Back in elementary school I was fascinated by the old Greek myths. I had a battered old paperback copy of Edith Hamilton's Mythology, which I read and re-read until I knew the old tales by heart. The Greek gods were a fascinating bunch: impetuous, vain, argumentative, liable to falling in love with mortals and taking sides in mortal wars. I enjoyed reading the old myths, but I loved their stories simply as stories, and I never gave any thought to the existence or non-existence of the gods themselves.
I never thought much about the Christian God either. A few of my classmates were Christians, but the topics of religion and belief rarely came up in our conversations. My family was non-Christian, non-religious, non-spiritual. We didn't define ourselves as atheists or agnostics either - we simply did not talk about religion at all. Religion and spirituality were what other people did - not us.
In a way, this lack of religion and spirituality in my family was a good thing, since early on, I could explore the old myths without being troubled by religious concepts of belief and disbelief. I did believe in the myths, though, in the same simple way that I believed in all stories that I heard or read. The old Greek gods existed just as surely as I did the characters in the novels that I read. All good stories, both fact and fiction, are true; I believe this now and I believed it then, although it is only more recently that I have been able to express it.
As I grew older, I became more aware of the belief my Christian friends had in God. This belief both puzzled and fascinated me. On one hand, I struggled to comprehend their unquestioning faith in a being that, to my eyes, has as good a chance of not existing as he did of existing. On the other hand, I envied them that very faith, and the way it guided them through their lives. Their belief was something alien to me. I felt that I did not choose to disbelieve in God; rather, I felt incapable of that sort of belief. I felt that I was missing something that the others possessed.
For quite a few years, I was very confused. The way I saw it then, I had only two options: I could accept disbelieving in deity (which at the time mainly meant the Christian concept of God) and that my friends were deluded and wrong in their beliefs, or I could accept that their beliefs were true and I was the deluded one. I chose the route of the atheist, but I was still troubled. How was it possible to know for sure that deity in some form did not exist? As I grew older, I began to discover modern Paganism and polytheism, and to realize that deity came in many different flavours. Were all of these different conceptions of deity wrong, or were they all right in their own way?
Still, even then I could not shake the idea that there were only two options: to believe in deity (whether as a monotheist, polytheist, or something in between) or to disbelieve in deity. Since I was becoming increasingly drawn towards Paganism, I decided that I needed to become a polytheist. And I tried to be a good polytheist, I really did. I tried to believe in the existence of many gods, many of whom were not unlike the Greek gods that I had read about all those years ago, and none of whom were as all-powerful as the Christian god. But I couldn't do it. I tried, but I gradually came to realize that I could not force myself to believe in something. Beliefs need to arise naturally from deep within us, not be forced upon us.
I think that part of my problem was that I was also confused about the very concept of belief. Most people that I talked to (I didn't talk to many, since I knew hardly anyone else who was even remotely interested in these ideas) seemed to imply that belief really meant belief in God (or some other form of deity). If you didn't believe in God or gods, then there was no hope for you. You were one of those dreadful atheists, probably a cold, rational, scientific type, probably with a dubious moral character. This seemed bizarre to me. Couldn't atheists have morals even if they didn't believe in God? I looked a bit into agnosticism, but agnostics weren't looked at too favourably either, being scorned by both sides as not having enough backbone to actually come out and say what they believed or disbelieved in. (I now know that not everyone thinks this way about atheists and agnostics, but that was the way it appeared to me at the time.)
Gradually, however, I began to realize that there was a middle way after all. To see belief and disbelief as the only options is an example of the kind of binary thinking that only sees two opposites without any balance or midpoint between them. There are other options. You do not need to either believe or disbelieve in God or the gods or anything else for that matter. For just as I could not force myself to believe in deity, I could not force myself to disbelieve either. I did not see how my experience and perception were any better than those of anyone else. I realized that I, being just one person with a limited point of view, probably didn't have the whole story, and probably no one else did either. We all have our own relationships with deity, whether as monotheists, polytheists, atheists, agnostics, or whatever else. For me, the label of agnostic fit the best, but that is a purely personal thing, and it was really only this summer that those pieces fell into place for me.
And when those pieces did fall into place, it was a relief. I no longer had to try to force myself to believe in certain things. I no longer had to think that the beliefs of other people whom I respected were wrong. I no longer confused belief with belief in God. All of us, whether theists or atheists or something in between, believe in something, whether we realize it consciously or not. And I believe in many things. And there are other things that I am perfectly happy leaving in the realm of uncertainty. Deity is one of those things.
(Part of 30 Days of Druidry)