Musings on Religion and Imagination

Recently I was part of a conversation on religious pluralism, albeit passively, as I was editing a podcast on the topic. (T.Thorn Coyle’s “Elemental Castings”, the “Hindu Pagan Dialog” panel from Pantheacon.)

As part of the dialog, the importance of supporting religious pluralism in our conversations with others came up, and some stories were shared on conversing with atheists. One Pagan woman said she tells them “I don’t believe in the same God you don’t believe in.”  It amused me, and it also got me thinking how I myself might find common ground with atheists.

I don’t consider myself an atheist. I also don’t consider religion “true” however, so I feel I can understand the atheist’s perspective, and in fact I do not find it in conflict with my own views. How is this possible? To use a metaphor from Robert Anton Wilson, I see religion as the map but not the territory.

Religion gives us a set of symbols that creates a “bridge”, so to speak, for grappling with ideas and energetic forces that would otherwise be unfathomable to us. Therefore all religions are both true and untrue at the same time.

My more religious friends may question my integrity, since I declare myself a Pagan, so surely I do believe in a religion. To them I say, “Yes, I use symbols that speak to me, i.e. Pagan ones, in order to experience that which does feel like the territory, which is a sense of expansive awareness I cannot explain, but which gives me something I value as essential to my being.”  Whether I call this “God” or not is irrelevant.

To my more atheistically-inclined friends, who may suggest it is less than truthful to claim I am not religious after what I just described above, I say “You don’t believe in God, but do you believe in imagination?”

Imagination has always been a key that unlocks doors in the minds of the religious and non-religious alike. We all love stories. We all love music that takes us somewhere, that opens a corner of the mind we did not realize was there a moment ago. We all have room in our being for more than what is going on in our immediate surroundings at any moment.

Religious symbolism uses the imagination to open doors in the mind, to expand awareness, and to glimpse the infinite. The arts also do this. Likewise does science, in it’s ability to reveal the vast workings of our world. For those who don’t practice a spiritual discipline, they may yet find a similar satisfaction in the way interior design sets the harmony of a room, in the way a piece of art opens something in the mind, or in the feeling of awes that overcomes s when we realize the size of the Universe.  These things do not need to be called “God” to create an experience of mystery or magic.

Perhaps the spiritually inclined can sometimes be condescending toward those who don’t find a need for religion, thinking that part of them is missing, asleep, or unfulfilled. Perhaps atheists can sometimes be condescending toward the spiritually inclined, thinking they need religion as a crutch, when it may well be that we all seek to tap the mysteries of life, albeit in different ways.

As someone who has found wonder in art, science, and religion alike, I propose that any of these can lead to an experience of fulfilled human life.

Perhaps, as we can learn to find common ground among those who hold different religious views than our own, we can also find common ground among those who don’t have any religious views at all. At least some of the time. Thus we can emphasize our similarities and not our differences.