I have sometimes felt that “reverence” for me is the divide between spiritual atheism and naturalistic theism. When I considered myself to be a spiritual atheist – and when I shied away from anthropomorphisation, the use of gods as metaphor, or theistic language – I thought of my practice as being “observance”. I took actions to observe the Cosmos and its processes. And this practice arose from and in turn inspired feelings of awe and wonder.
The deep feelings of reverence that gradually came to the fore were what caused me to cross over from atheism to pantheism. With that cross-over, I became more comfortable with the anthropomorphic names and deities I had been tentatively assigning to Cosmos and its cycles.
But how intertwined are they, really? Can we revere the Cosmos without personifying it?
I have said before that I find anthropomorphism useful and meaningful in my practice. It aids me in feeling a greater connection with the divine All, and with those parts of myself that are hidden and not usually open to my consciousness. I have tried ritual without personifying anything, simply honouring abstract concepts, but without a form of anthropomorphism, it rings somewhat hollow for me.
I’m not sure why. The god-names I use are, after all, largely metaphors to me. The deities I honour or commune with are (for me, in my own experience) archetypes, some deep hidden parts of my own psyche. So why does something feel like it’s missing when that is all stripped away?
I do think reverence is possible without anthropomorphism. I have certainly read very moving descriptions of other naturalistic pagans’ practices in which they utilise only abstract concepts, commonplace terms for the Earth and the universe and the ways we understand it. I don’t think it is necessarily less meaningful. I guess it’s just not for me.
But can we revere the Cosmos if we don’t see it as being in some way divine?
The divine doesn’t have to be anthropomorphic. To me, it is not. It simply is. The fact of our being, of the universe being, is divine to me. The fact of the constant creativity of Cosmos, within which lies the dual processes of creation and destruction, is divine. And it is divine whether I anthropomorphise it or not.
But do atheists feel reverence? And if they do, are they really atheists? Of course the issue is largely semantic. I am fully aware that there are certainly atheists who feel the same things that I do, who believe the same things that I do – but they feel no need for words like “divine” or “theism”.
I think that no matter our conception of deity, no matter our theologies or philosophies of the universe, all of us who are on a spiritual or religious path are walking this path because of some feeling of reverence. Perhaps reverence, rather than being the divide between atheism and theism within spiritual practice, is simply the divide between those who practice and those who don’t – between those who feel the need to think about Cosmos, to engage with it, to ask those big questions, and those who don’t.
The reverence was there all along, for me. I simply had to let myself feel it. And although it feels important to me right now to embrace the idea of pantheism, I don’t think the semantics are overly important. I also don’t think it’s important whether we believe in anthropomorphic deity, whether we embrace anthropomorphic deity as archetypes, or we just don’t go there at all.
If you feel reverence for the Cosmos, for mystery, for your own conception of the divine, then we have something beautiful in common.