Crafting Religion: Designer Deities

The title of this post is deliberately silly. The silliness hides an important truth: that all deities are designed.

Referring to an earlier post on this blog in the Elements of Fantasy series, regarding fantasy deities, I wrote the following which also applies to deity in the real world:

A god is not merely a very powerful and intelligent creature. A god is also an embodiment of something important about the world, or even of the whole world itself. This is the god’s Aspect. Apollo is the sun god and the god of art. Thor is the god of the storm. Hecate is the goddess of the magical arts and of death and rebirth. Aphrodite is the goddess of love and beauty. In each of these cases, while the god or goddess as an anthropomorphic figure may be imaginary, its Aspect is quite real and powerful and important in the lives of people. The same is true of monotheistic deities, of course, whose Aspect is the entire universe. Can’t get much more important than that!

Because these Aspects are real and powerful and important in the lives of people, there is a natural connection between the gods and human beings. The gods are not completely separate from us; they are not just “other people” who are much more powerful than we are. They are the elements of our lives personified. As such, they have a vertical relationship with us – our creators, our mentors, our teachers, our benefactors, those we consult about important things – and not merely a horizontal one. They are not wholly other; they are part of who we are.

I wrote that about fantasy deities, but the same thing is also true of deities that are actually worshiped in real-world religions. A god or goddess is a personification of the universe, or of some important aspect of the universe as it impacts our own lives. The universe or its aspect exists independently of our own imagination. The deity itself does not. It’s a way of making the universe human so that the mind can more easily relate to it, be open to it, influence it and be influenced by it.

So what exactly am I saying here? That the gods are imaginary and don’t really exist?

Not quite. The universe certainly exists; knowledge, love, the earth, the sea, war, life, art, science, and other aspects of reality that have been deified in the past certainly exist; so does the human imagination. Deities are an intersection between the two.

We sometimes use the word “imaginary” as a synonym for “unreal,” but this usage can be deceptive. The only truth to it is that when we imagine something that belongs in the world of sensory experience — the physical world, that is to say — it may not actually reside there, or if it does it may not be where and when we imagine it or behave as we imagine it to behave. For example, I may imagine William Shakespeare sitting beside me and reading over my shoulder as I type this. In actual, physical fact, Mr. Shakespeare is not sitting beside me; he is long since dead. My imaginary Shakespeare is “not real” in the sense that he is not the real William Shakespeare, the man who wrote and produced a large number of plays in London during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. He is quite “real” in another sense, however: I can see him if I choose to; I can hear his voice; he behaves in ways that I do not consciously control and can even give me advice on my writing style, plot development, and so on. (Better not, though — Shakespeare’s English is archaic and his stories often bloody, bizarre, and macabre. With respect, sir, rest in peace.)

A god or goddess is no more physically real than my imaginary Bard. But as with any imaginary entity, the gods can be real in an experiential sense, and also assume the reality of their aspects: the cosmos, or a significant portion of the cosmos.

Any fiction writer has surely experienced the phenomenon of the character who assumes a life of its own, does things the author did not originally plan or intend, develop in ways that could not have been predicted. One’s characters assert their independence in many ways. That’s even more true of deities, who often become public property. The imagination is a poorly-understood aspect of the mind and has more potency than it’s commonly credited.

In fact, look around you right now at whatever objects are in view. Unless you happen to be camped out in the wilderness (in which case it’s unlikely you’re even able to read this), most likely the majority of what you see consists of products of the imagination. All items of human construction and craft existed in the imagination before they existed in physical reality. The imagination is powerful. The imagination is magical.

In another sense, though, yes, I’m saying that the gods “don’t really exist.” Like all religious ideas, they are metaphors for reality that can only be understood through the awakened god sense and cannot be put into literal words. The gods are important. The gods should not be blithely dismissed. But they do not “exist” in the same way as the chair I’m sitting on or the computer I’m using to write this or my friends. Every god or goddess that has ever been worshiped by human beings is a product of the human imagination.

Because of this, there is no reason why we cannot employ the human imagination to create new ones more appropriate to these times, lacking the baggage that may be carried by existing conceptions of the divine. In all cases, it’s necessary that any deities we designed be:

  • Properly connected to the universe, or to some important aspect of the universe
  • Sympathetic to our own hearts and understanding
  • Powerful in the way that a work of art is powerful

A god or goddess that meets all these criteria will be real in exactly the same way as every other deity worshiped in every existing religion, ancient or modern, is real. By performing rituals of devotion to such beings, we connect with the aspect of the cosmos (or with the cosmos as a whole) that is associated with the god or goddess.

In the future I may write on the subject of real-world magic and the significance of connecting the imagination to the cosmos for that purpose. At present, I’ll only point out that doing this can have a profound effect on our own mind-set and our own behavior. As such, it can be a powerful way to awaken the god sense and to link ourselves in positive ways to the universe which we embody through the fractal mystery.
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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Crafting Religion: Designer Deities

  1. I’ve been reading since the beginning of the series, and it’s been very gratifying to read a text that makes so much sense to me and fit my own view on matters religious (though not in every detail). Thank you for writing!

    The idea of gods as aspects of reality was discussed in much the same vein in Ginette Paris’ Pagan Meditations, and it’s a book that’s done a lot to shape my own thinking.

    I think there is a point I would have made here, though, that you didn’t: that love and beauty don’t necessarily go together, or war and sex, or any other number of concepts that are linked within existing deities. Concepts are not eternal, nor do they exist outside of human experience, though the processes and experiences we attach those concepts to do happen. As a bilingual person, I have noticed that describing a thing in Finnish gives it a whole different context and feel than describing it, in much the same words, in English! Words have sets of connotations beyond their specific meanings which vary from language to language and culture to culture, and are informed by their environments. In the face of this it’s difficult to argue that there is a uniform reality of ideas, even just within the scope of human experience.

    In godcraft, one should remember to be free to deify whole new concepts, aspects, or collections of connotations as one experiences them, in a way that makes sense oneself. I might combine passion and beauty without love, for example, and further divide love of (chosen) family from charitable love of all living things, etc. To NOT do so would be to accept the reality of an existing (say, Greco-Roman) concepts and associations even if the minutiae of the mythology itself is rejected.

    • Excellent comment and thank you. I have nothing to add to it except that I agree completely, and everyone should read what you have to say as a useful expansion/clarification of the theme.

  2. The chair you’re sitting in is not real in the same sense as Apollo, either.

    The imagination is powerful when it conceives something real, ala Ursula LeGuin’s ‘thought experiments.’ Not so powerful when it tries to banzai its gods.

    ‘Apollo’ is such a good and simple concept of a god… and yet. When he gave Cassandra prophetic powers — but she wouldn’t put out for him — he laid a certain curse, that no one she tried to warn would believe her. The collateral damage from that was somewhat fierce!

  3. A god, if legitimately created, connects with something real. In itself, conceived literally, NO god is real. As for the sometimes dubious behavior of Greek deities, I suspect there was a bit of fantasy fiction being written in those days along with the myths and the purposes got crossed. On the other hand, Cassandra is hardly the only prophet who was not listened to, this is quite normal in fact, for the divine message to be suppressed by the orthodox, so the mythic element is still present even if in that story Apollo was a bit of a dick. So to speak.

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