Am I Doing It Right?

I’ve got at least one more travel-related post to write, plus a review of a book I read on the trip.  But I need to pause for a moment and discuss a question that’s come up several times from several sources over the past few weeks.

Am I doing Paganism right?  Am I doing polytheism right?  More precisely, how can I be sure I’m doing it right?

This isn’t a common Pagan question.  Pagans tend to assume whatever they’re doing is right – “do as thou wilt is the whole of the law” doesn’t just apply to Thelemites.  To be fair, practitioners of most religions do this too – Pagans are just more honest about it than those who like to argue “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” without ever examining the source or interpretations of what their God supposedly said.

In any case, wondering if you’re doing it right is a more humble and more mature approach.  It’s a realization that we’re dealing with questions of greatest importance.  It’s a realization there is much we can learn from our spiritual ancestors.  It’s a realization that even the wisest and most spiritual among us can benefit from consulting with our coreligionists.  We are responsible for our own spiritual journeys and we must make our own decisions, but we need not rely solely on our own counsel.

Not everyone is meant to be a devotional polytheist and we have no mandate to “win the world for the Gods.”  If a particular God or Goddess or even all the Gods and Goddesses choose not to speak to a particularly person there’s nothing we can do about it.  But I’ve seen some folks reply to confused seekers with comments along the lines of “obviously this isn’t for you – why don’t you become a Qabbalist or a Buddhist or something.”  These responses are unkind (at the very least) and they’re unhelpful both to seekers and to our movement.  If someone feels the call to polytheism and asks for our assistance, we owe them an an answer that is both honest and helpful.

What are you looking for?

If you wonder if you’re doing it right, the first question to ask yourself is what kind of confirmation you’re looking for.  What would convince you you’re doing it right – or that you need to make some changes?  What level of proof do you require?  There’s nothing wrong with wanting rock-solid assurance, but you’re not likely to get it.

There is no such thing as religious certainty.  There is certainty in mathematics.  There is certainty in the physical sciences.  There is even a type of certainty in the behavioral sciences, though finding it is usually more complicated than we like to think.  But religious experiences and especially religious beliefs are inherently and unavoidably uncertain.  No matter how confident you are, you might be wrong.

We humans like certainty – why else would anyone over the age of six ever eat at McDonald’s?  We’d really like to have certainty about our religious beliefs and practices – so much that some people pretend they have it even when they don’t.  If you simply must have religious certainty, you can buy into the spurious claims of conservative Christianity or conservative Islam.  Or you can approach things from the other side and become an atheist.

My Christian friends seem to understand this – either that, or they’re just too polite to challenge me on it.  But I have several atheist readers who complain every time I criticize atheism.  So let me be very clear:  if your free and responsible search for truth and meaning has led you to conclude there are no Gods, or if the level of evidence you require for belief is so high it can never be satisfied, then I’m happy you’ve found atheism.  I’ll see you at the trash pickup, or the soup kitchen, or the storytelling festival.  I don’t agree with your conclusions, but I have no need to convert you to polytheism.  Now, if you shout “religion poisons everything” or insist my Gods are delusions, we’re going to have issues.

How will you know when you find it?

If certainty is impossible, how will you know when you’re doing it right?

Do your beliefs provide you with a useful model of the universe and help you find your place in it?  Does your tradition help you wrestle with the Big Questions of Life?  Does it help you figure out how to live here and now?  Does it challenge you to examine your assumptions and your values, and then to live up to them?  Do your practices encourage you to honor the past, build for the future, and live in the present?  Do they promote connections with and respect for other people, other species, and other ecosystems?

If you can answer “yes” to these questions then you’re doing it right.  Confirmation doesn’t come in a flash of divine light, it comes in the slow steady change that consistent spiritual practice brings.

Note that I said nothing about how you connect to the Gods or what They will communicate to you.  Some techniques have shown to be more helpful than others (don’t reinvent the religious wheel!), but there is no polytheistic orthodoxy.

Religious practice in a multicultural society (and we live in the most diverse society in the history of humanity) carries the risk of feeling like you’re doing it wrong, because there’s always someone out there doing it differently – and there are always some of them who will be happy to tell you just how wrong you are.  Spiritual growth requires taking that risk.  It requires saying “this isn’t what the mainstream teaches, and I can’t be sure, but it makes sense, and it feels right, so I’m going to follow it.”

Now, if your religion tells you the world would be fine if other people would quit screwing it up, you’re doing it wrong.  If it tells you society is great just like it is, you’re doing it wrong.  If it tells you it’s all about you, you’re doing it wrong.

Experience and Practice

The reality of polytheism is rooted in experience – the experience of many Gods.  If our culture had a heritage of polytheism, we’d grow up learning who our Gods are, how to interact with Them, and how to know when They speak to us.  We don’t have that heritage – we’re trying to rebuild it for future generations.  We’re trying to learn to hear the Gods.

How do we learn to hear the Gods?  Read.  Study.  Pray.  Meditate.  Worship.  And above all, listen.  There are times the Gods speak to us and we don’t recognize Them because we’re expecting Zeus to speak in thunderbolts.  Those thunderbolt experiences can be amazing, but they’re not the only way They communicate with us.  Sometimes They speak in soft voices:  in signs, in feelings, in dreams and waking visions, and in stray thoughts that might be your own… except you know they’re not.

And that’s a good thing, because big, dramatic, ecstatic experiences are like a drug.  Used occasionally they can be helpful.  Get addicted to them and your life will change dramatically.  Historically, while shamans, mystics, and prophets have done good and necessary work, their lives have been difficult, unpleasant, and frequently, short.  Many of them would say it was a fair trade, but be careful what you wish for.

Besides, while ecstasy is good, a religion that constantly searches for ecstasy is just as misguided as a religion that constantly prepares for what comes after death.  Both minimize the beauty, wonder and joy of this life and this world.

And if you do these things and the Gods don’t speak to you?  Then read, study, pray, meditate, worship and listen anyway.  You’ll be more informed, more relaxed, more confident, more committed and more reverent – those are all good things, whether or not you hear directly from Them.  And you never know when a deity will decide you’re needed to help with Their work.

Wondering “am I doing it right?” is a good thing.  It’s a sign you’re taking your religion seriously.  Make sure you understand what kind of confirmation you’re looking for and whether you’re likely to get it.  Keep practicing.  Then stop and reflect every so often – see how far you’ve come.  You may be surprised just how right you’ve been doing it all along.

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About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.

  • Denise LeGendre

    “Confirmation doesn’t come in a flash of divine light, it comes in the slow steady change that consistent spiritual practice brings.”

    Can we put this quote on a plaque? Kidding.. sort of. Consistent spiritual practice requires something in short supply in our world, patience. Sadly it’s gone out of fashion and is seldom taught and less often learned even when there is an effort to teach it. I say this as a habitual offender. We are so used to instant gratification that it takes real effort to not to give up in frustration if we don’t see immediate results, never mind spectacular results. Learning to be patient may be one of the hardest things many of us have to learn. It has rich rewards but it is work, no use pretending otherwise.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Getting older hasn’t brought me any more patience, but it has brought me the understanding that good things come in their own time.

      • Denise LeGendre

        Just so. I’d argue that patience is not something we are born with nor is it something we can receive. It is acquired and maintained through practice, rather like physical fitness. I’ve found that as I get older – ahem – it requires more effort to maintain than it used to. Like maintaining strength and flexibility, it can be done but you can’t rest on your Laurels.

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    “But I have several atheist readers who complain every time I criticize atheism.”

    Probably because about once a month, you go out of your way to describe atheism in broadly general and stereotypical language.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      I figured that would get a response from you!

      Seriously, I have no problem with atheism as a philosophy or as a religion-like movement. I simply reject the claims of certainty made by some rather vocal atheists.

      • CBrachyrhynchos

        More specificity would have cleared things up a bit.

        “Am I doing it right?” is a question I’m asking myself a fair bit today, following a rather painful disagreement with a certain insect. I suspect she accidentally got the worst of it.

  • Nakhtbasterau

    Hello. I am a Thelemite and “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” absolutely does NOT mean that whatever I am doing is right. If what I am doing is not in accordance with my True Will than it is by definition not right, and since most people (including Thelemites) are in the process of discovering their True Will and have not yet attained it – whatever they are choosing to do at any given time could be very, very wrong for them. Free will is not the same as True Will.

    Additionally, while Wicca and it’s derivations owe a rather large debt to Thelema for its existence (largely due to plagarism unfortunately) many Thelemites, and I would say probably most, do not identify as Pagans.

    As a non-Thelemite you could at least read the Wikipedia article on Thelema before co-opting and misrepresenting its core tenet to an attempt to make a quick point. If Pagans really want to do interfaith with other religious minorities you really need to stop co-opting the beliefs of others without truly understanding them just to serve your own purposes.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      I’m fond of the phrase attributed to Isaac Bonewits: “do as thou wilt, not do as thou whim”.

      I’ve written quite a bit on True Will, both on its own

      http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/2010/07/true-will.html

      and in the context of sovereignty

      http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/2013/03/reclaiming-your-sovereignty.html

      Still, for too many Pagans, “do as thou wilt” is used – or misused, if you prefer – to justify unreflective behavior.

      I can see how my usage in this post may not have been clear. Thank you for your very good exposition.

      • Nakhtbasterau

        ​ You second link does indicate a pretty good understanding of the concept of True Will and it is a shame that this understanding did not come through in this essay – particularly as you are trying to make a point about another religious group entirely (i.e. those who identify generally as “Pagans”), and as I said, while many Pagans can trace their history to Thelema, it does not make Thelema itself “Pagan” by its own definition. And for clarity’s sake, I should probably say that I very much disagree with the Bonewits classification system for religions other than his own, as it is extremely biased toward his own viewpoint being morally superior and somehow more “advanced” than those of others.

        ​While I completely agree with you that many Pagans use “do as thou wilt” in the unreflective manner that you describe – I think this has far more to do with Pagans using other religions as a grab bag, taking (and taking out of context) from here and there without any real understanding of the cosmologies, theologies, and or philosophies of the traditions from which they are co-opting.

        • Nakhtbasterau

          ​The problem of unreflective Pagans is not a Thelemic problem, it’s a Pagan problem rooted in the assumptions (and poor education and interest in accountability) of many Pagans.

  • yewtree

    if your religion tells you the world would be fine if other people
    would quit screwing it up, you’re doing it wrong. If it tells you
    society is great just like it is, you’re doing it wrong. If it tells
    you it’s all about you, you’re doing it wrong.

    I completely agree, but it feels as if this bit needs unpacking a bit more.

    I love the ideas in this article.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Thanks. I’ll do some unpacking in the next post, probably Sunday evening.

  • http://www.forgingthesampo.com/ Kauko

    And that’s a good thing, because big, dramatic, ecstatic experiences are like a drug. Used occasionally they can be helpful. Get addicted to them and your life will change dramatically. Historically, while shamans, mystics, and prophets have done good and necessary work, their lives have been difficult, unpleasant, and frequently, short. Many of them would say it was a fair trade, but be careful what you wish for.

    Besides, while ecstasy is good, a religion that constantly searches for ecstasy is just as misguided as a religion that constantly prepares for what comes after death. Both minimize the beauty, wonder and joy of this life and this world.

    I like this. One of the criticisms I have of modern Pagans that I’ve never quite articulated was that all of the constant, “It’s all about ‘experiences’” talk often makes Pagans sound like nothing more than ‘experience’ junkies. Ancient people didn’t give cultus to beings to have experiences, they did so because it was necessary for the maintenance of proper relations between humans and divine beings, for the good of individuals, communities, the state, or even the entire world. This kind of thing underscores for me just how far modern Paganism is from the actual cultures it claims to get inspiration from. A religion based on constantly getting experiences is nothing more than an exercise in solipsism.

  • Rylin Mariel

    John, thank you for this – more timely than you’ll ever know! I have gone for a long time with the voices of the Gods being more whispers as I’m falling asleep, and feeling as though they ought to be coming in those grand thunderclaps. I need to learn to value the whispers!


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