The worship of the gods is not what matters

The sacred, I shall say, is that which acts as your partner in the search for the highest and deepest things: the real, the true, the good, and the beautiful.
Circles of Meaning, Labyrinths of Fear

I don’t normally see omens or other messages from the gods in the way many other pagans say they do. I’m not especially interested in ritual or magic or spellcraft. I do not sense auras, I do not feel the energies, I do not read tarot cards or cast the runes. In fact, around ten years ago or so, I hit upon one of the most liberating and life-changing propositions ever to have entered my mind, which is that the worship of the gods is not what matters. What, then, am I still doing in the pagan community? And if the worship of the gods isn’t what matters, then what does?

People and relationships matter. The earth matters. Life, yours and mine, matters. Art, music, culture, science, justice, knowledge, history, peace, and any other similar thing which enriches your relationships with the world and with people, also matter. The extent to which life is worth living matters. Death, yours and mine, matters. And thinking about these things is what matters too.

My path is the path of a philosopher, and it is a spiritual path. It’s about finding answers to the highest and deepest questions that face humankind, and finding those answers by means of my own intelligence. It’s about not waiting for the word to come down from anyone else, not society, not parents, not politicians or governments, not teachers, not religion, not even the gods. In that sense it is a humanist activity, but it is an activity which elevates ones humanity to the highest sphere. That is what matters. This was the path of all the greatest philosophers through history. It was the path of the great pagan predecessors like Hypatia and Diotima and Plato; and also the path of more recent predecessors like James Frazer and Robert Graves. This is the path of knowledge; and knowledge is enlightenment, and knowledge is power.

Some people, and some religious groups, might see that as hubris. But I see it as humanity’s true calling. I’ve been working for decades to create a philosophical world view which is rigorously rational but at the same time recognizably spiritual, uplifting, accessible to anyone, and genuinely helpful. If I have crafted it well, it will be my legacy. (Although I also want to buy land on which to build a temple. But that’s another story.)

This shouldn’t be controversial, but it is. Last year, a number of individuals made a very uncharitable interpretation of a throwaway comment of mine, and concluded that I was somehow disparaging them personally. Some even demanded my forcible removal from the pagan community. So let’s look again at the statement “the worship of the gods is not what matters”. It is not the same as the statement “the gods do not exist”. It says that whether the gods exist or do not exist, I shall have other primary concerns. For there are other things that matter too – and some of those other things matter more. And some of those other things which matter more are sacred things. And some of those sacred things which matter more are things to do with the human realm: such as friendship, justice, and integrity. Thus the path is a humanist path, yet also a spiritual path.

Suppose the gods do exist. Then relate to them the same way you might relate to anybody else. There’s a form of meditation that I still do once in a while, perhaps not often enough, in which I contemplate a certain Celtic goddess whom I shall not name here. My view of Herself is strongly pantheist, and as I see it speaking of Herself and speaking of the earth is almost the same thing. She also personifies certain moral values and certain relationships that I think are important. There’s a bowl on top of one of my bookshelves into which I pour an offering to Herself every time I have beer or wine in the house. And in turn, I like to imagine that She looks after me. But if you think about it, that’s a very minimalist kind of religious practice. There’s no casting of circles, no raising of energies, no chanting and no invocations. There’s just me, doing my thing, and talking to Herself once in a while.

But in my relationship with Herself, I do not bow. I do not obey. I do not ‘worship’. Perhaps this is one of the last remaining strands of my Catholic upbringing, but to me the word ‘worship’ means absolute unquestioning affirmation of the authority of the deity. I’ll not have that in my life. If you are wise, neither will you. The gods, if they exist, are just the people who happen to live on the other side. And they shall be friends to me, or strangers to me, the same as any of you.

I was initiated into the 1st degree of a certain lineage of Alexandrian Wicca. I’ve also followed the Druidic path, co-founded a Druidic community called The Order of the White Oak, and in 2001 I even followed the Druidic path back to Ireland. I have been a member of the pagan community for more than twenty years. So I’m not coming to this as a dilettante, or a dabbler. I was once offered my second degree but we never could find a time to do the ritual, and noting came of it. But that’s okay. Now all I really want to do in the pagan community is write books, talk about the ideas in them, play guitar, help out at events, and “dance sing feast make music and love” with good people. I want to help create a spiritual culture that is intellectually inquiring, artistically flourishing, environmentally aware, and socially just.

And that, also, is what matters.

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33 Responses to The worship of the gods is not what matters

  1. Lonnie says:

    Brendan, this is a home run!

    I may not be just like you. I do pursue the magic, read Tarot, and do a lot with Runes. I don’t have a formal ritual for any of those activities.

    I agree with your approach to the Gods. I do suspect they exist. I don’t worship any of them. I see them as allies, friends, strangers, and as you said, “just the people who happen to live on the other side.”

    The Pagan community needs you. It needs more people like you. You’ve done the hard work beyond the 101. You ask the hard questions, and most importantly, you seek ways to really live as a Pagan today. I appreciate and salute your efforts!

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

    –Lonnie

  2. Nothing wrong with going as far as you can on your own steam, surely!

    However, when you say “… to me the word ‘worship’ means absolute unquestioning affirmation of the authority of the deity.” I think it is quite possible to tease those two things apart. Worship, or veneration or cultus, doesn’t have to imply the degree of submission for Pagans that it does for most monotheists.

    Philosophy itself is a pretty darned “pagan” activity, if it’s not completely secular/materialist, and as you well know, even ancient philosophy offers a very wide menu of approaches to the Divine.

    I appreciate that you have carved out this space for yourself without sounding like you think the rest of us are a poor use of oxygen :-)

  3. John Beckett says:

    The worship of the gods is important to me, both in terms of acknowledging that there is something/someone bigger than we humans, and in terms of maintaining relationships with those beings who call me to greater depths and greater acts.

    But the things you describe are also important to me, to the Pagan community at large, and to the world. We need philosophers as much as we need priests and priestesses.

    Besides, anyone who pours offerings to a goddess is a good Pagan in my book!

  4. Jack McNulty says:

    Jesus said that His followers would do even greater things than he did. Your affirmation of your own quest is a following in his footsteps. If we allow our worship to trap us in the past honoring what once was, I am afraid we miss out on our own adventure and embrace of the present. By using the mind and heart that you have I believe you are giving the best honor to God. Why would we be structured as we are if we were not to utilize every resource we can. Ireland was said too be the Land of Saints and Scholars. John Dun Scotus had some remarkable ideas about human quests like yours and mine. I’m glad you are living boldly.

  5. Sgeeba says:

    You touch upon the concept of relationship with the Gods. I think relationship is a key concept here. As there are many forms of relationship as there are “people” forming relationships. Some relationships even between two people involve some form of worship. The devotion and attention in the expression of emotion between lovers for example. Now that is not to say that every person who is in relationship with a Spirit is required to worship them, but that there are all forms of relationships one could have with the spirit world. Whether you are talking about a Family like relationship, the Wise Grandmother for example, or more of a Employer/Employee relationship which can be found in many Spirit Workings encounters the different types of relationships are endless. I feel that there are some deities that quite clearly express that they require the worship of those devoted to them. Does that mean we all need to worship them? No, but to their followers, the worship does matter, because it is part of the relationship dynamic of their path.

  6. Jessie Olson says:

    Pretty much what I tell the Christians that I meet. It doesn’t matter whether your gods exist or mine do or both. It doesn’t matter how the world was created, or when, or how long it took, or any of that. What does matter is that we are all here, sharing the same space, together. And should THAT be enough of a miracle in of itself for us to all figure out some way to get along?

  7. Melinda Reidinger says:

    If you’ll allow me to quote a little Johnny Depp here:

    “There are four questions of value in life: What is sacred? Of what is the spirit made? What is worth living for? And what is worth dying for? The answer to each is the same. Only love.”

    He’s hit upon the key to relating to ourselves, others and also the divine. If you have found love among Pagans, you are where you need to be. The rest is details, but working them out is the rich Neopagan culture you are contributing to.

    Whether your relationship to gods or mysteries is servile or reserved is, I think, actually more a question of one’s innate disposition than exposure to particular traditions. Within yoga there is recognition of paths toward the divine that are based on service, intellectual effort, and action in the world (bhakti, jnana, karma). Perhaps Neopaganism would do well to also articulate these options.

  8. Hobbes says:

    Atheists keep missing the point on this idea of proof of God. In my Bardic workshop, I touch on this idea that the existence of the Gods is irrelevant. The relationship we have with them is what matters and what is real. This is the power and beauty of Mythic Reality (which I know sounds like an oxymoron).

    Therefore, if the existence of the God is irrelevant, then the names we attribute to these Gods does not describe the God so much as it describes the relationship we have with the Divine.

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  11. Ms Kate says:

    Dood, that is so Steven Erikson of you.

  12. Ms Kate says:

    Yeah, Hobbes, that’s cool. But we atheists don’t much believe in the Divine, either. We ask for the same evidence of “Gods” we do of fairies, Bigfoot, ghosts, and the little boy who lives in your finger and says Redrum.

    If the entity isn’t real, and there’s no evidence it’s real, you might as well be talking to the voices in your head. You are, in fact. It’s just you and some other guys have made up some arbitrary, evidence free reasons the voices are from something “real” but, somehow, immeasurable and unprovable.

    We get kicks from all kinds of things which we know are bigger, longer lasting, prettier, etc than us, but we don’t have to call them “Divine.”

    • ZephyrApe says:

      What is your reaction against calling something divine? If something inspires feelings of awe and majesty, I would call it numinous/veh/Kami/divine by definition.

  13. This is really good. I agree completely. For me, paganism and spirituality are focused around the earth and having a reverence for life, rather than the worship of gods.

  14. Maca Smith says:

    I think this article is spot on and I very much identify with what you say. We don’t really need to perform a complex ritual every Tuesday, under a blue Moon , at six o’clock and when Mercury is in conjunction with Venus in order to feel the Divine. This is all around us . When I go to walk my dog at Mill Hill (Sussex Downs) the Sacred is there. When I hug my sons, the Sacred is there or when I fall apart with laughter when I hear a funny story. Yes, friendship, justice , integrity and compassion are indeed the stuff that matters. I agree this doesn’t mean the Gods don’t exist. I personally have a relationship with certain Norse God very similar to the one you have with your anonymous Celtic Goddess.
    To me , dogma is the antithesis of spirituality.
    Good article Brendan.

  15. Mr. Myers, hail.

    Can we translate this text to portuguese (with all the respective credits to you and the original post here) and publish it in a blog?

    Thanks in advance!

  16. Karen says:

    Terrific piece; I thoroughly enjoyed it. Agreeing with 99% of it has no bearing, of course ;)

    You mentioned hubris. Funny. I ascribe hubris to those claiming a personal relationship with a deity or deities, as the case may be.
    It doesn’t matter if your god or gods have name, it doesn’t matter if you have a “divine” power in your life. What does matter is what you do with this life.

    Hubris extends to the concept of afterlife as well; to believe that we are so much more than any other life form that we continue after the body has, pardon the pun, given up the ghost, is hubris at its finest.

    I took the Crowley philosophies as my own after some years of researching, soul searching, if you will; “every man and woman is a star” is my primary life mantra. No rituals, no bad Hebrew pronunciations, no affiliations with any group; my one goal is to do the best I can with what I was given – through the grace of my parents, life.

    A friend mentioned that perhaps the best description of us would be Neo-Pagan by default.

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  18. Peter Siegel says:

    Well said.

  19. Greg Currie says:

    Having practiced as a Wiccan for going on 25 years, values and priorities have changed. Things that were very important to me in my earlier years now seem superficial, and things that were once found in the sanctity of the cirlce now walk with me where ever I go.

  20. Bill Bittner says:

    Loved this post. And my thoughts on it generated a post of my own.

    Here’s the start…

    I do not equate “worship” with bowing or obeying. I equate it with “love” and “respect”. And even when I do, I try not to do it to get something or out of fear or obligation. Partially, it really is just out of love. But it is also as a means to become one with them and the Divine Reality/Mystery behind them.

    http://www.allisbrahman.com/2013/02/removing-fear-obligation-and.html

  21. Soliwo says:

    As you wrote yourself, I did not find anything very surprising. Yet it is a current issue in the pagan blogosphere. This week there has been rather a lot of writing about sacrifice, how a deep relationship with the gods comes at a (social) price. For myself, if I would have to choose between my friends (if they are any good) and the gods, I would choose my friends. However, the gods have not asked such sacrifice of me, and I have not experienced the gods as beings who would require such things from me. I doubt whether the gods are objectively real, and I doubt whether the gods care much for worship. I doubt and doubt and yet I come back to them. In the end, much depends on one’s experiences of the gods. If I someone has a direct relationship with a god, it would be rather ungenerous of them to call themselves humanists, if that means that the relationship is fully focussed on human needs and interests. Though of course, experiences are also informed by one’s word view, so it is an egg and chicken situation it seems.

    I would appreciate some further explanation on your understanding of humanism. The word is used by so many and sometimes in conflicting ways, especially in the Pagan community. I always think of Erasmus and Thomas Moore, and I am quite certain most humanistic pagans will not consider the latter very humanistic. I somewhat dislike the word, as its very name seems to position the human species above animals and plants or the earth itself. And ‘inclusive humanist’ isn’t very pretty either.

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  23. Eric says:

    My relationship with Goddess is defined by humility and service and I do bow before Her and I do worship Her and for me there is nothing more important than that not I would I wish for there to be. I’ve never felt that She expects my obedience but my love, devotion and gratitude she does have and doesn’t need to ask for. My ability to form relationships with other individuals and groups descends from my relationship with her. I don’t glory in my own intelligence, that leads to hubris and pride and erodes my relationship with Her.

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  25. You’ve got it spot on. I’ve not had the experience of the gods asking anything of me that im incapable of giving, and much of that reaffirms to me the importance of relationships with myself and others. Thanks for writing this.

  26. Coming late to this conversation, due to having no time to comment when I first read the post. I wanted to say that it seems like a lot hinges on how you are perceiving and defining ‘worship’. And it strikes me that your notion of worship isn’t a particularly Pagan one: “to me the word ‘worship’ means absolute unquestioning affirmation of the authority of the deity”.

    Let me offer an alternative view on the meaning of worship. Dictionary-wise, I read that it simply means reverence offered to a divine being. (From Anglo-Saxon root ‘weorthscipe’ meaning ‘worthiness’.) This leaves a lot of room for how that reverence can be expressed and received, alternative to bowing and kneeling in abject submission and self-abasement.

    In my experience, and I think this has been true for a lot of Pagans both ancient and modern, worship can be a form of intimacy with the Gods. And this is why I would say that for me, worshiping the Gods does matter very much. Not because it is a moral obligation, and not because their divine nature inherently requires it. Worshiping the Gods matters because the act engenders intimacy with the Gods, and from that relational act, the channels by which we can receive their wisdom and benefit from their power open up. This I think is true whether you believe the Gods are objectively real discarnate beings, or believe they are archetypal psychological constructs.

    And yes, all those other things matter too; living well, treating people with honor, seeking the meaningful life, asking questions and seeking knowledge. I think worshiping the Gods matters for the same reason that many of those things matter; it helps us to orient to and remain in relationship with the enormities that frame our existence and within which we seek meaning.

    I was trained (via Feri Tradition) that we don’t have to kneel to the Gods, that we do stand with them as equals (in moral terms, even if not in scope and power), and that worship is about celebrating that reciprocal and mutually-affirming relationship. But I will add that I’ve since learned that submission to the Gods can also be entirely positive – in just the same way that we might sometimes submit and surrender to a lover, as an act of devotion and ardent play. It is in that spirit that I worship my Gods. The important thing to note here is that there is never an abnegation of the will of the worshipper involved. That is, I think, the defining difference between worship in a Pagan context and that of monotheisms.

    And lastly, hate to break it to you, but what you do for and with Herself is worship. Or rather, it’s yours to define, but it certainly sounds like worship to me.

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