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.