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Proof:  The Problem of the Existence of the Gods and Goddesses

Well I started with death just so we could get it over with.  So to speak.  And also because I’m fairly disorganized, so now we get to start from the beginning.  No, I don’t mean Genesis, rather I mean:  how do we know the Gods and Goddesses [1] exist?

As with many things, there is a short answer, and a long answer. 

Short answer

There are no rational proofs of the existence of one, much less many, Gods, Goddesses, or god.  Can’t be done, better minds than ours have tried [2] , so best let it go and stop trying before it all ends in tears [3].  It all is supposed to have ended with linguistic analysis, where philosophers basically said: “no one knows what they’re talking about."[4]

Instead of trying to figure out the 100th intellectual trick that will make it seem like god is provable through reason, many modern philosophers and theologians would make the claim that “god knowledge” is different then “everyday knowledge”.  If knowing the Gods and Goddesses, or god, is done in a different way than, say, knowing basaltic rocks, then reason gets a bit of a holiday and we can still have our beliefs. 

A simple way to say it is that faith, belief in something unknown and unknowable, is the foundation for proofs of existence, not reason. 

The long answer

There are several standard proofs for the existence of the Christian god.   We can better spend our time discussing relevant matters if we dispense with trying to put a Pagan flavor on what are essentially Christian arguments, and merely acknowledge that these arguments exist, and move on [5]

Obviously some of these arguments make claims for unity of god [6] , but from a Pagan perspective that claim has to be divided out from the overall claim of existence.  While those of a monotheistic perspective may hold that perfection arguments can be used to prove the existence of one, indivisible, god because a god who is divisible is less perfect than one who is not, we do not have to accept that premise as Pagans.

I will label all these discussions as attempts at proof of “one against none” or proving that one god exists instead of none.  This is an important thread in the history of Christian theology; one that I will argue is inherent in the exclusive (one truth), dogmatic (there is a set of common beliefs) and proselytizing (convincing others) monotheistic religions.   It is not only intellectually interesting and somewhat amusing to think through existence from a philosophical standpoint, arguments that draw on rationality allow those making them to make substantial claims about behavior, rights, and responsibilities in the real world (where reason works) using their religious beliefs.  The confluence of rationality and faith in these arguments is not accidental in my analysis, it is political, and allows for broader assertions about the force of religion. 

As Pagans attempting to do theology we need to be careful that a monotheistic world view does not so permeate our concept of language, reason, and truth, that we accept some things as fundamental when they really are not fundamental.  We need to think things through from a new, Pagan, perspective.  One that is not tainted with the political, social, and philosophical mindset of two thousand years of Christian thought.  Should be easy.   

In order to address what I see as the fundamental center of monotheistic existence proofs I think we need to first focus on one key question:  what is the role of reason and reasoning in the Pagan approach toward addressing questions of existence? 
The application of reason to the existence problem goes back before Christianity to the pre-Socratics and their rather rapid movement toward a unitary or singular god.  Aristotle, for example, was dismissive of the “theologians” of his time, contending that those who are not bothered by their belief in multiple Gods are not worth the time in rebutting.  Such people were generally poets (Homer and Hesiod), a group considered silly at best by Aristotle and Plato[7] .  Instead the emerging concept of rationalism began to dominate in philosophical discussions amongst even the pre-Socratics, because they were focused on understanding the world through mathematics and reason.  Even then the concept of multiplicity was dismissed as superstition [8].

But, starting with the Pre-Socratics and going through much modern theology and philosophy of religion, there seems to have been a significant focus on the question of rational proof.   Why?  Two reasons come to mind that I’d like to explore:

Understanding both of these concepts may shed some light on what use Pagans should make of rational existence proofs.

 The need to discuss

Language and rational agreement on world rules are two pre-requisites for sensible conversation about the world.  If you say “blue sky falls up” and mean “gray cat” every time you see what I believe is a black dog, we have neither a common language nor a rational agreement about the world.  Without the ability to have rational agreement on the nature of the world we can’t have an effective conversation about a shared world, much less do anything with philosophy or science.

Simply put, if we don’t understand a concept, like “god” in the same way, and have no common language with which to discuss it, we are going to have a darn hard time communicating about the concept. 

This is certainly a possible underlying cause for the early application of rationalist approaches toward the Gods and Goddesses, and the convergence on a unitary god, in Greek philosophy[9] .   As an early philosopher engaged in hammering out a theory of the world by application of this new fangled thing called “reason”, it would certainly be maddening to confront a bunch of beliefs from all the different cultures, from each small locality, and from folk beliefs in Witchcraft and magic.  Nothing agreed with anything else, or made much “sense” in a rational scheme. 

The application of reason, a common language of thought, to the problem of the Gods and Goddesses allowed the philosophers to have a sensible discussion about what was previously a local, even personal and human experience.  It moved the discussion about existence from a private realm where the concept of Gods and Goddesses was accepted as part of the world, to a public one where the concepts could be examined and discussed.  And, as the conversation moved from the multiple and concrete to the abstract and ideal, the concept of god moved from the plural to the singular. 

In other words, the real world is complex, messy, pluralistic, and chaotic, just like the multiple Gods and Goddesses of the wider Pagan pantheon. [10]  The world of ideas, for some, may not be quite as messy, and may, in fact, lead us toward an abstraction and idealization of any concept, including god. 

This ability to discuss the concept of god is important when the concept of god becomes abstracted and is seen as separate from the world.   Prior to the Greeks [11] , the Gods and Goddesses were justified as personal, as a given thing in the environment, or as imposed by State or tribal tradition.  They were given, assumed to be part of the environment, something to be experienced in the same way everyone experienced rain, sun, wind, other people, or the State.  In that personal experience the Gods and Goddesses were individual and unique, and often anthropomorphized.

The change brought about by the Greek philosophers was to move the concept of god out of the world and into the abstract world of ideas.  In order to discuss this idea, in order to share it, it was important to be able to reason about it, and discuss it on a rational basis.   As god became removed into the realm of the abstract, into another world separate from our own, reason became a more important way to talk about god.

If, however, the Gods and Goddesses are intimate parts of this world, the need to develop complex rational systems of discussion is lessened.  We do not necessarily need to both have the same detailed understanding of a tree in order to agree on what a tree is.  We can experience the leaves, color, bark in different ways, but not so differently that we can’t have any idea what the other is experiencing.    This becomes even more the case if we respect each other’s concept of tree-ness.  In other words, we are willing to try and understand the other’s view, and see things from their perspective. 
Reason becomes less important when that which is discussed is concrete vice abstract [12].  The need to develop a common, rational, basis for discussion is less for Pagans, because the Gods and Goddess do not need to be rational.  The basis for belief does not require rationality because there is less of a need to discuss something that arises directly from experience. 

In fact we could claim that Paganism, as with mysticism and shamanism, hold that the concept of deity[13] far from being an ideal removed from the world, is intimately tied to the world [14].  There are many ways deity is tied to the world in a Pagan practice:

Tying the deity to the world, to practical experience of communion with the Gods and Goddesses in circle, or to the practice of magical arts, means we won’t need to “prove” anything.  The Gods and Goddesses just “are”.  Beyond rationality [15], beyond concept, in the same way anything we experience in the world “is”. 

The need to convince

One of the many important distinguishing features of Pagan paths from the monotheistic paths is the acceptance of a wide range of beliefs and traditions.  Pagans, in particular neo-Pagans but also historical Pagans [16], accepted a multiplicity of pantheons, as long as everyone respected everyone else.

If, on the other hand, a religious tradition does not accept the coexistence of multiple paths, but feels its tradition is the one true way to god, then it needs to answer the challenge: 

“Yeah, so prove it”

That is what many of the early Christian theologians worked on.  They were motivated by a need to defend and expand the emerging faith, as well as a need to incorporate one of the greatest challenges to the faith, Greek philosophical reason and concepts, into the Christian world view.  Its this need to convince that sets up a political agenda for Christian theology.  Rationalism and argument become a way of “proving” that the particular theology is at least intellectually consistent if not “right” in the rationalist sense of “right”. 

If Paganism embraces a multiplicity of paths, and leaves the embracing of any one path up to the individual, then the need to “convince” anyone of anything becomes less important.  Rational dialog can take a holiday, and poetry, storytelling, and direct experience can come to the front as primary ways of experiencing deity.  In a Pagan framework the poets lead the religious discussion, rejecting Plato’s claims that things will go to hell if reason does not keep them in check (or locked out of the discussion altogether). 

I believe that this lack of need to discuss the concept of deity in Pagan circles can have a negative as well as a positive effect.  On the up side, no one is trying to prove to anyone else that what they’re doing is “right”.  On the down side, I believe that the neo-Pagan community loses a lot when it fails to develop a thoughtful dialog on the theology of Paganism.  Just because we don’t have to talk about the nature of belief and faith in Paganism doesn’t’ me we shouldn’t talk about it.  Just because others use these discussions in a political and coercive manner, doesn’t mean we have to make our discussions about theology politically charged [17]

Thus it is important to rephrase and recast the “one vs. none” argument into language and concepts that better apply to Pagan thought.  I have tried to do that by arguing that Pagans experience the Gods and Goddesses directly through the world, either through mystical or practical experience.  Likewise, because Pagans have no inherent need to proselytize, there is less emphasis on proof in Pagan concepts of existence. 

We still have a lot that we need to discuss when it comes to existence.  Rephrasing the questions from a Pagan perspective does not necessarily mean we should Specifically:

As you can see, I’m avoiding taking on the existence argument directly.  For the reasons I discussed in this column, and others, I believe that direct existence arguments do not serve Pagan theology well.  But there are ontological issues that surround the Gods and Goddesses that I do believe need addressing.  I can’t address all these questions in one essay, or even a large book, but we can at least acknowledge they exist, and begin talking about them one by one. 

[1] On usage:  I’m using “Gods and Goddesses” as an acknowledgement that standard usage (“Gods”), while including Goddesses, irritates many of the listeners.  I don’t capitalize the monotheistic “god” because I am in turn irritated that there is an implicit bias toward the monotheistic “god” in English usage rules, while other Gods and Goddesses don’t get a fair shake. So, I advocate that we reverse it in our literature.  I’ve abandoned all pretense of correctness and simply used the term “theology” when talking about what I’m doing, knowing full well that we could substitute “theaology” and make many happy.

[2] See, for example, Kant, I, Critique of Pure Reason, Chapter III, in particular sections IV and V.

[3] Admittedly some have tried, really hard, to construct such proofs from a variety of methods, see, for example, Davis, S., “The Cosmological Argument and the Epistemic Status of Belief in God”, Philosophia Christi, 2:1:1 (1999) p. 5.  I tend to be firmly in the camp that says reason applies to things reason applies to, and things that are truly mysteries, like faith, are not areas where reason can speak intelligently to fundamentals. 

[4] For a nice discussion of this see: academics/philosophy/Sandin.html.

[5] See, for example, in addition to the above cite for Kant, Aquinas, T. Summa Theologica, Vol. 1; Hume, D. Dialogs Concerning Natural Religion.  For example, arguments for the existence of god can be broken down into ontological, cosmological, teleological, moral, and other categories of argument.  The ontological argument (Descartes version, Meditations, V) essentially says that existence is a trait that would be required in order to have a perfect being, and thus a supremely perfect being will possess the trait of existence, thus a supremely perfect being must exist.  There are a lot of objections, and responses, to this argument when it is structured this way.  This is just an example, we could go on...

[6] Obviously the ontological argument applies in full force to the unity of god:  if unity is thought of being more perfect than multiplicity, then it would also be a required trait of a perfect being.  We could, obviously, turn this around, and claim diversity, multiplicity, and creativity were more perfect than singularity and conformity, but then we’d be Pagans...

[7] For example, in the Republic Plato lambastes both Hesiod and Homer, eventually censoring their works and banning all poets from the city. 

[8] See, for example, Xenophanes, where he ridicules the concept of anthropomorphic Gods and Goddesses:  “But if cows and horses or lions had hands/and drew with their hands and made the things mend make,/then horses would draw the forms of gods like horses, /cows like cows,/and each would make their bodies/similar in shape to their own.” [from Barnes, Early Greek Philosophy, Penguin, 1987.]

[9] I’m sure there are about fifty other reasons for this progression, including the centrality of mathematics to a lot of Greek mystical philosophy and a variety of other needs.  However, whatever the historical reason for this progression, I believe my case that an ability to conduct rational discussions and agree on the concepts is essential to a philosophical discussion of religion.

[10] I have not yet discussed exactly what I mean when I say “Gods and Goddesses” but here I refer to all the Gods and Goddesses not associated with monotheistic religion. 

[11] Ok, I’m generalizing here, I’m absolutely positive that there is an example that will prove me wrong.  But, I am, generalizing...

[12] Of course, we need reason to understand the natural world.  But I would contend we don’t need rational discourse to discuss the natural world.  For example, poetry works well too...

[13] I’m not talking about either pantheism, that god is the world, here.  Pantheism is certainly valid under Pagan constructs of deity, but it is not a necessary tenant of most Pagan paths.

[14] I include two different concepts in the phrase “intimately tied to the world”.  There is the obvious tie of existence and action in the world, mainly through magic and ritual.  But there is also the direct internal, mystical, experience of the divine or otherworldly by the individual.  Both of these I include in the domain of the “world,” which, in my view, is separate from the domain of “ideas” or “concepts.”  I argue that the internal, mystical, experience is tied to the individual, who exists in the world, and is therefore removed from the more abstract domain of ideas which are independent from any particular implementation in the world. 

[15] I understand this is not a unique argument with respect to he Pagan Gods and Goddesses.  The concept of a immenent god, one experience directly through prayer or mysticism, is also inherent in monotheistic religions as well.  Its just those paths also have the concept of the abstract god, the ideal concept of god, within them as well.  Our multiplicity mitigates against the need to make ontological claims of uniqueness or perfection. 

[16] Again, I am generalizing, I am positive that there are a large number of historical Pagan paths that merrily chopped non-believers heads off.  But tolerance, and even syncretism, was a common characteristic of many historical Pagan paths. 

[17] By “political” I mean “the effect of social interactions in and on the world,” a much more general sense than “Democrats vs. Republicans”.   While there is nothing wrong with application of Pagan moral theology to problems in the world, I do believe that using theology in ways that are divisive within the community has serious conceptual and practical problems. 





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