A Skeptic’s Guide to Gods and Spirits

A Skeptic’s Guide to Gods and Spirits June 1, 2015

Animas River - Colorado - 2009We discovered some interesting things in the CUUPS Revisioning process. Most folks who are affiliated with CUUPS (the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans) have a strong connection to Nature. This isn’t surprising – Unitarians and Universalists have long had a reverence for Nature, perhaps best expressed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s quote “I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.”

What I did not expect to find was an interest in Gods and spirits. Even more surprising was that 60% of respondents believe Gods and spirits are real beings who exist independently of humans (the other 40% see them as metaphors for forces of Nature). When I read the free-form comments (which I cannot post – we promised to keep them confidential) I understood a little better. Many people shared stories of experiences that could be described as mystical, magical, otherworldly, or simply religious.

This being a group of UUs, you might expect a wide diversity of interpretations of these experiences. Instead, the surveys showed that most UU Pagans are very uncertain what to make of their experiences. This leads to a reluctance to discuss them, which only adds to the tentativeness with which they’re examined.

It’s not hard to see why. We live in a thoroughly materialist culture – only literal, tangible interpretations are considered possible. Anything that even hints at the supernatural (one of my least favorite words) is dismissed as delusion or fantasy. This is especially true for UUs, many of whom are refugees from religions where we were told we had to believe things our good sense tells us aren’t true.

Skepticism comes easily. Many of us are reluctant to discuss our spiritual experiences for fear of being dismissed, ridiculed, or even shunned, sometimes to the point we question if our experiences ever happened.

But they did happen. They are real, they are powerful, and they are waiting for us to figure out what they mean. What can skeptics do when they counter Gods and spirits?

Cherish your experiences. Whatever they may be, experiences of Gods and spirits don’t happen all the time. Part of their value comes from their rarity, and from the fact that while we can do things to encourage and facilitate them, we cannot command or control them. Gods and spirits show up on their own timetables and for their own reasons.

These experiences are a glimpse into a greater reality, even if that reality is only internal (though as a devotional polytheist, I think that reality is external). Cherish and appreciate them for the special occasions they are.

Understand that people have had these experiences for at least as long as we’ve been human. And they continue today. Read the stories of our ancestors. Read the work of anthropologists, historians, and religious scholars. Talk to people in a wide variety of religions. Your specific experiences are unique to you, but this general class of experiences is common.

It’s just that our society dismisses anything that sounds the least bit supernatural. We’re intelligent, well-educated, sophisticated Westerners – we have a reputation to maintain. So we ignore things that don’t fit neatly into the mainstream view of the world.

One of the reasons I keep this blog is so others can see that yes, intelligent, well-educated people really do have these experiences, and we don’t all don’t dismiss them out of hand.

Ignore unhelpful opinions. The atheist who insists all religion is made-up garbage? Smile and ignore him. The fundamentalist who says you’re dealing with demons? Thank her for her concern and go back to what you were doing.

You don’t have to unfriend these people – not on social media and certainly not in real life. It’s good to have friends from a variety of religious backgrounds, and hey, if my Christian friends can deal with my polytheism, you can put up with your friends’ religions. But you have to make your own decisions just as they did.

Look for ordinary explanations. Sometimes a bird flying over you is simply trying to get from one place to another. Sometimes that strange feeling means you need to eat something. Dismissing ordinary explanations because they’re mundane and boring is just as much of a mistake as dismissing extraordinary explanations because the mainstream culture insists they’re impossible.

photo by Cyn Qoaad
photo by Cyn Qoaad

Consider the possible interpretations. Perhaps your experience of a God is your higher self calling you to live in alignment with your values. Perhaps it’s an aspect of the Divine offering reunion with ultimate reality. Perhaps it’s one of the many Gods speaking to you for Their own reasons.

Not all possibilities are equally probable. There is strong evidence to believe fundamentalist Christian interpretations are wrong. The Flying Spaghetti Monster is a parody. Hollywood magic only exists on-screen. Those who insist that if you don’t agree with them you have to believe anything are oversimplifying a complicated universe, but don’t waste your time on interpretations that are almost certainly false.

What speaks to your soul? What resonates with the core of your being? What whispers that it must be true, not because it’s easy or convenient or because it’s what you want to hear, but because it challenges you to live more fully? What tells you that reality is greater than yourself? What calls you into relationship with other beings, other people, other creatures? What do you really think is true?

What would you do if it was true? Imagine, for a moment, that there really are many Gods of immense but still limited power and scope. Assume, for now, that your ancestors are alive and concerned with the well-being of their physical and spiritual descendants. Imagine that the spirits of the land, sky, and sea are real, sentient beings with their own interests and agency.

If all that was true, what would you do? Celebrate? Pray? Meditate? Study? Make offerings? Sit in contemplation and communion? Would you consider Their wants and needs in your plans? Would you try to live by Their values and embody Their virtues? What would you do?

Now go do it.

It doesn’t matter if you aren’t certain it’s all true. In the end, there is no certainty with religious matters. But that’s OK – Paganism isn’t about what you believe, it’s about what you do.

Examine the results. Are you happier for your practicing? Less fearful? More connected and less alone? Do you sense a purpose where before there was none? Are you contributing to building a better world here and now, and a better future for our descendants?

Good religion will not make your life easier. If you take it seriously, it may very well make your life harder. Walking through life half asleep is a lot easier than living wide awake, aware of the world’s problems and committed to doing something to make them better.

Good religion won’t make your life easier, but it will make your life more meaningful.

Hold on loosely. The ultimate nature of Gods and spirits remains a mystery. Like all mysteries we may know them experientially and intuitively, but we can never know them intellectually. As we have more experiences, as we compare and contrast them with others who have had similar experiences, and as we carefully contemplate them, our interpretations will change. Practice deeply but hold loosely.

I can tell you how I’ve interpreted my experiences, but I can’t tell you how to interpret yours. All any of us can do is point you toward a process by which you can examine your experiences and come to a conclusion that is meaningful and helpful for you.

The survey says many of us have experiences of Gods and spirits. What are you going to do with yours?

Lake Tahoe 2015

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