As you may have gathered, I don’t believe gods are real. Thus, the “Atheo-” in Atheopagan.
Recently, however, I had a long conversation on Facebook that turned into a discussion about what we mean when we say something is “real”. From that conversation, I have concluded that “real” is a nearly useless word unless it is heavily qualified…and that it would be helpful to have more narrowly-targeted terms than “real” when discussing experiences.
In the past, when I have said something is “real”, I meant it has physical, material entity. It’s a thing or a process in the physical Universe. By that standard, there is no compelling evidence that disembodied, interpersonally communicative intelligences such as god, spirits, ghosts, etc. are real. So I don’t believe they are.
But is that what some theists mean when they say their gods are real?
What is real?
It’s one thing—and a largely academic one, at that—to make the judgment in the third paragraph above. But we don’t live in a world of double-blind experimentation and peer review. We live in the movie our minds create for us, using, filtering, editing—sometimes manufacturing—data from all-too-fallible senses as well as incorporating parallel dialogues of the multiple parts of ourselves, associative memory flashbacks, and a diverse chameleon we imagine as adding up to the “self”.
It is within the context of all that that experiences are formed, be they of gods or meals or work or driving a car. In most cases, something is happening in the physical Universe, yes, but in the Inner World, our awareness of this can at times be highly tenuous.
It is my belief that this is where experiences of gods, spirits, etc. arise. Not as interaction with an external entity, but as a part of the complex welter of voices and personalities that live within us rising up to speak, act, even appear to our vision.
In the context of what we now know with high confidence to be true about the physical Universe, religion fails when it tries to be about external reality. Insistent as some are about the verbatim reality of their beliefs, the Earth is not 6,000 years old, burning bushes do not talk, and there is no compelling evidence of noncorporeal intelligent entities with magical powers. Gravity works no matter what you believe about it, and the speed of sound is the same for everyone.
But to some degree, it doesn’t matter. Religion is about the inner experience. Even when it comes to the impulse toward community, it is the feeling of being in community that is sought after and carefully stewarded. Our lives are our personal experiences. And at that level, something is “real” simply because we saw it or heard it or felt it, no matter whether that experience had any root in physical reality external to the body or not.
This is something it may be hard for some theists who are threatened by Atheopagans’ disbelief to understand: we’re not discounting the importance of the inner experience (at least, I’m not; I can’t speak for others, but I’ve never heard anyone do so). Quite the contrary: we’re working to create them for ourselves, and we’re perfectly glad that others are having them. Our rituals and observances may be pinned to external realities like the changing seasons, but we do them to create a feeling, a sense of belonging/connectedness/meaning. We’re different than the Dawkins/Hitchens crowd, because we understand that what religion can contribute to the inner world is profoundly meaningful and gratifying.
To recognize the difference between the external (objective) real and the internal (personal) real is not to declare one more important than the other. It simply states what is true: they’re not the same. And making overclaims in relation to the former really isn’t necessary when you’re talking about something that is “real” in the latter.
I have had some amazing experiences. Some of them, in fact, violated the laws of physics as I remember them. I am quite confident that I misperceived these moments, just as I know that the flying dreams I have had were, in fact, dreams, although they are as bright and vivid in my mind as any other memories.
And I don’t care. Those moments are precious to me. They were deeply meaningful, and it doesn’t bother me that my mind played a heavy role in creating them.
They were “real”, in a way, in that I experienced them. Not real like a stone or a fish is real, but…experientially real.
It would help a great deal—and probably reduce conflict—if we had different language for these types of “reality”. Because even though I might cringe a bit when someone tells me earnestly that her gods talk to her, at least if she was using language that clearly referenced her personal, inner reality, I wouldn’t understand her as flouting the known physical nature of the Universe. And I could explain to her about my experiences flying naked over the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset, and she would know that I wasn’t delusional.
This doesn’t resolve the conflict between those, like me, who do not believe in objective, external gods as disembodied, intelligent and communicative entities and those who do. There really isn’t any way to bridge that gap except a mutual agreement to live and let live. But I suspect there are far fewer of those than there are of people who experience their gods as resident in their inner worlds.
I’m still struggling to come up with terminology that would help to prize real (objective) from real (personal). Any suggestions are welcome in the comments.