To say that atheism is the denial of all gods and goddesses is just so broad that it doesn’t even make any sense. There are plenty of perfectly scientific ways to think about gods and goddesses. And those aren’t new ways – they’re mostly old ways. If the term atheism is used with any precision, it means a-theism, that is, the denial of theism. So atheists can’t believe in any theistic gods or theistic goddesses (I’ll just say “deities” for gods and goddesses). A theistic deity is a non-physical person, something like a person without a body or a mind without a brain. Contrary to theism, there are at least four non-theistic ways of thinking about gods. Atheism does not rule out either the existence of gods or goddesses, and it does not prevent atheists from using gods and goddesses in rituals.
(1) The first non-theistic conception of deities comes from the pagan Stoics of ancient Greece and Rome. They thought nature was animated by some universal cosmic power. You can literally think of that power as physical energy if you like. The deities are just specializations of that power to particular types of natural activities. Poseidon is the power of nature expressed through the oceans; Zeus is that power expressed in the sky, especially in storms; Demeter is that power expressed in crops; Athena is that power expressed in skillful warfare or conquest of obstacles and solving problems. The Stoic deities are not people, although they used images and statues of people to refer to their deities. The deities are literally powers of nature. And they are not metaphors or symbols. A metaphor is a figure of speech. The power of the ocean is not a figure of speech. But if you use a statue of a man to represent the power in the sky, then you are using that statue in a non-literal or symbolic way. And when you talk about Athena as if she were a superhuman woman, you’re talking metaphorically about a power of nature. But that power is not a metaphor.
Atheism does not rule out those old Stoic deities. It does not rule out many ways of thinking about modern pagan deities. You can be an atheistic pagan. Suppose I invoke the Goddess and the God in some Wiccan ritual. I may even have a statue of the Goddess and a statue of the God. But I do not think of these statues as literal or even metaphorical representations of persons. The words “God” and “Goddess” refer to deep or highly general powers of nature. And the statues refer to those powers too. By “the Goddess”, I just mean the power of nature to move from actualities to potentialities. By “the God”, I just mean the power of nature to move from potentialities to actualities. Since my own body is a natural thing, those powers exist in my body. So when I invoke these powers, I aim to arouse them in me. I am using the symbolism and imagery of the God and Goddess in order to concentrate and focus my own efforts at arousing natural powers that are hidden in my own body. I seek to put these powers to work. I am arousing them because I need to move from actuality to new potentialities, or from some multiplicity of possibilities to some new actuality. By asking the God or Goddess to help me with some project, or achieve some goal, I am giving concrete shape to my intention to arouse the deep powers of my body and apply them towards some goal.
I don’t think it makes any sense for atheists to worship deities. Christian worship their God. I don’t know whether ancient pagans or other indigenous groups worshiped their deities. I suspect that worship is pretty much an entirely Christian (or Abrahamic) type of ritual relation to deities. Consider the ancient Greeks again. They sometimes took statues of the god Ares (god of war), bound those statues in chains, and buried them outside their city or town walls. Their goal in performing this ritual was to bind the power of war and to make it end at their town walls. Hence no external enemies would get through their walls. This looks more like a magical ritual than like religious worship. Even offering sacrifices doesn’t look much like worship. Sacrifices might be better understood as magical rituals aimed to activate the power of some god or goddess in a way that is favorable to the sacrificer. This also means that sacrifices are not examples of do-ut-des relations to deities (I give that you might give). The idea that old pagan rituals with deities are magical rites aimed at manipulating divine powers, that is, deep powers of nature, is consistent with the Stoic conception of deities as specializations of the universal cosmic power. Now fast-forward to my Wiccan ritual. If I invoke the Goddess and God in ritual, I am not worshipping them. It makes no sense to worship them. If prayer is petitionary, that is, asking for favors, then it makes no sense to pray to them either.
However, I don’t really think these deep natural powers are deities. I tend to agree with the thought that deities are persons or personal in some sense. But these deep natural powers are utterly impersonal. So I wouldn’t call them gods or goddesses. I’d say instead that they are chthonic or titanic powers. To use a term from Plato, they’re demiurgic powers. This may seem like a fine point, but I think it’s crucial for atheists to pay attention to the details. And so I don’t think we should use the names of old pagan deities (or images or statues) to refer to those powers. We should use other names and images.
Of course, if these powers are utterly impersonal, an atheist might object that it makes no sense to talk to them. It’s like talking to trees, or rocks, or the sun. Those things can’t hear you, so why talk to them? I reply that we are bound up with all natural things in semiotic relations. Lots of natural things signal to other natural things in ways that are deeper or more general than any kind of talking in some mutually understood language. A walking stick is a kind of insect that has evolved to be able to camouflage itself by looking like a stick to its predators. The walking stick signals to its predators “I am a stick”. It communicates a meaningful proposition to its predators even though they share no common language and speak no words at all. Here I follow the great American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, who argued that all things in nature are exchanging meaningful signals with each other. This is his “pansemioticism.” But I don’t agree with his panpsychism. Things don’t need minds in order to interpret or make meaningful signals.
(2) The second non-theistic way of thinking about deities emerges as we consider signs in more detail. Our sun goes through a sunspot cycle: around every eleven years, the number of sunspots reaches its maximum. It’s widely thought that the sunspot cycle is driven by the gravitational effects of the planets Venus, Earth, and Jupiter. The sunspots are minimal when those planets are aligned and maximal when they are maximally out of alignment. If this planetary alignment theory of the sunspot cycle is correct, then the clear sun signifies “The planets are aligned” while the spots on the sun mean “The planets are out of alignment”. A bit more poetically, it means “I miss you”. Yet there’s no reason to believe that the sun has a mind. But if the sun is engaged in making signals to other things, then it’s reasonable for me to make signals to the sun. Since I’m a human, I make human signals. It’s entirely rational to talk to the sun. It’s not rational to expect it to hear you or to understand you. The planets don’t understand the sun either. So here’s a second atheistic conception of deities: deities are superhuman signalers. On this conception, the sun and the earth are deities. Lots of things are deities, and you can talk to them. You can say thank you and I love you. But it makes no sense to ask them for anything. Since signalers are more like persons, perhaps this second conception is more adequate. But I think there is an even better atheistic conception of deities.
(3) The third non-theistic way of thinking about deities comes from ancient Rome. They often created deified abstractions. They used statues or images of people to refer to abstract concepts. The statue of Liberty is a deified abstraction. The statues of Justice in courthouses are deified abstractions. Deified abstractions are ideal values. The old Olympian deities can be thought of as deified abstractions: Zeus is justice; Athena is wisdom. (Though they’re better thought of as representing skills needed for survival; but I won’t dwell on that here.) Atheists themselves often have deified abstractions like Truth, Reason, Science, and Knowledge. There’s nothing wrong with an atheist using names or images or statues of old deities to refer to valuable abstractions. On this view, the gods and goddesses are ideals. It makes no sense to worship them, but it does make sense to aspire to be like them, or to let them guide our conduct. And it may be a good idea to engage them in ritual. You might swear an oath to Justice before sitting on a jury. You might honor or revere or venerate Truth in your scientific laboratory. The image for this post is Paul-Albert Besnard’s allegorical painting of “Truth leading the Sciences,” (pictured above). Here Truth and the Sciences are deified abstractions.
(4) This leads to a fourth and final non-theistic conception of deities. Deities are superhuman persons. But an atheist won’t think of them as bodiless or non-physical. There are lots of ways that superhuman persons might exist. Perhaps someday soon we’ll use genetic engineering to transform our descendants into superhuman persons. They will be fully physical organisms. Or maybe we’ll use artificial intelligence technologies to make superhuman robots. They will be physical persons unlike us. Or maybe there are other possible universes that contain superhuman persons of extreme power, intelligence, and goodness. All these would be deities. These deities can also serve as ideals to help us focus our thoughts and actions. And they can serves objects of aspiration: we should aspire to be like them, and to transform ourselves into them.
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