Faith and Belief

Many Pagans will tell you that they do not have faith and belief, because they know by experience that the gods exist. Here they are using the words in their modern sense of ‘assent to a creed’. Other Pagans will quite happily use the words faith and belief, because they mean something different by those words. What is going on? What do the words ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ mean? Has their meaning changed over time? Yes, according to Karen Armstrong:

“Faith” has its etymological roots in the Greek pistis, “trust; commitment; loyalty; engagement.” Jerome translated pistis into the Latin fides (“loyalty”) and credo (which was from cor do, “I give my heart”). The translators of the first King James Bible translated credo into the English “belief,” which came from the Middle English bileven (“to prize; to value; to hold dear”). Faith in God, therefore, was a trust in and loyal commitment to God.

~ Brian McGrath Davis, Religion is not about belief: Karen Armstrong’s THE CASE FOR GOD

Similarly, Alan Watts, a writer who popularised Zen in the West, regarded faith as an attitude of openness to mystery and uncertainty:

“Faith is a state of openness or trust.

To have faith is like when you trust yourself to the water. You don’t grab hold of the water when you swim, because if you do you will become stiff and tight in the water, and sink. You have to relax, and the attitude of faith is the very opposite of clinging, and holding on.

In other words, a person who is fanatic in matters of religion, and clings to certain ideas about the nature of God and the universe becomes a person who has no faith at all. Instead they are holding tight. But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.”

~ Alan Watts

When we view faith and belief as meaning trust and/or the humility to admit that we don’t have all the answers, or even know what all the questions are yet, then they seem like much more attractive ideas. As Karen Armstrong says, they don’t involve assenting to a set creed, and bending your reason out of shape, or leaving it at the door, in order to ‘believe six impossible things before breakfast’ – rather, they are about opening yourself to experience.

Otter in Alaska, photo by S Chucke (public domain).  Pixabay.

Otter in Alaska, photo by S Chucke (public domain). Pixabay.

Everyone knows that being open to experience without trying to come up with a theory to explain it can lead to more experiences of the same kind. Tania Luhrmann referred to this phenomenon as interpretive drift. I would prefer a more neutral term, such as openness, as her terminology (and indeed her study of magic users) was based on the premise that everyone starts out rational and then shifts, or drifts, towards a belief in magic. Whereas I do not think that a belief in magic is irrational, or incompatible with science. Pagans have a variety of ways in which we reconcile our theories of magic with the materialistic world-view of science.

I have always said that I don’t have a fixed belief (in the sense of assenting to a creed); instead, I have working hypotheses to explain my experiences.

Sometimes, we Pagans tie ourselves up in knots trying to avoid the problematic terminology we have experienced in evangelical and/or fundamentalist Christianity that some of us have experienced in the past. But sometimes it is worth trying to find out what these terms originally meant, and reclaim them for our own use. People have similar issues with the terms ‘worship’ and ‘prayer’, but that is a topic for another post.

Faith

So, if you have faith in the gods, it means you trust them. What are the implications of that? Well, if you trust your friend, it means you believe they have your best interests at heart; that you can confide in them; that they will not let you down in a crisis. So maybe you don’t have that kind of faith in all the gods, but rather with the ones you have a special devotion to, or a special relationship with. Or maybe you place your faith in Nature, and your relationship with it.

This faith – this relationship – is what sustains you when you feel doubtful, depressed, or otherwise wobbly. It doesn’t mean you never have doubts; it means that you keep on keeping on, even when you have doubts. You lean back into the water, and trust that it will hold you up, even when you don’t know how deep it is.

Let’s face it, even when we have direct experience of the gods, or of magic, we still don’t really know how it works, or what the gods really are. The face of the gods that we see is only one facet of their nature, whatever that may be. The gods are vast ancient cosmic forces, and our personifications of them are their reflections in human culture. As Sam Webster wrote recently:

Let us start with the Gods as we experience them. Much to my surprise, I am no longer convinced that the Beings we experience are the Gods Themselves. What we are experiencing is a projection of Those who are Gods refracted through our souls and the cultures we are a part of. 

We do not really know the full nature of the gods, so we are open and trusting towards them in order to experience more of their nature. We do not cling to our limited ideas about them, but are ready to open ourselves to more experience and insight.

Belief

To believe in something in the original sense is to prize it, to value it, to hold it dear. Do you prize your Pagan practice, your relationship with the gods? Do you hold dear the culture and values of Paganism? Then you believe in them.

The distinction between mythos and logos is important here. Mythos is metaphorical truth – something that rings true, that is an accurate symbol for representing something. Logos is literal truth, such as empirical knowledge about how things work. Karen Armstrong explains the difference:

In most pre-modern cultures, there were two recognised ways of attaining truth. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were crucial and each had its particular sphere of competence. Logos (“reason; science”) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled us to control our environment and function in the world. It had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external realities. But logos could not assuage human grief or give people intimations that their lives had meaning. For that they turned to mythos, an early form of psychology, which dealt with the more elusive aspects of human experience.

This is related to the concept of worship, which is about holding something to be worthwhile – a celebration of ultimate worth, as the excellent Abraxan Essay on Worship by Von Ogden Vogt has it. We value something, we trust it, we invest our time and energy in it – we believe in it. We still use this sense of ‘belief’ in everyday speech – “I believe in you” means “I value you and trust you”.

Belief is reinforced by belonging – the more we feel part of something, the more we place our trust in it; and the two are mutually reinforcing: the more we believe and trust in something, the more we feel that we belong. This process is contingent on experience, however; if your community lets you down, it is hard to continue with that same level of trust. Trust and belonging and belief are created by practice, which is why most religions place much more emphasis on practice than they do on assent to creeds. Karen Armstrong explains how religion is about practice:

Religious truth is, therefore, a species of practical knowledge. Like swimming, we cannot learn it in the abstract; we have to plunge into the pool and acquire the knack by dedicated practice. Religious doctrines are a product of ritual and ethical observance, and make no sense unless they are accompanied by such spiritual exercises as yoga, prayer, liturgy and a consistently compassionate lifestyle. Skilled practice in these disciplines can lead to intimations of the transcendence we call God, Nirvana, Brahman or Dao. Without such dedicated practice, these concepts remain incoherent, incredible and even absurd.

Reclaiming the words

So, let’s reclaim the words faith and belief to mean what they originally meant, and not use them to mean ‘assent to a creed’. They mean far more than that; they are about creating relationship with the gods and/or Nature; reconnecting with the sacred; re-enchanting the world. We believe in the gods and spirits, Nature and the Earth and the  land, because we hold them dear, and value our relationships with them; we have opened our hearts to them. We have faith in them, because we are relaxed in their presence, and have let go of our assumptions, and we trust them.

When knowledge was power

Lynne Kelly

Lynne Kelly

Ritual often seems like an activity designed only for interaction with the preternatural or the supernatural. However, in non-literate (oral) cultures, it can have a mnemonic function – to remember and pass on traditional lore, about how to grow and manage crops, about animal and plant species, how to interact with the land, how to use tools.

Lynne Kelly is an Honorary Visiting Research Fellow at LaTrobe University. She is researching the ways in which knowledge is transmitted in non-literate cultures.

In a discussion on ritual on the British Archaeology mailing list, she wrote:

My research is into the way non-literate cultures learn, store and transmit information – vast amounts of it – when they don’t have writing. I then apply that to the archaeological record. A wide range of apparently enigmatic objects become very practical when the memory systems used are understood. The deliberate destruction or disposal of objects is common when there is no initiate suitable to take over the object. Unfortunately, it all takes too much to explain in an email. It is all to do with preserving the critical survival information accurately, among other things. Think of initiation as being initiated into higher and higher levels of a knowledge system, much of which is practical. I draw particularly (but far from exclusively) on our Australian Aboriginal hunter-gatherer cultures.

To give one example of the way indigenous rituals can appear superficial, but aren’t, I’ll use a Pueblo example because it is so beautifully recorded. Alfonso Ortiz in ‘The Tewa world: space, time, being, and becoming in a Pueblo society‘ (1969) talks a lot about the stories of the Corn Mothers and the variously coloured Corn Maidens. Lots of ‘rituals’, many of which are restricted to a select group of initiated males.

Ortiz also suggests, in later writing, that you read Richard I. Ford, an ethnobotanist. Ford describes the same rituals – ceremonies – rigidly repeated acts – in terms of the outcome. Effectively, these ritual performances ensure that multiple varieties of corn, each known by the different colour, have been maintained pure over centuries, if not a lot longer. These are the descendant of the Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) cultures. Careful selection and planting of multiple varieties means that no matter how bad the weather that season, some corn will produce food. Corn cross-pollinates very readily, so it is quite complex to ensure all varieties are maintained pure. Consequently, Ford titled the paper ‘The colour of survival’, (1980), Discovery, pp. 16-29. [Not the common magazine, Discovery, but an academic journal.] Ford suggests you read Ortiz to get the Puebloan way of describing the same events and outcomes.

I have covered the Puebloan knowledge system and associated ‘enigmatic’ objects in the thesis, and have plenty more examples like this from other cultures. For example, think of ‘Hunting magic’ as ceremonies which remind all of the group about strategies … and so it goes on. Knowledge is stored so differently by cultures without writing that the pragmatism is often disguised and it is easy to see only simplistic ‘religious’ reasons as the purpose for the ceremonies. All the oral cultures I explored integrate the secular and the sacred so the two become almost indistinguishable.

If you think about it, contemporary Pagan rituals are also designed to transmit knowledge – to enable people to understand sacred stories from within, by re-enacting them; to transmit knowledge of magic, symbolism, and mythology. This also got me thinking about how ritual could be used to transmit botanical knowledge, or astronomy, or other scientific information. I once did a ritual about quantum mechanics, so why not? Learning through ritual engages the right hemisphere of the brain as well as the left, so is probably a more effective way to transmit knowledge.

[Note: the above quote is used with Lynne’s permission. Her research will soon be published as a book.]

[Photo credit: Lynne Kelly, used with permission]

What is magic and how does it work?

Circe Invidiosa by John William Waterhouse

Circe Invidiosa by John William Waterhouse

A friend on Facebook asked, how does magic work? My immediate response to this was, it depends what you mean by magic.

The art of causing change in consciousness in accordance with Will

Most modern magical writers from Aleister Crowley onwards have affirmed that the primary purpose of magic is to change the practitioner, rather than the external world. It’s also possible that having worked on the inner self, change will also be effected in the surrounding reality, either directly, or as a result of the change in consciousness of the practitioner, who is now empowered to go out and make the world a better place.

Will is a tricky concept — it can mean the individual will, or the divine will, or aligning the individual will with the divine will, depending on the perspective of the practitioner, and whether they are more left hand path or right hand path.

The right hand path has been defined as becoming one with the Divine (dissolving the ego), whereas the left hand path has been defined as turning oneself into a deity (achieving apotheosis). I like these two definitions, as they go a long way to explaining what makes Paganism different from other religions.

Magic and ritual certainly work to transform the psyche of the practitioner; tried and tested techniques of initiation, meditation, visualisation, and working with archetypes do seem to have a beneficial effect.

Does magic have an effect on the external world?

Everybody has an anecdote where they did a healing and the recipient felt better; or they did a working for a job and got the job; but these are anecdotal evidence, and there’s no way to prove that the ill person wouldn’t have got better anyway, or the job seeker wouldn’t have got the job anyway. However, even if these workings have no effect on external events, they make the participants in the healing or the spell feel better because they have done something to help. Incidentally, an ethical job spell should always include the proviso that if someone else needs the job even more, they should get it.

I went to a workshop on talismans once where the workshop leader pointed out that magic always follows the path of least resistance. So if you make a talisman for pregnancy but you’re not actually having sex, then don’t be too surprised if someone close to you gets pregnant instead. This suggests that caution is necessary in the preparation of talismans, in order to avoid “leakage” into someone else’s life.

The gods help those who help themselves

In order for magic to work, you also need to be putting in effort on the mundane level. If you do a job spell but don’t actually apply for any jobs, you won’t get a job, no matter how good the spell was. Maybe the spell only works to give you extra confidence at the interview, but that is a good thing in itself. There’s a Jewish story about a man who prays every day to God that he might win the lottery. Eventually an exasperated voice booms out from on high, “Meet me half-way already — buy a lottery ticket!”

Another important aspect of magic is not refusing to acknowledge results because they don’t look quite like what you were expecting. I have seen people do spells and then turn down the results because they weren’t quite right — even though they were better than their existing circumstances. There’s a story about a man in the middle of a flood, who prays to God to save him. A boat comes by and offers him a lift, but he turns it down, saying, “No, God will put forth His hand to save me.” Then two more boats come by, and he says the same. Finally a helicopter hovers overhead, but again he refuses help. Eventually he drowns. When he gets to heaven, he asks God, “Why didn’t you save me?” And God replies, “I sent you three boats and a helicopter – what more did you want?”

How does magic work?

So if magic does effect change in external reality, how does it do that? This is usually the point at which people get a bit hand-wavy and start talking about quantum mechanics and “energies”.

We exist within the Earth’s electromagnetic field. Some people and animals are sensitive to fluctuations in this field. So it can affect us; and maybe we can affect it, or interact with it. Magical energy is presumably transmitted either via some hitherto unknown interaction between consciousness and the Earth’s magnetic field; or via one of the seven dimensions that are enfolded within the usual four of space-time. Either way, science has so far mostly failed to verify extra-sensory perception and other psychic powers, so maybe there are no external effects when we do magic.

I was discussing this with a Buddhist friend, and he said that the problem is, the more people try to use science to justify their belief in faeries and energies and the like, the more ridiculous it sounds. Most of the time, it’s just a misuse of the scientific terms (especially if it involves the word quantum). As my Buddhist friend said, it’s one thing to say you saw a faery at the bottom of the garden, and quite another to claim that you have built a device for detecting faeries.

If magic works at all, it should be verifiable by science (though not necessarily by contemporary science, which focuses almost exclusively on the material aspects of reality). However, there are so many variables at play that it would be difficult to envisage a sufficiently objective experiment. Investigations into whether petitionary prayer (asking for stuff) works have pretty much concluded that it doesn’t, so I don’t hold out much hope for scientific confirmation of results magic.

However, whether or not magic affects external reality, magic, meditation, and prayer can work to transform the psyche, and are therefore still worthwhile practices to engage in. Other scientific experiments have shown that engaging in meditation and contemplative prayer changes the brainwave patterns of the practitioner and makes them calmer.

Realism and non-realism

There are several ways in which to construe the relationship of religious discourse to the world it attempts to describe, and with other (possibly competing, possibly complementary) interpretations such as science and philosophy.

The NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) position, put forward by Stephen Jay Gould, is that science and religion deal with two different domains, and therefore share no common ground for either agreement or argument; science deals with empirical matters and religion deals with ‘questions of ultimate meaning’ (McGrath, 2007: 18).  Richard Dawkins disagrees with NOMA because he argues that a universe with a creator deity would be a very different place to a universe without one, and therefore discussion of this does fall within the domain of science (Dawkins, 2006: 55).

The POMA (partially overlapping magisteria) position is that there is some overlap, and that they are two complementary ways of viewing the world (McGrath, 2007: 19).

Naturalists argue that only the physical realm exists, and phenomena such as consciousness are emergent properties of complex biological systems (Naturalism.org).

Bienkowski (2006: 2) identifies four possible belief positions for adherents of religions: materialism, the belief that only the material plane exists (this is similar to Naturalism, atheism, and humanism); idealism, the belief that the material plane is illusory; dualism, the belief that both material and spiritual realms exist, but are separate (similar to Luhrmann’s two worlds view); and animism, the belief that the spiritual world is immanent in the material world. The ideas discussed are very broad in scope, however, as they are intended to represent a range of religions and philosophies, and something more specific is needed to identify the nuances of Pagan discourse.

Tania Luhrmann (1989: 285-293) outlines four possible positions which magical practitioners take in justifying their views to sceptics. The first is realism, the idea that ‘there is a knowable objective reality and that magic reveals more of it than science’.  The second position that she identifies is the two worlds view, that ‘the objective referent of magical claims is unknowable within the terms of an ordinary, scientific world’ (this is similar to the ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ or NOMA position).  The third position is relativism, which ‘defines all truth as relative and contingent’ (which Luhrmann found to be quite a common view).  The final position is the metaphorical view, that magic is metaphorical and is probably objectively not true, but is nevertheless a creative and enjoyable practice.  Luhrmann (1989: 293) says that she rarely encountered this position except among those who had come to magic through political concerns such as environmentalism and feminism.  This metaphorical view is embraced by Starhawk (1999: 219), who says that ‘[s]cientific knowledge, like religious knowledge, is a set of metaphors for a reality that can never be completely described or comprehended.’  However, Starhawk (1999: 7) is one of those Pagans who are deeply involved in environmental and feminist activism, as predicted by Luhrmann.

Luhrmann (1989: 284) states that the four positions are not mutually exclusive; she senses that ‘most magicians will give most of these arguments at some time during their magical career’.

In contrast, Dawkins (2006: 50) identifies seven possible belief positions on the existence of God, from strong theism to strong atheism, with agnosticism in the middle.  However, these are not very useful for the purpose of discussing Paganism, because they only relate to the existence of a supernatural creator deity, and not to the possible ways in which the spiritual and material realms could interact.  Belief in a creator is largely irrelevant to Pagans, since we are more interested in relating to Nature (Harvey, 1997: 145).

Other possible discursive positions include deep ecology, the view that the human order is not separate from the natural order, which implies that all life is sacred (Livingstone, 2002: 347).  This is similar to the animism proposed by Graham Harvey, who advocates an embodied awareness and ‘listening neighbourliness’ towards other species (Harvey, 1997: 141).  The Gaia Hypothesis goes further than this, arguing that the entire planet is such a complex system that it should be regarded as a living organism (Livingstone, 2002: 347).  All of these views can be found in Pagan views of relationship with Nature.

Michael York suggests that, rather than talking about the “supernatural”, which implies that the Divine, deities, and spirits are somehow outside and beyond the material realm, we should use the term “preternatural”:

The supernatural as we know it is largely a Christian-derived expression from the idea that its ‘God’ is over and ‘above’ nature – material/empirical reality. It is this notion that is the target of secular and naturalistic animosity alike. Instead, rather than ‘supernatural’, I turn instead to the ‘preternatural’ that expresses the non-causal otherness of nature – one that comprehends the magical, miraculous, numinous, mysterious yet non-empirical quality of the sublime. Most important, however, the preternatural does not demand belief or faith but instead encounter and experience – whether through contemplation, metaphor, spontaneous insight, ecstasy, trance, synchronicity or ritual or any combination of these. As Margot Adler expressed it, paganism is not about belief but what we do.

This is an important distinction; much of the criticism of religion offered by new atheists and skeptics is aimed at the supernatural elements of theology – the assumption that the supernatural exists outside the physical world, and that is why it is undetectable by science; whereas atheists would argue that it is undetectable by science because it does not exist.

Another approach to distinguishing between different models of the world is offered by Nuyen (2001: 394), who discusses realism and antirealism in religion.  Religious realism (like Luhrmann’s realist position) asserts that there is an external referent of religious language; religious antirealism asserts that ‘there is no transcendent being or reality to which religious languages and practices refer, and that the source of religious meaning and value lies in us, human beings’ (Nuyen, 2001: 394).  This antirealism is very similar to Luhrmann’s metaphorical position.

There is also a debate within science itself over whether scientific discourse actually has any objective referents in reality, or whether scientific understandings are necessarily metaphors.

Folse (1986: 96) describes the classic scientific realist position as holding that at least some terms in theoretical statements correspond to the properties of entities to which these terms refer.  Another form of realism is ‘the quest for knowledge about the reality producing the phenomena we experience’, which does not necessarily insist that that reality is entirely comprehensible.  This is comparable to religious realism, which also asserts that descriptions of deities have objective external referents.

Muller and Livingston (1995: 16) describe scientific antirealism as the view that scientific terms are merely ‘terminological abstraction(s) designed to account for the… results of a particular set of experiments’ and do not necessarily have any objective referents.  They note that much of the debate between realists and antirealists in science hinges on the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, which posits that the observer affects the observed, thereby calling into question the notion of an objective external reality.  Magicians often quote this in defence of the ‘relativist’ position (Luhrmann, 1989: 291); it is interesting because it implies that some scientists understand their descriptions of reality to be metaphorical.

The various positions available in both scientific and religious discourse show that the debate is not simply happening between science and religion, but also within both those discourses, and so it is not accurate to talk about either discourse as if it were a monolithic entity engaged in a titanic struggle for truth and authority with the other discourse; the whole picture is far more complex.

Bibliography

Bienkowski, P. (2006) ‘Persons, things and archaeology: contrasting world-views of minds, bodies and death’, Respect for Ancient British Human Remains: Philosophy and Practice. [online] Available from: Manchester Museum,http://www.museum.manchester.ac.uk/medialibrary/documents/respect/persons_things_and_archaeology.pdf (accessed 25.08.2008)

Dawkins, R. (2006) The God Delusion. London: Bantam Press.

Folse, H.J. (1986) ‘Niels Bohr, Complementarity, and Realism’. Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, 1, pp. 96-104 [online] Available from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/193111 (accessed 07.09.2008)

Harvey, G. (1997) Contemporary Paganism: Listening People, Speaking Earth. New York: New York University Press.

Livingstone, D. N. (2002) ‘Ecology and the Evironment.’ In: Ferngren, G. B., Science & Religion: a historical introduction. Baltimore andLondon:JohnsHopkinsUniversity Press.

Luhrmann, T. (1989) Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McGrath, A. E. (2007) The Dawkins Delusion? London: SPCK.

Muller, A. and Livingston, P. (1995) ‘Realism/Anti-Realism: A Debate’. Cultural Critique, No. 30, The Politics of Systems and Environments, Part I, pp. 15-32 [online] Available from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1354431 (accessed 07.09.2008)

Nuyen, A.T. (2001) ‘Realism, Anti-Realism, and Emmanuel Levinas.’ The Journal of Religion, 81, (3), pp. 394-409 [online] Available from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1206402 (accessed 07.09.2008)

Starhawk (1999), The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco.

York, M. (2008), ‘A Pagan Defence of Theism’. Theologies of Immanence.  [online] Available from: http://pagantheologies.pbworks.com/w/page/13621955/A%20Pagan%20defence%20of%20theism (accessed 30.01.2013)