Many Pagans that I know of, particularly those who grew up in religiously restricted and even religiously hostile and/or spiritually abusive homes, choose to leave Christianity as much as a rejection of the Biblical vision of god as the new-found inspiration and rediscovered vision of the deities of ancient cultures. I am one of the minority (or at least I assume I’m a minority based on my conversations with other Pagans) that came from both a quite liberal and even progressive Christian faith and from a quite religiously open-minded and open heart-ed family. My change of faith came from a realization (at a rather young age) that, whether or not Jesus as Christ (literal or figurative) was “real” (mythically or historically), I didn’t consider “salvation” to be a worthy or even necessary goal of the human condition. I have nothing to be saved from because there is nothing wrong with being human. I also found that once salvation is taken out of the equation, the god of Abraham’s covenant isn’t any more compelling than a god of any other pantheon. And really, I straight-up think some of those other gods are much, much cooler with far more compelling and powerful stories (I love me some Joseph Campbell).
Over the years, my theological opinion on the nature of god* has evolved from the Trinitarian monotheism of my childhood, into the duotheistic soft-polytheism common to eclectic Wicca of my formative Pagan youth, through a pantheon-specific polytheistic revivalism to its current incarnation of a hybrid pantheistic polytheism. My beliefs about the existence and nature of god is a bit complicated, as I think it probably should be, for any reasonably logical individual that has none-the-less had profoundly spiritual religious experiences with deity. I’m sure that my considerations on the nature of deity will continue to develop over time, but in the meantime, I thought it might be fun to ponder upon the current state of my belief in deity, and which twigs on the tree of Paganism that I hang my beliefs from…
When it comes to deity, I occupy a certain ambiguous middle ground in the Pagan continuum of belief (or just a Venn diagram of theological ideas). In practice, I’m a polytheist (though I’m neither a hard or a soft polytheist since I don’t believe that multiple gods are either facets of one god or that they are literal and distinct beings), since I acknowledge and worship multiple deities. In belief though, I’m more of a pantheist–but not entirely; and I’m not a naturalist, though I value that perspective, with my educational background in biology. I’m also a fan of Jung and I don’t entirely buy into the idea that individual gods are literal, sentient and powerful entities capable of independent and direct action. At the same time though, I really do think that there really is *something* else at work in the universe…I just don’t think we (humans of limited consciousness) are truly equipped to define it, though I tend to favor the idea that the *something* at work expresses “itself” in a myriad of ways.
So here’s the only thing I honestly know about divine beings, regardless of their nature (or indeed that *anyone* can know about divine beings): There is no such thing as an objective event, fact or state(ment) that one can make about a completely abstract idea that is entirely subjective. Because of that, there isn’t a single god that can be measured, weighed, observed, photographed, or otherwise independently verified. Additionally, it seems that different cultures and individuals explain god in culturally relative and personally meaningful ways without any universal agreement or cohesion. To me, this indicates that the ultimate nature of god is ultimately unknowable…except to the individual’s perception of and experience with god (and this includes the option that deities do not exist at all or that they all exist simultaneously). Intellectually, I believe that god exists as infinite possibilities (well, infinite possibilities in the sense of global population over the history of humankind and any other organism that might be able to conceptualize an idea of god–which I find to be a totally interesting thought exercise).
With that being said, spiritually I believe in a Divine Universe. I’m not saying that I think that the Universe is (merely) a deity, but rather that the Universe itself is the physical embodiment of what it means to be Divine and Sacred. As such, I believe that the creation and on-going development of the Universe (via scientifically evidenced means) results in individual forces which humans have since named and personified as deities in historical and culturally specific ways. Just as elements of the Universe are constantly in a flux of creation/destruction/existence, so are the individual multiple forces of the Universe (and of humanity), which we often call gods and worship as such (this includes the Abrahamic god which evolved from a single, limited deity from a single, limited pantheon to an all-powerful single god). Consequently, I think the collected stories of humanity about these forces and their interactions are incredibly important as a means of reflection and introspection about the human condition. And yes, this means that I believe in the development of “new” gods and even that I think that perfectly valid and authentic spiritual and religious experiences and traditions can even originate from modern ideas and fictional writings (another popular discussion on Pagan Forum that crops up from time to time),
I have mostly chosen to pass on the question of whether or not gods are literal beings (does that make me an agnostic polytheist?) because I don’t find it to be spiritually significant. I’ve had strong feelings on both sides of this issue at different points of my life, and I’ve found that there isn’t any difference in MY relationship with the gods whether I think they are really “real” or not (which of course, begs the question…what is “real” anyhow?) If I am forced to take a stance, I don’t find it too difficult to allow for the possibility that these forces (which can be worked with) are active themselves and have modeled themselves for us as much as they have been molded by us into images/symbols/forces that are most appropriate to the time and place and people where they are worshiped. But I draw the line at a believe in them as literal and distinct human-like entities that are independently acting and interested in human affairs for their own amusement or edification–that sort of polytheistic view seems no more realistic or relevant to me than the old white guy with the beard sitting on the throne in the clouds of so many Christian denominations.
Instead, it really doesn’t matter to me if gods are literally real or subconscious projections of anthropomorphic symbols or something in between…or if they don’t exist at all. And it definitely doesn’t matter if someone else has come to a different conclusion on the nature of god. One, many, few, none, all-encompassing, limited, etc…its no skin off my teeth, as long as someone isn’t an ass about it! For me, god is a matter of pragmatism. The only thing that matters is our actual experience with the them and what we do with our experience with them. Hopefully, that we let our experience with god help us become a better person for one another. Some people never experience god while some people experience god incredibly realistic and even tangible ways. I fall somewhere in the middle, and I fully acknowledge that my experiences might just be a figment of my incredibly fertile imagination. But its ultimately my experience of god (from myth to direct experience)–as a Universal Divinity and the myriad of ways in which it is expressed in the world we live in that informs my own humanity, for the better.
* I use god and gods fairly interchangeably to denote the idea of the many different views of deity in general, rather than as a statement of plurality (or the lack thereof). When I use the word god or deity, I am saying that something is a spiritually and/or culturally referenced individual entity of power (which can be symbolic or literal). A god then, in my book, can be anything from Thor or Athena, or the big G, little -od of the Bible, Torah and Koran…to a Divine Universe or a Universal Divine…to a nature spirit or ancestral spirit. If I am referring to the Judeo-Christian/Islamic deity, I generally refer to him as the god of Abraham, rather than using “God” as a proper name (see here for why), and in semi-protest to the way the word ‘god’ has been co-opted by the Abrahamic faiths to mean an all-powerful, all-knowing, etc single deity (a good book detailing this evolution is A History of God by Karen Armstrong). Often I will use the term The Divine or Divinity as a means of differentiating the bigger-picture idea of “god” (which is sometimes pantheistic/panentheistic) from individual, named deities (including the aforementioned “God”).