Personal Gods

Spoiler Warning: I reveal some minor plot details of the story American Gods (2001) by Neil Gaiman.

As a naturalist* I am incidentally atheist. God may exist, and may reveal Himself in mysterious ways. But I haven’t seen it. Wherever and however those ways have occurred, they’ve been too mysterious for folks like me. We want evidence. For outrageous gods with outrageous god-powers we want outrageous evidence. Occam’s Razor, and all that.

And still, I do like to pretend that Bastet is real, and is as Neil Gaiman portrayed Her in American Gods (also as Bastet appeared in the Sandman comics). And I like to imagine that when the Internet (aka The Technical Boy) was killed, Bastet took over, which is why cat-pic culture is outpacing porn culture in the 21st century, and the internet’s defenders have adopted the cat as their symbol.

Imaginary friends are useful. And not just for children. There’s a reason that the whole twelve step process with Step 2: Come to believe in a higher power has continued use for 80 years since its introduction in Alcoholics Anonymous It’s also noteworthy that AA (like the Freemasons) never required a specific deity. As Shepherd Darrial Book said I don’t care what you believe. Just believe it!

A psychological study in the early 1990s sought to contrast crazies who heard God versus those who just heard voices.** Most in the former group liked their voices and found them benevolent (or at least benign). Not so much, the latter group. The study made for a general change of policy to get active consent from the patient before treating the voices as an affliction.

Then there’s channelling — that’s the new age term. The notion that we can connect to other beings to address current questions. In psychology, this called accessing the Wise Mind, at least in the school of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy There’s a similar Christian tradition in the phrase What would Jesus do? Really, you can apply your own favorite hero, be they Ghandi, Cersei, Einstein, Darth Vader or Bugs Bunny, and still get useful answers

That higher powers serve a function to us is not evidence that they exist. We are a social species, and community is served by our desire for purpose greater than ourselves. But the absence of evidence of intelligence greater than human is not to say we should shy from notions of higher powers, especially when they serve as useful tools.

The ideal, I think, is to allow that notions can be useful while at the same time having no basis in fact. Ostriches don’t routinely hide their heads, believing themselves fully concealed, nor are frogs and toads content to sit in cookware as their water is gradually heated (or at all, really). But these parables are useful when seeking to describe certain human behaviors.

And we more easily find the better angels of our nature when we believe (or pretend) we act on free will, even as our scientific and industrial sectors are more and more able to predict and manipulate human behavior with uncanny accuracy.

And for now, it brings me a modicum of joy to pretend Bastet watches over cats and the internet, alike.

* Contrast supernaturalist, also, not to be confused with nudists, sometimes called naturists.

** I wish I knew (but don’t) how the study categorized those who heard more specific voices (e.g. Mom, Elvis, Aunt Millie, Hitler) I would like to know what conclusions it derived about such cases, too.

Sometimes, at any rate. The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance (OCRT) conducted a casual survey-based online study regarding spiritual insight into a controversial hot topic (gay marriage) and found plenty of incidents of those whose spirits were pretty bigoted. Human intuition may better at addressing personal problems than society problems, I guess.


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