms of logic and mathematics, the laws of any universe). For minds chained in Plato’s Cave, the will and reason look like people. For more mature minds, the idolatry falls away, and the god and goddess merely symbolize these abstract aspects of natural creative power, the ontological force of being-itself. Positivists and materialists, as well as some nominalists, will despise all this metaphysics; however, since it is non-theistic, atheists are free to agree to it (or not). Anyone who wants their scientific naturalism to be metaphysically well-grounded is also free to agree to it (or not).
At a high level of concreteness, the god and goddess are merely aesthetic or literary forms, they are representations of an idealized man and an idealized woman, of the Eternal Feminine and the Eternal Masculine. They are merely symbols for natural forces (the Green Man or the Harvest Mother are such symbols). They can be used to visually or poetically illustrate the ways that human animals participate in the earthly ecosystem. They can be used to artistically display the ways that we participate, as men and women, as mammals, as animals, as organisms, and as material things, in natural existence – in being-itself. They can be used in dramas, plays, and public festivals. But they are not deities.
On both the highly abstract and the highly concrete interpretation, they become icons rather than idols. Strictly speaking, a religious naturalist of the type described here can endorse the use of icons to illustrate the ways that we participate in being-itself. Icons can be used to arouse us to do good, for humanity and for all life on earth. But there is always a danger. Donald Crosby advocates an atheistic religion of nature that “does not speak of God, gods, goddesses, or animating spirits of any sort, even if these terms are used metaphorically or symbolically, or are viewed as aspects, potencies, or processes of nature” (2008: 5). The danger is that symbols and metaphors all too quickly become taken literally. Nevertheless, on the type of religious naturalism sketched here, an atheistic nature-religion can use human and natural forms as icons, so long as their iconic role is stressed and any tendencies towards idolatry are repudiated. Still, it’s dangerous.
Crosby, D. (2008) Living With Ambiguity: Religious Naturalism and the Menace of Evil. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Cunningham, S. (1988) Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. St. Paul, MI: Llewellyn Publications.
Sabin, T. (2011) Wicca for Beginners: Fundamentals of Philosophy & Practice (For Beginners (Llewellyn’s)). Woodbury, MI: Llewellyn Publications.