Practice and Belief

I’ve seen quite a bit in the Pagan blogosphere the past few days on the connection between practice and belief. That relationship is most clearly expressed in B.T. Newberg’s interview with Rev. Michael J Dangler of ADF at his Humanistic Paganism blog. Dangler says simply “practice begets belief.” He’s right, but I want to dig a little deeper into how and why he’s right.

Practice can beget belief, but more frequently practice begets experience and experience begets belief. We engage in spiritual practice: we pray, meditate, perform devotions and make offerings; we perform rituals and work magic. These practices facilitate religious experiences: we experience the presence of a deity, we feel strengthened and restored, we experience change, and we get results. These experiences are a consequence of our actions, not our beliefs. They work because they work, not because we think they work.

This is why most Pagans – and Unitarian Universalists, and followers of other liberal religions – focus on orthopraxy and not orthodoxy. We focus on doing the right thing, not on thinking or believing the right thing.

It doesn’t matter if you care for the Earth because you’re a Pagan who believes the Earth is the body of the Goddess, or because you’re a Christian who believes the Earth is God’s creation, or because you’re an atheist who believes this is the only planet we’ve got so we better take care of it. What matters is that you care for the Earth.

Belief comes as we try to interpret our experiences. What do they tell us about ourselves and our place in the grand order of things? What do they tell us about our place in the community? What do they tell us about how we should live our lives – what is of ultimate importance and what is trivial? Why did this practice generate this experience?

The meaning we take from our beliefs motivates us to practice deeper and more frequently. More and deeper practice generates more and deeper experiences. More and deeper experiences further reinforce our beliefs.

Practice, experience and belief are a virtuous circle.

Our religious traditions provide a framework for interpretation. As much as we like to think we’re unique, mostly we aren’t. Whatever we’re doing and experiencing it’s highly likely someone else has been there before. The good news is that we don’t have to figure out everything from the start. This is one of the reasons I rant against the “spiritual but not religious” movement – it forces everyone to reinvent the proverbial wheel. And that takes time and effort that could be spent more productively using an already-existing wheel to actually go somewhere.

The point that Newberg and Dangler make in their interview is echoed in this post by Druid Teo Bishop and in this one by Heathen Galina Krasskova: practice and the belief will come. The converse is also true, as Bishop has found: stop practicing and the belief will fade. I’ve done that too.

In the Protestant tradition that is still dominates the West, belief is everything. If you no longer believe, anything you do is meaningless… and you may already be damned. But in the tradition of almost every other religion, belief is of secondary importance. What’s most important is what you do. If you don’t believe, keep practicing. The techniques work – sooner or later the practice will produce religious experience and from the experience, belief.

Do the work and the results will come.

There’s one caveat to this I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere that needs to be kept in mind. What you can believe is limited by what you think is possible. You can call these “core beliefs” or “foundational assumptions” or your “worldview.” They’re usually unstated and frequently unrecognized – they’re self-evident… at least to you.

Anyone can do the practice and have the experience – experience is driven by action, not by belief. But when it comes time to form beliefs about the experience, a person with a materialist worldview will interpret that experience in a materialist fashion: he will decide he experienced only a change in brain chemistry, not the touch of a goddess.

In the interview, B.T. Newberg said “I couldn’t really accept, rationally, the idea of literal gods being outside my mind and existing out there somewhere” and went on to say “You can have different states of mind.” He did the work, he had the experiences, but he interpreted them according to a Humanist worldview.

And that’s perfectly OK. It works for him. It’s meaningful for him. What matters is doing the right things, not believing the right things.

Is a worldview something you’re born with or something you learn? I tend to think it’s a little of both. I grew up in a fundamentalist church where a “biblical worldview” was both assumed and preached. But when I got old enough to think about what I was being taught I realized it didn’t make sense to me – it went against my core beliefs. I certainly wasn’t taught universalism at home or in school – I think it’s much more likely I was born with the propensity toward rational thought and a belief in the value of every individual.

Having said that, I don’t think our worldviews are unchangeable. I completely discounted the possibility of many gods or of magic… until I met someone for whom they were very real. At that point the way I interpreted my experiences changed, and I started down the path that has led to where I am now as a Pagan and a Druid. Changing a worldview requires study and practice – you have to reprogram both the conscious and unconscious mind.

If you’re struggling with belief, keep practicing. Practice will lead to experience and experience will lead to belief.

Ground yourself in your religious tradition, which will provide a framework for interpreting your experiences. Read the myths and lore of your deities – how can you know Odin is speaking to you if you don’t know anything about him?

If you do all that (consistently, over a long period) and you still struggle with belief, it’s probably time to start looking at your worldview. What unstated beliefs rule your life? What foundational assumptions have you made, or have you been taught? Do you need to challenge those assumptions? Are they in conflict with what you’re trying to believe? Do you need to work to change your worldview, or do you need to try another spiritual path?

This is why Pagans don’t proselytize – the path that’s right for me may run counter to your core beliefs. While I will preach against fundamentalist religions of any flavor, there is value to be found in Christianity and Buddhism and Islam and atheism and virtually every religion known to humanity.

What matters most is doing the right things.

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About John Beckett

I’m a Druid in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I’m an ordained priest in the Universal Gnostic Fellowship. I’m the Coordinating Officer of the Denton, Texas Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. This year I’m also serving as a member of the Board of Trustees of CUUPS National. I’m a member of the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

I write as a spiritual practice. It helps me organize my thoughts and work through ideas and concepts. It helps me evaluate my beliefs and practices against my core values and against what I know (or at least, what I think I know) to be true. It helps me interpret my experiences (religious and otherwise) in ways that are both meaningful and honest.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16195164948929837179 Teo Bishop

    This is a wonderful post, John. I appreciate that you've taken the discussion one step further — practice to experience, and experience to belief. That's brilliant, and true.

    Blessings to you!


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