Readers, please enjoy this guest blog post by Philip H. Farber, author of Brain Magick: Exercises in Meta-Magick and Invocation.
When I was younger I took a perverse pleasure getting into religious arguments. While Iâ€™ve always tended toward agnosticism and never felt very strongly one way or the other about organized religions, I took it as fair game that anyone coming to my door trying to convince me to join their religion was a ripe target. I was often amazed at how proselytizers could ignore simple logic and profess faith in what I considered to be pretty far-fetched ideas. It was fun, but I eventually grew out of it.
These days, the dialectic between religious zealots and non-believers has moved onlineâ€”and itâ€™s taken a bit of a twist. Many who profess a strong belief in something, rational or irrational, become offended when you point out that their belief is an article of faith or a matter of perception and not some kind of objective reality. Which is my way of offering fair warning that what Iâ€™m about to say may cause irritation to those who might hold onto their beliefs too tightly: I think the â€śnew atheistsâ€ť are very nearly as irrational as fundamentalist zealots.
I subscribe to an online alternative news source that hits my inbox daily with great articles about politics, social trends, ecology, and much more. Along with great political analysis, however, comes an endless series of articles about how atheists are the new down-trodden minority of the world and how religions are messing up the planet. The reader comments on these articles exemplify the ongoing debate between those who refuse to believe and those who believe too strongly. It gets pretty loony, actually, with many members of both sides demonstrating that hate and vitriol may be wielded with or without a deity.
Most of these arguments attack straw men of various kinds: all believers are fundamentalists or Bible literalists, all non-believers are intolerant bigots, all believers worship a single unseen entity, all non-believers have no faith in anything. From my point of view none of the arguments address what lies at the heart of the issue, a point that I think experienced magicians and long-time pagans may appreciate. The argument isnâ€™t really about the existence of god or gods, but about the level of that existence, the way in which humans understand and perceive entities.
In my book Brain Magick: Exercises in Meta-Magick and Invocation, I outline the neurological and cognitive processes by which humans form their perceptions of deity. Neurotheology is a rapidly growing and expanding field and, really, weâ€™re starting to understand what happens in the brain when we think about entities. Thereâ€™s a bit of a surprise there: the processes that we use to invoke, evoke, and conceive of gods are the same processes that happen in the brain when we think about other humans, about stories and myths, about legal entities such as corporations, schools of thought, and quite a bit more. In short, humans donâ€™t limit perceptions of entities to those things that are conveniently labeled â€śgod.â€ť In all likelihood, when an atheist contemplates Science (with a capital S) or the corporation he works for, heâ€™s approaching those ideas, neurologically and cognitively, in exactly the same way a Christian approaches God (with a capital G).
Now, all of a sudden, gods and goddesses are on equal footing with a whole lot of other cultural phenomena that we take for granted every day. We donâ€™t doubt the existence of Microsoft in our world, but we may engage in the debate over whether corporate entities are to be treated, in law, as people. We donâ€™t doubt the existence of the United States, but we may not notice that we often treat it, mentally, as an individual, even when referring to it as â€śUncle Sam.â€ť Many adults may not believe in Santa Claus as a living, breathing human, but he nonetheless inspires us to give gifts and donations to charity and to tell stories about him to our children. All of our entities exist (at least in part) in the realm of human consciousness, as forms that are transmitted, perceived, and interacted with. The gods of the major religions have influenced the lives of most of us, in exactly this way, without ever showing a flesh and blood physical form. Jehovah and Allah have shown their hands (incorporeal as they may be) in the formation of law, education, and medicine, for better or worse.
So do gods and goddesses exist? Sure, though you may not be able to invite them over for dinner. As complexes of information in the sphere of human perception, they have accompanied us through history, as familiar as our friends and neighbors. Believers and atheists alike need to keep their minds open and, perhaps, to check into some of the new science about how we perceive our world.
Our thanks to Philip for his guest post! For more from Philip Farber, read his article “Magick: Changing Your Brain.”