For the last year, I’ve been reading Ryan Bell’s blog at the Patheos Atheist channel called A Year Without God. Bell was a pastor at a Seventh-day Adventist church for some time before resigning in 2013. Then, in January 2014 he decided to spend a year without god, exploring atheism and blogging about it on the site linked above. Now, one year later, he’s posted a retrospective on his journey, and I found one part of it truly fascinating.
Here’s the excerpt in question:
The multiplicity of religions is also an argument against theism. With all the competing claims, which God is the right one? […] The more I engaged in interfaith dialogue the more I realized that we can’t all be right. Furthermore, all paths can’t possibly lead the same place, even if the original impulse of religion, connection with the divine, is the same. The paths are in some cases wildly divergent.
The religion of my childhood was Judaism. For a long time, I never questioned its monotheism. Eventually, I became convinced of the femininity of the divine, but lacking an understanding of the multiplicity of religions (to use Bell’s phrase), I assumed that I was simply wrong. Eventually, I found Paganism but along the way I encountered Christianity, Buddhism, and atheism and began a life of interfaith engagement. As I did so–as I came to understand the multiplicity of religions–my conclusion was very different from Bell’s:
For me, that we have many, sometimes contradictory, understandings of the divine doesn’t show that there is no god but rather that there must be many of them each telling us different stories and changing–with more or less subtlety–the dramas that we enact.
I don’t find that it’s important to me to have some sort of quantifiable data that points toward the existence of the gods nor do I feel the need to settle on an ever shrinking god of the gaps. For me, the experiences that others have shared with me of their time with the gods is the “proof” I need both that the gods are real and that there are many of them.
I’ve read the account of a friend’s meeting with Weyland Smith and how that experience changed her. I’ve helped to draw down the moon. I remember the being moved by the cantor’s singing of Kol Nidre at the synagogue of my youth. I’ve listened to the passion of a Catholic priest sharing the mysteries of his faith. I was invited to share the service at a Sikh gurdwara and in the langar that followed. I have eaten fruit blessed by Hindu priests (i.e. prasad) while visiting a temple.
In some of these cases, I have been a witness or guest at the these rites. But, in that role I have vicariously met many gods. And, while I am sometimes skeptical of them, I have had my own experiences of the gods within my faith but also (surprisingly) the Vodou Loa Simbi Dlo.
My journey, like Ryan Bell’s, has led me to understand that all religious paths don’t lead to the same place. Unlike him, I have come to conclude that at the end of some of those paths (or perhaps along them) are the gods. Gods many and various in their diversity and their stories, in their strengths and, to be honest, their weaknesses. Gods of ancient times and new gods that we’ve not encountered before and that, perhaps, had not met us either.
Our multiplicity of religions shows me that we are awash in the divine, and while I have little direct experience of that divinity, it is (usually) enough for me that others have had more.