Missing the point of metaphor

Metaphors aren’t false or true. They’re both at once. That’s the point of metaphor.

Ok, let me back up.

I recently started following John Halstead’s blog, and while so far I have only skimmed the surface of his suggestions for a new taxonomy of Paganism, it seems like he engages with “naturalistic” Pagans a lot. Just that term seems weird to me; are most forms of Paganism not natural enough? Apparently this is at least in part an attempt by some atheist Pagans to differentiate themselves from people who actually believe deities exist.

Sometimes these folks use pagan and sometimes they use Pagan. I’m going to continue to write Pagan with a capital P because it’s important to me as part of getting Paganism recognized as a “real” religion and not just a philosophical stance.

This matters because today John and Star are both talking about a post over at Humanistic Paganism that asks “Why do people want supernatural gods?” The author, M. J. Lee, describes herself as small-p pagan. She admits that she feels animosity toward hard polytheists, and spends the piece weighing the pros and cons of believing in gods, but ultimately she derides people who believe in real gods as being too literal.

Star is understandably angry about this and questions whether a creeping evangelical atheism is starting to claim the p/Pagan label. I don’t think so, but I can completely relate to how she’s feeling. Another post I skimmed over at The Allergic Pagan was engaging with a piece at Humanistic Paganism that was similarly questioning “god talk” in Paganism. I have been quietly annoyed by that approach ever since.

See, I have a loud and insistent internal voice of skepticism. And like most people in our community, I came out of a Christian background with a lot of assumptions about what it means to be a deity, and a lot of assumptions about how people and deities interact. (To quote House, “When you talk to God, that’s prayer. When God talks to you, it’s psychosis.”) I’ve spent a lot of time processing that, and I’m not going to be able to address it all here, but I’ll try to hit a few high points.

Deities don’t have to be omnipotent and omniscient to be deities. That’s a Christian and monotheist misconception. My deities are not. In fact, it’s important to me that Pagan stories describe the relationships between people and deities quite differently. I ended up finding that a very humanistic aspect of Paganism as a functionally polytheistic religion.

But more importantly, I’ve had direct experiences of deities. This is something I continue to struggle with because of that internal skepticism. When people talk about the Goddess telling them something, or Hestia asking them to do something, it’s easy to joke about that, to edge around my own discomfort by falling back on the overculture’s stereotypes and assumptions. But I don’t have that luxury any more. I can’t weigh the values of a humanistic Paganism with no “god talk” vs the values of thinking of deities as more than myths, because at least some of them have made themselves known to me directly.

As a result, I have to allow multiple perspectives to coexist in my head and heart simultaneously. I remain skeptical of each and every contact with deity; I do not take anything on faith. And at the same time, I continue to cultivate those relationships at the same time that I understand deities as myths, and metaphors, and more. I continue to work with other deities who may be “only” myths and metaphors, and I leave those questions open, with multiple possible answers coexisting within myself.

And from that perspective, it can be damned annoying to see someone question whether I am being overly literal because other forms of religious understanding are not “enough” for me. I’m not trying to define atheists out of Paganism. I will happily do ritual with people who think deities are “only” metaphors, as long as we can all agree on the basis for the ritual and our practices within it.

But to me, M. J. Hall’s piece doesn’t look like an attempt to understand Pagans who believe in deities from their own perspective. That’s a charitable interpretation, but she’s framing the question entirely within her own understanding rather than trying to cope with what are two potentially incommensurate frames. Similarly, The Allergic Pagan’s subtitle is “My search for the sensible transcendental.” But the transcendental isn’t always sensible, by its very nature. There is no opportunity for me to answer Hall’s question by saying, “Because I know them.” There is no place for me to describe the entirely un-sensible experience of having contact with deity.

And yes, Star is also understandably upset that some people are taking small-p pagan and running with it in a way that seems designed to justify each and every thing said by the fringe Christians who want to “fight the green dragon” and deride everything from Earth Day to recycling as bizarre “pagan” rituals. The folks trying to be “humanistic pagans” may not want to be recognized as engaging in religion at all; while I can respect that, it comes across to me as undermining all the work that has been done to get Paganism, big P, recognized as a “real” religion. The Pentacle Quest, for example, is just the tip of the iceberg.

I’m not trying to be literalist or fundamentalist; since I have multiple perspectives within myself, I can certainly coexist with others who have other perspectives within the same religion, if we want. But Star is right that people who are aggressive about proselytizing a- or non-theistic understandings can seem to be trying to undermine and even deride religion, and it’s worth examining whether they are part of the same religion or of an allied philosophical movement or something else entirely.

I don’t know where M. J. Hall falls in all of that, and I’m not going to try to guess based on one snippet of writing. But what is clear to me is that she fundamentally misunderstands the idea of metaphor, and I think that’s part of the problem here. Her conclusion seems to be setting up people who believe in “real” deities as separate from people who believe in deities as metaphors. She even talks about “true or false metaphors.” That’s an incoherent phrase.

Metaphors aren’t true or false. They get their power from being both true and false, all at the same time. I don’t see deities as either “real,” powerful, interventionist beings or else “only” myths. I have seen, and continue to see, and to relate with, deities that partake of both, and may even shift back and forth. To me, this is the real challenge of being Pagan: existing in the midst of this complexity, of myths and metaphors and old stories and new stories and….

To quote my friend Hecate, it’s all real; it’s all metaphor; there’s always more. That’s where the magic happens.

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About Literata

Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented rituals and workshops at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. Literata offers healing and divination services as well as customized life-cycle rituals. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in history with the support of her husband and four cats.
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43 Responses to Missing the point of metaphor

  1. Your phrase “a loud and insistent internal voice of skepticism” is the best description for my own (mostly) internal monologue that I’ve ever encountered. What excellent word play in an excellent post. Thanks!

    • Literata says:

      Thanks, Dash! I’m glad that resonated with you. Maybe I’ll write more about that in the future, because it’s one of the things I struggle with, and I don’t think I’m the only one, but I haven’t seen it addressed a lot.

      • You’re certainly not the only one! I have a lot of thoughts about faith and the conflict of doubt and certainty within it and how each of those seek to strengthen and tear down faith in their own way. One day I’ll start writing. Really.

    • thalassa says:

      Ditto to this!

      I think the way to best explain it, for me, is that spiritually I acknowledge and engage with a number of literal and holy beings…intellectually I doubt their existence as a matter of fact. Both can be “true” with neither being The Truth.

      • thalassa says:

        And ultimately, I don’t think it matters. I’m pragmatic enough that the only part that matters (to me) is that it works (for me).

    • Me, too. Since I started practicing, 17 years ago. Skeptical, but going with it anyway, because it seems to be happening. I might be imagining it, I might be crazy (ok, I am crazy; I might be delusional), it might not exist at all. But it appears to me that it does so, and even if I am wrong, behaving as if it does generally benefits me. I am more centered and stable when I am active in my practice than when I am not.

      MJ and Jon both ticked me right off.

      -MG

  2. DT Strain says:

    As a Stoic, I like the notion that our minds are a spark of the Divine Fire. Our reason operates in and of the universe. The edge of ‘me’ ends and the universe begins is not so solid a line. Everything is interconnected, everything is me and nothing is me. And in such a universe, maybe – as far as our spiritual practice is concerned – we needn’t be so concerned as to from whence contact with a deity comes – it came from the universe, regardless of what portion of that vast complex experience resides on the which side of the skull wall. The skull cannot keep out (or in) causality and interdependency. Also, maybe we needn’t be so concerned as to the precise nature of deities when we hardly even understand our own consciousness. What is important is that we all make spiritual progress together, while in our own ways, in mutual respect and love for one another – regardless of our paths or experiences. Let us not be too obsessed with labels and flags.

    • Literata says:

      Well, as a theaologian, I don’t want to shut down discussion of the nature of deities, but I agree that precise definitions should probably not be the biggest deal.

    • I agree.

      I consider myself to be both a hard polytheist and a pantheist. The universe itself I consider to be the ultimate deity. But the gods I worship are individuals, just as I am. Yet both they and I are part of the universe, not separable from it.

      Precisely what the nature of the deities is, I will probably never know. We don’t even, as a race, know our own nature. How are we supposed to know theirs? And yet talking about it can still be productive and fertile.

  3. I realize this is probably a terrible time to ask – right in the middle of this controversy and all – but I would be interested to hear more specific details about your direct experiences of the gods. I don’t ask in order to refute, I’m just always interested in how people come to understand their experiences of the gods.

    P.S. The “naturalistic” thing is about alignment with the view of naturalism. See specifically methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism, here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naturalism

    Some hold only to methodological naturalism (myself included), while others push further into metaphysical naturalism. Personally I prefer to remain more agnostic than the latter allows, but that’s just me.

    See also Naturalism.org, and movements such as Religious Naturalism (also called Spiritual Naturalism).

    • Literata says:

      I’ll look at those, thanks!

      My contacts with deity have been, for the most part, intensely personal, so I hope you don’t mind if I don’t share all the details. The simplest part of it, every time, has been a specific awareness of a particular personality. Just like when I’m aware of my partner being in the same room even when I’m not looking at him, I become aware of a very powerful presence not visually but simply as a personality. These have all been immediately identifiable as a particular deity, even if the personality is not exactly what I might have expected. In addition to that, I have sometimes had intuitive awarenesses – ideas, information, hunches, that sort of thing – dropped on me at the same time. So far these have all been accurate and/or helpful forms of insight that I could not perceive as originating within myself.

  4. Wonderful post! Wonderful way to address all of the discussion going on.

  5. What continues to puzzle me here is the ongoing assertions that when the “Naturalist/Humanist Pagans” express their views, they’re somehow proselytizing or saying other people aren’t “Pagan enough” or what have you. When hard polytheists discuss their relationships with their gods, no one gets up in arms about how they’re somehow saying that people who *aren’t* polytheists aren’t good enough or smart enough or Pagan enough or whatever. Seriously, what gives? It seems to me that the people responding with anger at MJ’s post are really being unnecessarily hypersensitive, as though *she’s* the one who’s somehow asked questions that are Simply Not Allowed in Pagan Thought, and this strikes me as a BIG problem.

    • Literata says:

      Well, when I express my views, I try very hard to avoid proselytizing or characterizing others’ experiences for them. But a lot of that post takes on a tone of addressing theistic Pagans as others and simultaneously trying to characterize their experiences for them. And she does explicitly theorize about what conditions will allow non-theistic religion to increase and theistic religion to vanish. She doesn’t say that’s what she wants to have happen, but it’s close enough to give me cause for concern.

      She tries out some theories: do those people work with gods because they can’t relate to nature well enough? Because they’re literalists? She also consistently equates theism with literalism, which is oversimplifying and frankly insulting. Hence, I wrote that my understandings of and relationships with deities are much more multivalent and complex.

      It’s not so much what questions she’s asking, it’s the way she’s asking them. There’s a difference between asking someone “Why do you think you’re lesbian?” and speculating about whether some women are lesbians because they just haven’t met the right guy yet. If I wrote a post speculating that atheist or naturalist or humanist Pagans are the way they are because they’re scared of deities, I’d expect and deserve a lot of flak for that.

      And you know what? Yeah, I’m pretty sensitive about it being said or implied that I work with my deities because I’m too unenlightened to do otherwise. When I get that a lot not just from the New Atheists but also from mainstream religions who think my deities are stupid, I get tired of it and sensitive about it. I tried hard not to hold that against the author or take it out on her. If I failed at that I apologize.

      I’m not saying she’s not Pagan enough, whatever that might mean. I’m saying she doesn’t understand where I’m coming from, so her attempt to theorize sbout it the way she does is unsuccessful and counterproductive.

    • The problem isn’t that she’s asking questions that are Not Allowed, the problem is that she’s asking flawed questions, and then positing her own Wild-Ass Guesses as answers without allowing any room for any answers from the people she’s asking the questions about. And her questions are flawed in that they have nothing to do with our experiences, but only with her assumptions about them. She’s not trying to understand anything about us, she’s using her questions as a rhetorical device to give herself room to answer them.

      And if you show me a polytheistic pagan doing the same, I shall say the same of them.

  6. Literata: Thanks for this great post. I appreciate your being willing to engage in this discussion in a thoughtful manner and even share some very personal experiences.

    I admit that I am not coming at this issue from an emotionally neutral place. As a former-Christian, most of my religious discussions can still be seen on some level as a reaction to that paradigm, even now, years later. Now, I know one of the worst insults one Pagan can give to another is to call them Christian, and my intent is not to do so. However, I have to admit that when I hear people talk about deities as separate individuals, distinct from natural phenomena, I have the same emotional reaction as I do when engaging Christians. And this is why:

    One of the principal reasons I left Christianity was because, as I understood it, it locates the source of all power, goodness, truth, and beauty outside of the human being and outside of the natural world. And one of the main reason I began to identify as Pagan was because, as I understood it, it locates the source of all power, goodness, truth, and beauty inside the human being and inside the natural world. This is a fundamental difference of paradigm with very practical effects on how I feel about myself and the world around me.

    When you describe your experience of feeling a presence of a personality in the room with you, and receiving inspiration from that personality — that does not bother me at all as a naturalist, because that is really a bodily experience and I can understand that our psyches are not unitary. But I think it does make a difference when you understand that personality to be radically separate from yourself. It does for me at least. Now, maybe you don’t find the idea of supernatural deities to be personally dis-empowering, but I do. And it strikes to the very core of why I want to be Pagan.

    By the way, the phrase “sensible transcendental” is Luce Irigary’s and is meant to be provocative, but I don’t think it is necessarily a contradiction in terms. We can speak of transcending the ego-self or transcending a reductionist materialism, but through a sensual or embodied experience. This is something I just posted about: http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com/2012/06/02/soul-centered-paganism/

    I understand that many deity-centered Pagans still consider their deities to be “natural” — but when the definition “natural” is extended to personalities that are distinct from everything that I can see with my eyes, touch with my hands, or feel inside my body, then I think the term “natural” has become meaningless, because it doesn’t exclude anything. And it’s then that I really have a hard time distinguishing this kind of Paganism from the Christianity I left.

    • Literata says:

      Thanks for coming over, John.

      I really didn’t want to make this post about what type of experiences I had because I didn’t want to open this up to others “policing” my experiences. Your take on my experiences is very respectfully couched, but for most purposes, it really doesn’t matter to me what parts of my experience bother you or don’t bother you. That’s not intended as an insult to you in any way; it’s just part of how I have to own my own experiences. I’m actually going to get into this in another post, so thanks for giving me lots to think about and write about. I hope you come back to discuss it some more.

      The theaological issues you raise are very relevant to understanding Paganism as distinct from monotheisms and Christianity in particular, and your explanation really helps me understand where you’re coming from, both in terms of personal history and philosophical stance. Thank you for that! I don’t feel like you’re calling me Christian, and I certainly don’t want to do that to you, either. I do, however, have a very different view of the kinds of deities that exist in my understanding of Paganism that don’t make them “disempowering” for me.

      If you look at the link to my Mabon essay, I hope you’ll see that in struggling with the kinds of stories told about deities and mortals in Paganism, I found a better understanding of how and why the deities I’m working with are not disempowering because even when they matter, they’re not necessarily the center of the story. I understood those stories as human-centered, which as I understand it is part of what you and maybe other naturalist Pagans are emphasizing. They may be supernatural, but they’re not omni/omni, and that makes them way, way, way less overwhelming. They’re certainly not the center of power, truth, goodness, and beauty, absolutely not to the exclusion of myself. I’m having trouble explaining in words how radically different this conception of deity is from the Christian one. Maybe I’ll keep working on that.

      Thank you for the link; I certainly do intend to go back through the rest of that series of yours. I can understand, in some ways, what might be meant by “sensible transcendentalism.” I think I come close to that when I talk about the kinds of common-sense, hard reality tests and questions I apply to any possible UPG and its applications for my life. But on the other hand, some of what I find most valuable in Paganism is the wild sweet ecstasy that simply cannot be contained within the bounds of the “sensible.” If that’s where you shift meanings to talking about the “sensual” and embodied experience, then maybe that also can be included in the complexity of that term. I’ll take a look.

      • Literata, thank you for taking the time to explain your experience and being patient with my own. You’ve given me a a lot to think about. Thanks!

    • I find it interesting that you reject polytheists’ definitions, descriptions, and experiences of our gods in favor of our own.

      My gods, the ones I interact with directly, the ones I honor, treat me with respect. They rarely command me to do anything, and even when they do, I have the option of refusing. But more usually they offer me opportunities and invitations (“Come dance with me!” being a frequent one these days). I am a priestess, and I have made certain vows to them, and so generally I do what they ask, as soon as I get around to it. But not always.

      My gods are not separate from nature, they are part of it. They are embodiments of natural processes, and of the processes of human lives. This does not make them less individuals, any more than our careers, being part of human processes, make us less individuals. They are of nature, and Gaia, too, is a goddess. She is nature herself, though she has designated to her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren some of the parts of her. To worship the gods of nature is not to separate oneself from nature, it is simply it rejoice in it with the gods, to take joy from it as they do, and to celebrate it alongside them.

      It is your perception of our beliefs that causes you discomfort with them. Perhaps it is a good idea to reexamine them, and to find out what our beliefs truly are.

      • “I find it interesting that you reject polytheists’ definitions, descriptions, and experiences of our gods in favor of our own.”

        Of course I use my own definitions. I am trying to incorporate the experience of polytheists into my own — not vice versa.

        “My gods are not separate from nature, they are part of it. They are embodiments of natural processes, and of the processes of human lives.”

        It sounds like you are describing an embodied experience of the deities, and if so, that’s something I think we can build a common understanding on.

        I wonder though, if you include deities in nature, what does supernatural mean to you? What is an example? Can you think of an example other than the transcendent God of monotheism?

        ” This does not make them less individuals …”

        I don’t think the issue is whether they are individual, but whether they are persons, whether their have personalities and consciousness.

        “Perhaps it is a good idea to reexamine them, and to find out what our beliefs truly are.”

        Okay, so here are my questions: Do you experience the deities through your five senses? Do you experience the deities *exclusively* through your five senses? Do you experience the deities partially or exclusively through a tacit internal bodily awareness, what Adrian Harris calls the “felt sense”, or is it a mental event? Do the deities communicate with your verbally (through language)? Do deities control (other) natural phenomena like wind and rain? Are the deities identical with natural phenomena like wind and rain? Are the deities natural phenomena but separate from other natural phenomena like wind and rain? Do you experience the deities as persons? Do you personify deities knowing they are not persons? How important to you is your explanation for the nature of deities? Is the experience of the deities more important than questions about their nature? Would it bother you if the deities were projections of your psyche?

      • Of course I use my own definitions. I am trying to incorporate the experience of polytheists into my own — not vice versa.

        When you use your definitions for the experiences and beliefs of others, you twist them, and show your own ignorance. If you want to incorporate our experiences, then you should seek to understand them on our terms, not on yours. You can’t incorporate our experiences without understanding them, and you can’t understand a revelatory experience from outside it.

        I wonder though, if you include deities in nature, what does supernatural mean to you? What is an example? Can you think of an example other than the transcendent God of monotheism?

        I think supernatural is a fun, if deeply fucked-up, tv show, and is otherwise generally a nonsensical term. If it exists, it is part of nature, part of the universe. “Supernatural” is a label that atheists have applied to my gods. If you wish to understand my gods and my experiences of them, you should lose the term, because it is irrelevant.

        I don’t think the issue is whether they are individual, but whether they are persons, whether their have personalities and consciousness.

        Are you a person? Do you have a personality and consciousness? You seem to, and you will probably say that you do. My gods seem to, and they say that they do. Why should I not accept them as people, then? And who are you to tell me that they aren’t and don’t, who have not even met them? Why do you even care?

        Do you experience the deities through your five senses?

        Yes.

        Do you experience the deities *exclusively* through your five senses?

        No. Note that there are more than five senses recognized by science.

        Do you experience the deities partially or exclusively through a tacit internal bodily awareness, what Adrian Harris calls the “felt sense”, or is it a mental event?

        I have no idea who Adrian Harris is, or what he means by what he calls that, but my encounters with my gods are sometimes purely internal, and sometimes not. I couldn’t tell you whether one has been more frequent over my lifetime.

        Do the deities communicate with your verbally (through language)?

        Yes.

        Do deities control (other) natural phenomena like wind and rain?

        They sometimes seem to. More than that, I couldn’t say.

        Are the deities identical with natural phenomena like wind and rain?

        Well, generally, I would not call the entities which as identical with such phenomena “deities,” but rather “nature spirits” or “daimones,” but the distinction is one of behavior, not of nature. Certainly there are gods who are identical to rivers and mountains and so forth.

        Are the deities natural phenomena but separate from other natural phenomena like wind and rain?

        Can you rephrase the question? Also, in these past couple of questions, you’re asking about my thealogy, not my experiences. Thealogy is what I think about the gods, not what I experience with them. I’m not a terribly organized thealogist, my ideas are not necessarily shared by other polytheists, and my ideas are liable to be very wrong. What do you hope to learn from this line of questioning?

        Do you experience the deities as persons?

        Yes.

        Do you personify deities knowing they are not persons?

        What?

        How important to you is your explanation for the nature of deities?

        Not particularly. How important to you is your explanation of the nature of people?

        Is the experience of the deities more important than questions about their nature?

        Yes. Isn’t that so with most people, and indeed with most of life?

        Would it bother you if the deities were projections of your psyche?

        Not really.

        Now, how much have you actually learned from all of that? Your questions are still biased by your viewpoint, and such simple yes/no ones are particularly prone towards confirmation bias. You’re interrogating me, rather than having a conversation. And, honestly, I find a series of rapid-fire questions that leave little room for explanation, without even having asked me if I was willing to answer them, to be kind of rude.

      • I ran those off quickly and without a lot of thought. I’m now going to go back and respond to a couple of things a bit more thoroughly.

        I wonder though, if you include deities in nature, what does supernatural mean to you? What is an example? Can you think of an example other than the transcendent God of monotheism?

        Holy Wanton Dualism, Batman. You assume so much right here. This is what I’m talking about when I say that you need to use our definitions to understand our experiences. Your dualistic assumption of natural vs. supernatural has absolutely no relationship to anything I believe or experience. You are imposing your ideas on my beliefs and experiences when you do this, and so are utterly incapable of understanding what my beliefs and experiences actually are. You do this throughout your entire post. These are the kinds of ideas I think you should reexamine, if you actually want to understand our experiences, rather than impose some inappropriate framework on them from outside, and then declare that that’s what’s really going on. It’s cultural imperialism writ small.

        Do you personify deities knowing they are not persons?

        That is what is formally known as “begging the question”. You are assuming that the gods are not persons, and that if I am calling them such, I must know better. You appear to be arguing in bad faith, and trying to set me up in something you think is a trap. Cut it out. Either try to actually understand what I’m saying, or find someone else to rudely interrogate.

        You sound like you’re parroting one of those study sheets for a World Religions class, or something. Discussion group topics, maybe. It’s crap. That’s not how to understand immanence.

  7. Pingback: Is “gods” part of the problem? | Works of Literata

  8. madgastronomer:
    My intent was not to be rude or to interrogate. Those were just the questions running through my head, and it seemed more efficient to lay them all out at once. I am certainly not trying to “trap” you. (For example, the question “Do you personify deities knowing they are not persons”, while poorly phrased I admit, was a follow up to the preceding question, Do you experience the deities as persons?” If you answered yes to this, you would not need to answer the following question.) I think he questions left plenty of room for explanation, and you are free to take as much room as you you need (only limited by the size of the text box), which you did. Even the yes-no questions were intended to invite more explanation, which you (mostly) gave and I appreciate — a simple “yes” or “no” would have been very unsatisfactory.
    It’s unfortunate that you don’t like how I phrased the questions, but this is how I think about things.
    Honestly, I don’t know how I could possibly understand someone else’s experience without relating it to an experience in my own life. I can’t leave my body/mind and enter your body/mind.
    I actually learned a lot from your responses — obviously they raise even more question — so thanks for taking the time to respond.
    I would like you to elaborate on your last comment: “That’s not how to understand immanence.” Please tell me how you think I can understand it.

    • Look, when a person looks at another culture, they can either try to understand how the members of that culture perceive it and experience it, or they can stay centered in their own culture and do nothing but compare everything in the other culture to something in their own, thereby limiting their own perceptions. If a non-Latino white American tries to understand what a Quinceañera is, but goes no further than “oh, it’s like a Sweet Sixteen party,” then they have not actually understood what it is, they have only compared it to something they already know. If, on the other hand, they try to find out what it is without running it only through their own culture first, then they could learn a lot about it. Of course everything they learn will be understood in the context of their own experiences. Everything is, always. But there’s learning about something only in terms you already understand, and learning about it in its native terms. If you can only compare our gods to either the Christian god or the naturalistic principle you relate to, then you will completely miss what we experience our gods to actually be, which is another thing entirely, only distantly conceptually related to either of those.

      If you ask a bunch of questions like, “Well, do you have cake? Do you have flowers? Do you have a pretty dress?” of someone who has had a Quinceañera, then you are looking only at small details, not at the experience or the context. You are missing everything you do not think of, and any details the person you’re asking mentions that don’t fit your view, you’re likely to miss entirely. You’re not asking the questions that will get answers that will actually tell you what a Quinceañera is to a young woman who has one, because you don’t even understand enough about it to know what to ask.

      And if you’re content with that, then fine, but don’t say you’re trying to understand, because you aren’t. You’re trying to find a convenient explanation or metaphor that you can stop at.

      If you actually want to understand, then you should probably start with more open-ended questions. “How do you experience interactions with your gods? How do you feel about them? How do they act?” But before you ask another single question, you should stop thinking of your experience as right and ours as wrong, and start thinking about our experiences as being just as valid as yours. Now I’m sure you’re going to insist that you are thinking of our experiences as valid, but the language you use is very loaded, and especially when you’re not thinking it through carefully, that reveals a lot about how you’re thinking about it. Word choices like “supernatural” and “knowing they are not persons” demonstrate a presumption of falsehood, and contempt. (And even if, somehow, this really did mean something totally different in your head, it’s still offensive out here to other people, and not acknowledging that is pretty rude on its own.)

      You are rude and condescending. You refuse to apologize or stop when I tell you you’re being rude. If you actually want to understand our experiences, you might try being genuinely respectful when you ask us about them. You’ll get better responses that way.

      One more, very small, thing: Never tell me what your “intent” was. Because I rather infamously do not give a fuck. Your intent does not change your actions. You were rude to me, and now you are attempting to say you were not, rather than stopping and apologizing.

      • Honestly, the only person being rude here is you. You continue to confirm my suspicion that it is the very question that offends you. You refuse to have a civil and rational conversation about the topic unless I *a priori* accept, not just your experience, but also your interpretations as valid. You’ve offered many analogies to explain why I am asking the wrong question, instead of just taking the opportunity to describe your experience. You insist on defining the conversation in your own terms, refusing to even try to bridge your experience to mine, and are thus guilty of the very thing you accuse me of. I am grateful to those polytheists like Literata who have been more patient with our questions and have given the same benefit of the doubt that they ask from us.

      • DT Strain says:

        Very uncharitable to disregard intent when taking offense. Intent matters, and charitable people should take that into account in their responses. Madgastonomer, you make good point about how our assumptions can be a road block to understanding, and this is a common challenge to all people. But you come off as downright vicious and intolerant here. It seems that the only ‘proper’ way of approaching you is in on our knees, begging to be bestowed superior wisdom. But we are not your students, we are your equals, and you should be capable of conversing maturely with other people of different beliefs, especially those of good will, without taking offense so easily. Pleased learn a little charity, compassion, and civility.

      • John, I don’t owe you any description of my experiences. You keep acting as if I do. If I answer your questions, then I am being kind and generous and giving of my time and attention, and sharing things that are very personal to me. If I choose not to, then that is my choice. It’s my time, my attention, and my personal experiences, which you have no claim to.

        As long as you keep assuming that our experiences and interpretations are not valid, a priori, you will never understand them. When you’re talking to us, assume our experiences and interpretations are valid. Then you can go off and think about it. But assuming you know better than us from the start is condescending and rude.

        You can have all the suspicions you want. What offends me is your treatment of me. But you can’t possibly concede that you might have done anything wrong, so of course you can’t hear that.

        DT, I have no interest in being charitable in the way you talk about. John does not need my charity, and I do not owe it to him. I give my time and my money to the causes I care about, and that’s all the charity I feel any need to show. I don’t care what you think of me. Intent does not change action, and indeed I cannot truly know another’s intent, since, as John has pointed out, I cannot enter another’s body and mind. All I can know is what another does, and what John did was rude and disrespectful.

        I was not treated as an equal, someone whose opinion was just as valid, I was treated as a subject in a sociological study, some poor ignorant who doesn’t really know what she experienced or how to interpret it properly, and only John could figure it out. I was treated as if I must answer him. When you treat someone as an equal, and they say, “Hey, that was actually kinda rude,” you apologize and you stop doing it.

        But what you are telling me is that I’m being uppity to ask that I be treated with respect. Nice. Two men telling a woman she can’t expect to be treated with respect. Lovely.

      • By the way, both of you, saying cruel things and blaming it on the person you’re saying it to is called gaslighting, and it’s an abusive behavior. I don’t care so much about people on the internet doing it, but I hope neither of you treat your loved ones that way.

        I deserve to be treated with respect. I deserve to be treated as an equal, not a lesser creature who is here for your education, convenience, or pleasure. I will never not insist on being treated with respect by those I interact with — and that includes being treated as if my experiences and understanding of them are valid. I don’t pass judgement on whether or not your experience of the divine (or lack thereof) is valid, don’t pass judgement on mine.

  9. madgastronomer wrote: “Why do you even care?”

    There’s three possibilities that I see. (1) Your encounter with deities is the same as or similar to an experience I have had, but we are using different terms to describe it. (2) Your encounter with deities is the same as or similar to an experience I have had, but we are interpreting the nature of that experience differently. (3) Your experience with deities is nothing like anything I have ever experienced. Basically, I want to know if I am missing out on an experience, and if so, what the nature of the experience is so I can know if I want to have it.

    • If you think we may be using different terms to describe similar experiences, then you might want to actually learn what terms we use and, more importantly, what we mean by them, instead of jumping to associate what we say with terms you use, but may have very different definitions of than we do. That will only perpetuate the problem you posit in scenario 1. It’s not likely to help any with scenario 2, either.

      As for 3, well, if you had never encountered NaCl, and you asked a whole bunch of people what it was like, and some of them liked it and some of them didn’t, and some liked more or less of it more or less than others, but most of them kept using this term “salty,” which you only kind of had any idea of what it meant because you’d never tried it, and you kept thinking of it as being like “bitter,” how would that give you any kind of accurate data about whether or not you’d like to try some salt?

  10. Literata says:

    John, I’ve read your piece on the “gospel of tolerance” and I do understand that the idea of tolerance can be misused. I hope to respond to that in more detail in the future. But there is an important point that when naturalistic Pagans want to try to interact with and/or understand theistic Pagans, yes, you should be respectful. BT did a good job of that. You did, and then your rapid-fire interrogatives did come across as aggressive and totally within your own frame rather than asking open-ended things to try to work with different perspectives. I’m actively trying to encourage your voice, not silence you, and I’m not talking about tolerance, but I am talking about the ways that we approach each other.

    MadG is absolutely right that your intent does not ameliorate what actually happens. And saying that you’re sorry for how someone else experiences something you said or did is a non-pology. When I have more resources, I might try to tackle some of your list of questions, but I will reiterate that while I’m interested in having dialogue, I don’t think I’m here for you to incorporate my understandings into your own. That’s precisely what I mean by “othering.” I think that some of my experiences definitely fall into your third category, but there’s nothing I can do to convince you of that, which is pretty frustrating.

    DT, talking about “charity” there is essentially victim blaming. Theistic Pagans are saying, repeatedly, that they’re sick and tired of being told that at best they’re unenlightened and at worst they’re delusional. When someone has been going through that, it is perfectly reasonable to not have the emotional energy to be “charitable” towards the people who are giving them a hard time.

    In a more serious example, I recently had a very negative experience where someone defended hate speech about Wicca. I was furious. I don’t respond to that with a calm and reasoned educational presentation on Wicca designed to build interfaith respect and tolerance. I’m freaking furious, and it’s not my job to be “charitable” for the umpteenth time.

    Now, I am willing to give naturalistic Pagans a lot of benefit of the doubt, and I have some resources to do so. I’m certainly trying to. I’m consciously trying not to overreact to them based on my prior sensitization to being looked down on for being this kind of theist. I’m also asking them to think hard about how they come across, partially because I do have that prior sensitization. When I’m actively concerned about sharing my experiences for fear of being labelled delusional, and you don’t have to deal with that fear or those problems, then yeah, I’m asking you to think very carefully about how you come across.

    Finally, I’ve been told more than once that when I or other theistic Pagans say “that hurts me,” other people get to have an opinion on whether or not it _should_ hurt me. That’s also a prime example of denying my experiences, it’s not okay, and it will rapidly exhaust my resources. (Again, are there cases where people abuse this to try to defend something indefensible? Yes. I don’t think naturalistic Pagans can conclude that theistic Pagans are acting in that kind of bad faith quite yet in this situation.)

    I’m trying to interact as equals, and I’m telling you what I need on my side for that. Part of that is people not assuming a priori that they can explain my experiences to their satisfaction.

    • While I can’t apologize for having the questions that I do, I can and do apologize for inadvertently expressing myself in a way that offended you and others. I had not occurred to me that listing my questions in what I considered to be the most efficient fashion would be read/heard as interrogating or aggressive, but I can see that. So I am sorry. I also realize that you are not here to educate me and you do not exist for my purposes and I apologize for taking advantage of you and Magda without considering carefully your feelings. Thank you again for taking the time to share, especially with an audience who might not be fully receptive, and being patient with the questioning. I will try to tread more gently in future discussions with theists (and anyone else of different beliefs).

      • Well, thank you for that, even if you directed an apology for things done to me at Literata instead, and even if you managed to get my name wrong. Thanks, really.

        And if you’ve learned to treat polytheists with respect, as equals, then it’s all been worth it.

      • “And if you’ve learned to treat polytheists with respect, as equals, then it’s all been worth it.”

        Magda, believe it or not, you started out as an equal in my mind to begin with. When I consider someone my equal, I don’t coddle them or patronize them. Instead, I am honest about my thoughts and feelings with them. I suspect you have had some bad experiences with militant atheists and you read my responses from that frame of reference, unnecessarily interpreting my words as manipulative, when I was in fact genuinely curious. As I said, you started out as an equal … but my estimation of you has plummeted since then.

      • Damn typos — MadG

  11. That wasn’t a typo. You repeated it twice, identically. And you did not treat me as an equal, you treated me as a convenience, and you treated me as someone who could not hold a valid opinion, who must be wrong for you to be right — and of course you must be right. You treated me as if I were stupid. And you got mad when I demanded that I be treated with respect. All of that demonstrates, once again, that you do not think I am your equal, you think you are superior.

    Clearly, you really didn’t mean your apology for me. You think you should get to treat me as an inferior and not get called on it, because you think I am inferior. You have no intention of treating me or any other theist with genuine respect or as an actual equal, because you truly think we’re not. And you will only get angry and stubborn when we point out your bad behavior, as so many do.

    I see that same behavior again and again. From racists, from sexists, from homophobes, from transphobes, from bigots of every stripe, the kind who don’t want to cop to their own bigotry. They insist that they are treating the people they hate and fear as equals, when they are not, and they get angry and defensive when they’re called on it, too.

    It’s you who can’t stand to have your positions challenged, not us. I don’t care what you or anyone else believes about my gods. I do care how you treat me, and other people. You are insisting on treating me badly. That’s really all there is to it.

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