To say that atheism is the negation of all gods and goddesses is so broad that it doesn’t even make sense. There are many perfectly scientific ways to think about gods and goddesses. And these are not new methods – they are mostly old methods. If the term atheism is used with precision, it means a-theism, ie the denial of theism. So, atheists cannot believe in 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. Unlike theism, there are at least four non-theistic ways of thinking about gods. Atheism also does not exclude the existence of gods or goddesses, nor does it 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 believed that nature was driven by a universal cosmic power. You can literally consider this power as physical energy if you wish. the deities are only specializations of this power for particular types of natural activities. Poseidon is the power of nature expressed through the oceans; Zeus is that power which expresses itself in the sky, especially in storms; Demeter is that power expressed in crops; Athena is that power expressed in skillful warfare or conquering obstacles and solving problems. Stoic deities are not people, although they used images and statues of people to refer to their deities. Deities are literally powers of nature. And these 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 are using a statue of a man to represent power in heaven, then you are using that statue in a non-literal or symbolic way. And when you speak of Athena as if she were a superhuman woman, you are speaking metaphorically of a power of nature. But this power is not a metaphor.
Atheism does not exclude these ancient Stoic deities. This does not exclude many ways of thinking about modern pagan deities. You can be an atheist pagan. Suppose I invoke the Goddess and the God in a Wiccan ritual. I can even have a Goddess statue and a God statue. But I don’t consider these statues to be literal or even metaphorical representations of people. The words “God” and “Goddess” refer to deep or very general powers of nature. And the statues also refer to these powers. By “the Goddess” I simply mean the power of nature to move from realities to potentialities. By “God” I simply mean the power of nature to move from potentialities to realities. Since my own body is a natural thing, these powers exist in my body. So when I invoke these powers, I aim to awaken them within me. I use God and Goddess symbolism and imagery in order to focus and focus my own efforts to awaken the natural powers that are hidden within my own body. I seek to put these powers to work. I arouse them because I need to pass from actuality to new potentialities, or from a multiplicity of possibilities to new actuality. By asking the God or the Goddess to help me in a project or to achieve a goal, I concretize my intention to awaken the deep powers of my body and to apply them towards a goal.
I don’t think it makes sense for atheists to worship deities. Christians worship their God. I don’t know if the ancient pagans or other indigenous groups worshiped their deities. I suspect worship is pretty much an all-Christian (or Abrahamic) type of ritual relationship with deities. Consider again the ancient Greeks. They would sometimes take statues of the god Ares (god of war), chain those statues and bury them outside the walls of their town or city. Their objective in performing this ritual was to bind the power of war and end it to the walls of their city. Thus, no outside enemy would cross their walls. It looks more like a magical ritual than a religious cult. Even offering sacrifices doesn’t look much like worship. Sacrifices could best be understood as magical rituals aimed at activating the power of a god or goddess in a way favorable to the sacrificer. It also means that the sacrifices are not examples of do-ut-des relations with the deities (I give what you could give). The idea that ancient pagan rituals with deities are magical rites aimed at manipulating divine powers, i.e. the deep powers of nature, is consistent with the Stoic conception of deities as specializations of universal cosmic power . Fast forward to my Wiccan ritual. If I invoke the Goddess and the God in a ritual, I don’t worship them. It makes no sense to worship them. If the prayer is petitionary, that is, asking for favors, then it makes no sense to pray for them either.
However, I don’t really think these deep natural powers are deities. I tend to agree with the idea that deities are persons or personal in some sense. But these deep natural powers are totally impersonal. So I wouldn’t call them gods or goddesses. I would rather say that it is a question of chthonic or titanic powers. To use a term from Plato, they are demiurgic powers. This may seem like a tricky point, but I think it’s crucial for atheists to pay attention to detail. And so I don’t think we should use the names of ancient pagan deities (or images or statues) to refer to these powers. We should use other names and images.
Of course, if these powers are totally impersonal, an atheist might object that it makes no sense to talk to them. It’s like talking to trees, rocks or the sun. These things can’t hear you, so why talk to them? I answer that we are bound to all natural things by semiotic relations. Many natural things signal other natural things in a deeper or more general way than any type of conversation in a mutually understood language. A walking stick is a kind of insect that has evolved to be able to camouflage itself by resembling a stick for its predators. The cane signals to its predators “I am a stick”. It communicates a meaningful proposition to its predators even though they share no common language and do not speak at all. Here I am the great American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, who argued that all things in nature exchange meaningful signals with each other. It is his “pansemiotism”. But I don’t agree with his panpsychism. Things don’t need spirits to interpret or make meaningful signals.
(2) The second non-theistic way of thinking about deities emerges when we consider the signs in more detail. Our sun goes through a sunspot cycle: approximately every eleven years, the number of sunspots reaches its maximum. The sunspot cycle is generally thought to be driven by the gravitational effects of the planets Venus, Earth, and Jupiter. Sunspots are minimum when these planets are aligned and maximum when they are maximum misaligned. If this planetary alignment theory of the sunspot cycle is correct, then the clear sun means “The planets are aligned” while the spots on the sun mean “The planets are not aligned”. In a slightly more poetic way, it means “I miss you”. Yet there is no reason to believe that the sun has a spirit. But if the sun is busy sending signals to other things, then it’s reasonable for me to send signals to the sun. Since I’m human, I make human signals. It’s quite rational to talk to the sun. It is not rational to expect him to hear or understand you. The planets also do not include the sun. Here, then, is a second atheistic conception of deities: deities are superhuman signallers. According to this conception, the sun and the earth are deities. Many 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 anything. Since flaggers are more like people, perhaps this second design 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. Statues of Justice in courthouses are deified abstractions. Deified abstractions are ideal values. The ancient Olympian deities can be seen as deified abstractions: Zeus is justice; Athena is wisdom. (Although best thought of as representing the skills necessary for survival, but I won’t dwell on that here.) Atheists themselves often have deified abstractions like truth, reason, science and knowledge. There is nothing wrong with an atheist using names, images, or statues of ancient deities to refer to valuable abstractions. From this point of view, the gods and goddesses are ideals. It makes no sense to worship them, but it makes 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 a ritual. You could take an oath to Justice before serving on a jury. You could honor or revere or worship Truth in your science lab. The image in this post is Paul-Albert Besnard’s allegorical painting of “The Truth Guiding the Sciences” (pictured above). Here Truth and Science are deified abstractions.
(4) This leads to a fourth and final non-theistic conception of deities. Gods are superhuman people. But an atheist will not consider them bodiless or non-physical. Superhuman people can exist in many ways. Perhaps one day soon we will use genetic engineering to transform our descendants into superhuman people. They will be entirely physical organisms. Or maybe we’ll use artificial intelligence technologies to create superhuman robots. They will be natural persons unlike us. Or perhaps there are other possible universes that contain superhuman people of extreme power, intelligence, and kindness. All of these would be deities. These deities can also serve as ideals to help us focus our thoughts and actions. And they can serve as objects of aspiration: we should aspire to be like them, and to transform ourselves into them.
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