Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A small rant on the theist/non-theist continuum

Below is an email I recently wrote as part of a larger thread on the Non-Theist Friends email list. There are a couple of reasons why I'm sharing it here.

The big one is that I'm tired of people ranting at me without actually being in conversation/community with me or the other people they're ranting about.

I've heard a bunch of random comments and outright rants over the last few months from people who just can't understand and just can't support the presence of non-theists in the Society of Friends. These statements, when I've asked these folks, have been based on what they think a non-theist Friend is, and have not been based on conversation with non-theist Friends or on the real, lived experience of non-theist Friends.

On both the Non-Theist Friends email list and in real life -- including the interest group I facilitated at FGC Gathering -- I've heard and read a bunch of rants implying anyone who's either a mystic or not a complete a-theist isn't rational and can't be a scientist. Paired with that have been comments and rants about Pagans' (and Christians') (I hear a Dar Williams song now...) irrational belief in the supernatural. This one often has me scratching my head; but you'll read what I have to say about nature and the supernatural and science and the supernatural in a moment (if you keep reading), so I won't rant in advance of my rant.

Another reason I'm sharing what I wrote in this email is because I don't talk very frequently about what I actually believe; about why I identify as a Pagan; or about why I identify along the non-theist continuum, much less how I'm too theist to fit in with many non-theists, and too non-theist to fit in with most theists. What's more, I just facilitated an interest group where I was rather insistent that we talk about our own experience -- not just about what happens in our Meetings or about the dynamics in our communities when we talk about our own experiences.

So, here it is.

(Please remember this email is taken out of context, and refers back to an email thread not presented here.)


I've just returned from FGC Gathering, and I'm sure I'll have more to share once I've had the chance to ponder what's been written so far and let it simmer in my brain for a bit, like a good stew. But I did want to say that for me, there are a couple of important things in here:

a) There's a big difference between the either/or of theism/atheism, and a *continuum* of theism/non-theism.

When I hang out with people who believe in a creator god who is all-knowing and all-powerful, or with people who toss reason out the window and are satisfied with the explanation "It's God's will / because God said so," it's pretty obvious to me I'm not a theist. When I hang out with people who have no room in their lives for anything science can't prove yet, or with hard atheists, it's obvious I'm not an atheist.

Put another way: if there are only theists and atheists, and if non-theist is a polite way of saying atheist [as someone asserted earlier], then I guess I don't exist. *laughing*

(And the babelfish disappeared in a puff of logic, a la Douglas Adams.)

b) Science and mysticism or spirituality are not by definition incompatible. I'm trained as a scientist. If you can't conceive of what science doesn't know yet, you literally can't *do* science; you can't use scientific method for scientific inquiry if you can't imagine things that don't yet make sense. Many things that have seemed supernatural in the past make sense now thanks to science. Many things that we don't understand now are simply things science can't explain yet. What's more, many of the scientists I know are deeply mystical people -- and some are deeply religious. So to say science and religion are incompatible is factually untrue. It may be your or my opinion; but that doesn't make it a fact.

b1) There are no controlled, randomized, double-blind studies, and there are no well-designed scientific experiments, that prove that any specific spiritual practices (such as prayer, meditation, or magic) "work" or "don't work." [Someone had earlier asserted, forcefully, that prayer doesn't work.] What little research there is doesn't, or can't, define clearly what "work" means, or completely isolate every variable (such as who is affected). There *is* some interesting research that demonstrates certain things, such as brain changes during meditation. But anyone who claims science proves spiritual practices do or don't work is factually incorrect.

c) There's more than one way to conceptualize the Divine / God / Deity / That-Which-Is-Sacred. To insist on conceptualizing it only in certain ways, and to insist on reacting against or defining one's self against only those conceptions, is to give those conceptions primacy and power.

Some non-theists may choose to reject religious and spiritual language completely because for them it's completely tainted by one conception of Deity. Some of us choose to use it in ways that for us are true, accurate, and have integrity.

I can say, with perfect truth and integrity, that the Earth is the Goddess to me. This doesn't mean, remotely, that I subscribe to a belief in an all-powerful creator deity, or that I'm ascribing such characteristics to the Earth. It means that I name the Earth, exactly as it is, to be Divine.

d) This also means that being somewhere along the theist/non-theist continuum, or being outright theist, does not automatically mean ascribing supernatural powers to one's Deity. My Deity is *nature*. You can't get ANY LESS supernatural than that. The Sun doesn't do anything supernatural. Neither does the Earth. Nor do the Stars, the Air, the Water, human beings, my cats, or the danged squirrels who have eaten their way into our car's engine. To say, as Witches do, "Thou art Goddess. Thou art God," is to say that the Divine is right here, in this world, is this world, is you and me.

Compared to some folks, this makes me a theist. Compared to others, it makes me an atheist. To me, it's a pretty meaningless distinction, b/c that concept of Deity is not one that has meaning for me to believe in or not believe in. I don't BELIEVE in a Deity -- I don't believe in the Earth, or the Air I breathe, or the Sun above, or the Water I drink, or the food I eat, or the cats I cuddle, or the rain that falls, or the rocks I carry in my pockets. I EXPERIENCE them.

Blessed be,


Kody Gabriel said...

I'm not sure how this relates, but it startled me how quickly the conversation at the theaologies interest group turned into "to what extent I/my meeting is or isn't Christian," as if the defining quality of theaological (I like this spelling, thanks for teaching it!) thought and identity is the acceptance or rejection of Christianity. It works for me in a really limited, personal sense, since my beliefs are defined in relation to Christianity-- but I want to hear other folks stories in terms of what they *do* believe, not in terms of how they're *not* Christian.

(Side rant: I really dislike the term Christo-centric to label people/belief, because I've almost only heard it used derisively. But it occurs to me that this is a context in which that term might be accurate: like ethnocentrism, defining all belief systems in relation to the central reference point of Christianity/the Judeo-Christian concept of God, instead of on their own terms).

Maybe I'm just reminded of that because this post also seems to be about how we create false dichotomies of belief, and then project those on to others without listening to their stories-- stories which almost inevitably force us to more multi-dimentional understandings.

I love when you rant, dear. <3

rhiannonproblematising said...

Stasa, thank you for this - it spoke to my condition. As a pantheist, I am also in the position of being 'somewhere along the theist/non-theist continuum' (I'd say 'the world' or 'the universe' rather than 'Earth' but we must be quite close on this point). I really agree that in the context of the Society of Friends, the distinction is often meaningless - when I talk about paganism, people sometimes ask whether I'm a monotheist or a polytheist, and I find that distinction too to be meaningless to me.

Weavre Cooper said...

Wow. All that's left, I think, is, "Friend speaks my mind."

I love it that you're here, thinking and sharing your thoughts, Staṡa. Thank you!

Hystery said...

Spot on, Stasa. (I also love the comments.)

Alyss said...

You have also spoken for me in this "rant" :) I suspect I am closer to the theism side of the continuum than you are, but I am still very much in the middle. Sometimes, as I pray, my scientific brain freaks out and wonders who or what I think I am talking to. Do I really believe in a personal god who can listen, comfort or pave the way for me? Or am I just soothing my own self? Then I realize that it doesn't matter. What I am doing makes a difference in my life, so it is good. It feels like I have to balance believing the two things equally and at once, but that is OK.

Thanks again, Stasa!

staśa said...

Kody, yes, we really wanted to stay in our heads at first, didn't we? And then in our Meetings' / communities' experiences, rather than our own personal experiences? And yet at the same time, people were talking about our deep need and desire for space to talk about our own personal experience. I'm not so sure it's the fear of talking about that experience, as the fear to believe that yes, this space really is an okay, safe space to do so. Hmmm, must think about this more... (Most of my ministry has been devoted to creating spaces for that experience more than to creating spaces to talk about that experience, so I still feel a little new to this part. But it feels important.)

I'm struck by how much your comment stayed with me in my conversations at Yearly Meeting, and informed how I shaped my participation in conversations. Especially about being in relationship to Jesus and/or Christ, vs being ethnocentrically Christocentric; and being ethnocentrically Christian, being exclusivist, is something I want to write about more. And the whole thing about false dichotomies.

I'm glad someone loves it when I rant. ;-)

staśa said...

Rhiannon, that makes tons of sense to me. Part of my struggle is in getting people to see the frames in which they ask their questions, the set of assumptions from which they ask their questions, which prompt their questions. I often feel like that's the first step in answering their question -- or the five pre-steps before beginning to answer their question. (Right now, I'm feeling particularly frustrated by this, b/c I feel like I've been doing that in four or so different areas of my life over the last two weeks of travels in spiritual community.)

It's like...

When someone asks, "Which of you wears the pants, you or your girlfriend / partner?," or, "If you call her your 'wife,' does she call your her 'husband'?"

"Will you smell these markers and tell me which ones are okay for me to use around you?," or, "What did you do to yourself [that you have a priority golf cart rider card / hidden disability]?"

I could go on, but I've promised myself a ranting blog post. ;-)

Rhiannon, thinking about it a little more, some of it too, for me, is about teasing apart what someone actually wants from me in asking the question. And if they're willing to be in community with me about it, and support me spiritually and emotionally.

For example, in Friends General Conference and North Pacific Yearly Meeting, I'm willing to be something of a resident expert / on-call consultant for queer issues, chemical sensitivity issues, and Pagan and theaological diversity issues, b/c I feel supported and people there are willing to be in community with me. In two of my former Meetings, especially about Paganism, not so much. So even when it's hard -- and sometimes, it really is -- I'm willing to be in the hard work, and I'm willing to go out on a limb, b/c I know I'm loved and held. And I know these folks are willing to help me be faithful. Those things make a big difference.

When it feels more like prurient curiosity, or trying to use something against me, I feel much less trust, and it's much, much more difficult to do hard, tender work. Or to be faithful to my calling.

Hmmm. Thank you for helping me put this into words.

staśa said...

Weavre, Hystery, thanks. I appreciate the encouragement!

I know I'm very much enjoying the comment conversation! (I love it when people have good conversations in the comments.)

Alyss, my scientific brain often hiccups, and then sometimes sputters, over this stuff. Then going dancing or for a long walk in the woods is a good idea. Also, Einstein and Lucretia Mott are great comforts to me.

Personally, I think you are right. :)