another false divide

My religion isn’t therapy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if other people thought it was.

I’ve heard that sentiment a lot – religion isn’t therapy, religion is about the gods, this isn’t about you, so on, so forth – and it’s been bugging me. My religion is about the gods, about serving them, praying, making offerings, living in a way that pleases them. But it also helps me. I have gained much from it, internally. That doesn’t make it any less a religion or my devotion any less real. And I’m tired of the divide of spirituality (as something that heals us) and religion (as something that helps the gods).

My gods and spirits have held me under drowning waters and lifted me when I had no strength, they’ve kicked me into gear when I’ve lazed about, and they’ve been silent when I’ve needed them. I’ve made offerings and prayers and knelt before their altar and written for them and kept the faith.

I could not serve the gods if I were not involved in mirror work, pulling myself apart and stitching myself together again, breaking my perceptions and forming new ones. I couldn’t serve the gods if I couldn’t get up in the morning or if I was so much of a wreck that all my human relationships fell apart because of my behavior (since part of my path is interacting with others and socialization).

therapy by ~satiiiva

This post is going to be a rant, so be aware of that.

But I am so sick, and so tired, and just all together done with this idea that you’re a bad religious person if you are actually concerned with your own well-being and how the gods and spirits can help you in that way. I really only see it in Paganism and polytheism. I think it probably stems from the grabby-hands behavior a lot of religious folk, like myself, have seen, where the gods are considered tools to be utilized and just archetypes to play around with in your mind. Which, yeah, that behavior bothers me, but I also know the only thing I can do about it is not engage in it and limit how much I interact with people who treat the gods like puppets. They have a different, entirely, completely, fundamentally different way of the viewing the world and the gods than I do, and there ain’t anything I can do about that other than share my piece.

For me, the gods and spirits are real, exist outside of me, and are deserving of the respect I give to humans, animals, and the physical world. They deserve to be fed and cared for regardless of how well I’m feeling or even how firmly I feel they exist or if I’m doubting – my path is one of doing, of action. We have a beneficial, reciprocal relationship. This isn’t a one way street. I pray to them, they support me; I learn from them constantly and give them all that I can, they give me their presence and advice.

The spirits have helped me learn to accept myself, and in doing so I am able to turn even more of myself over to them.

I think the sentiment that the gods aren’t pretty tools is useful, for those of us who are trying to find other like-minded folk, but I also think the ‘religion isn’t therapy’ has become damaging. To mystics, spirit workers, devotees, and lay-people. Are my experiences with my gods suddenly not religious because they have been, often, focused on self-development, change, honing me into a good tool for them? Or is that line drawn because I focus on being a tool for the gods rather than they as a tool for me?

Is that the difference?

My religion has helped me more than I can ever say, and so have the gods and spirits. I return to them as much as I can, in exchange for what they have given me. But I would not have the courage to reach out if I was convinced that serving the gods meant just offering them and approaching them as a perfect being, or one that was not aching for them and their healing, and my religion would be much weaker.

What I’m saying, what I’m rambling, is that my religion isn’t my therapy, but it helps me, and it helps me be more me, and by doing so helps my gods, and I’m sick of being told that religion shouldn’t…support people. I do push for a more god-centric practice, as most of the polytheism and Paganism is so focused on humans as to be ignorant to everything and anything else, but the gods and I are in a relationship. My religion helps that relationship grow, have rules and structure and mutual understands of behavior.

That’s what my religion is. A way to facilitate my relationship with my gods and spirits.

(And I guess what really bothers me is why is it so horrible if our religion helps us?)

processing the gods
Moving Forward
Basics: the Clarene (Worship)
Fear is Not the Goal
About Aine

Aine Llewellyn is a 20 year old girl creature currently mucking about in southern Arizona. She enjoys the winters and rain but can’t stand the heat. She is a difficult polytheist that natters on and on about her faith.

  • Glittery

    “why is it so horrible if our religion helps us?”
    This is a really good sentiment to end on. This entire article summarizes a lot of things I’ve been thinking lately.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    Yes, I agree entirely. (Except for your brief definitions of religion vs. spirituality…but that’s not important for now!)

    While the connections between “doing things that are deity-focused” and “getting along better in the world” are not always direct or obvious, I do think that they are pretty essential. Being in right relationship with the gods means being in right relationship with the world, and “the world” includes a lot of things, among them our own bodies, minds, souls/spirits/etc. Because we don’t stand outside of that understanding, I don’t see why the dependence of one upon the other should therefore exclude our own lives being better in a variety of ways for having honored the gods properly. At very least, my life is richer and more meaningful because of these things; it’s not always easier (sadly), but it is definitely more vibrant and worth living, in my opinion.

  • Aine

    My definitions were soooo off the mark of what I think those words really mean and denote, and I want to say I’m aware of that. Those are just the most common…simplifications I’ve seen whenever this issue gets brought up by the ‘spiritual but not religious’ or ‘religious but not spiritual’ camps. (From the SBNR I’ve commonly heard that…well, apart from rants about how religion is destroying the world, that it’s too ‘Other’ and from RBNS I’ve heard that spirituality is too ‘human/”me” centric’. Gah.)

    Being in right relationship with the gods means being in right relationship with the world, and “the world” includes a lot of things, among them our own bodies, minds, souls/spirits/etc.” I might just run away with this phrase because it is awesome.

    I also /really/ feel the more meaningful but not necessarily or always easier life – I’m definitely happier, more capable of handling challenges, and more stable than before I started really committing to this path, but I still have challenges and difficulties and plenty of bad days. Which, again, I think is part of being human, and I think as long as we keep in contact (prayer, offering, ritual, devotion) with our gods they’ll still…’be there’, I guess. (Ugh, awful wording, I should know better than to type at 2am.)

  • John Beckett

    If you are truly a servant of the gods, they have every reason to help you learn and grow: so you can do a better job of serving them and the Great Work in which we’re all engaged.

    On the other hand, they have little reason to make you feel good about living a mediocre life… though my experience is that some deities take a softer approach than others.

    If you think it’s all about you, you’re probably on the wrong track. If you understand it’s about making you better so you can be of greater service, you’re probably doing it right.

  • yvonne

    One context where I have found the “religion isn’t therapy” mantra quite useful is when you get people who want to do rituals that change the participants’ psyches in quite an abrupt fashion. As we are not professional therapists, we don’t have the right – or the expertise – to tamper with each other’s psyches.

  • yvonne

    I mean, obviously everything that happens to us affects our psyches, obviously, but ritual and therapy are both powerful tools for changing our inner worlds, and given that ritual is a powerful tool, we need to be careful of the effects that we can create.

  • mikal

    Agree, why shouldn’t whichever gods/god we worship not wish to help us refine our self, to become not just a better person, but a better representative of the faith we hold dear?

  • Aine

    Eh, let’s stay away from stuff like ‘truly a servant’, yeah? That makes me suuuuuper uncomfortable. Ain’t my place to be judgin who is ‘really’ a servant or not, and when you add in diversity of practice, belief, devotion, work – situations get sticky.

    And what exactly is a mediocre life? Lazing about, not doing anything? Just working and playing? I know plenty of spirits who are associated with just helping humans go about their business, cause that helps the spirit go about /their/ business, and don’t really care for anything other than doing a job, being responsible for your actions, and keeping up a house.

    As for your last point…my relationships with my gods are reciprocal, and very focused on serving them, but my relationship with some spirits – such as Althea – are definitely about her and me, no more, no less. I suppose my approach has always been a relationship, rather than one-sided interaction (me me me or the gods, the gods, the gods), though.

  • Aine

    Hm, I disagree that ritual is about changing our inner worlds – I think it can, and some rituals are oriented that way, but ritual is, foremost for me, about the gods. Giving offerings to the gods, upholding right relationship with them and the world, etc. The only ritual I really do that is internally focused is a cleansing one, and even that is made so I can live better and work better for the gods and spirits. And while I would do a ritual to help someone change or some such, it would probably be more spirit or god-driven, at least on my end. So…I agree that ritual is powerful, but my focus is different.

  • John Beckett

    I was using “you” in the generic sense and my comments were intended to give my thoughts on your post, which I’m largely in agreement with. If any of that came across as critical of you personally, I apologize – that was not my intent.

    To clarify: “truly a servant” – those who are working respectfully with the gods, as opposed to those who treat them as cosmic room service, or like a spare tire (ignoring them till they need something).

    “Mediocre life” – those who ignore the call of their soul and settle for what’s familiar. Those who _choose_ to remain in suffering rather than risk change. I’m NOT saying all suffering is a choice – that’s “blame the victim” crap. But too many people refuse to take the risk of living. I’ve been guilty of that myself.

    I hope that helps. I really did like your post.

  • Aine

    Oh, I understood the general ‘you’ – I just get uncomfortable with statements about ‘true’ or ‘real’ servants/spirit workers/devotees etc in general. I know people whose practice would look very self-centered, but that doesn’t make them less involved with their gods, it just means that they have a different practice.

    As for people with spare time syndrome…yeaaaah, that definitely hits me as disrespectful, and I’ll avoid them. because…I want to surround myself with people that respect the gods and also respect how I approach the gods. And if I can’t respect how someone is approaching the gods, as I can’t with cosmic room services approaches, I leave as graciously as I can.

    oooh, your last point is something I think I want to write more on, as it’s so complex and difficult…thank you!!

  • Erin

    Aine, I love your definition here, “That’s what my religion is. A way to facilitate my relationship with my gods and spirits.” I resonate with this very much. I feel that the meaning of human life is to take care of each other, human and other-than-human people, and so to best to this, we must be in good relationship with each other. I think too that the gods are here to take care of us, and will do so when we take care of them, mind our relationship with them, and our relationships all around, including with ourselves, which they will at times guide. That is part of the mutual care-taking relationship. I appreciate your emphasis on relationships here, and how your religion helps to maintain them.

  • naiadis

    I absolutely adore this post and am so grateful to have found it, at this time. We are social animals, and even if one’s tribe is made up of not-just-humans, or is mostly made up of *mostly* not-just-humans, part of the fabric of community is that give and take. There’s affection and respect and love, but you know, it’s also ‘what do you bring to the table’. It’s true for me with my partner, with my cats and my dog, and with the spirits I’m involved with. I don’t demand things from Them, but I do accept things from Them, and over the years, yeah, there have been things I’ve come to expect from Them.

    My gods and spirits in my life have PUSHED me to become a better person. I think it’s a bit “to be able to give to others, you have to heal yourself/care for yourself, first.” If you have things that don’t need mending, great! But, some people have to learn how to function in the world. Some people grew up in crises mode and need to learn how to live in a sustainable way. Some people need to learn that it’s okay to be who they want to be. Some people just need to be valued for who they are.

    I’m a polytheist. My experience is, the gods and spirits are real. Really real, outside of me. And I’m not very interested in letting other people tell me how it’s gonna be, when my gods and spirits can tell me Themselves. They let me know when I’m wrong, when I’m off my rocker. I’m happy enough with that.

    (Why is healing and personal betterment such a bad thing?)

  • Aine

    “And I’m not very interested in letting other people tell me how it’s gonna be, when my gods and spirits can tell me Themselves.” THIS, so much (especially with the latest kerfuffle). I think if we are going to accept the spirits as real – which I think polytheists should – then we need to accept that they are going to tell people different things and expect certain things. The /spirits/ will let me know when I am messing up. As rude as it may sound, I care less for humans – even people I respect dearly – than I do for what the spirits want and need from and FOR me.