A version of this essay was originally published in “Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans” edited by John Halstead and published by Lulu, 2015. In light of some recent discussions about Paganism, faith and non-theism, it seemed appropriate to repost it here.
Myth and Meaning: A non-literal Pagan view of deity
“The phenomenon we call spirit depends on the existence of an autonomous primordial image which is universally present in the preconscious makeup of the human psyche”. -C.G. Jung, “The phenomenology of the spirit in fairytales”.
How can you be Pagan without believing in the gods?
This is a question frequently asked of atheist, agnostic and other non-theistic Pagans. In some corners of the Pagan community, the words “Pagan” and “Polytheist” are synonymous, and the idea of atheistic Pagans is literally unthinkable.
However, the Pagan community is, and has always been, diverse in its beliefs. One of the first books on Paganism I read, Paganism: an Introduction to Earth-Centered Religions, by Joyce and River Higginbotham, says:
“It’s not difficult to find statements made by both Pagans and non-Pagans that Pagans are polytheistic. This can be true, but it isn’t necessarily true. What is true for Paganism as a whole is that Pagans may believe anything they wish about Deity. Certain Pagan traditions may adopt specific beliefs, but those beliefs operate only within that tradition and do not carry over to Paganism as a whole”.
The apparently simple question “do you believe the gods exist?” requires some unpacking of the terms “believe”, “gods” and “exist”. Every Pagan is likely to have different ideas of what those words mean, ranging from a strong, devout faith in supernatural spirits, to a non-literal and provisional understanding of gods as ideas and archetypes that exist within human minds.
One popular concept of deity within Paganism, which is at least as common as Polytheism, is that of Pantheism. Influenced by the 17th century philosopher Spinoza, Pantheists assert that the divine is nature itself and there is no “supernatural” realm. For a Pantheistic Pagan, the words “god” and “nature” are equivalents. Spinoza himself often wrote “deus, sive natura” (“God, or nature”) to reinforce the idea that what we may call a “god” is simply another word for the majestic, awe-inspiring universe of which we are a part.
It isn’t a great leap to imagine that each of the gods and goddesses worshipped by ancient and modern cultures can be seen as a personification of an aspect of nature, and/or of our human experience in relation to it. Evidence from archaeology and the emerging science of evolutionary psychology suggests that the earliest form of “religion” may have been animism, whereby natural forces were considered to be imbued with consciousness and intent. Early humans, facing an often hostile world where the powers of land, sea and sky held life and death in their hands, would no doubt have revered these powers.
Gradually, as stories were told and retold around the fire, these animistic forces began to take recognisable forms. Emma Restall Orr writes: “Slowly, the gods were coming to be represented in more human forms: nature, including human nature, with its storms and wars, its famine and flood, its lusts and jealousies, was depicted in the tales”. Humans see the world through human eyes, and it is certainly easier to relate to a protective human-like god of thunder, such as Thor, than the wild power of the thunderstorm itself.
For some modern Pagans, however, Thor and the thunder are one. Rather than being literally a red-bearded hammer wielding “god of thunder”, Thor is the thunderstorm and the lightning and the rain in all its might and majesty. This view does not require us to believe, somewhat unscientifically, that thunder is really caused by Thor swinging his hammer, but it allows us to enter into the stories of Thor and in some deep, intuitive way feel his power expressed within, and as, the force of nature he represents.
This approach is espoused by some leading figures in modern Paganism. Hilmar örn Hilmarsson, Allsherjargoði (high priest) of the Icelandic Pagan organisation Ásatrúarfélagið, said “I don’t believe anyone believes in a one-eyed man who is riding about on a horse with eight feet. We see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology”.
Jung considered gods and spirits to be manifestations of archetypes in the collective unconscious: shared, primordial ideas from deep within the human psyche, concepts by which people think and understand themselves and the world around them. These archetypal concepts became embedded in stories as cultures and religions developed. In one sense, then, we can see the gods as characters in stories, from which we can draw important moral and practical lessons. This is not to relegate them to mere fiction, however. While we can learn from both the Eddas and Harry Potter, the difference between the two is that while the latter is fiction, the former is myth.
The word “myth” has unfortunate implications today, and there are some Polytheists who would be insulted and angry that their gods are “dismissed” as myth. In everyday language, myth has come to mean “false”. Conspiracy theorists and so-called sceptics denounce everything from evolution to climate change to the moon landings as “myths”, and new atheists use the term to mock religion as primitive superstition, but the word has a deeper and older meaning.
Myth is arguably the central feature of human culture. We are as much pan narrans, the storytelling ape, as we are homo sapiens, the wise man. Religious scholar Karen Armstrong writes: “In our scientific culture, we often have rather simplistic notions of the divine. In the ancient world, the ‘gods’ were rarely regarded as supernatural beings with discrete personalities, living a totally separate metaphysical existence. Mythology was not about theology, in the modern sense, but about human experience”.
Myth reveals truths that “never happened but always are”, to quote the 4th century Roman writer Sallustius. Myth is a sacred narrative that creates and expresses human relationship to the other-than-human world, the world of the wild, of gods and heroes, of Mother Earth and her creatures. When we as Pagans enter into the mythological landscape in meditation, ritual or magic, we weave that meaning into the fabric of our own lives.
Truth has been defined by Druid writer John Beckett as “that which is”, and meaning as “that which makes life worth living”, and it is this meaning that is encoded in myth.
In the never-ending and futile “science vs religion” or “theist vs atheist” arguments, people often swing to the extremes of either truth or meaning. Some religious people emphasise their particular faith’s form of meaning at the expense of truth, and end up believing in absurdities like six-day creationism as a result. On the other side of the coin, some atheists advocate pure, rational truth at the expense of emotional, inner meaning.
For me, life is all about balancing those two. I find truth in science, reason and evidence. The scientific method is the single best tool we have for finding out what is real and how things work. In our current understanding of science, this rules out a lot of traditional religious or magical ideas. Yet I find meaning in Paganism, in spending time in nature, in doing ritual, in connecting with something sacred and greater than myself.
One intriguing psychological theory of mind suggests that our “central engine of meaning” is divided into a “propositional”, rational system and an older “implicational” system, which understands the world in terms of symbol, correspondence, dream and intuition. For a healthy balance, we need to “feed” both of these systems. Myth can be seen as working with this implicational system, allowing us to simultaneously disavow simplistic, literal ideas of supernatural, superhuman gods in the sky and also experience a deep connection to the gods of nature, in this world here and now.
None of this is to say that Polytheists are necessarily wrong, or misguided. In a universe as complex as ours, any one of us could be wrong, and most of us probably are at some point. Our ideas about the divine are not the divine itself. They are just ideas, opinions, models. Joanna Van Der Hoeven put it well: “In the true spirit of Druidry, one would never, ever, mock another’s belief or lack of belief in deity, nor hold it in contempt or condemnation”.
So what does Paganism informed by these ideas of the gods as non-literal, mythic representations of nature look like?
Perhaps surprisingly, it can look almost indistinguishable from theistic Paganism. In my own Druid practice, I read the myths of ancient Europe, I draw ogham or runes for meditation, and I perform rituals to celebrate the Wheel of the Year. To an outside observer, there would be little difference between my practice and that of a theistic Pagan. The only difference is inside my head.
Paganism is often described as being about orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy: the focus is on the practices, not the belief. I do the practices not because I think the gods command them, but because they work, and they help me to create a meaningful and wakeful life.
John Michael Greer, Archdruid of AODA, writes: “What are the gods? Again, ask any three Druids and you’ll get at least six answers….Experience, not belief, is central to Druid spirituality, and so it doesn’t actually matter that much to Druidry whether gods are objectively real individual divine beings, aspects or manifestations of some overarching unity, archetypal functions within the human mind, or something else entirely”. What matters is not what we believe, but what we do.
Armstrong, K. A short history of myth. Canongate, 2005.
Beckett, J. “Truth and Meaning” from Under the ancient oaks, 2013. [online: retrieved from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/2013/04/truth-and-meaning.html, 22/11/2015].
Carr-Gomm, P. Druid mysteries: ancient wisdom for the 21st century. Rider, 2002.
Greer, J.M. The Druidry handbook: spiritual practice rooted in the living earth. Weiser, 2006.
Higginbotham, J. and Higginbotham, R. Paganism: an introduction to earth-centred religions. Llewellyn, 2008.
Hilmarsson, H.O. quoted in “Iceland to build first temple to Norse gods since Viking age”, The Guardian, 2015. [online: retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/02/iceland-temple-norse-gods-1000-years, 22/11/2015].
Restall Orr, E. The wakeful world: animism, mind and the self in nature. Moon Books, 2011.
Van Der Hoeven, J. The Awen alone: walking the path of the solitary druid. Moon Books, 2014.