Yes, Your Gods Too

It’s common, in conversations about atheism taking place in public, for one or more members of minority faiths to chime in with claims that what is being discussed somehow neglects their perspective. These rejoinders are often delivered with the snide implication that atheism is a reaction to the problems of big, common, monotheistic faiths, and that giving a little consideration to these nontheistic or polytheistic styles (or some other alternative to what they only assume the atheists’ religious background was) would have set the atheists on a righter path. They also, consistently, assume that atheist criticisms of religion, whether about its ethics or its metaphysics, somehow don’t apply to them.

I find these people only a little less irritating than I find folks who try to deflect conversations about alternative medicine and other unevidenced practices with accusations that criticizing these things is culturally insensitive, and that’s only because this latter set gets people killed.

It’s true that, in the west, atheist messages are often delivered with the assumption that the primary alternative to atheism is some version of Christianity. Similarly, atheist messages in Muslim-majority places usually assume that any new atheists they induce will have come from Muslim backgrounds, and atheist messages delivered by organizations like Nirmukta in India present their case in opposition primarily to Hinduism. Arguments, slogans, and presentations of the value of the atheist mindset and its naturalist, empiricist antecedents made by these groups often use language that would not appear if these groups were trying to, at the same time and with the same verbiage, oppose Wiccans, Neopagans, and others whose religions bear little resemblance to these larger faiths. I can understand how the minority-polytheist set might be miffed at how atheists, who present our stance as a counterpoint to all supernaturalism, are apparently brushing them off as not worth challenging.

Trust me. You don’t want us challenging you.

Detail of Runestone 181, in Stockholm. Norse gods Odin, Thor and Freyr are represented as three men. Credit: Berig, Wikipedia

I have seen plenty, from this vantage in a queer community wherein various neopaganisms have a lot of appeal and many adherents. More of us have background in New Age spirituality, and/or the traditions from which New Agers freely and ignorantly copy, than you think, including some of our biggest names and most skilled writers. Many of us know far more than you imagine we do about the many religious traditions that aren’t world-spanning Abrahamic behemoths. You are not as alien to us as you imagine yourselves to be.

Most of us are also intimately familiar with the motte-and-bailey game that religious believers play when challenged by skeptics, because our Christian antagonists do it, too. So we know the steps to the dance of “they’re mythic archetypes and ideas to emulate” when being questioned and “they’re actual beings who actually exist in actual reality” among your own, and we see them coming before you even begin. We know that the revelations that prod you in these directions are things that a more skeptical-minded person would rightly dismiss as acquired in states of altered consciousness, unsupported by anything else known about the nature of the universe, and/or more easily explained by dozens of natural, non-sapient phenomena. We know that, like the absolute worst Christian apologetics rightly considered embarrassing by other Christians, your system holds together best when it is presupposed to be true and other evidence is interpreted to fit. We know that, however different the characteristics of the deities in polytheistic faiths from those in Christianity and Islam, they are still defined in ways that correspond to no entity that has ever been scientifically described and which, often, are designed to be specifically inaccessible to such examination while still somehow affecting reality (and therefore, by definition, being amenable to measurement in terms of their effects…a test they never pass).

We know that deriving a feeling of numinous transcendence in beautiful landscapes, by engaging in rituals, and by sharing in song and camaraderie with a group, is a human experience, not one particular to any specific faith or even the idea of faith, separate from what beautiful landscapes, rituals, songs, or groups are involved. We know that humans naturally see human-like agency in virtually everything, a tendency that religion reifies and science opposes. We know that these sensations can often be induced with electrical or chemical brain stimulation, if the fact that invocations to a deity aren’t necessary to induce them isn’t sufficient evidence that no magic is involved.

We know that, when believers in polytheistic sects attempt to offer proof that their version of reality is an accurate description thereof, they do lots of the same things that Christians and Muslims do: they prevaricate on the very nature of “evidence” and “proof,” they get insulted that such evidence is expected, and they claim that going in with a skeptical mind is a good way to convince all the “proof” they supposedly have to get stage fright. We know that, when finally cornered, you cite chance events that went in your favor; altered mental states; and the importance of you of the label, ritual, and camaraderie of your group. Or, even better, you make the irrelevant and often-true claim that you’re far less evangelical than most Christian sects, prioritize women in leadership, and otherwise adhere to superior moral standards than encouraged by most monotheistic faiths, as though this moral acceptability could stand in for an empirical case. And, just like members of more widespread faiths, you are more than happy to retreat to the final bailey of declaring that atheists (and from there, scientists) are wrong for even expecting reality to exist independent of individual humans’ appraisal of it, immediately negating all of your own efforts to convince atheists that your picture of reality is better than ours in the name of eluding our challenges to it.

We spend more time taking apart the specific foolishness of Christianity, Islam, and the other big faiths for practical, not intellectual, reasons. Disabusing Christianity and Islam of their world-shaking and utterly unearned power is a goal that comes with enormous potential to improve the human condition around the world, and often specifically for us. (No, we don’t think it’ll fix everything.) Tailoring the same logic that leads us to reject all supernatural claims made by humans to date to your claims, while needed for challenging you, does not work toward the necessary goal of dismantling the systems that privilege Christianity and Islam in world governments and make those two religions the main sources of opposition to reproductive autonomy, rights for gender and sexual minorities, gender equality, and access to HIV treatment and prophylaxis around the world. Compared to the harm that the big religions do, logically dismantling polytheist revival movements accomplishes very little…not least because a lot of you are otherwise exemplary human beings with whom we’d be thrilled to replace the average American evangelical. Even if entirely too many of you believe in nonsense that causes harm to you and those you hold dear.

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Yes, Your Gods Too

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