Why I Am Not a Believer

Greetings! The focus of this blog will be on Pagan related topics – such as (poly)theologies – and social justice. To launch things, here is something I wrote for Huffington Post on the nature of my (dis)belief. 

- Thorn


“Perceive first, believe later.” – Victor H. Anderson


When I say I am not a believer, it doesn’t mean I believe nothing. It is that belief is not central to my religious and spiritual life. As a matter of fact, belief holds little importance to me at all. Belief doesn’t structure my experience, my experience structures what few beliefs I might have.

My spiritual life consists of praxis first, theoria second. Any theories I hold are simply there to explain –- or give context to –  experience. Sometimes gnosis enters on a flash of synaptic lighting, but the pathway is usually opened by practice first. The times when this process is reversed, it is still practice that shows me whether or not the flash of insight was an aberration. Like the scientific jolt that happens in the bathtub or while stepping on a city bus: after the big event, we return to the processes that test and compare.

To paraphrase Joseph Campbell: I don’t need belief because I have experience. I can have profoundly moving experiences of deities, or swimming in a sea of light and connection, or have a deep intuitive insight into someone else. I might come up with theories based on these experiences over time, and test these against other people’s. I can hold all of this, and still recognize that tomorrow, some new information may come along to change my mind. I can hold all of this, and know that I am holding one drop in a great ocean. I can set my skeptic aside and feel the power of my experiences of the numinous without feeling the need to build a creed around them.

We humans are storytellers. Stories apply meaning to our experiences.

This is a good thing. There is truth in our stories, as well as exploration, and a connection to the line of past and future.  When story becomes concretized into an unshakable belief or faith, however, humans run into trouble. We forget that the cosmos is in process. We forget that we don’t hold the whole truth, but only one facet of it. Forgetting that story is a teacher and connector — an explanation of experience and not a thing — means that we run the risk of thinking our story is the story. From this certainty rises intolerance, xenophobia, hatred, even war.

Our stories interlock, all trying to explain the mysterious, trying to understand what is just beyond our grasp. They are always incomplete, but pointing to some reality. Until germs became proven, we needed several stories to explain the phenomenon of germs.

Not being a believer offers flexibility to my experience of Mystery.

Not being a believer keeps the door of possibility open.

The most succinct way I have found to explain the lack of rationality in the midst of spiritual experiences is to remind myself: “Love is not only dopamine.” I don’t need to believe in love because I experience love. Love is partially a set of chemical responses that affect my emotions, but it is also something more. Love is ineffable. So is how I feel while staring at the night sky, or my experience in the midst of ritual when I call out, and something Other shows up and I am not the only one who experiences it.

My rational brain makes sense of all this by remembering that there are many things we cannot yet explain. The glory of the cosmos is a marvelous thing that causes me to feel a sense of awe. Music transports me when the musicians are in the groove with each other, the music, and the audience, and something special extra just appears. This “something extra” is what I name The Sacred. It is holy. None of this requires belief. The numinous arrives, and something in me changes. This can happen during ritual, during prayer, or at any other moment.

Are we open to these experiences because of a certain predilection, or because prayer, ritual, or meditation have activated certain pathways in our brains? Yes. Are we open to that experience because we are singing in a room together –- or gathered around a bonfire on a beach in the night -– and this has altered us emotionally? Of course! Chemistry meets physiology meets emotionality which, in my experience, touches Mystery.

And…sometimes in the midst of making love, I speak in tongues. There is nothing to believe about that. It simply is.

  • s k

    I should also probably mention that although JC ‘said’ he had experience…one can NOT find any in any of his writings. Huston Smith pointed this out. JC, a great teacher, was vicarious in his approach to…Nirvana…why? He didn’t want to die, which is a requirement. Jill Bolte Taylor, as a contrast, had the Nirvanic experience, which means, in the earliest Pali…’personal death’. Ok, done now. Thanks for listening…

    • T Thorn Coyle

      SK, that is very interesting!

  • Anita Bradbury

    i don’t know i feel that belief gets us there and makes our experience greater and shapes what we experience. for instance if you believe in christianity you go to a christian church and experience god through that medium. while a pagan may go to the wood and preform ritual in order to experience magic, nature, or however you want to describe it. but the belief in the practice leads us to have the experience. Faith in whatever god or goddess you love enhances the experience of the world around you. i think

    • T Thorn Coyle

      Hi Anita,
      thanks for your thoughts. I could have some “faith” to start a practice, I suppose, but really, I start a practice from a state of “I’ve been told this will work, so I will engage with the experiment and see what happens.” That still feels different than doing something because I “believe” it will work.

      If practice and experience precedes my conclusion, I don’t have to build up as many stories about what I believe, experience, think, or feel.

      • Anita Bradbury

        I do see where u r coming from I look at the possibilities and choose what feels right. Perhaps it is a circular argument

        • T Thorn Coyle

          As long as people find what most helps them to engage, that is great by me!

  • Henry Buchy

    just to clarify:

    “learn to perceive before you believe. perceive first and then study scientifically to learn what you must believe. if you believe that there are vile spirits, you don’t have to go out and worship them.
    Also don’t be ashamed of the word ‘belief’. It’s not a bad word. We all have theories because we’re not all knowing. Even blind faith will have a purpose. If your loved one is in the hospital dying and the doctor says ‘he or she might not live another hour’ and you believe with all of your soul that the person will,it will help.”
    V.H.A in “People of the Earth”

    • T Thorn Coyle

      I’m not ashamed of belief – I am just not a “Believer,” meaning that beliefs are not the foundation of my religious or ethical systems.

      Thanks for the extended quote, BTW. Victor said the short form version to me. Clearly I need to re-read that interview! It has been a long while.