A Reasoned Defense of Paganism

Even in its Big Tent form, Paganism is a distinctly minority religion.  And that’s OK – we’re mostly happy staying under the radar.  We have no divine mandate to convert the world to Paganism, and besides, we’re growing as fast as our infrastructure of groups and teachers can manage.

Still, conversion is an issue with Pagans.  Most of us have converted from some other religion, and there is constant pressure from the more vocal religions (some subtle, some not) to abandon our chosen path.

Over on the Patheos Atheist Channel, Daniel Fincke has this post titled In Defense of Trying To Deconvert People.  His primary targets are Christians, but that’s only because Christianity is still far and away the dominant religion in this country.  Fincke unambiguously states:

I want to deconvert people. I am not like those atheists who insist that while they want to protect the separation of church and state, guarantee the integrity of science education, or fight for social justice, they have no problem with other people’s private beliefs so long as they “hurt no one.”

He goes on to say such deconversion attempts should be done honestly and respectfully, but later in the essay he sounds rather like Christians who “love” us so much they scream we’re going to hell if we don’t believe exactly what they believe.

If we have good reasons to think that their beliefs about the most fundamental matters of existence and ethics are fundamentally askew, then we [have] not only the moral right but have a moral duty to proactively counter them and advance our own positive alternative philosophical views.

I’m in agreement with the atheists Fincke says he’s not like in the first quote – I want to protect religious freedom (the right to believe and practice according to your conscience, not the privilege to force your beliefs and practices on anyone else), science education and social justice.  Beyond that, I’m an enthusiastic participant in the marketplace of religions – I don’t proselytize, but I do publicize.  I’ve found this path to be meaningful and helpful and if someone else feels called to it, I want them to be able to find the resources to help them along their way.

In the end, I’m a polytheist who recognizes that different Gods call to different people and that what my Gods require of me may be totally different from what your Gods require of you.  And if no Gods call to you, even to the extent you believe there are no Gods?  To excerpt the Marcus Aurelius quote I see on Facebook from time to time, “Live a good life. If there are Gods and They are just, then They will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by.”

While I have no need to convert anyone, there are plenty out there who want to convert me, either back to the fundamentalist Christianity I left so long ago or to the kind of atheism Daniel Fincke promotes.  They want to convert you too.  How should we respond to such conversion / deconversion attempts?  I wrote this post to specifically address fundamentalist proselytizing, but responding to atheist attempts requires a somewhat different approach.

Begin by understanding that responding at all is entirely optional.  You have every right to say “my religion is a private matter and I prefer to not discuss it.”  If they persist, you can add “and I especially prefer not to discuss it with someone who’s being rude and aggressive.”  But where’s the fun in that?  Besides, if you can’t rationally defend your beliefs and practices – to yourself if not to others – then perhaps you need to take a closer look at your religion.  It was a pagan – Socrates – who said “the life which is unexamined is not worth living.”

I’m going to defend my religion in the first person.  Paganism has many varieties and variations and I couldn’t speak for them all even if I tried.  Remember that if someone starts hammering you about a practice you aren’t familiar with – there is no Pagan orthodoxy to defend.  All I can defend is my own particular expression of polytheistic Druidry.

I respect science and the results of scientific inquiry.  As a Nature centered Pagan how could I do anything else?  I love the natural world and so I want to know more about it.  I learned a lot of science in my formal education and I’ve supplemented it with a continuing education of reading, watching, and first-hand experiences.  I’m in complete agreement with atheists (and many Christians) that the age of the Earth and the development of life are better explained by astronomy, geology, and biology than by some ancient text.  Though he speaks in a Christian context, I agree with evolutionary evangelist Michael Dowd when he says “facts are God’s native tongue.”

I respect the limitations of science.  I watched some of the new Cosmos series and I appreciated Neil deGrasse Tyson talking over and over again about how there is much we don’t know.  For example, we’re just beginning to delve into things like dark matter and dark energy that appear to be critical to the workings of the universe.  Many of these things we will know some day as our knowledge base grows and our research tools improve.

But I suspect there are some things we will never know because they’re beyond the capacity of our powerful but finite brains.  We don’t know how the universe came to be, we don’t know why it exists, and I don’t think we ever will.

The absence of scientific knowledge leaves us free to wonder and speculate, but it does not leave us free to “believe anything you want.”  In particular, it does not leave us free to assert that science “proves” metaphysical concepts are true.  Bad science makes bad religion.

Religious experiences are real.  My experience of Cernunnos is real.  My experience of Unity is real.  The helpful intuitions that come through divination are real.  Successful magical workings are real.

People have had religious experiences – some like these, some different – for at least as long as we’ve been human.  This is my frustration with academic explanations that credit the origins of religion to the fear of death, the need to inspire self-sacrifice, and the desire to reinforce social norms and hierarchies.  Those are all true, but they ignore the many many instances where humans have had a life-changing encounter with a God or a spirit.

Religious experiences are plainly real – the question is how we interpret them.

Interpretations that are at odds with known facts lack integrity – again, we are not free to believe anything we want.  But outside of things we know aren’t possible, the best interpretations aren’t the ones that most closely align with today’s popular views (“consensus reality”), they’re the ones that are most meaningful and helpful to us.

Interpreting my religious experiences in a polytheistic context has been very good for me, so I order my life as though that interpretation is completely true, even though I recognize I can never know for sure.

Life is short and hard.  Science does an excellent job of telling us what and how but a very poor job of telling us why and what it all means.  Even for those of us who are privileged to live a (mostly) secure, (partially) healthy, middle class (for now) lifestyle, life is short and full of pain and frustration.  My evolutionary urges are enough to keep me alive, but they are not enough to help me live a life that is happy and that helps build a better world.

Yes, you can rationalize away your religious impulses and experiences – but do you really want to?  Do you want to reduce your love for your partner to brain chemistry?  Do you want to reduce your love for your children to the evolutionary urge to spread your genes?

There is always the danger that religion can turn into opium, distracting us from this world.  But honest religion can help us examine our values and provide us with practices that help us live them out, even when life is hard.

The proof is in the living.  Are my beliefs right?  Are they true?  I don’t know – and neither does anyone else.

But here’s what I do know.  I could not honestly follow the fundamentalist religion of my childhood for reasons familiar to our atheist friends.  I spent my young adult years professing a vague deism and living agnostically and I was miserable.  Not all of that was due to my unsettled religion but much of it was.

Since my defining moment, things have changed.  I have a purpose.  I have a calling.  I have meaning.  And while life is still short and hard and frustrating, I have plenty of reasons to happily keep moving on.

Will this work for everyone?  Not any more than “I’m so happy since I found Jesus” worked for me way back when, which is to say, no.

But some people’s lives are better following Jesus (notice I said “following Jesus” and not “following fundamentalist religion”).  Some are better following Buddha or Muhammad.  Some are better not following any Gods or prophets.

And some are better following the Old Gods.

These aren’t all the same religions at heart, they aren’t all “different paths up the same mountain” – and that’s the point!  Different people have different needs and different ways of looking at the world – it’s no surprise they have different religions too.

My reasoned defense of Paganism is unlikely to satisfy aggressive atheists any more than it satisfies aggressive Christians.  That’s OK – it doesn’t have to satisfy them.  It just has to satisfy me.

And it does.

in prayer at the Temple of Artemis – 2012

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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.

  • http://saracamis.blogspot.com/ Sara Amis

    I’m willing to discuss ideas with people who operate from a basic presumption of good faith, and have done so many times. But there’s something fundamentally arrogant about someone assuming that they know better than I do how I should understand my own experiences, or that it’s their “duty” to mind my conscience for me. If someone can’t respect me to the minimal degree that they are willing to consider the idea that I have good reasons for thinking and behaving the way I do…then in some sense they don’t really see me as human. In that case, we have nothing to discuss. I don’t owe such a person my time.

    • http://daoineile.com/ Aine

      “…then in some sense they don’t really see me as human.”

      This has always been my impression. Plus, I just hate dialoging with people who assume they’re more intelligent than I am. I know very well that I don’t know the same things they do and should be open to learning new information, but it seems that anyone with the hope to convert (whether to atheism or Christianity or even a certain type of Paganism) often doesn’t reciprocate that.

      • http://saracamis.blogspot.com/ Sara Amis

        Usually when people assume they are smarter than I am, they are wrong. That doesn’t even require me to be all that smart; it’s just that the most intelligent people I have known in my life are open, curious, and don’t jump to conclusions.

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

      I have no time for the rude and obnoxious – that’s NOT fun. But I don’t run into those people very often in real life. On the internet, that’s a different thing…

  • David Pollard

    John, this was another amazing good essay. I hope you’re collecting these for a book…

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

      Thanks, David. I just need to make the time to organize what I have and write the rest.

      • Ryan

        I would love to read a book from you, John. You are consistently among the most thoughtful Pagan bloggers I read.

  • Lupa

    I find that explaining the positive psychological benefits of spirituality helps, too. My partner is an atheist who still considers himself to be culturally pagan, and we don’t always see eye to eye on everything, but he can appreciate the constructive effects of a good ritual and the framework of mythology, even if he doesn’t take it literally. When I did my Master’s degree, I took a couple of courses on spirituality and counseling, and learned some good ways to integrate a client’s spirituality into their overall treatment if it was appropriate to do so.

    Another thing that may be helpful is demonstrating how one’s spirituality has a positive effect on one’s everyday actions–in a culture where we’re often confronted by people who throw their religions around yet don’t practice what they preach, demonstrating the link between belief and action is sometimes a rare event. I know for myself that all of my environmental actions are borne from my spiritual belief that the entire Universe is sacred, and I do my best to act with that in mind (imperfectly, admittedly).

  • Cardunculus

    Ultimately, it seems to me that it is just not possible that Christians, Pagans, Atheists, Muslims and so on are all correct: all of them except (at most) one must be mistaken on some very fundamental level.

    This does not make them bad or stupid people, of course, nor would this justify in the least the “correct” ones (whoever they are) treating the others with condescension or oppressing them; but regardless of which of these traditions are the most emotionally appealing to me, it seems to me that if my religiosity is to remain honest then I should strive towards truth above all other concerns.

    If Atheism/Islam/Whatever is true, then the person who will convince me of it will be doing me a great favour; and as long as people are capable of elementary politeness, I try to welcome their criticisms and give a fair hearing to their claims.

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

      The search for truth more properly belongs in the realm of philosophy, but philosophy and religion are frequently conflated in theory, much less in practice.

      The Universe – both seen and unseen – is so vast, so old, and so long that no human or human institution can possibly grasp the whole truth. The best we can do is to find a sliver of truth, and even then we must hold it loosely and humbly, for we know it is not all the truth there is.

      In my experience, truth is best found not by choosing the right religion, but by choosing a good religion and then exploring it in depth; with diligence, humility and compassion.

  • stevewhiteraven

    Good this has helped me think about how I defend my views good one it boils down to “I am who I am ”

  • emonyna .

    While I read your blog, I don’t often comment, but I felt I had to react to your saying “Do you want to reduce your love for your partner to brain chemistry? Do you want to reduce your love for your children to the evolutionary urge to spread your genes?”. Too often I hear people saying that when you know the science behind your actions, it somehow reduces them. I think it is just wrong. Just because you know the chemistry behind love does not mean you don’t feel the love as it is. I’m a chemist, I know how surfactants work, but making soap bubbles is still a fun activity, I’m not thinking about molecule movement when I make them. (And even if I did, it adds to the fun, not substracts to it.)

    Other than this, I agree with your essay. As always, it is very well written and was a compelling read.

    • http://b.rox.com/ Editor B

      Agreed, but I think the danger John warns of is taking the scientific explanation to a reductionist extreme — reducing love to chemistry and nothing more. You’re right that these explanations can add, rather than subtract, but in practice they often do subtract. I call this fallacious reductionism. It’s depressing and sad but it’s real. I’ve seen it happen! It’s not science but how we take it.

      • http://ehoah.weebly.com/ Rua Lupa

        Do have any examples to share? I’d love to hear them!

        • http://b.rox.com/ Editor B

          I’m thinking mainly of a friend of mine who said, once upon a time, “people have got to give up on this notion of free will and recognize any justification in terms of ‘love’ is just a manifestation in the higher brain of signals from the lower mammal brain.” Sorry it’s not much juicier than that.

          • http://ehoah.weebly.com/ Rua Lupa

            I get where they are coming from, but can’t see how there is an absence of free will in all of this – which would conflict with so many things, not just the suggestion of love being only brain firings. It seems awfully fatalist.

  • Ryan

    I’m an atheist and a druid-in-training, so I get it from both sides. There are the fundamentalist Pagans who say I can’t be a druid if I don’t worship their gods in their way, and the evangelical atheists who say I’m not a real atheist if I’m also interested in spiritual practice…such is life.

    For the record, I’m exactly the sort of atheist Fincke says he isn’t. I honestly have no interest in getting everyone to agree with me, and as long as your beliefs are not being forced onto others by law, or your gods want you to kill anyone, I couldn’t care less what people believe. It’s what you do that matters. I’ll be in the woods watching the squirrels.

    I’m always happy to discuss theology and philosophy, but the debate/conversion format is next to useless. It sets up an adversarial system where people try to score points off each other rather than have a decent conversation and learn something.

    A brilliant essay John, and I found myself nodding in agreement to every section. I’m especially heartened by your pro-science approach, I’ve met more than a few people (Christian, Pagan and atheist) who are willing to ignore and distort science if it doesn’t conform to their pre-exisiting ideology.

    • Cafeeine

      “For the record, I’m exactly the sort of atheist Fincke says he isn’t. I
      honestly have no interest in getting everyone to agree with me, and as
      long as your beliefs are not being forced onto others by law, or your
      gods want you to kill anyone, I couldn’t care less what people believe.
      It’s what you do that matters. I’ll be in the woods watching the

      Dan is calling for civil discussion between people because bad beliefs do not just happen, they form and they change. If we wait until beliefs are being forced onto others by law, or for people to start killing people in the name of their gods, time for civil discussion will be past.

      • Ryan

        I’m all for civil discussion, like I said. I just don’t see how being evangelical in one’s atheism or religion and trying to *convert* people is the same as civil discussion. The point of discourse is to learn from each other, not to proselytise and convert.

        If a Pagan, for example, believes in many gods, why should I try to convert them to believing in one god, or no gods, as long as they are not trying to convert me to their beliefs?

        As Jefferson put it: “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are
        twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks
        my leg”

        • Cafeeine

          How do you define civil discussion in a way that doesn’t involve an element of proselytization? Is everyone just supposed to recite their worldview to the other and leave it at that? That’s not a discussion, that’s monologuing in tandem. I can get the same effect by going to the religion section of my library.

          I *want* a pagan, a christian, a muslim, a jain etc. to look at my position and tell me the weak spots they see that I don’t, and I’ll do the same. That’s how we learn from each other.

          If a pagan is living his life in a way that doesn’t affect me, of course I won’t go knocking on his door to have a theological debate out of the blue.
          If however, the pagan and I choose to get in a discussion on the subject, there is nothing wrong in me making the best case I can for my view in an honest and respectful manner.

          • Ryan

            It looks like we’re actually in agreement, just saying it slightly differently. Everything you say above, I agree with!

            For me, discussion does involve making your case, and enaging with the other (even to the extent of pointing out inconsistencies and weak spots) but is done in the spirit of mutual respect and learning. If each person goes away with the same beliefs as before, but has learned something new, then that is still worthwhile.

            Proselytisation/conversion tactics on the other hand, are done simply to make the other person agree with you no matter what. This sort of ‘discussion’ is rarely based on actually respecting the other person and wanting to learn about their beliefs, but is based on assuming you hold Absolute Truth and have to *convert* the other and make them change their religion.

            I happen to be very fond of theological discussion, even the heated kind, but I absolutely hate the sort of in-your-face preaching you get from some people, no matter what their religious beliefs.

  • http://hauntedtimber.wordpress.com/ timberwraith

    This is an awesome essay. Thank you.

    It’s kind of funny, human beings repeat the same social patterns in almost every group. There’s this common tendency to fear difference and assert conformity and then get really fussy when someone rebuffs conformist zeal.

    “We are the Borg. You will be assimilated.”

    That roving space cube can fly a banner with a cross or a scarlet letter A or any number of other cultural symbols. Tribalism and conformity: two great tastes in the same little package.

  • Gus diZerega

    Very nicely put.

  • http://ehoah.weebly.com/ Rua Lupa

    “Do you want to reduce your love for your partner to brain chemistry? Do
    you want to reduce your love for your children to the evolutionary urge
    to spread your genes?”

    Why is it that finding the explanation to something gets interpreted to be reducing the experience? Is there a fear of being wrong about our experiences? Learning how we work is crucial in ensuring that we are making healthy choices in life. With the example of love and brain chemistry we can figure out how to effectively discourage unhealthy relationships from happening and encourage the healthy relationships. Some of the stuff that was revealed would have helped a whole lot if I knew that in previous relationships – because I can understand why my body was reacting to certain things and the implications of that. Thereby making a better choice. This goes into your statement, “Science does an excellent job of telling us what and how but a very poor job of telling us why and what it all means.” This would suggest otherwise.

    “Religious experiences are real”
    Sure, people have religious experiences, but other than the fact that it is a religious experience, is everything else real? There is no verifiable evidence of that, which makes the argument that what was experienced was real hard to support. It doesn’t mean that you didn’t have a religious experience or that it wasn’t valuable to you.

    I agree that it is good to be able to support your stance and if you can’t that it needs to be questioned. I enjoy debates that challenge my stance, which helped me grow as a person. It forced me to drop things I couldn’t back up and add things that had standing. As a result I have never been more satisfied in life.

    I strongly stand by religious freedom, so long as human rights are not violated, and would add Nature’s integral value to that as well. I believe that it is immensely valuable to encourage diverse views as it enables more resiliency and adaptability to difficult and challenging times.

    • Sarah Sadie

      “Religous experiences are real” … we can debate the nature of reality–whether there is any “real” real, or it’s all in our (limited) perception. But that doesn’t seem fruitful to me…(possibly my own blindspot here).

      As I interpret it, John’s point is that for those of us who have experienced them, “religious experiences” are as real as tasting the butter on our toast. We can’t be reasoned or argued out of them by any amount of proselytizing from the non-believing set–so we take them into account and they become part of the understanding we have of ourselves, our place in the universe.

      • CBrachyrhynchos

        Those experiences are not unique to religion, or to theism.

        • Sarah Sadie


      • http://ehoah.weebly.com/ Rua Lupa

        I assume, unless otherwise specified, that the common understanding of a word (especially the dictionary use of it) is what is meant by it.

        I’m not saying it was OR wasn’t real, just that to make a claim that something is real – especially as a defense with regards to atheism- that, as ‘real’ is commonly understood, would require verifiable evidence to support it. Otherwise, going into a debate, you would have to define ‘real’ in terms that it cannot be misunderstood within that specific debate. As it was, this was just going with the common knowledge of the general public of what real means, especially as far as the scientific method is concerned which was purportedly supported earlier. I’m just putting it out there that there is a bit of conflict in the points made and would be good to know in any future defense of paganism that may be made.

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

          The point I’m trying to make is that you can’t ignore religious experiences. People have been having them for at least as long as we’ve been human. That’s all I mean when I call them “real” – they happen, and any reasonable critique of religion must account for them.

          How you account for them is up to you. If a completely materialist explanation satisfies you, so be it. It doesn’t satisfy me. I can’t prove you’re wrong, and you can’t prove I’m wrong – though freely admit I might be wrong. My polytheistic interpretation of my religious experiences is meaningful and helpful to me, so I order my life as though that interpretation is correct.

          I’m open to new experiences, new reasoning, and new interpretations. But I will tell you this – in the moment of my intimate experience of Cernunnos I had no doubt He was in me. Afterwards, doubts and rationalizations began to arise, but in the moment there were none.

          • http://ehoah.weebly.com/ Rua Lupa

            Here is a question (and one I’ve asked myself), what if science finds the cause and reason behind religious experiences as something that is purely experienced in the brain; would you then find there to be a lack of meaning and fulfillment in life? If so why/If not why? – the why was the tricky one for me.

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

            If science proved there are no Gods – something I don’t think science can do, but for the sake of argument let’s say it can – then I would lose the meaning and fulfillment They bring.

            But I would still be a Nature centered Pagan, I would still be a Self centered Pagan, and I would still be a Community centered Pagan. The “meaning hole” left by the loss of the Gods would be filled by the other centers.

          • Gus diZerega

            I was talking with a brilliant biologist who had made a point of his atheism but also of his love of the natural world: Geerat Vermeij. I asked him whether he might call himself a “nontheistic pantheist?”

            He paused, because literally the term is contradictory. Then he said “Yes.”

            The issue between people like him and a Pagan pantheist seems to me to bloil down to a question so far completely unsettled: is consciousness in some sense a fundamental aspect of reality- which harmonizes easily with a pantheistic position. Or is consciousness a emergent property out of a fundamentally non-conscious world. I think the former, but at the level of our feelings and much of our practice the dividing line is pretty thin and permeable.

          • http://www.rendingtheveil.com Christopher

            This hypothetical assumes that science could prove (not assume) that materiality is the ‘first cause.’

            If all these religious experiences were rooted completely in the physical brain, I’d have to check myself into an institution. Then again, so would a good chunk of people in every culture, ever.

          • http://ehoah.weebly.com/ Rua Lupa

            Maybe, maybe not. Maybe such experiences are merely a manifestation of a curious and efficient trouble shooting brain (just like what is being revealed in the study of dreams) and thus can be considered a healthy brain so long as the individual treats those experiences no differently than most people do dreams. I mean, we don’t put people into institutions for having dreams that appear to be real and impact how we conduct ourselves in our daily lives. People take hallucinogens for recreation and they are not put institutions for the experiences they have. It might reveal that hallucinogens taken in an appropriate social structure (like a community ritual, much like many indigenous people do) may be of benefit to people instead of detrimental, who knows! It could go either way if it is found that religious experiences are rooted completely in the physical brain.

            This was just a hypothetical question to examine how we would react and possibly change our stances if it were found to be true. There are plenty of examples out there that were once considered out of the reach of science – We can measure the speed of light, splitting the atom, start a fusion reaction! Who knows, the brain is on the frontier of science and can already extract the images made in dreams. As far as understanding the brain goes, its pretty exciting…

          • Henry Buchy

            heh, the spectre of Julian Jaynes…..
            pretty much all of our experiences are experienced with the brain. we ‘see’ with our brains, we ‘hear’ with our brains, we ‘feel’ with our brains as it were. If by ‘purely’ you mean with no external stimulus, that’d be a pretty hard nut to crack, as experience is pretty much dependent on previous stimuli/experience as well as immediate stimuli/experience. To prove the ’cause’ rested solely in the brain one would, I think, require a brain devoid of any experience/ previous stimuli. it would also require complete isolation from any external stimuli, which again, I would think, prove difficult since we’re constantly bathed in radiations across the electromagnetic spectrum. even those studies which set out to create ‘religious experience’ depend on an external stimulus to the brain.
            as one who already accepts that possibility, the experience still gives meaning and fulfillment regardless of the possible cause., if only due to having them.

          • http://ehoah.weebly.com/ Rua Lupa

            Certainly, we can’t perceive anything without the brain and some form of stimulus or another would be required. The extent of real v.s. in-the-brain I was discussing would be along the lines of the following examples:

            1) “I see a grey horse”, everyone around you can look at and see that there is a grey equine before them; they can smell it, touch it, hear it and discuss what it is that they are experiencing and compare with each other. With peer review it becomes determined that in fact it isn’t a grey horse but a mule.

            2) “I see a grey horse”, everyone around you cannot see, hear, smell, or touch said grey horse that is supposedly in front of you. At which point the common response would be, “I think you are seeing things”, or in other words its in your brain. This is when further examination would turn to the individual that is perceiving this to determine if in fact it is in their mind as it cannot be perceived in any other way.

            In both cases the brain would be required, in one case it was only perceived in the mind and not outside the body, the other case had outside the body stimulus that others could perceive as well.

          • Henry Buchy

            both are still actual experiences of a ‘grey equine’. In the latter case, the person would have had to have experienced “grey” and “horse” before, in order to identify the ‘seeing’ of one. since we’re working with hypotheticals, Suppose the person in the latter case had never saw a horse before, and ‘saw something grey’, by describing it, wouldn’t peer review be able to determine what they ‘saw’, even if only with the mind? and suppose by showing the person a picture of a horse, they affirmed that is what they “saw”.
            as an aside, it’s pretty ironic that the phrase “I think you are seeing things” actually means ‘I don’t think you saw anything’

          • http://ehoah.weebly.com/ Rua Lupa

            I didn’t say they weren’t both experiencing a ‘grey equine’, nor do I disagree with the process of figuring out what they were seeing in their mind (hence stating that further examination would turn to the individual). As for the common phrase, “I think you are seeing things” – I’ve always understood that to mean, what an associated phrase says, “I think you’re letting your imagination get the best of you.” but yes, it has its irony.

          • Henry Buchy

            that’s not what I am getting at. What I am disagreeing with is, if I am reading you correctly, is a type of dichotomy in the examination of experience, one for internal and one for external, when talking about similar shared experience. even religious or spiritual experiences can be similar and shared, even though they may be ‘internal’. The onus of examination doesn’t necessarily fall or turn to the individual in the second scenario, any more than it would in the first. it is just as open to examination with peer review, among folks who have had similar experience.
            If as some theories go, they are a function of electro-chemical changes in the brain, then there’s also a shared basis as ’cause’. I.e. the result of shared and similar physiology. So there is a ‘real’ cause and a ‘real’ experience. That’s been pretty much demonstrated scientifically, wasn’t it called the “god helmet”? we can put aside the ideas of ‘real’ and it’s opposite ‘imaginary’ and perhaps go with actual.
            In my mind the question is if these experiences can be recreated under experimental conditions and enforced stimuli. What stimuli is enforced in folks who have them outside the lab, in everyday conditions?

          • http://ehoah.weebly.com/ Rua Lupa

            Okay, lets say two people meet at a bus stop and strike up a conversation. They both find that they share a favorite fiction author and talk about the latest book. This, and story telling in general, is a shared internal experience yet what occurs in the book isn’t happening outside the mind other than written letters to convey the mental message. There is no evidence of the mythical creatures or sorcerers that are described in the book to exist outside of the fictional tale. Yes, the book is real, the tales are physically manifest within our mental constructs. Other than that they do not exist in the rest of the physical world, if such a claim were to be made these extraordinary claims would require extraordinary evidence to be considered physically manifest outside our mental constructs. That is pretty well all I’ve been saying.

          • Henry Buchy

            I understand what you are saying though I think you’re comparing the proverbial apple and orange here. A spiritual or religious experience is a bit different than two folks chatting about a book. Whether or not the cause of such experiences are external and provable, the physiological changes are measurable and have been, and have also been recreated through external stimuli, which are external( and proved, unless electrical stimulation of brain areas isn’t ‘physical’). So they are real/actual experiences. This is in answer to your original question as to whether or not proof that they are just experienced in the brain and would they would lack meaning or fulfillment, not that they are proof of ‘god(s)’. There’s still the question of what about folks not in the lab, who have these experiences,without deliberate external stimulation?

          • http://ehoah.weebly.com/ Rua Lupa

            Right, so exchange book for electrical stimuli and different parts of the brain light up, perhaps in some individuals the same area would light up depending on what is being read. The point was only that it was all happening in the brain, not that whether or not what was being experienced in the brain was happening in their head – I’m not doubting that. Religious experiences also could very well come from a great variety of stimuli.

            When you say ‘such’n’such a deity is real’ the common interpretation, and the dictionary definition, is that it is physically manifest outside of the mind. The ‘god helmet’ stimulates an experience that feels real, but it doesn’t mean that that experience is real – only that you’ve had mental stimulation. Say this experience involved white water kayaking. Did you actually experience it? Are you able to now go and do it (even if you had never encountered it before that mental experience)? The answer is probably no. But doesn’t that mental experience mean something valuable to you? sure, why not. Maybe you have a strong desire for some water based adrenaline in life – whatever dude, go for it! Doesn’t mean it happened.

            As for the other people whom have religious experiences without said god helmet, you just need to have a way to test it. Maybe headgear that can measure brain activity when they do ritual for example. If it can it can answer a lot of questions. But thus far all evidence points to it being only manifest in the brain. Suggestions as to otherwise with current evidence comes across as playing “God of the Gaps”.

            There is, as of yet, no evidence of these experiences existing outside mental constructs, and thus is misleading to say that these things that are experienced are real, as real is understood by the common person and the dictionary – physically existing outside the brain. Example: saying, “Unicorns are real, I’ve experienced them.” It is not unreasonable to say that there is no evidence of unicorns existing and therefore conclude that unicorns are not real.

          • Henry Buchy

            I think you’re still missing my point. I’ve not said “such and such a deity is real, nor have I argued that religious/spiritual experiences prove a deity is real.You seem to be hung on “religious/spiritual experiences= proof of god(s)”. As I said before set aside the questions of real or imaginary and work with actual. I’m saying all mental experiences are ‘real’ in the sense that they actually happen, and are measurable, and in some instances can be recreated. They are observable, measurable and often repeatable. The subject matter or the experience doesn’t nullify that the experience isn’t an actual one.

          • http://ehoah.weebly.com/ Rua Lupa

            Yes. That I do agree with and pretty well stated the same position in previous responses. I was merely attempting to explain how that wasn’t my point from the beginning of the thread.

            I don’t think religious experiences are proof of anything other than it is a mental experience deemed to be a religious one and would require further study to better understand its cause and effects.

            The critique I was addressing was, “Religious experiences are real. My experience of Cernunnos is real. My experience of Unity is real. The helpful intuitions that come through divination are real. Successful magical workings are real.” and how such a statement is commonly understood, the contradictions that arise thereof, and what that would imply.

            My statement of, “what if science finds the cause and reason behind religious experiences as something that is purely experienced in the brain” would have been better phrased with “what if science finds that religious experiences are only a product of the brain and not from a supernatural source?” As that was its intended meaning. I understand that there could very well be other forms of external stimuli that cause religious experiences, and that is also something that would require further study to understand. The question was only a hypothetical scenario as a thought experiment.

            *the ‘you’ was the general you, not you specifically, sorry about not being clear on that *

    • http://www.paganleft.wordpress.com Mariah Sheehy

      I’ve been enjoying watching Cosmos and I find scientific explanations don’t take away the wonder and reverence I feel for the various aspects of well, the Cosmos. Science tries to explain things, religion and philosophy try to find meaning in them. Humans are meaning-makers by nature. I haven’t really had classic peak religious experiences beyond an intense “warm fuzzy feeling” for lack of a better description, various thoughts and insights, inspirations etc. So I’m not sure if I’m much of a suitable judge of other people’s religious experiences.

  • Sarah Sadie

    Thank you for this. In my town, there are atheists who proselytize with all the zeal of the most ardent fundamentalists. It’s obnoxious coming from either side (any side). I appreciate your reasonable approach in this, as in every essay you write. And I second the vote for a book of your work–I’d send it to a few of my own family!

  • Julia Traver

    I’ve really enjoyed reading this last essay of yours. The only thing which twitched my fur is your use of pagan and paganism for everything. I may be a crotchety old historian here; but, as I recall, no one had a term for their religion until the Christians (they were very explicit in wanting to be considered separate from Judeans). I do not use the term myself, as so many in the community identify as cultural/atheist and I have felt distinctly unwanted in their company (without saying anything). It has been my feeling that “generic so-called pagans” do not want any responsibility, that many have probably not had a religious experience as such. I am not a “magic” user; but, I feel that many have a hubristic belief that they can “make” things happen. How can a religion come out of this mess? And, yes, I am one of those big, bad recons. I do believe in divination and the possibility of oracular work. I believe in community. I believe in developing relationships with the Gods. I believe in living an ethical life. I do not abuse/use my relationships with the Gods. We need to learn a life of true piety. Does the “pagan” community do this?

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

      The use of “pagan” to describe Socrates is problematic, for the reasons you list. These days I only use it when I want to point out the spiritual and philosophical connections between the ancients and us. If I had a better word I’d use it, but I don’t.

      As for “Pagan”, it’s a very broad term, but it’s useful as an umbrella, big tent term. It doesn’t have a clear definition because Paganism is a movement, not an institution. I wrote this a couple weeks ago on the four main centers of the Pagan movement.


      As I see it, there is no single Pagan religion, nor will there be. Wicca, Druidry, the various ethnic reconstructionisms, and such are religions in the Big Tent of Paganism. You are, of course, free to call yourself what you like, and many reconstructionists reject the name. I find it useful.

      • Julia Traver

        I think/believe that this so-called “big tent” is but a lie. It was a lie in the GOP and it is a lie here as well. I’m also not so sure that I would call it a movement. That sounds far more political. My first experience of the reality of the Hellenic Gods occured when I was still a child. I knew that Jesus didn’t want me though I did attend Sunday school every week (Lutheran Church). However, Artemis and Athena were right there giving me gifts of wonder. I know that other people have had experiences with other pantheons. Actually, religion itself is fairly easy. Making it into a movement has brought miasma: the impious, those who use and abuse their fellow human beings, the charlatans. Yes, I do not have much good to say about ole Uncle Al or the Theosophists or anything that is kept under lock and key except for the favoured few. There are many ignorant people who want to believe schlock. If things do not stand up in the light of day, why would I want to be a part of that? P.S. John I am sure that you know that there was no such religion as Druidery and that “the Druid” was like the shaman, priest, healer, etc. for a community in ancient Britain. Generally they were killed off when the Romans conquered. Since the various tribes did not write, the Druid kept the history of the tribe in memory as well. There can be no Druid without a specific community. ;-)

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

          If you choose to distance yourself from Theosophists and such, that is entirely your right. But the term “Pagan” remains – we have Pagan Spirit Gathering, Pagan Pride Day, and we’re having this discussion on the Patheos Pagan Channel. “Pagan” means something, even if it doesn’t mean enough to form one solid religion around it.

          As for Druidry, my thoughts are here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/2011/08/becoming-a-druid.html

        • kenofken

          To the extent paganism is a movement, of course it is political. If it wasn’t, and if not for the Wiccans and modern Druids and Not Real Enough For Me trads and impious folk, you wouldn’t have any recon tradition from which to look down upon us. You would never have had the legal and cultural space to communicate, teach, research or practice any non-Judeo-Christian religion in this country or Western Europe. You would have zero standing before the law to marry, bury your dead with proper honor, open a public temple, enjoy a tax exemption, serve in the military openly, hold any public office or even to raise your children in your tradition without fear of reprisal. That’s a fact.

          I don’t have a problem with recons. It’s great that people feel called to that and invest the effort in scholarship. I lean more toward that end of the spectrum than the Unitarian end which says all pagan (and other) religions are just all cosmetic shells of the same universal software. That said, if you’re here to sell the One True Religion, take a number and get in line behind the Abrahamics, and take the whole show down the road a couple of cities. We’re not interested.

          We should try to articulate and live values that grow from within our religions. If you follow the current debates in the community around sexual abuse and harassment, you’ll find some serious work being done on values, and much of it by the lumpenproletariat of “pagans”. Where we are moving away from the unhealthy extreme of relativism, some recons and others are flirting with the other extreme of fundamentalism, which seeks to purge itself of all of those who are theologically impure or insufficiently pious or zealous.

          • Julia Traver

            I certainly do not believe in One True Religion (TM) of any kind, though that has been my experience of generic pagans, who are “shocked” that I don’t celebrate the Wheel of the Year or call quarters in order to create sacred space or use magic. I personally believe in the existence of innumerable pantheons ala Thales. However, I do question the motives of many “movement pagans.” I am old enough (63) to remember the so-called sexual revolution and the beginning of wide-spread use of illegal substances. Read into this what you want; but there were too many outside nihilistic cultural things going on which I really don’t have the time to enumerate. And I hate to burst bubbles; but, there is a lot of mythology around Gerald Gardiner. I personally do not believe that anything will live long term unless its roots are not completely understood — warts and all. The c..p about calling w…a the “Old Religion” has to go. It is insulting. Even though I know that I am a “new” polytheist, we really are trying to be respectful and pious to the Gods. That’s what I wrote, religion itself is easy: prayer, sacrifice, prayer. It’s the clothing that we put on it that makes it difficult — and the ignorant lies that we tell about it.

          • kenofken

            I get the criticisms about nihilism and irresponsibility. The modern pagan movement really came out of the shadows and began to flourish in the Vietnam/Woodstock era. You had an enormous demographic of young people who (rightly) rebelled against a social order that did not work in so many ways. They had the power and relative privilege and the historical “window” to experiment with alternatives. Different forms of spirituality, different ways of relating to land and civic engagement. Different forms of sexuality, and different ways of defining and altering consciousness.

            We (and even you), are the inheritors of some very positive things that came out of that. Other experiments were a disaster, and some are still in testing. Do we have a certain element of people in the pagan movement who have no deeper interest than reckless libertine excess? You bet. Any alternative subculture or non-dogmatic, non-authoritarian philosophy is going to draw some folks who see freedom as the opposite of responsibility, rather than its complement.

            You can respond to that by fleeing the movement and erecting all sorts of exclusive and proscriptive religious strictures (which really just opens the door to craftier and more manipulative creeps). Or, as we are trying to do in the “pagan movement”, you can articulate some core values which celebrate freedom in the context of responsibility. I, and I think most modern pagans, support the core values of the sexual revolution. I have no use for the homophobia and hypocrisy and rigidity that predated that revolution. At the same time, we’re working on a long-overdue task of defining those freedoms in the context of a culture of consent and respect.

            Drug use is more complex. Many drugs hold enormous and proven potential for physical and psychic growth and healing. They also hold enormous and proven potential for abuse and destruction. We are never, ever, going to be rid of them through absurd and fascist drug wars. The issue then becomes what values and systems and norms do we erect to encourage responsible (and frugal) use vs adolescent stupidity?

            As one final point on these topics, I will offer the observation that fewer libertine idiots come to pagan religion and fewer stay these days. Nobody needs the cover of new age spirituality or pagan religion if all they want to do is perv out and get stoned. None of those things are the least bit taboo or underground anymore. If all you want is kink and multiple partners, you’ll find far more of that with the click of a mouse (that dated me, I should say an “app”), than you ever will at pagan festivals. I used to get a steady stream of men inquiring into our coven who were primarily interested in skyclad ritual with young women. It’s been several years since any of them have rung us up.

            As to your points on Gerald Gardiner, I can only say that they’re well out of date, at least here in the States. I haven’t come across anyone in more than 10 years who has taken the myths of the “Old Religion” at face value. It is what it is and it doesn’t bother me as a Wiccan (or a pagan whose practice is still heavily influenced). That old saw about intact ancient witchcraft was born out of bad scholarship, wishful thinking, and yes, some intentional fraud. That said, I’m still grateful to the old white haired freaky bugger and his contemporaries for passing on a tool set that enabled us moderns to reconnect with the Gods and the natural world, and they are the real deal and they are ancient.

            That’s where I break with many recons. Ritual systems are just modes of interface with deity. There is wisdom in the ways the ancients did it, but we are not them, and their methods were not the end-all-be-all technology for working with the Gods. At the same time I also reject the notion of extreme eclectics who see Gods as archetypes or power sources they can tap on their own terms through any haphazard ritual work.

  • Rebecca

    A well done and beautiful piece once again. I have often struggled to explain my beliefs, why I believe what I do and feel the way I feel, this provides a little bit of structure to my “It is simply what calls to me, in the way you are called to your faith (or lack thereof).” I heartily agree with a previous comment asking if you plan a book in the future, it would be well received I think.

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  • James Cole

    Mr.Beckett, I understand where you are coming from, but at the same time, I do not ever try to defend my faith. In order to defend it, I must first recognize that I am being attacked. I refuse to give an attacker that kind of reassurance. I will explain my faith, I will explain what it means to me, but “Defend”, it hasn’t happened yet.

    The amount of energy used in defending faith is not worth it IMHO. I can use that energy for so many other things. Not only that, if you use your energy in defending your faith, you run the risk of being overwhelmed by the negative energy of your attacker.

    I do not mind a friendly discussion, but if someone approaches me, and I detect that they are physically or psychically hostile, I will withdraw and take myself some place else. Life is to short to engage in battles that have no real purpose other than to further swell the ego of some zealot.

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

      And you have every right to do just that.

      As for me, as long as the debate is polite and we aren’t talking past each other, I enjoy it. It gives me a chance to sharpen my rhetoric, and perhaps to provide some much-needed education about what Paganism is and isn’t.

      • James Cole

        Then you are not defending your faith, you are merely discussing it.

      • AnantaAndroscoggin

        So then, this is the difference between “discussion” and “apologetics”? I kind-of suspect it largely is.

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  • JT Rager

    John, from an atheist, good essay. Whenever I read the pagan blogs their details are all about how paganism is something “for me” and that it is the proper path “for me”, but as an atheist I would simply have a good reason for why they believe it is true. As far as I can tell, it’s not, and if a pagan is trying to tell me why they believe what they believe, I want to know exactly that.

    You address this by stating that religious experiences exist, and that they are something that is beyond human comprehension. I have had no experiences of a religious or supernatural nature, and I haven’t seen any evidence of any. When you or my mom describe supernatural experiences I am given a choice between accepting it based on phenomena that I’m not familiar with, or saying I don’t believe because there are phenomena that I am familiar with, notably the unreliability of the brain to make certain judgments and the ability of group suggestion.

    Overall, I would defend Fincke in the sense that if someone makes decisions based on things that aren’t true, then that person is not making the best decisions for the world we live in. There are social repercussions for this, even more than just making laws based on religion. I find Paganism benign though, and besides the fact that I don’t find any evidence for what Pagans believe, they are very open and amiable and I don’t find them a thread whatsoever to my religious freedom.


    • axelbeingcivil

      I would like to second this statement. Well spoken, both of you.

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

      Thanks, JT. You would be quite right in making your assessments based on the experiences you’ve had and not on ones you haven’t.

      In the end, all I can ask of others is to respect my religion and I’ll do the same for them.

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