One of the big roadblocks I ran into when I first looked at paganism a while back, and which I am starting to face again in my OBOD training, is the issue of deities. There are times when prayers and rituals to deities are suggested and I am left scratching my head wondering how as an atheist I should respond. In my private practice, I am happy to re-write the rituals slightly, feeling that is in the spirit of OBOD, as each member is free to hold their own beliefs and discard others. But in group ritual, I will not be able to do that. I also think there is probably something valuable to learn from the course as it is, and want to work around it. So here’s my current take on the whole ‘gods/goddesses’ thing:
The way I see it, the Celtic deities are characters in stories. They are not actual beings existing in the real world outside of the myths they are part of. This is not to deny their importance to Druidry. Stories are important. Stories are a human universal and they connect us to each other and our past. Stories impart wisdom and teach life lessons. Stories can reveal ‘truths’ that facts alone cannot. I think I can relate to the gods and goddesses in this way and learn from them without believing they exist. I know many (most?) Druids are theists of some sort or other, and if that works for them, then I think it’s just grand. But as I mentioned before, I don’t do belief. I don’t have faith and I don’t particularly see the point of it. Reality is enough for me!
At risk of sounding like I’m trivialising the issue (and revealing myself to be a huge nerd) allow me to make a comparsion: Gonzo from the Muppets. Yes, the blue-nosed, chicken-loving stuntman himself. you see, Gonzo is a character who resonates with me a lot; the weirdo, the outsider, the misfit. In his development from Season 1 of The Muppet Show to his discovering his alien family in Muppets From Space, I see a journey from self-doubt, fear and depression to hope, friendship and belonging. I find this deeply inspiring. But I know that however much certain Gonzo scenes or songs might move me to tears, Gonzo is made of foam and felt, and wiggles around on Dave Goelz’s (very talented) hand.
The Celtic deities are perhaps similar (albeit maybe slightly less likely to shoot themselves out of a cannon while reciting Hamlet to the tune of Flight of the Bumblebee). The myths can be powerful stories, but they are still fictional ones. In ritual I am willing to ‘suspend disbelief’ just as I do when reading a book or watching a film. I am happy to enter into the immersive experience, but once the ritual is done, I return to reality. The gods and goddesses live in our minds only and we can carry their inspiration within us.
I think the myths are symbols, signposts, guides. Pre-scientific societies invented them to come to terms with an uncontrollable, dangerous and unknown natural world. They are anthropomorphic personifications of natural forces; thunder gods, earth goddesses, tree spirits. I think we miss the point if we get hung up on theology and arguments about religion. It seems pretty clear to me that all gods and goddesses ever worshipped are human creations. What is important is that they point beyond themselves to the awesome powers of the natural world, the vast universe of which we are a part.
As a trainee Druid, I hope to be able to find inspiration, Awen, in the Celtic myths and their cast of gods, goddesses, heroes and spirits. As an atheist, I understand these things to be mythology not fact. It is a delicate balance and a difficult path to walk, but nothing worthwhile ever came easily.