Belief

I haven’t chimed in much on the recent “belief” debate (other than some comments on Brendan Myers’ “Humanist Paganism” guest post on the Wild Hunt), partly because I no longer want to waste my time worrying about what pagans think as if I’m one of them (I’m a polytheist first and foremost, and modern paganism seems to be moving further and further from that all the time). Also, partly because it makes me deeply sad that we even have to have this conversation, that of the relatively few people who even pay any attention to the gods whatsoever, even fewer actually believe in them the way almost everyone did in ancient polytheist religions.

There has been a lot of citing of the concept of orthopraxy over orthodoxy – that it is more important what one does than what one believes. This has long been a tenet of many Recon paths. And within such a religion, it is true – actually making the sacrifices and saying the prayers is more important than the minute and varying details of theological beliefs. But it does not follow that therefore NO belief whatsoever is necessary, or that it makes no difference if you are praying for your own amusement or self-gratification or praying to actual deities who you adore and trust and revere and expect may respond to you.

In any case, fortunately Kauko over at Forging the Sampo managed to articulate my feelings on this matter better than I feel capable of at the moment (in that the whole mess makes me very frustrated and even angry at times). Read his whole post, but here’s the crux for me:

“The problem with this, as I see it, is that experiences, particularly spiritual experiences, are highly subjective and without some framework via which to process them they are largely meaningless. Belief provides such a framework. One can claim that they don’t need beliefs because they have a direct line to the Goddess, Thor, Dionysus etc via their experiences but, in the end, it is a belief that the experience in question involved any deity at all.”

In other words, you can say (as some do) that you don’t need to believe in the gods, you just experience them – but you still believe that what you experience is a god (and not, say, a temporal lobe seizure, or a daydream, or a random coincidence). There’s no reason to shy away from this like “belief” is a dirty word, or one that only belongs in monotheism. True, our gods expect more than belief – simply accepting Them as gods will not save our souls – but it’s still a foundation for practice. Something that is enriched by each direct experience, and expressed by our actions. Something that is, perhaps, not fashionable these days, but just as crucial and meaningful as it ever was when it was mostly taken for granted.

~ by Dver on September 19, 2012.

23 Responses to “Belief”

  1. I saw a bit of that kerfuffle and couldn’t even comment…I don’t get this whole ‘rational’ Paganism argument and just stay away from it. I do what I do. I’m aware the pool is shrinking a bit among the polytheist “yes, I do believe in Gods” people but at least then I know who they are. What worries me is that said people may find they need to go silent for fear of being called irrational…and that worries me for the younger people who are starting out.

    • That’s why I’m saying something, even if it’s not much, just to add to the public voices on this side of the issue. We need more of them.

      • And I will hold a torch with you both – the Gods ARE real, and someone should say something! Just because many don’t have a direct experience does not grant them the right to say we’re irrational (how much folklore, folk belief is necessary to show them?) or ungrounded in our faith.

        It seems to be apparent that they seek to blame us for something, I think because these people have not (or cannot, depending) have a real experience with the Gods in any form. There were spirit workers, witches, shamans, etc., for a reason. Wake up maybe?

  2. *scratches head* Orthopraxy never really made sense to me. Why do something if you don’t believe in its value or necessity? I suppose the “tradition” argument is possible, but even so. Though, in ancient Greece, at least, orthopraxy was a part of the norm. You did X sacrifice or act on Y day to Z deity and you did it because you were “supposed to.” Though I do believe that there was still a REASON they did these things, aside from “Because we do.”

    I’m not sure I’ve seen this argument, though. I think I’ll have to read Myer’s post and see what is going on. Is it just me or does the Pagan collective/movement/etc. seem to be going more and more at one another’s throats these days?

    • I’m sure most ancient people had at least a perfunctory belief in the gods, but yes the argument of tradition could apply to their practices, whereas now, if you’re just adopting paganism, it makes little sense to emphasize orthopraxy over belief – why do it at all if you don’t believe? Unfortunately, in many cases the answer seems to be that paganism becomes a social scene, and ritual a self-help exercise.

      I don’t know, I’ve been in the online pagan world a long time and it seems that we’re always going at each other’s throats.

      • (I know you’re on your break for October soon so as to focus on your primary practice, but I wanted to respond anyway. Forgive me if anything below seems callous or naive.)

        Yes, I believe they did believe, too. It was probably more of just a way of life then, though, than a religious faith like we know today.

        In regards to Paganism becoming a social scene, I had not thought of that before, but that does make sense. Still, this “fake it ’til you make it” thought process that many seem to have just doesn’t make sense to me.

        I’ve only been actively trying to get into the online Pagan world in the past just over a year, but I see your point. Still, I’m noticing it more and more and it drives me a bit bonkers. I’m not saying everyone needs to get along, but it would be great if people would just calm down and do their own thing and stop worrying about what everyone else is doing.

  3. Sorry for lurking so long and never commenting. This debate reminds me of an essay I read a while ago called “Re-godding the Archetypes” and now I can’t seem to find it. I shall have to put my Google-fu to work. Also, thank you for weighing in as you have. I appreciate a perspective of rationality and belief intertwined. They are not mutually exclusive things.

    • Interesting article. The author certainly has a more nuanced understanding of archetypes than most, and I agree with him that neopaganism has often disenchanted the world by making everything subject to the human mind. But of course, I still disagree on his main tenet, which is that these things are ultimately part of our collective soul rather than outside of us. I had to just laugh at this sentence:

      “Other have rejected Jungian theory in favor of a radical polytheism which sees the gods as beings existing independent of the human psyche.”

      Radical polytheism? You mean, ACTUAL polytheism? I love how the default theology of thousands of years is somehow “radical” because we’ve had a few decades of self-centered philosophizing calling itself pagan too.

  4. Here it is: http://humanisticpaganism.com/2011/09/18/the-archetypes-are-gods-re-godding-the-archetypes-by-john-h-halstead/

    The first hit using google.

  5. Thanks for writing this. You put it all incredibly well.

  6. Call me naive but what is the point of following a religious path if you don’t believe? I struggle sometimes, doubting myself more than anything, but the day I genuinely don’t believe in any of the gods is the day I give up paganism. Without the love, surely you’re just going through the motions?

    • I think the point for these people is both social and psychological. Why they can’t get that in some other form without trying to co-opt an actual religion, I don’t know. But this is why I identify as a “polytheist” – which has a more definite meaning than “pagan” and is harder to twist into something irreligious. Paganism these days is more and more a social club with some self-help philosophy on the side.

      • Which is why I stepped away from ‘henotheism,’ which I actually thought I was. No, I believe in many Gods, and even more so that I could never name. I think that’s part of the core of Polytheism, the actual acceptance (dare I say it, belief) that there is more to this world and beyond than just human perception.

        Shhh.. I know! Heretic!

  7. There is a sad trend that believes that one must be atheistic to be scientific. I think the religious right, both in Christianity and in Paganism, are turning moderate, normal people away from religion. I have never had a problem being polytheistic and scientific, religious and rational.

    • > I have never had a problem being polytheistic and scientific, religious and
      > rational.

      Nor have I ever had any problems with any of that. Myth need not be taken literally to be sacred. It was originally written in poetry, which tends to be famous for making use of metaphor –but just cos some lines are symbolic doesn’t mean that the entity the poem is about is only a symbol; that’s true if you’re writing a poem about a deity or your own mother.

  8. I think where the people that ultimately become ‘rational’ pagans often are coming from are those of us that doubt more often than not, usually our self doubt being what causes all the rest. It is harder to belief, truly, than to rationalize and turn everything into a self-help tool while still resting comfortably within the trappings of a religion. Case in point, there are people I trust that have had otherworldly experiences that I believe truly did have them, that what they experienced was real and in no way ‘all in their heads’, yet I struggle with doubting the existence of those very same beings, places, and gods when I’m the reference point. Not all rational pagans fall into this category I’m sure, but at least a large minority of them are probably those that succumb to their struggles with doubt and stick around purely for what psychological benefits they might be able to glean.

    • I’m sure you’re right.

      We all struggle with doubt. I do think a lot of it ends up being, ultimately, doubting ourselves rather than doubting Them. I still struggle with this after so many years, so many experiences… I’ll think “well, those were real then, but maybe nothing NOW is real…” There’s always some way for our own minds to sabotage us. The only way through this is to go through it, unfortunately. But there are deep rewards for sticking with it and not just falling back on psychological constructs and metaphor.

  9. […] recent post on belief does a pretty good job of this, which is why I’m reposting it here: …I no longer want to […]

  10. Reblogged this on I Greet the Dead and commented:
    I am reblogging this post from Dver’s “A Forest Door” as it addresses something I’ve been having more and more of an issue with as far as paganism goes; if you don’t believe in gods, or spirits, or deities, or smirk at the idea of magic, then follow Carl Jung’s work. Or just join a conservation group. Or take some courses in self-growth. But I Believe. And I worship. And I Work. And I don’t appreciate being treated like a backwoods bumpkin for it. My IQ rests at a comfortable 170+ – I don’t believe because I’m flaky or stupid or ignorant.

    So if this means I no longer use the term “pagan” then I’ll do that. Witch, yes. Animist, yep. Shaman, working on it. Polytheist, that too. But that’s because I work, and work hard, and I find I have less and less patience for philosophical discussions on whether or not what I do is “real” with people who don’t participate in anything I do.

    For those starting on the path – no, speaking with deities doesn’t mean you’re crazy; UPG (unverified personal gnosis) doesn’t mean you’re deluded. Practice as you are guided to practice. You’re not the only one.

  11. I am so glad I read all of this. It has put into words the exact things that I have been feeling isolated for in my local pagan community. It seems that so many pagans I know actually do not believe in the Gods existing outside of our psyches or in the belief of real magic. When I met my mentor, she told me witches do not really fly. Ummm… this limited thinking is what is going to keep you on the ground! I am not saying that I think I can pull bunnies mysteriously out of hats, but as witches aren’t we supposed to practice in belief the idea of infinite possibilities? In part, I have been open to amazing experiences and connections to DIFFERENT gods because of my beliefs, not because I simply do the work with no substanance.
    However, not every pagan wants to be a witch and not every catholic wants to be a nun or priest, so I suppose I can respect the differences that come with the territory.

  12. When i first became active in the pagan community and someone wrote that they didn’t believe in the Gods,I thought they were joking at first but it dawned on me this person was actually serious,I thought you’re not a pagan but an atheist.
    At least they can’t swipe the polytheistic term,I thank the Gods for that!

    • That is why I describe myself as a polytheist rather than a pagan – it is a much more precise term, and the concept of believing in the gods is built right into it.

      • The only time I’ll use the term pagan is amongst friends who know very well what my position is.If however it is some other instance I tend to use Polytheist/Animist,which is trruly what I am!
        I have also found that some pagans seem to be carrying baggage from when they were christian;have you found this also?

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