Why Do Some People Experience Deities, But Others Don’t?

I have often wondered why some people experience gods all the time – indeed, can’t stop experiencing the gods even if they wanted to – and others don’t. Still others experience gods sometimes, in specific circumstances. There are various explanations available for this, and all of them have pros and cons. Let’s examine a few of them. I don’t really know which one is the right answer, though.

A “God(s)-Shaped Hole”?

Some have argued that people of religion have a “god-shaped hole” in our psyches – that our psychological make-up is such that we are receptive to experiences of the divine and/or deities. Christian apologists (starting with Pascal, who coined the phrase “god-shaped vacuum“) argue that only their god can fill this hole. The argument goes that their god created us for himself, and therefore our hearts yearn towards him (which is something of a circular argument).

Apart from the fact that I am automatically suspicious of any argument coined by Pascal, who also came up with the deeply unpleasant and frankly immoral concept of Pascal’s Wager, I would argue that it has been amply demonstrated that people are searching for meaning in their lives, but that that meaning takes a different form for different people, and that atheists can have equally meaningful and fulfilling lives as people who believe in god(s). Also, Adam Lee at Daylight Atheism points out that studies have shown that atheists have more enquiring minds and are generally happier than many Christians.

A Pagan version of the “gods-shaped hole” argument might draw upon the idea that because we and the gods were born of a single mother (Nature), and are of the same substance, we feel a natural affinity for each other.

However, if this were the case, then surely everyone would experience a yearning for the gods – and more importantly, all those who seek the gods would find them – which isn’t necessarily always what happens.


Many people might argue that those who see visions of deities are merely experiencing hallucinations. However, the quality of these visions and experiences is different than many hallucinations; they (mostly) appear to act on the psyche in an integrative and healing way, rather than in a destructive and damaging way. People who experience dreams and visions may be edgy and uncomfortable to be around – but they are  highly functional individuals, for the most part. Psychiatrists have begun to accept that people who hear voices and see things are not necessarily ill.

Rhyd Wildermuth has suggested that the difference between the “mad” who hear voices, and the sane, is that the sane person can make the voices stop, shut them out for a time, and the “mad” cannot.

In addition to this, there is a long Welsh tradition that anyone who sleeps alone on the slopes of Cader Idris will end up dead, mad, or a poet. Shamanism, poetic inspiration, bardic frenzy, mysticism, and madness, have been symbolically linked from ancient times. The word ovate comes from “Vates, Uatis, Euhages, which may derive from the Indo-European root uat, ‘to be inspired or possessed’.” (OBOD)

In the 1960s and 70s, the anti-psychiatry movement argued that “madness” was a matter of perspective, and that in many societies, those who have these experiences are valued as visionaries, not locked up and drugged. Michel Foucault, Thomas Szasz, and RD Laing promoted alternative communal methods of treating the mad. Some anti-psychiatrists pointed to the remarkably similar content of people’s hallucinations, and pointed out that these often consisted of symbols of wholeness, like the World Tree, or the World Mountain.

So, I don’t think we can dismiss every visionary experience of a deity as a hallucination. I would be prepared to accept the explanation that such experiences are a profound interior experience, but only interior, but then that doesn’t explain why people have the same dream or vision at the same time, or receive messages for others which they then pass on to them.

Psychic Powers? Extra-Sensory Perception?

Another possibility is that some people experience deities because they have a “sixth sense” that enables them to perceive deities and energy. Certainly, some people seem to be especially gifted at psychic perception and techniques, but then the less gifted can also improve our abilities with practice.

It is very difficult to test psychic phenomena empirically, so I would say that the evidence for this hypothesis is inconclusive. I personally feel that people only have flashes of psychic insight when it really matters, so it is hard to turn it on and off at will in a laboratory situation. (Skeptics would doubtless feel that this is because psychic powers don’t exist, but there is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that there is something going on.

Some People Are Chosen?

Some polytheists have stated that they did not choose their gods, their gods chose them. So they might argue that people who perceive the gods are the ones who have been chosen to do so.

For those of us who really like deities but don’t necessarily feel strongly that we have been chosen by a specific deity, this argument feels like a kick in the teeth. Is my relationship with Odin any less valid because I went looking for him, rather than the other way round?

What’s more, I am tempted to argue that claiming to have been chosen by a deity is almost a self-disqualifying statement, because it is so full of hubris (in the sense of “excessive pride towards the gods”). It is one thing to be privately convinced that a deity has chosen you for a task; quite another to proclaim it from the rooftops.

The Charge of the Goddess states that “and know that thy seeking and yearning shall avail thee not, unless thou knowest the mystery: if thou findest not what thou seekest within thee, thou wilt never find it without thee” [outside of yourself]. Another way of looking at this might be that the gods we seek are the ones who were seeking us, because of some affinity between us and them.

Enchantment Goat, by Hodja Nasreddin

Enchantment Goat” by Hodja Nasreddin. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia. Io Pan!

Enchantment and Disenchantment?

Another possible explanation is that capitalism, rationalism, materialism, and reductionism have disenchanted the world. As our awareness of the gods returns, the world is re-enchanted.

Rhyd Wildermuth writes,

In Capitalist society, Gods don’t exist; just like homeless people don’t really exist; just like stars are really just large balls of flaming gas. But to this I must answer, the stars are balls of flaming gas if animals are mere food and trees are mere fuel, humans mere workers and puddles mere bits of water.

So, rationalism, capitalism, reducing everything to mere commodities with a monetary cost rather than any intrinsic value, forgetting about wisdom in the lust for knowledge: these are the things that disenchant the world, obscure our vision and make us unable to see that a star is not merely a ball of flaming gas, but also a source of beauty and meaning, maybe even a goddess or a god.

As W B Yeats wrote,

Once every people in the world believed that trees were divine, and could take a human or grotesque shape and dance among the shadows; and that deer, and ravens and foxes, and wolves and bears, and clouds and pools, almost all things under the sun and moon, and the sun and moon, were not less divine and changeable. They saw in the rainbow the still-bent bow of a god thrown down in his negligence; they heard in the thunder the sound of his beaten water jar, or the tumult of his chariot wheels; and when a sudden flight of wild ducks, or of crows, passed over their heads, they thought they were gazing at the dead hastening to their rest….

I do know that I want to live in an enchanted world, where everything has its own intrinsic value, not merely a price imposed by the market. I want to live in a world where everything has meaning and beauty, where all things are shining with the light of divinity.

Perhaps I am no nearer to an answer to my question, but hopefully this post has made the people who are sure about their answer to this question less sure about it. Question everything, that’s my motto.



The Dawn Of The Gods

In The Allegory of Love, CS Lewis wrote that in the declining years of ancient paganisms, people started to see the gods as metaphors, and then as allegorical personifications, until eventually belief in them declined. He says that “the distinction … between an abstract universal and a living spirit … was only vaguely and intermittently present to the Roman mind.” As an example, he gives the personification of Nature – “something more than a personification and less than a myth, and ready to be either or both as the stress of argument demands”. In the Thebaid of Statius, written some time between 45 CE and 96 CE, the various gods and personifications depicted in it “are all things that live and die in the inner world of the soul”.

Lewis (no friend to polytheism, but a friend to Pagan mythology), writes:

The twilight of the gods… must not be supposed to be in any sense a result of Christianity. It is already far advanced in Statius, and Statius, as a poet, but feebly reflects what philosophy had done long before him. It represents, in fact, the modus vivendi between monotheism and mythology. Monotheism should not be regarded as the rival of polytheism, but rather as its maturity. Where you find polytheism, combined with any speculative power and any leisure for speculation, monotheism will sooner or later arise as a natural development. The principle, I understand, is well illustrated in the history of Indian religion. Behind the gods arises the One, and the gods as well as the men are only his dreams. That is one way of disposing of the Many. European thought did not follow the same path, but it was faced with the same problem.

We need not agree with Lewis on the inevitability of monotheism to see that he is probably right that the allegorisation of the gods was the transitional phase between polytheism and monotheism. Of course, Lewis is being disingenuous in a way, as he clearly yearned to believe in the gods, and very likely believed in angels. (The book was written in 1936, seven years after his conversion to Christianity in 1929, but he had long been interested in Pagan mythology.)

I wonder if, in order to believe in the gods again, it has been necessary for us to pass through a phase of seeing them as metaphors and personifications, before we can see them as real again. The phase of seeing them as metaphors and archetypes has perhaps been a necessary preparation for seeing them as the face that we can perceive of vast cosmic forces, or localised manifestations of spirit.

Eos, Phosphoros, Hesperos, Helios, black-coloured pencil drawing, The National Museum in Warsaw, 1897

Jutrzenka“: Eos, Phosphoros, Hesperos, Helios, black-coloured pencil drawing, The National Museum in Warsaw, 1897 by Stanisław Wyspiański. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

What does it mean to be real?

I have always rather liked the Velveteen Rabbit’s definition of real.

“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’

‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit. 

‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’ 

‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’ 

‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” 
― Margery WilliamsThe Velveteen Rabbit

But how does this apply to gods? Gods are cosmic forces with a possibly anthropomorphic interface, right? They are not a Velveteen Rabbit or a Skin Horse. No, but they are beings with whom we enter into a relationship, and that is what they have in common with the Velveteen Rabbit. They become real to us when we and they are in relationship. Doubtless they were real cosmic forces before that, but we recognise them as people when we are in relationship with them.

I have always thought that humans acquire a particular shape or identity to our personality as a result of all the social interactions we have engaged in. My theory is that the same is true for gods. They acquire the particular personality / energy signature / interests / appearance that they do as a cumulative result of all the interactions that people have had with them over the centuries. If Persephone is now the Queen of Kink, and Loki sometimes appears with dark hair instead of red hair, that’s because they are happy to fill those new images with their presence and power.

In China, when they make a statue of a deity, they make a little compartment in the back which contains special magical items to give the statue shen (the power and presence of spirit). If the statue is sent to a museum, the shen cavity is emptied prior to being transferred to the museum. Images and statues and personifications are empowered with the spirit of the deity if and when They choose to do so.

In Gnosticism and other Neo-Platonism-derived traditions, the Real sometimes refers to the spirit world, as contrasted with the physical world. I don’t think this is a very helpful definition for a non-dualistic and embodied path like Paganism, where the goal (in my view) is for spirit and matter to become more intertwined.

The Twilight, the Night, and the Dawn

During the noon-day of the gods, when the world was enchanted, people saw the gods in everything.

Once every people in the world believed that trees were divine, and could take a human or grotesque shape and dance among the shadows; and that deer, and ravens and foxes, and wolves and bears, and clouds and pools, almost all things under the sun and moon, and the sun and moon, were not less divine and changeable. They saw in the rainbow the still-bent bow of a god thrown down in his negligence; they heard in the thunder the sound of his beaten water jar, or the tumult of his chariot wheels; and when a sudden flight of wild ducks, or of crows, passed over their heads, they thought they were gazing at the dead hastening to their rest….
— William Butler Yeats

But, as C S Lewis rather wittily put it, the twilight of the gods was the mid-morning of the personifications. As our relationship with gods declined, they became seen as personifications of inner qualities. Eventually they became characters in old stories. That was the long night in which they slept.

But now the dawn is coming, and the old gods are brightening again, once more illuminating the many facets of reality, awakening from their long sleep, and interacting with us once more. For those of us who are busying ourselves making them cups of coffee and bringing them breakfast in bed, a little patience might be required while those who are still only perceiving them as archetypes or personifications catch up. We are in a transitional phase right now.